John Wesley: The Founding Father of Methodists

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At the tender age of 5, it seemed John Wesley was predestined to preach; when he was saved from a house fire in which he was left behind accidentally in his crib, sleeping. He came from a strong background of Puritan ministers, both on his mother’s side and his fathers, so it was imperative that he should follow in the right footsteps and attend Oxford just as his father and brothers did. His years at Christ Church Oxford proved to be a major turning point in his life, a spiritual awakening where he came to take his faith more seriously than ever before. What happened during this time, shaped his thinking for the rest of his life (Tomkins,2003, p22). In order to understand how the great Methodist movement came about, we must go back to where it started from: the Holy Club.

In 1727, Charles Wesley (John’s oldest brother) threw himself into his studies and took communion every week, with John’s encouragement. Soon he recruited a couple of friends; they renounced all outsiders and devoted themselves to weekly communion. The small group became unpopular among the other students, but university authorities shared Charles’ dismay about his fellow students’ lifestyle and they decided that more supervision was needed and they began recalling tutors to oversee the students in person (Tomkins, 2003, p33). John comes on the scene in 1729; he joined his brother’s holy club and soon became the dominant personality. He imposed his own regime on his students, while growing stricter on himself. They were told which books they could read and which they could not, he abandoned such things as cards and dancing and visitors that might take time away from studies (Tomkins, 2003, pg.32).

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As for himself, he wrote down his daily deeds and motives to see if they were sufficiently directed to the glory of God. The Holy Club started going to the Oxford Castle prison to offer spiritual encouragement to the prisoners, they made it part of their regular routine to go several times a week. Soon after, John applied to the Bishop of Oxford for permission to preach and with no objections, he proceeded to do so. Adding to their weekly schedule, they began visiting the sick; to pray with them (Tomkins, 2003, p.34). The small group became noticed for their works and drew in supporters that gave donations, who didn’t want to join their activities; this is when they became ‘The Methodists’. Their emphasis on justification by faith opened a new door to heaven for those who despaired of meriting God’s favor (Tomkins, 2003, p.84).

Methodism, at first, was not very popular, as most could not deal with the strict principles that Wesley had them follow. On one account, in a letter written to the father of one of John’s followers, he wrote that religion was not just saying your prayers and avoiding deliberate sins. It was about being remade in the divine image, an ever-increasing conformity to the heart and life of Christ (Tomkins, 2003, p.39). People thought of John as a fanatic, because the way he lived his life, they said he was going too far and it was becoming an obsession for him. Near the end of 1734, John’s father had passed away and he was to go to Georgia to assist with public order and morals, and to convert the natives, as asked of him by the Society for the Promotion of Christian knowledge. He didn’t hesitate to jump on the opportunity and persuaded his brother and a few others to join him (Tomkins, 2003, p.42). Although his journey turned into catastrophe and his mission was very unsuccessful, it was important for two reasons: Moravian spirituality has an incalculable impact on the shape of Methodism (Moravian religion emphasized on justification by faith that the English Church had lost) and this was when Wesley’s Journal started; he narrated his daily activities and published them every year or two. Upon his return to England, he was an emotional weathervane, spinning from exultation to anxiety as the wind blew (Tomkins, 2003, p.62). News of what happened in Georgia followed him home and no church wanted to receive him, he then decided to set out for Germany to visit the Moravian communities.

His admiration for them was extraordinary and he had questioned his faith since his boat ride from Georgia, so he went in search of something. But while he was there, they too had heard about Georgia and they refused him Communion, saying his faith was too unsettled and too cerebral and he was too attached to the Church of England. In return, this left Wesley with mixed feelings about the Moravians and before long his resentment toward them would rise again to wreak havoc (Tomkins, 2003, p.63). Because of being banned from preaching in most churches, Wesley took to an open field style of preaching.

The Methodists preaching style was very blunt, often times, Wesley would preach directly to a person or group, to convince them of their wrong doing or their lack of faith and salvation. During his sermons in the fields, people would start to cry out, some convulsing violently, some out cold and others would just sink down as if they had no strength left. They would scream in agony or burst out in a hysterical laughter and then rejoice saying they had found salvation in an instant. Most people and even Wesley himself were unsure about these charismatic activities, could only be described by Wesley saying “Immediately the power of God fell upon us and they received joy in the Holy Ghost” (Tomkins, 2003, p.72). In 1740, Wesley was no longer welcomed to preach in the London and Oxford societies, where he started the Methodist movement, due to these “outburst” during his sermons and then he was banned from preaching in most prisons including Newgate (Tomkins, 2003, p.91). The next year Wesley began the great Connexion, a national network of Methodists societies united in the Wesleyan gospel (Tomkins, 2003, p.96). In June 1744, he led the first Methodist Conference in the Foundry.

It included the two Wesley’s, four evangelical ministers and four lay preachers; during these meetings they discussed various issues of organization and doctrine, agreeing on rules for their societies and preachers. Soon the Conference became an annual event (Tomkins, 2003, p.115). These societies had to follow very strict rules or they could be expelled, he had certain rules for preaching, they were outlined and well known by all preachers in the Connextion. The rules for preaching were: be sure to begin and end precisely at the time appointed, sing no hymn of your own composing, endeavor to be serious, weighty and solemn in your whole department before the congregation, choose the plainest texts you can, take care not to ramble from your text but to keep close to it and make out what you undertake, always suit your subject to your audience, beware of allegorizing or spiritualizing too much, take care of anything awkward or affected, either in your gesture or pronunciation and tell each other if you observe anything of this kind (Tomkins, 2003, p.118).

He also had a set of rules for the preachers lives and work: preach every morning and evening, not too loud or too long, no sermon should start after 7pm, must fast regularly, sing hymns lustily but modestly in time and no alterations, must wear plain, cheap clothes but always be neat and clean, converse sparingly and cautiously with women, ensure men and women are seated separately in all meetings, all preachers must be full time. He also had a set of rules for the members; he called it his nine-point plan. They must go to church and encourage the people to go, take the sacrament whenever possible, Methodists must be warned against “the great and prevailing evil” of being too choosey in hearing parish preachers and taught not to despise parish prayers, not allowed to call the Methodist society “church” or the preachers “ministers” nor the preaching houses “meeting houses” and the preaching house must not be licensed as Dissenting chapels (Tomkins, 2003, p.166).

The greatest success of Methodism was in industrial areas like Kingswood and much of its audience came from the lower strata of society (Tomkins, 2003, p.85). Two of the greatest monuments of Wesley’s Methodism came in November 1778, when the City Road Chapel in London was built and in 1780 when Wesley published Hymns for The Use of Methodists, it’s the greatest instrument of popular culture that Christendom has ever produced (Tomkins, 2003, p.181). The importance of Methodism’s willingness to embrace the miraculous and charismatic is crucial. It was a religion of dreams and visions, healings, convulsions, ecstatic worship, exorcisms and messages and guidance from God. This was exciting for participants and drew a lot of spectators (Tomkins, 2003, p.85). Hymns written by Charles Wesley were of vital importance to Methodism. They grew crowds for outdoor preaching, a popular part of societies worship and they wrote Methodist teaching in the memory of the singer and in their hearts also (Tomkins, 2003, p.95).

Throughout the century after John Wesley’s death, Methodist numbers continued to soar, leaving behind 72,000 in the British Isles and 60,000 in America. Today there are 33 million Methodists in the world, with concentrations in the United States and South Africa. It is estimated that he rode 250,000 miles, preached 40,000 sermons and gave away enough money that could have kept a gentleman for a whole decade (Tomkins, 2003, p.199). Though Wesley had many ups and downs and was ridiculed for his beliefs and rigorous lifestyle throughout his life, it has been said that he was the best loved man in England.

Ethridge, Willie Snow. (1971). Strange Fires: The True Story of John Wesley’s Love Affair in Georgia. Toronto, Canada. Copp Clark Publishing Company. Tomkins, Stephen. (2003). John Welsey: A Biography. Oxford, England. Lion Publishing. Tyerman, Luke. (1970). The Life and Times of the Rev. John Wesley, M.A., Founder of the Methodists. Hodder & Stoughton. Watson, Richard. (1970). The Life of Rev. John Wesley: Founder of the Methodist Societies. Carlton & Phillips.

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