xxxxxThe Englishman John Wesley was ordained in 1728. On returning to Oxford as a tutor, he and his brother Charles were members of the Holy Club, a group of so-called "Methodists", dedicated to spiritual growth and good works. On leaving Oxford he spent two years as a missionary in the newly-established colony of Georgia and, soon after his return in 1737, he devoted the remainder of his life to evangelism, taking the gospel to the people. He visited villages, towns and cities across the whole of Britain, preaching at many open-air meetings. His simple message, that a person could be saved by faith alone, attracted thousands of converts, and in 1739 he was obliged to establish a nationwide organisation. The sermons he gave formed the basis of the movement's doctrine. He was influenced, above all, by the example of piety shown by the Moravian Church, which had established itself in Saxony in 1727, and the views of Arminius, a Dutch priest who was opposed to the doctrine of predestination. Methodism remained within the Church of England until 1795, though its message and its methods were rejected by a number of Anglican clergy. The break came when preachers who were not ordained by a bishop were authorised to administer the sacraments. Today the movement is worldwide, and is especially strong in the United States, mostly due to the devoted work of John's associate, the Calvinist preacher George Whitefield.

JOHN WESLEY 1703 - 1791  (AN, G1, G2, G3a, G3b)



John Wesley: by the English portrait painter George Romney (1734-1802), 1789 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Preaching: by the English painter and illustrator William Hatherell (1855-1928), 1909 – John Wesley’s Home and the Museum of Methodism, London. Charles Wesley: 18th century, artist unknown. Whitefield: by the English painter John Russell (1745-1806), 1770. Preaching: by the British artist John Collet (c1725-1780), 18th century – private collection.


xxxxxJohn Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was born in Epworth, Lincolnshire, where his father was the rector. He attended Charterhouse School before going up to Christ Church, Oxford, in 1720. He was ordained in the Church of England in 1728, and the following year returned to Oxford as a fellow of Lincoln College. It was here that, together with his brother Charles and, later, his friend George Whitefield, he was a member and then leader of the Holy Club, a group of religious-minded students dedicated to spiritual growth and giving help to the sick and needy. So well-organised and methodical were they in carrying out their good works, that their fellow students derisively labelled them "Methodists".

xxxxxIn 1735, together with his brother Charles and the evangelist George Whitefield, he travelled as a missionary to Georgia, the colony only recently established by James Oglethorpe in North America. Save for his meeting with some German Moravians, who impressed him with their piety and spiritual peace, the trip was a disaster. His high church views were not well received, and his missionary work among the Indians met with failure. He sailed back to England in December 1737, a disappointed man, but in May the following year, while attending a Moravian service in London, his "heart was strangely warmed" and he experienced what he described as his conversion to evangelism. This "Aldersgate Street Experience", as he later termed it, convinced him that his mission was to preach the simple message that a person could be saved by faith alone. This dictum being opposed by a large number of Anglican clergy, the following year he joined in the work of the evangelist George Whitefield, and Methodism was born. In a very short time he had gained a reputation throughout the country for the passion and fervour he brought to his open-air services.

xxxxxOver the next fifty years he rode across the country on horseback, reaching out to the masses and converting thousands to the Christian faith by his simple, direct message. It is estimated that he travelled some 5,000 miles each year and gave an average of four sermons a day. The sermons he gave on these occasions, together with his notes on the New Testament, formed the basis of the Methodist doctrine. Hisxtheology was greatly influenced by A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, the work of the English cleric William Law (1686-1761), published in 1728; the views of Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), a Dutch Protestant priest who was opposed to the doctrine of predetermination; and the pietistic example shown by the Moravian Church, an evangelical Protestant denomination which had established itself at Herrnhut, Saxony in 1727.

xxxxxThe early success of this spiritual revolution clearly called for the setting up of a nation wide organisation. As early as 1739 the first Methodist society was formed in London, and its eventual meeting place, a building called the Foundry, became the headquarters of the movement for many years. Societies then began to be set up throughout the country. In 1742 these societies were themselves divided into districts and circuits, many led by lay preachers, and two years later the first conference of Methodist leaders was held, and this became an annual event. By this time, however, the movement had begun to form its own specific doctrine. This had led to a split with the Moravians and with George Whitefield, a Calvinist who believed in the doctrine of predestination.

xxxxxBut the Methodist movement remained within the Church of England for some years ahead, despite Wesley's rejection of the apostolic succession. Indeed, it was not until 1784 that the separation became virtually inevitable. It was then that he issued a Deed of Declaration, a legal constitution setting out the guidelines to be followed by the societies, and in the same year he himself ordained his aide, Thomas Coke, for service in the United States. When this was followed by other "ordinations" the break with the Anglican church was just a matter of time. It came in 1795, four years after Wesley's death, when the Methodist Conference authorised their preachers to administer the sacraments even though they had not been ordained by the Church of England. This proved a step too far.


xxxxxThroughout his life as a preacher Wesley showed a deep concern for the advancement and well-being of ordinary people. He was tireless in his support of social reform and, as one would expect, he was strongly opposed to slavery in all its forms. Unlike the Church of England, which had largely lost contact with the people, he took his simple message of inner faith out to the work place, be it in village, town or city. He also wrote on a wide variety of subjects, and translated various works from Hebrew, Greek and Latin, including the editing of The Imitation of Christ, generally thought to be the work of the German theologian Thomas à Kempis. In addition, he compiled over twenty collections of hymns, and provided a candid insight into his own spiritual development in his Journal, compiled from the age of 32.

xxxxxHe died in March 1791, and was buried in the graveyard of City Road Chapel in London. A memorial plaque to him was placed in Westminster Abbey, a clear indication that, by that time, much of the heat had gone out of the hostility once shown to him by high church members of the Church of England. At his death it was estimated that converts to his faith numbered 70,000.

xxxxxMethodism today has some 40 million members worldwide, the largest number being in the United States, where a separate church was founded in 1784. A number of doctrinal disputes caused divisions in the 19th century, but these were reconciled at a conference in London in 1932, when the Wesleyan, Primitive and United Methodists were formed into the Methodist Church. In its early years in particular, the movement provided spiritual comfort for large numbers of working-class people in times of industrial change and economic depression. In the second half of the 20th century a number of attempts were made to unite the Methodist and Anglican Churches and all came close to fruition.

xxxxxCharles Wesley (1707-88), John's younger brother, was also a member of the Holy Club at Oxford and, as one of the leaders, spent his life in the service of the Methodist movement. An eloquent preacher, he worked mostly in London and Bristol. But his fame rests on his outstanding talent as a hymnist. He wrote over 6,000 hymns and many proved highly effective in spreading the gospel. Amongst his best known works were Hark the herald angels sing, Christ the Lord is ris'n today, and Jesu, lover of my soul. Ordained in 1735, he was most anxious that Methodism remained within the Church of England, and disapproved of John's ordination of clergy for work in America. This led to a measure of estrangement between the two brothers, and from the late 1750s he took a lesser part in the leadership of the movement.

xxxxxThe English evangelist George Whitefield (1714-70) was born in Gloucester. He was a student at Oxford in the early 1730s and, with the Wesley brothers, was a member of the Holy Club, the birthplace of Methodism. He accompanied John and Charles to Georgia in 1735, and this was to prove the first of seven visits to North America. He took holy orders in 1738, but was soon barred from Anglican pulpits because of his unorthodox views and his fervent-style of preaching. As a result, he took to open-air preaching, both in the British Isles and in the American colonies, and by his powerful voice and eloquence he attracted large gatherings. Inxthe colonies, he played a major part in the religious revival known as the "Great Awakening", a movement pioneered in New England by the outstanding American theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-58).

xxxxxJohn Wesley joined Whitefield as an itinerant preacher in 1739, and, together, they turned the Methodist movement in the British Isles into something of a spiritual revolution. But the working relationship between the two men was not destined to last. Whitefield was a Calvinist, believing in predestination, whereas Wesley held the views of the Dutch Protestant Jacobus Arminius, a man totally opposed to this doctrine. In about 1741 they parted company, though they remained friends. After this break, Whitefield became recognised as the leader of the Calvinistic Methodists. He died in 1770 whilst on one of his preaching tours in the American colonies. It is said that during his career he preached more than 18,000 sermons.

xxxxxIncidentally, Whitefield was cross-eyed and was referred to as "Dr Squintum" by some of his unkind critics. In 1738, during one of his visits to the American colonies, he founded Bethesda, the first orphanage to be established in North America.


Charles Wesley


George Whitefield

xxxxxAs we have seen, Charles Wesley (1707-88), John's younger brother, was one of the founders of Methodism. Indeed, it was he who, with two other Oxford students, started the Holy Club from which the movement developed. Like his brother he experienced a spiritual awakening, and became an eloquent preacher and theologian, but is best remembered to day as a highly talented hymn writer. Often referred to as the poet of the Methodist movement, he wrote over 6,000 hymns, and many of these were published and proved highly effective in spreading the gospel message. Amongst his best known works were Hark the herald angels sing, Christ the Lord is ris'n today, and Jesu, lover of my soul. The German composer George Frederick Handel, then resident in London, wrote the music for some of his works.

xxxxxCharles accompanied his brother to Georgia in 1735, having taken holy orders in order to work as a missionary. On arrival he acted as secretary to the colonial governor James Oglethorpe, but the climate proved too much for him, and he returned home within a few months. When Methodism began to expand in the 1740s, he took an active part as an itinerant preacher, notably in London and Bristol, but he was most anxious to keep the movement within the Church of England, and strongly disapproved of John's ordination of "clergy" for work in America. This, plus disagreement over family matters, led to some measure of estrangement between the two brothers, and in the late 1750s he began to take a smaller part in the leadership of the movement.

xxxxxIncidentally, his son Samuel was a composer and an accomplished organist. He wrote church and secular music and, like his father, produced a number of hymns.

xxxxxThe English evangelist George Whitefield (1714-70), attended Oxford University and was a member of the Holy Club, the birthplace of Methodism. He accompanied the Wesley brothers to Georgia in 1735, the first of seven journeys to the American colonies. On his return he took holy orders, but was soon banned from the pulpit because of his unorthodox views and fiery sermons. He became a brilliant itinerant preacher, and in 1739 was joined by John Wesley. They took their simple message of inner faith across the British Isles, but in the 1740s their differing views over the doctrine of predestination caused a split, and Whitefield became the leader of the Calvinistic Methodists. In addition to preaching at home, he spent a great deal of time on tour in the American colonies. Together with the American clergyman Jonathan Edwards, he played a major part in the religious revival known as the "Great Awakening".