John Wesley was one of the most influential Christian preachers in history and a man who had an enormous and lasting impact on his nation and the world.
Wesley was born in Lincolnshire, England, in 1703. His father was an Anglican minister and his mother a profoundly spiritual woman who instructed her children in a deep Christian faith.
Wesley went to Oxford where he was ordained into the Anglican ministry. Along with his younger brother Charles and others, he became part of the 'Holy Club', a group who sought God through a disciplined life of praying, fasting and study. Sadly, as Wesley was to later admit, all this failed to give him a relationship with God.
In 1735, after 15 years in Oxford as student, teacher and priest, John, accompanied by his brother Charles, sailed to the American colonies to be a church minister and a missionary to the Native Americans. On the outward voyage, Wesley met a group of Moravians – Christians who, following the teaching of Count Zinzendorf, had the warm personal experience of knowing Jesus Christ, which he did not have.
Wesley's months in America were unhappy as his moralistic ministry alienated many. Perturbed by the gulf between what he preached and who he was, he returned to England in 1737. Slowly, he began to realise that a right relationship in God could not come through his own efforts but, rather, only through accepting what God had done for him in Christ.
The next step in Wesley's troubled spiritual journey came in 1738 when he went to a Moravian church meeting in London. Wesley later wrote that, as Martin Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans was read, '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.' Wesley's relationship to God was transformed: he felt himself no longer a fearful servant but a loved son.
Wesley now began fifty remarkable years of evangelistic ministry. It was a pivotal time in British history. While the complacent and formal national Anglican Church had largely neglected those at the bottom of society, remarkable spiritual revivals that had originated in America were now spreading across England and Wales, and often amongst the poor.
George Whitefield, a former member of the Holy Club who had also since come to a living faith in Christ, was preaching to receptive crowds inside and outside churches. He invited Wesley to come and help. After being initially troubled by the disorderly crowds and the novelty of open-air preaching, Wesley also became a preacher to the crowds.
It was soon apparent that Wesley had the gift to bring people to faith in Christ through his preaching. But he was not only an evangelist. Anxious to see converts grow into mature disciples, Wesley developed, in a 'methodist' way, networks of small groups – 'societies' – which encouraged teaching, discipleship and accountability. Although Wesley's emphasis was on the need to find a new life in Christ, he also emphasised the need for the converted to use money wisely, and to take a stand against corruption and slavery.
As the revival spread, two tensions emerged. The first was how the Methodists fitted within the Church of England that Wesley and Whitefield belonged to. Many in the Anglican hierarchy were alarmed by the new 'enthusiasm' with its demands for conversion, its public preaching and how it encouraged ordinary men and women to preach and lead.
A second tension involved a divergence with Whitefield on theology. Whereas Wesley held to the Arminian view that men and women had free will and could choose to come to faith, Whitefield took a Calvinist view that emphasised God's sovereignty above all. Ultimately the two leaders agreed to disagree.
As an itinerant evangelist and church organiser, Wesley adopted a gruelling lifestyle in which, rejecting any kind of leisure, he criss-crossed England almost continuously on horseback, stopping only to preach. Wesley got married in 1751 but it was a rare failure of judgement; a combination of his workaholic and wandering life and an unsympathetic wife sadly led to the failure of the marriage.
As the years passed, Wesley's achievements, multiplied through his transformation of the evangelised into evangelists, reshaped social life in Britain. Methodist societies, chapels, orphanages and schools were increasingly found and often in the most deprived areas. The fact that Britain stayed remarkably stable at a time when most European nations suffered revolutions has been widely attributed to the influence of Methodism.
Wesley died in 1791 at the remarkable age of 87. He left behind a church organisation of 135,000 members, over 500 preachers and a transformed nation.
John Wesley was a dynamic and gifted man who became one of the most significant figures in British history. Let me highlight three aspects that I find particularly striking.
First, Wesley showed vision. The converted Wesley saw the necessity of the conversion of the nation with remarkable clarity. Men and women didn't need religion; they needed a relationship with Christ.
Second, Wesley showed organisation. Wesley was not just a gifted preacher but a strategist. He saw that it was essential not just for people to be converted to the faith, but for them to be discipled in it.
Finally, Wesley showed action. He seems to have thought nothing about a day which involved a hundred-mile horse ride and several preaching events. It has been estimated that in his life he rode around 280,000 miles and preached 54,000 sermons!
A picture of John Wesley hangs in my study. It humbles me and inspires me to follow his example and courage.