John Wesley (1703-91), cofounder (with brother Charles Wesley) of the Methodist movement, Anglican priest, Oxford fellow, theologian, author, publisher, evangelist, and itinerant preacher. Wesley was the fifteenth child of Samuel and Susanna Wesley. At the age of five, John nearly perished in the Epworth rectory fire. From that moment, Susanna regarded John as a "brand plucked from the burning" and was convinced that God had some special purpose for his life. Wesley studied Greek, natural and moral philosophy, and logic at Oxford University. While at Oxford as a teaching fellow, he took over the leadership of the Oxford Holy Club, a group started by his brother Charles and a few close friends. The purpose of the group was to provide a mutual accountability structure for the imitation of Christ. Under John's leadership, they established a semimonastic lifestyle of extreme frugality (living on £28 a year), praying the Daily Office (Liturgy of the Hours), a form of daily self-examination (examen), twice weekly Holy Communion, serious Bible study, penance and mortification (especially fasting), and works of mercy among the poor. The methodical rigor of their pious practice caused much ridicule among the intellectuals of the university, who nicknamed them Methodists.
From the time of the Holy Club, Wesley kept a journal that he regularly edited for publication. The first volume recounts a disastrous trip as a missionary to Georgia, after which Wesley felt he was a failure as a priest, a Christian, and a human being. His search for a felt sense of assurance in his relationship with Christ culminated on May 24, 1738, when, at a Moravian meeting in Aldersgate Street, London, he felt his "heart strangely warmed." By 1739 Anglican pulpits were repeatedly closed to Wesley because of his strong preaching on salvation by faith. Reluctantly he began field preaching. ... From 1738 to 1765, Wesley built a strongly organized Methodist society as a renewal movement within the Church of England. Through his evangelistic preaching tours tens of thousands were converted to Christ. ... He said that his aim was "not to form any new sect; but to reform the nation, particularly the Church; and to spread scriptural holiness over the land." However, due to his pastoral concerns for the Methodists in America following the Revolutionary War, Wesley did set up the American Methodist Episcopal Church (1784) by ordaining and sending Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke to be its first bishops.
Wesley's Journal letters, sermons, and treatises are available in many editions, including some available on-line. A Plain Account of Christian Perfection summarizes Wesley's teaching on that subject.
[Excerpted with permission from the entry on John Wesley by Cynthia I. Zirlott, The Upper Room Dictionary of Christian Spiritual Formation edited by Keith Beasley-Topliffe. Copyright © 2003 by Upper Room Books®. All rights reserved.]
Oil on canvas, painted in Tewksbury, England, by an unknown artist in 1771. A UMNS photo reproduced with permission from the Methodist Collection of Drew University Library.