John (1703-91), English theologian, evangelist, and founder of Methodism.
Wesley was born in the rectory at Epworth,
Lincolnshire, on June 17, 1703, the 15th child of the British clergyman Samuel
Wesley (1662-1735). He was educated at Charterhouse School and Christ Church,
University of Oxford. Ordained deacon in 1725 and admitted to the priesthood of
the Church of England in 1728, John Wesley acted for a time as curate to his
father. In 1729 he went into residence at Oxford as a fellow of Lincoln College.
There he joined the Holy Club, a group of students that included his brother
Charles Wesley and, later, George Whitefield, who was to become the founder of
Calvinistic Methodism. The club members adhered strictly and methodically to
religious precepts and practices, among them visiting prisons and comforting the
sick, and were thus derisively called “methodists” by their schoolmates.
In 1735 Wesley went to Georgia as an Anglican
missionary. On the ship to Savannah he met some German Moravians, whose simple
evangelical piety greatly impressed him. He continued to associate with them
while in Georgia and translated some of their hymns into English. Except for
this association, Wesley's American experience was a failure.
On his return to England in 1738, he again sought out
the Moravians; while attending one of their meetings in Aldersgate St., London,
on May 24, 1738, he experienced a religious awakening that profoundly convinced
him that salvation was possible for every person through faith in Jesus Christ
In March 1739, George Whitefield, who had met with
great success as an evangelist in Bristol, urged Wesley to join him in his
endeavors. Despite his initial opposition to preaching outside the church,
Wesley preached an open-air sermon on April 2, and the enthusiastic reaction of
his audience convinced him that open-air preaching was the most effective way to
reach the masses. Few pulpits would be open to him in any case, for the Anglican
church frowned on revivalism.
Wesley attracted immense crowds virtually from the
outset of his evangelical career. His success also was due, in part, to the fact
that contemporary England was ready for a revivalist movement; the Anglican
church was seemingly unable to offer the kind of personal faith that people
craved. Thus Wesley's emphasis on inner religion and his assurance that each
person was accepted as a child of God had a tremendous popular appeal.
On May 1, 1739, Wesley and a group of his followers,
meeting in a shop on West St., London, formed the first Methodist society. Two
similar organizations were established in Bristol the same month. Late in 1739
the London society began to meet in a building called the Foundry, which served
as the headquarters of Methodism for many years.
With the growth of the Methodist movement, the need
for tighter organization became acute. In 1742 the societies were divided into
classes, with a leader for each class. These class meetings contributed greatly
to the success of the movement, but equally important were their leaders, many
of whom Wesley designated lay preachers. Wesley called the first conference of
Methodist leaders in 1744, and conferences were held annually thereafter.
In 1751, at the age of 48, Wesley married Mary
Vazeille (circa 1710-81), a widow with four children. The marriage was not
successful, and she finally left him; Wesley had no children of his own.
An indefatigable preacher and organizer, Wesley
traveled about 8000 km (5000 mi) a year, delivering as many as four or five
sermons a day and founding new societies.
Wesley parted with the Moravians in 1740 because of
doctrinal disagreements, and he rejected the Calvinist doctrine of
predestination, thus breaking with Whitefield. He also discarded many tenets of
the Church of England, including the doctrine of the apostolic succession (the
maintenance of an unbroken line of succession of bishops of the Christian church
beginning with St. Peter), but he never voiced any intention of establishing the
movement as a new church. His actions made separation inevitable, however. In
1784 he issued the deed of declaration, which provided rules and regulations for
the guidance of the Methodist societies. The same year he appointed his aide
Thomas Coke, an Anglican clergyman, a superintendent of the Methodist
organization in the U.S., empowering him to administer the sacraments; other
ordinations followed. Ordination represented the biggest step in the direction
of a break with the Anglican church. Separation did not take place, however,
until after Wesley's death.
Wesley was deeply concerned with the intellectual,
economic, and physical well-being of the masses. He was also a prolific writer
on a wide variety of historical and religious subjects. His books were sold
cheaply, so that even the poor could afford to buy them; thus he did much to
improve the reading habits of the general public. He aided debtors and those
trying to establish businesses and founded medical dispensaries. He opposed
slavery and was interested in social reform movements of all kinds.
Wesley compiled 23 collections of hymns, edited a
monthly magazine, translated Greek, Latin, and Hebrew works, and edited, under
the title The Christian's Pattern, the noted medieval devotional work De
Imitatione Christi, generally ascribed to the German ecclesiastic Thomas ŕ
Kempis. His personal Journal (1735-90) is outstanding for the frank exposition
of his spiritual development.
In the latter years of his life the hostility of the
Anglican church to Methodism had virtually disappeared, and Wesley was greatly
admired. He died March 2, 1791, and was buried in the graveyard of City Road
Chapel, London. In Westminster Abbey is a memorial plaque inscribed with his
Biographic entry: B1578
"Wesley, John," Microsoft (R) Encarta.
Copyright (c) 1993 Microsoft Corporation. Copyright (c) 1993 Funk &
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