John Wesley is often referred to as one of the greatest evangelists in the history of the Christian Church. John Benjamin Wesley, the parents’ 15th child was born on 17 June 1703 in Epworth, Lincolnshire, where his father was the rector of a Church of England parish. Already at the age of eight he was assured of a free scholarship in the famous Charterhouse school in London. The nobleman to whose patronage the boy was indebted was the lord chamberlain to Queen Anne. He graduated from Oxford University, became a deacon in the church in 1725, and, became a priest in the Church of England in 1728.
From 1729 onwards he was involved in a religious study group of young men in Oxford, organized by his brother Charles (1707-1788). The group that was also known as the Holy Club was dubbed the “Methodists” for their emphasis on methodical study and devotion. Their strict lives and methodical behavior led other students mockingly to call them Methodists. Thus the denomination that Wesley founded got its name.
He went as a missionary to Georgia in America in 1735, accompanied by his brother Charles. During the stormy voyage Wesley was overwhelmed by the composed piety of a number of fellow passengers – a group of Moravians from Austria. He studied their doctrine and, while attending a Moravian meeting in London after he returned, he felt his heart “strangely warmed” with faith in Christ’s saving power. He started preaching his new faith. When he realised that the churches closed against him, he joined the renowned evangelist George Whitefield in holding open-air meetings.
John Wesley’s was an amazingly energetic individual who traveled up to 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometres) per year, and preached about 15 times a week. He mainly visited poor neighbourhoods, and to a great extent the people who attended his meetings were industrial workers or agricultural labourers. His central message was of God’s love. He told the people who attended his sermons that if they loved God in return, they would be saved from sin and made holy. He further had much to say about personal morality. He encouraged people to work hard and to save for the future. Wesley also warned against the dangers of gambling and drinking.
Despite resistance and persecution, thousands attended his meetings, and the movement spread rapidly. He organized his converts into groups for prayer and church societies, appointed selected members to perform as lay pastors, and finally ordained or commissioned preachers. This conduct amounted to a break with the Church of England, but Wesley himself did not recognize it as such. On 1 May 1739 Wesley and a group of his followers, met in a shop on West Street, London, and formed the first Methodist society. He called the 1st conference of Methodist leaders in 1744, and since then conferences were held annually.
At the age of 48 John Wesley married the widow Mary Vazeille, had an very unhappy married life, had no children, and Mary left him fifteen years later. Later in his life the antagonism of the Anglican church to Methodism had practically disappeared, and Wesley was greatly admired. He died peacefully in London on 2 March 1791 after a short illness. His life-work legacy was 135,000 members, and 541 itinerant preachers under the name “Methodist”.