Recognised as the founder of Methodism, John Wesley was born in 1703 in Epworth, Lincolnshire, the son of Samuel and Susannah Wesley. Samuel was rector of Epworth and his wife was the daughter of Samuel Annesley, a dissenting minister. John and his eight surviving siblings, which included Charles who would become noted for his prolific hymn writing, were given intense religious and general education from an early age by their parents.
John was educated at Charterhouse and Christ Church, Oxford and was subsequently elected a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford. He was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1728. After serving as a parish curate for two years he returned to Oxford to lead what had become known disparagingly as the “Holy Club”, a society that had been founded by his younger brother Charles for the study and pursuit of a devout Christian life.
In 1735 the two brothers sailed for Savannah, Georgia in the American colonies at the request of the colony founders who wished John to become minister of the new parish. It was at this time John first encountered Moravian settlers whose faith and piety impressed him greatly.
Wesley suffered mixed fortunes in Georgia and on returning to England somewhat disillusioned he allied himself to the Moravians in London. It was at one of their meetings that he had a religious experience that would shape the rest of his life and ministry.
Finding himself excluded from preaching in most parish churches Wesley followed the example of his similarly excluded Oxford friend and evangelist George Whitefield by preaching in the open air. Thus began a lifelong missionary journey that would take John Wesley the length and breadth of the British Isles.
Wesley helped organise small Christian groups based on personal accountability, descipleship and religious instruction and placed them in the charge of suitable though often unordained evangelists. In an even more radical move, he also consented to allowing women to preach. Under his guidance Methodists became campaigners on many social issues including prison reform and the abolition of slavery.
As a result of his activities Wesley and his fledgling Methodist movement met with much opposition. Seen as a threat to the established order, meetings were frequently attacked by mobs and meeting places stoned. In 1743 Wesley was chased out of Walsall by a mob who threatened to put him in the brook. He was rescued when an ex-collier and prize-fighter, impressed by his courage in facing the angry crowd, picked him up and carried him off to the relative safety of Wednesbury.
In 1781 Wesley preached in Quinton at the invitation of landowner Ambrose Foley in a garden building where the Asda supermarket now stands. At this time Wesley was nearing 80 years of age yet he would return several times more.
John Wesley died in 1791 and was laid to rest in his chapel on City Road, London. In 2002 the BBC ran a public poll to decide the 100 Greatest Britons and this saw John Wesley placed at no. 50.
John Wesley’s Rule of Life
Do all the good you can, By all the means you can, In all the ways you can, In all the places you can, At all the times you can, To all the people you can, As long as ever you can.