In order to understand how Methodism began and developed a potted history of the Wesley family might help!
Born in 1703, to Rev. Samuel and Suzanna Wesley, John was the fifteenth of nineteen children. He was one of the ten who survived infancy.
His mother taught him religious education, reading and writing from the Bible. Many chapters of the Bible were learned by heart by him. Later she ensured that he learned Greek and Hebrew too.
His father, though a good man spent time in debtors’ prison when his income was exceeded by expenditure. This gave John much of his zeal for working with the under privileged and for righting the wrongs of the world!
At the age of six he was rescued from the second storey window of the burning rectory and his mother told him he was a “brand plucked from the burning” (Zec 3:2) for a very special purpose. He grew to be a serious young man, determined to fulfill that destiny.
At Oxford his younger brother Charles set up and John later ran the “Holy Club”, a group of scholars who met to pray, study the Bible and go out into the community helping and preaching the gospel. Here they were given the nick name “Methodists” due to the methodical way they studied and lived! It was not intended as a compliment!
Yet John Wesley was more driven than at peace with himself. In 1735 he set off for Savannah, Georgia, intending to serve the ex pat Community and to bring the gospel to native Indians living there. It was not a successful missionary venture!
- When faced with a storm on the way over he found his faith wanting and was terribly discouraged by this. A group of Moravian emigrants on board showed the faith and forbearance he wished he had.
- His regular congregation, some of whom had been shipped out there from debtors’ prisons found his grueling sense of duty like another harsh sentence and did not warm to him.
- He fell in love with a girl there, whom he wouldn’t ask to ask to marry him, because he had vowed to remain single, doing God’s work. He was, however, so very upset when she married someone else that he made a bit of a fool of himself and returned to England under a cloud.
Back in England he sought out a Moravian church to find out why they had such faith in God when he was so scared during the storm. There a wise pastor, Peter Boehler advised him to “Preach faith until you have it and then because you have it you will preach faith.”
On 24th May 1738, in a place called Aldersgate Street, John’s perspective was transformed by the Holy Spirit. This made him more than just an ardent church reformer and social working evangelist. It made him one of the most effective revivalists of recent history. He had gone, reluctantly enough, to an evening service during which which Martin Luther’s commentary on the book of Romans was read. There he felt his heart “strangely warmed.” He wrote in his diary, that he knew beyond all doubt that he, personally, was a child of God, cherished and rescued from his mistakes, and waited for at his home in Heaven, with much love. This Holy Spirit’s conviction of the grace of God changed him from all that was dutiful, to one who knew himself loved despite his human failings! And therefore May 24th is known as Aldersgate or John Wesley day around the world!
About this time John renewed his friendship with another “Holy Club” member, George Whitefield, who introduced him to outdoor preaching. This gave him a new platform and a different audience to minister to. His heart warming from the Holy Spirit in Aldersgate Street was an experience that really set him alight with a passion to tell others. Now thousands would come to hear him preach.
Over his life John published about 400 books, journals and pamphlets, all based soundly on Bible texts, which he knew well! He called himself a man of one book, though a writer of many!
John became what Jesus was (and St. Paul too,) an itinerant preacher. He traveled over 6500 km every year and preached over 40,000 sermons during his travels, preaching usually twice or three times a day while spending a few days in each town before moving on.
In all his God led ventures John was helped most by his brother Charles, also an Anglican minister, who had also felt the warming of the Holy Spirit, (three days before John, though no need for sibling rivalry there!). Charles was a prolific writer of hymn lyrics and the theology of John’s sermons was mirrored in his hymns.
In 1749 John’s brother, Charles Wesley got married and settled down, travelling less.
Soon after John was nursed through an illness by a Grace Murray, housekeeper to a Methodist orphanage in Newcastle. He fell in love and they became engaged. A hundred years before Florence Nightingale made nursing into an honourable profession, nurses were not usually well educated and had little standing in the community. His brother Charles and George Whitefield, believing Grace an unequal match, persuaded her that John would not suit her either and hurried her back to Newcastle to marry another suitor. John was again hurt but threw himself into the work.
When, in 1751, John broke his leg and was nursed by a widow Mary (Molly) Gizeille, he didn’t hesitate. They married a week later! It was not a happy marriage, however. Mary did not like John travelling so much while John felt called by God to spend most of their married life on the road, away from home. His personal life may have been somewhat fraught, but the itinerant ministry thrived.