Wesley, John (1703–91), evangelical preacher and church founder, was born 17 June 1703 in Epworth rectory, Lincolnshire, England, thirteenth or fourteenth child and third eldest son of Samuel Wesley, rector, and Susanna Wesley (née Annesley), both of Lincolnshire. He received his education from 1714 at Charterhouse school, London, and was elected in 1720 a scholar of Christchurch, Oxford, graduating BA (1724). In 1725 he was ordained deacon, and in 1726 was appointed a fellow of Lincoln College, graduating MA (1727). He was then appointed as Greek lecturer. In 1728 he was ordained as priest, and briefly served as a curate in his father's parish before he returned to Lincoln College, where he followed his brother Charles into the Holy Club, also nicknamed ‘the Methodists’ – an old term, not always used with approval, but which Wesley came to use with pride.
In October 1735, together with Charles, he departed for Georgia as a missionary to the Native Americans on behalf of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. His mission was a failure, both in term of successful converts and in building good relations with the settlers, and he returned to England in 1738. He soon came under the influence of Moravian pietism, and in May 1738 underwent a conversion experience. Subsequently he travelled to Germany to visit the Moravians at Hernnhut. Wesley now began outdoor preaching after the example of his friend and fellow methodist evangelical, George Whitefield. Throughout his career he consistently stressed that he did not want the methodist societies to split from the established church. This occurred after his death.
Wesley's Irish career began on 9 August 1747 with his first visit, which lasted fifteen days and did not extend far outside Dublin. A methodist society had already been established on Skinners' Alley, Dublin. He visited again on 8 March 1748, this time staying until 18 May. This tour brought Wesley as far outside Dublin as Athlone. He ranged through the midlands, preaching to all who would hear. His tours had two purposes: to inspire people to join his societies and to heighten the zeal within these societies, combining conversion and control equally. Over the years his tours developed a pattern; he would visit every two years, spend between one and two months, and travel to those areas where his societies had found success. These were mainly plantation towns, with established protestant populations. The first Irish conference of methodists was held in Limerick in 1752.
In July 1756 he first entered Ulster, but did not have as much success there as in other parts of Ireland. Anti-methodist violence was quite commonplace in the south, principally Cork, in 1749–51. Wesley left Ireland for the last time on 12 July 1789, having visited twenty-one times and spending a total of five-and-a-half years in the country. He left behind sixty-seven ministers in charge of 14,106 members in the many societies and circuits (David Hempton, The religion of the people (1996), 36).
Much current debate concerns the claim that, in contrast to his approach in England, he preached mainly for the upper classes in Ireland. He also focused on soldiers as potential recruits, partly because they came from similar backgrounds to many of the methodist itinerant preachers, leading to the charge that ‘he adopted a strategy of permeating the gentry and garrison in Ireland’ (Roddie, 95). His Letter to a Roman Catholic (1749) is considered a model of ecumenical attitudes, but later letters, such as his Letter concerning the civil principles of Roman Catholics (1780), indicate that he shared the general distrust of many protestants for catholicism because of the deposing power of the pope. It had a particularly detrimental effect, because it was published amid the storm caused by the Gordon riots in London. Its publication forced Wesley to postpone travelling to Ireland for five years, and according to one recent commentator the most serious effect was that it coloured Irish methodist attitudes towards the catholic church into the twentieth century (Roddie, 102) His writings are generally sermons and religious tracts, and whenever he entered the political domain he generally incited controversy. Wesley carefully maintained a journal throughout his life; this provides an important source for social and political as well as religious history of the eighteenth century, including observations of Ireland over a forty-year period, with comments on towns, the condition of the gentry, and the weather, among other topics. Whether or not his evangelical mission was a success is open to interpretation. He did not succeed in ensuring Methodism remained within the established church, but did found a vibrant and enthusiastic church. Wesley died 2 March 1791 at the Chapel House on City Road, London. He attributed his longevity to his constant travelling.
He married (February 1751) Mary Vazeille, widow of Anthony Vazeille, but this proved to be an unhappy marriage with no offspring. The National Portrait Gallery in London has portraits by Nathaniel Hone (qv) (c.1766) and William Hamilton (1788).