Key Leaders of the Wesleyan Movement Included Laypeople
The rapid growth of Methodism would not have been possible without the sacrifices and dedication of the early Methodist leaders. Wesley famously wrote, “Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergymen or laymen, such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven upon earth.” (source) The leaders of early Methodism had grit and determination. They willingly gave their lives to the cause of Christ and the spread of Methodism. Among the early Methodist lay leaders were also prominent women of piety who led class meetings, visited the sick, and preached the gospel.
David Garrison, a pioneer in our understanding of church-planting movements, comments on this: “In church planting movements, the laity are clearly in the driver’s seat. Unpaid, non-professional common men and women are leading the churches . . . Lay leadership is firmly grounded in the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer—the most egalitarian doctrine ever set forth.” (David Garrison, Church Planting Movements: How God Is Redeeming a Lost World [Monument, CO: WIG Take Resources, 2004], 189.) As Garrison suggests, this recovery of “the priesthood of all believers”—an empowered laity—is the foundation for any successful multiplication movement. While it may seem unsurprising to find non-ordained, non-professional church leaders today, these changes were revolutionary shifts at the time of the Wesleyan revival.
As Wesley recruited new laity, several quickly rose to prominence within the movement as gifted, apostolic leaders. Wesley himself was an apostolic leader, one who had the ability to identify, train, and release other men and women. He had a God-given talent to recognize the best in people and to develop their leadership qualities. Many of these leaders helped Wesley spread the cause of Methodism throughout the British Isles, into North America, and eventually throughout the world. Each had a unique role and contributed in a special way to the spread of Methodism. Without them, the Methodist story would be incomplete.
Wesley’s younger brother, Charles, was his lifelong companion in ministry and a co-leader in the Methodist movement. Charles was a gifted preacher and songwriter, the author of over nine thousand hymns and poems, many of which can be found in the Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodist. Several of these beloved hymns are well-known and instantly recognizable, including, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Love Divine,” “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” and “O, For a Thousand Tongues.” Many of his hymns are still sung in churches today.
From the very beginning, Wesley and Charles seemed to be well-suited for ministry together, each one bringing unique gifts and abilities to the ministry. The brothers were together from the earliest days of the movement and throughout its development. Both were ordained in the Church of England around the same time, they traveled together as missionaries to Georgia in the American colonies, and when they returned to England, both had an awakening experience. Wesley relied on Charles for personal counsel and assistance.
Adam Clarke was an Irishman who converted to Methodism in 1778 under the preaching of Thomas Barber. Clarke was a teenager when he dedicated his life to God, and at Wesley’s invitation, he trained for the ministry. He was one of the first lay preachers ordained by Wesley, and he quickly rose to prominence in the Methodist movement. A gifted leader and preacher, a competent biblical scholar, and a prolific writer, Clarke had no formal university education, but he was fluent in at least twenty languages, including Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Samaritan, Syriac, Arabic, Persian, and Coptic.
By some estimates, Clarke preached over fifteen thousand sermons during his lifetime, speaking to the masses and writing books for the learned. Among his works is an eight-volume series called Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, which became required reading for Methodist clergy even long after his death. Clarke was beloved among Methodist preachers, and he served an impressive three-term presidency with the Wesleyan Conference. His writings contributed greatly to the spread of Wesley’s doctrine of holiness. Though he died in 1832 of cholera, he left a lasting legacy that would continue to impact the development of Methodism for generations to come.
Dr. Thomas Coke was a passionate soul-winner who joined the Methodist movement in 1772, two years after he was ordained in the Church of England. Within a year of his ordination, he was dismissed from the Anglican church because he had begun preaching like a Methodist. He joined the Methodist movement full-time, becoming one of Wesley’s most able leaders and closest associates. Wesley designated him a co-superintendent, along with Francis Asbury, tasked with setting the fledgling American Methodist Church in order, but he did not remain in that position for long.
Coke remained in America for a few years, but his heart was for the mission field. In 1789, he was appointed the head of the Irish Conference, and for the rest of his life he was dedicated to supporting and promoting world missions. In his later years, he was especially passionate in his desire to bring the gospel to India, saying, “I am dead to Europe and alive for India.” In 1814, he had an opportunity to take the gospel to Ceylon and India, but he died while engaged in prayer on his way to India. Today Dr. Coke is remembered as one of Wesley’s greatest leaders and a champion for world missions.
The ministry of Francis Asbury is largely responsible for the growth of Methodism in America after the Revolutionary War. John Wesley sent Asbury to America to promote Methodism in the colonies, and soon after his arrival he became one of the primary leaders of the American movement. Although Asbury was English by birth, he won the hearts and souls of the American people. Throughout his forty-five-year ministry in America, he traveled nearly 300,000 miles on horseback, preached around 16,500 sermons, and ordained more than 4,000 preachers. He crossed the Allegheny Mountains sixty times, and for many years he visited nearly every colony at least once annually. His constant travels made him one of America’s most recognizable figures. John Wigger, commenting on his popularity at the time, said, “He was more widely recognized face to face than any other person of his generation, including such national figures as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.” (John Wigger, American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012], 3.)
Asbury was a man of great piety and learning, and many remember him as a great man of prayer as well. Even in his constant travels and engagement in ministry, he still found time to pray. He was known to rise at four o’clock in the morning and spend two hours in prayer and meditation, and to pause seven times during the day to pray. He was a tireless leader who devoted his entire life to the call of Christ in America.
Although he dropped out of school before he was twelve years old, Asbury taught himself to read Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He cultivated the love for learning among others, founding five schools and promoting Sunday school in churches to teach reading and writing to children. He read widely on various subjects of his day, often reading books while riding on horseback from place to place, a common practice of many Methodist circuit riders. Some have said that he was one of the most well-informed men of his day, able to converse on any subject.
Like Wesley, Asbury was a master at organizational leadership. He created something called a “district,” a circuit of churches that preachers would serve on a rotating basis. In the early days of American Methodism, a “circuit rider” would travel from church to church to preach and minister. This enabled churches to exist where previously they had not been able to. Circuit Riders like Asbury braved the rigors of the frontier and were occasionally attacked by Native Americans. Several faced severe illness caused by constant exposure to the elements of nature. Although Asbury was plagued by bad health for much of his life, he continued his travels, even if it meant tying himself to his saddle to keep from falling from his horse. One story has it that he was once trailed by wolves, who followed him, waiting for him to fall and die. Asbury is sometimes referred to as the “American Bishop” of the Methodist movement.
In addition to these men, there were several women who also became leaders in the Methodist revival. Although most leadership roles in the church were closed to women, Wesley and early Methodism were far ahead of their time in recognizing the gifts of women and allowing them to actively participate in Christian ministry. Women served at several different levels in the movement. Many of the class and band leaders were women, some of whom were engaged in preaching and leading souls to Christ. Wesley took note that God was using women in this manner and encouraged it, offering them training and teaching. Women such as Sarah Crosby, Mary Bosanquet, Hannah Harrison, Grace Murray, and Hester Ann Roe Rogers were among the prominent, non-ordained ministers of Methodism. They were examples of piety, learning, and leadership.
Mary Bosanquet became Methodism’s first female preacher. She was a lay theologian of sorts and wrote a letter to John Wesley defending the right of women to preach the gospel. In her letter she argued that the Bible contained many accounts of women who were called by God to minister. In part due to her letter, Wesley began recognizing and affirming the extraordinary call of God on certain women to preach. In response to Mary Bosanquet’s letter he wrote:
I think that the strength of the cause rests thereon your having an extraordinary call. So I am persuaded has every one of our lay preachers; otherwise I could not countenance his preaching at all. It is plain to me that the whole work of God termed Methodism is an extraordinary dispensation of His providence. Therefore I do not wonder if several things occur therein which do not fall under the ordinary rules of discipline. (John Telford, ed. The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, Vol. 5 [London: Epworth Press, 1931], 257.)
In 1787, despite opposition by some male preachers, Wesley authorized Sarah Mallet to preach as well, so long as she agreed to keep Methodist doctrine and discipline. This was a bold stride toward the full recognition of women as preachers, which would not come about until long after Wesley’s death. But we should not ignore how Wesley’s own views on women in ministry were revolutionary in his day, and indeed, remain so today. Wesley believed that women had equal rights to the same positions and opportunities that men did. In a sermon titled “On Visiting the Sick,” he directly addressed the equal rights of women, saying:
Let all you that have in your power assert the right which the God of nature has given you. Yield not to that bondage any longer! You, as well as men, are rational creatures. You, like them, were made in the image of God; you are equally candidates for immortality; you too are called of God, as you have time, to ‘do good unto all men.’ (Thomas Jackson, The Works of John Wesley [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1979, hereafter cited as Works], 7:126.)
It’s important to note that the rapid growth of Methodism would not have been possible without the tireless work and self-sacrifice of these early female Methodist leaders. Many of them gave their lives for the cause of Christ and to the spread of Methodism. If we look throughout the centuries, we will find that women contributed to the ministry of the church in significant ways.
This is an excerpt from Marks of a Movement: What the Church Today Can Learn from the Wesleyan Revival by Winfield Bevins. Order the book from our store today!
In addition to highlighting some of the key leaders of the Wesleyan movements, Marks of a Movement calls us back to the disciple-making mandate of the church through the timeless wisdom of John Wesley and the Methodist movement. With a love for history and a passion for today’s church, Winfield helps us reimagine church multiplication in a way that focuses on making and multiplying disciples for the twenty-first century.