John Wesley (1703-1791) lived in England for the majority of his life. He was an Anglican priest, evangelist, theologian, and church reformer. His unique perspectives on grace have made him the object of significant study in recent times. Due in part to his influence, British Methodism developed as its own entity in English culture. John Wesley is generally considered to be the primary founder of Methodism in America-a movement that led to the development of several denominations including the United Methodist Church, African Methodist Episcopal Church, Free Methodist, Nazarene, and others. His life serves as a model and example of religious development and of the influence of the context and historical time on religious development across an individual's life span. His work and theology have framed and impacted the religious and spiritual development of many adherents throughout the world.
The second son of Susanna and Samuel Wesley, John spent his childhood in the town of Epworth, England, where his father served as an Anglican priest. His mother, Susanna, played an important role in his faith development and learning. She was very strict and insisted that all of her children not only were well learned but also practiced acts of piety such as prayer and bible study. John Wesley entered Oxford in 1720. While at Oxford, he received his bachelor's degree and doctorate, was ordained in the Anglican Church, and became a Fellow of Oxford-guaranteeing him a lifetime salary, regardless of where he worked. Although this learning was crucial to Wesley's development, his most important experiences may have been serving as the advisor to a group of Oxford students-including his brother, Charles Wesley- who worked together to live "holier" lives. They practiced regimented schedules of prayer, fasting, study, service, and worship. Students began to mock them with the title "Methodist"-a title that the group soon adopted with pride as more people began to practice their method for holy living.
Beginning a new chapter in his life, John Wesley left Oxford and endured the difficult journey to the "new world" so that he could minister to the colonists and "Indians" of a new colony, Georgia. During a particularly rough storm on the Atlantic,Wesley marveled at the faith of a group of Moravians-a sect devoted to personal practices of holiness-who were so sure of their salvation that they sang hymns of praise while the ship threatened to sink. Despite being a clergyperson who had helped others embrace faith, the young priest was not confident in his own salvation. This haunted him during both his short (and unsuccessful) ministry in Georgia and his more successful ministry upon returning to England. He was counseled by a Moravian friend to preach faith until he had a faith that gave him the confidence he was lacking. He took the advice to heart and continued to preach.
Wesley preached not only in churches but also in fields and town squares-something with which he was uncomfortable, but he did because it helped people claim their faith. Wesley continued to question his own salvation until May 24, 1738. On that day he attended a reading of Luther's interpretation of Romans, a book in the New Testament, and experienced the assurance for which he had been looking. He felt his heart "strangely warmed" and knew that God would forgive his sins. This encounter, known as Wesley's Aldersgate experience, led the priest to consider himself a true Christian.
Wesley and the other early Methodists spent the remaining years of their lives continuing to preach repentance and holy living. They established elaborate systems of small groups-called societies and bands-that supported individual Christians as they struggled to live holier lives. Throughout his life Wesley continued in his zeal for the sacraments, evangelism, holy living, and acts of service. Although some animosity did develop between practicing Methodists and Anglicans, early Methodism is best understood as a sect within the Anglican Church.
After the American Revolution, the Anglican Church had a dwindling presence in the newly independent United States of America. Growing numbers of Methodists were left without clergy to provide them with the sacraments. Rather than have so many go without the Eucharist, Wesley ordained a small number of English preachers and sent them to America to establish a new church. Through the remainder of his life, Wesley continued to write and publish sermons, a complete commentary on the Bible, many hymns, and several theological tracts. He died in 1791. In many ways,Wesley's theology was a product of his Anglican upbringing. As he crafted his theology, he relied primarily upon scripture, but he also took into consideration reason and the tradition of the church. While this was consistent with the theological tradition of the Anglican Church, Wesley also relied upon the role of experience as a further way of distilling God's will and understanding the Bible.
While Wesley never detailed a system for doing theology, a 20th-century theologian and historian named Albert Outler distilled from Wesley's writing a means of constructing theology. Termed the Wesleyan quadrilateral, Outler suggests that one should examine scripture and then understand it through the lenses of tradition, reason, and experience. This approach to theology has gained widespread acceptance among the United Methodist Church and other Wesleyan denominations.
Wesley is regarded for his ability to bring together aspects of different traditions or contradicting theologies. He stressed the therapeutic or healing aspect of the faith that was generally associated with Eastern Christianity while still attending to the role of grace in Christian development that typifies Western Christianity. He also developed the concept of prevenient grace as a way to delicately balance the accountability for one's actions, found in the free-will traditions, and the emphasis on original sin that pervades predestination traditions.
Another distinctive aspect of Wesley's theology comes out of his attention to "holiness" or Christian living. Relying upon Matthew 5:48, he believed it was the duty of all Christians to work toward and attain perfect love for God and perfect love for neighbor. Christians would still sin by making mistakes, but their intent and devotion to God could become perfect.