Wroe was born in the village of East Bowling, near Bradford, West Yorkshire to a worsted manufacturer and farmer, and baptised in the town. After a rather scanty education, he entered his father's business, but later took a farm. He married and brought up a family of seven children.
In 1819 Wroe became ill with a fever and two doctors who attended him considered his life was in serious danger. Wroe asked for a minister to come and pray with him. Although his wife sent for four church ministers, each refused his request. Wroe then asked his wife to read a few chapters of the Bible to him, and after a while, he gradually recovered his bodily health, but his mental distress continued and he "wrestled with God" day and night for some months.
A short time later, Wroe started having visions, and often became blind and unable to speak — on one occasion remaining blind for six days. During these periods, Wroe said, many remarkable events were foretold and revealed to him: the Spirit told him to relinquish his worldly employment, so he devoted his life to travelling and preaching, where he gained many followers and persuaded them that he was a messenger of God.
Wroe, although often persecuted and threatened, travelled throughout Europe including Gibraltar, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Scotland, and Wales. He later travelled to the United States, and Australia.
He died in Melbourne, Australia, in 1863, aged 81, leaving the church affairs in the hands of his trustees. The Christian Israelite Church was originally set up in Gravesend, Kent, but its headquarters moved to Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire, which the church wanted to turn into a "new Jerusalem". From 1822 to 1831 Ashton-under-Lyne was the church's headquarters. Wroe intended to build a wall around the town with four gateways, and although the wall was never constructed, the four gatehouses were, as was a printing press. Popular opinion in the town turned against Wroe when he was accused of indecent behaviour in 1831, but the charges were dismissed. The Church spread to Australia, where it is still active.
In popular culture
Wroe’s life was the basis of a novel, Mr Wroe's Virgins by Jane Rogers. In 1993 Jonathan Pryce featured as Wroe, alongside Kathy Burke and Minnie Driver, in a BBC mini-series adaptation of the novel directed by Danny Boyle.