At the Roots of Methodism: Wesley ranks among top Britons
1/16/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.
This is a regular feature on Methodist history prepared especially for
distribution by United Methodist News Service. An artist's rendering of
John Wesley is available at http://umns.umc.org/photos/headshots.html.
A UMNS Feature By John Singleton*Plans
to mark the 300th anniversary of the birth of John Wesley, the founder
of the Methodist movement, have received a boost on the Anglo-Methodist
side of the Atlantic. Late last year, a major BBC poll to find the
"Greatest Britons" of all time saw Wesley come in at No. 50 in the top
In the run-up to the start of a significant year for
Methodism, this indicated that Wesley's reputation as a great religious
leader might actually enjoy much wider recognition than many of us had
assumed. And, hopefully, by the end of 2003 - in Britain, America and
all countries with a Methodist presence - Wesley's name will enjoy even
Born at Epworth, Lincolnshire, on June 17,
1703, Wesley was the 15th child of Susannah and the Rev. Samuel Wesley,
a clergyman of the Church of England like his father and grandfather
before him. Susannah was the daughter of Samuel Annesley, an expelled
Puritan often styled "the St. Paul of Nonconformity."
It was in
1709 that, as an infant, John was saved from a fire that destroyed the
Epworth Rectory. The dramatic rescue convinced his mother that God must
have special work cut out for him. She described her son, biblically, as
"a brand plucked from the burning."
During early boyhood, he
was educated at home by his remarkable and intellectually gifted mother
who, by all accounts, was also something of a disciplinarian. And
although he was brought up during some lean times - his father once even
being imprisoned for debt - the young John is said to have lived within
a happy family atmosphere.
At age 10, he left Lincolnshire to
become a "sponsored" boarder at Charterhouse School in London, later
leaving at age 17 for Oxford, where he spent six years as a student at
university. Following in the footsteps of his father, he decided to
become an Anglican priest and was ordained in 1728.
Oxford, he and his brother, Charles, became involved in what was
sneeringly known by some fellow students as the "Holy Club," the "Bible
Moths" or â€¦ the "Methodists." This was a small group of like-minded
students who regularly met to study the Bible and pray. They also showed
a practical concern for the poor and were involved in visiting
prisoners and distributing relief to destitute families.
1735, John and Charles sailed to Georgia in America, where John served
as a parish priest in Savannah and was keen to be a missionary to the
Indians. But coupled with a disastrous romance (the first of at least
three during his lifetime), the enterprise did not seem to work out, and
he returned to England in 1738. Years later, he was to have a profound
influence upon the spread of Methodism to America.
from his American visit that did have far-reaching consequences was his
contact with the religious group known as the Moravians. This began
during his outward voyage on the "Simmonds" when, during a ferocious
storm, Wesley was enormously impressed by the courage and steadfast
faith of these German families while everyone around them was fearing
for their lives.
After returning to London, he attended various
Moravian meetings, and during one of these, on May 24, 1738, he had a
conversion experience. "I felt my heart strangely warmed," he wrote. "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." He was then 35 years old. The experience
had such an effect on him that he devoted the rest of his long life to
bringing the same message of salvation to others.
In so doing,
he took the plunge and - accepting George Whitefield's invitation to
speak to the miners of Kingswood, Bristol, in the open air - he did the
unthinkable in the eyes of the established church and became a "field
preacher." During his lifetime, Wesley traveled an estimated 250,000
miles throughout Britain and Ireland (mainly on horseback), preaching
the good news of Jesus wherever people would gather to listen (often at 5
When invited to do so, he also preached in local parish
churches. On one memorable occasion, this was denied to him at Epworth,
his home church, so he waited until the service had finished and then
preached from his father's tomb in the churchyard. On a nine-week tour
of Ireland in his 86th year, he preached 100 sermons in 60 towns and
Bristol, where he built the historic New Room Chapel,
became Wesley's headquarters in the west of England and one of three
bases from which he set out on his many journeys, the others being
Newcastle and London.
In 1739, he purchased the shell of the old
royal canon foundry in north London and had it refurbished as a chapel
and as his London headquarters. It was called the Foundry and was
replaced in 1778 by a new chapel in nearby City Road, with a house for
Wesley and his preachers adjoining. Methodist pilgrims from all over the
world now visit Wesley's Chapel and house on that site, where John
Wesley and other pioneering Methodists are buried.
became something of a nerve center for the social conscience of the
early Methodist movement, which included London's first free clinic and
dispensary, opened in 1745. Other initiatives were a well-staffed school
for children of poor families and the building of an almshouse for
At the Foundry in 1740, almost by accident,
Thomas Maxfield became the first Methodist lay preacher, having taken it
upon himself to preach while Wesley was away in Bristol. Although at
first angry, Wesley later had to admit that it was of God's doing - an
endorsement that led to lay people (including women) taking
responsibility and playing a powerful role in the rapid spread of the
Wesley always believed that it was not necessary to
leave the Church of England. Instead, he saw himself as a catalyst for
reform within the established church. He remained an Anglican priest
until his death in 1791, and as late as 1787 wrote: "I still think that
when the Methodists leave the church, God will leave them."
Nevertheless, in 1784, relations with the Church of England must have
been more than a little strained when he ordained three of his preachers
to provide ministers to serve the American Methodists.
Britain, the burgeoning Methodist network, with its thousands of
believers and their local meetinghouses, provoked much opposition during
the early years from both church and state. This antagonism reached a
peak during the 1740s, and as accounts in his journals make clear,
Wesley himself had to endure a great deal of violence, particularly in
his determination to stand alongside local Methodists who were being
hounded and persecuted for their faith.
So it is no wonder that
many people feel John Wesley deserves to rank as one of the "Greatest
Britons." The picture of him that emerges from a reading of his journals
is a fascinating one, and this is a good year to remind ourselves of
what he achieved.
# # #
*Singleton, a writer with the
weekly Methodist Recorder in London, is administrator for the Methodist
churches and social projects in the Tower Hamlets area of East London.
He can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.
Back : News Archives 2003 Main
“We believe in God and in each other.”The people of The United Methodist Church
Still Have Questions?
If you have any questions Ask
Purchase a $20 buzzkill t-shirt and help save a life
Buy a t-shirt