By John Singleton – Originally appeared March/April 2003
Plans to mark the 300th anniversary of the birth of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, have received a boost on the Anglo-Methodist side of the Atlantic. Late last year, a major BBC poll to find the “Greatest Britons” of all time saw Wesley come in at No. 50 in the top 100 names.
In the run-up to the start of a significant year for Methodism, this indicated that Wesley’s reputation as a great religious leader might actually enjoy much wider recognition than many of us had assumed. And, hopefully, by the end of 2003—in Britain, America and all countries with a Methodist presence—Wesley’s name will enjoy even greater significance.
Born at Epworth, Lincolnshire, on June 17, 1703, Wesley was the 15th child of Susannah and the Rev. Samuel Wesley, a clergyman of the Church of England like his father and grandfather before him. Susannah was the daughter of Samuel Annesley, an expelled Puritan often styled “the St. Paul of Nonconformity.”
It was in 1709 that, as an infant, John was saved from a fire that destroyed the Epworth Rectory. The dramatic rescue convinced his mother that God must have special work cut out for him. She described her son, biblically, as “a brand plucked from the burning.”
During early boyhood, he was educated at home by his remarkable and intellectually gifted mother who, by all accounts, was also something of a disciplinarian. And although he was brought up during some lean times – his father once even being imprisoned for debt—the young John is said to have lived within a happy family atmosphere.
At age 10, he left Lincolnshire to become a “sponsored” boarder at Charterhouse School in London, later leaving at age 17 for Oxford, where he spent six years as a student at university. Following in the footsteps of his father, he decided to become an Anglican priest and was ordained in 1728.
While at Oxford, he and his brother, Charles, became involved in what was sneeringly known by some fellow students as the “Holy Club,” the “Bible Moths” or the “Methodists.” This was a small group of like-minded students who regularly met to study the Bible and pray. They also showed a practical concern for the poor and were involved in visiting prisoners and distributing relief to destitute families.
In 1735, John and Charles sailed to Georgia in America, where John served as a parish priest in Savannah and was keen to be a missionary to the Indians. But coupled with a disastrous romance (the first of at least three during his lifetime), the enterprise did not seem to work out, and he returned to England in 1738. Years later, he was to have a profound influence upon the spread of Methodism to America.
An experience from his American visit that did have far-reaching consequences was his contact with the religious group known as the Moravians. This began during his outward voyage on the “Simmonds” when, during a ferocious storm, Wesley was enormously impressed by the courage and steadfast faith of these German families while everyone around them was fearing for their lives.
After returning to London, he attended various Moravian meetings, and during one of these, on May 24, 1738, he had a conversion experience. “I felt my heart strangely warmed,” he wrote. “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.” He was then 35 years old. The experience had such an effect on him that he devoted the rest of his long life to bringing the same message of salvation to others.
In so doing, he took the plunge and—accepting George Whitefield’s invitation to speak to the miners of Kingswood, Bristol, in the open air—he did the unthinkable in the eyes of the established church and became a “field preacher.” During his lifetime, Wesley traveled an estimated 250,000 miles throughout Britain and Ireland (mainly on horseback), preaching the good news of Jesus wherever people would gather to listen (often at 5 a.m.).
When invited to do so, he also preached in local parish churches. On one memorable occasion, this was denied to him at Epworth, his home church, so he waited until the service had finished and then preached from his father’s tomb in the churchyard. On a nine-week tour of Ireland in his 86th year, he preached 100 sermons in 60 towns and villages.
Bristol, where he built the historic New Room Chapel, became Wesley’s headquarters in the west of England and one of three bases from which he set out on his many journeys, the others being Newcastle and London.
In 1739, he purchased the shell of the old royal canon foundry in north London and had it refurbished as a chapel and as his London headquarters. It was called the Foundry and was replaced in 1778 by a new chapel in nearby City Road, with a house for Wesley and his preachers adjoining. Methodist pilgrims from all over the world now visit Wesley’s Chapel and house on that site, where John Wesley and other pioneering Methodists are buried.
The Foundry became something of a nerve center for the social conscience of the early Methodist movement, which included London’s first free clinic and dispensary, opened in 1745. Other initiatives were a well-staffed school for children of poor families and the building of an almshouse for homeless paupers.
At the Foundry in 1740, almost by accident, Thomas Maxfield became the first Methodist lay preacher, having taken it upon himself to preach while Wesley was away in Bristol. Although at first angry, Wesley later had to admit that it was of God’s doing—an endorsement that led to lay people (including women) taking responsibility and playing a powerful role in the rapid spread of the movement.
Wesley always believed that it was not necessary to leave the Church of England. Instead, he saw himself as a catalyst for reform within the established church. He remained an Anglican priest until his death in 1791, and as late as 1787 wrote: “I still think that when the Methodists leave the church, God will leave them.” Nevertheless, in 1784, relations with the Church of England must have been more than a little strained when he ordained three of his preachers to provide ministers to serve the American Methodists.
In Britain, the burgeoning Methodist network, with its thousands of believers and their local meetinghouses, provoked much opposition during the early years from both church and state. This antagonism reached a peak during the 1740s, and as accounts in his journals make clear, Wesley himself had to endure a great deal of violence, particularly in his determination to stand alongside local Methodists who were being hounded and persecuted for their faith.
So it is no wonder that many people feel John Wesley deserves to rank as one of the “Greatest Britons.” The picture of him that emerges from a reading of his journals is a fascinating one, and this is a good year to remind ourselves of what he achieved.
John Singleton, a writer with the weekly Methodist Recorder in London, is administrator for the Methodist churches and social projects in the Tower Hamlets area of East London. Distributed by United Methodist News Service.