Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Philip Wingeier-Rayo: Was John Wesley a Missionary to Georgia?

Today's piece is by Dr. Philip Wingeier-Rayo. Dr. Wingeier-Rayo is Professor of Missiology, World Christianity and Methodist Studies at Wesley Theological Seminary and author of the forthcoming book, John Wesley and the Origins of Methodist Missions.

It is widely assumed that John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was a missionary to Georgia. I have seen this matter-of-fact statement multiple times in biographies about John Wesley’s life and ministry. If, indeed, Wesley was a missionary, was he commissioned? What entity or missionary agent sent him? This blog will reflect on this assumption and raise some questions about its veracity.


Wesley graduated from Christ Church, University of Oxford, in 1724 and was ordained a deacon in the Church of England in 1725. After assisting his father in parish ministry in Epworth and Wroot, he was ordained an elder in 1728. When Wesley’s father, Samuel Wesley, became ill in 1734 he unsuccessfully attempted to convince his son to succeed him as rector in Epworth. As John wrestled with whether or not to go to Epworth he wrote his father on November 15, 1734 with his decision: “The question is not whether I could do more good to others there or here, but whether I could do more good to myself; seeing wherever I can be most holy myself, there, I am assured, I can most promote holiness in others. But I am equally assured there is no place under heaven so fit for my improvement as Oxford.”

Epworth, Georgia or remain in Oxford?

Another of Samuel Wesley’s connections, John Burton, was a trustee of the Colony of Georgia and entered into correspondence with Wesley about America. The trustees were unhappy with the ministry of missionary Quincy Adams and wished to replace him.

Meanwhile, John Wesley had returned to Oxford where he was leading a group of students, including his younger brother Charles, on their spiritual quest for holy living. The group, known as the Holy Club—and later Methodists—sought to renew themselves and the church in the spirit of Primitive Christianity. The spiritual quest of the Oxford Methodists, including the Wesley brothers, could be described as mysticism. Wesley’s goal was to work out his salvation by faith and trembling (Phil. 2: 12-13). He also felt a sense of persecution and the desire to suffer on his faith journey.[1] When John Burton proposed mission work in Georgia, Wesley saw this as an opportunity to suffer and work out his salvation.

So, Wesley turned down his father’s invitation to succeed him at Epworth because he felt that Oxford was the best place to pursue his spiritual growth. Burton’s invitation, on the other hand, captured Wesley’s imagination. When General Oglethorpe, the de facto governor of Georgia, brought the Yamacraw chief, Tomochichi, to England to meet with King George, Wesley became even more fascinated with the idea of evangelizing Native Americans. This opportunity aligned with his vision of self-sacrifice and recovering the spirituality of early church in Jerusalem, who shared all things in common. While Europeans had been corrupted, Wesley held the belief that Native Americans were pure and closer to Primitive Christianity, embodying a communitarian lifestyle.

Motivation to go to Georgia

After his father’s passing on April 25, 1735, Wesley consulted his mother, Susanna, about going to Georgia as a missionary, to which she responded, “Had I twenty sons, I should rejoice they were all so well employed, though I should never see them more.”[2] With his mother’s approval, he recruited his younger brother Charles and Oxford Methodists Charles Delamotte and Benjamin Ingham, and they embarked for Savannah on December 10, 1735. On board the ship, Wesley wrote John Burton about his motivation for going to America:

“My chief motive, to which all the rest are subordinate, is the hope of saving my own soul. I hope to learn the true sense of the gospel of Christ by preaching it to the heathens…But you will perhaps ask, Can’t you save your own soul in England as well as in Georgia? I answer, No, neither can I hope to attain the same degree of holiness here which I may there, neither, if I stay here knowing this, can I reasonably hope to attain any degree of holiness at all.”

In other words, Wesley’s motivation for going to preach to Native Americans was intimately tied to his own spiritual journey toward holiness. Of this momentous vocational decision, Kenneth Collins writes in his biography, John Wesley: A Theological Journey: “upon further reflection and prayer, Wesley finally decided to accept the invitation to become a missionary…” (p. 55).

Was John Wesley a missionary?

John Wesley volunteered to go to Georgia to evangelize Native Americans without any conversation of official missionary status. At the time, there were many volunteer societies functioning in England, but two primarily had to do with overseas missions: The Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. Both of these societies were formed by Thomas Bray, in 1698 and 1701, respectively. The former provided Christian literature for priests and the later focused on supporting priests to minister among the colonists. Bray was an Anglican priest who traveled to Maryland and saw the need for spiritual care among the colonists, as well as the enslaved Africans and Native Americans in the British colonies.

While Wesley knew of these societies, he did not go to Georgia under their auspices. Rather, his invitation came from the Georgia Trustees via John Burton and General Oglethorpe. During his voyage and unbeknownst to him, however, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts held its annual meeting on January 16, 1736, and approved John Wesley, retroactively, as a missionary in Georgia. The SPG recorded in its journal: “…he had nearly arrived in Georgia by the time he was approved without consultation as a SPG missionary.”[3] The SPG re-assigned Adam’s £50 missionary salary to Wesley, but he did not accept these terms and saw himself as a volunteer missionary. His vision was to evangelize the Native Americans, and he did not consider himself an SPG missionary. After Quincy Adams was dismissed from his post, General Oglethorpe asked Wesley to not leave Savannah “destitute of a minister.” Meanwhile, Charles became an assistant of Oglethorpe and Secretary of Indian Affairs for the colony and did not seek a missionary designation either.


The SPG Journal for the following year, 1737, lists John Wesley as an SPG missionary, but with no salary. The 1738 SPG journal states that “Wesley thought of himself as an independent volunteer missionary.”[4] Wesley also did not fulfill all the requirements of SPG missionaries, for example, sending regular reports and updates to the society. He did, however, receive funding and books from the SPCK, which he utilized, and he gave an account with receipts. Although John Wesley did not receive a salary as a missionary, the SPG continued to include his name in their journals. So, was Wesley a missionary to Georgia? In spite of multiple unqualified accounts, this assumption joins the list of Wesleyan hagiography. While the SPG would like to claim him, Wesley saw himself as a volunteer missionary and not an official missionary of the SPG.

[1] Geordan Hammond, “John Wesley’s Mindset at the Commencement of His Georgia Sojourn: Suffering and the Introduction of Primitive Christianity to the Indians,” Church History, October 2008, vol.47, No. 1, pp18-25.

[2] Moore’s Life of Wesley, vol. I, p.234.

[3] SPG Journal, 16, January, 1736, vol.6, fo.305, SPG Archives, Rhodes House Library, Oxford, p.146.

[4] SPG Journal, 21 July 1738, vol.7, fos.26:1-2. Also see Wesley letter to the SPG, July 6, 1737, Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial Edition, 25:516.

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