7 Heroes Of The Faith Part 4A: John Wesley – The Failed Missionary

Many people have heard of John Wesley but most do not know his story in any detail. In many ways, it is both a strange and compelling story. It is the story of a man who was initially ensnared in religious legalism and tradition but who eventually came into a deep and personal experience of the transforming grace of Jesus. Yet, even after this, he continued to struggle with legalistic and ascetic tendencies.

John Wesley was born in 1703, the fifteenth of nineteen children born to Samuel and Susanna Wesley, only nine of whom survived into adulthood. His parents were devout Christians who discipled their children in the Christian faith with an almost unparalleled rigor. The children were taught Greek and Latin by their father, Samuel, who was a Church of England minister, and they were forced to learn large portions of the New Testament by heart. Each child also had a prolonged “interview” with their mother, Susanna, once each week, where they were given further intensive spiritual instruction.

This stringent, almost severe discipleship as a young child, with its strong emphasis on personal piety and holiness, left an indelible mark upon Wesley and contributed, at least in part, to his initial inability to fully perceive and experience the grace of Jesus. His parents’ strong emphasis on repentance from sin and obedience to God’s commands created within Wesley a disquieting belief that he needed to attain perfection in order to be acceptable to God – a belief which drove him for many years and created deep wells of uncertainty and inadequacy within him.

As a young man, Wesley studied at Oxford University, eventually attaining a master’s degree and staying on as a lecturer, teaching Philosophy, Greek and New Testament studies. In 1725, he was ordained a deacon in the Church of England and in 1728 he was ordained as a priest. After a two-year stint as a parish curate, he returned to Oxford where he joined his brother, Charles, in leading the “Holy Club” – a fellowship group at the University which was focused on the pursuit of a devout Christian life.

In his leadership of the Holy Club John Wesley replicated the rigorous and severe discipleship practices of his childhood. The group met at 6am every morning for three hours of prayer and Bible reading. They fasted two days each week. They went to Holy Communion three times each week. They committed to pray for three minutes on every hour of the day. As well as these rigorous expressions of personal piety, Wesley also urged the group to increasingly sacrificial works of service. They began visiting prisoners in gaol, visiting the sick in hospitals and giving to the poor and needy to the point of their own penury. In all of this, Wesley seems to have been driven by a sense that nothing short of perfection would please a Holy God.

In 1735, Wesley accepted an invitation to be the minister of a fledgling congregation in the American colony of Savannah, Georgia, with the aim of simultaneously evangelising the local American Indian tribes. But during the voyage to the colony, an event took place that shook him to the core. As the ship neared the coast of America, a violent storm beset them and the ship was in danger of sinking. The crew were desperately working the pumps and they began throwing cargo overboard in attempt to lighten their load.

Along with most of the crew and passengers, Wesley was terrified and believed he was about to die. At the height of the storm he went on deck and found a group of Christians kneeling in prayer and singing hymns of praise. As he watched them, he was amazed by their peaceful demeanours and their trust in God. He discovered that they were Moravian brethren, and he asked their leader, “Aren’t you afraid?” The leader replied, “Do you not have faith in Christ?” Wesley soon returned to his cabin below, still convinced that he was about to die, and he wrote in his diary, “I told him that I did have faith in Christ, but I fear it is not true. They have an assurance in God that I do not have.”[1]

Perhaps in response to the faithful prayers of the Moravians, God spared the ship and all its passengers. As the ship was about to be dashed onto some rocks near the coast, a huge rogue wave miraculously lifted the ship up and over the reef and deposited it in the relatively calm waters of the coastal lagoon beyond.

Wesley spent two years in ministry in Savanah and he was an almost complete failure. No Indians were converted and the white parishioners in his flock were increasingly dissatisfied with his ministry. Wesley’s love of the formalism and rituals of the traditional Church of England did not sit well with the locals who favoured a more relaxed, style of Christian worship. His preaching, which advocated a rigorous, ascetic, almost legalistic approach to securing God’s favour, also found disfavour within his congregation.

The final thing that put many people offside was when he excommunicated a woman from his congregation essentially because she had rejected his romantic advances toward her and had chosen to marry someone else instead. Wesley claimed that the reason for excommunicating the woman was his perception of her waning faith, but many within the congregation saw it as merely a reaction to his hurt feelings. Ecclesiastical legal proceedings against Wesley ensued, charging him with misuse of church authority, causing him to resign his ministry and flee the colony, to the great relief of his congregation.

In December 1737, Wesley returned to London, a broken and dejected man. His ministry had been a dismal failure and he was now beset with severe doubts about his own faith. His diary entry as he left America is poignant: “I came to America to convert the Indians, but who shall convert me?”[2]

Who indeed?

We must pause at this point in the story and reflect. John Wesley’s life up to this moment is a vivid portrayal of the emptiness and impotency of legalistic religious observance. Despite all his years of learning, despite his undoubted theological knowledge of the scriptures and his expertise with the Greek New Testament, Wesley had not yet encountered and embraced the grace of Jesus personally. His head knowledge had not yet translated into a heart encounter with the Saviour. He was still trusting in his own vain efforts toward self-righteousness, rather than resting in the saving arms of Jesus and receiving his forgiveness through simple faith.

But all that was about to change.

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[1] John Wesley’s Journal, edited and published by N. Curnock, 1738.

[2] John Wesley’s Journal, edited and published by N. Curnock, 1738.