1793 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Samuel Wesley

John Whitehead, "Of Samuel Wesley Senior" in Life of John and Charles Wesley (1793; 1844) 1:26-36.



Mr. John Wesley, of whom I have spoken above, left two sons, Matthew and Samuel; of the rest of the children we know nothing. As the family had been greatly reduced by persecution, these two brothers must have experienced some difficulties in their education. Their mother was a niece of Dr. Thomas Fuller; but it does not appear that they received any assistance from this branch of the family. By industry they surmounted every difficulty that lay before them, and rose to very respectable and useful situations in life. Matthew Wesley, following the example of his grandfather, studied physic, and afterwards made a fortune by his practice. Samuel, the father of the late Mr. John Wesley, was born about the year 1662, or perhaps a little earlier; but he could not, I think, have been more than eight or nine years old when his father died. The first thing that shook his attachment to the Dissenters was, a defence of the death of King Charles the First, and the proceedings of the Calve's Head club. These things shocked him; and though it is certain that the Dissenters in general disapproved of the king's death, and that the proceedings of a club ought not to be attributed to a large body of men, who had no connection with the members of it, and differed greatly in opinion from them; yet they had such an effect on his mind, that he separated himself from the dissenting interest while yet a boy, as appears from the following lines in his son's elegy upon him

With op'ning life his early worth began,
The boy misleads not, but foreshows the man.
Directed wrong, tho' first he miss'd the way,
Train'd to mistake, and disciplin'd to stray:
Not long — for reason gilded error's night,
And doubts well founded shot a gleam of light.

He spent some time at a private academy before he went to the university; but where, it is not said. About the age of sixteen he walked to Oxford, and entered himself of Exeter College. He had now only two pounds sixteen shillings; and no prospect of future supplies, but from his own exertions. By industry, I suppose by assisting the younger students, and instructing any who chose to employ him, he supported himself till he took his Bachelor's degree; without any preferment or assistance from his friends, except five shillings. This circumstance does him great honor, and shows him to have been a young man of wonderful diligence and resolution. Many feel his difficulties, but few are capable of his vigorous and continued exertions to overcome them in so honorable a way, and with such success. He now came to London, having increased his little stock to ten pounds fifteen shillings. He was ordained deacon, and obtained a curacy, which he held one year, when he was appointed chaplain on board the fleet. This situation he held one year only, and then returned to London, and served a cure for two years. During this time he married, and his wife brought him a son. In this period he wrote several pieces, which brought him into notice and esteem, and a small living was given him in the country. I am not certain whether it was during his residence here, or while he was chaplain on board the fleet, that the following circumstance happened, but I suppose the latter. He was strongly solicited by the friends of King James II. to support the measures of the court in favor of popery, with promises of preferment if he would comply with the king's desire. But he absolutely refused to read the king's declaration; and though surrounded with courtiers, soldiers, and informers, he preached a bold and pointed discourse against it, from Daniel iii. 17, 18. "If it be, so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up." His son Samuel describes this circumstance in the following lines:

When zealous James unhappy sought the way
T' establish Rome by arbitrary sway;
In vain were bribes shower'd by the guilty crown,
He sought no favor, as he fear'd no frown.
Secure in faith, exempt from worldly views,
He dar'd the declaration to refuse;
Then from the sacred pulpit boldly show'd
The dauntless Hebrews, true to Israel's God,
Who spake regardless of their king's commands,
"The God we serve can save as from thy hands;
If not, O monarch, know we choose to die,
Thy gods alike, and threatenings we defy;
No power on earth our faith has e'er controll'd,
We scorn to worship idols, tho' of gold."
Resistless truth damp'd all the audience round,
The base informer sicken'd at the sound;
Attentive courtiers conscious stood amaz'd,
And soldiers silent trembled as they gaz'd.
No smallest murmur of distaste arose,
Abash'd and vanquish'd seem'd the church's foes.
So when like zeal their bosoms did inspire,
The Jewish martyrs walk'd unhurt in fire.

In this noble instance of integrity and firmness of mind, Mr. Wesley has given us an unequivocal proof that a person of high church principles may be a true friend to the protestant cause, and the liberty of the subject. It is evident, that he as much disliked the arbitrary proceedings of King James, as the religion which he endeavored to introduce. When the glorious Revolution took place in 1688, Mr. Wesley most cordially approved of it, and was the first who wrote in defence of it. This work he dedicated to Queen Mary, who in consequence of it, gave him the living of Epworth in Lincolnshire, about the year 1693; and in 1723 he was presented to the living of Wroote in the same county, in addition to Epworth.

Mr. Wesley held the living of Epworth upwards of forty years. His abilities would have done him credit in a more conspicuous situation; and had Queen Mary lived much longer, it is probable that he would not have spent so great a part of his life in such an obscure corner of the kingdom. In the beginning of the year 1705, he printed a poem on the battle of Blenheim, which happened the year before, with which the Duke of Marlborough was so well pleased, that he made him chaplain to Colonel Lepelle's regiment, which was to stay in England some time. In consequence of the same poem, a noble lord sent for him to London, promising to procure him a prebend. But unhappily he was at this time engaged in a controversy with the Dissenters: several things had been published on each side, and the controversy was carried on in the usual way, in which the disputants on both sides are generally more remarkable for showing the violence of their passions than the goodness of their cause. In the first part of Queen Ann's reign, the Dissenters had a very powerful influence in both houses of parliament, and at court; and were now preparing to present a petition to the House of Lords, praying for justice against the authors of several pamphlets written in opposition to them, and against Mr. Wesley in particular; but were dissuaded from taking this step by two members of that house. They had however interest enough to hinder Mr. Wesley from obtaining a prebend; they soon also worked him out of the chaplainship of the regiment, and brought several other very severe sufferings upon him and his family.

As a pastor, he was indefatigable in the duties of his office: a constant preacher, feeding the flock with the pure doctrines of the gospel, according to his ability; diligent in visiting the sick, and administering such advice as their situations required; and attentive to the conduct of all who were under his care, so that every one in his parish became an object of his attention and concern. No strangers could settle in his parish but he presently knew it, and made himself acquainted with them. We have a proof of this from a letter he wrote to the Bishop of Lincoln, after being absent from home a very short time. "After my return to Epworth, says he, and looking a little among my people, I found there were two strangers come hither, both of whom I have discovered to be papists, though they come to church; and I have hopes of making one or both of them good members of the church of England."

But this conscientious regard to parochial duties, did not divert him from literary pursuits. A man who spends all his time in the most useful manner he can, may diversify his employments, and accomplish by diligence what appears to others impracticable. His favorite study seems to have been the original Scriptures, in which he was indefatigable; a practice which can never be too much commended in a minister of the gospel, when joined with a proper attention to practical duties.

The following extracts from two of his letters to his son, the late Mr. John Wesley, will give some idea of his diligence in this respect; and the second of them will show us his opinion of a subject on which learned men have been much divided.

"JAN. 26, 1725.

I have some time since designed an edition of the holy Bible in octavo, in the Hebrew, Chaldee, Septuagint, and the Vulgate; and have made some progress in it. What I desire of you on this article is, 1. That you would immediately fall to work, and read diligently the Hebrew text in the Polyglott, and collate it exactly with the Vulgate, writing all, even the least variations or differences between them. 2. To these I would have you add the Samaritan text in the last column but one; which is the very same with the Hebrew, except in some very few places, differing only in the Samaritan character, which I think is the true old Hebrew. In twelve months' time, you will get through the Pentateuch; for I have done it four times the last year, and am going over it the fifth, and collating the two Greek versions, the Alexandrian and the Vatican, with what I can get of Symachus and Theodotion," &c.

Mr. John Wesley was in the twenty-second year of his age, not yet ordained, nor had he attained any preferment in the university, when he received this letter from his father. It gives a pleasing view of his progress in biblical learning at this early period of life, and shows his father's confidence in his critical knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures. The following letter was written in 1731, and very clearly states the old gentleman's opinion of the translation of the Seventy, after a most laborious examination of it.

"I find in your letter an account of a learned friend you have, who has a great veneration for the Septuagint, and thinks that in some instances it corrects the present Hebrew. I do not wonder that be is of that mind; as it is likely he has read Vossius and other learned men, who magnify this translation so as to depreciate the original. When I first began to study the Scriptures in earnest, and had read it over several times, I was inclined to the same opinion. What then increased my respect for it was, 1. That I thought I found many texts in the Scriptures more happily explained than in our own or other versions. 2. That many words and phrases in the New Testament, can hardly be so well understood without having recourse to this translation. 3. That both our Saviour and his apostles so frequently quote it. These considerations held me in a blind admiration of the Septuagint; and though I did not esteem them absolutely infallible, yet I hardly dared to trust my own eyes, or think they were frequently mistaken. But upon reading this translation over very often, and comparing it verbatim with the Hebrew, I was forced by plain evidence of fact to be of another mind. That which led me to it was, some mistakes (I think not less than a thousand) in places indifferent, either occasioned by the ambiguous sense of some Hebrew words, or by the mistake of some letters, as 'daleth' for 'resh,' and vice versa; which every one knows are very much alike in the old Hebrew character. But what fully determined my judgment was, that I found, or thought I found, very many places which appeared purposely altered for no very justifiable reason. These at last came so thick upon me, in my daily reading, that I began to note them down; not a few instances of which you will see in the dissertation I shall send you in my next packet. I would have you communicate it to your learned friend, with my compliments, earnestly desiring him, as well as you, to peruse it with the greatest prejudice you can; and after you have thoroughly weighed the whole, as I think the subject deserves, to make the strongest objections you are able against any article of it, where you are not convinced by my observations. For I should not deserve a friend if I did not esteem those my best friends who do their endeavors to set me right, where I may possibly be mistaken, especially in a matter of great moment."

These two extracts give an interesting view of this gentleman's learning, diligent study of the Scriptures, and candor, in each of which he holds forth to us an example highly deserving of imitation.

Mr. Wesley was a voluminous writer, which in most cases is a disadvantage to an author, whatever his abilities may be. His Latin commentary on the book of Job is a most elaborate performance; but the subject of this book, and the language in which the commentary is written, are but ill adapted to the generality of modern readers. As a poet he has been censured by Garth and others; though when he failed, it was perhaps as much owing to the difficulty of the subject, as to want of poetical abilities. In an early edition of the Dunciad, he and Dr. Watts were associated together, and involved in the same censure. But it is well known that the earlier editions of this poem were all surreptitious, in which the blanks were filled up by the mere caprice or envy of the editors, without any regard to the intention of the author. Thus, in a surreptitious edition printed in Ireland, the blank in the 104th verse of the first book was filled up with Dryden instead of Dennis, which, no doubt, was far enough from the intention of Mr. Pope. With the same propriety and good judgment, in the surreptitious editions, the names "Wesley" and "Watts" were inserted thus, "W—ly," "W—s," in the 126th line of the same book, but they never appeared in any edition published by Mr. Pope. The lines originally stood thus:

A Gothic Vatican! of Greece and Rome,
Well purg'd, and worthy Withers, Quarles, and Blome.

In a London edition of the Dunciad, printed in 1729, there is the following note on the last of these lines, "It was printed in the surreptitious editions W—ly, W—s, who were persons eminent for good life; the one writ the life of CHRIST in verse, the other some valuable pieces of the lyric kind on pious subjects. The line is here restored according to its original."

Of Mr. Wesley's larger poetical performances, his son Samuel passes the following candid but impartial judgment, in the elegy above mentioned.

Whate'er his strains, still glorious was his end,
Faith to assert and virtue to defend.
He sung how God the Saviour deign'd t' expire,
With Vida's piety though not his fire;
Deduc'd his Maker's praise from age to age,
Through the long annals of the sacred page.

Most of his smaller pieces are excellent....

Every good judge, I apprehend, will readily allow that the author of these verses did not want talents for poetry. But wherever we fix his standing in the scale of learning and abilities, he still rises higher in our view of genuine piety, and a firm attachment to justice, mercy and truth, in various trying situations of life. His integrity was conspicuous, and his conduct uniform. As he had chosen God and his service for his own portion, he chose the same for his children also. When two of his sons were pursuing a course of piety at Oxford, which threw their future prospects of preferment into a cloud not likely to be dissipated, he encouraged them in it, choosing rather that he and his children should suffer affliction with the people of God, than enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season. Few men have been so diligent in the pastoral office as he was; none perhaps more so. Though his income may be called small, and his family large, he had always something to give to those in distress. In conversation he was grave, yet instructive, lively, and full of anecdote; and this talent the late Mr. Wesley possessed in a high degree. His last moments were as conspicuous for resignation and christian fortitude, as his life had been for zeal and diligence. His two sons, Mr. John and Charles Wesley, were both with him when he died, and Mr. Charles has given the following interesting account of his death, in a letter to his brother Samuel, dated April 30, 1735.

"DEAR BROTHER,

After all your desire of seeing my father alive, you are at last assured you must see his face no more till he is raised in incorruption. You have reason to envy us who could attend him in the last stage of his illness. The few words he could utter I saved, and hope never to forget. Some of them were, 'Nothing is too much to suffer for Heaven. The weaker I am in body, the stronger and more sensible support I feel from God. There is but a step between me and death; to-morrow I would see you all with me round this table, that we may once more drink of the cup of blessing, before we drink it new in the kingdom of God. With desire have I desired to eat this passover with you before I die.' The morning he was to communicate, he was so exceeding weak and full of pain, that he could not without the utmost difficulty receive the elements, often repeating, 'Thou shakest me, thou shakest me'; but immediately after receiving, there followed the most visible alteration. He appeared full of faith and peace, which extended even to his body; for he was so much better, that we almost hoped he would have recovered. The fear of death he entirely conquered, and at last gave up his latest human desires of finishing Job, paying his debts, and seeing you. He often laid his hand upon my head, and said, 'Be steady! The christian faith will surely revive in this kingdom you shall see it, though I shall not.' To my sister Emily he said, 'Do not be concerned at my death, God will then begin to manifest himself to my family.' When we were met about him, his usual expression was, 'Now let me hear you talk of heaven.' On my asking him whether he did not find himself worse, he replied, 'O my Charles, I feel a great deal; God chastens me with strong pain, but I praise him for it, I thank him for it, I love him for it.' On the 25th his voice failed him, and nature seemed entirely spent, when, on my brother's asking, whether he was not near heaven, he answered distinctly, and with the most of hope and triumph that could be expressed in sounds, 'Yes, I am.' He spoke once more, just after my brother had used the commendatory prayer; his last words were, 'Now you have done all!' This was about half an hour after six, from which time till sunset, he made signs of offering up himself, till my brother again having used the commendatory prayer, the very moment it was finished he expired. His passage was so smooth and insensible, that notwithstanding the stopping of his pulse, and ceasing of all sign of life and motion, we continued over him a considerable time, in doubt whether the soul was departed or no. My mother, who for several days before he died, hardly ever went into his chamber but she was carried out again in a fit, was far less shocked at the news than we expected, and told us that now she was heard, in his having so easy a death, and her being strengthened so to bear it."

In going through this work, let the reader consider himself as travelling slowly on a pleasant road where a variety of objects, highly worthy of his attention and regard, present themselves to his view. In passing along this little distance, we have as it were stood by, and seen two ministers of the gospel die; the one a Nonconformist, and the other an High Churchman. As we see them approach the entrance on eternity, the scene becomes interesting, and will suggest to the reader many important reflections. Dropping their singularities of opinion, and all party distinctions, we now view them coalescing, and becoming one in Christ Jesus. Animated with the same spirit of devotion, they look up to God as their common Father through the same Mediator and Saviour; they praise him for the same mercies, and looking forward to his kingdom and glory with the same humble confidence, both triumph over death as he draws nigh to them: they give satisfactory evidence, that they were united to Christ, belonged to the same family, and were heirs of the same heavenly inheritance, notwithstanding the external differences in their mode of worship. These considerations should teach us to be careful, not to over-value the external differences among Christians, nor to exalt the discriminating distinctions of parties into the rank of fundamental articles of christianity. As long as we lay the same foundation, and endeavor to build upon it gold, silver, and precious stones, we ought to have fellowship with each other as brethren, notwithstanding the different manner in which we manage the materials, and give a varied appearance to the building.