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John Wesley

Written by Jim Godfrey, posted on Wednesday, January 2, 2019


Illustration of John Wesley by Jim GodfreyWesley was a key figure in the Evangelical Revival within the Church of England of the 18th century and the founder of the Methodist Church whose members today number around 80 million. In his lifetime he preached an astonishing 40,000 sermons


Early life and influences

John Wesley (known to his family as Jacky) was born on 15 June 1703 in Epworth, Lincolnshire. He was the fifteenth of nineteen children (of whom nine lived beyond infancy) born to Samuel, an Anglican priest and poet, and Susanna Wesley. Life was rigidly structured, with exact times for meals and prayers. Susanna home-schooled the children, teaching them Latin and Greek. They were expected to learn major portions of the New Testament by heart.

On 9 February 1709 a fire destroyed the rectory at Epworth, and five-year-old John had to be rescued from a second-storey window by a parishioner standing on the shoulders of another man. The event gave rise to the biblical description of him by his mother, Susanna, as “a brand plucked from the fire”. It was a depiction which was to have a profound effect on Wesley and the belief that he had been saved for a special purpose remained with him for life.

Wesley was educated at Charterhouse School, London, and Christ Church, Oxford, where he was admitted as a Commoner in 1720. An earnest but sociable student, he visited coffee houses and played billiards, chess and tennis. After graduating in 1724, he took Holy Orders and was made a Deacon in Christ Church Cathedral in September 1725. A year later he was made a Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, and was ordained a priest in 1728.


The beginning of the Methodists

In 1729 his younger brother Charles, by now also at Christ Church, set up a society called ‘The Holy Club’. Its members met daily for prayer, Bible study and pious discipline such as fasting. They also took part in social work, visiting inmates in Oxford prison. John joined them, soon becoming their leader. He planned their days with meticulous zeal, starting with prayers at 5am. Critics jeeringly called the group Methodists, a title they gladly embraced.

In 1735 John and Charles left Oxford for missionary work in Georgia, in the American colonies. During the crossing John was greatly impressed by a group of German Moravians who, during a particularly severe storm, calmly sang hymns. Once in America, however, things went badly for him. He fell out with his congregation, and a girl he had been courting married another man.

He returned to England beaten and depressed. Nevertheless, he kept in touch with the Moravians, attending one of their meetings in London on 24 May 1738.  “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.”

The experience was to change Wesley’s life. Teaching ‘salvation by faith alone’ he travelled and preached ceaselessly, often adopting unconventional and controversial practices, such as open-air preaching, to reach newly urbanised masses uprooted from their traditional village culture and largely ignored by the church of his day. Although only five feet three inches tall, he was a powerful orator, often preaching to up to 20,000 people at a time.

Wesley remained an Anglican all his life and his followers, who first met in private home "societies" (meeting weekly to pray and read the Bible, as well as to collect money for charity) were all also members of the Church of England. It was only after his death that a separate Methodist Church was established.

Wesley was still preaching at the age of 87, just a few days before he died, on 2 March 1791. He met death singing hymns, quoting the Bible, and saying farewell to his friends and family. Some of his last words were, "The best of all is, God is with us." He was buried at his chapel on City Road, London.


At Christ Church, Wesley is commemorated by a floor plaque at the foot of the pulpit from which he once preached. It was placed there in 2003 to mark the third centenary of his birth. A portrait of him also hangs in the Great Hall.