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Friday, March 6, 2015

Formation Friday: John Wesley

                John was born the 15th of 19 children to Samuel and Susannah Wesley. Susannah bore all 19, and she was the epitome of loving, faithful mother. Every week she spent time with each child, teaching them the Bible and the basic tenets of the Christian faith.
                When John was 5 years old, a house fire nearly took his life. He was on the 2nd floor, trapped between the flaming stairs and a roof that was about to collapse. Providence intervened that day when a neighbor, standing on the shoulders of another, grabbed John from the window and saved his life. From then on, John referred to himself as “a brand plucked from the fire,” sensing that God had saved him for something special.
                And he worked hard to be special. John attended Oxford, spending a great amount of time reading the early church fathers. When his brother Charles assembled a small band of students to take their faith seriously, John quickly became the leader. He directed the group with a plan of study and rules for prayer. As the group grew, and became the target of ridicule at the University, John took pride in his first experience of persecution.
                But even in this season of constantly trying to make his life conform to the Bible, John was restless. He had a profound lack of peace. He felt he needed something more.
                And that was what brought him to this voyage. General James Oglethorpe invited Charles to be his secretary and John to be the chaplain to the new colony of Savannah, Georgia. The two brothers quickly accepted and were soon aboard the Simmonds in October of 1735.
                However, just a few short days before they were to land in America, the ship ran into a violent storm. Suddenly, this 32 year-old Anglican Priest, this man who had worked so hard to serve God all his life, was filled with terror at the prospect of death.  

It was in that moment of crisis, when the only thing that John could see was death, that he looked across the deck and saw a group of men and women singing calmly. Some sang with their eyes closed, some looked out upon the waves, some looked up into the sky. In each face, John saw something. He saw… peace.

                In the middle of a storm that threatened to capsize the ship and drown every passenger, John saw the peace that he had been looking for all his life. It was the peace that would change his life.
                The storm passed, and the ship was safe. When they landed, John and Charles took up their posts in Savannah. Things didn’t go well. John quickly alienated the members of the church with his strict order for them to follow the disciplines he prescribed for spiritual growth. The conflict escalated when he fell in love with one of the daughters, who then eloped with his rival. Within two years of his arrival, John returned to England a discouraged man. But it was this return that brought him face to face with the peace he had seen on that boat.
                The group of men and women aboard the Simmonds were Moravians. The Moravians began as a group of men and women who dedicated themselves to 24/7 prayer. However, this group wasn’t content to remain in their comfortable homes, interceding for the nations. They themselves went all over the world to reach the lost for Christ. It was one of these missionary groups that John encountered that night on the Simmonds.
                Upon his return to London, John met Peter Bohler, a young Moravian preacher. Bohler invited John to join his weekly meetings, and on May 24, 1738, he encountered the grace of God for the first time. John wrote,
“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, 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 sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
                For the first time in his life, John truly understood the words of Romans, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
                This epiphany completely transformed John’s life. He finally found the assurance and the sense of purpose that would sustain him for the rest of his life.
     John began serving alongside the Moravians, preaching throughout London. In 1739, his friend, George Whitefield, started preaching to the people of Bristol. Whitefield took to the fields for his preaching, speaking to thousands of people who would never set foot in a church. As the crowds grew, Whitefield needed help. He called upon Wesley.
     Until this point, Wesley had not been much of a preacher. He was a man filled with anxiety and insecurity. But John’s encounter with God at Aldersgate was such a dramatic event, that he was a completely different person. The trembling speaker was now a firebrand. He went anywhere he was permitted to speak. He preached in jails to prisoners, in inns to wayfarers, even on vessels crossing to Ireland. He preached to 30,000 in an amphitheater, and to hundreds in a church graveyard. Wesley would later write that he never traveled fewer than 4,500 miles each year.
     It wasn’t long before the movement began to spread like wildfire. John wasn’t the caliber of speaker that George was, but every time he spoke, God moved and people were saved. Additionally, John was an organizational genius. As he preached throughout England, and more and more people were saved, John divided them into small groups of 11, each with one leader. The groups would meet weekly to pray and discuss their spiritual lives.
     However, with the followers, there also came critics. Envious Rectors mocked the methods employed by Wesley and George, referring to them as “methodists” for the way they organized their spiritual disciplines. Needless to say, the name stuck.
     By 1744, there were so many groups spread across the country that John started the “Annual Methodist Conference.” This was for the leaders to gather so they could shape the policy and doctrine of the movement.
     But John Wesley was certainly not a perfect man. For all his accomplishments in the cause of Christ, there is one blight on his life: His marriage.
     In 1751, the 48 year-old Wesley married Molly Vazeille, a widow with 4 children. John Wesley was not a perfect man, and nowhere is this more evident than in his family life. After getting married, John did nothing to lessen his travel time. He continued at the same frenetic pace, preaching all over the country. Not only that, but when Molly became jealous of the affectionate letters he wrote to numerous women, he refused to stop writing. 
     Within a few years, his relationship with Molly was so frayed that she left him. She tried to return a few times, but eventually they separated for good. When she left for the last time, John wrote in his journal, “I did not leave her: I did not send her away: I will not call her back.” When she died, John was unaware of the event, and did not even attend her funeral.
     For the rest of his life, John worked tirelessly in both England and America to reach the lost for the sake of Christ. He was such an organizational genius that we know the exact amount of followers he left behind: 294 preachers, 71,668 British members, 19 missionaries (5 in mission stations), and 43,265 American members with 198 preachers. Today Methodists number about 30 million worldwide.
     Also, John was constantly giving his money to charity and to the poor. He died in poverty, having spent every last penny for the cause of Christ.
     However, before he died, John left one last imprint on his legacy. During this incredible time of revival, many of the greatest church leaders had a glaring blind spot: the slave trade. Wesley’s most famous peers, Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, both owned slaves. However, John refused to ignore the issue.
     In 1787, William Wilberforce began his 20 year campaign to abolish the slave trade in England. Wilberforce stood alone against Parliament, fighting for justice for the millions of African men, women, and children. On 1791, 4 years into his work, John Wesley wrote a letter to the discouraged Wilberforce. He wrote,
“Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing!”
     John wrote this 6 days before his own death. God used this letter to strengthen Wilberforce for the coming battles. In 1807, 16 years later, the slave trade in England was finally abolished. 
     On March 4, 1791, John Wesley passed away in his home in London. Before he close his eyes in death, he looked around the room at the gathered friends, sat up with a smile on his face, and spoke these words: 
"The best of all is, God is with us!"

Wesley was laser-focused on living his life completely under the reign of Christ. He refused to be "half a Christian," and it is reflected in his writings. Here are a few quotes:

“Beware of desiring anything other than God...Let others see that you are not interested in any pleasure that does not bring you nearer to God, nor [despise] any pain which does. Let them see that you simply aim at pleasing God in everything. Let the language of your heart sing out with regard to pleasure or pain, riches or poverty, honor or dishonour, 'All's alike to me, so I in my Lord may live and die!'"

"O, beware of touchiness, of testiness, of an unwillingness to be corrected. Beware of being provoked to anger at the least criticism, an avoiding those who do not accept your word."

"Beware you be not swallowed up in books! An ounce of love is worth a pound of knowledge.”

“Do you not know that God entrusted you with that money (all above what buys necessities for your families) to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to help the stranger, the widow, the fatherless; and, indeed, as far as it will go, to relieve the wants of all mankind? How can you, how dare you, defraud the Lord, by applying it to any other purpose?


Evan Smith

is a Pastor currently living in Phoenix, AZ. He majored in New Testament Studies at Ozark Christian College. Born and raised in Texas, he grew up the third-born of 7 kids and loved (almost) every minute of it! He is happily married to his high school sweetheart, Breanna, and has two wonderful kids, Hannah Joy and Peter. More than anything, Evan wants to be a man who is marked by a hunger for God.

The God who came, still comes. The God who spoke, still speaks.”

Evan's Website

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