John Wesley was a Methodist traveling preacher, organizer of the Methodist Conference, and founder of the Methodist Church.
After his conversion in 1738 he dedicated himself to promoting “vital” and “practical” religion and to preserving and increasing the life of God in men’s souls. Along with his younger brother Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, and other associates, he created English Methodism and enacted many religious reforms. Wesleyan College in Macon is named in his honor.
Wesley was born on June 17, 1703, in Epworth Rectory, Lincolnshire, England, to Susanna and Samuel Wesley. He received his early education from his mother and later attended Charterhouse School and Christ Church College, Oxford. He received an A.B. degree in 1724, was elected a Fellow of Lincoln College in 1726, and received an M.A. degree in 1727. Ordained deacon in 1725 and priest in 1728, he became leader of the Holy Club, whose members were called Methodists, at Oxford in 1729. Wesley became a missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts and, along with Charles, sailed for Georgia in 1735. Charles and John traveled to Georgia with James Oglethorpe on his second voyage to the colony. In Georgia, John served as the rector of Christ Church in Savannah. Wesley’s ministry in America was intended not only for English settlers but also for friendly native tribes in Georgia—with the hope, he once said, “of saving my own soul.”
Difficulties arising from Wesley’s strict discipline with his congregation, as well as an unsuccessful love affair, led to his return to England in 1738. His experience in the colony became difficult after his relationship with Sophia Hopkey, whom he met soon after arriving in Georgia, turned sour. Hopkey was the niece of Thomas Causton, the chief magistrate known for his corrupt dealings with the Moravian settlers in colonial Georgia. Hopkey married another man after Wesley stopped courting her on the advice of some Moravian elders. Further complicating matters, Wesley refused to give her the sacrament of Holy Communion in the church, thereby marring her reputation in the colony. A warrant was issued against Wesley for defaming Hopkey in public without due cause. He was brought before a bailiff, but believing the matter to be ecclesiastical, Wesley did not acknowledge the court’s power. As a result he lost his good standing with the people of Savannah, which precipitated his return to England.
In England, Wesley’s association with Peter Böhler, a Moravian missionary, led to his conversion to the Moravian Church on May 24, 1738, when he felt his “heart strangely warmed.” Wesley claimed that, prior to his association with Böhler, he had tried to convert others while he himself was not yet converted. This conversion took place at a religious society meeting on Aldersgate Street in London, England, as one of the members read Martin Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans, which refers to the assurance of salvation through trust in Jesus Christ. Wesley’s evangelical work sprang from this experience of Methodism, and in 1739 he followed Whitefield’s example in field preaching. As part of the formation of religious societies, he established a system of lay preachers, with whom he began holding annual conferences in 1744. By 1751 the system covered the British Isles, and the conference took institutional form in 1784, when Wesley signed the Deed of Declaration.
Methodism arrived in America in the 1760s, and in 1784 Wesley ordained Thomas Coke superintendent of America. He instructed Coke to travel to America and ordain Francis Asbury superintendent as well. Although Wesley and his brother Charles wanted the Methodist movement to remain within the Church of England, the two eventually separated into distinct denominations.
At Wesley’s death, on March 2, 1791, Methodism had grown to 294 preachers and 71,668 members in Great Britain, 19 missionaries and 5,300 members on mission stations, and 198 preachers and 43,265 members in America. He died at his home in London and is buried in the City Road Chapel cemetery.