History

A Brand Plucked from the Fire: The Early Life of John Wesley

On June 17, 1703, John Wesley was born in the small market-town of Epworth, England. Although the Wesleys were a prestigious, upper-class family, John’s childhood was not without challenges.

Childhood at Epworth (1703-1713)

His father Samuel was a priest in the Anglican Church during a turbulent time and faced enemies inside and outside of the church. In 1705, when John was just two years old, Samuel spent time in prison for debt, and in 1709, the family’s parsonage burned down. Their rebuilt home was left half-furnished for thirteen years because of their struggle with poverty.

Despite unsettling circumstances, Wesley’s mother Susanna held the home together with impressive structure. She had nineteen children, including John, who ate, prayed, and slept at fixed times. As soon as her children could speak, they were taught to pray the Lord’s Prayer and soon began memorizing Scripture, catechism, and written prayers. Susanna homeschooled each child, starting at age five, with rigorous studies in every area of knowledge she deemed useful.

God’s hand was clearly upon John from a young age. The five-year-old nearly died in the Epworth Parsonage fire, leaping out of an upper window into a rescuer’s arms just as the whole roof fell in; he forever considered himself “a brand plucked out of the fire.” In his journals, Wesley tells that forty-one years later during a watch-night service he “gave a short account of that wonderful providence. The voice of praise and thanksgiving went up on high, and great was our rejoicing before the Lord.” Everyone knew that John had been spared for a mighty work.

Five-year-old John Wesley was spared for a mighty work.

Education at Charterhouse (1714-1719)

In 1714, John was nominated for the Charterhouse, a prestigious school in London. The nomination came from none other than the Lord Chamberlain, the senior-most member of the Royal Household, who had been a long-time friend of the Wesleys.

John showed exceptional diligence for a ten-year-old boy and quickly became a favorite of the illustrious schoolmaster, Dr. Thomas Walker. One day, Mr. Tooke, a teacher at the school, was alarmed to find that all of the boys were missing from the playground; he soon found them in the schoolroom gathered around John, who was instructing them with stories. John’s older brother reported to their father that John was “learning Hebrew as fast as he can.”

During this time, John hoped to be saved by “not being so bad as other people, having still a kindness for religion, and reading the Bible, going to church, and saying my prayers.”

College at Christ Church, Oxford (1720-1724)

In 1720, John was elected to attend Oxford University. Wesley, now a seventeen-year-old young man, studied at Christ Church — one of Oxford’s constituent colleges.

One of John’s contemporaries described him as “the very sensible and acute collegian baffling every man by the subtleties of logic, and laughing at them for being so easily routed; a young fellow of the finest classical taste, of the most liberal and manly sentiments.” Wesley was lively and lighthearted, well-known for his wit and humor. His work was polished, and he showed gifting in poetry, like his father. Unfortunately, these days were tainted by poor health and financial struggle. Wesley was embarrassed by his amassing debt and lived on a puny allowance. He learned to keep a careful diet of meat, vegetables, and water.

Wesley was dutiful in his devotions, but conscious of his lack of inner holiness. He later reflected, “I cannot well tell what I hoped to be saved by now, when I was continually sinning against that little light I had, unless by those transient fits of what many divines [theologians] taught me to call repentance.”

Ordination and the Teaching Fellowship at Lincoln College, Oxford (1725-1727)

In 1725, Wesley’s interest in religion peaked, and he considered service in the Anglican Church; his father agreed to help him pay for ordination. Wesley read The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis and devoted himself to leading a new life. He became conscientious about the use of his time and began penning his famous journals. He writes that at the time, “I doubted not but I was a good Christian.”

Wesley was ordained deacon in Christ Church Cathedral on September 19, 1725, and he soon delivered his first sermon. Three years later, at the same place, he was ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church.

“I propose to be busy as long as I live.” (John Wesley)

Wesley began pursuing his divinity studies and in 1726 was unanimously elected to a Fellowship at Lincoln College — another of Oxford’s constituent colleges. This secured a room at the college, a regular salary, and opportunities to study and lecture. Again, his father Samuel gave sacrificially to underwrite John’s pursuits: “What will be my own fate God knows. But we have suffered heavier troubles…Whatever I am, my Jack is Fellow of Lincoln.”

John’s younger brother Charles came to Christ Church soon after John left for Lincoln. John tried talking to him about religion, but Charles was anxious to enjoy himself and would respond, “What, would you have me to be a saint all at once?” John had no time for such frivolity. John’s mother wrote him a letter, urging him to cut his exceedingly long hair; he insisted that he would not spend the money to have it done and added, “Leisure and I have taken leave of one another. I propose to be busy as long as I live, if my health is so long indulged me.”

Wesley was an impressive scholar. Monday and Tuesday were devoted to the Greek and Latin classics; Wednesday to logic and ethics; Thursday to Hebrew and Arabic; Friday to metaphysics and natural philosophy; Saturday to oratory and poetry; Sunday to divinity. He studied French on occasion and dabbled in the writings of Euclid, Keil, Gravesande, Sir Isaac Newton, and other mathematicians. He even experimented with optics.

Wesley also served as a lecturer in Greek, as well as logic and philosophy. He was held in high regard by all of the Fellows, one of which remarked to Wesley, “I consider those shining qualities which I hear daily mentioned in your praise.”

“The first priority of my life is to be holy, and the second goal of my life is to be a scholar.” (John Wesley)

Assisting at Wroote (1727-1729)

In August 1727, after achieving his Master of Arts, Wesley left Oxford to assist his father with a second parish in Wroote, a town about five miles from Epworth. This was Wesley’s only time serving at an Anglican parish. Wesley later reflected, “From the year 1725 to 1729 I preached much, but saw no fruit of my labour. Indeed, it could not be that I should; for I neither laid the foundation of repentance, nor of believing the Gospel; taking it for granted that all to whom I preached were believers, and that many of them needed no repentance.”

Wesley made frequent trips to Oxford while serving at Wroote, but in October 1729, he received a letter encouraging him to return full-time and take on pupils.

Back to Oxford (1729-1735)

Wesley returned to Oxford in November 1729 and was assigned eleven pupils, whom he taught every day in the year but Sundays. He advised them to read selectively and constantly, and he wrote a sermon for them on the duty of receiving the Lord’s Supper as frequently as possible.

Moderating discussions at Oxford, Wesley became an expert in debate. Logical argument clearly marks his sermons.

Public disputation was a large part of university training in Wesley’s day, and upon his return, he served more often as moderator of the discussions: “For several years I was Moderator in the disputations which were held six times a week at Lincoln College in Oxford. I could not avoid acquiring hereby some degree of expertness in arguing, and especially in discerning and pointing out well-covered and plausible fallacies. I have since found abundant reason to praise God for giving me this honest art. By this, when men have hedged me in by what they call demonstrations, I have been many times able to dash them in pieces, in spite of all its covers, to touch the very point where the fallacy lay; and it flew open in a moment.”

While John was helping his father at Wroote, his brother Charles had become serious about religion and started a small society to grow in spirituality. The society, known as the “new Methodists” for their methodical approach to life, was named after an ancient school of physicians who thought all diseases could be cured by a specific method of diet and exercise. Others called them the “Holy Club.” When Wesley came back to Oxford, he was immediately recognized as their leader.

Next in this series: Oxford to Aldersgate: John Wesley’s Journey to Faith


Resources

Dragos, Andrew. “John Wesley Biography (Short).” Seedbed.
Green, Richard. “John Wesley – Evangelist.” Wesley Center Online.
“John Wesley the Methodist: A Plain Account of His Life and Work.” Wesley Center Online.
“John Wesley: Methodical pietist.” Christianity Today.
Telford, John. “The Life of John Wesley.” Wesley Center Online.
Wesley, John. “The Journals of John Wesley.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library.