It is well known that John Wesley was the founder of the Methodist Church. But who was John Wesley? He was born in 1703, the fifteenth child and second son of the Reverend Samuel Wesley, Anglican Rector of Epworth in Lincolnshire, and his wife, Susanna. In 1709, aged 5, John was rescued from a fire that destroyed the family's home, but it was rebuilt and the Wesleys lived there until 1735.
John was educated at the Charterhouse School in London and at Oxford University. He was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1728 at Christ Church Cathedral, and became a tutor and Fellow of Lincoln College in Oxford. He joined like-minded friends in the so-called 'Holy Club', formed by his brother Charles. Their discipline and religious zeal (they got up at 4 am to pray) earned them the nicknames ‘Bible moths’ or 'Methodists', which implied both ‘methodical’ and ‘enthusiastic’. They were very serious about their faith, which involved a lot of prayer, Bible study, taking communion together, and acts of charity, especially at the local prison. Around this time Wesley realised he could live on £28 per year, so he gave the rest away to charity.
In 1735 he set sail to Savannah, Georgia, to work in what was then the American colonies. On the way there was a terrible storm, in which Wesley was sure the ship would sink, but he met a group of German Christians (Moravians) who were praying calmly, and was amazed by their faith, which had a great influence on him. His time in America was not successful, and he soon returned.
In 1738 John Wesley had a profound spiritual experience, which he referred to as his conversion. "I felt," he wrote, "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." This experience transformed Wesley, and inspired him to become one of the greatest preachers of all time. This was the root of Methodism's belief in personal salvation: a change our relationship with God and our human behaviour through faith in Jesus.
1739 was another very important year. He went to visit a friend, George Whitefield, who was preaching in fields around London. Large numbers of working people were becoming Christians and changing their behaviour for the better. Though reluctant at first, field preaching became a vital part of his ministry for the rest of his life, especially as Anglican churches started banning him for being too enthusiastic. This was the origin of his saying, “the world is my parish.” He also started a school at the New Room in Bristol for the children of miners, the start of a lifelong quest to provide education for poor children. He also set up the first free medical clinic in London in 1745.
John Wesley spent fifty years travelling the country preaching, and rode around 250,000 miles. He was not always well received by everyone, but countless lives were changed by his ministry. Though there is doubt about whether he actually said this, the famous quote often attributed to him, “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,” does sum up his ministry quite well, and inspired the renaming of the Methodist Church’s international aid section, now called ‘All we can’. His brother Charles is famous for writing thousands of hymns, many of which are still sung today, including ‘Hark the herald angels sing’ and ‘Love divine, all loves excelling’.
John Wesley never shied away from controversy. In the 1780s he upset the Church of England, to which he still belonged, by ordaining priests for America, which he wasn’t allowed to do because he wasn’t a bishop. In 1784 he called the first Methodist Conference, which is still the meeting which decides the policy of the Methodist Church. John Wesley died in 1791, but the work of the Methodists continued, with the first official Methodist Church starting in the 1790s at the New Room in Bristol. It spread quickly- there is a record of Methodists setting up a Sunday School to educate the poor children of Radcliffe in 1800, though Methodism only really started setting up day schools in the 1840s. Wesley was not built until 1900 (as St Paul’s, see ‘Our Church’). The early Methodists split into different groups: Wesleyans, Primitives and United Methodists being the largest, before most of them came back together in 1932.
This history has given us a rich Methodist heritage, with various key strands which can be traced back to that history. Prayer is essential to a healthy church, and most Methodist churches have a prayer meeting even today. Studying the Bible has always been important to Methodists, as has preaching- the pulpit is often central in older Methodist churches. Developing from this is the tradition of Biblical holiness- seeking to do the right thing following the teachings of the Bible and especially the teachings of Jesus. This in turn has led to the Methodist emphasis on acts of charity and love, and the development of ‘All we can’. Two other strengths of Methodism are our singing (especially Charles Wesley hymns- we have a tradition of singing our theology- what we believe), and our interest in education. There are now 83 Methodist schools in Britain, which the largest number here in the north-west, educating 25,000 pupils. Methodism is a worldwide denomination, with over eighty million members spread over 138 countries.