"The life and the teachings of John Wesley, the famous founder of Methodism, have probably had a greater influence than those of any other man since the days of the apostles in deepening the spiritual life of the present time."
- John Gilchrist Lawson
This is the kind of endorsement often found in biographies and articles about John Wesley. Born in England, June 17, 1703, he was fifteenth of nineteen children. From the moment he came into the world there seemed to be a mighty wrestling between heaven and hell for his life. Nine of his brothers and sisters died in infancy, and he was almost consumed in a fire that destroyed the Wesley home when he was only six. He survived and started a spiritual conflagration of his own that would sweep the world for two centuries, and still burns strong in the hearts of many believers. He drew more people into the Methodist Church during the last two centuries than would be found in any other Protestant denomination, and his teachings and actions had a profound impact on the politics of not only his time, but even into the present.
Some consider Wesley's success to be at least partially due to his theology. In contrast to the popular, fatalistic view of salvation of Calvinism that was common among other Protestant denominations of his time, Wesley emphasised the free will of man that stirred his followers to diligence and action. He combined this with a brilliant understanding of organisation that freed men instead of hindering them in their personal religious pursuits.
John Wesley was a third generation, Church of England clergyman, and the second son of Susannah Wesley, one of the great women of faith of the period. Susannah was the daughter of the remarkable Dr. Annesley, who was called "the St. Paul of Non-Conformity." Just as King Solomon acknowledged at the end of his book of Proverbs that all of his great wisdom was from the teachings of his mother (see Proverbs 31:1), one can find sown throughout the doctrines and methods of John Wesley the teachings of his extraordinary mother.
Susannah Wesley considered it her main purpose in life to instil the strongest devotion to godliness and discipline that was possible in her children. It was her primary devotion to see all of her surviving children as true lights in the darkness and salt that would not ever lose its savour. She was successful. Bedrock faith and an uncompromising devotion to holiness would describe the Wesley family. Her children had a moral compass to navigate through any storm that life could throw at them. John passed the same on to all of his leaders, and they did the same with their disciples. This gave the Methodist movement the core moral strength and resolve to face the raging spiritual storms of the time and prevail against them.
The Wesley's not only taught their children "the fear and admonition of the Lord," but also provided them with a good secular education. John graduated from the Charter House School in London and then went on to Oxford University. Upon graduation from Oxford with a Master of Arts he was fluent in a number of languages including Latin, Hebrew, Greek, and French. Later he learned German. Wesley understood that the command of language was an important tool of great preachers, but it was his zeal for the Word, the love of God, and holiness that would propel him to become one of the most effective preachers of all time.
As a child it was said that John never once disobeyed his parents. However, after leaving for boarding school he became more lax in his personal and spiritual disciplines. Because he continued to read his Bible and pray daily, and was still far more pious than the other students and even his instructors, he considered this "goodness" adequate for his salvation. Then he happened upon the writings of Thomas A'Kempis and was severely shaken spiritually, challenging his own lukewarmness. This began the awakening in his life that would spark The First Great Awakening to sweep Europe and America.
Compelled to seek further, Wesley then read Dr. Taylor's "Holy Living and Dying." This book brought deep conviction upon him that it was a basic, Christian duty to live a life of pure devotion to the Lord. This was set in his heart as his life's purpose not only to live this way, but to also convict the lukewarm everywhere to pursue a more pure devotion to God.
The Holy Club
After being ordained at age twenty-two, Wesley read Law's Christian Perfection and The Serious Call, which even further drove home what was to become the core devotion of his life – holiness that would be described as being wholly the Lord's. He lived, breathed, and pondered the Word of God continually. He sought to believe it and live it as fully as he possibly could.
In November 1729, John and his brother Charles got together with a few friends four nights a week to read the classics and discuss them, and on Sundays they read books on divinity. This became a warm and challenging circle of friends that were remarkable for their impact on the times. The members only numbered fifteen, but one of them was a young man named George Whitefield. From this little group, two would be regarded as among the greatest preachers of all time, and a third, Charles Wesley, would become known as one of the world's greatest hymn writers. After first being dubbed “the Holy Club,” the little band took on the name “Methodists.”
A Preacher for the Ages
One cannot fully understand the impact of John Wesley's life without understanding the impact that George Whitefield had on him and their times. Whitefield came from a poor family, and was quite a scoundrel as a youth. However, he also felt from childhood that he was called to preach, and greatly desired it even when he was living in considerable debauchery. Before his seventeenth birthday he had a dream in which the Lord called him to preach. In the dream a bishop offered to ordain him. This moved him greatly. Then he found a way to attend Oxford University as a servitor.
When Whitefield heard about the Holy Club that the Wesley brothers had started, he wanted to join even though it was scorned and persecuted on campus. Whitefield was admitted. After reading a book loaned to him by John Wesley entitled The Life of God in the Soul of Man, a light went off in the heart of Whitefield and he was born again. When he described this experience to the Wesley's, they both very graciously, told him that he was insane. Young George Whitefield was undeterred. As Jack Deere once said, a man with an experience is never at the mercy of a man with just an argument. Since the Wesleys had both come to greatly respect Whitefield, this obviously sowed a seed in their minds that there might be more than they were presently experiencing in their own spiritual lives.
Even so, the Wesley's gentle but continual scorn did cause Whitefield to take his eyes off the Lord for a period of time. He began to seek holiness through fasting and severe treatment of his body. He determined to say his prayers outside during the coldest weather, living for weeks off of tea and course bread, and eventually became so weak that he could not climb a flight of stairs. Then, as if he just snapped out of a spiritual stupor, he returned his attention to the Lord Jesus and again the light went on in his soul. He would never again be distracted from the truth that it is Christ Himself who is our salvation and our sanctification, not our own efforts, though it would take his friends the Wesleys many more years to come to this understanding.
At this time, John and his brother began visiting the local prison to speak to the condemned. They then added visits to the sick, determining that a few hours spent in such Christian service each week was important for their spiritual development. In this way, the Methodist Societies began. With Whitefield's new understanding of the righteousness of God in Christ, he set about studying the Scriptures and serving the sick and poor out of love, not mere duty. This caused him to begin to stand out even among the members of the Holy Club.
Whitefield's love for the Lord and love of people exhibited so much more than mere religious devotion, it touched the local bishop, who called him into his office one day. He declared that even though he had determined never to ordain anyone under the age of twenty-three, he would ordain Whitefield if he desired it. This was the exact dream he had before his seventeenth birthday. He gladly accepted. Stunned and humbled by the Lord's clear direction in what he considered to be a still wretched life, at his ordination Whitefield made a full consecration to the service of the Lord from which he never wavered.
From that time on it was said that his rooms at Oxford were continually filled with young men praying. He knew that at his ordination he had received a true impartation of the anointing to preach the gospel as his dream foretold. Until the end of his life he considered this dream that came to pass so accurately, the source of his great boldness as a preacher. He knew that he was in the will of God for his life.
When Whitefield read the gospel at his ordination ceremony, all were struck by the authority in which he spoke. The next Sunday he spoke to a very large crowd in his home church, where a complaint was lodged that he had driven fifteen people mad with his sermon. The bishop's reply was he hoped they did not forget their madness before the next Sunday!
Before graduation from Oxford, Whitefield was invited to fill an obscure pulpit in London for two months. As news spread around campus concerning what he was about to do, there was a lot of ridicule and sneering. Men his age just did not do such things, but this young man was of a different spirit. Immediately the power of his sermons began sending shock waves throughout the city, reaching even to the university. Great crowds began gathering to hear him. All laughter from his fellow students died out. Soon the entire city was being stirred by this twenty-one year old firebrand that had been plucked from the fire and made useful to the King.
A year late Whitefield stopped for a last visit to Bristol before leaving for America, it seemed that the entire city came out to hear him once more and see him off. Every conceivable place for a person to stand in the cathedral was occupied, and over half the crowd had to be turned away. It was said that the whole city was under his spell. Even the Quakers and nonconformists left their chapels to hear him preach his message of the new birth. Many commented that preaching with such power and unction had not been heard before in all the land. As he left the city multitudes stood weeping.
As Whitefield passed through Gloucester and was asked to speak, it was a similar scene. Thousands had to be turned away from the meetings. Many stood weeping as he left for London to catch his ship for America. When he arrived in London it was a repeat. People began gathering long before daybreak to gain entry into the place he was to speak. Thousands were turned away. The offerings for the orphanage that he wanted to build in America were so great that it took a large number of stewards just to carry them.
During Whitefield's meetings people were so filled with joy and excitement about the Lord that they could not contain it and began shouting “Amen” during the services. This had never been heard of before, and seemed most inappropriate to the severe, lifeless religion of the church leaders who were looking for a reason to bring disrepute on Whitefield. It was also the beginning of a new level of persecution for the young preacher as many bishops and other preachers allowed jealousy to grip their souls instead of rejoicing at the great light that was beginning to shine in their land. Still, no move of God has been without controversy and persecution. This would only further purify what was to become The First Great Awakening which not only brought countless multitudes into the kingdom, but set a new course for the Western world that would continue for generations to come.
As history repeatedly testifies, the Lord seems to love using small beginnings for His greatest works. The little band called the Holy Club ignited a fire that would soon sweep across the earth many times over. The friendships that were formed there became a part of the greatest spiritual and moral force in the earth during the eighteenth century. Not only did it result in millions and millions of salvations, but it also swept away slavery and many other great, more evils of the time. John Wesley took over the work, setting a pattern that would soon impact not only England, but also much of the world.
The Fateful Storm
In 1735, John and Charles Wesley set sail for the colony of Georgia to become missionaries to the American Indians. During the voyage the ship was assailed by a huge storm. As the English passengers panicked and screamed in terror, Wesley noticed the remarkable calm of the German passengers, who were joyfully singing hymns. John thought that they must be retarded and did not know of their peril. He went over to inform them that they were all doomed. He was surprised when he found out that they were fully aware of the danger, but simply were not afraid. Their leader, the Moravian bishop Spangenburg, simply answered, “We're not afraid to die. We die daily.”
Wesley was so stunned by this comment that it began the unravelling of his whole religious world. He had never met people who were so confident in their salvation, or who lived by such faith in their God that their peace was unshakable. He resolved to study these Moravians further, and even learned German just so he could better converse with them. Their discussions during the remainder of the voyage caused John Wesley, one of the seemingly most holy and zealous, Christian men in the Empire, to doubt his own salvation.
John Wesley was one of the outstanding young men of his time, but his religion had been built on his own works. When he was confronted by this simple group of Christians who had a living faith based on a personal relationship to the Lord, he felt a gripping shallowness. This began a war in his soul between anger and humility, but because Wesley was an honest man, humility won over his pride. Instead of repelling him, this challenge to the foundations of his own faith ignited in him a quest to seek the same kind of personal relationship with God.
Wesley, as well as many historians, would look back on that storm on his first voyage to America as one of the most important experiences of his life. It also began a pattern in his life that is prominent in almost every great life – the determination to find in every storm the great treasures of wisdom that are surely there. The Lord hides His great treasures in great trials for the sake of building great lives. This is the great wisdom of God and a reason why He allows the world to continue in its darkness for this time – to test the righteous, purify, and prepare them to rule with Him as joint heirs over the earth's restoration.
Failure and Fulfilment
One of the great lessons of Scripture and history is that the greatest accomplishments are often build on a foundation of great failures. Humility must come before exaltation, and those who are not wise enough to humble themselves will ultimately meet failure in a way that makes them wise enough to be humble. One of the greatest missionaries of all time, John Wesley, was to likewise fail miserably on his first missionary journey. Instead of trying to lead the Americans to Christ he tried to lead them to his own standards of holiness and devotion to works. Few were moved by his message. After a year and nine months he returned to England, dejected and in spiritual distress. He wrote in his journal, “I went to America to convert the Indians, but who shall convert me?” He thought of the Moravians he met on his journey over.
John tried preaching in England, but with little fruit. He then met and starting conversing with Peter Bohler, another leader of the Moravians. Bohler proved to him in Scripture that conversions to Christ were instantaneous. This shocked Wesley, and caused him to understand that people were not justified by their works, but were justified the moment they believed in the cross of Jesus for their salvation. To the religious world of the time, this was a revolutionary concept. It would challenge both the religious and political institutions of the times, which both drew a large part of their legitimacy from the doctrine of divine election. These questions that Wesley new wrestled with would eventually be aroused throughout the English-speaking world, and profoundly change that world through him.
John's brother Charles opposed “this new doctrine” of personal salvation for a time. Even so, John's honesty required him to be faithful to the truth that was revealed to him regardless of the consequences. Having chosen the path of humility over pride, he continued to seek his own personal encounter with God that would give him the assurance of salvation that he lacked. At the time no one could have possibly suspected the millions of individual, as well as national, destinies that would be impacted by this one man's honest search for God.