Life & Soul Life and Soul

Heretic of the week: John Wesley

John Wesley (1703-1791) was a cleric of the Church of England who unintentionally founded his own denomination. Born to the Rev Samuel Wesley and his wife, Susanna, at the rectory in Epworth, John grew up in a large and in some ways peculiar household. Although his parents had been raised as Puritans, they had converted to Anglicanism; the older Wesley retained his Puritanical moral outlook while adopting Tory political principles, which led him into conflict with both his parish and his wife.

John was sent to Charterhouse and Oxford. While he was at university, his family back at the rectory were plagued by the so-called Epworth poltergeist.

John was ordained in 1728, just as his younger brother, Charles, who had adopted High Church religious views, went up to Oxford himself. Together they formed the “Holy Club” at university, giving regular prayer, Scripture readings and a disciplined life to its members. Their methodical way of living caused neighbours to dub them “Methodists”. In 1735, John began two disastrous years as a missionary in newly founded Savannah, Georgia. Returning home defeated, he frequented a congregation of Moravians in London’s Aldersgate, who emphasised a “religion of the heart”.

On the night of May 24, 1738, while the minister was reading Luther’s introduction to Romans, Wesley felt his own heart “strangely warmed” – and that his sins were forgiven. This “Aldersgate experience” would be the beginning of modern Methodism.

Wesley preached his message of hope to the lower classes in town and country throughout England. Although reluctant to leave the Church of England, he ordained two bishops for the Methodists in America in 1784, creating a separate church there. His English followers left the C of E after he died. Division followed: today, Methodists, Wesleyans, Nazarenes, the Holiness churches and Pentecostals all descend from his work.