John Wesley and The Rise of Methodism

John Wesley and The Rise of Methodism

I am continuing to use this monthly column as an opportunity for us to look at the life of John Wesley, a prominent leader in the early Methodist movement in the 1700s in England. My hope is that you will take the time to explore how this ordinary man came to live an extraordinary life for God. In doing this, I hope that you’ll find yourself inspired to serve Christ with greater love and obedience.

Last month, I talked about John Wesley’s early life, and in particular about a famous incident of him being plucked from a burning house moments before it collapsed. When he reached the age of 11, John moved from Epworth to London, where he spent seven years in a boarding school. Without the restraints of his childhood home, John grew more worldly. In his words, he was “continually guilty of outward sins.” Amazingly, he continued to read the Bible daily and pray every morning and evening. [1]

Following his schooling at the London boarding house, John moved to Oxford to attend Christ Church. At the age of 22, likely feeling pressure from his father, Wesley began studying to be ordained in the Church of England. During this time, Wesley read Christian writings more broadly than he had before. A classic devotional called The Imitation of Christ (which I very much recommend!) had a great impact on him. Together with a few other (newer) books, it seems that this was a major intellectual and spiritual turning point for Wesley. He says that he began to understand “that true religion was seated in the heart… [involving] our thoughts as well as words and actions.” [2] Wesley began to pray specifically for inward holiness. This would become the pursuit of his life and eventually become the distinctive emphasis of his teaching.

After being ordained, Wesley served two years as “curate” (Associate Pastor) for his father in his hometown of Epworth, after which he moved back to Oxford to teach. At this time, John joined a small group that had been formed with his brother Charles and two or three other friends. The group eventually came to meet 3 or 4 times a week. The purpose of their meeting was to to study classic writings, including especially the New Testament in it’s original Greek, as well as to pray, and to hold one another accountable for keeping track of how they spent their time. The group would also go together to receive Holy Communion.

This group of Christians was meticulous in following and teaching all of the official teachings of the Church of England. In order to keep their consciences clean, they would also observe all of the regulations of the University, at least as far as they thought the Bible required them. Wesley wrote later that it was their desire to be “downright Bible-Christians; taking the Bible, as interpreted by the [early] Church and our own, for their whole and sole rule.” [3] This intense, exacting discipline caused many in the school to make fun of them. The first name given to this group (by those mocking it) was “the Holy Club.” Later, a young man at the school labeled them “Methodists.” Wesley said, “The name was new and quaint; so it took immediately, and the Methodists were known all over the University.” [4]

In living out the biblical faith, this group of Methodists worked to spur one another on to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24). One of the group shared how he had gone to the jail to see a man who was condemned for killing his wife [5].  The group began to go to the jail once or twice a week, and eventually they began preaching there regularly. The members of the group also spurred one another on to visit the sick and the needy regularly. They came to devote several hours a week to this endeavor.

Wesley reflected on this time, saying “by my continued endeavour to keep [God’s] whole law… I was persuaded that I should be accepted [by] Him….”  Even as he worked to persuade himself in his mind that he was accepted by God, he said, “I could not find that all this gave me any comfort, or any assurance of acceptance with God.” [6] Amazingly, for all the good that Wesley did at this stage in his walk with God, he would later go on to say that he was only “almost” a Christian. This was because he had not truly trusted in Christ and had God’s love poured into his heart by the Holy Spirit.

In 1735, Wesley’s father, Samuel died. This pulled him away from Oxford for a period of time to take care of the parish and of his family. Despite his father’s hope that he would take over the Epworth parish ministry, John’s quest for personal holiness was pulling him away from the comforts of home. Within a few months, with the blessing of their mother, both John and Charles had resolved to become missionaries to the newly established Georgia colony. They hoped to bring Christianity to the American Indians. John would soon depart for Georgia, carrying with him a growing burden of holy discontent at his pursuit of a more authentic faith.

Next month, we’ll learn from Wesley’s faith-shaking trip across the ocean and (mostly) failed mission work in Georgia.

What about you? How do you see your own story in the story of John Wesley? Have you ever strived to take your faith more seriously only to find yourself facing continual set-backs?


[1] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, vol. 1, Third Edition. (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 98.
[2] Ibid., 99.
[3] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, vol. 8, Third Edition. (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 348.
[4] Ibid.
[5] John Wesley, The Journal of the Rev. John Wesley, ed. Nehemiah Curnock, vol. 1 (London: Robert Culley; Charles H. Kelly, 1909–1916), 90.
[6] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, vol. 1, Third Edition. (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 99.