Samuel WESLEY was the second son of John WESLEY of Whitchurch in Dorset. On 12th November 1688 at Marylebone Old Church he married Susanna Annesley the twenty fifth child of Rev Samuel Annesley, formerly of Kenilworth in Warwickshire, on the strength of being offered the curacy of St Botolph, Aldersgate.
In 1690 , Samuel WESLEY became the Vicar of South Ormsby in Lincolnshire. Seven years later he was given the living of Epworth in the Isle of Axholme where despite setbacks, hostility and continual debts he was to remain for 38 years.
By the time the Wesleys moved to Epworth, Susanna had already borne 7 children of which three had died in infancy.
In 1701 there was a violent argument between Samuel and Susanna over the monarchy. He supported William111 while she considered James 11 to be the true king. “If we have 2 kings we must have 2 beds,” Samuel is reported to have said as he stormed out of the Rectory and rode off to London where he stayed for a year before returning to Epworth to collect his belongings preparatory to going overseas. While in Epworth part of the Rectory was destroyed by fire – a misfortune that reunited the Wesleys.
The result of this reconciliation was the birth of their 15th child – a son named John Benjamin in June 1703. There were to be 4 further children including Charles, the great hymn writer, who was born in 1707, but Susanna had a special affection for John of whom she wrote,” I intend to be more particularly careful of the soul of this child than ever I have been.”
Susanna WESLEY taught all of her ten children who survived infancy once they reached the age of five – three hours in the morning and a further three hours in the afternoon. This routine was shattered in February 1709 when the hostile parishioners of Epworth set fire to the Rectory which was gutted. Samuel rescued the children and the family nurse who brought the infant Charles to safety. When they counted heads they found that John then five and a half was missing. Miraculously he was saved from the burning rectory by a human ladder of rescuers moments before the thatched roof fell in. After that Susanna often referred to John as “A brand plucked from the fire.” A painting of the fire at Epworth can be seen at Methodist Church House in Marylebone Road. A smaller copy hangs in the Vestry at Brunswick Methodist Church in Newcastle upon Tyne.
1714 – Aged ten and a half, John WESLEY went to Charterhouse School in London as a foundation scholar. The school was not far from the Annesley home in Spital Yard, Bishopsgate and was situated between Aldersgate Street and Clerkenwell Road. It had been founded in 1611 under the Will of Thomas Sutton of Knaith Hall, near Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. John appears to have enjoyed life at Charterhouse where he had a reputation as a frugal eater, a brilliant debater, good mixer, swimmer, horseman and rower.
In 1720 , John entered Christ Church College, Oxford where he coped easily with the course in Divinity and Classics graduating in 1724 and staying on for a further year to qualify for his M.A., following which he was ordained a deacon in the Church of England.
In March 1726 , he was made a Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford – a college founded in the 15th Century to train clergymen for the Church. Between 1727 and 1729 he spent much of his time in Epworth as his father’s curate when not required in Oxford.
In 1729, he returned to Lincoln College as Tutor in Classics, Divinity and Logic. His brother Charles was now a student at Oxford – at Christ Church College. The two brothers formed a small group, later to be joined by George Whitfield to study the New Testament and ways of becoming better Christians by visiting prisons and teaching the prisoners to read and write, and helping the poor and needy. Within a few months their methodical way of life led other students to refer to them derisively as “The Holy Club” or “Methodists.” The original members of “The Holy Club” were John Wesley, Fellow of Lincoln College, Charles Wesley, student of Christ Church College, Mr Morgan, commoner of Christ Church College, Mr Kirkman of Merton College, Mr Ingham of Queens College, Mr Broughton of Exeter College, Mr Clayton of Brazenose College and Mr James Hervey. In 1733 they were joined by Mr George Whitfield.
In 1735 , Samuel WESLEY died. John had earlier turned down a request to take over as Rector of Epworth, convinced that Oxford was the place for him to carry on his true calling – but that was before he met General James Edward Oglethorpe who in 1732 had founded the colony of Georgia in North America as a settlement for imprisoned debtors. Oglethorpe persuaded John to accompany him to America and serve as a missionary to the Indians and chaplain to the settlement in Savannah.
On December 10th, 1735 John sailed in the “Simmonds” from Cowes for Savannah. John spent 21 very unhappy months in Georgia largely because he tried to insist that settlers and Indians followed the disciplines of the Anglican Church as rigidly as people in England. This led to widespread resentment which increased when John rejected the affections of a young lady, Sophie Hopkey and then refused to administer Holy Communion to her.
In November 1737 faced with court action, John left Savannah by night and took ship for England.
On reaching England in February 1738, Wesley wrote in his Journal [Diary], “It is now two years and four months since I left my native country but what have I learned of myself in the meantime? Why, that I, who went to America to convert others, was never myself converted to God.”
Still in a very depressed state of mind, John attended a meeting of a religious society in Aldersgate Street in the evening of Wednesday, May 24th, 1738 and heard a member reading Martin Luther’s preface on St Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
Later he wrote,
“At a quarter before nine, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me, that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” From that moment, Wesley dates his real conversion and a completely new outlook on his mission in life. England in the early half of the 18th Century was a decadent land. Gambling, vice and gin drinking, vividly pictured in William Hogarth’s cartoons were sapping the vitality of the nation and without any organised police force, crime flourished. Dean Swift wrote,” Hardly one in a hundred among our people appears to act by any principle of religion.” The Anglican Church was completely out of step with the vast majority of the population.
From September 1738 onwards, John began to preach a message of salvation to meetings of religious societies in London and Oxford.
Then in March 1739 , his friend George Whitfield asked John to come and help him in Bristol. Reluctantly John went to Bristol and was shaken to find Whitfield preaching to large crowds in open fields! After addressing a small society in Nicholas Street on April 1st, on the following day John overcame his reticence and preached his first open air sermon to over 3000 people in Bristol. This was a turning point in his life. From then on this way of preaching to the masses was the medium he was to use for the next 51 years. All the world was his parish but it was in London, Bristol and Newcastle on Tyne where his preaching was to have the greatest impact.
During the War of the Spanish Succession [1702-1713], cannon captured from the Spaniards’ French allies by the Duke of Marlborough were brought to England and stored at the Government Foundery in Windmill Hill, near Moorfields in London. In 1716 during the recasting of some of these cannon, there was a massive explosion which blew off part of the roof and damaged the building beyond economic repair. Many workmen were killed in the blast. A new Foundery [or Arsenal] was built at Woolwich while the damaged building stood as an unoccupied ruin for more than 20 years.
It was to the Moorfields area that John Wesley, George Whitfield and other evangelists came to preach in the late 1730s. Before his conversion, John had attended meetings of a Moravian Society in Fetter Lane just off Fleet Street whose aims were to relieve the poor and promote schools. In 1739 several evangelists including John agreed to the amalgamation of several societies to form the United Societies which would meet in Fetter Lane. Within months there was confusion and bitterness among the members of the enlarged meeting resulting in John’s expulsion along with some 20 other members.
On November 11th, 1739 after some persuasion, John preached on the site of the derelict Foundery building. In his Journal for Sunday November 11th, 1739, Wesley wrote, “I preached at 5 in the evening to 7 or 8000 in the place which had been the King’s Foundery for Cannon.” Afterwards he was prevailed upon to buy the lease for which he was loaned £115. To rebuild “this vast uncouth heap of ruins” would cost £700. John borrowed the money from friends but 3 years later he still owed £300 which was no mean achievement since his only income was £28 a year from his Fellowship at Lincoln College.
There were 2 front doors to the Foundery – one led to the Chapel which could hold 1500 people and the other to a band room which could hold 300 people where classes met. The North end of the room was also used as a school while the South end was the book room for the sale of Wesley’s publications. Over the band room were John’s rooms. The Foundery was regarded as a temporary expedient to meet an immediate need. For the first few months he preached in a roofless building but once rebuilding work had started considerable development took place in the area especially around Finsbury Square.
On July 23rd 1740, the first meeting of the Methodist Society was held in the refurbished Foundery – this could be described as the day when the MethodistChurch began.
The Foundery quickly became a great missionary centre in London – it was a preaching house, a centre for the distribution of clothing for the poor, a surgery and dispensary [it was the first free dispensary to be set up in London in 1746], and a centre that helped aged widows. Later John reconditioned 2 small houses nearby which became almshouses for 9 widows and lodgings for 4or 5 of his travelling preachers.
The Foundery was also a lending bank. John collected £50 from better off members of the Foundery Society and appointed 2 stewards who met every Tuesday morning to lend money to those who needed any sum [not exceeding 20/-] and which had to be repaid within 3 months. In the first year of operation  more than 250 people were helped including James Lackington who used his loan to start a bookselling business that later achieved annual sales in excess of 100,000 books.
A school at the Foundery was another of John’s early priorities. Children were taught “to read, write and cast accounts and to be diligently instructed in the principles of religion.” The school rules stated:
No child is admitted under 6 years of age.
All children are to be present at the morning sermon – 5 a.m.
They are to be at school from 6 – 12 and from 1-5.
They are to have no play days.
No child is to speak in school but to the masters.
The child who misses 2 days in one week without leave is excluded the school.
The most famous master of the FounderySchool was Silas Told, a former ship apprentice and accounts clerk, who had been converted by John’s preaching. He taught a class of 60 boys and 3 girls for 10/- a week for more than 7 years before becoming a minister to condemned prisoners.
The life of early Methodism centred on the Foundery for nearly 40 years. The first Annual Conference of his preachers was held there on June 25th, 1744 and in subsequent years it was the venue for 16 more Annual Conferences.
By 1775 , the lease on the Foundery was almost up and as it was beyond economic repair, John drew up plans to build a new chapel. The 1776 Conference Agenda included the question, “What houses are to be built this year?” The answer was one at London and one at Colne [Lancashire].
The site which John had applied for was not very far from the Foundery – only 200 yards distant. Beyond Rydal Row, a road which ran past the Nonconformist Burial Ground of Bunhill Fields lay Moor Field. This was a large bare field that had once been a marsh but had been drained and filled in with spoil from digging the foundations of St Paul’s Cathedral. It was being used as an area for bleaching cloth on tenter frames. After 5 months consideration, the City authorities granted John permission to build a Chapel provided that it was hidden from the road by a row of houses. However before John signed a lease for 59 years the City authorities were persuaded to allow the Chapel open frontage to the road.
In October 1776 , with the approval of the Conference, John sent out an appeal to all members and friends of the Methodist Societies nationwide asking for help in raising over £6,000 – the estimated cost of building the Chapel.
After considering several plans, John and the trustees awarded the contract to Samuel Tooth – “a local builder of influence” – who was also a class leader and local preacher in the Foundery Society.
The foundation stone of the Chapel was laid on April 21st,1777 with John Wesley laying the first stone underneath which was buried a brass plate with the inscription, “This was laid by Mr John Wesley on April 21st1777. Probably this will be seen no more by human eye, but will remain there till the earth and the works thereof are burned up.”
The Chapel which was known by several names – the New Foundery, the New Chapel, City Road Chapel and Mr Wesley’s Chapel took 18 months to build. At the same time a Morning Chapel was built on the North side with Wesley’s House on the South side. Among gifts donated to the Chapel were a mahogany 3 decker pulpit by a Mr Andrews of Hertford and several masts from warships in the Naval Dockyard at Deptford which were cut and used as pillars to support the Gallery donated by King George 111.The design of the Chapel has been described as plain and simple. It is almost square in shape with the communion table set in an apse at the East end. A large gallery surrounds the church on 3 sides.
On Sunday, November 1st, 1778 All Saints’ Day, the new Chapel was near enough complete to be opened.
In the morning the last service was held in the Foundery.
In the evening the first service in the new Chapel took place.
In 1785 John was still writing in his Journal that he was begging money in London to pay off workmen who had been employed in finishing the chapel. “It is true, I am not obliged to do this, but if I do not, nobody else will.” He was then in his 83rd year.
John slept in his house alongside the Chapel for the first time on October 9th, 1779. “This night I lodged in the new house in London. How many more nights have I to spend here?” In the house were his study, his bedroom where he died and his prayer room, described by an early Methodist as “The Powerhouse of Methodism.” Here Wesley began each day with prayer at 4a.m. before conducting his first service at 5a.m.
John Wesley died in his City Road house on March 2nd, 1791 having preached his last sermon at Leatherhead on February 18th. He was buried a week later on March 9th,1791 at 5a.m in the small burial ground behind the Chapel – one of 5452 people whose remains were buried there between December 3rd 1779 and January 4th 1854 when the burial ground was closed for interments.
Eight other persons are buried in the same tomb as Wesley. They are:
Martha Hall,[John Wesley’s younger sister];
Dr Duncan Wright, an ex soldier from Perthshire who became a Methodist travelling preacher;
Rev Charles Bradshaw a Methodist preacher who died in November 1791;
Rev John Murlin, a Cornish farmer and carpenter before becoming a Methodist preacher;
Rev Thomas Olivers, a Welshman and a Methodist poet and musician;
Dr John Whitehead, physician to the BethlehemHospital and chief physician to both Charles and John Wesley in their final illnesses;
Rev John Richardson, a minister at Wesley’s Chapel for many years, who read the service at John’s funeral;
Rev Walter Griffith, an Irishman from Tipperary, who was President of the Wesleyan Conference in 1813.
A visit to Wesley’s Chapel, the Museum in the Undercroft, and Wesley’s House adjoining should be on every visitor to London’s “must see” list. Across the road is Bunhill Fields Burial Ground where John’s mother Susanna is buried. John’s brother Charles is buried in Marylebone Old Church, while a visit to St Paul’s Cathedral where John Wesley frequently worshipped gives visitors the opportunity to see a bronze replica of Samuel Manning’s life size statue of John. The original is located at Westminster Methodist Central Hall which was opened in 1912 as a world centre of Wesleyan Methodism and to commemorate the centenary of the death of one of England’s greatest evangelists.
A History of the MethodistChurch in Great Britain – Volumes 1and 2 – [Epworth Press 1965, 1978].
John Wesley’s Journal – Edited by Robert Backhouse – [Hodder and Stoughton 1993].
The Young Mr Wesley – V.H.H. Green [Edward Arnold 1961]
The Methodist Story- Cyril J Davey [Epworth Press 1955].