This short biographical essay will examine the character of John Wesley, his weakness for women, his upbringing, the providential preservation of his life from a domestic fire, the Aldersgate experience, his relationship with Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, the Holy Club, some of his theological views, and his significance to the 18th century.
John Wesley was the fifteenth child of Samuel and Susanna Wesley, born June 17, 1703. His mother often addressed him in correspondences as “Jacky” or “Jack.” He developed into a man about five feet six inches, with a long bony nose, and unfashionably long hair. He never wore a wig and there was a cast in one of his clear blue eyes. His long hair became one of the defining features of his appearance. He was strong physically, intellectually, and morally. Additionally, he was obsessively introspective. From the age of twelve years old, he kept a diary recording his spiritual growth toward holiness. In 1725, at an older age, he began to record “General Rules for Employment of Time” and “General Rules of Intention” in his diary. September 20, he resolved to review his life twice a day; October 24, he augmented it to include weekly examinations; and December 1, he began to fast every Wednesday to resist the devil’s influence (Hattersley 62). While a Master at Oxford, in 1730, Wesley began to build a list of “General Questions,” which reveal his desire for self-control. The “General Questions” were similar to Jonathan Edwards Resolutions; both men were extremely obsessive in their self-examination.
Despite his religious rigidity, he “frequented theaters, coffee houses, and ladies ‘closets’- only to write remorseful entries in his diary for doing so” (Steele 109). Other weaknesses were intemperate sleep (oversleeping) and vain talk. Roy Hattersley writes in The Life of John Wesley: A Brand from the Burning: “Women were his weakness; doctrinal promiscuity was his abiding sin” (4). Wesley’s first apparent love was Sally Kirkham from Cotswolds. He had strong attraction to Sally, even after she was married. He referred to her as Varanese in his diary, which was a common practice of the intellectual middle class to name others by association with a classical name. Sally was only one out of four women that would comprise a complex network of emotional relationships for John; the others were Sally’s sisters, Elizabeth and Damaris, and their friend Mary Pendarves. Kitty Hargreave’s name began to appear frequently during the summer of 1726. Some of his diary entries are quite revealing, for example, “Never touch Kitty again,” “Never again to touch a woman’s breast” (Hattersley 66). John Wesley struggled throughout his life in maintaining moral and healthy relationships with women. The women were fond of him and he admired them, but his passions had the tendency to get the best of him.
John’s parents were Samuel Wesley (1662-1735) and Susanna Annesley(1669-1742). They first met at a wedding in 1682, the wedding of Samuel’s sister to John Dunton. Their marriage experienced considerable tension because Susanna maintained one should have a right to one’s convictions. One of hers was that she would not call William her king, which greatly angered her husband, and almost caused a separation between them. In the 18th century, English Protestantism was divided into two camps- the Established Church and the Dissenting Churches. Both of Wesley’s parents grew up in Dissenting homes, but later under family pressure, they converted to the Church of England at an early age. Samuel Wesley was an Anglican priest while his three sons avoided the priesthood: Samuel, Jr. became a schoolmaster; John, an itinerant evangelist; Charles, an evangelist and poet. Susanna bore nineteen children, nine of whom died in infancy; but out of the ten children that survived, seven were daughters and three were sons. V.V.H. Green has observed that “John’s formative years were spent in the midst of a sisterhood dominated by a matriarch…” (Steele 107). Susanna maintained the Augustinian belief that self-will is the root of all sin and misery. “The Wesley household regime had all the moral austerity, educational rigor, and biblical piety of the classical Puritan home” (Steele 106). She raised her children with the emphasis on conquering the child’s will.
February 9, 1709 the roof of the Epworth rectory corn barn caught fire. John somehow was left in the fire as his family escaped, but at the last moment he was rescued; that is why he is referred to as “a brand plucked from the burning” (Hattersley 27). The story has become exaggerated and a part of Methodist folklore. Some had thought this incredible act of providence suggested that God intended great things for this child. John was six years old when the rectory caught fire. Two years later his mother had gradually grown to think that God may have saved her child because he was intended to offer salvation to others from fiercer flames.
On May 24, 1738 during a prayer meeting in Aldersgate Street, London, Wesley “felt his heart ‘strangely warmed’ through the personal appropriation of Christ’s atoning work” (129). Interestingly, the experience was precipitated by hearing a reading of Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. Steele identifies three significant historical and theological results from Wesley’s Aldersgate experience: 1) justification by grace through faith became his central theme, 2) the doctrine bore much fruit with his audiences, 3) and he shed his self-righteous moralism of his youth, on one extreme, and avoided quitistic illuminism on the other. September 16, 1738 Wesley returned to London preaching free salvation.
On October 9, 1738, while on a sixty-mile hike to Oxford he was greatly impressed from reading Edwards’ Faithful Narrative. He hoped one day to promote a similar revival. Edwards and Wesley never personally met each other, nor did they correspond, but they did interact indirectly with each other’s ideas and methods, through contacts, friends, and publications. “On the whole, it must be said that Wesley knew more about and was more directly influenced by Edwards than vice versa...yet Edwards was not untouched by the work of Wesley, though he remained largely hostile to it” (Steele 158).
As much as Edwards influenced Wesley, Whitefield is more responsible for affecting Wesley in his earlier years of ministry. April 1, 1739, Wesley tried field preaching for the first time. Whitefield began field preaching in Bristol, England and later encouraged Wesley to begin doing so. Whitefield and Wesley had a falling apart after Wesley declared that God wills all men to be saved. Wesley’s free grace agitated Whitefield, who wrote him in several letters to repent of the matter. For Wesley, one needed grace and a new birth, without which one would not be saved. The gift of faith was a divine gift but each individual must choose whether he will accept it or not.
Some of Wesley’s theology grew out of his intense and calculated spiritual self-analyzation, which was characterized at Oxford. It was a “certain form of perfection Wesley strove after in all things he did, and that from the boyhood years at Oxford–the perfection of doing the best possible in whatever he undertook (McConnell 32).” In 1729, Charles Wesley formed a Christian living society at Oxford, which later flourished when, his brother, John Wesley became a member. The original members called it the Holy Club, and others, derogatorily, called them the Methodists. The small group of men held before them as their goal an instructive “search for the right means of attaining holiness (McConnell 37) constructing their search as a “regularity of worship, system in study and prayer, persistence in right living before the world” (McConnell 37). Contrasting their attempt against the austere Anglicanism quite comfortably entrenched at Oxford, the group placed priority upon pragmatic theology: good works and deeds of charity were engaged upon with vigor. They took severe pains (quite literally) in denial of physical comforts: sleep, food, and social pleasures, i.e. spirits. While receiving much criticism, the reward of the Holy Club was an intense emotional experience, which elevated their common methods into righteousness (McConnell 38). Later, Wesley would call this righteousness a “Christian perfection” where the Christian, once justified, does not sin (Ayling 208). Understandably, controversial then and now, Wesley’s theology of Christian perfection would remain the cornerstone of Methodism.
At the end of John Wesley’s life, he had had a string of affairs and an unhappy and childless marriage. He died in 1791. Despite Wesley’s human weaknesses, he possessed incredible strengths. His efforts have been noted:
Much of his life, John Wesley was on the move preaching and organizing. It is estimated that he preached 40,000 sermons and traveled over a quarter of a million miles on horseback. He often took to the streets because his message was not welcome in the pulpits. He preached in the fields, the marketplace, roadsides, anywhere he could gain a hearing [to proclaim the Gospel of Christ] (John Wesley the Preacher)
The great preachers were pop stars or public enemies. It was very dangerous and costly to preach against public opinion. Wesley was persecuted by the authorities, threatened by mobs, and outcast by his own church (John Wesley the Preacher)
John Wesley is significantly known as the founder of Methodism, leader of the Great Revival in Britain, and influential in the Second Reformation. Methodism was founded in the 18th century, but in the 19th century, it became essentially an institution. Hattersley recognizes that “not in his own lifetime, but certainly by proxy during the hundred years which followed his death, Wesley was one of the architects of Modern England. John Wesley’s Second Reformation created a new church and helped to build a new nation” (411). John Wesley no longer lives, but his memory and impact are evident in the world today.
Ayling, Stanley. John Wesley. Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1979.
Hattersley, Roy. The Life of John Wesley: A Brand from the Burning. Doubleday: New York, 2003.
Marsden, George M. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. Yale University Press: London, 2003.
McConnell, Francis J. John Wesley. Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1939.
Steele, Richard B. Gracious Affection and “True Virtue” According to Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley. Scarecrow Press, 1994.
John Wesley the Preacher [video recording]. Worcester, Pa.: Vision Video, c1990.