The little village of Epworth lies between the Trent, the Don and the Idle Rivers, on the Isle of Axholme, in northern England. This became the home of John Wesley who was born on June 17, 1703.
His father, Samuel, was born a gentleman and made himself a scholar. He went to school at Stoke Newington with Daniel Defoe and received instruction from Charles Morton, who later became vice-president of Harvard College in New England. He was raised a dissenter from the Church of England. He eventually served as chaplain on a man-of-war and as a curate in London. His final home was in Epworth as the rector of that village. Besides his scholarship, Samuel Wesley was noted as a poet and was one of the editors of the Athenian Mercury.
He served several terms as a representative of the diocese of Lincoln to the legislative body of the Church of England and fought for the independence of the lower house from the dominantly Whig house of bishops.
John was the second son and the fifteenth child, his elder brother Samuel was thirteen when John was born.
The rectory was burned when John was six years old and he was barely saved by the help of some neighbors. His father had given his son up for lost, so when he received him back he said that John was “a brand plucked from the burning.” The father took this as a sign that God intended great things for the boy.
Samuel was very unpopular with the people of the village due to his being a clergyman and a Tory. Also Nathaniel Reading, an attorney and collector of taxes, was a friend of his. In addition to this, he was a strict disciplinarian asking about the private lives of his parishioners and enforcing the rules of the church. Besides burning his house down, the “resentful Islonians” stabbed his cattle and maimed his sheep. The family lived in poverty as a result of the rectors running into debt and he had to appeal to his patrons to help pay his creditors.
“Unable to associate with the villagers, whom they regarded as clods and worse, cut off from the great world by miles of sullen, turgid waters, living in poverty galling to their gentility, the Wesley household was a world unto itself. And the Wesley children bore to their graves marks of their isolation, of their confinement to the weary, monotonous fen lands, of their resentment of poverty and suffering. They were all more or less eccentric; at least four of the girls made unhappy marriages; one of them brought shame on the country rectory.” Umphrey Lee, The Lord’s Horseman, 19.
The life of the Wesley family was not all gloom. The mother, Susannah, had the marvelous ability to manage her brood, teaching them to cry softly and fear the rod. The children spent six hours a day in the home school where the mother taught them the Lord’s prayer as soon as they could speak. After the age of five she taught them to read, and at the end of the day the older children read to the younger ones.
John was an exasperating child, demanding a reason for everything. His father, having been provoked to anger remarked to his wife, “I profess, sweetheart, I think our Jack would not attend to the most pressing necessities of nature unless he could give a reason for it.” Ibid., 20.
At the age of eleven, in 1714, the boy was nominated by the Duke of Buckingham to Charterhous, a school in London. At the age of seventeen, John entered Christ Church, Oxford College. He was a normal schoolboy, dabbling in verse and enjoying tennis and river sports. During his academic days his health was not always the best, so he turned to the medical field. He read many books on health and one especially which “recommended temperance and exercise forbidding highly seasoned meats, and advised drinking two pints of water and one pint of wine each twenty-four hours.” Ibid., 28.
On September 19, 1725, he was ordained deacon. Following this, in 1726, he was elected Fellow of Lincoln. This election, which included a stipend, gave him financial independence. With this independence John did not remain idle, but continued his academic studies and received a master’s degree in 1727.
He took special leave, twice in the next three years, to help his father by preaching at Epworth and Wroote. Wesley kept a detailed diary of his daily activities giving us a clear picture of a man well bred, interested in the souls of his parishioners, while at the same time unmindful of his own soul and body.
By this time Wesley had become acquainted with the writings of William Law, especially his latest book, Christian Perfection. The works of this man awakened his passion for the pursuit of holiness, first for himself and then for others. John attempted to introduce Law’s discipline into the Wesley family with tragic results. The father ordered him out of the house if he continued with his “apostolical nostrums.”
In 1729, Wesley received a call to return to Oxford. He lectured on Greek, Philosophy and Logic. As a teacher he was faithful and thorough. But other interests were beginning to develop in the heart of this teacher. Charles had founded a club at Oxford while John was in Epworth with his family.
John joined this club and soon became the leader. Under his leadership it became “one of the most famous in modern religious history.” Ibid., 33. George Whitefield, who later became famous as an open field preacher, joined the club. Benjamin Ingham, another well known man, joined the club. He later left the Church of England and took up with the Moravians.
The activities and philosophy of the club included attending church services and partaking of the Lord’s supper. In addition they met together in John Wesley’s room for devotions and careful study of the Greek New Testament. They also visited the sick and prisoners and organized classes for poor children. Their own funds, along with solicited money, were used to relieve the poor and occasionally to obtain freedom for a man imprisoned for debt. Wesley continued to study vigorously and read a formidable list of books, all the while carrying on a large correspondence that took a whole day each week.
By now John’s father was coming to the end of his life and he appealed to his son to come take his place in the rectory. John’s reply was that he considered that he was better able to promote holiness in himself and others at Oxford.
James Oglethorpe, a distinguished soldier and apostle of prison reform, called John Wesley in 1732 to go as a missionary to the Georgia colony he had set up. Wesley wrote, on October 10, 1735, that his main reason for going was for his own soul’s salvation. He hoped to learn the truth of the gospel by preaching to the “heathen.” Charles Wesley was also hired along with Benjamin Ingham, for the colony.
During the voyage (December 10 to February 5), they encountered at least three storms. One of these storms was so violent that the English screamed out in fear while the German Moravians sang a psalm showing no fear. Wesley was impressed by the calmness of these people.
Wesley hoped to be a missionary to the Indians, but he had agreed to take care of the parish of Savannah until another minister should arrive. A few days after his arrival John Wesley was visited by an Indian Chief named Tomo-chachi whom he called “king” of the Savannah nation. The king came with a request that the white priests feed the Indians with milk for they were only children. The king complained to Wesley that the Spanish and French were building forts and the English traders were liars.
The people in the Georgia colony became disenchanted with Wesley because of his high church leanings and his insistence that his parishioners adhere to the rigid discipline of the church. Then something happened which added fuel to the fire of opposition to him.
He had become involved emotionally with Sophia Hopkey, who at one point wished that John would ask for her hand. He solicited advice from his Moravian friends, but they did not give him any encouragement. Because of his hesitancy, the young lady ran off with another man. As a result of that action, Wesley refused to admit her to Communion because she did not communicate her intentions.
Along with all the other unhappiness, Sophia’s husband brought suit against Wesley. The Grand Jury indited him on ten counts, nine of which related to ecclesiastical usages, such as refusing to baptize a child but by immersion and refusing to read the burial service over the body of a dissenter. Wesley refused to plead on the ecclesiastical charges stating that the court had no jurisdiction in these matters. He asked for an immediate trial on the tenth point, which was regarding the charges of Sophia. The trial never occurred.
Disappointed with the hostility of the parishioners of Savannah and the fact that the Indians were not interested in being instructed in Christianity, Wesley left Georgia in December of 1737 and returned to England. He said, “I went to America, to convert the Indians, but oh, who shall convert me?” Ibid., 61.
Upon his return, he gave a report as to the condition of the colony stating that many had left and that the colony was in critical condition. He was cleared of the charges against him and his resignation was accepted. He looked back on his experience in Georgia and his passion for Sophia as a victory over his lower nature.
There were four advantages Wesley had realized from his time in Georgia. 1. He had learned to read German, French, Spanish and Italian. 2. That he had to leave the direction of his affairs with the Lord. 3. He had lost his fear of the sea. 4. He had become acquainted with the Moravians whom he found to be model Christians.
“Looking over this characteristic summary of personal losses and gains in Georgia, one can understand the way which Wesley was going. His search for Christian perfection through self-discipline, by good works, by a strict adherence to what he believed to be the practice of the Primitive Church, his discouragement as the result of his experiences in the New World, all prepared Wesley for a rearrangement of his life pattern. He was ready for a mystical conversion of the type recorded by Luther and Paul—although not of the type recorded by Augustine.” Ibid., 64.
The following experience occurred and was recorded by Wesley on Wednesday, May 24, 1738. “I think it was about five this morning, that I opened my Testament on those words, . . . ‘there are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises, even that ye should be partakers of the divine nature.’ . . . Just as I went out, I opened it again on those words, ‘Thou art not far from the kingdom of God.’ In the afternoon I was asked to go to St. Paul’s. The anthem was, ‘Out of the deep have I called unto Thee, O Lord: Lord, hear my voice. O let Thine ears consider well the voice of my complaint. If Thou, Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss, O Lord, who may abide it? For there is mercy with Thee; therefore shalt Thou be feared. O Israel, trust in the lord for with the Lord there is mercy, and with Him is plenteous redemption. And He shall redeem Israel from all his sins.’
“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” Ibid., 65.
Following this, Wesley began a program of attempting to persuade others to have the same conversion he himself had experienced. His brother Charles had been converted a few days before and he supported John in his efforts to influence others. In later years John would change his mind regarding the necessity of others having the same inner change that had developed in his own heart and life.
“John . . . was now all aflame with the ambition to visit Herrnhut, in Saxony, the home of the Moravians. He had embarked for Georgia hoping to learn the true gospel by studying the reactions of the ‘noble savage’ to his preaching; disappointed there, he now believed that Herrnhut would prove his spiritual El Dorado. He had now, he thought, learned the first lesson of the gospel; he hoped that ‘conversing with those holy men who were themselves living witnesses of the full power of faith, and yet able to bear with those that are weak’ would be a means of ‘establishing’ his soul. He plunged at once into plans for this new pilgrimage and on the twelfth of June left for Germany.” Ibid., 66, 67.