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John Wesley

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John Wesley
John Welsey
1703-1791

The following biographical text is quoted from The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge.

1. Youth.

John Wesley, the father of the doctrinal and practical system of Methodism, was born at Epworth (23 m. n.w. of Lincoln) June 28, 1703, and died in London Mar. 2, 1791. The Wesleys were of ancient Saxon lineage, the family history being traced backward to the time of Athelstan the Saxon, when Guy Wesley, or Wellesley, was created a thane or member of parliament. John Wesley was the son of Samuel Wesley (q.v.), a graduate of Oxford, and a minister of the Church of England, who had married in 1689 Susannah, the twenty-fifth child of Dr. Samuel Annesley, and herself became the mother of nineteen children; in 1696 he was appointed rector of Epworth, where John, the fifteenth child, was born. He was christened John Benjamin, but he never used the second name. An incident of his childhood was his rescue, at the age of six, from the burning rectory. The manner of his escape made a deep impression on his mind; and he spoke of himself as a "brand plucked from the burning," and as a child of Providence. The early education of all the children was given by Mrs. Wesley, a woman of remarkable intelligence and deep piety, apt in teaching, and wise and firm in governing. In 1713 John was admitted to the Charterhouse School, London, where he lived the studious, methodical, and (for a while) religious life in which he had been trained at home. In 1720 he entered Christ Church College, Oxford (M.A., 1727), was ordained deacon in 1725 and elected fellow of Lincoln College in the following year. He served his father as curate two years, and then returned to Oxford to fulfil his functions as fellow.

2. In Oxford and Georgia.

The year of his return to Oxford (1729) marks the beginning of the rise of Methodism. The famous "holy club" was formed; and its members, including John and Charles Wesley, were derisively called "Methodists," because of their methodical habits. John had enjoyed during his early years a deep religious experience. He went, says one of his best biographers, Tyerman, to Charterhouse a saint; but he became negligent of his religious duties, and left a sinner. In the year of his ordination he read Thomas a Kempis and Jeremy Taylor, and began to grope after those religious truths which underlay the great revival of the eighteenth century. The reading of Law's Christian Perfection and Serious Call gave him, he said, a sublimer view of the law of God; and he resolved to keep it, inwardly and outwardly, as sacredly as possible, believing that in this obedience he should find salvation. He pursued a rigidly methodical and abstemious life; studied the Scriptures, and performed his religious duties with great diligence; deprived himself that he might have alms to give; and gave his heart, mind, and soul to the effort to live a godly life. When, in 1735, a clergyman "inured to contempt of the ornaments and conveniences of life, to bodily austerities, and to serious thoughts," was wanted by Governor Oglethorpe to go to Georgia, Wesley responded, and remained in the colony two years, returning to England in 1738, feeling that his mission, which was to convert the Indians and deepen and regulate the religious life of the colonists, had been a failure. His High-church notions, his strict enforcement of the regulations of the church, especially concerning the administration of the holy communion, were not agreeable to the colonists; and he left Georgia with several indictments pending against him (largely due to malice) for alleged violation of church law.

3. Conversion; Open-air Preaching.

As Wesley's spiritual state is the key to his whole career, an account of his conversion in the year of his return from Georgia may not be omitted. For ten years he had fought against sin, striven to fulfil the law of the Gospel, endeavored to manifest his righteousness; but he had not, he wrote, obtained freedom from sin, nor the witness of the Spirit, because he sought it, not by faith, but "by the works of the law." He had learned from the Moravians that true faith was inseparably connected with dominion over sin and constant peace proceeding from a sense of forgiveness, and that saving faith is given in a moment. This saving faith he obtained May 24, 1737-38, at a Moravian meeting in Aldersgate Street, London, while listening to the reading of Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans, in which explanation of faith and the doctrine of justification by faith is given. "I felt," he wrote, "my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins." Two or three weeks later he preached a remarkable sermon, enforcing the doctrine of present personal salvation by faith, which was followed by another, on God's grace "free in all, and free for all." He never ceased in his whole subsequent career to preach this doctrine and that of the witness of the Spirit. He allied himself with the Moravian society in Fetter Lane, and in 1738 went to Herrnhut, the Moravian headquarters in Germany, to learn more of a people to whom he felt deeply indebted. On his return to England he drew up rules for the bands into which the Fetter Lane Society was divided, and published a collection of hymns for them. He met frequently with this and other religious societies in London, but did not preach often in 1738, because most of the parish churches were closed to him. His friend, George Whitefield (q.v.), the great evangelist, upon his return from America, was likewise excluded from the churches of Bristol; and, going to the neighboring village of Kingswood, he there preached in the open air, Feb., 1739, to a company of miners. This was a bold step, and Wesley hesitated to accept Whitefield's earnest request to follow him in this innovation. But he overcame his scruples, and in April preached his first sermon in the open air, near Bristol. He said he could hardly reconcile himself to field-preaching, and would have thought, "till very lately," such a method of saving souls as "almost a sin." These open-air services were very successful; and he never again hesitated to preach in any place where an assembly could be got together, more than once using his father's tombstone at Epworth as a pulpit. He spent upward of fifty years in field-preaching-- entering churches when he was invited, taking his stand in the fields, in halls, cottages, and chapels, when the churches would not receive him. Late in 1739 a rupture with the Moravians in London occurred. Wesley had helped them organize in May, 1738, the Fetter Lane Society; and the converts of the preaching of himself, his brother, and Whitefield, had become members of their bands. But finding, as he said, that they had fallen into heresies, especially quietism, a separation took place; and so, at the close of 1739, Wesley was led to form his followers into a separate society. "Thus," he wrote, "without any previous plan, began the Methodist Society in England." Similar societies were soon formed in Bristol and Kingswood, and wherever Wesley and his coadjutors made converts.

4. Persecutions; Lay Preaching.

From 1739 onward Wesley and the Methodists were persecuted by clergymen and magistrates; attacked in sermon, tract, and book, mobbed by the populace, often in controversy, always at work among the neglected and needy, and ever increasing. They were denounced as promulgators of strange doctrines, fomenters of religious disturbances; as blind fanatics, leading the people astray, claiming miraculous gifts, inveighing against the clergy of the Church of England, and endeavoring to reestablish popery. Wesley was frequently mobbed, and great violence was done both to the persons and property of Methodists. Seeing, however, that the church failed in its duty to call sinners to repentance, that its clergymen were worldly minded, and that souls were perishing in their sins, he regarded himself as commissioned of God to warn men to flee from the wrath to come; and no opposition, or persecution, or obstacles were permitted by him to prevail against the divine urgency and authority of his commission. The prejudices of his High-church training, his strict notions of the methods and proprieties of public worship, his views of the apostolic succession and the prerogatives of the priest, even his most cherished convictions, were not allowed to stand in the way in which Providence seemed to lead. Unwilling that ungodly men should perish in their sins and unable to reach them from the pulpits of the Church, he began field-preaching. Seeing that he and the few clergymen cooperating with him could not do the work that needed to be done, he was led, as early as 1739, to approve tacitly, soon after openly, of lay preaching; and men who were not episcopally ordained were permitted to preach and do pastoral work. Thus one of the great features of Methodism, to which it has largely owed its success, was adopted by Wesley in answer to a necessity.

5. Chapels and Organizations.

As his societies must have houses to worship in, he began in 1739 to provide chapels, first in Bristol, and then in London and elsewhere. The Bristol chapel was at first in the hands of trustees; but as a large debt was contracted, and Wesley's friends urged him to keep its pulpit under his own control, the deed was cancelled, and the trust became vested in himself. Following this precedent, all Methodist chapels were committed in trust to him until by a "deed of declaration," all his interests in them were transferred to a body of preachers called the "Legal Hundred." When disorderly persons began to manifest themselves among the members of the societies, he adopted the plan of giving tickets to members, with their names written thereon by his own hand. These were renewed every three months. Those who proved to be unworthy did not receive new tickets, and thus dropped out of the society without disturbance. The tickets were regarded as commendatory letters. When the debt on a chapel became burdensome, it was proposed that one in every twelve of the members should collect offerings for it regularly from the eleven allotted to him. Out of this, under Wesley's care, grew, in 1742, the Methodist class-meeting system. In order more effectually to keep the disorderly out of the societies, he established a probationary system, and resolved to visit each society once in three months. Thus arose the quarterly visitation, or conference. As the societies increased, he could not continue his practice of oral instruction; so he drew up in 1743 a set of "General Rules" for the "United Societies," which were the nucleus of the Methodist Discipline, and are still preserved intact and observed by most Methodist bodies. As the number of preachers and preaching-places increased, it was desirable that doctrinal matters should be discussed, difficulties considered, and that an understanding should be had as to the distribution of fields; so the two Wesleys, with four other clergymen and four lay preachers, met for consultation in London in 1744. This was the first Methodist conference. Two years later, in order that the preachers might work more systematically, and the societies receive their services more regularly, Wesley appointed his "helpers" to definitive circuits, each of which included at least thirty appointments a month. Believing that their usefulness and efficiency were promoted by being changed from one circuit to another every year or two, he established the itinerancy, and ever insisted that his preachers should submit to its rules. When, in 1788, some persons objected to the frequent changes, he wrote, "For fifty years God has been pleased to bless the itinerant plan, the last year most of all. It must not be altered till I am removed, and I hope it will remain till our Lord comes to reign on earth."

6. Ordination of Ministers.

As his societies multiplied, and all these elements of an ecclesiastical system were, one after another, adopted, the breach between Wesley and the Church of England gradually widened. The question of separation from that church, urged, on the one side, by some of his preachers and societies, and most strenuously opposed on the other by his brother Charles and others, was constantly before him, but was not settled. In 1745 he wrote that he and his coadjutors would make any concession which their conscience would permit, in order to live in harmony with the clergy; but they could not give up the doctrine of an inward and present salvation by faith alone, nor cease to preach in private houses and the open air, nor dissolve the societies, nor suppress lay preaching. Further than this, however, he refused then to go. "We dare not," he said, "administer baptism or the Lord's Supper without a commission from a bishop in the apostolic succession." But the next year he read Lord King on the Primitive Church, and was convinced by it that apostolic succession was a figment, and that he [Wesley] was "a scriptural episcopos as much as any man in England." Some years later Stillingfleet's Irenicon led him to renounce the opinion that Christ or his apostles prescribed any form of church government, and to declare ordination valid when performed by a presbyter. It was not until about forty years after this that he ordained by the imposition of hands; but he considered his appointment of his preachers an act of ordination. The conference of 1746 declared that the reason more solemnity in receiving new laborers was not employed was because it savored of stateliness and of haste. "We desire barely to follow Providence as it gradually opens." When, however, he deemed that Providence had opened the way, and the bishop of London had definitely declined to ordain a minister for the American Methodists who were without the ordinances, he ordained by imposition of hands preachers for Scotland and England and America, with power to administer the sacraments. He consecrated, also, by laying on of hands, Dr. Thomas Coke (q.v.), a presbyter of the Church of England, to be superintendent or bishop in America, and a preacher, Alexander Mather, to the same office in England. He designed that both Coke and Mather should ordain others. This act alarmed his brother Charles, who besought him to stop and consider before he had "quite broken down the bridge," and not embitter his [Charles'] last moments on earth, nor "leave an indelible blot on our memory." Wesley declared, in reply, that he had not separated from the church, nor did he intend to, but he must and would save as many souls as he could while alive, "without being careful about what may possibly be when I die." Thus, though he rejoiced that the Methodists in America were freed from entanglements with both Church and State, he counseled his English followers to remain in the established church; and he himself died in that communion.

7. Advocacy of Arminianism.

Wesley was a strong controversialist. The most notable of his controversies was that on Calvinism. His father was of the Arminian school in the church; but John settled the question for himself while in college, and expressed himself strongly against the [Calvinist views of the] doctrines of election and reprobation. Whitefield inclined to Calvinism. In his first tour in America, he embraced the views of the New England School of Calvinism; and when Wesley preached a sermon on Free Grace, attacking predestination as blasphemous, as representing "God as worse than the devil," Whitefield besought him (1739) not to repeat or publish the discourse. He deprecated a dispute or discussion. "Let us," he said, "offer salvation freely to all," but be silent about election. Wesley's sermon was published, and among the many replies to it was one by Whitefield. Separation followed in 1741. Wesley wrote of it, that those who held universal redemption did not desire separation, but "those who held particular redemption would not hear of any accommodation." Whitefield, Harris, Cennick, and others, became the founders of Calvinistic Methodism. Whitefield and Wesley, however, were soon again on very friendly terms, and their friendship remained thenceforth unbroken, though they traveled different paths. Occasional publications appeared on Calvinistic doctrines, by Wesley and others; but in 1770 the controversy broke out anew with violence and bitterness. Toplady, Berridge, Rowland, Richard Hill, and others were engaged on the one side, and Wesley and Fletcher chiefly on the other side. Toplady was editor of The Gospel Magazine, which was filled with the controversy. Wesley in 1778 began the publication of The Arminian Magazine, not, he said, to convince Calvinists, but to preserve Methodists; not to notice opponents, but to teach the truth that "God willeth all men to be saved." A "lasting peace" he thought could be secured in no other way.

8. Doctrines.

The doctrines which Wesley revived, restated, and emphasized in his sermons and writings, are present personal salvation by faith, the witness of the Spirit, and sanctification. The second he defined thus: "the testimony of the Spirit is an inward impression on the soul of believers, whereby the spirit of God directly testifies to their spirit that they are the children of God." Sanctification he spoke of (1790) as the " grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called `Methodists'; and, for the sake of propagating this chiefly, he appears to have raised them up." He taught that sanctification was obtainable instantaneously by faith, between justification and death. It was not "sinless perfection" that he contended for; but he believed that those who are "perfect in love" feel no sin, feel nothing but love. He was very anxious that this doctrine should be constantly preached for the system of Wesleyan Arminianism, the foundations of which were laid by Wesley and Fletcher.

9. Personality and Activities.

Wesley was the busiest man in England. He traveled almost constantly, generally on horseback, preaching twice or thrice a day. He formed societies, opened chapels, examined and commissioned preachers, administered discipline, raised funds for schools, chapels, and charities, prescribed for the sick, superintended schools and orphanages, prepared commentaries and a vast amount of other religious literature, replied to attacks on Methodism, conducted controversies, and carried on a prodigious correspondence. He is believed to have traveled in the course of his itinerant ministry more than 250,000 miles, and to have preached more than 40,000 times. The number of works he wrote, translated, or edited, exceeds 200. The list includes sermons, commentaries, hymns, a Christian library of fifty volumes, and other religious literature-- grammars, dictionaries, and other textbooks, as well as political tracts. He is said to have received not less than 20,000 for his publications, but he used little of it for himself. His charities were limited only by his means. He died poor. He rose at four in the morning, lived simply and methodically, and was never idle, unless by compulsion. In person he was rather under the medium height, well proportioned, strong, with a bright eye, a clear complexion, and a saintly, intellectual face. He married very unhappily, at the age of forty-eight, a widow, and had no children. He died, after a short illness in which he had great spiritual peace and joy, leaving as the result of his life-work 135,000 members, and 541 itinerant preachers, owning the name "Methodist."

10. Literary Work.

Wesley's mind was of a logical cast. His conceptions were clear, his perceptions quick. His thought clothed itself easily and naturally in pure, terse, vigorous language. His logical acuteness, self-control, and scholarly acquirements made him a strong controversialist. He wrote with a ready pen. His written sermons are characterized by spiritual earnestness and by simplicity. They are doctrinal, but not dogmatic; expository, argumentative, practical. His Notes on the New Testament (1755) are luminous and suggestive. Both the Sermons (of which there are about 140) and the Notes are in the Methodist course of study, and are doctrinal standards. He was a fluent, impressive, persuasive, powerful preacher, producing striking effects. He preached generally extemporaneously and briefly, though occasionally at great length, using manuscript only for special occasions. As an organizer, an ecclesiastical general, and a statesman he was eminent. He knew well how to marshal and control men, how to achieve purposes. He had in his hands the powers of a despot; yet he so used them as not only not to provoke rebellion, but to inspire love. His mission was to spread "Scriptural holiness"; his means and plans were such as Providence indicated. The course thus masked out for him he pursued with a determination, a fidelity, from which nothing could swerve him. Wesley's prose Works were first collected by himself (32 vols., Bristol, 1771-74, frequently reprinted in editions varying greatly in the number of volumes). His chief prose works are a standard publication in seven octavo volumes of the Methodist Book Concern, New York. The Poetical Works of John and Charles, ed. G. Osborn, appeared 13 vols., London, 1868-72. Besides his Sermons and Notes already referred to, are his Journals (originally published in twenty parts, London, 1740-89; new ed. by N. Curnock, is to contain notes from unpublished diaries, 6 vols., vols. i.-ii., London and New York, 1909-11, which are of great interest; The Doctrine of Original Sin (Bristol, 1757; in reply to Dr. John Taylor of Norwich); an Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion (originally published in three parts; 2nd ed., Bristol, 1743), an elaborate defense of Methodism, describing with great vigor the evils of the times in society and the church; a Plain Account of Christian Perfection (1766).

H. K. CARROLL.

 
 
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