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Who was John Wesley?

John Wesley was an English theologian and evangelist best known for co-founding Methodism. He was born the fifteenth child to Samuel and Susannah Wesley in Epworth, U.K. on June 28, 1703. His father was a clergyman with the Anglican Church and his mother was known for diligently homeschooling her children in classical languages and Christian thought. When John was five years old, their house caught fire. Everyone else in the family made it safely outside, but John was trapped on an upper floor. He was rescued by a church member standing on the shoulders of another before the house eventually burned down. This harrowing experience gave John Wesley the sense that he was "a brand plucked from the fire" for a special purpose and destiny (Zechariah 3:2).

John Wesley graduated from Oxford in 1724, earned his master's degree in 1727, and was ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church in 1728. While at Oxford, he joined and led "The Holy Club," a group of students committed to prayer, Bible study, and living piously, that his younger brother, Charles, had started. He also became friends with George Whitefield.

In 1735, John and Charles Wesley traveled together to Georgia in the American Colonies to work as chaplains and missionaries on behalf of the Anglican Church. On their journey across the Atlantic Ocean, their ship encountered a particularly violent storm that broke the mast. While the Englishmen panicked, John noticed that the Moravian pietists on board calmly sang hymns and prayed. He was inspired by their deeply personal version of Christianity. When things in the American Colonies did not go as expected, John and Charles returned to Britain where John joined a religious society led by Moravian Christians.

During an evening Moravian meeting on May 24, 1738 on Aldersgate Street in London, while listening to a reading of Martin Luther's preface to the biblical book of Romans, John Wesley had a religious experience. He wrote, "I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sin, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death." This evangelical conversion inspired John to start preaching about the universality of God's love, personal salvation, and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. Because this type of preaching was unwelcomed in the Anglican Church, George Whitefield encouraged John Wesley to start preaching outdoors. This outdoor preaching throughout Britain and Ireland led to an evangelical Methodist revival. John Wesley formed small groups for personal accountability, discipleship, and religious instruction everywhere he went. He then appointed itinerant evangelists to care for these groups as he continued to travel throughout the U.K.

Besides preaching over 40,000 sermons and forming Methodist Societies throughout the U.K., John Wesley also wrote extensively about theology, politics, physics, and medicine. He advocated for Arminianism, female preachers, the abolition of slavery, and prison reform, among other things. He translated hymns from German into English and adapted the Anglican Book of Common Prayer for the American Methodists. He ordained clergymen to administer communion in the American Colonies when the Anglican Church refused.

However, John Wesley continued to consider himself a member of the Church of England because he believed every Christian of any denomination could practice the tenets of Methodism while maintaining their denominational identity. Today, of course, Methodist and Wesleyan churches are their own denominations distinct from the Anglican Church of England, and it was Methodism's spread to the American Colonies through the preaching of George Whitefield that helped lead to that separation. Famously, Whitefield was a proponent of Calvinism while John Wesley taught Arminianism. It was in one of John's letters that the term "agree to disagree" is thought to have appeared in print for the first time. Despite this heated theological debate, John Wesley and George Whitefield remained steadfast friends such that Wesley delivered the eulogy at Whitefield's funeral in London upon Whitefield's dying request.

John Wesley died in London at the age of 87 after his health took a sharp decline. Due to his charitable giving, he died a poor man with a great legacy. John Wesley's conversion experience with the Holy Spirit, his dedication to methodically studying the Bible, and his commitment to holy living inspired the Methodist movement and ignited a revival on two continents. God did indeed use him for a special purpose after sparing his life during that house fire so many years before.

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