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John Wesley – “The World is My Parish”

February 7, 2011

John Wesley, 1703-1791

TOWARD the end of January 1736, the good ship Simmonds, bound for Savannah, Georgia, sailed into a series of violent Atlantic storms. The wind roared; the ship cracked and quivered; the waves lashed the deck.  A young, slightly built Anglican minister on board was frozen in fear.

John Wesley had preached the gospel of eternal salvation to others, but he was afraid to die. He was deeply awed, however, by a company of Moravian Brethren from Herrnhut. As the sea broke over the deck of the vessel, splitting the mainsail in pieces, the Moravians calmly sang their psalms to God.

Afterward, Wesley asked one of the Germans if he was frightened.

“No,” he replied.

“Weren’t your women and children afraid?” Wesley asked.

“No,” said the Moravian, “our women and children are not afraid to die.”

“This,” Wesley wrote in his Journal, “was the most glorious day I have ever seen.”

At that “glorious” moment Wesley was a most unlikely candidate for leadership in a spiritual awakening soon to shake England to its moorings.  He had a form of godliness, but he had yet to find its power.


In the early decades of the eighteenth century, England was a most unlikely place for a nationwide revival of vital faith.  Among the rich and well educated the Enlightenment had shoved religion from the center of life to its periphery.  In the Established [Anglican] Church and in the Nonconformist denominations, such as the Baptists and Congregationalists, the zeal of the Puritans seemed to be a thing of the past.  England had know her fill of holy causes.  The order of the day was moderation in all things.  An English sermon, said Voltaire, was a “solid but, sometimes dry dissertation that a man reads to the people without gesture and without particular exaltation of the voice.”  All that was about to be challenged and changed as God would raise up his servant to revive the English people from their spiritual lethargy.

The primary figure in the eighteenth century Evangelical Revival and founder of Methodism, Wesley was born in Epworth, England, to Samuel and Susanna Wesley, one of nineteen children! Although both his grandfathers distinguished themselves as Puritan Nonconformists [that is, they chose not to belong to the Church of England], his parents returned to the Church of England, where his father for most of his ministry held the livings of Epworth (1697–1735) and Wroot (1725–35). Wesley spent his early years under the careful direction of his remarkable mother, who sought to instill in him a sense of living piety leading to a wholehearted devotion to God [and not just John–every week she made time for religious instruction for each child separately!].

It was a near tragedy in John’s early years that marked him and gave him a sense of divine purpose later in life.  When he was six Wesley was rescued by a neighbor(s) from the family’s two-story burning home.  Thereafter Wesley called himself “a brand plucked from the burning.”

Wesley was educated at Charterhouse, a school for boys in London, and then Christ Church, Oxford, where he received the B.A. degree in 1724 and the M.A. degree in 1727.  While at Oxford Wesley read widely, being influenced by the early church fathers especially.  From them he took as the goal of the Christian life “perfection” (not in an absolute sense, but as a process of disciplined love).

He was then confronted with what to do with the rest of his life. He decided (through the influence of his mother, a religious friend, and the reading of Jeremy Taylor and Thomas à Kempis) to make the church the “business of his life.”  He was ordained a deacon (1725), elected to a fellowship at Lincoln College, Oxford (1726), and served as his father’s curate at Wroot (1727–29).  He then returned to Oxford and became the leader of a small band of students organized earlier by his younger brother, Charles. This band, dubbed the “Holy Club,” would later be called “methodist” for their methodical study of the Bible and for their rigid self-denial which included many works of charity.  But John was quick to confess that he still lacked the inward peace of a true Christian.

In 1735 Wesley went to Georgia as a missionary to the Indians. It would prove to be a fiasco.  Wesley was unable to deal with the Indians–whom he saw as “gluttons, thieves, liars and murderers–or with the settlers–who resented his rigid ways, the fact that he refused to conduct the funeral of a non-Anglican and that he refused communion to a lady (Sophy Hopkey) once she had jilted him for another man!  He returned home in discouragement writing in his journal, “I went to America to convert the Indians, but, oh, who shall convert me?”  The mission to Georgia did have one positive effect though:  it revealed John’s own spiritual bankruptcy (cf. Matt. 5:3).

Conversion. After his disastrous experience in Georgia, he returned to England (1738) and met the Moravian Peter Böhler, who exhorted him to trust Christ alone for salvation.  At a Moravian band meeting on Aldersgate Street (May 24, 1738), as he listened to a reading from Luther’s preface to his commentary on Romans, Wesley felt his “heart strangely warmed.” Although scholars disagree as to the exact nature of this experience, nothing in Wesley was left untouched by his newfound faith. After a short journey to Germany to visit the Moravian settlement of Herrnhut, he returned to England and with George Whitefield, a former fellow-member of the Holy Club, began preaching salvation by faith alone. This “new doctrine” was considered redundant by the sacramentalists in the Church of England, who thought people sufficiently saved by virtue of their infant baptism. The established churches soon closed their doors to Wesley’s preaching and so, at the urging of George Whitefield, he began to preach in the “open air,” as it was called.  It was not an easy decision for Wesley to make, however.  “Having been all my life so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order, I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.”

In 1739 Wesley followed Whitefield to Bristol, where a revival broke out among the miners of Kingswood. At that point Wesley’s true genius surfaced through his ability to organize new converts into Methodist “societies” and “bands” which sustained both them and the revival.  The revival continued under Wesley’s direct leadership for over fifty years. He traveled some 250,000 miles throughout England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, preaching some 40,000 sermons. [He remained loyal to the Established Church all his life.  Methodism in England did not become a separate denomination until after his death].

“I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that in whatever part of it I am, I judge it. . . my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear the glad tidings of salvation.”

Wesley would go on to preach on ships, in prisons and inns, even at his father’s old church at Epworth (he was not permitted inside so he preached to the crowd while standing on his father’s tombstone).  At Cornwall he preached at a natural amphitheater to a crowd of 30,000!  In 1774, writing in his journal, Wesley estimated that his minimum miles traveled per year was 4,500.

In 1751 Wesley married a widow of a London merchant whose name was Molly Vazeille.  It would turn out to be anything but a successful marriage.  She tried to travel with John for two years but her health would not permit any more.  Worse yet, she left him and when she died in 1781, Wesley was not aware of it and thus could not even attend her funeral.

Wesley himself kept preaching until nearly the end of his life, which end came on March 2, 1791.  His great legacy was that of leaving some 80,000 followers in England and 40,000 in America in his day; their number would swell to over 20 million Methodists today.  Indeed, it was as his brother Charles said, “God buries his workmen, but carries on his work.”  When the Gentleman’s Magazine reported his death, the feature of his achievement singled out for special commendation was his doing “infinite good to the lower classes of the people.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris permalink
    February 8, 2011 10:13 AM

    Did a paper on Wesley last year. He and his ministry make for a great study. I called him an “evangelical Frankenstein minister” who was made up of parts of Billy Graham (evangelist), Rick Warren (purpose driven groups), Bill Hybels (seeker sensitive meetings), Mark Driscoll (pastor-theologian), Jerry Bridges (holiness), Donald McGavran (church growth data), Ron Sider (social concern), and Jerry Falwell (moral majority advocate) to name a few. Though short in stature, the life and ministry of Wesley has cast a long shadow in church history.

    You did an awesome job on the overview above! Well done! Keep writing!

    • February 8, 2011 10:44 AM

      Thanks Chris. I’d like a copy of your paper if you would, I know I would find it edifying. I’ve got a draft on the board for sometime soon on the English Bible and a very basic history of it coming up.

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