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
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
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
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
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 preaching.
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
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.