What is Wesleyan tradition? And who is John Wesley?

Wesleyans are Christ followers whose ways of practicing Christian faith have been influenced by the example of John and Charles Wesley.

Young John Wesley (1703-1791) was rescued from his burning home in Epworth, England, and later referred to himself as “a brand plucked from the burning” and set aside for strict religious discipline from his father, an Anglican clergyman. He studied at Oxford and was ordained an Anglican priest in 1728. His brother, Charles (1707-1788) also was educated at Oxford. They formed a small society with fellow students who shared a religious zeal for regularity of living and strict observance of weekly sacraments. Because of their methodical habits of Christian study and living, other students derisively called their society “Methodists,” a name which stuck.

Although ordained, John did not feel he was an effective pastor or witness for Jesus Christ. In 1735 he accompanied General George Oglethorpe as a missionary among British American colonists and natives living in what later became the United States. In preparation for this work, he intensely read and studied medicine. He judged his three year stay in America as a failure. Aboard ship returning to England, he met a Moravian pastor, Peter Boehler, who encouraged him to preach as though he had faith, and assurance of salvation would come to him. In 1738 after a prayer meeting in Aldersgate Street, London, he experienced an awakening of faith, which he termed “a heart-warming experience.”  As a result, he swept aside ecclesiastical and High Church views, appointed lay preachers to assist in small class meetings, and began to preach in open fields to persons rejected by the High Church clergy. Methodists preached a religion of personal piety, offering hope to many, singing hymns that taught theology and were based upon popular tunes of the day sung in taverns, and formed communities of faith which cared for each other with disciplined living.

John and Charles rode extensively–thousands of miles—on horseback, preaching and organizing societies throughout England and Ireland. John wrote many pamphlets and cheap books and gave the annual income from these sales to the needy and unemployed, made loans to debtors and businessmen, established credit unions, and opened dispensaries and schools. One of the books he wrote was “Primitive Physick,” which was a popular and widely read compendium of home remedies and cures that went through twenty editions and provided guidelines for healthy living for those who could not afford physicians. He required lay pastors to practice personal discipline with regular study of the Bible and his sermons and encouraged them to become as educated as possible.

In 1772 he sent Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke to the colonies as general superintendents of the Methodist societies. After the American Revolution, when Methodists no longer desired sacraments from Anglican clergy still in allegiance to King George III, the Methodist Episcopal Church was formed at a Christmas Conference in Baltimore (1784). It rapidly grew in membership following westward expansion of the United States.

In his sermons, John Wesley outlined a methodology for determining truth, which was later called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The Quadrilateral consists of four sources: Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. Utilizing all, Methodists believe the Holy Spirit can guide us in making the best decisions in all areas of life.

Historians credit the work of John and Charles Wesley in the 18th century with preventing a bloody revolution in England the likes of which France experienced. There are now numerous Methodist branches and affiliations which are active world-wide with millions of members.  All are practitioners of the Wesleyan Tradition.