1791 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. John Wesley

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine 61 (March 1791) 282-84.



March 2. At a quarter before ten o'clock in the morning, of a gradual decay, in his 88th year, the Rev. John Wesley, M.A. This extraordinary man was born in June 1703, at Epworth, a village in Lincolnshire, of which place his father, Samuel Wesley, was rector; a man much respected for piety and learning; as were his other sons, the Rev. Samuel and Charles Wesley, now deceased. The very childhood of John was marked by an extraordinary incident. When between six and seven years of age, the parsonage-house at Epworth took fire in the night, and, in the confusion of the family, he was forgotten. Finding his bed in flames, he ran to the window, and, happily, being perceived there by some of the men-servants, they formed a ladder, one on the shoulders of another, and took him out, unhurt, the moment before the roof fell in, as he himself relates in our vol. LV. p. 247; to which passage, and to vol. LIV. pp. 279, 353, vol. LV. pp. 758, 875, 932, we refer for many curious particulars of him; and much more, of him and his father, may be seen in Mr. Badcock's letter, prefixed to the XXth number of the Bibliotheca Britannica, p. xli-xlviii. He was entered a scholar of the Charter-house about 1713, where he continued for seven years under the instruction of the celebrated Dr. Walker, and Mr. Andrew Tooke, author of The Pantheon, and contemporary with Dr. Kenrick Prescot, late master of Catherine Hall, Cambridge. Being elected to Lincoln College, Oxford, he became there a fellow about 1725; took the degree of M.A. in 1726; and was joint tutor with the late rector, Dr. Hutchins. During his residence there, he was equally distinguished by application and abilities, and laid up those large and varied stores of knowledge which he directed, during his long life, to the best of purposes. But what chiefly characterised him, even at the early age of 26, was piety. By reading the works of the famous William Law, he, his brother Charles, and a few young friends, entered into that strict course of life, which marks their SECT at the present day. They received the sacrament every week; observed all the fasts of the church; visited prisons; rose at four o'clock, and partook of no amusements. From the exact method in which they disposed of each hour, they acquired the nick-name of METHODISTS, and are the only people who take to themselves a term first given in reproach. The ridicule and contempt which this singular conduct produced, John and Charles Wesley were well qualified to bear. They were neither to be intimidated by danger, affected by interest, nor deterred by disgrace. But their honest zeal did not stop here. In 1735 they embarked for Georgia, in order to convert the Indians (see vol. VII. pp. 318, 575); but returned to England in 1737, when the charges of enthusiasm, bigotry, and fanaticism were urged with so much bitterness, and examined with so little candour, that they were forbidden to preach any more in the churches. This gave rise to field-preaching, in which George Whitfield was first; with whom the Wesleys had cordial friendship, though they separated their congregations on some differences in sentiments. John Wesley embraced the mild and general views of Arminius, which, it must be confessed, are more benevolent in their nature, and practical in their tendency, than Calvin's. His abhorrence of the doctrine and the man occasioned long, bitter, and useless controversy; though he never treated his opponents with the ill-breeding and abuse that he received from them. He now appeared as a zealous reformer, and the great leader of a sect no way differing in essentials from the Church of England. His peculiar opinions were, justification by faith, and Christian perfection: of which it may be remarked, the former is to be found in our own articles, and the latter, however he might enforce its possibility, he always disclaimed having attained himself. In 1738 he visited, at Hernhuth in Germany, Count Zinzendorff, the chief of the Moravians. In the following year we find him again in England, and, with his brother Charles, at the head of the Methodists. He preached his first field sermon at Bristol, on the 2d of April, 1738, from which time his disciples have continued to increase (see vol. IX. pp. 240, 295, 558). In 1741 a serious altercation took place between him and Mr. Whitfield (see vol. XI. p. 321.) In 1744, attempting to preach at a public inn at Taunton, he was regularly silenced by the magistrates (vol. XIV. p. 51). Though he remained the rest of his days nearer home, he travelled through every part of England, Scotland, and Ireland, establishing congregations in each kingdom. In 1750 he married a lady, from whom he afterwards parted, and she died in 1781; by her he had no children. This separation, from whatever motives it originated, we have heard some of his followers say, was the only blot on his character. Others have observed on this head, that nothing could be more effectually disappointed than Ambition or Avarice in an union with John Wesley. — In 1771 he seems first to have commenced politician, by publishing Thoughts on Public Affairs (see vol. XLI. p. 132); which he followed up by Thoughts on Slavery, 1774 (vol. XLIV. p. 533; vol. XLV. p. 137); An Address to the Colonies, 1776 (vol. XLVI p. 35); Observations on Liberty, 1776 (ib. p. 517). A considerable portion of his Poems, Hymns, and Sermons, may be traced from our General Index of Books Reviewed. His controversy with Gill may be seen in our vol. XXIV. p. 581; with Thompson, vol. XXX. p. 145; with Hill, vol. XLII. p. 532; vol. XLVII. p. 540. His other writings it is not very easy to enumerate. Few men have written so voluminously; divinity, devotional and controversial, history, philosophy, medicine, politicks, poetry, &c. &c. were all, at different times, the subjects of his pen; and, whatever may be the opinions held of his divinity, it is impossible to deny him the merit of having done infinite good to the lower class of people. Abilities he unquestionably possessed, and a fluency which was highly acceptable, and well accommodated to his hearers. He had been gradually declining for about three years past; yet he still rose at four o'clock, and preached, travelled, and wrote, as usual. He preached at Leatherhead on the Wednesday (Feb. 22) before his death. On the Friday following, the first symptoms of his approaching dissolution appeared. The four succeeding days he spent in praising the God of his mercies, and departed on the Wednesday morning, to receive the reward of a life spent in bringing "glory to God in the highest, and peace and good-will to men." — His remains, after lying in his tabernacle in a kind of state, dressed in the gown and cassock, band, &c. which he usually wore, and on his head the old clerical cap, a Bible in one hand, and a white handkerchief in the other, were, agreeably to his own directions, and after the manner of the interment of the late Mr. Whitfield, deposited in a piece of ground near his chapel at the Foundry, Moorfields, on the morning of the 9th instant, in the plainest manner consistent with decency, amidst the tears and sighs of an innumerable company of his friends and admirers, who all appeared in deep mourning on the occasion. A sermon, previously to the funeral, was preached by Thomas Whitehead, M.D. (one of the physicians to the London Hospital), accompanied with suitable hymns, &c. And on the 13th, the different chapels in his connexion in London were hung with black. — Where much good is done, we should not mark every little excess. The great point in which his name and mission will be honoured is this: he directed his labours towards those who had no instructor; to the highways and hedges; to the mines in Cornwall, and the colliers in Kingswood. These unhappy creatures married and buried amongst 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 outlived enmity and prejudice, and received, in his latter years, every mark of respect from every denomination. — The political sentiments of popular men are of importance to the state. John Wesley was a strenuous advocate for monarchy; and all his followers in America were firmly loyal. Those of Mr. Whitfield declared in favour of independence. His personal influence was greater than, perhaps, that of any other private gentleman in any country. It is computed that in the three kingdoms there are 80,000 members of this society. He visited them alternately; travelled 8000 miles every year; preached three or four times constantly in one day; rose at four, and employed all his time in reading, 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. And, with such opportunities of enriching himself, it is a doubt whether the sale of the books will pay all his debts. His travelling expences were defrayed by the societies which he visited. — The superintendency of his various chapels and societies he committed, about seven years ago, by a deed enrolled in chancery (in trust for the support of his preachers and their poor families), to an hundred travelling preachers, now in various parts of these kingdoms; and among the number is the Rev. Dr. Coke, at present in America, whose mission is supposed to have increased the converts in the West India islands, and other parts of America, to near 50,000, since the conclusion of the war, and founder, in 1789, of a college in South Carolina, called Wesley College. — 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 calculate 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!" — One striking passage from Mr. Badcock's anecdotes of him, we shall repeat from a former volumes, with Mr. Wesley's short remark on it. "In one of Mr. Wesley's earlier publications he, in the strongest language, disavows all pecuniary motives, and calls on posterity to vindicate his disinterestedness in one of the boldest apostrophes I ever read. 'Money must needs pass through my hands,' says he; 'but I will take care (God being my helper) that the mammon of unrighteousness shall only pass through; it shall not rest there. None of the accursed thing shall be found in my tents when the Lord calleth me hence. And hear ye this, all you who have discovered the treasures which I am to leave behind me; if I leave behind me ten pounds (above my debts and the little arrears of my fellowship), you and all mankind bear witness against me, that I lived and died a thief and a robber.' I doubt not but his pride, and something better than his pride, will prevent the stigma." To this Mr. W. in January 1785, adds, that the only end he ever had in view was, "to save sinners." "What other end," he asks, "could I possibly have in view? or can have at this day?" — 'Deep projects of a subtle mind.' "Nay, I am not subtle, but the veriest fool under the sun, if I have any earthly project at all now! For, what do I want which this world can give? And, after the labour of fourscore years,

No foot of land do I possess,
No cottage in the wilderness;
A poor, way-faring man,
I dwell awhile in tents below,
Or gladly wander to and fro,
Till I my Canaan gain."

His executors have already given notice that a gentleman, to whom Mr. W. has bequeathed his MSS, will publish an authentic narrative of him, as soon as it can be prepared for the press; and that the truth of this performance is intended to be regularly attested. — His history, if well written, will certainly be important, for in every respect, as the founder of the most numerous sect in the kingdom, as a man, and as a writer, he must be considered as one of the most extraordinary characters this or any age ever produced.