Who was John Wesley?
John Wesley (1703 – 1791) was an Anglican cleric and Christian theologian. Wesley is largely credited, along with his brother Charles Wesley, with founding the Methodist movement which began when he took to open-air preaching in a similar manner to George Whitefield. In contrast to George Whitefield's Calvinism, Wesley embraced the Arminian doctrines that were dominant in the 18th-century Church of England. Methodism in both forms was a highly successful evangelical movement in the United Kingdom, which encouraged people to experience Jesus Christ personally.
Wesley's teachings, known as Wesleyanism, provided the seeds for the modern Methodist movement, the Holiness movement, Pentecostalism, the Charismatic Movement, and Neo-charismatic churches, which encompass numerous denominations across the world. In addition, he refined Arminianism with a strong evangelical emphasis on the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith.
Wesley helped to organize and form societies of Christians throughout England, Scotland, Wales, North America and Ireland as small groups that developed intensive, personal accountability, discipleship and religious instruction among members. His great contribution was to appoint itinerant, non-ordained preachers who travelled widely to evangelize and care for people in the societies.
Under Wesley's direction, Methodists became leaders in many social issues of the day, including the prison reform and abolitionism movements. Wesley's contribution as a theologian was to propose a system of opposing theological stances. His greatest theological achievement was his promotion of what he termed "Christian Perfection", or holiness of heart and life.
Wesley held that, in this life, Christians could come to a state in which the love of God, or perfect love, reigned supreme in their hearts. His evangelical theology, especially his understanding of Christian perfection, was firmly grounded in his sacramental theology. He continually insisted on the general use of the means of grace (prayer, scripture, meditation, Eucharist, etc.) as the means by which God sanctifies and transforms the believer.
Later in his career Wesley was a keen abolitionist. He spoke out and wrote against the slave trade. He published a pamphlet on slavery titled Thoughts Upon Slavery, (1774). To quote from one of his tracts against the slave trade: "Liberty is the right of every human creature, as soon as he breathes the vital air; and no human law can deprive him of that right which he derives from the law of nature". Wesley was a friend of John Newton and William Wilberforce who were also influential in the abolition of slavery in Britain.
Throughout his life Wesley remained within the Church of England and insisted that his movement was well within the bounds of the Anglican tradition. His maverick use of church policy put him at odds with many within the Church of England, though toward the end of his life he was widely respected and referred to as "the best loved man in England."
Today, Wesley's influence as a teacher persists. He continues to be the primary theological interpreter for Methodists the world over; the largest bodies being the United Methodist Church, the Methodist Church of Great Britain and the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Wesleyan teachings also serve as a basis for the holiness movement, which includes denominations like the Wesleyan Church, the Free Methodist Church, the Church of the Nazarene, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, and several smaller groups, and from which Pentecostalism and parts of the charismatic movement are offshoots. Wesley's call to personal and social holiness continues to challenge Christians who attempt to discern what it means to participate in the Kingdom of God.
He is commemorated in the Calendar of Saints of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on 2 March with his brother Charles. The Wesley brothers are also commemorated on 3 March in the Calendar of Saints of the Episcopal Church and on 24 May in the Anglican calendar. Wesley's legacy is preserved in Kingswood School, which he founded in 1748 in order to educate the children of the growing number of Methodist preachers. Also, one of the four form houses at the St Marylebone Church of England School, London, is named after John Wesley.He was recently listed at 50 on the BBC's list of the 100 Greatest Britons.
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