John Wesley (1703-1791) was an Anglican cleric and Christian theologian who, with his brother Charles Wesley and fellow cleric George Whitefield, is credited with the foundation of the evangelical movement known as Methodism.
Apart from his disciplined upbringing, a rectory fire which occurred on 9 February 1709, when Wesley was five years old, left an indelible impression. Some time after 11:00 p.m., the rectory roof caught on fire. Sparks falling on the children’s beds and cries of “fire” from the street roused the Wesleys who managed to shepherd all their children out of the house except for John who was left stranded on the second floor. With stairs aflame and the roof about to collapse, Wesley was lifted out of the second floor window by a parishioner standing on another man’s shoulders. This childhood deliverance subsequently became part of the Wesley legend, attesting to his special destiny and extraordinary work.
A key step in the development of Wesley’s ministry was, like Whitefield, to travel and preach outdoors. Moving across Great Britain, North America and Ireland, he helped to form and organize small Christian groups that developed intensive and personal accountability, discipleship and religious instruction. Most importantly, he appointed itinerant, unordained evangelists to travel and preach as he did and to care for these groups of people. Under Wesley’s direction, Methodists became leaders in many social issues of the day, including prison reform and abolitionism.
Throughout his life, Wesley remained within the established Anglican church, insisting that the Methodist movement lay well within its tradition. He became widely respected and, by the end of his life, had been described as “the best loved man in England”.