IN 1739 A THIN, FIVE FOOT TWO, thirty-six year old Anglican priest mounted a small eminence in a brickyard just outside the city of Bristol, England. At a time when less than 1% of English men had a college degree, he was an Oxford graduate, and he had been trained to do all things with “decency and order.” “Decency” did not include field preaching. But, three things motivated him to break with convention: God had been blessing the field preaching of his friend, George Whitefield; second, most churches had shut their doors to him; and third, he was consumed with a desire to reach the lost.
It was early April. The weather was cold and rainy. The sermon was most likely long and hard to follow, but three thousand listened and many were converted. “As soon as he got up to the stand,” wrote one listener later, “he stroked back his hair and turned his face towards where I stood, and I thought he fixed his eyes on me. When he spoke, I thought his whole message was aimed at me. When he finished I said,’ This man can tell the secrets of my heart.’”[i] It is unlikely that any of his listeners had ever seen a man with a college degree.
And so began the long, fruitful, amazingly productive ministry of John Wesley (1703-91). Whereas George Whitefield was the great preacher of the Great Awakening; and Edwards was its theologian; Wesley was its organizer.
From his earliest days Wesley had made up his mind to never be what he called, “half a Christian.” He achieved that goal. During the next fifty-two years he rode over 250,000 miles by horseback (averaging 4 hours per day, seven days per week, in the saddle). He preached an average of two sermons per day, answered immense correspondence, wrote a complete commentary on the Bible, edited and published a Christian Library in fifty volumes, read omnivorously, wrote book reviews on all kinds of subjects, trained hundreds of men for the ministry, and gave pastoral oversight to an exploding Para-church organization which would later become the Methodist denomination.
We know a lot about Wesley because he kept a daily journal. Of him J.C. Ryle writes:
“Those only who read the Journals he kept for fifty years can have any idea of the immense amount of work that he got through. Never perhaps did any man have so many irons in the fire at one time, and yet succeed in keeping so many hot…He wrote as if he had nothing to do but write, preached as if he had nothing to do but preach, and administered as if he had nothing to do but administer.”[ii]
Of himself, Wesley wrote: “Though I am always in haste, I am never in a hurry, because I never undertake more work than I can go through with perfect calmness of spirit.”[iii] This rest, coupled with his intense singleness of purpose, was the secret of his spiritual productivity.
Youth and Education
His upbringing had a great deal to do with his usefulness to God. Born in 1703 in Epworth, England to Samuel and Susannah Wesley, John was the fifteenth of nineteen children. He and his brother, Charles, were two of the nine that survived childhood.
His mother, Susannah—one of 25 children—homeschooled her own children. She was strong willed. (Apron Anecdote). She had ardent anti-predestination convictions which John and Charles absorbed from her. Her theology, disseminated through her son, has dominated North American Evangelicalism since 1850.
John’s father, Samuel, was the village Church of England priest. He descended from sturdy Puritan stock: his father and grandfather suffered rejection during the persecution that imprisoned John Bunyan.
Although his mother was the center of his life and early Christianity, his father was inattentive. His father was also a poor financial manager, and spent most of his adult life in financial difficulties.
Our hero grew up with a mixture of Spartan discipline and tender affection—the same crucible that produced many of history’s great Christian leaders.
He attended Oxford and was ordained in his twenties. At age 27 he and his brother Charles organized a group of students to encourage one another in mutual growth in holiness. Derisively called the “Holy Club,” they visited prisons, prayed constantly, gave alms to the poor, and met for prayer and Bible study. When Wesley was about thirty, George Whitefield joined the Holy Club.
Despite these exertions, however, Wesley was unconverted. He didn’t understand the gospel. Depending upon his good works, good intentions, and personal efforts to obtain God’s acceptance, he knew from intimate experience the agony of bondage to the law. He had zeal without knowledge, and suffered incessant guilt, feelings of inadequacy, and constant fear of death.
Missionaries in Georgia
Still intent on earning God’s favor, at age 32 he sailed with his brother, Charles, to Savannah, Georgia to evangelize the Indians. Enroute the ship passed through a terrible storm. Huge waves crashed over the deck even shattering the main mast from its base. Wesley thought he was going to die. He was terrified because he lacked peace with God.
He couldn’t help contrasting his panic with the peace and calm of twenty-six Moravian missionaries also onboard. They did not fear death. Their experience of new birth assured them of God’s love and acceptance. Wesley wanted what they had but didn’t know how to get it. After two years of fruitless missionary work among the Native Americans he returned to England—now convinced that he needed conversion more than the Indians he was seeking to evangelize.
Aged 35, and an ordained Anglican priest now for over ten years, he sought out the Moravians and went to an evening meeting on Aldersgate-Street in London. He went seeking. The next day he wrote in his diary—
“Someone was reading Luther’s preface to the epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he (Luther) 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…he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”[iv]
Wesley was completely changed. He was a new man. He now possessed what the Moravians had. The longer and deeper one has been in bondage to self-justification, the greater the joy of justification by faith alone.
Within a few weeks he preached the Bristol sermon with which this article opened. Now everything was different. God’s power was with him. So began a fifty-two year ministry that changed the course of English history.
Six Aspects of His Character
God gave John Wesley several unique qualities that deserve consideration. First, Wesley, like Whitefield, placed a tremendous emphasis on preaching. He saw clearly that this was the first work of every servant of God. A week later, Sunday, April 8, 1739, is illustrative. At 7:00 A.M. he preached to about 1,000 in Bristol. A little later in the day he preached to 1,500 in the open air on the top of Hannam-Mount in Kingswood. Later in the day he preached to 5,000 at Rose-Green. Two days later he went to Bath where he preached three more times to similar crowds. All this with no microphones, shouting into the wind and the elements in the open air.[v]
Second, after the Aldersgate experience God’s power accompanied him. He was not George Whitefield. He was a preacher of average ability. Nevertheless, it was not unusual for people to come under tremendous conviction from the Holy Spirit’s all-pervading presence. The following entry in his diary was typical:
“Many of those that heard began to call upon God with strong cries and tears. Some sank down, and there remained no strength in them.”[vi]
Neither Wesley’s gifts nor personality explains these results. He depended completely upon God’s supernatural anointing, and God dispensed it liberally through his ministry.
Third, he was courageous. He feared God not man. As with Whitefield, God’s presence brought tremendous persecution. Crowds were often difficult and violent. “As soon as we went out,” Wesley said of one place, “we were saluted, as usual, with jeers and a few stones and pieces of dirt.” “Wesley and his friends,” wrote one biographer, “were often attacked by gangs armed with clubs, whips, bricks, stink bombs, wildfire, or rotten eggs. Sometimes bulls were driven through the audience or horsemen overrode them.”[vii] In the face of this terrific opposition he pressed forward, always seeking first the kingdom of God—like Paul, fearless. (Notice the contrast between the new Wesley and the fear filled unbeliever in the Atlantic storm.)
His boldness also appeared early in his ministry when he returned to his hometown. When the village rector, that replaced his deceased father, refused to let him preach because of his “enthusiasm,” (extremism today) he mounted his father’s grave, next to the church, and preached to a substantial crowd in the open air with momentous results.
Fourth, he was reluctant to start a new church. He was a loyal Anglican. He naively tried to renew the Church of England. Although thousands were saved through his ministry, he ran it as a Parachurch organization within the Church of England.
This was a weakness. He refused to recognize what was really happening—God was calling out a people for Himself from within a dead church structure. After his death his followers broke away from Anglicanism forming the Methodist church. It numbers over twenty million members today, but for the most part, the gospel-clarity of Wesley is gone.
Fifth, although he was crystal clear on the gospel, he was responsible for the dissemination of some theological distortions which have greatly affected the church. The first was Arminianism. The second was sinless perfection. A third was the possibility of losing one’s salvation.
Sixth, in his early years selfish ambition dominated him. Whitefield was a rising star in London when he left to replace Wesley in Georgia. While gone Whitefield entrusted his follower to Wesley. Wesley turned them against Whitefield and Calvinism. Like each of us, Wesley was a flawed man through whom God nevertheless moved.
Historians call the 19th century the “Methodist Century.” What Wesley started gained great momentum through the leaders he left behind. Their influence would be hard to overstate.
Six Lessons From The Life Of Wesley
What can we learn from the life of John Wesley?
First, the hand that rocks the cradle often rules the world. John and Charles Wesley both owed most of what they were to their mother’s diligent training, high moral expectations, pious example, and hours of spiritual instruction. In the turmoil of raising nineteen children (and burying ten) I am sure she often lost sight of the truth that God was using her in a special way, but He was.
Second, God sometimes retains men in the misery of unbelief to amplify the joy and privilege of conversion when it finally comes. Like Luther and Bunyan before him, and Spurgeon after him, when Wesley finally saw justification by faith alone, the relief and joy overwhelmed him. It was the defining moment of his life, and his preaching continually related back to the reality of his joy in the discovery of the free and sovereign grace of God.
19th Century Methodist Circuit Rider
Third, to the degree that God’s power energizes it, truth is always unfashionable. Wesley knew persecution in direct proportion to the power of God resting upon him. We have little persecution because we have little power. Most of us are no threat to the Devil. But, if God gave us Wesley’s spiritual power— the power to shake this nation, all Hell would literally break forth against us, just as it did for John and his friend, George Whitefield.
Fourth, from John’s life we learn the priority of preaching in the power of the Holy Spirit. God shook England through the dynamic of his word proclaimed by John with passion and conviction. This has always been God’s pattern, and it will never change. There are no great awakenings without God-empowered preaching.
Fifth, Wesley’s life reminds us that there is a place for the unmarried minister in God’s kingdom. Under great social pressure, Wesley married Molly Vazeille at age 47. It was a mistake and though they never divorced, eventually they separated. His calling was probably not compatible with marriage. He was always on the road, constantly busy, and single-mindedly committed to the expansion of God’s kingdom. He was not give the time and attention to a wife that marriage vows demand. Quite possibly God had called John to the single life. She later said that marriage to Wesley was like being “tied to the tail of a comet.”
Sixth, the gift of administration matters greatly (1 Cor. 12:28). Wesley was an organizational genius. He set up a small group structure that gave the Methodists their name. He was creative and resourceful in his method of finding and training pastors. He trained them through a mentoring relationship. And he used circuit riders to plant churches.
It literally changed the Western world.
[i] Trial and Triumph, R.M. Hannula , Cannon Press, pg 201-02
[ii] Christian Leaders of The Eighteenth Century, J.C. Ryle, Banner of Truth, pg 83,84
[iii] Ibid Ryle pg 84
[iv] Christian History Magazine, Vol 2, #1, pg 32, quoted from Wesley’s Journals
[v] The Journals of John Wesley.
[vi] Ibid, Hannula, pg 202
[vii] Strangely Warmed, Garth Lean, Tyndale, pg 77