The New International Encyclopædia/Wesley, John

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

WESLEY, John (1703-91). An English clergyman, generally known as the founder of Methodism. He was born at Epworth, in Lincolnshire, the fifteenth child of the Rev. Samuel Wesley, and of a family which had been known as nonconformists, though Samuel had taken orders in the Church of England. At ten he was sent to Charterhouse School, where for a time he suffered from the persecutions of the older boys, but finally won a place in the esteem of all. In 1720 he matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford. He took his degree in 1724, and not long after began to think about following his father's profession. He was ordained deacon in 1725, and in the next year elected a fellow of Lincoln College. Ordained priest in 1728, for a while he acted as curate to his father at Epworth, but was recalled to Oxford by the college regulations. Finding his brother Charles and some other undergraduates associated in what was called by unsympathetic outsiders the ‘Holy Club,’ he naturally saw much of them, and became practically their director. On his father's death he was urged to accept the living of Epworth, but thought his place was at Oxford.

It was not long, however, before he changed his mind, and was persuaded to go with General Oglethorpe as a missionary to Georgia. His mission was not altogether a success: he was regarded as too strict, and some of the points on which he insisted were not thought to be in harmony with Protestantism. His sojourn in Georgia was not, however, without fruit, and his departure was regarded as a real loss to the colony. On his voyage to Savannah, he met for the first time some of the Moravian Brethren, whose simple evangelical piety made a deep impression on him. On his return to London, he sought them out, and from Peter Böhler, one of their preachers, imbibed the doctrine of ‘saving faith,’ and broke away from the influence of William Law, which had been strong in his earlier life.

In the summer of 1738 he went abroad to visit their leaders, and spent some time at Herrnhut and with Zinzendorf at Marienborn. He corresponded with Zinzendorf for some time, and his letters are still preserved at Herrnhut. His new experiences made a vital difference in him. He associated with Moravians in England, and with other societies interested in the growth of the spiritual life.

Early in 1739 he took more definite steps in the direction he was afterwards to follow. His friend George Whitefield invited him to Bristol. When he saw Whitefield preaching in the open air, his High Church principles were at first offended, but on April 2d he preached his first open-air sermon, and thus began what was really his life work. His success in the neighborhood of Bristol was so great that a special place had to be built in which to care for the converts. A still more important step was taken on July 20, 1740, when he formed the first society under his direction. They met in a building called the Foundry, formerly Government property, but long disused, near Finsbury Square in London, which for many years was the headquarters of Methodism.

The success of his preaching soon called him so much away from his societies that he was unable to give them proper care. In 1742 one of his followers proposed that the members should be divided into bands of twelve, with a leader over each. The plan was adopted and worked well. The leaders reported to Wesley the conduct of the members and the receipt of money. The class-meetings thus originated contributed greatly to the success of the movement. Wesley now preached frequently all about London and Bristol. But the fervor and enthusiasm of his converts was looked upon with suspicion by the clergy in general, accustomed to an orderly and ‘respectable’ conduct of religious matters. He began to develop his organization by the appointment of lay preachers, who were to be communicants of the Church of England, and not to conflict in their preaching with the church services. Among the early preachers of this sort were John Cennick and Thomas Maxfield. In 1744 the first conference of his principal helpers was held.

As a result of the Arminian tendencies of Wesley and his friends, Whitefield and Cennick withdrew from relations with them and formed the Calvinistic Methodists. The success of Wesley's work was, however, unabated. In five years from the preaching of the Bristol sermon forty-five preachers were laboring with him, and there were two thousand members in London alone. There is no question that the religious life of England was in need of some stirring and vivifying influence; and this the burning words, the ardent faith of Wesley brought it. His labors were prodigious. His evangelistic labors extended to all parts of the British Isles. He preached from twice to four times daily, and traveled (on horseback until advancing age compelled him to use a carriage) about 4,500 miles a year. He met the societies, classes, and boards, and inquired minutely into their affairs. He saw to the erection of chapels, and collected money to defray the expense. He found time for an amazing variety of literary work, selecting, condensing, abridging, and writing on all kinds of subjects what he thought would be most useful for his followers. He joined in every movement for the improvement of humanity. Sunday-schools, the abolition of slavery, education, the circulation of tracts, and charitable associations of all kinds interested him and enlisted his coöoperation.

By 1790 he found himself at the head of 511 preachers and 120,000 members, while at least four times that number were in attendance with the Methodist Congregations. He died March 2, 1791, in the house attached to the City Road Chapel in London, and was buried there. He was of less than the average height, but, says Tyerman, “beautifully proportioned, without an atom of superfluous flesh, yet muscular and strong, with a forehead clear and smooth, a bright penetrating eye, and a lovely face which retained the freshness of its complexion to the latest period of his life.” In social life he was a charming man, a good talker, and never ill at ease. He numbered many of all classes among his friends. The obedience which he exacted, for the good of the cause, from his followers was readily given. It is not too much to say that in eighteenth century England “no single figure influenced so many minds, no single voice touched so many hearts.”

His works were first published by himself (Bristol, 1771-74); the religious writings, edited by Thomas Jackson (London, 1829-31; 11th ed. 1856-62); an American edition in seven volumes (New York, 1831). His journals give the fullest account of his career; they extend from 1735 to 1790, and present a marvelously full and graphic picture of the England of his day. Condensations of them were published by Welch (1899) and Parker (1903). At least forty biographies have been written. The more important among them are those by Tyerman (London, 1870-71), Southey (1820; ed. by Coleridge. 1846; Curry, 1867; Atkinson, 1890), Rigg (London, 1874), Telford (ib., 1890). Consult also: Wedgwood, Wesley and the Evangelical Reaction of the Eighteenth Century (London, 1870); Overton, John Wesley (ib., 1891); Urlin, Wesley's Place in Church History (ib., 1870). The two hundredth anniversary of Wesley's birth was almost universally observed among the Methodists in 1903, and much literature relating to him appeared in consequence.