“I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that, in whatever part of it I am, [it is my] 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.“
Travelling more than 4,000 miles on horseback every year to preach wherever people were gathered John Wesley declared the world as being his parish when faced with criticism on why he preached outside a church. Irrespective of location, he firmly believed that he was duty-bound to bring the message of salvation to every corner of the world, preaching to any willing ear. He was said to have preached 40,000 sermons at the time of his death on the 2nd of March, 1791. His legacy endures in the Methodist movement encompassing a global membership of approximately 80 million people today. This article aims to examine Wesley’s extraordinary life and legacy. From his early years as a child learning the basics of the faith from his father and mother to how his ideals of personal sanctification changed Evangelical Protestantism.
Born on the 17th of June, 1703 to Samuel Wesley an Anglican Priest and Susanna Wesley an incredibly disciplined woman, John Wesley’s strong foundation in faith began from his formative years. Growing up in a strictly religious family of nineteen children, the children were all taught at home, six hours of lessons a day, by their mother. There was no escaping the rigorous religious training at home. The children were schooled in learning the classical languages of Greek and Latin. In order to read the Bible correctly, they were also schooled in the Hebrew language and were expected to memorize large chunks of scriptures.
As a young adult, John Wesley schooled at Charterhouse and later, attended Christ Church, Oxford to further his studies. While he was undertaking his masters’ studies he was unanimously voted as a fellow and a tutor. He taught Greek and philosophy, lectured on the New Testament and moderated daily disputations at the university. Upon completion of his masters’ studies, he was ordained a priest and was away from the university for two years serving as a parish curate. Returning from his duties as a curate, he was made the leader of the “Holy Club” (a title of derision bestowed on them), a small club for the purpose of study and the pursuit of a devout Christian life, founded by his younger brother Charles. Their rigorous regime of bible study, prayer, strict personal discipline and aid to the sick and prisoners gave rise to the name “Methodists”. Wesley and his brother’s lifestyle were nothing short of fervent devotion which was criticized by several outsiders but was adored by many who sought righteousness.
John and his brother Charles sailed for Savannah in the Province of Georgia in the American colonies at the request of James Oglethorpe. Oglethorpe wanted Wesley to be the minister of the newly formed Savannah parish. John Wesley spent just a year at Savannah and his ministry there is often regarded as a failure but it was on this trip that he encountered the Moravian settlers. While traveling to the colonies there was a great storm and Wesley was greatly afraid but the Moravians aboard the ship just sang hymns and prayers. This experience greatly shaped his outlook on faith and influenced his Methodist theology.
On returning back to England, Wesley was deeply dissatisfied with his faith. He followed the teachings of the Moravians but it wasn’t till at a meeting at Aldersgate Street, that his life changed dramatically. There, while listening to a reading of Martin Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, he understood deeply the concept of faith and truly committed himself to the path of godliness. He wrote in his journal”
From that moment on, Wesley embraced the teachings of salvation by faith alone, the bedrock of Protestant Reformation’s principles and started to critique the English Church’s ethical shortcomings. A lot of the England parishes shut their doors to him. It was at this moment he reunited with his Oxford friend, George Whitefield who was also excluded from the churches in England. Whitefield, a man renowned for his powerful oration, had turned into an astounding preacher and was preaching to the poor miners at Bristol in the open air. John Wesley was unsure about this practice but decided to lend a hand because Whitefield needed help in attending to the needs of the converts. John Wesley quickly became the leader of this movement and set out the ideals of this new group or society.
“They were to be a company of men having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation”
As these societies grew in number and magnitude, a basic set of rules was defined to govern the conduct and spirituality of the members. These guidelines were founded on Wesley’s core belief of attaining godliness through good works and charity, as well as personal sanctification through a disciplined lifestyle and piety. One of the key identities of these societies was conducting acts of mercy, aiding the poor, the sick, the orphaned, and the disadvantaged. They created free schools for the poor, orphanages and free clinics.
Under the collaborative leadership of Wesley and Whitefield, missionary work was also prioritised, sending out evangelists to extend the message of salvation across the globe. This marked the dawn of the spread of Methodism overseas, one of the profound impacts of Wesley’s ministry. Despite being faced with hostility and even bouts of violent rejection, their fervent dedication remained unwavering, relentless in reaching out to those starving for spiritual nourishment. John Wesley’s ministry evolved Methodism from mere society to an all-encompassing revival that inspired like-minded individuals to champion similar disciplines of faith, giving birth to a wider Evangelical Protestantism. This clear revival birthed the Methodist church.
In 1740, a split occurred between Wesley and Whitefield over the doctrine of predestination, leading to the formation of two branches within Methodism – the Calvinist branch under Whitefield and the Wesleyan tradition under Wesley and his brother Charles. However, this division did not hamper the virtues and principles espoused, and neither did it hinder the expansion of Methodism worldwide. The two still remained friends despite their theological differences.
As John Wesley reached the end of his life, his charge towards Christians remained the same. To always spread on towards entire sanctification. He wrote:
“I always observe that wherever the work of sanctification breaks out, the whole work of God prospers.”
Sanctification and faithful service to God were the bedrock of the Methodist movement. It was these principles that pushed the Methodist societies to exude profound generosity, charity, and unwavering contributions to shaping a more love-filled, merciful world — influencing top-down reformations in societal norms and creating an enduring legacy.
John Wesley’s beliefs were more than just ideas. They were the engine that powered a life spent travelling far and wide, dedicated to creating actions from his faith. Everywhere Wesley went supported this simple truth – no matter where we are, there’s always a chance to make a difference and to do good. Whether in quiet villages or in crowded cities, country roads or high seas, his voice was loud enough to call all to salvation. Through his tireless actions and heartful preaching, Wesley wrote an enduring symphony of faith that is still hummed all over the world.