Wesley, John

Wesley, John
( 1703-1791 )
   founder of Methodism
   John Wesley was born on June 17, 1703, at Epworth, England, the 15th of 19 children born to Samuel and Susannah Wesley. His father was an Anglican priest. His mother was a Puritan, notable for her learning. Both John and his brother Charles Wesley attended Oxford University.
   While at Oxford, Wesley took over leadership of the Holy Club, an organization of religiously seeking students established by Charles. After graduation, on a voyage to America, Wesley had his first encounter with members of the Moravian Church, who pressed him on his personal religious life. On his return to England, he began attending informal services at several lay-led religious societies in London. At one such society meeting on Aldersgate Street on May 24, 1738, he had what he termed a "heart-warming experience" that is generally seen as the founding event of the Methodist movement. The movement took shape when he broke with the Moravians the following year, and the first "Methodist" religious societies began to form. Within each society, members were invited into smaller intimate groups called classes.
   Another Oxford classmate, George White-field, had a similar pilgrimage and had begun preaching in Bristol. Before leaving for a tour of America, he turned his work over to Wesley. It became the first major extension of the movement outside of London. Over the next decades as the movement expanded, Wesley traveled around England periodically visiting the many Wesleyan societies. He regularly preached two or three times a day and kept a daily journal.
   Wesley wrote numerous books and edited hundreds of others to educate the lay preachers who had emerged to serve the movement. in 1744, he began to hold conferences for the preachers; the published minutes became an important guide for the developing movement.
   Prominent among Wesley's writings was a set of sermons that covered the basic teachings of Methodism; collected, they became an essential statement of the movement's doctrines. Wesley developed a unique concept of the ideal Christian life. The true Christian would move through life steadily growing in grace. He should aim at a separation from sin, until he became perfected in love, a goal that might not be fully achieved in this life.
   Methodism spread throughout the British Isles as a movement within the Church of England, and Wesley made no attempts to build church structures or his own hierarchy. But after the American Revolution, when all but one of the preachers he had sent to work there returned to England, and Wesley was unable to get organizational help from the Anglican authorities, he made a decision that in effect turned the American movement into a separate church. In 1784, he himself assumed the office of bishop and "set aside" two men, Thomas Coke (1747-1814) and Richard Whatcoat, to be Methodist superintendents, and commissioned them to set up American Methodism as an independent movement. After Wesley's death, the movement organized as a separate church in England.
   In England, Wesley's movement had developed a unique place. Following both his Anglican and Puritan roots, Wesley kept the movement within the established church, and followed the Calvinist theology of Jacob Arminius (1560-1609), which had rejected the predestination so central to John Calvin. Wesley preached that the free grace of God was immediately available to any who would turn and accept it. Meanwhile, he and George Whitefield had parted company over Calvinism, and Whitefield went on to develop a form of Methodism that would later merge into the Presbyterian Church.
   in his 40 years of travel throughout the British Isles, Wesley delivered more than 40,000 sermons. He remained active until close to the end of his life on March 2, 1791. Among his last works was a letter to William Wilberforce (1759-1833) supporting his work to end slavery.
   In 1976, the Abingdon Press began the most recent attempt to publish Wesley's works. To date some 20 volumes have been issued.
   Further reading:
   ■ Frank Baker, John Wesley and the Church of England (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1970)
   ■ V H. H. Green, John Wesley (London/New York: University Press of America, 1987)
   ■ Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1995)
   ■ John Wesley, John Wesley's Sermons: An Anthology, ed. by Albert C. Outler, et al. (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1991).

Encyclopedia of Protestantism. . 2005.

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