John Wesley Biography
WESLEY, John (1703ľ91). An English clergyman, generally known as the founder of Methodism. He was born at Epworth, in Lincolnshire, the fifteenth child of the Rev. Samuel Wesley, and of a family which had been known as Nonconformists, though Samuel had taken orders in the Church of England. At 10 he was sent to Charterhouse School, where for a time he suffered from persecution by older boys, but finally won the esteem of all. In 1720 he matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford. He took his degree in 1724, and not long after began to think about following his father's profession. He was ordained deacon in 1725, and next year elected a fellow of Lincoln College. Ordained priest in 1728, for a while he acted as curate to his father at Epworth, but was recalled to Oxford by college regulations. Finding his brother Charles and some other undergraduates associated in what was called by unsympathetic outsiders the Holy Club, he naturally saw much of them, and became their director. On his father's death he was urged to accept the living of Epworth, but thought his place was at Oxford.
It was not long before he changed his mind, and was persuaded to go with General Oglethorpe as a missionary to Georgia. His mission was not altogether a success; he was regarded as too strict, and some points on which he insisted were not thought to be in harmony with Protestantism. His sojourn in Georgia was not without good, and his departure was regarded as a real loss to the Colony. On his voyage to Savannah, he met some of the Moravian Brethren, whose simple evangelical piety made a deep impression on him. On his return to London, he sought them out, and from Peter B÷hler, one of their preachers, imbibed the doctrine of saving faith, and broke away from the influence of William Law, strong in his earlier life.
In the summer of 1738 he went abroad to visit their leaders, and stayed at Herrnhut and with Zinzendorf at Marienborn. He corresponded with Zinzendorf for some time, and his letters are still preserved at Herrnhut. His new experiences made a vital difference in him. He associated with Moravians in England, and with other societies interested in the growth of the spiritual life.
Early in 1739 he took more definite steps in the direction he was afterward to follow. His friend George Whitefield invited him to Bristol. When he saw Whitefield preaching in the open air, his High Church principles were at first offended, but on April 2 he preached his first open-air sermon, and thus began his real life work. His success in the neighborhood of Bristol was so great that a special place had to be built to care for converts. An important step was taken on July 20, 1740, when he formed the first society under his direction. They met in a building called the Foundry, formerly government property, but long disused, near Finsbury Square in London, which for many years was the headquarters of Methodism.
Wesley's preaching success soon called him so much away that he was unable to give his societies proper care. In 1742 one of his followers proposed that the members should be divided into bands of 12, with a leader over each. The plan worked well. The leaders reported to Wesley the conduct of the members and the receipt of money. The class meetings thus originated contributed greatly to the success of the movement. Wesley now preached frequently all about London and Bristol. But the fervor and enthusiasm of his converts were looked upon with suspicion by the clergy in general, accustomed to an orderly conduct of religious matters. He began to develop his organization by the appointment of lay preachers, who were to be communicants of the Church of England, and not to conflict in their preaching with the church services. Among the early preachers of this sort were John Cennick and Thomas Maxfield. In 1744 the first conference of his principal helpers was held.
As a result of the Arminian tendencies of Wesley and his friends, Whitefield and Cennick withdrew from relations with them and formed the Calvinistic Methodist Society, but the success of Wesley's work was unabated. In five years from the preaching of the Bristol sermon 45 preachers were laboring with him, and there were 2000 members in London alone. There is no question that the religious life of England was in need of stirring and vivifying influence, which the burning words and ardent faith of Wesley brought. His evangelistic labors extended to all parts of the British Isles. He preached twice to four times daily, and traveled (on horseback until age compelled him to use a carriage) about 4500 miles a year. He met societies, classes, and boards, and inquired minutely into their affairs. He saw to the erection of chapels, and collected money for the expense. He found time for an amazing variety of literary work, selecting, condensing, abridging, and writing on all kinds of subjects what he thought would be most useful for his followers. He joined in every movement for the improvement of humanity. Sunday schools, the abolition of slavery, education, the circulation of tracts, and charitable associations of all kinds interested him and enlisted his co÷peration.
By 1790 he found himself at the head of 511 preachers and 120,000 members, while at least four times that number were in attendance with the Methodist Congregations. He died March 2, 1791, in the house attached to the City Road Chapel in London, and was buried there. He was of less than the average height, but well proportioned, and of attractive appearance. In social life he was a charming man, a good talker, and never ill at ease. He numbered many of all classes among his friends. The obedience which he exacted, for the good of the cause, from his followers was readily given. It is not too much to say that in eighteenth-century England "no single figure influenced so many minds, no single voice touched so many hearts."
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. XXIII (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 473-474.