Rev. John Wesley

G. G. Cunningham, in Memoirs of Illustrious Englishmen (1834-37) 6:37-48.

JOHN WESLEY, the founder of the religious body called Wesleyan Methodists, was born June 17th, 1703. His father, Samuel Wesley, was the son of a nonconformist minister, but studied for the church of England, and was appointed to the livings of Epworth and Wroote, in Lincolnshire. At the former of these places, John, the subject of the present sketch, was born. Both his parents seem to have been distinguished by moral and intellectual worth; in their characters a curious observer might, perhaps, be able to trace certain characteristic features of their son's mind. When six years old he was exposed to imminent peril by a fire which occurred in his father's house. During the bustle of the event, he was left neglected in the nursery, but, being seen from the outside, vas taken out just before the falling in of the roof. This escape — a remarkable event in the life of a man who has exerted such an influence on society — he himself seems to have gratefully remembered through life; and — in allusion, it is supposed, to this deliverance, though, perhaps, also with a reference to his religious condition — beneath a portrait of him there was represented a house on fire, accompanied with the motto, "Is not this a brand plucked out of the fire" At the end of 1715, another and somewhat different kind of domestic alarm occurred in his father's family. This arose from certain noises and appearances by which it seems even the venerable divine and his wife were induced to believe that some supernatural visitant had taken up quarters in their house. John was at this time absent at school; but it may easily be conceived that the circumstances would produce an effect on his mind; and in a narrative which he published in the Arminian Magazine, he enters into the particulars of the affair, premising, that when he was very young he heard several letters read, giving an account of strange disturbances in his father's house at Epworth in Lincolnshire; and that when he went down thither in the year 1720, he "carefully inquired into the particulars," — "spoke to each of the persons who were then in the house, and took down what each could testify of his or her own knowledge."

At the Charter-house, young Wesley seems to have recommended himself to the master by his proper conduct; and although he appears to have suffered much, when there, from older boys, yet he was accustomed, in later life, to visit the scene where he had spent so many of his earlier days. Even in boyhood, however, according to his own declaration at a later period of his life, his mind was restless and uncomfortable. "I distinctly remember," says he, "that even in my childhood, even when I was at school, I have often said, They say the life of a school-boy is the happiest in the world, but I am sure I am not happy, for I am not content, and so cannot be happy." When seventeen years of age, he removed to Christ church, Oxford, where, although of cheerful and lively manners, he prosecuted his studies with diligence. Previously to taking orders, he corresponded with his parents on certain topics of religion, among others the doctrine of predestination, — a point so apt to excite the speculation and perplex the mind of a young academic inquirer, and to those well-known practical works, Thomas a Kempis's Imitation of Christ, and Jeremy Taylor's Holy Living and Dying, he seems to have paid particular attention at this period of his life. At length, in the autumn of 1725, he was ordained by Dr. Potter, bishop of Oxford. In spite of ridicule on account of his religious strictness, he was elected fellow of Lincoln college in the spring of the following year. "Entering now," says he, "into a new world, I resolved to have no acquaintance by chance, but by choice, and to choose such only as I had reason to believe would help me on my way to heaven. In consequence of this, I narrowly observed the temper and behaviour of all that visited me. I saw no reason to think that the greater part of these truly loved or feared God. Such acquaintance, therefore, I did not choose; I could not expect they would do me any good. Therefore, when any of these came, I behaved as courteously as I could; but to the question, When will you come to see me? I returned no answer. When they had come a few times, and found I still declined returning the visit, I saw them no more." At this time he also began to keep a diary. Within a year after his election, he was chosen moderator of the classes, and Greek lecturer; and we find him at this time laying down a plan of study, comprehending not only divinity, but also classics, logic, metaphysics, morals, Hebrew, Arabic, natural philosophy, poetry, and oratory. He also devoted some attention to the study of mathematics; in allusion to which, however, he says, in a letter to his mother, "I think, with you, that there are many truths it is not worth while to know. Curiosity might be a plea for spending some time upon them, if we had half-a-dozen centuries of lives to come; but it is ill husbandry to spend much of the small pittance now allowed us, in what makes us neither a quick nor a sure return." Soon after this appointment he left Oxford and settled at Wroote as curate to his aged father, in which situation he received priest's orders from Bishop Potter. In two years from the time of entering on his parochial cure, he returned to Oxford, where he acted as moderator at disputations held in the hall of his college. Finding at the university an association of young men devoted to religious pursuits, one of whom was his younger brother Charles — afterwards distinguished as his associate in the cause of Methodism — he became leader of the little society; and he followed as a religious adviser William Law, the celebrated author of a Serious Call. His correspondence at this time, as well as the conduct he pursued as a member of what was profanely called "the godly club," strikingly displays the religious ardour of his mind. "When I observe," says he, in a letter to his mother, "how fast life flies away, and how slow improvement comes, I think one can never be too much afraid of dying before one has learned to live." It seems, however, that neither his piety nor his acuteness sufficiently preserved him from an austerity of habits scarcely accordant with a due regard for self-preservation, and from an oddness of behaviour inconsistent, perhaps, with that laudable prudence, directed by religious principle, and, in its own turn, guiding though not extinguishing religious zeal, for which the academic scene in which he acted may be supposed to have imperatively called.

During his residence at Oxford, Wesley was consulted in reference to a proposal that he should become his father's successor in the living of Epworth. The reasonings of his father and his brother Samuel in favour of his accepting a cure of souls, failed of gaining him over; and if his own account of his susceptibility to be moved from good impressions and cooled in his religious zeal was strictly just, we are not entitled, perhaps, to say, that he was wrong in holding out even against the remonstrances of so estimable a parent as Samuel Wesley. As to the force of his ordination vow, he consulted the prelate by whom he was ordained, and the answer was favourable to his own interpretation. We find him, however, in attendance on the death-bed of his father, who died in April, 1735; and after the decease of the latter, he proceeded to London, to present to Queen Caroline a work, by the late venerable divine of Epworth, on the book of Job. The latter of these events marks an important era in the life of Wesley. On occasion of his visit to London, he was informed, that the trustees of a colony which had been lately established at Georgia, in North America, had resolved to send out religious teachers for the instruction of the Indians and the colonists. A proposal was made to him that he should proceed on the expedition, but in this he declined to acquiesce. His mother, however, when consulted on the subject, replied, "Had I ten sons, I should rejoice that they were all so employed, though I should never see them more," — and his friends, John Byron and William Law, expressed their approbation of his proceeding to this Christian service. He accordingly embarked at Gravesend, 14th October, 1735. He was accompanied by his brother Charles, and also by Mr. Oglethorpe, by whom the colony had been formed, and two other individuals of the names of Ingham and Delamotte. In the same ship were twenty-six Moravians. In these Wesley found companions conformable to his own religious habits, but he appears to have been struck with the difference between his own fear of death and the calmness of his German friends, during a storm by which the ship was overtaken on her passage. At length, on the 5th of February, 1736, she anchored in Savannah river, and next day Wesley and his companions landed on an uninhabited island, and having proceeded to a rising ground, knelt down, and offered thanks to the Almighty. The former took up his residence at Savannah with the Moravians. "From ten friends," he says, "I am a while secluded, and God hath opened me a door into the whole Moravian church." His new situation, indeed, he seems to have exceedingly enjoyed. Besides teaching a school, he preached in public, and his services were attended by crowds of people. He discoursed successfully against luxury of dress, and, in accordance with the rubric of the church, insisted on immersion in the baptism of children. He seems to have gone farther than suited the views of certain of the colonists; and before he had resided a year in the colony, a warm opposition had arisen against both his brother and himself. At length he was thrown into a situation alike delicate and annoying. Sophia Causton, a lady related to the chief magistrate of Savannah, having been introduced to Wesley as a religious inquirer, he formed the idea of receiving her in marriage. Referring the matter, however, to the judgment of the Moravians, he yielded to their decision against the propriety of the union. But another scene in connection with this lady remains to be presented. Some time after, he reproved her for certain points of conduct, and even kept her back from the communion. On this a warrant was issued against him, and damages were laid at 1,000. He maintained that nine of the counts against him were not cognizable by the civil court before which he was summoned. Twelve of the jurors, too, opposed the indictment. At last, when month after month had passed, without the matter being brought to a decision, he fixed a day for setting off on his return to England. The magistrates interfered. He on his part declined to give either bond or bail. "I saw clearly," says he, "the hour was come for leaving this place, and soon as evening prayers were over, about eight o'clock, the tide then serving, I shook off the dust of my feet and left Georgia, after having preached the gospel there (not as I ought, but as I was able), one year and nearly nine months." After great difficulties, he, and one or two companions who attended him, arrived at Charlestown. Remaining there several days, he at length set sail for England; and on the passage homeward, he seems to have diligently cultivated his religious feelings. The ship in which he sailed cast anchor in the Downs very shortly after his friend George Whitefield — a name so intimately associated with his own — had set sail for Georgia. Wesley, hearing of his friend's vicinity, transmitted to him a letter advising him to return. Whitefield, however, proceeded; and in his journal, after landing in Georgia, he thus writes: "The good Mr. John Wesley has done in America, under God, is inexpressible. His name is very precious among the people; and he has laid such a foundation, that I hope neither men nor devils will ever be able to shake."

On his arrival in London in 1738, Wesley met with three Moravians, by one of whom, Peter Boehler, he was, according to his own statements "clearly convinced of the want of that faith whereby alone we are saved;" and on the 24th of May, when attending a meeting in Aldersgate street, where an individual was reading a preface by Luther to the epistle to the Romans, he felt, he says, that he trusted "in Christ alone for salvation," and "an assurance," he adds, "was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death." The same year, he proceeded on a visit to the Moravians at Herrnbut in Germany, whence, after meeting with their celebrated leader, Count Zinzendorf; and observing the doctrine and organization of their society, he returned before the end of the year to England. Here he associated with a religious society which had been organized in London, composed, it would appear, in a great measure of Moravians. A love-feast, at which Whitefield was present, held at the beginning of 1739, is noticed by Wesley as an occasion of great excitement, and thus was ushered in a year remarkable for the bodily agitation, in the form of cries and convulsions, which attended the preaching of the Wesleys. There are certain circumstances by which this feature, so observable in the early history of Methodism, may be, to a considerable extent, explained. The necessity of personal assurance, as well, perhaps, as other favourite doctrines of Wesley, was peculiar, and fitted to produce a powerful effect on minds hitherto unaccustomed to such statements, when eloquently and pointedly enforced. Many, too, of Wesley's hearers seem to have been, in a great degree, destitute of Christian knowledge altogether, until Methodism was brought to bear upon them; so that the subject, or at least certain of its impressive doctrines, may, under his preaching, have fallen with the force of novelty upon their minds. Many of his auditors, too — a great proportion of whom were in the lower ranks — may have been free from that restraint on the public and turbulent expression of feeling which delicacy of manners might have enforced, while some, perhaps, were very willing to court the attention of the preacher by what might be supposed to gratify both his human love of influence, and his religious desire to benefit his hearers. Sincere and salutary as was probably much of the excitement that accompanied his preaching, and real as seem to have been some of the bodily affections that appeared among his auditors, there appears reason to believe that Wesley himself was not without experience of imposture in the case, and it seems that neither he nor his brother Charles had uniformly a very favourable opinion of such displays. "Some very unstill sisters," says the former on one occasion, "who always took care to stand near me, and tried who would cry loudest, since I have had them removed out of my sight have been as quiet as lambs. The first night I preached here, half my words were lost through the noise of their outcries; last night, before I began, I gave public notice that whosoever cried so as to drown my voice, should, without any man's hurting or judging them, be gently carried to the farthest corner of the room, — but my porters had no employment the whole night." Still, however, it were worse, perhaps, than rash to represent the bodily affections produced under Wesley's preaching as but a combination of folly and imposture, or to deny that in certain of these instances, there was a peculiar exercise of supernatural influence on the individuals immediately concerned.

It was near Bristol that Wesley commenced his career in England as a field-preacher. Whitefield had led the way by preaching, in the beginning of 1739, to the colliers at Kingswood in the neighbourhood of that city; and on his leaving the situation, Wesley succeeded him — although, according to his own account, he at first "could scarce reconcile himself to this strange way." Latterly, however, he threw aside all doubt as to his line of duty, and to one who expostulated with him on what churchmen considered his "irregularities," he replied thus: "As to your advice that I should settle in college, I have no business there, having now no office, and no pupils. And whether the other branch of your proposal be expedient, namely, to accept of a cure of souls, it will be time enough to consider when one is offered to me." ... A strong excitement was produced by his ministrations at Bristol, and there, at length, on the 12th of May, the foundation of a meeting-house was laid. According to the advice of certain friends in London, Wesley took on himself the management and responsibility of the undertaking. He confesses that he had not money to satisfy the claims; "but I knew," says he, "the earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof, and in his name set out, nothing doubting." Alter a few months' residence at Bristol, he proceeded to London. On his arrival, at Whitefield's request, he preached in the open air at Blackheath. With the rhapsodies of the French prophets, who had gained considerable influence over certain of the body to which he had attached himself, he appears to have been by no means satisfied, and his visit seems to have greatly contributed to quell certain quarrels and heart-burnings which had taken place in the society. Separation, however, was at hand. The body was composed partly of Moravians, and partly of Methodists or followers of Wesley. An individual of the name of Molther raised his voice against "the outward signs" that attended Wesley's preaching, and also stated certain opinions of his own to which Wesley was opposed. The latter left Bristol, and visited the society in London, of whose altered state he gives a melancholy picture. He explained texts that, according to his ideas, had been misinterpreted, and sought to reclaim such as he deemed in error. He at length went back to Bristol, but soon thereafter returned to London, and headed a secession from the Moravian party: nor did a conference which he held with Zinzendorf himself — who on this occasion visited England — effect a reunion of the Moravians and the Methodists. Whitefield, too, differed in religious sentiment with his early friend; and in 1740, when the former returned from America, he declined to proceed in connection with Wesley.

But the influence of the latter survived these unpleasant separations, as well as the virtual alienation from the church of England in which he had now involved himself. He extended his sphere of operation by visiting the north of England, where he found a congregation collected at Birstall under the care of John Nelson, a lay-preacher. He went on to Newcastle, and there his preaching was attended, as usual, with strong excitement. In returning from this tour, he paid a visit to his native parish of Epworth. An offer to preach in the church which he tendered to the curate being declined, he preached in the open air, not only on the Sunday after his arrival, but on several successive days. "I stood," says he, speaking of one of these occasions, "near the east end of the church, upon my father's tombstone, and cried, 'The kingdom of heaven is not meat and drink, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.'" Here, as elsewhere, his services were accompanied with great excitement among the hearers. The curate, however, seems to have treated him with insult. Nor was it at Epworth alone that he suffered in the cause he had espoused. Obloquy, and occasionally tumult, attended the preaching of the early Methodists. But in the respect and influence which he possessed among his followers, Wesley found what to his mind — warmed with piety, and, apparently, not altogether free from the love of power — perhaps more than counterbalanced the hostility he met with. His popular eloquence, associated with a calculating judgment, and aided by a sense, on the part of the people, of the influence he had exercised in creating the general excitement in which the Methodist church originated, go far to explain the power he exerted over the lay-preachers who, early in the history of Methodism, engaged in the ministry, and over the discipline of the congregations that were successively formed throughout the country. Besides, even in the midst of his arduous exertions, he seems to have retained the ease and pleasantry of manner which characterized him when an under-graduate at Oxford. These personal qualifications, which fitted him for exercising so great an influence, were brought into immediate bearing on his disciples over the country, and contributed, no doubt, to multiply the number of his followers, by the wandering mode of life which he pursued. In the course of his official movements, he visited not only distant parts of England, but also Ireland and Wales; and even after his marriage — which, from the temper and conduct of his wife, proved an unfortunate one — he proceeded in his itinerating course. "I cannot understand," says he, "how a Methodist preacher can answer it to God, to preach one sermon, or travel one day less, in a married than in a single state." . . .

Of his personal appearance, Hampson has given the following accurate description: "His face, for an old man, was one of the finest we have seen. A clear, smooth forehead, an aquiline nose, an eye the brightest and the most piercing that can be conceived, and a freshness of complexion, scarcely ever to be found at his years, and impressive of the most perfect health, conspired to render him a venerable and most interesting figure." In his demeanour, as in his countenance, "there was a cheerfulness mingled with gravity, — a sprightliness which was the natural result of all unusual flow of spirits, and was yet accompanied by every mark of the most serene tranquillity." Dr. Johnson described Mr. Wesley's conversation as 'good,' a word sufficiently indicative of his opinion of it; and, on one occasion, having regretted that he spent so little time with him, on a visit, Mrs. Hall said, "Why, doctor, my brother has been with you two hours." He replied, "Two hours, madam! I could talk all day, and all night too, with your brother."

As a preacher, he had many qualifications in common with other eminent men, but some peculiar to himself. His attitude in the pulpit was graceful and easy; his action calm and natural, yet pleasing and expressive; his voice not loud, but clear and manly; his style neat, simple, and perspicuous, and admirably adapted to the capacity of his hearers. His sermons were always short: he was seldom more than half-an-hour in delivering a discourse, sometimes not so long. Of the manner and effect of his preaching, the following is an example: The late Rev. Mr. Madan was educated for the bar. Some of his companions requested him one evening to go and hear Wesley, who, they were informed, was to preach in the neighbourhood, and then to return to them and exhibit his manner and discourse for their entertainment. With that intention he went to the house of God. Just as he entered the place, Mr. Wesley read as his text, "Prepare to meet thy God!" Amos iv. 12. with a solemnity of accent which excited his attention, and produced a seriousness which increased as he proceeded in exhorting his hearers to repentance. Madan returned to the coffee-room, and was asked by his companions, "if he had taken off the old Methodist." He replied, "No, gentlemen, but he has taken me off!" and from that time forsook their company, and became an eminently useful minister.

The following spirited character of Wesley is given by Nichols, in the fifth volume of his Literary Anecdotes: "Where much good is done, we should not mark every little excess. The great point in which Mr. Wesley's name and mission will be honoured is this: he directed his labours towards those who had no instructor, — to the high-ways and hedges, — to the miners in Cornwall, and to the colliers in Kingswood. These unhappy creatures married and buried among themselves, and often committed murders with impunity, before the Methodists sprang up. By the humane and active endeavours of him, and his brother Charles, a sense of decency, morals, and religion, was introduced into the lowest classes of mankind; the ignorant were instructed, the wretched relieved, and the abandoned reclaimed. He met with great opposition from many of the clergy; and unhandsome treatment from the magistrates, who frequently would refuse to check or punish a lawless mob, that often assembled to insult or abuse him. He was, however, one of the few characters who outlive enmity and prejudice, and received, in his latter years, every mark of respect from every denomination. His personal influence was greater than, perhaps, that of any other private gentleman in any country. It was computed that, in 1791, there were in the three kingdoms 80,000 members of this society. He visited them alternately, travelling 8,000 miles every year, — preached three or four times constantly in one day, — rose at four, and employed all his time in rending, writing, attending the sick, and arranging the various parts of this numerous body of people. Amongst his virtues, forgiveness to his enemies, and liberality to the poor, were most remarkable; he has been known to receive into even his confidence those who have basely injured him; they have not only subsisted again on his bounty, but shared in his affection. All the profit of his literary labours, all that he received, or could collect, (and it amounted to an immense sum, for he was his own printer and bookseller,) was devoted to charitable purposes. Yet with such opportunities of enriching himself, it was doubtful whether the sale of the books would pay all his debts. His travelling expenses were defrayed by the societies which he visited. On a review of the character of this extraordinary man, it appears that, though he was endowed with eminent talents, he was more distinguished by their use than even by their possession. Though his taste was classic, and his manners elegant, he sacrificed that society in which he was particularly calculated to shine, — gave up those preferments which his abilities must have obtained, and devoted a long life in practising and enforcing the plainest duties. Instead of being 'an ornament to literature,' he was a blessing to his fellow-creatures; instead of 'the genius of the age,' he was 'the servant of God.'"