John Wesley was born in June 1703 to deeply spiritual parents. Samuel and Susanna Wesley both came from families that had firm Puritan leanings though both of them would later be reconciled to the church of England. Samuel had been ordained as a minister of the Church of England in February 1689 by the Bishop of London. The year that his son John was born he was rector of St. Andrew’s church in Epworth.
Both Samuel and Susanna were strong willed, strongly opinionated people of firm principle. They had 19 children many of whom didn’t survive into adulthood. John’s brother Charles was born in 1707. The Wesley household was marked by strict spiritual discipline. Susanna taught her children to cry softly, recite the Lord’s prayer as soon as they were able to speak, to obey without question and to ask for permission before they did anything. They were not allowed to shout, eat between meals or exhibit bad manners. In addition to this each child had an individual weekly appointment with their mother that was reserved for spiritual instruction. During his time at Oxford John Wesley wrote to his mother expressing his appreciation for these interviews and also his desire to resume them even though he was away from home.
John was awarded a scholarship to attend Oxford University and he was admitted to Christ Church College in 1720 and Charles later attended in 1726. John Wesley graduated with a BA in 1724 and was ordained to the ministry in 1725 in Christ’s Church Cathedral. Then in 1726 he appointed a fellow of Lincoln College much to the delight of his father. He was given a stipend and a room at the College and he lectured on Greek, Logic and Philosophy. John worked tireless while he was at Lincoln College, taking his position seriously and putting in long hours each day, six days a week.
His father Samuel was constantly in debt, being a man who was quite bad at managing his finances. John returned to Epworth on an extended leave of absence from Lincoln college to assist his father in overseeing his parish in Epworth so that Samuel take on a second parish in nearby Wroot to supplement the family income. While he was away in Epworth his brother Charles founded what came to be known as the Holy Club. The group grew out of Charles’s desire to be surrounded by a group of likeminded friends to help support him spiritually while John was away. He invited two of his fellow students, Robert Kirkham and William Morgan to join him in his room once a week for fellowship, bible study and prayer.
When John returned to Oxford in 1729 he took over the leadership of the group by mutual agreement between himself and Charles. The club was committed to pursuing personal spirituality through prayer, Bible study and practical application of the word of God in their daily lives. Their ministry then extended to reaching out to minister to those outside their circle and they began to make regular prison visits to share the gospel with the inmates there. They then expanded their work to the poor houses where they set up a fun to purchase medication and pay off debts in addition to preaching and teaching the word of God. In 1730 some of their fellow students at began to jokingly dub their group the Holy Club snidely referring to the members as Bible Moths or Bible Bigots. These nicknames grew in number and variety until finally in 1732 they were christened Methodists and the new name stuck.
It was around this time, around 1731 that John Wesley crossed paths with George Whitfield who would later become instrumental in the growth of the Methodist church. George Whitfield graduated from Pembroke college and immediately after began preaching, soon becoming an itinerant preacher and evangelist. He preached all over England and spent a considerable amount of time in Bristol where he worked for sometime with John Wesley.
Both the Wesleys and Whitfield spent time in America in the colony of Georgia producing different outcomes from their efforts. For John Wesley, England was where his heart and the central focus of his ministry was but for George Whitfield, America became a fertile mission field which he frequented over a period of many years.
The beginning of the Methodist movement were humble. A group of likeminded young people gathered together in a small dorm room on a university campus where they were heckled for their faith. They persevered though and the result of their perseverance was a mighty movement that brought much needed revival to England.
England in the 18th century was teeming with immorality, vice and declension on every hand. Religion had become a joke and the mob had taken on the flavour of ancient Rome. One historian described the mob as a “persistent, violent element” of Georgian England. And the historian J.H. Plumb wrote “in every class there is the same taut neurotic quality; the fantastic gambling and drinking, the riot, the brutality and violence and always a constant fear of death”. England had hit a kind of spiritual rock bottom that the most valiant efforts of the Anglican Church couldn’t resuscitate.
It was into this melting pot of immorality, crime and decay that the work of Whitfield and the Wesleys found its way. It revived and strengthened the colours of a dying social fabric, giving it new life and vibrance. Interestingly it was embraced most ardently among the poorer classes. It was this class that suffered the most in Georgian England and it was to this class that the truths of the gospel meant the most. J.H. Plumb again notes that “Methodism (became) not a religion of the poor but for the poor”. It was a force to be reckoned with that left an indelible mark not just on 18th century England but also on the world in years to come.
Whitfield, who was instrumental in the spread of the movement, made the greatest impact in America. He was an itinerant preach and left a deep impression on the hearts and minds of those who heard him preach. It is said that he preached over 18,000 sermons in his life and in 1770, at the age of 55 with declining health he was still preaching. To put things into perspective it’s important to understand that the average life expectancy in England was around 36. Whitfield died whilst on a trip to Massachusetts in America and was buried in the crypt of the Old South Presbyterian Church in Newburyport, Massachusetts.
The Wesley’s on the other hand spent their time ministering in England. John Wesley spent a vast amount of his time travelling the length and breadth of the country to fulfill preaching engagements. Once while he was travelling it began to rain heavily and the roads, being in such bad condition, began to flood. The situation was so bad that he was forced to ride in the fields on either side of the road. Another time his horse became so tired that he had to get off it and walk till he reached the nearest town. When he resumed his journey the next day the hapless creature fell into a ditch and it took six men to hoist it out. Under such conditions John Wesley is said to have travelled an estimated 240,000 miles.
Whenever he rode in a carriage it is said that he spent the journey reading or writing so as to make the best use of his time. Once while riding in a carriage to a speaking engagement the tide began to inundate the road he was travelling along. Undaunted Wesley urged his coachman to keep going and at one point during the crossing the horse was up to its neck in water and the coachman was hanging on for dear life fully expecting the entire carriage to get swept away at any moment. When they reached their destination safely the first thing that Wesley did was to make sure that the coachman was warm, dry and well fed. He then proceeded to the meeting house to deliver his sermon, drenched to the bone in salt water and completely oblivious of the fact. He was 83 years old.
Another story that is told of his brother Charles is of a visit he made to Sheffield in 1743. Here he wrote that he found the methodists as sheep among wolves. A mob had gathered in May that year, organised by the local clergy, to tear down a methodist meeting house. The mob targeted the house that Charles Wesley was staying at and began to throw stones at it. Wesley came out to address the crowd only to be hit square in the face by a rock. While he was tending to the gash in his head an army officer who was part of the mob pulled out his sword and charged headlong at Wesley with the intention of killing him. Seeing him approach Charles Wesley stood his ground firmly and looking the man directly in the eye as he barreled towards him said “I fear God and the King”. Charles’s demeanor and words deflated the man to such an extent that he stopped in his tracks, sheathed his sword and slunk off shamefaced.
They were men of deep personal piety, strong in prayer and mighty in the word of God. John Wesley died in 1791 in his eighty-eighth year. His last words were “The best of all is, God with us”. Both he and his brother were used by God to bring a wave of spiritual revival through England that was not only much needed but also prepared the way for greater movements of revival that would follow.