He entered Oxford at 17 and with his brother, Charles, founded a Bible club in 1729 that was derided by classmates. "The one charge then advanced against them was that they were `righteous overmuch'; that they were abundantly too scrupulous, and too strict," Wesley later wrote.

Their critics labeled them "Methodists" for their strict adherence to prayer and pious living. Wesley originally shunned the name but later adopted it as his own.

In 1735, he set off to convert the Indians in Georgia, an effort that Wesley later admitted was a failure. His high-church Anglicanism found few friends in Savannah, and he was run out of town in 1738 after an unsuccessful attempt to woo young Sophy Hopkey.

Back in England, Wesley began to attend Moravian meetings. Within three months, Wesley had his most important conversion experience during a meeting on Aldersgate Street in London.

"I felt my heart strangely warmed," he wrote in his journals. "I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."

The strange warming of Wesley's heart convinced him of the need for a personal conversion, an impulse that still defines evangelical Christianity. From there, he developed doctrines of lives "perfected in love" that were defined by personal piety and good works.

Wesley launched a major tour of England, rising every day at 4 a.m. to preach to workers at 5 a.m. in fields and factories. Riding mostly on horseback, he preached 40,000 sermons and logged nearly 250,000 miles around Britain.

He and his brother forged a partnership that eventually frayed. Charles was a prolific hymn writer, penning the words to "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing" and hundreds of others.

The American Revolution drove the church and the brothers apart. When the war severed relations across the Atlantic, John Wesley appointed leaders to shepherd the fledgling U.S. church. Charles disagreed with the decision, and said many of his brother's appointments were unqualified. Gradually, the American church grew to resent Wesley's meddling from England.

Throughout his life, John Wesley was unlucky in love. His Georgia wooing had ended badly. He married his wife, Mary, in 1751 over his brother's objections. After a stormy marriage and a 10-year separation, she died in 1781 while her husband was away. His journals noted that he missed her funeral and he "was not informed of it till a day or two after."

"Here's a man who (at) the heart of his message is love, loving God, and loving neighbor ... who was just simply incapable of developing an intimate loving relationship with a woman," said Richard Heitzenrater, a Wesley scholar at Duke Divinity School.

By all accounts, he was not the warm and cuddly type. Roy Hattersley, author of the new "The Life of John Wesley," described him as "authoritarian, humorless and didactic. He had very little small talk and, after the age of about 30, was suspicious of anything that might be regarded as pleasure. He would not have made a particularly enjoyable companion."

Since his death at age 88 in 1791, Wesley's ties with his churches have become blurred. Unlike Martin Luther with the Lutherans, or even Joseph Smith with the Mormons, Wesley is more remote, his influence less direct.

"If you went into First Methodist Church in X town in Ohio and you said to anyone there, `Say three things about John Wesley,' I don't think you'd hear very much," said Marty, adding that the congregation's strength -- not its size or ties to Wesley -- is what matters most.

 

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