John Wesley

{wes' - lee}

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The Wesley family was made famous by the two brothers, John and Charles, who worked together in the rise of Methodism in the British Isles during the 18th century. They were among the ten children surviving infancy born to Samuel Wesley (1662 - 1735), Anglican rector of Epworth, Lincolnshire, and Susanna Annesley Wesley, daughter of Samuel Annesley, a dissenting minister.

John Wesley, b. June 28, 1703, d. Mar. 2, 1791, was the principal founder of the Methodist movement. His mother was important in his emotional and educational development. The rescue of little "Jackie" from the burning rectory ("a brand plucked from the burning") has become legendary. John's education continued at Charterhouse School and at Oxford, where he studied at Christ Church and was elected (1726) fellow of Lincoln College. He was ordained in 1728.

After a brief absence (1727 - 29) to help his father at Epworth, John returned to Oxford to discover that his brother Charles had founded a Holy Club composed of young men interested in spiritual growth. John quickly became a leading participant of this group, which was dubbed the Methodists. His Oxford days introduced him not only to the rich tradition of classical literature and philosophy but also to spiritual classics like Thomas a Kempis's Imitation of Christ, Jeremy Taylor's Holy Living and Dying, and William Law's Serious Call.

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In 1735 both Wesleys accompanied James Oglethorpe to the new colony of Georgia, where John's attempts to apply his then high - church views aroused hostility. Discouraged, he returned (1737) to England; he was rescued from this discouragement by the influence of the Moravian preacher Peter Boehler. At a small religious meeting in Aldersgate Street, London, on May 24, 1738, John Wesley had an experience in which his "heart was strangely warmed."

After this spiritual conversion, which centered on the realization of salvation by faith in Christ alone, he devoted his life to evangelism. Beginning in 1739 he established Methodist societies throughout the country. He traveled and preached constantly, especially in the London - Bristol - Newcastle triangle, with frequent forays into Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. He encountered much opposition and persecution, which later subsided.

Late in life Wesley married Mary Vazeille, a widow. He continued throughout his life a regimen of personal discipline and ordered living. He died at 88, still preaching, still traveling, and still a clergyman of the Church of England. In 1784, however, he had given the Methodist societies a legal constitution, and in the same year he ordained Thomas Coke for ministry in the United States; this action signaled an independent course for Methodism.

Charles Wesley, b. Dec. 18, 1707, d. Mar. 29, 1788, was perhaps England's greatest hymn writer. Educated at Oxford, he was ordained in 1735 and went to Georgia as Oglethorpe's secretary. He returned a year earlier than John. After a religious experience similar to John's, he continued for many years in close association with the Methodist movement. After 1756, however, he left the itinerant ministry and settled first in Bristol and later in London. He wrote more than 5,000 hymns, among them "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" and "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling."

Frederick A Norwood

S Ayling, John Wesley (1979); F Baker, ed., The Works of John Wesley (1975); V H H Green, John Wesley (1964); A C Outler, ed., John Wesley (1964); J Pudney, John Wesley and His World (1978); K E Rowe, ed., The Place of Wesley in the Christian Tradition (1976); R Tuttle, John Wesley: His Life and Theology (1978).

John Wesley (1703-1791)

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John Wesley was the primary figure in the eighteenth century Evangelical Revival and founder of Methodism. Wesley was born in Epworth, England, to Samuel and Susanna Wesley, one of nineteen children. Although both his grandfathers distinguished themselves as Puritan Nonconformists, his parents returned to the Church of England, where his father for most of his ministry held the livings of Epworth (1697- 1735) and Wroot (1725-35). Wesley spent his early years under the careful direction of his remarkable mother, who sought to instill in him a sense of vital piety leading to a wholehearted devotion to God.


Wesley was educated at Charterhouse, a school for boys in London, and then Christ Church, Oxford, where he received the B.A. degree in 1724 and the M.A. degree in 1727. Although a serious student in both logic and religion, Wesley was not to experience his "religious" conversion until 1725. He was then confronted with what to do with the rest of his life. He decided (through the influence of his mother, a religious friend, and the reading of Jeremy Taylor and Thomas a Kempis) to make religion the "business of his life." He was ordained deacon (1725), elected to a fellowship at Lincoln College, Oxford (1726), and served as his father's curate at Wroot (1727-29). He then returned to Oxford and became the leader of a small band of students organized earlier by his younger brother, Charles. This band, dubbed the "Holy Club," would later be called "Methodist" for their prescribed method of studying the Bible and for their rigid self-denial which included many works of charity. During this period (1729-35) both John and Charles fell under the influence of the nonjuror and mystic William Law. Although Wesley confessed that he did not at that time understand justification by faith (seeking instead justification by his own works-righteousness), it was during this period that he formulated his views on Christian perfection, the hallmark of Methodism.

In 1735 (Wesley's Journal begins at this point and continues until shortly before his death) Wesley went to Georgia as a missionary to the Indians. Although the Indians eluded him, he did serve as priest to the Georgia settlers under General James Oglethorpe. During a storm in crossing Wesley was deeply impressed with a group of Moravians on board ship. Their faith in the face of death (the fear of dying was constantly with Wesley since his youth) predisposed disastrous experience in Georgia, he returned to England (1738) and met the Moravian Peter Bohler, who exhorted him to trust Christ alone for salvation. What had earlier been merely a religious conversion now became an "evangelical" conversion. At a Moravian band meeting on Aldersgate Street (May 24, 1738), as he listened to a reading from Luther's preface to his commentary on Romans, Wesley felt his "heart strangely warmed." Although scholars disagree as to the exact nature of this experience, nothing in Wesley was left untouched by his newfound faith. After a short journey to Germany to visit the Moravian settlement of Herrnhut, he returned to England and with George Whitefield, a former member of the Holy Club, began preaching salvation by faith. This "new doctrine" was considered redundant by the sacramentalists in the Established Church, who thought people sufficiently saved by virtue of their infant baptism. The established churches soon closed their doors to their preaching. The Methodists (a name which carried over from their Oxford days) began preaching in the open air.

In 1739 Wesley followed Whitefield to Bristol, where a revival broke out among the miners of Kingswood. At that point Wesley's true genius surfaced through his ability to organize new converts into Methodist "societies" and "bands" which sustained both them and the revival. The revival continued under Wesley's direct leadership for over fifty years. He traveled some 250,000 miles throughout England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, preaching some 40,000 sermons. His influence also extended to America as he (after considerable reluctance) ordained several of his preachers for the work there, which was officially organized in 1784. Wesley literally established "the world as his parish" in order to spread "scripture holiness throughout the land." He remained fearlessly loyal to the Established Church all his life. Methodism in England did not become a separate denomination until after his death.


Although Wesley was not a systematic theologian, his theology can be described with reasonable clarity from the study of his published sermons, tracts, treatises, and correspondence. In essence, Wesley's theology, so akin to the Reformation, affirms God's sovereign will to reverse our "sinful, devilish nature," by the work of his Holy Spirit, a process he called prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace (grace being nearly synonymous with the work of the Holy Spirit).

Prevenient or preventing grace for Wesley describes the universal work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts and lives of people between conception and conversion. Original sin, according to Wesley, makes it necessary for the Holy Spirit to initiate the relationship between God and people. Bound by sin and death, people experience the gentle wooing of the Holy Spirit, which prevents them from moving so far from "the way" that when they finally understand the claims of the gospel upon their lives, he guarantees their freedom to say yes. This doctrine constitutes the heart of Wesley's Arminianism.

Justifying grace describes the work of the Holy Spirit at the moment of conversion in the lives of those who say yes to the call of prevenient grace by placing their faith and trust in Jesus Christ. Wesley understood such conversion as two phases of one experience. The first phase, justification, includes the Spirit attributing or imputing to the believer the righteousness of Jesus Christ. The second phase, the new birth, includes the Spirit launching the process of sanctification or imparted righteousness. These two phases identify, in part, the Wesleyan distinctive. Here he combines the "faith alone" so prevalent in the Protestant Reformation (Wesley insisted that he and Calvin were but a hair's breadth apart on justification) with the passion for holiness so prevalent in the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

Sanctifying grace described the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers between conversion and death. Faith in Christ saves us from hell and sin for heaven and good works. Imputed righteousness, according to Wesley, entitles one to heaven; imparted righteousness qualifies one for heaven. It is here that Wesley goes to great lengths to describe his views on Christian perfection.

The process of sanctification or perfection culminates in an experience of "pure love" as one progresses to the place where love becomes devoid of self-interest. This second work of grace is described as the one purpose of all religion. If one is not perfected in love, one is not "ripe for glory." It is important, however, to note that this perfection was not static but dynamic, always improvable. Neither was it angelic or Adamic. Adam's perfection was objective and absolute, while Wesley's perfection was subjective and relative, involving, for the most part, intention and motive.

Although Wesley talks about an instantaneous experience called "entire sanctification" subsequent to justification, his major emphasis was the continuous process of going on to perfection. Perhaps first learned from the early church fathers like Macarius and Ephraem Syrus, this emphasis upon continuous process was enforced by Wesley to prevent the horrible expectation of backsliding. Wesley soon learned that the only way to keep Methodists alive was to keep them moving. This same concept of continuous process was later polished by the influence of mystics like Francois Fenelon, whose phrase moi progressus ad infinitum (my progress is without end) greatly impressed Wesley and became a major tool for the perpetuation of the Evangelical Revival. The watchword for the revival became: "Go on to perfection: otherwise you cannot keep what you have."

Prevenient grace, therefore, is a process. Justifying grace is instantaneous. Sanctifying grace is both a process and instantaneous. Although Wesley's theology went through some subtle shifts later in life (for example, he placed more and more emphasis on good works as the inevitable fruit of saving faith), this is fairly representative of Wesley's theology throughout. Generally speaking, Wesley was a practical theologian. In a very practical way his theology was geared primarily to his own needs and to the needs of those given into his care.

R G Tuttle, Jr
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

Wesley, Journal, ed. N. Curnock, 8 vols.; Letters, ed. J. Telford, 8 vols.; Standard Sermons, ed. E.H. Sugden, 2 vols.; Works, ed. T. Jackson, 14 vols; W. R. Cannon, The Theology of John Wesley; M. L. Edwards, John Wesley and the Eighteenth Century; V.H.H. Green, The Young Mr. Wesley; H. Lindstrom, Wesley and Sanctification; A. C. Outler, ed., John Wesley; M. Piette, John Wesley in the Evolution of Protestant Discipline; R. G. Tuttle, John Wesley, His Life and Theology; L. Tyerman, The Life and Times of The Reverend John Wesley, 3 vols.; C. W. Williams, John Wesley's Theology Today.

Also, see:
Wesleyan Tradition

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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