John Wesley's Call to Ministry

In this episode, we follow young John Wesley to Charterhouse and young Charles Wesley to Westminster before we give an overview of what Oxford University was like in the early 18th century.

Episode 32

Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s episode: John Wesley's Call to Ministry

As the son of a Church of England clergyman, brother of another, and graduate of Christ Church College, Oxford, it is easy to assume that John Wesley thought he was going into ministry all of his life. Many scholars have agreed with this. One example, the Twentieth Century Wesley Scholar, V.H.H. Green, writes that Wesley “does not seem to have considered a lay profession and his father lacked the patronage…that might have advanced John on the first step of such a career. From early years he had been led to expect that he would enter the ministry of the church.” 1

And yet within John’s early letters, we still have the letters of his parents, the first mention of possible ministry comes in a letter from his mother in September of 1724. She writes a brief letter that mentions the challenge of a Small Pox outbreak in Epworth before saying, “I heartily wish you were in Orders, and could come and serve one of [Samuel’s] churches.”2

We do not have John’s response letter to his mother nor any word about orders or ministry until a letter from his father in January of 1725. In fact, in November of 1724, instead of talking about his future profession, John responds to his mother’s letter by sharing a juicy story of a prison break.

The January letter from Samuel Wesley to John is deeply informative and it is not positive about John going into ministry. I will quote it at length to give the nature of Samuel Wesley’s understanding of ministry and why John is not quite ready.

As for what you mention of entering into Holy Orders, 'tis indeed a great work, and I am pleased to find you think it so, as well as that you don't admire a callow clergyman any more than I do.

As for the motives you take notice of, my thoughts are: (1), It's no harm to desire getting into that office, even as Eli’s sons, 'to eat a piece of bread'; 'for the labourer is worthy of his hire' Though, (2), a desire and intention to lead a stricter life, and a belief one should do so, is a better reason; though this should by all means be begun before, or else, ten to one, 'twill deceive us afterward. (3), If a man be unwilling and indesirous to enter into Orders, 'tis easy to guess whether he can say, so much as fill common honesty, that he believes he's 'moved by the Holy Spirit' to do it. But, 4. The principal spring and motive, to which all the former should be only secondary, must certainly be the glory of God, and the service of his church, in the edification and salvation of our neighbor: and woe to him who with any meaner leading view attempts so sacred a work. For which, 5. He should take all the care he possibly can, with the advice of wiser and elder men, -- especially imploring with all humility, sincerity, and intention of mind, and with fasting and prayer, the direction and assistance of Almighty God and his Holy Spirit, -- to qualify and prepare himself for it.

Samuel then writes about the importance of the Biblical languages. He is complementary of John’s abilities in these areas, but he notes that knowing them is not enough. They must be “prosecuted to the thorough understanding of the original text of the Scriptures, by constant and long conversing with them. You ask me which is the best commentary on the Bible. I answer, The Bible.”

This leads Samuel to a long digression of different editions of the Bible in different languages, including polyglot ones that have Latin next to Hebrew. He also recommends the Syriac and Greek versions.

Samuel then concludes with the following,

By all this you see I’m not for your going over hastily into orders. When I’m for your taking ‘em, you shall know it, and ’tis not impossible but I may then be with you, if God so long spare the life and health of your affectionate father.”

Samuel is against ordination at present. It is more of a not yet than a no, but it is still an interesting document. We do not have a copy of the letter in which John mentions holy orders for the first time, so we are left with speculation over this matter.

It is important, as well, for us to understand what the process of ordination actually looked like in the Church of England in the early 18th century. The Canon Law for the Church of England from 1604 still held enormous sway in the church. Canons 31-35 address ordination and declare when someone can be ordained. Canons 34 and 35 get to the actual requirements.

No Bishop shall henceforth admit any Person into sacred Orders, which is not of his own Diocess, except he be either of one of the Universities of this Realm, or except he shall bring Letters Dimissory, (so termed) from the Bishop of whose Diocess he is, and desiring to be a Deacon, is Three and twenty Years old, and to be a Priest, Four and twenty Years compleat, and hath taken some Degree of School in either of the said Universities, or at the least, except he be able to yield an Account of his Faith in Latin, according to the Articles of Religion approved in the Synod of the Bishops and Clergy of this Realm, One thousand five hundred sixty and two, and to confirm the same by sufficient Testimonies out of the holy Scriptures: And except moreover, he shall then exhibit Letters Testimonial of his good Life and Conversation, under the Seal of some College in Cambridge or Oxford, where before he remained, or of three or four grave Ministers, together with the Subscription and Testimony of other credible Persons, who have known his Life and Behaviour by the space of Three Years next before.3


The Bishop before he admit any Person to holy Orders, shall diligently examine him in the presence of those Ministers that shall assist him at the Imposition of Hands: And if the said Bishop have any lawful Impediment, he shall cause the said Ministers carefully to examine every such Person so to be Ordained. Provided that they who shall assist the Bishop in Examining and Laying on of Hands, shall be of his Cathedral Church, if they may conveniently be had, or other sufficient Preachers of the same Diocess, to the Number of Three at the least: And if any Bishop or Suffragan shall admit any to sacred Orders, who is not so qualified and examined as before we have ordained; the Archbishop of his Province having notice thereof, and being assisted therein by one Bishop, shall suspend the said Bishop or Suffragan so offending, from making either Deacons or Priests for the space of two Years.4

The details of the examination was left to individual bishops, but we have an example of one such examination from 1724 under Archbishop Wake. One of his chaplains, David Wilkins, recounted the examination of a William Painter, who had previously failed his exam. He writes:

Mr. Painter was with me last Friday to offer himself for another examination before he goes up to town to offer himself for priest’s orders. He read the first three verses of the third of St. Matthew and the four last verses of the last chapter of St. Matthew out of Greek into Latin pretty well; but was not so ready with any part of 1 Timothy 3. He answered to my questions in England pretty well; which were the reason of our Saviour’s coming to the world, a proof of our Saviour’s divinity, and a proof of the mystery of the Holy Trinity. by the here-enclosed composition I perceive he knows the Latin version of our Articles of Religion by heart as he does also of the gospels in most places. He bears an extraordinary good character in the two parishes where he officiates, is much beloved there.5

Throughout the 18th century, Archbishops sent out standards to be used by various bishops in the examination of candidates. The letters from Oxford or Cambridge were important, as were other letters of recommendation. Samuel, in his letter to John in January of 1725, basically says that he is not quite ready to send a recommendation.

In February, Susanna writes to John and says, “I heartily wish you would now enter upon a serious examination of yourself, that you may know whether you have a reasonable hope of salvation by Jesus Christ, that is, whether you are in a state of faith and repentance or not, which you know are the conditions of the gospel covenant on our part…This matter deserves great consideration in all, but especially those deigned for the clergy ought above all things to make their calling and election sure, lest after they have preached to others they themselves should be cast away.

She then writes,

Now I mention this, it calls to mind your letter to your father about taking Orders. I was much pleased with it, and liked the proposal well. but ’tis an unhappiness almost peculiar to our family, that your father and I seldom think alike. I approve your disposition of mind…Mr. Wesley differs from me, and would engage you, I believe, in critical learning (though I’m not sure), which though of use accidentally, and by way of concomitance, yet is in no wise preferable to the other. Therefore I earnestly pray God to avert that great evil from you, of engaging in trifling studies to the neglect of such as are absolutely necessary.6

Finally, in March, Samuel Wesley relents. He writes:

I’ve changed my mind since my last, and now incline to your going this summer into Orders, and would have you turn your thoughts and studies that way.”

The process officially starts at that point. A few months later, John is ordained a Deacon on September 19, 1725.

The absence of John’s letters to his father about holy orders are noteworthy. It could be coincidental and so speculation should not go too deep, but it is interesting. As well, as Kenneth Collins points out, thirteen years later, in 1738, John Wesley has a different memory of his call to ministry. “When I was about twenty- two, my father pressed me to enter into holy orders”7 He writes this in his account from May 24 of what has become known as the Aldersgate experience where John Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed. Wesley may have been rhetorically positioning his ministry before 1738 as impersonal and cold as opposed to the personal experience at Aldersgate. Samuel does the opposite of press John into ministry. The ordination of John Wesley was not a simple act in which he went through the motions. It took place after a process of discernment spurned on by his mother Susanna and the eventual approval and support of his father.

Those days were far more momentous in his life than he later gave them credit. Two weeks after receiving the support of his father, in April of 1725, John Wesley began his private diary, which he would continue until a week before his death in 1791. Though many volumes have been lost, the extant private diaries of John Wesley give us a broad (though sometimes dull) portrait of the man and of Methodism. Mostly written in coded shorthand, the diaries were not published until the 20th century and only in part. It wasn’t until Richard Heitzenrater fully decoded them that we were able to publish them fully. Why did he start keeping a diary? Why did he use a code and why did it take so long to figure out what he was saying? Next time on the History of Methodism.


Constitutions and Canons of the Church of England (1604)

Kenneth Collins,"John Wesley's Correspondence with his Father",Methodist History 26:1 (October 1987)

V.H.H.Green,Young Mister Wesley: A Study of John Wesley and Oxford (1961)

Henry Rake, Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism (Epworth, 1989).

Norman Sykes,William Wake (1958)

Luke Tyerman, The life and times of the Rev. John Wesley, M. A., founder of the Methodists (1876)

  1. Green, 14. ↩︎
  2. Susanna Wesley, Letter to John Wesley, Sept. 10, 1724. ↩︎
  3. Canon 34. ↩︎
  4. Canon 35 ↩︎
  5. Norman Sykes, William Wake. Archibishop of Canterbury, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1957), 1:214-215. ↩︎
  6. Susanna to John , Feb 23, 1725. ↩︎
  7. KENNETH J. COLLINS, JOHN WESLEY'S CORRESPONDENCE WITH HIS FATHER, Methodist History, 26:1 (October 1987). ↩︎