John Wesley is arguably one of the most influential men of the Great Awakening and the explosive revivals leading to modern evangelicalism—and with good reason. He was called the “greatest force of the eighteenth century in England”. Few others have influenced and touched so many or equalled his life’s work. He was a complex man of rigorous dedication, faith, character and zeal. However, Wesley was not a stained glassed saint, he also had his share of flaws, doubts and struggles. A full composite of his life shows a compelling picture of a man—who like many of us—was met with the stark reality of his inadequacy but ultimately found his peace in the steady hands of his Lord. It is easy for many of us to idealize our heroes of the faith and forget, as James 5:17 says, that even biblical heroes were men “subject to like passions as we are.”
In the end—there are no great men of God—only weak, helpless, sinful men in the hands of a mighty, merciful, gracious, and great God. The ones greatly used by Him are those who, coming to realize this reality, fall on Him in utter and total dependence. John Wesley was no exception. This truth gives mere mortals such as our hope, as our usefulness to the kingdom is primarily based on the good grace of God. However, there is still much we can learn from such a captivating figure as Wesley. His journals provide a unique glimpse into his private struggles. They also show the progress of his character and faith which God’s hand of providence wrought in His servant.
He was the founder of Methodism, however, his legacy extends far beyond to the large majority of evangelicalism. His main focus was not to define metaphysical theology, but rather he saw himself as bringing reform and revival to the body of Christ as a whole. He didn’t focus on writing lengthy theological treaties but rather gave himself over to preaching and labouring in the service of the Gospel to his fellowmen. He said, “You must find companions or make them. The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.” This was a big reason for the effectiveness of Wesley’s ministry. It was not that he did not think theology important, but rather he was a man who was not caught up strictly in theological debate to the detriment of practical ministry and the mission of the Gospel. His love for God produced in him a passionate love of people.
Doubts About Salvation
On October 14, 1735, John Wesley and his brother set out on a missionary journey to America with the focus to “save our souls; to live wholly to the glory of God.” It is odd that Wesley would set out to preach the Gospel without first being converted himself—or at least not thinking himself to be. On the journey to America, he met with a group of Moravians whose faith impressed him and challenged him to examine his eternal security. Through a storm at sea he was driven to contemplate his own faith and salvation—being “ashamed of my unwillingness to die.”
This defined some of his early years of ministry as Wesley often returned to doubt his own salvation. This would be a personal source of inner conflict for him and may have been due to his tendency toward an Arminian theology. Wesley at times seemed unstable and would often find himself suddenly in a sorrowful slump. Many times, following a period of spiritual fervour or successful ministry, he would even find himself unable to even speak. It seems that his passionate disposition, while a source of his great strength and charisma as a preacher, would also be a “thorn in his flesh” with which he would struggle, especially in his youth.
He exclaimed upon his departure from America, in what seemed to him to be a failed missionary journey, “I went to America, to convert the Indians; but oh! who shall convert me? who, what is he that will deliver me from this evil heart of mischief?” He wrestled honestly with his doubts in times of trouble, and though for the moment he could not shake them, he determined to press on. Instead of becoming immobilized by it, he resolved to deeper devotion—saying,
“let it humble me and quicken all my good resolutions, especially that of praying without ceasing; and at other times to take no thought about it, but quietly to go on ‘in the work of the Lord.'”
This struggle continued to a lesser degree even after what he would identify as his conversion, although after this he found a considerable difference in the manner of his striving. Eventually, on May 24, 1739, he would feel his “heart strangely warmed” as what he described as his experience of grace and true conversion.
A Disciplined Life
Wesley’s resolve and discipline were probably his most admirable traits. His discipline was the product of a godly upbringing by his parents. His mother wrote about the importance of disciplining children to bring about their eventual salvation. She said, “the parent who studies to subdue it [rebellion] in his child works together with God in the renewing and saving a soul. The parent who indulges it does the devil’s work. . .”
Wesley made four resolutions early on which directed the course of his life. He resolved that he would:
- be absolutely open with all
- that he would work ardently and not indulge in any levity
- that he would not speak of anything that doesn’t glorify God
- that he would not take pleasure in anything that doesn’t tend to the glory of God.
Wesley and his fellowship aspired “to lose no opportunity of awakening, instructing, or exhorting any whom we might meet with in our journey.” When one reflects over the entirety of his life of ministry, it is clear to see how these intentional resolutions made an indelible impact on his character and ministry. This meticulous determination was common to other great revivalists of his time such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. The importance of being deliberate about one’s steadfastness and discipline cannot be overlooked. Success does not just happen, but is rather the product of a purposeful pursuit.
The Early Years of Ministry
Wesley’s account of his ministry as a travelling preacher is almost comical at points. “I am to preach here no more” became a common refrain for much of his early exploits. His bold style of passionate preaching of the Gospel did not sit well with much of the churches at which he spoke at the beginning of his ministry. To his credit, he never compromised his message to appease his hearers. Though for many years he saw little success, God blessed his faithfulness and allowed him to see the whole climate of his audiences change. However, this was not without first passing through many years in the desert. The effectiveness of Wesley’s preaching also saw a gradual improvement alongside his growing popularity in later times. This progression is encouraging, as not even the great John Wesley was born a prolific preacher.
In future years, Wesley would see God give the increase on the Gospel seed he laboured to scatter—even changing the atmosphere of the very churches that initially rejected him. In Cowbridge, he was first met with a hail of stones from the upset masses. However, in April 1749 he remarked, “now all is calm; the whole town is in good humor, and they flock to hear the glad tidings of salvation.” He concluded, “Oh, let none think his labour of love is lost because the fruit does not immediately appear!” and that “the seed, sown so long since, now sprang up, bringing forth repentance and remission of sins.” Though we labour to sow, it is God who gives the increase in His time.
All the World is my Parish—Field Preaching
In 1739, Wesley began field preaching to crowds in the streets. This change in strategy would become a significant shift in Wesley’s ministry and the cause of much of his and other contemporary revivalists’ widespread success. This allowed them the freedom to preach without the restrictions within the church walls, which—at the time—seemed to have become mausoleums of dead orthodoxy. This ingenuity allowed the Gospel message to be heard by those who would not set foot in a formal church. This burden came for Wesley and others out of their conviction from Scripture, “God in Scripture commands me, according to my power, to instruct the ignorant, reform the wicked, confirm the virtuous.” Continuing in the tradition of the Reformation, Wesley stood firmly on the admonition of God’s Word in the face of opposition from men.
“I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that, in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation. This is the work which I know God has called me to; and sure I am that His blessing attends it. Great encouragement have I, therefore, to be faithful in fulfilling the work He hath given.”
This became a defining mark of evangelicalism—to take the church to the world instead of remaining shut up in isolation—a principle which even today should be our focus.
As field preaching continued, the crowds continued to grow into the thousands. Criticism came from many about the indecency of field preaching. However, Wesley regarded the dead and inattentive congregations inside the churches of his time to be a greater indecency. He countered that, “there is the highest decency in a churchyard or field, when the whole congregation behave and look as if they saw the Judge of all and heard Him speaking from heaven.” Other revivalists such as Whitefield and Edwards also had much concern regarding the wailing and dramatic manifestations at camp meetings as people came to a stark realization of their sinful condition. Wesley seemed more at ease with these outward signs and resolved to allow God to work in whatsoever manner pleased Him.
However, this was not something which he intentionally sought after or readily accepted as proof of the validity of “the inward work”. Rather he continued to look upon them circumspectly, recognizing that they could likewise be false manifestations. Other extraordinary phenomena came with Wesley’s ministry such as the exorcism of two ladies on October 23rd, 1739. These serve as a reminder not to exclude the reality of the supernatural in the course of ministry, but also to walk wisely navigating such phenomena. In 1741, Whitefield and Wesley had a falling out because of their theological differences between Calvinism and Arminism. This would sadly separate the two evangelists for a number of years. However, they would later reconcile their relationship and enjoy continued evangelism together. Wesley wrote of Whitefield on November 5, 1755, “Disputings are now no more; we love one another and join hand in hand to promote the cause of our common Master.”
If only many Calvinists and Arminians today would be so charitable to one another!
Wesley’s Labour for the Gospel
Wesley covered great distances on horseback to preach to any and all who would hear him. His journal is littered with many instances of random evangelism opportunities brought about by the providence of God—of which Wesley eagerly took full advantage. He wrote in his journal, “I mention these little circumstances to show how easy it is to redeem every fragment of time (if I may so speak), when we feel any love to those souls for which Christ died.” No matter the size of his audience he passionately made his Gospel’s plea for men to repent and believe remarking, “if but one heard, it was worth all the labour.” Though he had a passion to reach the poor, Wesley’s heart was also broken for the rich who were equally as lost and in this respect—he was no respecter of men. The radical devotion to take every opportunity to share the wonderful news of the Gospel to those perishing should likewise burden each of us. A theology which does not produce a passion and love to win the lost is not worth much. We should aim that our study of God’s word would also work in us such a holy obsession.
Wesley was no stranger to persecution. He faced quite a few angry mobs and beatings for the sake of the Gospel. His attitude through these hardships is noteworthy. His response in the face of violent adversity was one of prayerful dependence on God to deliver him. Numerous times the Lord provided what can only be described as a miraculous escape for him. However, his thankfulness for the small mercies even when he was assaulted physically is remarkable, commenting once that “though one man struck me on the breast with all his might, and the other on the mouth with such force that the blood gushed out immediately, I felt no more pain from either of the blows than if they had touched me with a straw.” Wesley knew that it was an honour to suffer for the sake of Christ. Such sufferings never weakened his resolve or embittered him against his attackers. He maintained a desire to see them converted and took to heart our Lord’s command to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Personal Faith and Character
Another defining characteristic of Wesley was that he was a man of prayer. In every circumstance and situation, he often stopped to either thank the Lord or seek guidance or help. He would often pray for healing as well. Whether if it was for his own ailments, another’s infirmities or even for his horse—Wesley’s understanding of “faith-healing” was not like that of modern “faith-healers”. Instead it was a simple trust in the ability of God to make him whole should He so desire. There was an endearing simplicity to his prayer life and faith.
Wesley was an avid reader, devouring books by the saints gone before him and gleaning from their wisdom. He seemed particularly fond of Martin Luther. However, he also commented, “what pity that he had no faithful friend! None that would, at all hazards, rebuke him plainly and sharply, for his rough, untractable spirit, and bitter zeal for opinions” which he saw as impeding the work of God. Clearly, Wesley greatly valued and cherished the genuine friendships of those closest to him. He praised others frequently and appreciated their diverse God-given talents. He said of George Whitefield, “the little improprieties both of his language and manner were a means of profiting many, who would not have been touched by a more correct discourse, or a more calm and regular manner of speaking.” There was never a hint of guile on his lips against any, even when they turned their back on him, and he held a genuine affection for people. However, he was also not fearful to speak frankly and lovingly rebuke people sharply.
Family Life and Ministry
It is curious how few entries there are about Wesley’s family life in his journal. He wrote that he remained single for many years because he believed himself to be more useful that way. However, at the advice of his friends, he would eventually marry. This did not slow Wesley down in his zeal for ministry and is perhaps one of the most unfortunate tragedies of his life. He gave priority to his ministry over his family. He wrote, “I cannot understand how a Methodist preacher can answer it to God to preach one sermon or travel one day less in a married than in a single state.”
He would often preach three or four times a day. His relentless labour, while inspiring, also exposes an imbalance in his life. It was his life’s obsession, as he exclaimed, “I do indeed live by preaching!” This single-minded focus on ministry at the expense of his marital relationship undoubtedly caused much hostility between him and his wife and led her to leave him multiple times. On January 23, 1771, Wesley’s wife finally left him for good. He wrote that he did not know why she left but, “I did not desert her: I did not sent her away: I will not recall her.” For a man who was above reproach in most regards, it is regrettable that he would lose focus in this regard (as so many in ministry are prone to err).
Wesley’s commitment to his idea of Christian Perfection is another significant part of his legacy. This would eventually lead to the development of the Holiness Movement which would give birth to the Pentecostal Movement and has indelibly left its mark on Christendom today. However, Wesley’s doctrine of Christian Perfection was unlike later developments whereby a believer is said to be perfectly sanctified in an instant second work of grace. Neither did he consider it a sinless perfection.
He believed in a gradual working of sanctification as the believer grew increasingly in the grace of the Lord until the point which their desires and affections toward God and man were perfected. It was “an hourly expectation of being perfected in love.” He said, “I say an hourly expectation; for to expect it at death, or some time hence, is much the same as not expecting it at all.” This doctrine was no doubt close to his heart, and reflected his own rigorous concern with personal holiness and sanctification. His devout quest for holiness is admirable and we can learn much from such discipline. However, out of balance, it seemed to also produce too high an expectation of something practically unachievable which may leave many disillusioned.
In his elderly years, Wesley retained much of his health and sharpness of mind, unlike his dear friend George Whitefield who he found to be “fairly worn out in his Master’s service.” The two men enjoyed a sweet friendship in the Lord’s service well into their senior years, and Wesley even preached at Whitefield’s funeral service. Each year Wesley thanked the Lord for this grace of good health and maintained a very optimistic outlook up until his final moments. Wesley continued field preaching even in his advanced age, considering it his cross to bear saying, “I know my commission and see no other way of ‘preaching the gospel to every creature.'” He never loss his zeal to share the Gospel with any and at seventy years old he preached to his largest assembly of thirty-two thousand—indeed he burnt out bright!
A Quiet Confidence
By the end of Wesley’s life, one can clearly notice a difference in his journal entries. Long gone are the erratic and volatile entries of youthful zeal or the constant doubts and worries of his own salvation. They are replaced by a quiet confidence, thankfulness and steadiness in faith even as the pains old age gripped his body. The Lord passed Wesley through His refiner’s fire, to purify him as gold—taking a zealous and unstable young man who had his heart set upon God—and produced in him a character most precious. Having gracefully aged, at eighty-eight years, John Wesley bid farewell to this earth and entered into glory as he had lived his life—with the praise of His Lord ever on his lips. Some of his last words were:
Though many extol the man, I think Wesley would be aghast if he were to find out that we admired him more than the God who saw it fit to so graciously use this humble manservant. One would be hard-pressed to find another life so well-lived to the glory of God, and we too should so venture to enter into that blessed rest in like manner.
- Wesley, John. The Journal of John Wesley. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1951. Available online: http://www.ntslibrary.com/PDF%20Books/Wesley_Journal.pdf
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