On this date in 1791 (March 2), we lost a great man of God and God likely gained another angel, as this was the day John Wesley left the earth to go serve God in another capacity. You might be asking yourself, who was John Wesley?
John Wesley is not well known to most American’s but was a great servant to, or dare I say angel of, God. John Wesley was an English cleric, theologian, author, and evangelist, who was a leader of a revival movement within the Church of England known as Methodism. However, American’s keen on knowing the history of our country, should remember the Church of England. The very church that led many of our founding fathers, to come to the America’s and establish our great country. A move, not too dissimilar to those who followed Wesley’s teachings, would do; move away from the Church of England to establish a more truly Christ-like and principled movement; Methodism or the Methodist Church.
I have to admit I don’t know much about Wesley, other than what I have learned from a good friend in the UK. So, I have borrowed bits and pieces of this tribute from other publications such as Christianity today and the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Christianity today starts their biography of John Wesley with this compelling event from his early life as a pastor: In late 1735, a ship made its way to the New World from England. On board was a young Anglican minister, John Wesley, who had been invited to serve as a pastor to British colonists in Savannah, Georgia. When the weather went sour, the ship found itself in serious trouble. Wesley, also chaplain of the vessel, feared for his life.
But he noticed that the group of German Moravians, who were on their way to preach to American Indians, were not afraid at all. In fact, throughout the storm, they sang calmly. When the trip ended, he asked the Moravian leader about his serenity, and the Moravian responded with a question: Did he, Wesley, have faith in Christ? Wesley said he did, but later reflected, "I fear they were vain words."
In fact, Wesley was confused by the experience, but his perplexity was to lead to a period of soul searching and finally to one of the most famous and consequential conversions in church history.
When we look into Wesley’s upbringing, we find a solid foundation of Christian theology. Yet we see, that Wesley was often challenged with the emotional paths that face all of us as we traverse a life in this fallen world.
Wesley was born into a strong Anglican home: his father, Samuel, was a priest, and his mother, Susanna, taught religion and morals faithfully to her 19 children.
Wesley attended Oxford, proved to be a fine scholar, and was soon ordained into the Anglican ministry. At Oxford, he joined a society (founded by his brother Charles) whose members took vows to lead holy lives, take Communion once a week, pray daily, and visit prisons regularly. In addition, they spent three hours every afternoon studying the Bible and other devotional material.
From this "holy club" (as fellow students mockingly called it), Wesley sailed to Georgia to pastor. His experience proved to be a failure. A woman he courted in Savannah married another man. When he tried to enforce the disciplines of the "holy club" on his church, the congregation rebelled. A bitter Wesley returned to England.
After speaking with another Moravian, Peter Boehler, Wesley concluded that he lacked saving faith. Though he continued to try to be good, he remained frustrated. "I was indeed fighting continually, but not conquering. … I fell and rose, and fell again."
On May 24, 1738, he had an experience that changed everything. He described the event in his journal:
"In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."
From this point onward, at the age of 35, Wesley viewed his mission in life as one of proclaiming the good news of salvation by faith, which he did whenever a pulpit was offered him. The congregations of the Church of England, however, soon closed their doors to him because of his enthusiasm. He then went to religious societies, trying to inject new spiritual vigour into them, particularly by introducing “bands” similar to those of the Moravians—i.e., small groups within each society that were confined to members of the same sex and marital status who were prepared to share intimate details of their lives with each other and to receive mutual rebukes. For such groups Wesley drew up Rules of the Band Societies in December 1738.
For a year he worked through existing church societies, but resistance to his methods increased. In 1739 George Whitefield, who later became an important preacher of the Great Awakening in Great Britain and North America, persuaded Wesley to go to the unchurched masses. Wesley gathered converts into societies for continuing fellowship and spiritual growth, and he was asked by a London group to become their leader. Soon other such groups were formed in London, Bristol, and elsewhere. To avoid the scandal of unworthy members, Wesley published, in 1743, Rules for the Methodist societies. To promote new societies, he became a widely travelled itinerant preacher. Because most ordained clergymen did not favour his approach, Wesley was compelled to seek the services of dedicated laymen, who also became itinerant preachers and helped administer the Methodist societies.
Many of Wesley’s preachers had gone to the American colonies, but after the American Revolution most returned to England. Because the bishop of London would not ordain some of his preachers to serve in the United States, Wesley controversially took it upon himself, in 1784, to do so. In the same year he pointed out that his societies operated independently of any control by the Church of England.
From "Methodists" to Methodism
Wesley did not intend to found a new denomination, but historical circumstances and his organizational genius conspired against his desire to remain in the Church of England.
Wesley's followers first met in private home "societies." When these societies became too large for members to care for one another, Wesley organized "classes," each with 11 members and a leader. Classes met weekly to pray, read the Bible, discuss their spiritual lives, and to collect money for charity. Men and women met separately, but anyone could become a class leader.
The moral and spiritual fervor of the meetings is expressed in one of Wesley's most famous aphorisms: "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can."
The movement grew rapidly, as did its critics, who called Wesley and his followers "Methodists," a label they wore proudly. It got worse than name calling at times: Methodists were frequently met with violence as paid ruffians broke up meetings and threatened Wesley's life.
Though Wesley scheduled his itinerant preaching so it wouldn't disrupt local Anglican services, the bishop of Bristol still objected. Wesley responded, "The world is my parish"—a phrase that later became a slogan of Methodist missionaries. Wesley, in fact, never slowed down, and during his ministry he traveled over 4,000 miles annually, preaching some 40,000 sermons in his lifetime.
A few Anglican priests, such as his hymn-writing brother Charles, joined these Methodists, but the bulk of the preaching burden rested on John. He was eventually forced to employ lay preachers, who were not allowed to serve Communion but merely served to complement the ordained ministry of the Church of England.
Wesley then organized his followers into a "connection," and a number of societies into a "circuit" under the leadership of a "superintendent." Periodic meetings of Methodist clergy and lay preachers eventually evolved into the "annual conference," where those who were to serve each circuit were appointed, usually for three-year terms.
In 1787, Wesley was required to register his lay preachers as non-Anglicans. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the American Revolution isolated Yankee Methodists from their Anglican connections. To support the American movement, Wesley independently ordained two lay preachers and appointed Thomas Coke as superintendent. With these and other actions, Methodism gradually moved out of the Church of England—though Wesley himself remained an Anglican until his death.
Toward the end of his life, Wesley became an honoured figure in the British Isles. An indication of his organizational genius, we know exactly how many followers Wesley had when he died: 294 preachers, 71,668 British members, 19 missionaries (5 in mission stations), and 43,265 American members with 198 preachers. Today Methodists number about 30 million worldwide.
As you can see, John Wesley was a true man of God doing his very best to serve Him. Often times against mainstream principles, Wesley believed the message of Christ and God was far more important than any perceived Church of England “rules.” Contrary to the wishes of this Church, he and His followers brought many to God, in their ministries. As indicated by the nearly 44 thousand early American and nearly 200 preachers in America, as our country was being founded, it is quite likely that John Wesley’s influence did in fact impact you American Christians.
So, America, you may not know of, or recall John Wesley, but you have likely been impacted by his theology, his evangelical teachings, and his Godly approach. Through his perseverance to follow God, no matter what challenges the world threw in his path, he taught us to keep our focus on God. So, thank God for John Wesley, on this anniversary of his passing, and pray to God that He continues to stand up great men like The Reverend John Wesley.