John Wesley (1703 – 1791)
Born: Epworth, Lincolnshire, England
Role: Minister, Preacher, Founder of (Wesleyan Methodism)
Emphases: personal holiness; justification by faith; circuit preaching & lay ministry
Protested against: Catholic sacramentalism; transubstantiation, purgatory; indulgences
John Wesley is an interesting, yet significant figure when it comes to the history of Protestant Christianity. He made an enormous contribution to the emergence of evangelicalism through his pioneering Methodist movement.
Wesley was born to Anglican rector Samuel Wesley and his devout wife Susanna. Both of his parents came from dissenting religious backgrounds, but had migrated to the Church of England earlier in their lives. Though Wesley would not found the religious movement known as “Methodism” for many years, the ‘methodical’ approach to religion and devotion was part of his upbringing – as his mother trained all of the Wesley children rigorously in the knowledge of Scripture and in spiritual exercises.
Wesley’s desire for holiness of life and true, inner spirituality was a constant theme during his youth, education and early ministry. He treated his daily activities and religious progress with the utmost seriousness and famously formed a group at Oxford University (known derisively as the “Holy Club”) to pursue a live that was more devout than that of the typical university student or academic.
Wesley’s “General Questions” were a series of spiritual diagnostic inquiries to determine the genuineness of one’s religion and motives. They are worth reproducing here as a sample of his flavor of spirituality:
- Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
- Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
- Do I confidentially pass on to others what has been said to me in confidence?
- Can I be trusted?
- Am I a slave to dress, friends, work or habits?
- Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?
- Did the Bible live in me today?
- Do I give the Bible time to speak to me every day?
- Am I enjoying prayer?
- When did I last speak to someone else of my faith?
- Do I pray about the money I spend?
- Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?
- Do I disobey God in anything?
- Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
- Am I defeated in any part of my life?
- Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy or distrustful?
- How do I spend my spare time?
- Am I proud?
- Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisees who despised the publican?
- Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I doing about it?
- Do I grumble or complain constantly?
- Is Christ real to me?
There can be little doubt that Wesley’s rigourous and methodical outlook enabled him to excel at religious duties and spiritual disciplines where so many others have failed. But his quest for sincerity also led him to doubt the genuineness of his spirituality. He was heavily influenced by Moravian Christians in his early thirties and concluded that there was something pivotal to their Christian experience that was missing in his own. When he was just shy of thirty-five, he had what has come to be known as his “Aldersgate Experience”, where his heart was “strangely warmed” during a reading of Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans and he experienced a deep assurance of his salvation.
In 1739 Wesley began to establish Methodist societies – small parachurch groupings where Christians who were serious about conversion and holiness could gather and be encouraged, while reaching out to people in their local area. These groups were designed to facilitate Wesley’s goal of reformation and revival within the Anglican Church – but as with previous (i.e. Puritan) attempts at such spiritual renewal within the state church, Methodism began as a grassroots movement inside local parishes across the country, but would end as a completely separate religious entity due to the Church’s unwillingness to change.
Wesley earned the ire of Anglican authorities for his willingness to appoint lay preachers who were not authorized – let alone ordained – by the state church. Wesley himself was an indomitable itinerant preacher, constantly travelling to preach and establish the movement in different parts of the country. Methodist preachers followed suit, travelling in circuits from town to town to preach and provide pastoral care to Christians who belonged to the new societies.
Wesley and other notable, early Methodist figures (see our next 2 Profiles) had a widespread impact on Christianity in England and the American colonies. Despite Methodism never growing to become a large demographic percentage in either country, its vitality and dedication to the gospel were catalysts for positive change in other sections of the Christian community.
Wesley’s rejection of Calvinist soteriology in favour of a modified form of evangelical Arminianism sets him apart from many of the other figures featured in this series. Some Reformed Christians would see certain Wesleyan theological emphases as departures from the theology of the Reformation. But for all the deficiencies in his theology, Wesley did faithfully propagate many of the core doctrines and emphases of evangelical Protestantism and bequeathed that legacy to his followers (though many who claim to follow him have long since departed from them!).
His approach to Christian piety was an earnest and affective response to the lacklustre spirituality of the Anglican church in his day – and yet it carries with it a dangerous over-optimism about sanctification in this life. But Wesley possessed a remarkable passion for spreading the gospel and his thought and ministry have made an enormous impact on Protestantism and evangelicalism ever since.
Millions of Christians – not only in the Methodist Church, but offshoots such as Holiness Churches; the Salvation Army; the Church of Nazarene and many branches of Pentecostalism – continue to be impacted by Wesley’s emphasis on holiness and example of dedicated ministry. Even those who hold deep concerns about his understanding of sovereignty, soteriology and sanctification can find things about him to admire and give thanks for.