"Fire, fire, help!" screamed five-year-old John Wesley as he scrambled from his bed in the smoke filled room. John quickly realized he was alone, and flames were already licking at the door, blocking his exit. John ran to the window and saw the confusion below. People were running and screaming as his parents could find only seven of their eight children. John pushed on the window with all his might, but he just wasn't strong enough to make it budge. Spotting his father below, John began to bang on the window and scream as loudly as he could.
"There he is," Mr. Wesley shouted. There was no time to get a ladder, so some quick-thinking men came up with a plan. The smaller man climbed onto the shoulders of the larger man to make a human ladder. The top man shoved the window open and pulled young John to safety just in time. The trembling boy was delivered into the arms of his grateful mother. Despite the loss of their house and belongings, the Wesley family praised God for John's rescue. His parents said that John was "a brand plucked from the burning." His mother, Susannah, resolved to take special care of John, believing God had preserved him for a special purpose.
Like all the Wesley children, John's busy day began well before dawn. He was expected to read from the Bible, say the Lord's prayer, recite Bible verses, say a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, and pray for his family members. Once all that was done, he could go to family devotions. Thursdays were the best day of the week for John, for on that day, he could go about his studies with the anticipation of a wondrous hour that would come that afternoon.
"How are your studies?" asked Mrs. Wesley as she and John sat in the warmth of the late day sun streaming through an open window. Susannah made a point of spending one hour each week with each child, no matter how busy she was. John reported on the major subjects: English, history, geography, and math. "And how is your Latin coming along?" inquired Mrs. Wesley. "Oh, that. It's the hardest of all, but I'm working on it!" answered John. Once Susannah was satisfied with his progress, the conversation turned to more important matters. "John, you must keep all your thoughts, words and actions pure and moral. Discipline yourself so you can lead a good Christian life."
"I try to be a good Christian, Mother, but it's so hard!"
"Keep working at it, John. Pray, read the Scriptures and keep yourself from sin. Then you will grow closer to God. You must be disciplined in all you do." Only time would tell if Susannah's teaching would bear fruit.
THE HOLY CLUB
John entered Oxford University in England in 1720 at 17 years of age. Though John was serious about his studies, he also enjoyed tennis, dancing, reading for pleasure and attending plays--activities his mother might have called a waste of time. Upon graduation, John returned to Oxford as a pastor and professor. By this time, he had decided to work hard at seeking God, studying Scripture and leading a pure life. John's younger brother Charles was now a student at Oxford. Charles couldn't wait to tell his older brother about a new club he had started.
"John, you've just got to come to our club meeting tonight! It's great!"
"I've heard your meetings are causing quite a stir on campus. What's this club all about?" asked John."We are just trying to know God and follow Him better. We study the Bible, pray, fast twice a week, and give money to the poor."
"Ah, so that's why the teachers and students call you the 'Bible Moths' and 'The Holy Club,'" laughed John.
"It's true they don't really like us, but I don't mind what they call us!" said Charles. "In fact, when they call us 'Methodists' it kind of makes sense. We are really looking for the best methods for following God. Some of the disciplines you and I learned as children are the best ways."
The club used spiritual disciplines like fasting, prayer, and giving away as much money as possible to grow closer to God. Before long, John became the leader. He taught them to add good deeds to their list of disciplines. Club members visited the poor, the sick, and even the prisoners to share the Good News. But after a few years, John felt called to take his message to a new land.
AFRAID TO DIE
Cowering in his cabin on the way to America, 32-year-old John Wesley listened to the storm raging. He screamed in terror when a great surge of water nearly swamped the ship. Then he heard the faint sounds of a sweet melody. The Moravians below deck were singing a peaceful song even in these horrible conditions. How could they face death with a song when he was terrified to die?
After the storm passed, John sought out his Moravian shipmates. He was shocked to realize that even the children were not afraid to die. Was their faith stronger than his own? All his years of discipline had not prepared him to face death. John began a search for real faith--a faith that did not fear death.
In America, John set out to minister to those in the colony of Georgia, but he didn't stay long. People spread rumors about him and his brother Charles, making ministry difficult. John was discouraged and viewed the whole trip as a failure. Little did he know his life would have a huge impact on the budding nation.
Discouraged, John returned to England, and continued his search for meaning. He tried to follow God, but something was still missing. Then one night he went to a religious society meeting on Aldersgate Street. The preacher said that God works in the heart through faith in Christ. When he heard these words, John felt his heart "strangely warmed." He realized that he really did trust in Christ alone for salvation. This was all he needed for a faith that did not fear death. John was still disciplined in living out his faith and knowing God better, but he finally had peace and knew that his salvation was assured!
A LASTING LEGACY
The small Methodist club John and Charles started at Oxford began to spread all across England. The clubs became known as 'Methodist Societies.' As their leader, John traveled around England on horseback to preach to as many people as possible. This was known as "circuit riding," as the preacher would ride the same circuits over and over, bringing the Gospel to those who had no church nearby. John even trained circuit riding preachers and sent them to America, where Methodist ideas would have a major impact on the New World. By the time he died at age 87, he had traveled more than 250,000 miles and preached more than 42,000 sermons. John Wesley believed that faith in Christ is all that is needed for salvation. Yet a life of discipline and service help us to know and follow God. These views are still impacting the world today.
Make It Real! Questions to make you dig a little deeper and think a little harder.
- John's family watched in horror as their home burned to the ground, yet they praised God that John's life was spared. Think of some of the bad things that have happened in your life. Can you find reasons to praise God even when things go wrong?
- What habits or "disciplines" did John use to help him know God better?
- What things do you do to help you know and follow God better?
- Have you ever been in a club that had something to do with Christianity? John and Charles Wesley were ridiculed for participating in the Holy Club. If you were made fun of for being in a Christian club, what would you do?
- Suggested reading:
- The Chimney Sweep's Ransom by Dave and Neta Jackson (Trailblazer series), Bethany.
- Susannah Wesley by Katherine McReynolds (Women of Faith), Bethany.