John Wesley (1703-1791) was an 18th-century Anglican clergyman and Christian theologian who was an early leader in the Methodist movement.

Biographical sketch

After being educated at Christ Church College, Oxford, Wesley was ordained in 1725. Upon finishing his studies, Wesley remained at Oxford for a time to teach. At the University John became a member of a small group which had gathered round his brother Charles Wesley. The group of Christians, which included George Whitefield and James Hervey, became known as the "Holy Club" or the "Oxford Methodists."

These earnest young men caused a sensation at Oxford by frequently meeting together for Bible study, communion, and prayer. They were derisively referred to as the Holy Club, Sacramentarians, Bible moths (feeding on the Bible as moths on cloth), Bible bigots, and Methodists. John was called the curator or father of the Holy Club.

In 1735, following the death of his father, John Wesley and his brother Charles spent a short time as missionaries in America. During their absence, the Holy Club began to dissolve.

John was to be missionary to the native Americans and pastor of the Savannah parish, but his pursuit of a romance with Sophia Hopkey, niece of the chief magistrate of Savannah, contributed to the failure of this endeavor. Sophia, rejected by John, married another man and Wesley excluded her from Holy Communion. Wesley had faithfully served his flock but had exhibited a stiff high churchmanship that antagonized the parish. The Hopkey affair produced enough misunderstanding and persecution to cause John to flee Georgia and return to England after less than two years.

Upon Wesley's return to England, he joined George Whitefield in Bristol. Wesley's passionate sermons upset the local Anglican clergy and he found their pulpits closed to him. Encouraged by an account of the Great Awakening in New England by Jonathan Edwards and by George Whitefield's successes at outdoor preaching, Wesley swept away his ecclesiastical and High Church views and began preaching in fields at Bristol (1739).

Wesley was a member of the Church of England until his death and would not schedule Methodist meetings to conflict with Anglican services. However, during the following fifty years John Wesley reportedly rode 250,000 miles on the roads of England, Scotland, and Ireland preaching 42,000 sermons. Besides this he published 233 books. His tireless and incessant activity changed the face of British society and the nature of its religion forever.

Wesley received over £30,000 in royalties from his writings, which was primarily used for charitable work including the foundation of Kingswood School in Bristol. Wesley and his followers became known as Methodists. By the time John Wesley died in 1791, the Methodist movement had over 76,000 members.

Wesleyan understanding of sanctification

Wesley considered the Methodist theology of sanctification to be perhaps the movement's most important contribution to Christian theology. He believed, in a similar (but not exact) fashion to Eastern Orthodoxy, that Christians could be rid of the taint of original sin; this doctrine is typically known as Wesleyan perfectionism.

Wesley generally believed that the sanctification process was gradual. Methodism, for the most part, adopted this view. Wesley's colleague, John Fletcher, believed that one could experience perfection in a crisis moment. Wesleyans convinced of Fletcher's position typically refer to perfection as entire sanctification, and comprise the Holiness movement.

Wesley described his view of the gradual outworking of salvation in these words: "...in another instant, the heart is cleansed, from all sin, and filled with pure love to God and man. But even that love increases more and more, till we "grow up in all things into him that is our Head;" till we attain "the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.""(1)

Wesley and Arminianism

His father introduced John to Arminianism, but he truly embraced it later while in college. Wesley developed a strong aversion to the Calvinist doctrines of election and predestination and therefore adopted Arminian doctrine -- refining it with a strong evangelical emphasis on the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith.

Wesley claimed full adherence to the doctrines of original sin and the depravity of man, i.e. he denied the natural free will to do good as a result of the Fall. However, he also taught that prevenient grace is given everyone, so that the ability to choose the good is restored to all, even before regeneration.

"It is proper to say that the Arminian-Wesleyan tradition teaches human freedom in the context of prevenient grace. We can either accept Christ or reject Him - and our eternal destiny depends upon our free response to God's offer of salvation." J. Kenneth Grider

Wesley's variety of evangelical Arminianism survives today in Methodism, the Churches of the Nazarene, and other Wesleyan groups.

Resources

  • Randy Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley's Practical Theology 1994 ISBN 0687003342
    • a discussion of sanctification & perfection.

Footnotes

\1. John Wesley, Sermon 85, On Working Out Our Own Salvation. http://gbgm-umc.org/UMHISTORY/Wesley/sermons/serm-085.stm

See also

External links