Rev. John Wesley

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 31:299-311.

JOHN WESLEY, the most celebrated of the family, and the founder of the society of Methodists, was the second son of the rev. Samuel Wesley, and was born at Epworth in Lincolnshire. June 17, 1703, O.S. His mother was the youngest daughter of Dr. Samuel Annesley, an eminent nonconformist, and appears to have been a woman of uncommon menial acquirements, and a very early student of religious controversies. At the age of thirteen she became attached o the church of England, from an examination of the points in dispute betwixt it and the dissenters; but when her husband was detained from his charge at Epworth by his attendance on the convocation in London, she used to admit as many of his flock as his house could hold, and read a sermon, prayed, &c. with them. Her husband, who thought this not quite regular, objected to it, and she repelled his objections with considerable ingenuity. It is not surprising, therefore, that she afterwards approved of her sons' extraordinary services in the cause of religion.

In his sixth year John almost miraculously escaped the flames which consumed his father's house, a circumstance which was alluded to afterwards in an engraving made of him, with the inscription "Is not this a brand plucked out of the burning?" After receiving the first rudiments of education from his mother, who also carefully instilled into her children the principles of religion, he was, in 1714, placed at the Charter-house, and became distinguished for his diligence and progress in learning. In his seventeenth year be was elected to Christ-church, Oxford, where he pursued his studies with great advantage; his natural temper, however, was gay and sprightly, and he betrayed a considerable turn for wit and humour. He amused himself occasionally with writing verses, mostly imitations or translations from the Latin. When he conceived the purpose of entering into holy orders, he appears to have been sensibly struck with the importance of the office, and became more serious than usual, and applied himself with great diligence to the study of divinity; and as the character of his future life was in a great measure formed by his early studies, it may not be superfluous to mention that two of his most favourite books were Thomas a Kempis and bishop Taylor's "Holy Living and Dying;" and, although he differed from the latter on some points, it was from reading him that he adopted his opinion of universal redemption, which he afterwards uniformly maintained. He no began to alter the whole form of his conversation, and endeavoured to reduce the bishop's advice on purity of intention, and holiness of heart, into practice. After his father had removed some scruples from his mind respecting the damnatory clause in the Athanasian creed, he prepared himself for ordination, and received deacon's orders Sept. 19, 1725, from Dr. Potter, then bishop of Oxford. And such was his general good character for learning and diligence, that on March 17, 1726, he was elected fellow of Lincoln-college, though not without encountering some ridicule on account of his particularly serious turn. In April he left Oxford, and resided the whole summer at Epworth and Wroote, where he frequently filled his father's pulpit.

On his return to the university in Sept. following be was chosen Greek lecturer, and moderator of the classes, Nov. 7, although he had only been elected fellow of the college in March, was little more than twenty-three years of age, and had not yet proceeded master of arts. Such honourable distinction appears to have increased his diligence; besides his theological studies, he studied the classics critically, and his occasional attempts in English poetry had beauty and excellence enough to be approved by the best judges of his time. On Feb. 14, 1727, he proceeded M.A. and acquired considerable credit by his disputation for that degree. He began about this time to separate himself from society, that he might not be diverted from those religious inquiries which now pressed upon his mind. His religious sentiments were not yet fixed; he had read much, perhaps as much as was necessary to be acquainted with the most common distinctions between Christians, but the principles on which he afterwards acted, were not yet settled. He appears to have had some thoughts of accepting the offer of a school in Yorkshire, and his chief inducement was its being represented as seated in a frightful, wild, and almost inaccessible situation, where he could run no risk of many visits. The school, however, was otherwise disposed of. In the interim he laid down the following plan of study, from which, for some time, he never suffered any deviation: Mondays and Tuesdays were devoted to the Greek and Roman classics, historians, and poets. Wednesdays to logic and ethics. Thursdays to Hebrew and Arabic. Fridays to metaphysics and natural philosophy. Saturdays to oratory and poetry, chiefly composing. Sundays to divinity. Mathematics, optics, and the French language, appear likewise to have occupied his leisure hours.

In the month of August 1727, he left Oxford to become his father's curate at Wroote, where he found time to pursue the above plan of study. In July 1728 he returned to Oxford with a view to obtain priest's orders, and was accordingly ordained Sept. 22, by Dr. Potter. He immediately set out for Lincolnshire, and did not again visit Oxford till June 1729, where he found that his brother Charles, Mr. Morgan, and one or two more, had just formed a little society, chiefly to assist each other in their studies, and to consult on the best method of employing their time to advantage. He joined them every evening until his return to Wroote, where he remained until Dr. Morley, rector of his college, induced him to quit his curacy and reside at Oxford, where he might get pupils, or a curacy rear the city. His presence, however, being required by the statute, was Mr. Wesley's principal inducement for leaving the situation, however humble, which he enjoyed under his father.

At Oxford he resided from Nov. 1729 to Oct. 1735, and it was during this period that the first Methodist society was established, or rather begun. In the mean time he obtained pupils, and became a tutor in Lincoln college; he also presided in the hall as moderator in the disputatious, held six times a week, and had the chief direction of the religious society, which; as we have already observed, bad at first no other view than their own benefit. By the advice of one of the number, Mr. Morgan, a commoner of Christ Church, they began to visit some prisoners in the jail, and thence extended their visits to the sick poor in the city. In this they first met with some degree of encouragement, but afterwards had to encounter considerable opposition and much ridicule; and, among other names, were called Sacramentarians, because they partook of the sacrament once a week. But their principal name was Methodists, alluding to a sect of ancient physicians so called, who were the disciples of Themison, and boasted that they found out a more easy method of teaching and practising the art of physic. In the mean time the society, which consisted only of John and Charles Wesley, Mr. Morgan before-mentioned, Mr. Kirkman of Merton college, Mr. Ingham of Queen's, Mr. Broughton of Exeter Mr. Clayton of Brasenose, Mr. James Hervey, and George Whitfield, continued to visit the prisoners, and some poor families in the town when they were sick; and that they might have wherewith to relieve their distress, they abridged themselves of all the superfluities, and of many of the conveniencies of life. They also took every opportunity of conversing with their acquaintance, to awaken them to a sense of religion; and by argument defended themselves as well as they could against their opponents, who attacked them principally because they thought all this superfluous, mere works of supererogation. But it does not appear that either they or the society itself had fear or hope of the important consequences that would follow.

In 1732 we find Mr. Wesley at London, "hence he went to Putney, on a visit to the celebrated William Law, with whose writings he was greatly captivated. From this time also he began to read the "Theologia Germanica," and other mystic writers, with those opinions he coincided, as raking religion to consist chiefly in contemplation, and inward attention to our own mind; but, says his biographer, it does not appear that he was less diligent in the instituted means of grace, nor less active in doing good to others than before. He was now known to many pious and respectable persons in London, who began to take notice of him. He heartily approved of the conduct of those well-disposed persons who associated together to carry on a plan for the suppression of vice, and spreading religion and virtue among the people; and in August 1732 was admitted into the society for the propagation of Christian knowledge.

By reading Law's "Christian Perfection," and his "Serious Call to a holy Life," Mr. Wesley was confirmed in the views he before had of the effects which the gospel is intended to produce on the minds of those who sincerely embrace it; and was fully convinced of the absurdity and danger of being an half Christian. On Jan. 1, 1733, he preached at St. Mary's, Oxford, before the university, on the "circumcision of the heart." His biographer says, that in this sermon "he has explained with great clearness, and energy of language, his views of the Christian salvation to be attained in this life; in which he never varied, in any material point, to the day of his death." In this month he set out for Epworth; and the declining state of his father's health occasioned his parents to speculate on the possibility of obtaining the living of Epworth for him, in case of his father's demise. But to this he seems to have been indifferent, if not reluctant; he still wished to go back to Oxford, where in his absence there had been a great falling-off in his society; and when in the following year his father wrote to him, requesting him to apply for the next presentation, he answered he was determined not to accept the living if he could obtain it, and gave the preference to Oxford, as the place where he could improve himself more than elsewhere, and consequently contribute most to the improvement of others. It was in vain that his father and brother Samuel engaged in a controversy with him out the subject. His father died in April 1735, and the living was given away in May, so that he now considered himself as settled at Oxford, without any wish of being further molested in his quiet retreat.

But a new scene of action was soon proposed to him, of which he had not before the least conception. The trustees of the new colony of Georgia were greatly in want of proper persons to send thither to preach the gospel, not only to the colony, but to the Indians. They fixed their eyes on Wesley and some of his friends, as the most proper persons, on account of the regularity of their behaviour, their abstemious way of living, and their readiness to endure hardships. In August 1735, being in London, he was introduced to Mr. Oglethorpe, and the matter proposed to him. For some time he hesitated, in order to consider it, and take the advice of his friends, and then consented, and began to prepare for his voyage, along with his brother Charles, Mr. Ingham, and Mr. Delamotte, the son of a merchant in London. But his expedition was unsuccessful. The Indians were the intended objects of his ministry, but he found no opportunity of going among them, for general Oglethorpe wished to detain him at Savannah, where the English had formed their settlement. Even here, however, be became frequently involved in disputes with the colonists. High-church principles, says one of his biographers, continually influenced his conduct; "an instance of which was his refusing to admit one of the holiest men in the province to the Lord's Supper, though he earnestly desired it, because he was a dissenter, unless he would submit to be re-baptized." He also refused the communion to a married lady, whom he had himself courted for a wife, which excited a powerful hostility against him, and occasioned his return to England, after a ministry in Georgia of about a year and nine months. He allows himself that all he learned was, what he least of all expected, that he "who went to America to convert others, was never himself converted to God."

During his voyage to Georgia he had met with a company of Moravians, with whose behaviour he was greatly delighted; and on his return to England he met with a new company who had just arrived from Germany. From them he seems to have learned some of his peculiar doctrines, particularly instantaneous conversion, and assurance of pardon for sin. These discoveries made him desirous to go to the fountain-head of such, and accordingly he went o Germany, and visited the settlements of the Moravians. In 1738 he returned to London, and began with great diligence to preach the doctrine which he had just learned. His "Journals," in which he records the whole progress of his ministry, discover a surprising state of mind, which it is difficult to characterize: considerable attention to the sacred Scriptures, with an almost total abandonment to impressions of mind, which would go to make the Scriptures useless: some appearance of scrupulous regard to the real sense of scripture, while an enthusiastic interpretation put upon passages, according as they happen first to strike the eye on opening the Bible. Great success, we are told, attended his preaching, and yet some are said to have been "born again" in a higher sense, and some only in a lower. But in this anomalous spirit he was called to assist Mr. Whitfield, who had begun his career of field-preaching at Bristol, and was now about to return to Georgia. Mr. Wesley trod in Whitfield's irregular steps at Bristol; though he confesses that he had been so tenacious of decency and order, that he should have thought the saving of Souls almost a sin, if not done in a church. The multitudes which attended the preaching of Wesley were great, though not so great as those which had flocked to Whitfield; but the sudden impressions, loud cries, and groans of the hearers, were far greater than any thing we find recorded in the life of Whitfield. It was in the neighbourhood of Bristol that the first regular society of methodists was formed, in May 1739, and laid the foundation of that unlimited power which Wesley afterwards exercised over the whole sect. The direction of the building at Kingswood was first committed by him to eleven feoffees of his own nomination. But for various reasons, urged by his friends, this arrangement was changed. One of those reasons, he says himself, "was enough, viz. that such feoffees would always have it in their power to controul me, and if I preached not as they liked, to turn me out of the room I had built." He therefore took the whole management into his own hands: and this precedent he ever after followed, so that from time to time the whole of the numerous meetinghouses belonging to the methodists were either vested in him, or in trustees who were bound to admit him, and such other preachers as he should appoint, into the pulpits. Whitfield was one of those who advised this plan in the case of the Kingswood meeting, and was himself afterwards excluded from this very pulpit. Whitfield and Wesley had run their course together in amity, but on the return of the former from America, in 1741, a breach took place between them, both of them having now become more decided in their principles. Whitfield was a Calvinist, and Wesley an Arminian. "You and I," said Whitfield, "preach a different gospel;" and after some unavailing struggles, principally on the part of their friends, to bring about a reconciliation, they finally parted, and from this time formed two sects, different in their form as well as principles, for Whitfield seems to have trusted entirely to the power of his doctrines to bring congregations and make converts, while Wesley had already begun and soon perfected a gigantic system of connection, of which his personal influence was the sole mover.

Although it is not our intention, and would indeed be impracticable, within any reasonable bounds, to give an account of the progress of the Wesleyan methodism, we may mention a few links of that curious chain which binds the whole body. The first division of the society is a class. All those hearers who wish to be considered as members, must join a class. This is composed of such as profess to be seeking their salvation. About twelve form a class, at the head of which is the most experienced person, called a class-leader, whose business Mr. Wesley thus defines: "to see each person in his class once a week, at least, in order to inquire how their souls prosper; to advise, reprove, comfort, or exhort, as occasion may require: to receive what they may be willing to give to the poor; to meet the minister and the stewards of the society, to inform the minister of any that are sick, or disorderly, and will not be reproved, and to pay to the stewards what they have received of the several classes in the week preceding." These classes, according to the present custom, meet together once a week, usually in the place of worship, when each one tells his experience, as it is called, gives a penny a week towards the funds of the society, and the leader concludes the meeting with prayer. The next step is to gain admission into the bands, the business of which seems to be much the same with the other, but there is more ample confession of secret sins here, and consequently admission into these bands implies the members having gone through a higher degree of probation. They have also watch-nights, and love-feasts, which are merely meetings for prayer, exhortation, and singing, and are more general, as to admission, than the preceding. Against the classes and the bands, as far as confession of secret sins and temptations to sin are concerned, very serious objections have been urged, but they are too obvious to be specified. Wesley had always great difficulty in preventing this from being considered as equivalent to popish confession. Besides these subordinate societies, the methodists have a kind of parliamentary session, under the name of a conference, in which the affairs of the whole body are investigated, funds provided, and abuses corrected. The origin of the conference is said to have been this. When the preachers at first went out to exhort and preach, it was by Mr. Wesley's permission and direction; some from one part of the kingdom, and some from another; and though frequently strangers to each other, and to those to whom they were sent, yet on his credit and sanction alone they were received and provided for as friends, by the societies wherever they came. But having little or no communication or intercourse with one another, nor any subordination among themselves, they must have been under the necessity of recurring to Mr. Wesley for directions how and where they were to officiate. To remedy this inconvenience, he conceived a design of calling them together to an annual conference: by this means he brought them into closer union with each other, and made them sensible of the utility of acting in concert and harmony. He soon found it necessary also to bring their itinerancy under certain regulations, and reduce it to some fixed order, both to prevent confusion and for his own ease. He therefore took fifteen or twenty societies, more or less, which lay round some principal society in those parts, and which were so situated, that the greatest distance from the one to the other was not much more than twenty miles, and united them into what was called a circuit. At the yearly conference he appointed two, three, or four preachers to one of those circuits, according to its extent, which at first was very often considerable; and here, and here only, they were to labour for one year, that is, until the next conference. One of the preachers on every circuit was called the assistant, because he assisted Mr. Wesley in superintending the societies and other preachers: he took charge of the societies within the limits assigned him: he enforced the rules every where, and directed the labours of the preachers associated with him, pointing out the day when each should be at the place fixed for him, to begin a progressive motion round it, according to a plan which he gave them. There are few parts of Mr. Wesley's system that have been more admired, as a trick of human policy, than his perpetually changing the situations of his preachers, that they might neither, by a longer stay, become more agreeable, or disagreeable to their flock, than the great mover of all wished. The people felt this as a gratification of their love of variety; but it had a more important object, in perpetuating the power of the founder. The first of these conferences was held in 1744, and Mr. Wesley lived to preside at forty-seven of them.

In order to form the numerous societies of which the Methodists consist, Mr. Wesley's labours as a preacher are without precedent. During the fifty years which compose his itinerant life, he travelled about 4500 miles every year, one year with another, which amount, in the above space of time, to 225,000 miles. It had been impossible for him to perform this almost incredible degree of labour, without great punctuality and care in the management of his time. He had stated hours for every purpose, and his only relaxation was a change of employment. For fifty-two years, or upwards, he generally delivered two, frequently three or four, sermons in a day. But calculating at two sermons a day, and allowing, as one of his biographers has done, fifty annually for extraordinary occasions, the whole number during this period will he 40,560. To these may be added, an infinite number of exhortations to the societies after preaching, and in other occasional meetings at which he assisted.

At first it has been supposed that Mr. Wesley's intention was to revive a religious spirit with the aid of regular clergymen; but he soon found it impossible to find a number sufficient for the extensive design he had formed. He therefore, although at first with some reluctance, employed laymen to preach, who soon became numerous enough to carry on his purpose. Ordination he long hesitated to grant, but at length the importunities of his coadjutors overcame his scruples, and he consented to give orders in imitation of the church of England, which, we believe, is now the practice with his successors. There were, however, but few things in which he gave way during what may be termed his reign. His most elaborate and impartial biographer, Dr. Whitehead, allows, that "During the time that Mr. Wesley, strictly and properly speaking, governed the societies, his power was absolute. There were no rights, no privileges, no offices of power or influence, but what were created or sanctioned by him; nor could any persons hold them except during his pleasure. The whole system of methodism, like a great and complicated machine, was formed under his direction, and his will gave motion to all its parts, and turned it this way or that, as he thought proper." To Mr. Wesley's other labours we may add his many controversial tracts against the bishops Lavington and Warburton, Drs. Middleton, Free, and Taylor, Hall, Toplady, &c. and his other works, on various subjects of divinity, ecclesiastical history, sermons, biography, &c. which were printed together in 1774, in 32 vols. 8vo. These and his other labours he continued to almost the last of a very long life. He died at his house near the chapel in the City-road, March 2, 1791, in the eighty-eighth year of his age.

His public, and much of his private character, have been appreciated according to the views of the parties who were interested in his success. He was unquestionably a good scholar, and as a writer was entitled to considerable reputation. His talents for the pulpit have also been praised, and it is certain they were successfully employed. He is said to have succeeded best in his studied compositions, but his many engagements seldom afforded him time for such. He has been praised for his placability, but some of those in controversy with him reluctantly subscribe to this. That he was extremely charitable and disinterested has never been denied. He died comparatively poor, after having had in a principal degree the management of the whole funds of the society. He lived upon little himself, and his allowance to his preachers was very moderate. On the past or future effects of the vast society he formed, we shall not hazard an opinion. That he originally did good, great good, to the lower classes, is incontestable. He certainly contributed to meliorate that important part of society, and to produce a moral effect that had never before been so evident, or so extensive. In his system, however, his great machine, we see too much of human policy acting on the imperfections of human nature, to admire it much.

John Wesley has had no successor. Even at the time of his decease dissentions existed: and an interval of six years produced an actual separation of the society. The liberties of their church, and the rights of the people, formed the grounds of dispute. On pretence of giving due support to the plan of itinerancy, some leading ministers had endeavoured to obtain an exorbitant degree of power over the community and junior preachers; and they managed the conference in a way which tended to secure this power. Disgusted at these arbitrary proceedings, a Mr. Kilham, and other members of the sect, applied to the general assembly for a redress of grievances, and for an admission of the laity to a proper share in the general government of the society. Repeated applications and remonstrances being wholly fruitless, and Mr. Kilham being expelled from the fraternity by the ruling party, about 5000 discontented members seceded from the connection in 1797, and formed independent arrangements on a popular basis. Dr. Whitehead allows that at present (1796) the preachers of the old society "claim unlimited powers, both to make laws and execute them, by themselves or their deputies, without any intermediate authority existing to act as a check in favour of the people. But what is still much worse than all the rest, is, that the present system of government among the methodists, requires such arts of human policy and chicanery to carry it on, as, in my opinion, are totally inconsistent with the openness of gospel simplicity. It is happy that the great body of the preachers do not enter into the spirit of it, and indeed know little about it: being content with doing their duty on the circuits to which they are appointed, and promoting the spiritual welfare of the people." This bad form of government, however, has probably been changed, as we understand that the society is now harmonious and increasing.

Mr. Wesley's brother and coadjutor, CHARLES, was born at Epworth, Dec. 18, 1708. He was first educated at home, under the care of his mother; but, in 1716, was sent to Westminster-school. In 1721 he was admitted a scholar on the foundation; and at length became captain of the school. In 1726 be was elected to Christ-Church, Oxford; at which time his brother John was fellow of Lincoln. Here he pursued his studies with remarkable diligence, and became more and more of a religious turn of mind. He proceeded master of arts in the usual course; and, in 1735, was prevailed upon by his brother John to accompany him in his mission to Georgia. Charles accordingly engaged himself as secretary to general Oglethorpe, in which character he left England; but he was first of all ordained both deacon and priest. After preaching to the Indians, and undergoing various difficulties and hardships, he returned to England in 1736. In England he officiated as a public minister among those of the Methodist persuasion with great popularity; sometimes residing in the metropolis, but, generally as an itinerant preacher. In some points of discipline he differed much with his brother John. He died in 1788, in the 79th year of his age. He was of a warm and lively character, well acquainted with all texts of scripture; and his discourses were greatly admired. He was also respectable as a scholar and a poet, and was the author of the Hymns now used in the society. He left two sons, of great reputation in the musical world.