John Wesley lived from 1703 to 1791, and spent nearly all his life in England, as an Anglican (Episcopal) priest. He is said to have traveled over 250,000 miles back and forth across England, and preached over 40,000 sermons. He has rightly been called the last of the great Protestant Reformers.
Wesley’s main focus in ministry was the creation of prayer societies within the Church of England, to promote a more personally engaged spiritual practice, and to reach out to those the Established Church did not care about. These societies were nicknamed “Methodist” due to Wesley’s emphasis on methods of cultivating lives of personal holiness, accompanied by social witness. It was Fr. Wesley’s great hope that these societies would revive the spiritual core of the Church of England.
John Wesley spent a brief (and unsuccessful) time in the Georgia colony as a missionary, and lived to see American Independence from British rule – a move he thoroughly disapproved of! In spite of his feelings, Wesley responded to the spiritual needs of now-orphaned Anglicans by ordaining Methodist preachers for the Americans (since the loyalist Anglican priests fled back to England after Independence), effectively giving birth to Methodism as a denomination distinct from the Anglican/Episcopal Church.
Wesley was adamant that spiritual life, and all living, is about a great “both / and”. While most of his Reformation predecessors staked out a grand opposition to the church of their day (the origin of the word “protestant”), Wesley instead taught that the missing pieces of Christian life needed to be added back into the existing Church. So where the Church of England of his day tended to be very intellectual and abstract, Wesley reclaimed the necessity of personal spiritual discipline, personal holiness, and incarnated expressions of faith. Where the Church of England of his day was all about maintaining the social structure, Wesley recognized that the Good News of Jesus was both about building caring communities, and about changing destructive social conditions. So he advocated prison and education reform, and preached to the lower clases, who were not welcome in the pews.
Like many larger-than-life leaders, Wesely’s own life was filled with contradictions, and his own teaching evolved and matured over the decades of his ministry and leadership. It would be easier to select the threads of teaching and example that only support our views and needs and ignore the rest. But in the NMC we strive to take the harder approach – and invite you to wrestle with Wesley’s legacy along with us. Stanley Ayling writes about this predicament in seeing Wesley’s legacy whole:
“The story of John Wesley is rich in improbabilities and contradictions: the champion of ‘primitive’ Christianity whose version of it swept the new machine-driven England; the friend of the common people who detested democratic ideas; the stickler for rules whose success depended on breaking them; the advocate of celibacy who nevertheless married disastrously; the devoted son of the Church of England who fathered in spite of himself a breakaway church. He preached over 40,000 sermons and published some four hundred written works, from popular tracts and educational handbooks to learned polemics and theological treatises. At first he confronted hostile mobs. He was accused of encouraging hysteria, fanaticism, and superstition. Denied Anglican pulpits, he preached outdoors. Refused the co-operation of the clergy, he appointed his own lay preachers, over whom his sway was total, and at last dared to ordain some of them himself. When he died in 1791 the Gentleman’s Magazine declared him to have been ‘one of the few characters who outlived enmity and prejudice…His personal influence was greater perhaps than any private gentleman in the country.’ ”
– Ayling, Stanley. John Wesley. New York: William Collins Publishers, Inc., 1979. (front flyleaf)
Wesley challenges us to embrace the great and graceful “both / and” of life, and discovering in this the working of the Holy Spirit to enrich and redeem all of life. He is an unflinching reminder to us that no matter what we think the Church is today, we are probably excluding something – and keeping ourselves comfortable through our willful amnesia! There is something in Wesley’s life to challenge, inspire, and annoy just about everyone.