John Wesley famously said, “Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin, and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergymen or laymen; such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven on Earth.” Born in England on June 28, 1703, John would go on to reform the Anglican church from within, fathering a movement called Methodism.
Powerful Preachers from the Past: John Wesley
He was one of 10 children, growing up with two brothers, seven sisters, and the steady influence of his parents. His father, Samuel, was a parish pastor in Dorset and his mother, Susanna, served as constant teacher and guide. The childhood experience which, in later years, would press John into reforming his social behaviors at Oxford and ultimately run headlong into Christian service, was a house fire that nearly killed him at age 5. Quoting Zechariah 3:2, is it said his mother called him a, “brand plucked from the burning fire.” She knew God had a plan for John’s life and John realized it, too.
John and his younger brother, Charles, embodied a new, revived spirit of the church. John, with the spoken word and Charles, with song, they became itinerate pastors, breaking down the walls of church prejudice and taking the Gospel on the road. But it didn’t happen overnight. John had a stormy time before realizing the ultimate call on his life. At Oxford, he grew in his knowledge of the Bible, setting up what he and others called “The Holy Club”. He was driven to live a blameless life, dedicated to Jesus. Yet, on a boat to the newly established American colony of Georgia, John felt a gaping hole still in his heart. A group of Moravians sat peacefully singing in a violent storm that might easily sink any ship. They weren’t afraid to die, and John knew he didn’t have this kind of faith.
The darkness continued to grow in his ministry. He felt downcast and defeated. The work he sought to accomplish in converting the Indians and caring for the colonists didn’t happen with any success. Charles ended up returning early to England because of illness, and John followed him a short time later with only broken relationships to account for his journey.
Back home, he began talking with his friend, Peter Boehler, who was a Moravian. The Moravians predate the movement of Martin Luther, but proclaim the same core charge of Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” You may recall Jan Hus (1369-1415). He began the Moravian movement in what is now the Czech Republic. After a church council rebuked the beliefs of Jan Hus in 1415, he was burned alive.
The message of salvation by grace was a message John Wesley needed to hear anew. On May 24, 1738, everything changed in that direction. He woke up to read 2 Peter 2:1-4: “Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.” He then went to an evening prayer meeting that same day where they discussed Martin Luther’s Preface to Romans. He left the meeting knowing he was a partaker in the grace of God and in his grace alone. The great George Whitefield (of America’s First Great Awakening and Jonathan Edwards fame that would come later) was already involved in taking the Gospel to the brickyards and fields of England where the common person worked. He invited John to come alongside him and preach the Gospel. This was an important juncture for the Wesley brothers and the future of the Methodist movement. At the time, no church wanted John to preach. So, with reluctance, he went outside with Whitfield and found a pulpit among the people. It secured the point and purpose of his calling: take the Gospel of grace out to anyone and everyone so it might be received and God’s church might grow.
John Wesley would ride 250,000 miles on horseback, publish 5,000 sermons, and deliver more than 40,000 sermons. Charles Wesley would go on to write 6,000 hymns. They were never overly concerned about setting up churches because the movement was one of renewal inside of Anglicanism. However, because the converts in the fields and yards had nowhere to go, he established a place in Bristol that also functioned as a school. He called it the New Room. His residence was on the second floor. According to records, he only took 26 pounds as an annual stipend, an amount that was well below the poverty line, as we would qualify it.
John and Charles Wesley went on mission and their diligent work continues to reap a harvest for the kingdom of God. Today, the United Methodist Church (a denomination that formed in 1968 when the The Evangelical United Brethren Church and The Methodist Church united) has more than seven million members in about 34,000 churches. The Wesleyan Church formed in 1843 and has more than 500,000 members in 5,800 churches.
The Wesley Center Online offers a list of John Wesley’s sermons. It’s quite a collection of pointed preaching. In Sermon 28, for example, Wesley says,
… Seek not to increase in goods. “Lay not up for” thyself “treasures upon earth.” This is a flat, positive command; full as clear as “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” How then is it possible for a rich man to grow richer without denying the Lord that bought him Yea, how can any man who has already the necessaries of life gain or aim at more, and be guiltless “Lay not up,” saith our Lord, “treasures upon earth.” If, in spite of this, you do and will lay up money or goods, which “moth or rust may corrupt, or thieves break through and steal;” if you will add house to house, or field to field, — why do you call yourself a Christian You do not obey Jesus Christ. You do not design it. Why do you name yourself by his name “Why call ye me, Lord, Lord,’ saith he himself, ‘and do not the things which I say”.
And about the assurance of salvation and life everlasting, John wasn’t shy to provide the truth. In Sermon 137, he says,
Let this especially, fortify us against the fear of death: It is now disarmed, and can do us no hurt. It divides us, indeed, from this body awhile; but it is only that we may receive it again more glorious. As God, therefore, said once to Jacob, “Fear not to go down into Egypt, for I will go down with thee, and will surely bring thee up again;” so may I say to all who are born of God, “Fear not to go down into the grave; lay down your heads in the dust; for God will certainly bring you up again, and that in a much more glorious manner.” Only “be ye steadfast and unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord;” and then let death prevail over, and pull down, this house of clay; since God hath undertaken to rear it up again, infinitely more beautiful, strong, and useful.
John Wesley is a powerful preacher from the past, and one who can speak into our present ministries as we are carried along in the Gospel work God calls us to do.
Zach Kincaid is a part of the Sharefaith Editorial Team. He manages workoutyourfaith.com and has written on C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and general Christian thought for more than 15 years. He is a husband, father, and collaborator on a variety of Christian outreach projects including films and educational resources.