Biography of John Wesley, Methodist Church Co-Founder

"John Wesley," by English artist George Romney.
"John Wesley," by English artist George Romney. Public Domain

John Wesley is known for two things: co-founding Methodism and his tremendous work ethic.

In the 1700s, when land travel was by walking, horseback or carriage, Wesley logged more than 4,000 miles a year. During his lifetime he preached about 40,000 sermons.

Wesley could give today's experts lessons in efficiency. He was a natural organizer and approached everything diligently, especially religion. It was at Oxford University in England that he and his brother Charles participated in a Christian club in such an orderly manner that critics called them Methodists, a title which they gladly embraced.

The Aldersgate Experience of John Wesley

As priests in the Church of England, John and Charles Wesley traveled from Great Britain to Georgia, in the American colonies in 1735. While John's desire had been to preach to the Indians, he was appointed pastor of the church in Savannah.

When he imposed church discipline on members who failed to notify him that they were taking communion, John Wesley found himself accused in civil courts by one of the powerful families of Savannah. The juries were stacked against him. To make matters worse, a woman he had been courting married another man.

John Wesley returned to England bitter, disillusioned and spiritually low. He told Peter Boehler, a Moravian, of his experience and his inner struggle. On May 24, 1738, Boehler convinced him to go to a meeting. Here is Wesley's description:

"In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. 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, 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."

This "Aldersgate Experience" had a permanent effect on Wesley's life. He answered a request from fellow preacher George Whitefield to join him in Whitefield's evangelism ministry. Whitefield preached outdoors, something unheard of at the time. Whitefield was one of the co-founders of Methodism, along with the Wesleys, but they later split when Whitefield clung to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination.

John Wesley the Organizer

As always, Wesley went about his new work methodically. He organized the groups into societies, then classes, connections, and circuits, under the direction of a superintendent. His brother Charles and some other Anglican priests joined, but John did most of the preaching. He later added lay preachers who could deliver a message but not offer communion.

The clergy and lay preachers met on occasion to discuss progress. That eventually became the annual conference. By 1787, Wesley was required to register his preachers as non-Anglicans. He, however, remained an Anglican to his death.

He saw great opportunity outside England. Wesley ordained two lay preachers to serve in the newly independent United States of America and named George Coke as superintendent in that country. Methodism was breaking away from the Church of England as a separate Christian denomination.

Meanwhile, John Wesley continued to preach throughout the British Isles. Never one to waste time, he discovered that he could read while walking, on horseback, or in a carriage. Nothing stopped him. Wesley pushed on through rainstorms and blizzards, and if his coach got stuck, he continued on horse or on foot.

Personal Life of John Wesley

Susanna Annesley Wesley, John's mother, had a profound influence on his life. She and her husband Samuel, an Anglican priest, had 19 children. John was the 15th, born June 17, 1703, in Epworth, England, where his father was rector.

Family life for the Wesleys was rigidly structured, with exact times for meals, prayers, and sleep. Susanna home-schooled the children, teaching them religion and manners as well. They learned to be quiet, obedient, and hard-working.

In 1709, a fire destroyed the rectory, and young John had to be rescued from a second-story window by a man standing on another man's shoulders. The children were taken in by various parishioners until the new rectory was built, at which time the family was reunited and Mrs. Wesley started "reforming" her children from the bad things they had learned in other homes.

John eventually attended Oxford, where he proved to be a brilliant scholar. He was ordained into the Anglican ministry. At age 48, he married a widow named Mary Vazeille, who deserted him after 25 years. They had no children together.

The strict discipline and relentless work ethic instilled early in his life served Wesley well as a preacher, evangelist, and church organizer. He was still preaching at age 88, just a few days before he died in 1791.

John Wesley met death singing hymns, quoting the Bible, and saying farewell to his family and friends. Some of his last words were, "The best of all is, God is with us."

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Zavada, Jack. "Biography of John Wesley, Methodist Church Co-Founder." Learn Religions, Aug. 26, 2020, Zavada, Jack. (2020, August 26). Biography of John Wesley, Methodist Church Co-Founder. Retrieved from Zavada, Jack. "Biography of John Wesley, Methodist Church Co-Founder." Learn Religions. (accessed June 1, 2023).