The principal founder and leader of Methodism, John Wesley was born in England in 1703, the fifteenth of nineteen children born to Samuel and Susanna Wesley. As the son of an Anglican minister, John Wesley sought to cleanse and reanimate the Church of England from within; he did not intend to establish a new denomination. His particular genius lay in his itinerant preaching tours and in the societies he formed to support the followers left behind. These societies became the framework of the Methodist Church.
Wesley was educated at Oxford University, where he received his M.A. in 1727. The following year he was ordained an Anglican clergyman. While at Oxford he became the leader of the Holy Club, a group of pious, scholarly students formed by his younger brother Charles. The aim of the club was to foster prayer, Bible study, charity, and participation in frequent Communion.
The group was labeled with the epithet “Methodist” because of the members’ disciplined rules and methods. Wesley characterized a Methodist as “one who lives according to the method laid down in the Bible.”
In 1735 John and Charles sailed for Georgia on a missionary journey at the invitation of colony founder James Oglethorpe. The mission failed when both were forced to return to England, Charles for health reasons and John because of a lawsuit resulting from an unfortunate love affair. Among the charges brought against him by a judicial body was that he insisted on the necessity of confession before receiving Holy Communion.
After his return to England, a reading of Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans led Wesley to feel an “enthusiastic” assurance that he was saved, but few Anglican pulpits were accessible to Wesley and his emotional message. His hope to lead other Anglican clergymen to champion his cause never was realized. He took to the fields and barns, preaching all over England and setting up societies to sustain the fervor of the movement. These societies spread to America in the 1760s.
His use of lay preachers and his ordination of ministers for America angered many, including his brother Charles, because these acts were in defiance of the Church of England. The American victory in the Revolutionary War ended British control of Methodism in the colonies and led to the establishment of the first independent Methodist Church.
The Wesleys were viewed by many as being Jesuit agents in disguise. Their belief in the Real Presence, apostolic succession, the importance of good works, fasting, and their rejection of Calvinistic predestination were seen as a return to Catholic positions. John resented the accusation that he was being used by the Catholic Church. He said of Catholics, “I wish them well but I dare not trust them.”
During his lifetime John Wesley gave more than 40,000 sermons by traveling more than 250,000 miles on horseback. A prolific writer and an avid reader, his favorite devotional book was the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. One Catholic scholar said of John Wesley, who died in London in 1791, “Under other circumstances he would have been the founder of a religious order or a reforming pope.”