Saints Among Us: The Story of John Wesley

Updated on December 4, 2017
Anna Watson profile image

Anna is a pastor, writer, and theologian who obtained her BA in religion in '06, Diploma of Ministry in '16, and Diploma of Divinity in '17.


“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” (Hebrews 12:1)

A Family Legacy

On 20 January, 1669 Susanna Wesley was born to a Dissenting minister and his wife. She grew into a very intelligent and godly woman and married the Reverend Samuel Wesley, himself the son of a minister. Together they had nineteen children, though, as was common at the time, only ten lived to adulthood. She raised her children with a strong Christian conscience and saw to it that they were well -versed in the Bible, the Apostle’s Creed, and all things spiritual. Susanna and Samuel’s godly influence followed the children as they grew and had a profound impact on her fifteenth son, John.

John Wesley was born in London on 17 June, 1703 steeped in the faith of his Anglican background. He was a man of great intelligence and possessed a deep knowledge of the Bible and standards of holiness. In 1720, Wesley was admitted to Christ Church, Oxford University as a “commoner.” There he excelled and upon completion of his BA he took Holy Orders and became a deacon in Christ Church Cathedral, following the footsteps of his father and both grandfathers. 25 March, 1726, he was elected a fellowship to Oxford’s Lincoln College, a very exclusive school at the time, where he would earn his Masters of Arts. An avid reader, he spent much of his time in the library studying religion and theology.

Wesley was a man of uncommon intelligence, logic, and reason, he channeled that in his quest to achieve spiritual perfection. While at Lincoln, Wesley enjoyed an active social life, and it was here he founded a weekly organization with his friends they called their “Holy Club." Among the later members was a man named George Whitefield. The club discussed theology, self-examination, and scripture. They preached to prisoners at Castle Prison and ministered to the sick, elderly, and poor. As ritual, the group fasted until 3 pm three times a week, and received communion. The club grew until there was eventually at least one member from all of Oxford's colleges. Wesley utilized his methodical reasoning and organizational skills to make the club an enormous success. Because the members carried this order into all aspects of their daily lives, they began to be derisively called “Methodists.”

By this time, two of his brothers, Samuel and Charles, had joined him at Oxford. At first, Charles was too wrapped up in college life to think too deeply on matters of the spirit. Eventually, however, he awoke from what he called his “lethargy” and joined John’s Holy Club. Meanwhile, Samuel worried that John was too serious, too focused on religion and attaining Christian perfection. The club member's parents began to worry that John was indoctrinating their children into this strange new sect. The unfortunate death of member William Morgan was blamed on the group, and opposition strengthened into a full -blown mob in March of 1733. Yet despite the backlash and negativity, John Wesley maintained his pursuit of attaining spiritual perfection.

Passion and prejudice govern the world; only under the name of reason. It is our part, by religion and reason joined, to counteract them all we can.

— John Wesley

The New Frontier

Meanwhile, in the New World, the colony of Georgia was a hub for persecuted European Protestants, the poor, and an exile for those who couldn’t pay off their debts. John felt called to preach in the new colony to the destitute, the prisoners, and the natives, so he and Charles set sail for Savannah in 1735. On board the ship, John served as the chaplain and made acquaintance with some German Moravians who were traveling to the Americas to serve as missionaries to the Native Americans. En route to the colonies, a powerful storm attacked the ship and threatened the lives of all on board. Wesley was terrified, but noticed that the Moravians calmly sang hymns until the storm subsided. He asked the Moravian pastor, Augustus Spangenberg, how they remained so peaceful throughout the tempest. The pastor asked Wesley outright “Do you know Jesus Christ?” Wesley answered that he did, but even to his own ears the answer sounded empty.

6 February 1736, the ship landed safely on Cockspur Island, at the mouth of the Savannah River. John Wesley led the group in a prayer of thanksgiving for their safe arrival. A monument now marks the spot where they landed. Along with his brother Charles, two other members of the Holy Club, Benjamin Ingham and Charles Delamotte, accompanied him to the New World. Within a month, they had built a hut which served as his church. John Wesley was the missionary to Savannah, and his brother Charles was the secretary for the office of Indian Affairs. The crew was off to an auspicious start.

Unfortunately, things quickly began to turn south. Charles didn’t take well to his job and left after only six months in Georgia. As for John, his personality and style didn’t mesh well with the natives or the colonists. He had a very rigid approach and strict manner, for which the Georgians had little use. He fell in love with a young woman who ultimately married another man. He made a powerful enemy in the corrupt Thomas Causton, a local politician, who had dragged him in and out of court on various charges. Through it all, Wesley continued to preach the good news of the gospel to colonists unwilling to hear the truth. The beginning of the end soon came for Wesley, however, when he was accused of practicing Catholicism, a great offense at that time. Once more, Wesley had to stand before the magistrate and defend himself. Shortly after, a defeated and broken Wesley sailed back to England in December 1737. Neither he nor his brother would ever again set foot on Georgia’s red soil.

Wesley had gone to the New World to convert all the natives and minister to the colonists. His ambition was to convince everybody he saw of the Word of God. A man of great intellect, he had always tried to earn the approval of the Almighty God through hard work, diligence, and piety. All of his fervor and zeal throughout his life was toward that goal. He had tried to reason his way to salvation. Through righteousness and a strict, methodical, approach to a godly life he had hoped to earn the saving Grace of God. Given that mentality, his failure in Georgia was a huge blow to Wesley. On the return trip to England Wesley wrote in his journal: “I went to America to convert the Indians! But, oh! Who shall convert me?” All the good he did, all of his charity and never ending quest for spiritual perfection, only served to leave him empty and frustrated.

Beware you not be swallowed up in books! An ounce of love is worth a pound of knowledge.

— John Wesley

At Peace at Last

Back in England, Wesley’s personal struggle continued. He confided to a friend his feelings of emptiness who advised him to keep preaching faith, and through the preaching, it would come to him. Wesley took the advice and remained steadfast in his commitment to preaching the good news of God’s word. He converted many people, while he himself remained unconverted. One night, while studying scripture, he came across the passage “Through these He has given us His very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” (2 Peter 1:4) that same night he attended a meeting in Aldersgate Street and heard a speaker discuss the conversion of Martin Luther. In his words: “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 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 his journal 24 May 1738)

The methodical, rational, and principled John Wesley, had finally found Jesus. This awakened in him a new zeal. He joined his friend, the reverend George Whitefield, and together they traveled around England, setting on fire the souls who heard them. Wesley never intended to break away from the Church of England, but it was inevitable that it would happen. His movement had simply grown too large. Sometime later Whitefield traveled to America where he preached the new Methodist movement. Though years later the two men eventually split, Whitefield was crucial in bringing Methodism to the American colonies. Today they comprise the second largest denomination in the United States.

The best thing of all is God is with us

— John Wesley, his last words

The Methodist Movement

Wesley continued to preach throughout Europe, spreading the gospel far and wide and recruiting other itinerate preachers. In a time before cars and airplanes he personally managed to travel 4,000 miles a year. He drew large crowds, sometimes as many as 20,000 people would attend his meetings. And with great popularity came opposition. As with the Holy Club at Oxford, his new Methodist movement was sometimes met with angry mobs and violence. This did nothing to deter Wesley, however, and he employed more lay ministers to help spread the word. His analytical mind organized regular meetings which eventually turned into an annual conference of clergy and lay ministers.

Across the world, trouble began to brew in the New World. The colonists began to rebel against England and demand their independence. The Revolutionary War cut off the Church of England from the United States, this separated the stateside Methodists from their Anglican roots and eventually helped sever the ties between the two churches completely. Cultural differences helped further the divide. Wesley believed that preachers should travel to spread God’s Holy Word. In England that was a nice idea. In the newly independent United States that became a necessity. The itinerate preachers became circuit riders known for their flexibility, courage, and hard work. They sacrificed comfort and convenience to travel the country in all weather and under all conditions. It used to be said during particularly bad weather that “there’s no one out but mad dogs and Methodist ministers.” Such was their dedication and diligence.

As Methodism flourished in the States, Wesley, along with his hymn-writing brother Charles, continued to spread the gospel through England and Ireland. During his life, Wesley preached over 40,000 sermons. He fought for social issues such as prison reform, universal education, abolition, rights for the poor, and as a vegetarian, he even argued for animal rights at a time when such a thought was unheard of. Though Wesley technically remained an Anglican until his death, in 1791, his movement continued to thrive. His vast intelligence and organizational skills ensured that Methodism would not die with him. Thanks to his meticulousness, we know that when he died at 87, he had left behind a following of 71,668 British and 43,265 American members. Today there are more than 30 million members around the world. He lies entombed at Wesley’s chapel in London.

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    © 2017 Anna Watson

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