John Wesley was born on the seventeenth of June, 1703, in Epworth rectory,
England, the fifteenth of nineteen children of Charles and Suzanna Wesley. The
father of Wesley was a preacher, and Wesley's mother was a remarkable woman in
wisdom and intelligence. She was a woman of deep piety and brought her little
ones into close contact with the Bible stories, telling them from the tiles
about the nursery fireplace. She also used to dress the children in their best
on the days when they were to have the privilege of learning their alphabet as
an introduction to the reading of the Holy Scriptures.
Young Wesley was a gay and manly youth, fond of games and particularly of
dancing. At Oxford he was a leader, and during the latter part of his course
there, was one of the founders of the "Holy Club," an organization of
serious-minded students. His religious nature deepened through study and
experience, but it was not until several years after he left the university and
came under the influence of Luther's writings that he felt that he had entered
into the full riches of the Gospel.
He and his brother Charles were sent by the Society for the Propagation of
the Gospel to Georgia, where both of them developed their powers as preachers.
Upon their passage they fell into the company of several Moravian brethren,
members of the association recently renewed by the labors of Count Zinzendorf.
It was noted by John Wesley in his diary that, in a great tempest, when the
English people on board lost all self-possession, these Germans impressed him by
their composure and entire resignation to God. He also marked their humility
under shameful treatment.
It was on his return to England that he entered into those deeper experiences
and developed those marvelous powers as a popular preacher which made him a
national leader. He was associated at this time also with George Whitefield, the
tradition of whose marvelous eloquence has never died.
What he accomplished borders upon the incredible. Upon entering his
eighty-fifth year he thanked God that he was still almost as vigorous as ever.
He ascribed it, under God, to the fact that he had always slept soundly, had
risen for sixty years at four o'clock in the morning, and for fifty years had
preached every morning at five. Seldom in all his life did he feel any pain,
care, or anxiety. He preached twice each day, and often thrice or four times. It
has been estimated that he traveled every year forty-five hundred English miles,
mostly upon horseback.
The successes won by Methodist preaching had to be gained through a long
series of years, and amid the most bitter persecutions. In nearly every part of
England it was met at the first by the mob with stonings and peltings, with
attempts at wounding and slaying. Only at times was there any interference on
the part of the civil power. The two Wesleys faced all these dangers with
amazing courage, and with a calmness equally astonishing. What was more
irritating was the heaping up of slander and abuse by the writers of the day.
These books are now all forgotten.
Wesley had been in his youth a high churchman and was always deeply devoted
to the Established Communion. When he found it necessary to ordain preachers,
the separation of his followers from the established body became inevitable. The
name "Methodist" soon attached to them, because of the particular organizing
power of their leader and the ingenious methods that he applied.
The Wesley fellowship, which after his death grew into the great Methodist
Church, was characterized by an almost military perfection of organizaton.
The entire management of his ever-growing denomination rested upon Wesley
himself. The annual conference, established in 1744, acquired a governing power
only after the death of Wesley. Charles Wesley rendered the society a service
incalculably great by his hymns. They introduced a new era in the hymnology of
the English Church. John Wesley apportioned his days to his work in leading the
Church, to studying (for he was an incessant reader), to traveling, and to
Wesley was untiring in his efforts to disseminate useful knowledge throughout
his denomination. He planned for the mental culture of his traveling preachers
and local exhorters, and for schools of instruction for the future teachers of
the Church. He himself prepared books for popular use upon universal history,
church history, and natural history. In this Wesley was an apostle of the modern
union of mental culture with Christian living. He published also the best
matured of his sermons and various theological works. These, both by their depth
and their penetration of thought, and by their purity and precision of style,
excite our admiration.
John Wesley was of but ordinary stature, and yet of noble presence. His
features were very handsome even in old age. He had an open brow, an eagle nose,
a clear eye, and a fresh complexion. His manners were fine, and in choice
company with Christian people he enjoyed relaxation. Persistent, laborious love
for men's souls, steadfastness, and tranquillity of spirit were his most
prominent traits of character. Even in doctrinal controversies he exhibited the
greatest calmness. He was kind and very liberal. His industry has been named
already. In the last fifty-two years of his life, it is estimated that he
preached more than forty thousand sermons.
Wesley brought sinners to repentance throughout three kingdoms and over two
hemispheres. He was the bishop of such a diocese as neither the Eastern nor the
Western Church ever witnessed before. What is there in the circle of Christian
effort--foreign missions, home missions, Christian tracts and literature, field
preaching, circuit preaching, Bible readings, or aught else--which was not
attempted by John Wesley, which was not grasped by his mighty mind through the
aid of his Divine Leader?
To him it was granted to arouse the English Church, when it had lost sight of
Christ the Redeemer to a renewed Christian life. By preaching the justifying and
renewing of the soul through belief upon Christ, he lifted many thousands of the
humbler classes of the English people from their exceeding ignorance and evil
habits, and made them earnest, faithful Christians. His untiring effort made
itself felt not in England alone, but in America and in continental Europe. Not
only the germs of almost all the existing zeal in England on behalf of Christian
truth and life are due to Methodism, but the activity stirred up in other
portions of Protestant Europe we must trace indirectly, at least, to Wesley.
He died in 1791 after a long life of tireless labor and unselfish service.
His fervent spirit and hearty brotherhood still survives in the body that
cherishes his name.