John Wesley (28 June 1703 – 2 March 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 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. Wesleyan Methodism has since spread to form several denominations in many countries around the world, particularly in North America, Western Europe, and Australasia.
Wesley helped to organize and form societies of Christians throughout England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland as small groups that developed intensive, personal accountability, discipleship and religious instruction among members. His great contribution was to appoint itinerant, unordained preachers who traveled widely to evangelize and care for people in the societies. Young men who acted as their assistants were called “exhorters” who functioned in a similar fashion to the twelve apostles after the ascension of Jesus.
Under Wesley’s direction, Methodists became leaders in many social issues of the day, including the prison reform and abolitionismmovements. 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, Holy Communion, etc.) as the means by which God sanctifies and transforms the believer.
John Wesley was among the first to preach for slaves rights, attracting significant opposition. 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”.
Doctrines and theology
20th century Wesley scholar Albert Outler argued in his introduction to the 1964 collection John Wesley that Wesley developed his theology by using a method that Outler termed the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. In this method, Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture; and the Bible was the sole foundational source of theological or doctrinal development. The centrality of Scripture was so important for Wesley that he called himself “a man of one book”—meaning the Bible—although he was well-read for his day. However, he believed that doctrine had to be in keeping with Christian orthodox tradition. So, tradition was considered the second aspect of the Quadrilateral.
Wesley contended that a part of the theological method would involve experiential faith. In other words, truth would be vivified in personal experience of Christians (overall, not individually), if it were really truth. And every doctrine must be able to be defended rationally. He did not divorce faith from reason. Tradition, experience, and reason, however, were subject always to Scripture, Wesley argued, because only there is the Word of God revealed ‘so far as it is necessary for our salvation.’
The doctrines which Wesley emphasized in his sermons and writings are prevenient grace, present personal salvation by faith, the witness of the Spirit, and sanctification. Prevenient grace was the theological underpinning of his belief that all persons were capable of being saved by faith in Christ. Unlike the Calvinists of his day, Wesley did not believe in predestination, that is, that some persons had been elected by God for salvation and others for damnation. He understood that Christian orthodoxy insisted that salvation was only possible by the sovereign grace of God. He expressed his understanding of humanity’s relationship to God as utter dependence upon God’s grace. God was at work to enable all people to be capable of coming to faith by empowering humans to have actual existential freedom of response to God.
Wesley defined the witness of the Spirit as: “an inward impression on the soul of believers, whereby the Spirit of God directly testifies to their spirit that they are the children of God.” He based this doctrine upon certain Biblical passages (see Romans 8:15-16 as an example). This doctrine was closely related to his belief that salvation had to be “personal.” In his view, a person must ultimately believe the Good News for himself or herself; no one could be in relation
Sanctification he described in 1790 as the “grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called `Methodists’.” Wesley taught that sanctification was obtainable after justification by faith, between justification and death. He did not contend for “sinless perfection”; rather, he contended that a Christian could be made “perfect in love”. This love would mean, first of all, that a believer’s motives, rather than being self-centred, would be guided by the deep desire to please God. One would be able to keep from committing what Wesley called, “sin rightly so-called.” By this, he meant a conscious or intentional breach of God’s will or laws. A person could still be able to sin, but intentional or willful sin could be avoided.
Secondly, to be made perfect in love meant, for Wesley, that a Christian could live with a primary guiding regard for others and their welfare. He based this on Christ’s quote that the second great command is “to love your neighbor as you love yourself.” In his view, this orientation would cause a person to avoid any number of sins against his neighbor. This love, plus the love for God that could be the central focus of a person’s faith, would be what Wesley referred to as “a fulfillment of the law of Christ.”
Wesley believed that this doctrine should be constantly preached, especially among the people called Methodists. In fact, he contended that the purpose of the Methodist movement was to “spread scriptural holiness across England.” His system of thought has become known as Wesleyan Arminianism, the foundations of which were laid by Wesley and Fletcher.
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. The teachings of Wesley also serve as a basis for the holiness movement, which includes denominations like the Wesleyan 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.
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.”