Most buildings on campus are named after people who contributed large amounts of money to the University, but the University itself is named after someone who had been dead for 40 years when it was founded in 1831: John Wesley.
Wesley (1703-1791) donated no monetary gifts to Wesleyan University, but as a religious leader, he played a large role in the European evangelical revival during the 18th century. He also founded Methodism, a denomination of Christianity characterized by aspects like intensely studying the Bible, confessing sins, and discussing aspects of Christianity in a small group. The Methodists who founded Wesleyan University 175 years ago named the school after him.
“Wesley intended the Methodists to inspire reforms within the Anglican Church,” said Greg Hendrickson, an InterVarsity staff worker with the Wesleyan Christian Fellowship (WesCF) who has researched the topic of John Wesley and the evangelical revival. “He was dissatisfied with the Anglican Church being too formal, filled with hypocrisy, and not caring for the needs of the lower class.”
According to the University website, the Wesleyan community of 1831 consisted of founding President Willbur Fisk, 48 students, three professors, and one tutor. Wesleyan University was founded as a Methodist school, and it was the first school in the country named after Wesley (21 more schools followed suit).
Wesley’s spirited sermons appealed to the Methodists in the 1700s, and they remain popular among many Christians today.
“May we all thus experience what it is to be, not almost only; but altogether Christians; being justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Jesus; knowing we have peace with God through Jesus Christ; rejoicing in hope of the glory of God; and having the love of God shed abroad in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost given unto us!” Wesley preached in a sermon entitled, “Almost Christian” at Oxford University in 1741.
Wesley, a graduate of Oxford University, was a scholar and a non-conformist who sought religious truths.
“While at Oxford, he and his brother Charles founded the ‘Holy Club,’ a group of students who urged one another to pursue upright living,” Hendrickson said.
Wesley went on to write several books, over 140 sermons, and extensive notes on the New Testament. His sermons were always laden with Biblical quotes.
“But as soon as [a person] is born of God… The ‘eyes of his understanding are opened;’ and, He who of old ‘commanded light to shine out of darkness shining on his heart, he sees the light of the glory of God,’ his glorious love, ‘in the face of Jesus Christ,’” Wesley said in his sermon, “The New Birth.” “His ears being opened, he is now capable of hearing the inward voice of God, saying, ‘Be of good cheer; thy sins are forgiven thee;’ ‘go and sin no more.’”
While he was preaching, Wesley consistently called for people to repent and believe. For Wesley, repentance meant not only confessing and asking God for forgiveness of sins, but also seeking moral and spiritual transformation through belief in Jesus as Christ the savior.
“Though the flesh in you ‘lust against the Spirit,’ you may still be a child of God; but if you ‘walk after the flesh,’ you are a child of the devil,” Wesley said in a sermon entitled “On Sin in Believers.” “Now this doctrine does not encourage us to obey sin, but to resist it with all our might.”
Wesley was also known for preaching in places where few others preached in Europe and even to Native Americans in North America.
“Wesley’s preaching in the streets, prisons, hospitals, workhouses, and open fields brought the Christian message to thousands of farmers, factory workers, and miners who would never step in a church building,” Hendrickson said. “During his lifetime, Wesley traveled over 250,000 miles and delivered over 40,000 sermons to audiences ranging in size from 10 to 30,000 people.”
Many students at Wesleyan today share some social traits with Wesley, including courage to speak out against problems with the status quo and concern for the poor.
“Wesley spoke out and wrote boldly against slavery,” Hendrickson said. “He also donated all the proceeds from his magazines, tracts, and books to charity.”
One motivation for Wesley’s acts of love and kindness can be found in his sermons.
“It is possible for you to ‘love God, because he hath first loved us;’ and to ‘walk in love,’ after the pattern of our great Master [Jesus],” Wesley said in one of his sermons, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation.” “We know, indeed, that word of his to be absolutely true: ‘Without me ye can do nothing.’ But on the other hand, we know, every believer can say ‘I can do all things through Christ that strengtheneth me.’”
Wesley’s message of change and eternal salvation through belief in Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) remained consistent throughout his sermons.
“Wesley emphasized Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Savior,” Hendrickson said. “He pointed to the Bible as the final authority of Christian truth and the guidebook for holy living.”
Wesleyan University is no longer religiously affiliated. According to the University’s website, “Recruitment of non-Methodist scholars began in 1888 with Woodrow Wilson, who taught history and economics here for two years.”
All quotes from Wesley’s sermons were taken from <http://wesley.nnu.edu/john_wesley/sermons/tjnum.htm>, a website with links to 141 of John Wesley’s sermons.