John Fletcher Hurst was born near Salem, Maryland on August 17, 1834, the only son and second child of Elijah and Ann Catherine Colston Hurst. His father was a relatively prosperous slave holding farmer and local magistrate who was active in the Methodist Church. His mother died at thirty-four in 1841, when John was seven years old. He was educated at home, then at the local common school and the nearby Cambridge Academy. He saw President Jesse Peck of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania preach near his home and was invited to attend the College in the fall. He did so, entering in September 1850 with the thirty-six member class of 1854. He became a member of the Union Philosophical Society almost immediately and, though not a great orator, later served in most of its executive offices. Already a serious and devout young man, "Johnnie Hurst" was already publishing small writings in various religious magazines before the end of his freshman year, and soon gained a reputation for gentle dignity and hard work. He graduated with twenty others of his class, not with honors but in the "First Section."
Following graduation, he briefly contemplated the law as a profession, but instead took up a teaching post in Greensboro for a few months before attaining a position at the Hedding Literary Institute at Ashland, New York. In August 1856, after a summer studying German in Carlisle, he traveled to Germany and enrolled as a theology student at the University of Halle for a year which included extensive travel through much of Europe. Returning to the United States, he preached for a time in the Carlisle Circuit; he was then licensed in the Newark Conference of the Methodist Church, filling pastorates at Irvington, Passaic, and Elizabeth, New Jersey. In April 1865, he was appointed as pastor of Trinity Church on Staten Island.
On October 20, 1866, Hurst sailed from New York to take up a position as theological tutor at the Methodist Mission Institute in Bremen, Germany. He moved with the school in October 1868 to Frankfort-on-Main, which had just been incorporated into Prussia, taking the opportunity to travel throughout southern Europe, Syria, Egypt, and the Holy Land. He rose to director of the Institute but left in August 1871 to become professor of Historical Theology at the Drew Seminary in Madison, New York. In May 1873, he was named as that institution's president, remaining as such until May 1880. Ever the traveller, Hurst was ordained as a bishop of the general conference in Cincinnati, Ohio and later took up residences in Des Moines, Iowa and Buffalo, New York. However, much of his time in the following two decades was spent attending and organizing Methodist Conferences all over the United States and visiting missions and conferences in Europe, and, most notably, in India.
In 1888, Hurst took the bishop's residence in Washington, D.C. where his main task was to be the foundation of a post-graduate university under the auspices of the Methodist Church. He selected the site and made possible the purchase of land in 1890 that was going to become the site of American University. He was elected as its first chancellor on May 28, 1891 and remained in that post until December 1902. He had retired from the episcopate the year before, having continued his travels on behalf of the church. Since 1865, he had been a constantly active author and published several important studies on theology, from his History of Rationalism (1866) to his seven volume History of Methodism (1902-1904), as well of accounts of his travels, notably Indika: The Country and People of Ceylon (1891). He was also a close friend of President McKinley.
He was married on April 28, 1859 to Catherine Elizabeth La Monte of Charlotteville, New York who he had met when she was a teacher at the Hedding Institute in 1855. They had three sons and two daughters. She died in Washington, D.C. in March 1890. Following his return from his last trip to Europe in 1901, his health declined and he suffered a series of small strokes. After a more serious attack in April 1903, John Hurst died at his home in Washington on May 4, 1903. He was sixty-nine years old.