December 16, 2017

John Wesley—The Prodigious Worker

Sam Horn

In John Wesley, God sent to His church one of her most prodigious laborers in the gospel. Wesley traveled more than 250,000 miles in the course of more than fifty years of ministry. He wrote or edited more than 200 works of sermons, hymns, and commentaries, and he founded the Methodist denomination and saw it grow to over 135,000 members and over 500 itinerant ministers. His own words testify to his tireless efforts in ministry.

I entered my eightieth year; but, blessed be God, my time is not “labor and sorrow.” I find no more pain or bodily infirmities than at five-and-twenty. This I impute (1) to the power of God fitting me for what He calls me to; (2) to my traveling four or five thousand miles a year; (3) to my sleeping, night and day, whenever I want it; (4) to my rising at a set hour; and (5) to my constant preaching, particularly in the morning.

In my opinion, one of the best brief overviews of John Wesley’s life and ministry is the lengthy chapter dedicated to him in John Armstrong’s book Five Great Evangelists (Christian Focus Publications). Last month’s column reviewed his material on the life of George Whitefield. This month’s will focus on the life of John Wesley. A final column will cover his material on three lesser-known evangelists: Howell Harris, Asahel Nettleton, and Duncan Matheson.

Born in June 1703 in Lincolnshire, England, John Wesley was the fifteenth child of Samuel and Susanna Wesley. His father was the son of a minister who left the Church of England during the Great Ejection of 1662. John’s father eventually disassociated himself from the Dissenters and rejoined the Anglican clergy. His mother, Susanna, was also raised in the home of a Puritan Dissenter. She too left the Nonconformist movement and became an Anglican at age thirteen. Undoubtedly due to the influence of his home, Wesley remained loyal to the Church of England all his life. The story of his conversion is one of the most familiar in all church history. Armstrong’s short presentation is unique in the amount of detail presented from Wesley’s journal entries. On February 7, 1736, Wesley recorded:

On landing in Georgia I asked the advice of Mr. Spangenberg, one of the German pastors, with regard to my own conduct. He said in reply, “Do you know Jesus Christ?” I paused, and said, “I know He is the Savior of the world.” “True,” replied he; “but do you know he has saved you?”

However, it was two years from this entry until his famous Aldersgate Street conversion in February of 1738. Almost immediately after his conversion, John began preaching wherever doors were open to him. As his message became clear to the established clergy, he soon found those doors closed. Because no other pulpit was available, he preached to the people in open-air meetings. God blessed the preaching with a great harvest of souls. For the next 53 years, Wesley preached over 40,000 messages to people scattered all over England as well as Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and America. His converts were organized unto groups and were shepherded by an itinerant band of traveling preachers trained in Wesley’s methods. Eventually, they were known as Methodists. In addition to his prolific preaching and writing ministry, Wesley also played an important supportive role in the musical ministry of his brother, Charles, who contributed more than 6,000 hymns to English hymnody.

God granted Wesley—along with George Whitefield—an important part in the First Great Spiritual Awakening. On one famous occasion Wesley actually stood on his father’s tombstone and preached to a crowd of hungry hearers gathered outside of a church closed to Wesley. Wesley’s unfortunate handling of doctrinal differences between himself and Whitefield proved to be a sad chapter in his ministry. Though Armstrong mentions the conflict between Methodism and the Calvinistic brethren of the day—including his break with Whitefield over theological issues related to the extent of man’s depravity, predestination, election, sanctification, and the nature and extent of atonement— he leaves much more unsaid than said. Thankfully the personal friendship between the two eventually prevailed, even though the doctrinal differences were so strong they prevented any kind of further joint ministry effort.

Armstrong also notes Wesley’s difficult marriage to Mary (Molly) Vazeille. John married late in life and against the counsel of his brother and several close friends. The marriage ended disastrously thirty years later when she left him in 1771 after lengthy and unfounded accusations against his character. Twenty years later, at 87 years of age, John joined her in death. He was buried as he lived—with the humble men to whom he had spent his entire life preaching. Perhaps the most fitting conclusion was written over one hundred years ago by one of his early biographers, who observed,

Like other men, he had his faults, he made mistakes, his judgment may sometimes have been wrong; but, taking him as a whole, he was an exemplar to his times, a benefactor to his race, a workman who needed not to be ashamed.

Dr. Sam Horn will soon be the Vice President for Ministerial Advancement at Bob Jones University.

(Originally published in FrontLine • January / February 2004. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

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