John Wesley spent just two years in the American colonies, and he had a pretty dismal time of it. Yet that trip led to major changes in Wesley’s life, and his work in turn did much to shape the religious climate in America.
When he boarded an ocean-going ship in 1735, bound for Georgia, John Wesley was already a very religious man. Son of an Anglican minister, he had studied at Oxford, where he co-founded The Holy Club, a group of students who aimed to be methodical about their personal holiness. Within this group were Charles Wesley (John’s hymn-writing brother) and a young preacher named George Whitefield. Their methodical approach is what caused them to be called “Methodists.”
Despite his striving for righteousness, John Wesley was missing something. Before his American voyage, he wrote: “My chief motive is the hope of saving my own soul. I hope to learn the true sense of the Gospel of Christ by preaching it to the heathen.”
The colony of Georgia was quite new. James Oglethorpe led a group of settlers there in 1733, intending to establish it as a non-slavery colony. John Wesley was asked to serve there as a minister to the English settlers and a missionary to the friendly native tribes in the area.
“Weren’t you afraid?” he asked one of the Moravians after the storm was over. “Weren’t your women and children afraid?”
The Moravian gently responded, “No. Our women and children are not afraid to die.”
After the ship landed, Wesley continued similar conversations with a Moravian pastor named Spangenberg, who launched some challenging questions of his own. “Have you the witness within yourself?” the pastor asked John. “Does the Spirit of God witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?” Wesley didn’t know what to say. “Do you know Jesus Christ?” the pastor pressed. “I know he is the Savior of the world.”
“True,” the Moravian responded, “but do you know he has saved you?”
John Wesley was clearly a very religious man. He had not only trained for the ministry, but he formed a club devoted to finding new levels of righteousness. He was not only an Anglican minister, but a missionary, traveling across an ocean to spread the Christian faith. But what was this Christian faith he was spreading? Was it merely a matter of seeking righteousness? Or was there more? What was it that gave those Moravians such confidence in the face of death? How could they sing joyfully when others were shrinking with fear? Whatever they had, John Wesley feared he didn’t have it.
Yet he powerfully preached a message of spiritual discipline, railing against vanity and fancy clothes. Initially, many colonists responded out of curiosity more than anything else. Someone said to Wesley, “The people say they are Protestants, but as for you, they cannot tell what religion you are of. They never heard of such a religion before, and they do not know what to make of it.” John began holding a sort of Bible study group on Sunday afternoons, a feature he would later use in England with great effect.
Wesley saw his American adventure as an utter failure. “I went to America to convert the Indians,” he wrote later, “but, O! who shall convert me?”
John kept in touch with some of the Moravians he had met on his trip to America. At their invitation, on May 24, 1738, he attended a religious meeting on Aldersgate Street in London and heard someone read from Martin Luther’s Commentary on the Book of Romans. He felt his heart “strangely warmed.” Suddenly he knew that Jesus had saved him from the law of sin and death. “It pleased God,” he wrote later, “to kindle a fire which I trust shall never be extinguished.”
Meanwhile, the evangelical awakening continued in England, under John Wesley’s leadership. Response to the preaching in Bristol and elsewhere created a challenge for Wesley and the other Methodists. What do you do with all the newly converted? You start fellowship groups, accountability groups, Bible study groups, and you train the new converts in the ways of righteousness. With his great gift for organization, John Wesley soon set up Methodist societies throughout Great Britain, which included “classes” like his old Sunday afternoon Bible group. For decades the Wesleyan movement grew within the Church of England.
The Methodist church then exploded across the American continent in much the same way that it had swept through England and Scotland. The traditions of open-air services and circuit-riding preachers fit perfectly with the American frontier. The Methodists weren’t chained to church buildings or old forms. It was a new faith for a new nation. And it didn’t hurt that Francis Asbury, the first Methodist bishop ordained in America, had been an outspoken supporter of the American Revolution. In Kentucky and pushing westward, “camp meetings” became all the rage. Settlers would gather from miles around to sing and pray and hear some circuit-rider (usually a Methodist) preach the Word–thus developed a uniquely American form of worship. By 1830, Methodists formed the largest denomination in the U.S.
John Wesley died in 1791, possibly the most important Englishman of the eighteenth century. Through the extended influence of people like Whitefield and Asbury, he was exceptionally important to America as well.