14 Feb 2006
John Wesley was a remarkable man with respect to the life that he lived and the calling that he fulfilled. While he rode in on the tail-coats of the great reformers, he was a leader in one of the most influential revivals in Church history. As is the case with most great men, however, John Wesley has been romanticized by his followers and marginalized by his critics. Debates rage among scholars over the historical and theological Wesley, and the layman who finds himself an heir to the legacy of Wesley may occasionally pay homage to his patriarch with a quote or a thought of which Wesley may or may not have been the source. Albert Outler once wrote, “To write synoptically of John Wesley’s “place in the Christian tradition in a single essay is a bit intimidating”, but the need to discover the man behind the myth is both important and ecclesiastically relevant for today.
Wesley was born on June 17, 1703 - the same year as Jonathan Edwards -, as the fifteenth child to the large and ever-growing family of Samuel and Susannah Wesley. He died on March 2, 1791. Born as the son of an Anglican minister, his life was controversial, but at the same time a prime example of a servant of the kingdom of God. When he was six years old, the house of his family caught on fire and he was trapped inside. While the house was burning down, he called out from a window and his pregnant mother ran in and made the daring rescue to save him while his father prayed for his soul. God answered his prayers, and John emerged from the flaming house in his mother’s arms; he was “a brand plucked from the burning” of whom his father gave thanks for and his mother made a promise to God that she would be “more particularly careful for the soul of this child, that Thou has so mercifully provided for, than ever I have been, that I may do my endeavours to instill into his mind the disciplines of true religion and virtue”. To most of his followers, this was a sign that he had been saved from the flames of death and that he would an instrument of God to save others from even greater flames in the revival to come.
John Wesley entered Christ Church, Oxford in 1720 at the age of 17, obtained his B.A. in 1724, and in 1727 he obtained his M.A. He actively did ministry from this time on, but it was not until 1738 that his life changed, and for the better many would say. Prior to 1738, Wesley had been the leader of the Holy Club at Oxford: a group also known as Methodists that strove to live towards the perfection of holy living, and was nearly obsessed with self-examination of the soul. He was also what some would call “girl crazy,” having chased after the impossible devotion of a woman married to another man! Interestingly enough, she had purportedly been the one who had first encouraged him towards the life of imitating Christ – a first conversion to the faith, if one must say so. Wesley grew up religious, but not until he met this woman did he get serious about his religious upbringing. Not until his experience at Aldersgate did a true change occurred in Wesley regarding his faith in Jesus Christ. The Aldersgate experience recorded his journal reads as such:
In the evening I went very unwilling to a society in Aldersgate-Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: And an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death…
From then on, Wesley focused more on faith in God and the redeeming love of God, both offered only by the Grace of the Father, as essential to the Christian life. Still, his personal awakening did not begin at Aldersgate, but was a result of, by the grace of God, a series of events leading up to this. Albert Outler comments:
Until his confrontations with the Moravians and Salzburgers, he had never been challenged by sola fide as a personal demand for decision. The aftermath of this confrontation – Peter Bohler, Aldersgate, Herrnhut, Jonathan Edwards’ Faithful Narrative of a Suprising Work of God in New England (published in 1736, but not read by Wesley until October of 1738) – makes clear, good sense, and it adds up to a twin conclusion: 1738 was Wesley’s theological annus mirabilis and Aldersgate was the dramatic moment in that year when he reversed the priorities between sola fide and holy living, never to reverse them again.
The zeal for the holy life of the Methodists, while a remaining influence upon his life and preaching, was no longer his foremost battle cry. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” sounded from the fields, and his itinerant ministry could be likened to being a spiritual foreshadow to the famous ride of Paul Revere.
Between 1738 – the year of the Wesley’s Aldersgate experience – to 1791 – the year of his death, he preached no less than 52,400 times – often three times a day, beginning at five in the morning, and then riding from town to town on his horse both in Britain and her American colonies -, organized and superintended hundreds of societies throughout the British Isles – namely, what were termed as Holiness Clubs or Methodist societies-, wrote 233 books and pamphlets along with having edited 200 others, kept a journal and a diary, edited two magazines, organized many charities, and always had time to give to the poor and the sick. Outler labels Wesley as a folk theologian – one whom the common man and the scholar can both read and understand. He belonged to no one particular theological school, except that he labeled himself as “a man of the book”. Some scholars argue that the amount of Scripture infused into his works rivals that of the Early Church Fathers. He is championed as the heroic anti-Calvinist by Arminians, and the rest of church simply marginalizes him and acknowledges that he existed. George Cell disputes the claim of Wesley’s anti-Calvinism and says, “The Wesleyan doctrine of saving faith as set forth in the first manifesto of the Wesleyan Reformation, and no less clearly in all his expositions of Christian doctrine, is therefore a complete renewal of the Luther-Calvin thesis that in the thought of salvation God is everything, man is nothing”. The theocentric theology of Wesley, which focused on the Sovereignty of God, is evidence enough for Cell that Wesley was actually a Calvinist.
The different aspects to his vocation were diverse and remarkable: he was a preacher, an administrator, writer, hymnologist, social reformer, and theologian. It is said that Wesley preached along the lines of the Great Reformers, and encouraged clerical training in line with the Renaissance theologians: knowledge of the Bible, knowledge of the original languages in which Scripture was written, knowledge of the ancient and current world, knowledge of the writings of the Church Fathers, and an understanding of men. He was a remarkable hymnologist, many of which are still in use by the Anglican and Methodist Churches today. One of his favorite composers was fellow Oxford alumnus Isaac Watts. The enthusiasm that John Wesley had just for preaching the Gospel is humbling. Dr. Howard Slaatte remarks:
Preaching at five in the morning was for Wesley an invigorating experience. In times of illness he was never idle. Once he even rose above a serious threat of tuberculosis An hour each day was spent in devotions, and six and one-half hours of sleep were the most he would accept. “The soul and body make a man,” he said; “the spirit and discipline make a Christian.
The tenacity he possessed was, according to many scholars, unmatched in his day. It was this very thing – echoed in his motto, “Lord, let me not live to be useless, the drive to fulfill his calling as a son of God and a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that propelled him forward. However, it is important to note that John Wesley did not intend to begin a new denomination. Just as Luther saw himself in light of the Roman Catholic Church, Wesley was that for the Anglican Church. He encouraged the keeping of the traditions of the church and the sacraments of the faith, and he had no patience towards showy and overly emotional displays of religious affections, which he deemed as ‘namby-pambical’. His concern was, as his mother prayed as a child, true religion and virtue.
The rediscovery of John Wesley is essential for the church today. As with figures of the past, he has been largely ignored by his critics and romanticized by the people who inherited his legacy. His theology has been misconstrued, and while not everything could be said about him in such a short amount of space, it has been demonstrated that he was “a man of the book” who sought the salvation of the souls around him as he had once been saved as a child. The soulful introspection of John Wesley, mirroring that of the Puritans in New England, was only in part the catalyst of a second great revival, but Wesley would say that it was all on the part of God Himself.
 Albert C. Outler, “The Place of Wesley in the Christian Tradition,” The Place of Wesley in the Christian Tradition: Essays delivered at Drew University in Celebration of the commencement of the publication of the Oxford Edition of the Works of John Wesley, ed. By Betty M. Jarboe (Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 1976), pg. 11.
 Roy Hattersley, The Life of John Wesley: A Brand from the Burning (Doubleday, 2003), pg.27.
 John Wesley, The Journal of John Wesley: A Selection, ed by Elisabeth Jay (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987) May 24, 1738.
 Albert C. Outler, “The Place of Wesley in the Christian Tradition,” The Place of Wesley in the Christian Tradition: Essays delivered at Drew University in Celebration of the commencement of the publication of the Oxford Edition of the Works of John Wesley, ed by Kenneth E. Rowe (Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 1976), pg. 20.
 George Croft Cell, The Rediscovery of John Wesley, (University Press of America, 1935), pg. 271.
 Howard Alexander Slaatte, Ph.D., Fire in the Brand: An Introduction to the Creative Work and Theology of John Wesley, (University Press of America, 1983), pg. 31.
 Ibid., pg. 18.
 Ibid., pg. 46.