John Wesley

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Telling the story

John Wesley was probably the most tireless preacher in Christian history. From his conversion at the age of 35 till he died at 91, he toured Britain constantly, preaching in fields and streets about faith in Jesus.

 John Wesley

Picture: Portrait of John Wesley at the age of 62. Wesley himself commented that it was “a most striking likeness”. From Wesley’s Chapel, London.

This brief life of John Wesley is told in four sections:
The Holy Club
“Strangely warmed”
Preaching in the fields
Long-distance horse riding

These pages were written by Steve Tomkins, the author of a new life of Wesley, John Wesley: A Biography.

The Holy Club

 John Wesley

Picture: Stained glass image of Wesley as a young man. From Wesley’s Chapel, London.

Wesley had a strict Christian upbringing. He and his many brothers and sisters were taught prayers and Bible readings as soon as they could speak.

They were not allowed to cry aloud, play or talk loudly, or converse with the servants or other children. “Break the will, if you will not damn the child,” was his mother’s principle.

He was always devout and obedient, but when he was at Oxford University he started to take his faith more seriously. He kept a diary recording his struggle to be a better Christian, where he wrote himself rules about who to spend time with and how to talk. His general rule was “Whenever you are to do an action, consider how Christ did or would do the like and you are to imitate his example.”

He was ordained and became an Oxford tutor. While his brother Charles was a student, and John was 26, they formed the Holy Club. This was a little circle dedicated to conscientious study, prayer, and holiness. They reported to each other their daily successes and failures and encouraged each other to do better. They also visited prisoners and collected money for the poor.

They were called all kinds of things – “the Holy Club”, “the Bible Moths”, “the Saints” – and because of their methodical way of life, “the Methodists”. That’s where the name comes from.

Wesley’s spirituality became increasingly obsessive and angst-ridden. Enemies “continually assault me”, he said. He updated his diary hourly, giving himself a score out of nine for how good his life was. He cut off his former friends outside the Holy Club.

Then in 1737 he went with Charles to the new American colony of Georgia as a missionary pastor. He hoped to recreate the life of the early church of Jesus and the apostles in the New World, and also to put behind him a number of romantic entanglements. It was a disaster.

He failed to make any real contact with the natives. The flock increasingly resented his strict rule – he expected them all to attend his 5.00am service every day, confiscated spirits and had a man locked up for hunting during church hours. His principles were extreme enough in a university club, but trying to impose them on hard frontier life was futile.

And he again got romantically entangled with a girl he couldn’t bring himself to marry, which led to him fleeing the colony at night pursued by lawsuits. He sailed home a broken man.

“Strangely warmed”

 Wesley preaching

As a missionary in Georgia, Wesley was himself evangelised by some German missionaries. They told him his Christianity was fundamentally wrong.

They told him that he believed with his head and struggled with his life, but he needed to be born again. This would bring him the gift of faith in God, and he would be completely certainty of salvation, enjoying perfect righteousness in the sight of God.

So as Wesley sailed back to England in 1737, he was not only devastated by the collapse of his mission, but convinced by the Germans that he had no true faith. “I am a child of wrath, an heir of hell,” he cried. “I went to America, to convert the Indians; but oh! who shall convert me?”

He planned to give up preaching, but another German he met back in London told him “Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

And so, Wesley started touring the churches around London and Oxford, preaching new birth and telling people that faith alone, not trying to be good, would get them right with God. Many responded hungrily to this new teaching, and so gradually Wesley’s own confidence that he was saved by God grew.

While he was still struggling with this, we went reluctantly to a German service in Aldersgate Street in London on Wednesday 24 May 1738. As he listened to the reading, a started to feel a new sense that he was accepted by God.

“I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

In fact, that assurance did not always stay with him, but it was a powerful experience, and another step along the way.

Preaching in the fields

Wesley’s new message was hugely controversial. It implied (as Wesley now believed) that most members of the Church of England were not real Christians.

The idea of people being suddenly changed by God’s power also seemed very disruptive. Consequently, Wesley increasingly found himself turned away from the churches where he came to preach.

But he also started getting greater crowds than churches could hold. It was his fellow Methodist George Whitefield who first saw the solution: preaching in the fields. Wesley was very reluctant to follow his lead, as this was more disreputable than ever. But one day in Bristol in 1739, taking his inspiration from Jesus’ sermon on the mount, he did.

“At four in the afternoon, I submitted to be more vile, and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation.”

He and fellow Methodists drew crowds of thousands, and preached constantly. Wesley in particular gradually increased his preaching circuit from the south of England throughout Wales, the midlands and the north, and eventually into Ireland and Scotland.

Wesley was driven by an extremely urgent longing to save souls. To deliver them from sin and hell, on the one hand, and to help them experience the joy and fulfilment of being followers of Jesus and children of God.

He faced constant violence. He was attacked by rioters, stoned, beaten up or fire-bombed almost everywhere he went for years. Many ordinary people found his attempts to change people’s way of life a serious threat, and mobs were often rounded up by clergy or local officials. In Wesley’s own eyes he was facing the same opposition that Jesus and the apostles and prophets always did in the Bible, so it only confirmed that he was doing God’s work.

Long-distance horse riding

 19th century bust of John Wesley

From his evangelical conversion in 1738, till he died in 1791 aged 88, Wesley kept up his mission with phenomenal drive and stamina.

He toured the country on horseback continually, in all weathers, preaching most days, up to five times a day.

At a sober estimate, he rode 250,000 miles in total, and preached more than 40,000 sermons. “I love a commodious room, a soft cushion, a handsome pulpit,” he confessed. “But where is my zeal if I do not trample all these underfoot, in order to save one more soul?”

He had an extraordinary impact on his audiences. Many who came armed to cause trouble were so struck by his meek but powerful presence that they became followers. Audiences who were already sympathetic to his message, he could – and often did – reduce to wild convulsions, trances, or howling to God for mercy.

But he was not just interested in getting souls into heaven – or into Methodist groups. It was very important for him to make this life better for those who had least. He organised famine relief, free loans, clothes for the poor and work for the unemployed. He ran schools for miners’ children, made a collection for enemy prisoners of war and opened the first free medical dispensary in Britain.

He gave away £30,000 of his personal income (an amount that could have kept a gentleman for a decade). Even when he made £1400 a year from his books, he kept £30, as ever, and gave the rest to the poor.

He was not only a preacher but a great deal of time into organising his converts into local groups, so the could meet regularly and encourage each other to keep going, and so that he could keep tabs on them. This is why, though other Methodist preachers such as Whitefield were more popular, it was Wesley who died leaving 132,000 followers in the British Isles and America.

Today his Methodist following numbers 33 million throughout. But many others look to him or feel his influence as well, because he was a founding father of the evangelical movement, which has been perhaps the most influential stream of Christianity in the English-speaking world.

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About this module

John Wesley, the tireless 18th century preacher, toured Britain constantly, preaching in fields and streets about faith in Jesus who became the unwitting founder of Methodism.

These pages were written by Steve Tomkins, the author of a new life of Wesley, John Wesley: A Biography.

Categories: Lives, Biographical,


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