John Wesley Birthday Reader —
John Wesley’s birthday is a bit unusual. While the great evangelist and founder of Methodism was born on June 17, 1703, according to the Julian Calendar in use at the time. Midway through his life (in 1752), however, Britain shifted to the Gregorian Calendar, adding 11 days. From 1752 and for the rest of his life, Wesley celebrated his birthday on June 28th.
In recognition of the special celebration within Methodism, we draw your attention to a few of our favorites from the archives.
• Jason Vickers – “Don’t Take My Word for It, Read Wesley Yourself.”
“Over the last half century or so, scholars have written dozens of new books about John Wesley. There is now vast secondary literature on virtually every aspect of the founder of Methodism’s life and thought. And there is no shortage of disagreement over how to interpret Wesley. After all, that’s how we scholars make our living. We critique and challenge prevailing views in the name of complexity and nuance. Intentionally or not, this can give the impression that Wesley himself must be difficult to read. Some people might even be tempted to forego reading Wesley in favor of one of the new scholarly books about Wesley.
“An additional factor that can discourage people from reading Wesley for themselves is the simple fact that Wesley wrote a lot, including letters and diaries, occasional treatises, edited volumes, commentaries or ‘notes’ on the Bible, and sermons. With so much material at hand, it can be hard to know where to begin. The good news is that Wesley intended the overwhelming majority of what he wrote for the theological and spiritual edification of the people called Methodists. To be sure, he occasionally had other motives for writing, but his main concern was to develop and publish materials that would help people come to know God more truly and to love God and neighbor more fully each day. He wrote to educate, challenge, encourage, and inspire his readers in their journey with God and with one another. With this in mind, one could almost start reading anywhere.”
• John Singleton – “Wesley Finds His Place In History”
“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.”
• David F. Watson – “What Does it Mean to be a Wesleyan Christian”
“In other words, we need to recommit ourselves to some of the core beliefs and practices that characterized early Methodism. For Wesley and his followers, the Methodist movement involved a commitment to holiness lived out in several ways. Holiness was rooted in Scripture. It was lived out in community. It was facilitated by the means of grace, and it was expressed in solidarity with the poor.”
• Winfield Bevins – “Lessons from the Wesleyan Revival”
By the time of John Wesley’s death in 1791, Methodism was an international church movement with more than 70,000 members in England and more than 40,000 in the new United States, with even more among the mission stations scattered around the world. The seeds of the Methodist movement would continue to grow and spread well beyond Wesley’s lifetime. Just a few years after his death, Methodism in North America had grown to 200,000, with more than 4,000 Methodist preachers. By 1830, official membership in the Methodist Church had reached almost half a million people, and attenders numbered six million. From 1880 to 1905, American Methodism planted more than seven hundred churches per year on average.
• Kenneth C. Kinghorn – “Wesleyan Family Tree”
“John Wesley invented no new theological doctrines. “Whatever doctrine is new must be wrong,” he wrote, “and no doctrine can be right, unless it is the very same ‘which was from the beginning.’” Mr. Wesley said, “If Methodism…be a new discovery in religion…this [notion] is a grievous mistake; we pretend no such thing.” Far from being narrowly sectarian, John Wesley was a catholic Christian. He stood firmly in the mainstream of historic Christianity, and drew from many of the tributaries that fed into it.”
• James V. Heidinger II – John Wesley and United Methodist renewal
“At the time of the birth of Methodism, eighteenth century England was in a period of both spiritual and moral decline. John Wesley was preaching at a time that observers would consider Anglicanism’s “glacial” era – cold, stiff, and uninviting. Poet Laureate Robert Southey went so far as to say, ‘There never was less religious feeling either within the Establishment, or without, than when Wesley blew his trumpet and awakened those who slept.'”
• David F. Watson – “The Wesleyan Way to Read Scripture”
“For Wesley, the way in which the church had interpreted a passage of Scripture through the centuries was in large part determinative of that passage’s meaning. In other words, the church’s consensus helped to establish the plain sense of the text. Reading the Bible was not simply an individual undertaking. It was an ecclesiastical undertaking. In fact, without the guidance of the church, it was not possible to understanding the Bible correctly. For Wesley the Bible had one purpose: to lead us into salvation, and therefore reading it apart from the church’s theology of salvation would be futile.”
Photo: Bust of John Wesley by Enoch Wood. The piece was once on display at the World Methodist Museum at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. Photo by Steve Beard.