John Wesley, born in June 1703 was the fifteenth child of Samuel Wesley, a clergyman from Epworth in Lincolnshire. He was educated at Charterhouse School in London and was nominated by his schoolmaster for an exhibition to Christ Church, Oxford to which he was admitted as a commoner in 1720. He studied classics and logic and very much enjoyed 'Oxford Life' frequenting coffee houses, playing cards and making excursions up the river. It was at Oxford that he started to keep a diary, an old red note book in which he would sometimes write in code (only accurately and fully deciphered in 1972).
After completing his BA, Wesley followed the traditions of his family by taking Holy Orders and was made a deacon in Christ Church Cathedral in September 1725. Three years later he was ordained.
In 1726 a vacancy became available for a Fellowship at Lincoln College, which at that time was open only to those born in the diocese of Lincoln. Wesley's father had connections with Dr Morley, Rector of Lincoln College, and after being examined in Homer and Horace he was duly elected to a fellowship on March 25th. Samuel Wesley was very content that his son was to become one of the twelve fellows and wrote:
"What will be my own fate before the summer is over, God knows, sed passi graviora, wherever I am, my Jack is a fellow of Lincoln."
Wesley resided in a rather cramped set of rooms in Chapel Quad, overlooking Turl Street. He found Lincoln very friendly and remarked:
"I never knew a college besides ours whereof the members were so perfectly satisfied with one another."
It was whilst at Lincoln that he continued to keep the diary he had begun as an undergraduate. Wesley's diary recounted the life he had at Oxford from the friends he breakfasted with to the excursions he made and services he took.
He had quite a lot of leave granted during the first part of his fellowship to help his father in the parish of Wroot but in 1729 the Rector summoned him back to Lincoln to become a tutor. Wesley was a conscientious tutor in Greek Testament but he also enjoyed a rich social life in Oxford and the Cotswolds. He began to think deeply about religion and spent hours in the Bodlien library, mulling things over and discovering new strands of Christian thought. A group of likeminded individuals began to meet together on a regular basis, forming what became known as a 'Holy Club'. It grew rapidly so that soon it included a member from almost every college in Oxford. The club met together to read, study scripture and undergo rigorous self-examination of their Christian lives. They would also take part in works of charity especially by preaching to prisoners in the city. In 1732, the term 'Methodists' was first coined to describe these men meeting in Oxford as it reflected the method and order of their lives. They tried to ensure that every hour of the day had its proper purpose.
Two of Wesley's siblings, Samuel and Charles, were also now at Oxford and Samuel especially began to worry about John. He was concerned about John's yearning to reach Christian perfection, his stiff regulations and graveness. The Dons in the Lincoln Common Room also began to talk about this 'sect' called the Methodists. Some unfavourable criticism followed and some defected from the society. John also began to lose his reputation as a tutor as students and parents feared indoctrination. In March 1733 he was even confronted by a mob at the gates of the college but this left him undeterred.
Wesley's father offered him the opportunity to take charge of his Parish but he felt he had more to do elsewhere. In 1735 he decided to become a missionary (chiefly to save his soul) and sailed with his brother Charles to the Americas. His mission was not as successful as he had hoped and he claimed of himself:
"He who went to America to convert others was himself never converted to God."
Wesley tormented himself with thoughts on faith and what it meant. Gradually his ideology began to change and he began to preach "salvation by faith alone" rather than "salvation through righteousness and good deeds". As with nearly all shifts in ideology, it was greeted with some apprehension.
In London, Charles and John, along with James Hutton, founded another 'small company' initially consisting of nine members meeting over Hutton's bookshop in 1738. It became known as the 'Fetter Lane Society' and grew rapidly until after four months, when membership had reached 56, it was divided into smaller bands of five to ten. Wesley's new found fervour came from the 'conversion' he had experienced during that year.
Over the course of the following year, Wesley worked extremely hard preaching all over the country in an attempt to reinvigorate the Church. His campaign was centred on the Bristol and Bath area but Wesley travelled anywhere that he could be heard. He coined the famous phrase: 'I look upon all the world as my Parish'.
Large crowds of up to 20,000 were drawn to hear this eloquent, soberly dressed man evangelising, expounding and converting. Sometimes he gave offence to other priests as he preached in their parishes but he made use of fields and in streets in which he could be heard.
Wesley's talents lay not only in preaching the gospel vocally however. He began to write hymns, one of his most famous pieces being 'Love Divine all Loves Excelling'. Wesley also put his mind to medicine: he set up free clinics, which were some of the first in England to use electricity for medical purposes. He also wrote 'Primitive Physick: An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases' published in 1747. His hope was to aid the education of the common people so that they had something practical to use to help themselves.
Over the next few years the Methodist campaign became more intense. Wesley nearly lost his life in Staffordshire when he was set upon by an angry mob. In 1744 Wesley preached before the University for the last time. Unfortunately his rather abrasive sermon on 'scriptural Christianity' in St Mary's Church received a hostile reaction from the Deans and Chancellors of Oxford and he never preached from the University pulpit again.
However, it was not until 1751 that Wesley formally left the University of Oxford. After years of forming friendships and connections with various women, and, having been rejected by Grace Murray whom he loved, he finally married Molly Vazeille, a forty-year old widow in February of that year. By marrying, Wesley relinquished his right to continue as a Fellow of Lincoln, married men at that time not accepted as Fellows. His marriage unfortunately was not one of love but more of convenience and, because he was so often away, both were unhappy.
Over the course of the next few decades Wesley strove to build the Methodist movement so that it did not simply fade away when he died. He was probably spurred on to do so after he recovered from life threatening tuberculosis at the age of 51. He continued to travel, spreading the word as far as Ireland.
In 1781 Molly passed away but Wesley did not attend her funeral, as relations between them were so bad. Three years later, at the age of 81, Wesley made real progress for the future of Methodism. He signed a declaratory deed poll that meant ' The Conference of the People called Methodists' now had 100 legally named preachers. Towards the end of the 1780s, his health began to fail but he continued to give sermons until 1791 when he became very weak. On March 2nd of that year, he died aged 88.
John Wesley was a powerful personality whose passion and devotion to his cause led him to explore and profoundly change people's views on Christianity. Throughout his life his eloquence, his determination and, sometimes, dictatorial nature enabled him to influence many people, so aiding the process of secularisation within the Church. Wesley's achievements spanned decades, his longevity enabling him to see Methodism's development from the first small societies at Lincoln College and Fetter Lane to the chapels of later years. He planted the seed of a new denomination, the Methodist Church, which was to grow and flourish in Britain and across the world for many years to come.
Text by Caroline Iddon.
John Pollock John Wesley 1703-1791, Hodder and Stroughton.
Stanley Ayling John Wesley, Collins.
Vivien Green John Wesley and Oxford, Thomas-Photos, Oxford.