Martyn Smith, writing about Wesley College

Related links
The Values, Philosophy and Ideology of the Culture of Wesley College
Reverend James S. Waugh
What it means to be a Christian School
The Importance of All
‘Open Entry’ in its Historical Context - Our Social Mission
Select thoughts following Glen Waverley CMT Wesley Review Meeting
Wesley's Heritage
Methodist Archives and Research Centre

(September, 2003, for use as biographical information in the programme for 'The Life and Times of John Wesley', the 2003 Glen Waverley Middle School Musical')

Until just three months before it opened in January 1866, the school we now know as ‘Wesley College’ was to be named ‘Wesleyan Methodist Grammar School’, words that were to adorn the pediment of the new, cement-rendered building with its two grey towers on the road to St Kilda.

No record of the reasons for this change has been found but one significant outcome of the change was that it gave the school a role model, for it took the name of a person - the eighteenth century English social reformer, Reverend John Wesley MA, (1703-1791).

John Wesley rescued from Epworth Rectory fire, 9th February, 1709

John Wesley and friends at Oxford

Saved from fire when aged five and a half

Leading a meeting of the Oxford 'Methodists'

In eighty-eight action-packed years, John Wesley …

  • grew up in the large family of Rev Samuel and Mrs Susanna Wesley, being thoroughly trained by his mother, as were his siblings;
  • was dramatically rescued from death in a house fire when aged five and a half;
  • attended London’s Charterhouse School from age eleven and, at seventeen, went on to Oxford University, becoming a Fellow of Lincoln College in 1726;
  • led a group of  Oxford young men who resolutely studied their Christian faith, worshipped devoutly, visited the sick, poor and imprisoned and taught children;
  • was ordained deacon in the Church of England at age twenty-two and priest at twenty-five;
  • sailed, at thirty-two, to Georgia, America to serve the colonists and indigenous people - an episode that ended, he felt, with a sense of personal failure;
  • approaching thirty-five and back in England, became newly inspired to strive to save people from exploitation, depravity, ignorance, poverty and ill-health;
  • travelled 400,000 kms throughout the British Isles by horse, in all weathers, preaching the Christian gospel and personally helping people, particularly in rapidly industrializing England;
  • preached an average sixteen sermons a week, mostly outdoors in places where large numbers of people from all walks of life could gather easily;
  • established diverse schools, bookrooms, orphanages, refuges, labour exchanges, credit unions, charitable funds, relief agencies and free health clinics;
  • faced repeated rejection, persecution and life-threats arising from his opposition to practices like class discrimination, brutish sports, gin addiction and slavery;
  • was a prolific writer and publisher of books, magazines, pamphlets, treatises, papers, articles and letters on social, theological and personal subjects;
  • developed a large network of  self-help groups within which his increasing number of followers shared support, enabling them to assist and include others;
  • created through his network a variety of leadership opportunities and a system of community literacy for ordinary men and women that left a strong democratic legacy;
  • with his brother Charles (who wrote more than six thousand hymns), widely employed singing as an enjoyable way for people - especially the illiterate - to understand the Christian faith;
  • organized his life and work so meticulously that he and his followers, commencing in the Oxford days, were disparagingly nicknamed ’Methodists’;
  • was denied, through Charles’ interference, a likely happy marriage to Grace Murray in his mid-forties and later married Mary Vazeille but separated after four years;
  • recorded more than fifty years of his life and work in a comprehensive published Journal, in addition to its drafts and a detailed personal diary;
  • donated more than thirty-five thousand eighteenth century English pounds to charity;
  • at eighty-eight, was rising at 4.00 am each day and performing his usual daily pastoral duties, mentally alert though physically frail;
  • headed, at his death, a global network (mainly in Britain and the USA) of more than 120,000 members grouped in ‘Methodist Societies’.

John Wesley preaching at the Market Cross in Epworth

John Wesley on his deathbed, surrounded by friends

Sixteen sermons a week ... usually outdoors

Imminent death, 1791

Before 1738, John Wesley, a committed Christian, believed he had to earn God’s love.  Intellectually and methodically he worked hard at achieving this but often was pre-occupied by his self-perceived unworthiness if measured against benchmarks he set for himself.  

In May 1738, however, Wesley became personally assured that God loved him freely, quite independent of any human measure, much as a parent loves a child.  “I felt my heart strangely warmed”, he wrote in his Journal.

No longer feeling hidebound by his methodology, the liberated John Wesley instead began to apply it passionately in his mission to convey divine love spiritually and materially to as many people as he could, particularly the disadvantaged.  

Thus Wesley united his heart with his head and, with an extraordinarily fit physique, spent the next fifty-three years being the exemplar of his superbly pragmatic challenge to his followers:-  “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can."

John Wesley's mother, Susanna

John Wesley's father, Samuel

John Wesley

John Wesley's brother, Charles

John Wesley's estranged wife Mary, nee Vazeille

Susanna Samuel John Charles Mary


Benson, C. Irving, A Century of Victorian Methodism, Spectator Publishing Co., Melbourne, 1935

Byard, Trevor, Grandpa was a Methodist, The Joint Board of Christian Education, Melbourne, 1993

Cross, F.L. and Livingstone, E. A. (eds), The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1974

Garlick, Phyllis, Six Great Missionaries, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1956

Gribben, Robert, ‘The Wesleys: a quarter of a millennium after their conversion to fervent Christianity’, on ‘Focus’, Radio 3LO, Melbourne, May 1988

Patterson, Bryan, ‘Wesley’s Method of God’s Work’, in the ‘Sunday Herald Sun’, Melbourne, 22/6/2003

Tolar Burton, Vicki, ‘John Wesley and the Liberty to Speak: The Rhetorical and Literary Practices of Early Methodism’ in ‘College Composition and Communication’, September 2001

'Wesleyan Methodist Grammar School, St Kilda', in the 'Wesleyan Chronicle', Melbourne, 20/1/1865

'Wesley College, Melbourne', in the 'Wesleyan Chronicle', Melbourne, 20/12/1865

Zwartz, Barney, ‘Horseback Hero’, in ‘The Age’, Melbourne, 18/6/2003


Uniting Church in Australia ministers Rev Graeme James and Rev Professor Norman Young kindly agreed to read the draft of this piece and made helpful suggestions.

Related links
The Values, Philosophy and Ideology of the Culture of Wesley College
Reverend James S. Waugh
What it means to be a Christian School
The Importance of All
‘Open Entry’ in its Historical Context - Our Social Mission
Select thoughts following Glen Waverley CMT Wesley Review Meeting
Wesley's Heritage
Methodist Archives and Research Centre
Home, incl. email


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