John Wesley was a common man with an uncommon dedication to God. He was not tall in stature, but he spiritually towered over the other men of God in his day. Throughout his life, his humility, dedication, and insatiable desire for the truth helped to change the course of church history in England and around the world.
Wesley's father was a rector for the Church of England and his mother was a woman no common to the times. She openly disagreed with her husband concerning her loyalties to the Crown. She was fiercely loyal to the exiled King James II, while Mr. Wesley demanded loyalty to King William. Due to this difference, Mr. Wesley refused to share the same bed with his wife until she capitulated. She would not. John Wesley had not been born yet and the future looked bleak. However, the following year King William died, thereby bringing unity of loyalty back into the household. Shortly thereafter, on June 17, 1703, John Wesley was born.
The Wesleys were a very poor family. Being a rector provided a guaranteed income, but not one that would comfortably provide for his rather large family. As John grew, he was taught the Scriptures primarily by his mother. He was required to read and write Scripture every day as part of his education. His father encouraged him to go into the ministry. John had studied hard and knew the Scriptures. He was a good speaker and seemed destined for the church, but he did not want to go into the ministry unless he felt the calling of the Lord. However, after seeing few other opportunities available to him, he decided to seek "Holy Orders' in 1724, partly to ensure himself a livelihood and partly ta lead a "more strict life."
As a student at Oxford, he read "The Christian Pattern" which revealed to him that true religion was seated in the heart, and God's law extended to all our thoughts as well as words and actions. As comforting as these words were to Wesley, he still didn't feel the assurance that Jesus was always present in his heart. Thus he determined to make himself worthy of Jesus.
John was ordained on September 19, 1725, and began his ministry as the Fellow of Lincoln on March 17, 1726. He quickly became known in the region for his oratory ability and devotion to the Bible. He disciplined himself to rise early in the morning for prayer and devotions. Every hour on the hour he would take a moment to lift a prayer into the heavenlies. He began to preach this methodology of devotion unto God. This began to offend his friends and fellow clergy and they began to ridicule him.
In 1730, Wesley began to go to the prisons and preach to the thieves and ruffians. They were enthusiastic and listened to his messages with great interest. No clergyman had ever come to the prison before to preach to the prisoners. Wesley began to disciple many of them, encouraging them that "every hour of the day had it's proper use, whether for study, devotions, exercise, or charity." He was teaching then that method and order should be a way of life. However, his friends at Oxford did not agree with his discipline. They felt it ridiculous to visit prisoners and the poor because of their doctrine of predestination. However, Wesley was beginning to have doubts about that very doctrine.
By 1732, the term "Methodist" was being used to describe Wesley's form of ministry. He felt mocked by this term, because he had no intention of dividing himself from the Church of England. However, in 1736 his life would be profoundly impacted and changed forever.
Colonel Oglethorpe, a close friend of Wesley, had been to America and was concerned about the new colonies, specifically the southern colonies of Georgia and South Carolina. When Oglethorpe asked Wesley if he would like to go to America as a missionary to the Indians, Wesley quickly agreed. Wesley's primary purpose in going was the hope of saving his own soul by learning the true sense of the gospel by preaching it to the Indians. He believed that his ultimate salvation depended upon good works as opposed to faith. On the boat going to Georgia he met a group of Germans that would change his life and theology forever. They were Moravian missionaries sent from the estate of Count Zinzendorf.
During the trip, Wesley began to notice the Moravians, and in particular their sense of peace, regardless of the circumstances. They suffered without complaint through the rough seas, cramped conditions and bad food. In contrast, the Moravian noticed Wesley's strict regimen and routine and thought it was for the purpose gaining merit with God. Through a series of discussions, the Moravians offered Wesley the great Reformation doctrine of Justification by Faith. Wesley thought it foolish at the time, but the seed was planted in his heart.
On February 7, 1738, after his return to England from America, Wesley met Peter Bohler, who was on his way to South Carolina as a Moravian missionary. After many days and numerous debates with Wesley, Bohler convinced Wesley of the doctrine of Justification by Faith. Though he was convinced of the doctrine, he was concerned whether he should preach it, because he felt he had so little faith himself. Bohler encouraged him to preach faith, saying, "Preach faith until you have it. And then, because you have it, you will preach faith." This was difticult for Wesley to do, because it required faith to preach something he wasn't sure he had, though he knew scripturally it was correct. This began to break dawn his rigid traditions.
The following year, he began to preach against the doctrine of predestination. At one point, in the city of Newgate, while preaching to a crowd of prisoners, he declared that if he was speaking the truth of Justification by Faith that God would manifest Himself through signs and wonders. Immediately, the power of God fell on all who were there. Due to Wesley's new doctrine, he was being shunned by the churches in the area. At this point in his ministry people were coming out to see him in large numbers. After he was free from preaching in the church, God moved him out into the countryside where the number of people he could preach to increased dramatically.
In 1742 Wesley published his doctrine of Christian Perfection, which provoked much debate over the next couple of centuries, but he had recovered a part of the Christian experience in victorious living which would influence churches all over the world. Wesley's teachings and preaching continued to attract more people. However, it also continued to upset the leaders in the Church of England. Wesley therefore came under great persecution wherever he went.
During the 1750s through the 1760s, Wesley continued to build his "societies" of followers and developed schools and orphanages. His preaching and teaching took him throughout Britain, and his writings and publications were being read around the world by all social classes. This was unique, because few of the "lower class" people could understand the writings of the day, but Wesley wrote in such a way that the common man could understand what was being said. This brought an understanding of God's word to the common man, which ignited revival fires throughout the land.
Ar this time, the Enlightenment Movement was beginning, so Wesley combined his writings with abridged versions of Christian classics to form the "Christian Library." Some of his abridged writings were inaccurate and slanted toward his doctrines. This caused him trouble later.
In 1784, he made a decision which would change his legacy in the church forever. Thomas Coke, a disciple under Wesley, was headed far America to oversee the "societies" there. Wesley ordained Coke and gave him a certificate as general superintendent of the Methodists in America, effectively beginning the Methodist denomination in America and formally splitting from the Church of England. In this one move, Wesley took upon himself the authority to ordain and release leaders, previously only allowed by the Church, and formed a denomination that would sweep the American colonies.
Wesley's life is a testament of single minded pursuit for biblical truth, uncompromising faith, and dedication to spiritual discipline. Though persecuted most of his ministerial life, he would not waiver or compromise his beliefs. Wesley's books, sermons, letters, and personal example combined faith, holy living, and Christian knowledge in a new way, thus giving new life to theology and practice in Britain and around the world.
Copyright: 1996 by Morningstar Publications and Ministries. All rights reserved.
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