The Wesleys: A Gallery — The Leadership Team

George Whitefield

Whitefield began developing his preaching skills early. In school he developed a strong interest in plays and acted in several. Although he decried the theater in his later years, his journals demonstrated that his theater experience helped develop his vast oratorical gifts, which would later allow him to preach with ease to crowds of up to 10,000 during the Great Awakening.

Through an influential friend, Whitefield’s mother was able to secure her son a work—study arrangement at Oxford. But before he left Gloucester, a friend named Gabriel Harris, the keeper of the city’s best bookshop, showed him a new book, the second edition of William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.

He looked at the book only briefly that day, but he read these words before returning it to his friend: “He therefore is the devout man who lives no longer to his own will, or the way and spirit of the world, but to the sole will of God.” These words sparked a new fire and zeal in Whitefield.

At Oxford, Charles Wesley introduced Whitefield to the Holy Club and to his brother John. Upon meeting Whitefield, Charles noted that he was a “modest, pensive youth who mused alone.” However, Charles quickly established a fondness for the young man and later remarked of that first encounter, “I saw, I loved, and clasped him to my heart.”

After the Wesleys sailed to America, Whitefield assumed leadership of the Holy Club. Of this group, Whitefield later wrote: “Never did persons, I believe, strive more earnestly to enter in at the strait gate. . . . They were dead to the world, and willing to be accounted as the dung and off—scouring of all things, so that they might win Christ.”

In 1735, the same year he became a full member of the Holy Club, Whitefield experienced spiritual “New Birth"—three years before the Wesleys’ similar experience at Aldersgate. He was ordained a deacon at Gloucester in June 1736 and preached his first sermon a week later.

With his booming voice and boundless passion, Whitefield soon looked for ways to expand his ministry beyond the walls of the Church of England. He began preaching outdoors. Though he was not the first to attempt this, Whitefield’s stirring and skilled delivery made it famous.

John Newton remarked, “The Lord gave him a manner of preaching which was peculiarly his own. He copied from none, and I never met with anyone who could imitate him with success.”

At first, John Wesley, who had returned from America, deemed Whitefield’s approach “a mad notion.” But Whitefield convinced him that the way of the gospel is to go “out in the highways and hedges.” Soon Wesley was imitating the orator who “copied from none.”

Wesley’s experience in America had been so discouraging that Whitefield indicated a desire to preach there, Wesley advised him not to make the trip. Whitefield politely ignored this advice and sailed to Georgia in 1739.

Whitefield’s preaching spread the message of Christ life wildfire on dry ground in the Colonies, and even Benjamin Franklin (who once studied Whitefield’s strong voice as he preached) was counted among Whitefield’s frequent hearers.

Whitefield briefly split from the Wesleys over doctrine. Whitefield was a staunch, if not terribly scholarly, Calvinist, and he perceived the Wesleys’ emphasis on free will as an echo of heretical Pelagianism. The Wesleys accused Whitefield of a adopting a theology that excluded too many potential converts.

In his preaching, however, Whitefield was anything but exclusionary. In Philadelphia, he preached, “Whom have you in heaven? Any Episcopalians? No! Any Presbyterians? No! Any Independents or Seceders . . . any Methodists? No ! No! No! Whom have you there then? . . . All who are [there] are Christains—believers in Christ. . . . God help us all to forget having names and to become Christian in deed and in truth.”

Through the mediation of a friend, Whitefield and the Wesleys were eventually reconciled, though their theology never completely meshed.

Upon his death, Whitefield’s legacy included 33 years of ministry, over 15,000 sermons, and an audience that often included thousands of people. William Cowper penned this tribute to one of the true founders of evangelicalism: “He loved the world that hated him; the tear / that dropped upon his Bible was sincere. / Assailed by scandal and the tongue of strife, / his only answer was a blameless life.”

Charles W. Christian is pastor of Canby Chapel Church of the Nazarene (Canby, Oregon) and an adjunct professor of religion at George Fox University.

Thomas Maxfield

Maxfield came to faith in 1739 under the ministry of John Wesley and George Whitefield. Soon Wesley made Maxfield the lay-leader in London at the Foundry, a cannon factory turned meeting house. His duties included explaining Scripture and praying—but not preaching.

Then in 1741, without sanction from Wesley or any other church official, Maxfield began preaching. Wesley considered this a serious affront to ordained clergy and determined to examine the matter.

Before confronting Maxfield, Wesley called on his mother Susanna, who had heard Maxfield preach. Susanna was not a proponent of lay preaching. “But take care,” she advised her son, “he is as surely called to preach as you are.”

Mollified, Wesley attended a Maxfield sermon. Maxfield was an eloquent expositor, and Wesley was convinced of his gift. Fellow preacher Henry Moore recounted that Wesley “bowed before the force of truth, and could only say, ‘It is the Lord: let him do what seemeth him good.’ “ Once this door was opened, many other lay preachers would follow.

Tension between Wesley and Maxfield, however, did not cease. In 1763, Maxfield joined an enthusiast sect and claimed that he had reached perfection—an extreme form of Wesley’s doctrine. Seeing his teaching misapplied, Wesley tried to confront him, but Maxfield refused to listen.

In an open letter, “A Vindication,” Maxfield charged Wesley of spreading false rumors and half-truths about his character and beliefs. He also vigorously denied stealing Wesley’s converts. Maxfield said the opposite was true, that the Methodists “detain Scores, if not Hundreds of mine.” He continued, “Yet they might have put me away without setting me forth . . . as Wicked as the Highwayman: Is this the only reward I get from their hands for my many Years Labour?”

Later Maxfield founded an independent chapel made up largely of disgruntled Methodists. The rift between him and Wesley remained, but there was a touching moment of redemption. Years later, Wesley called upon Maxfield. According to one historian, Wesley “finds him sinking under years and paralysis, and kneeling down, invokes a blessing upon his last days, and preaches for him in his chapel.”

Robert Schultz is a freelance writer living in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

Thomas Coke

In 1772, two years after being ordained in the Anglican priesthood, Coke had a conversion experience under the ministry of Methodist dissident Thomas Maxfield. Coke returned to his parish in South Petherton preaching this newfound gospel to an unappreciative congregation.

Within a year, Coke’s irate parishioners dismissed him. He immediately joined the Methodists and became one of John Wesley’s most trusted—if troublesome—assistants.

Coke was a risk-taker and found Wesley too hesitant. For Coke, lost souls couldn’t wait. Wesley thought Coke was impulsive and absent-minded. He and others feared that Coke’s reckless passion would destroy the Methodist movement. They also feared his ambition and wondered if he was vying to be Wesley’s successor. Coke tended to assume more authority than he was given.

The sharpest disagreement arose when Coke began to refer to Wesley, himself, and American Methodist leader Francis Asbury as bishops instead of superintendents. Coke’s bishops functioned like superintendents, but the title connoted more authority than Wesley intended.

English Methodists were stunned. Wesley was livid. “Men may call me a knave or a fool, a rascal, a scoundrel, and I am content,” he said, “but they shall never by my consent call me Bishop!” Coke and Asbury’s founding “Cokesbury College” (naming it after themselves) did not help matters.

After success in America, Coke set his gaze to more exotic lands. But Coke’s proposal to send missionaries to Africa and India received a lukewarm reception from English Methodists. Wesley agreed only in principle.

Coke’s zeal, however, continued unabated. He even sought support from Baptist churches. After years of Coke’s pleading and financial sacrifice, the Methodist societies finally supported an outreach to Africa. Yet Coke longed for India.

"I am now dead to Europe and alive for India,” he said. “God Himself said to me, ‘go to Ceylon.’ . . . I had rather be set naked on the coast of Ceylon, without clothes, and without a friend, than not go there.”

In tears, an aging Coke finally persuaded the Methodists to allow a mission to India. Fulfilling the call, he accompanied the expedition but died en route. His body was found kneeling in prayer in his cabin.

—Robert Schultz

John Fletcher


Potential successor and successful wife

Unlike his friend John Wesley, John Fletcher never took to the road as an itinerant evangelist. Instead, as a parish vicar, he accomplished more for Methodist theology than Wesley had.

In his Checks to Antinomianism Fletcher entered the Calvinist-Arminian debate by developing a middle way: faith with works. “Once we were in immediate danger of splitting upon ‘works without faith,’ “ he wrote. “Now we are threatened with destruction from ‘faith without works.’ ”

Wealthy in his youth, Fletcher chose the meager income of a vicar in a poor manufacturing town. There he preached for 28 years, pursuing the townspeople, according to Wesley, “to every corner of his parish by all sorts of means, public and private, early and late.” This persistence was not always appreciated. Once Fletcher escaped death by the hands of a mob only because his parishioners suddenly called him to preach at a funeral.

Such zeal found a soul mate in Mary Bosanquet, a wealthy woman who, like Fletcher, chose the poverty of ministry. “If I knew how to find the Methodists,” she said prior to joining the church, “I would tear off all my fine things and run through the fire with them. If ever I am my own mistress, I will spend half the day in working for the poor and the other half in prayer.”

Mary did throw herself into Christian service by running an orphanage for 18 years. Fletcher wrote Wesley about her, “I thank you for your hint about exemplifying the love of Christ and his Church. . . . I can tell you that my wife is far better to me than the Church [is] to Christ.”

Both husband and wife preached with passion. Of Mary, Wesley wrote, “her words are as a fire, conveying both light and heat to the hearts of all that hear her.” And Wesley showed similar admiration for Fletcher’s preaching, saying that if Fletcher had become an itinerant preacher, “he would have done more good than any other man in England.”

But Fletcher’s heart was for his flock first, and he lived and died caring for them. He caught the fever that killed him while ministering to the sick. Shortly before falling ill, he had preached, “What do you fear? Are you afraid of catching the distemper and dying? O, fear it no more! What an honor to die in your Master’s work.”

Wesley had hoped Fletcher would be his successor, but he outlived the younger man by six years.

Steven Gertz is an editorial assistant at Christianity Today International.

John Fletcher resources:

Robert A. Mattke, B.D., M.A., John Fletcher’s Methodology in the Antimonian Controversy of 1770–76 

By Charles W. Christian and others

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #69 in 2001]

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