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Wesley, John

Category: Religious

John Wesley by George Romney

John Wesley (28 June 1703 – 2 March 1791) was an Anglican cleric and theologian who, with his brother Charles and fellow cleric George Whitefield, founded Methodism.

Wesley was a vegetarian and a teetotaller.

Although Wesley declared, "I live and die a member of the Church of England", the strength and impact of the movement, made a separate Methodist body virtually inevitable. Methodism originated as a revival within the 18th century Church of England and became a separate Church after Wesley's death. Because of ‘vigorous missionary work’, the movement spread throughout the British Empire, the United States and beyond, and today claims approximately 80 million adherents worldwide.

It is not widely recognised today, but Methodism was originally intended to be a mystic movement.  Wesley defined the witness of the Spirit as: "an inward impression on the soul of believers, whereby the Spirit of God directly testifies to their spirit that they are the children of God." Direct spiritual experience.  This doctrine was closely related to his belief that ‘salvation’ had to be "personal." In other words, one travels the spiritual path.  And every path is different.

In his early ministry, Wesley was barred from preaching in many parish churches and the Methodists were persecuted; he later became widely respected and, by the end of his life, had been described as "the best loved man in England". In 2002, he was placed at number 50 in the BBC's poll of the 100 Greatest Britons

We have a separate entry for Methodism, but this page deals specifically with John Wesley himself.

John Wesley – a man with a mission

 

If one reads John Wesley’s diary/Journal, the conclusion one is in danger of coming to is that the man was mad. 

The Mind Possessed  - Dr William Sargant

There is no doubt about the effectiveness of Wesley's preaching methods. He made converts in droves and the church he founded is still one of the largest in the Christian world. People coming to hear him, especially in the early days of his preaching, were presented with a dire alternative; either they must accept God's forgiveness, obtain 'saving faith' and adopt a new way of life, or they would suffer an eternity of torment in hell.

 

Whilst at Oxford, John Wesley spent from six until nine every day in prayer, reading psalms or the New Testament.  He also prayed every waking hour for several minutes. He took Communion every Sunday, and fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays until three o'clock. He kept a list of "General Questions" which he developed in 1730 evolved into an elaborate grid by 1734, in which he recorded his daily activities hour-by-hour, resolutions he had broken or kept, and ranked his hourly "temper of devotion" on a scale of 1 to 9. It was not surprising that Wesley's group were considered to be religious "enthusiasts", which in the context of the time meant religious fanatics.  This enthusiasm did not cease in later life:

Wesley preaching outside a church

Stephen Tomkins
Wesley rode 250,000 miles, gave away 30,000 pounds, ... and preached more than 40,000 sermons...

But as we shall see there is much more to the man than a lunatic raving about hell and damnation, or a compulsive obsessive on a mission.  He had quite a job on his hands.

The Wesleys joined in a 'Religious Society' in London, and in May 1738 both underwent a ‘spiritual experience’. John described this in his Journal for 24 May 1738:

"In the evening I went unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther and preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter to nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death."

Again, one might not class this as an experience at all by the standards of this site, but for John it was profound, as before this experience he was in an abyss of gloom:

John Wesley's Heart Strangely Warmed - Dan Graves, MSL

John Wesley was almost in despair. He did not have the faith to continue … When death stared him in the face, he was fearful and found little comfort in his religion. To Peter Böhler, a Moravian friend, he confessed his growing misery and decision to give up the ministry. Böhler counselled otherwise. "Preach faith till you have it," he advised. "And then because you have it, you will preach faith."

 

 

And so he did.  John rode thousands of miles (as many as 20,000 a year) preaching from early in the morning to late at night, as only a man filled with an almost manic urge to find his own and others' salvation can do, telling the gospel to all who would listen.

He acted "as though he were out of breath in pursuit of souls."

And wherever he preached, lives changed and manners and morals altered for the better.  And this is key, because we are apt to assume in this day and age that everything was all peaches and roses in the 1700s, but it was not.  In fact, one might be forgiven on reading about life in those days for thinking that hell was on earth.  As Dan Graves [above] states “It is often conjectured that his preaching helped spare England the kind of revolution that occurred in France.”

Essentially therefore, John Wesley is on the site, not because he had numerous revelations or ecstatic experiences, but because he ‘saved souls’, he performed genuine charity work, helping those who were in the gutter to rise higher, those who were sick to help heal themselves and those who were in need to find a solution.  In his own mad, fanatical over the top way, he was actually being a Christian.  All by himself, which takes a great deal of courage.

 

Wesley’s Britain in the 1700s

'The sleeping congregation' - a satirical view of the state of the
established church

For the Wesleys, 'works' as well as faith were essential to the whole of Christian living, and caring for the poor, for prisoners, for widows and orphans mattered a great deal. The Wesley family were not only interested in welfare, they were concerned to remedy social injustice, and John Wesley's last known letter urged the abolition of 'that execrable villainy'; black slavery. The Wesleys were also an influence in prison reform.  In 1730, for example they began the practice of visiting prisoners in jail. They preached, educated, and relieved jailed debtors whenever possible, and cared for the sick.

As it is essential that an understanding of the dire straits in which Britain was in, is appreciated before a description is given of what Wesley actually did about it, we have provided a series of observations under the heading Wesley’s Britain in the 1700s.  We have then described the ways in which John Wesley acted out his faith and worked tirelessly to improve the lot of his fellow man. 

 

The main categories we have chosen are:

  • Crime and punishment
  • Slavery
  • Religious inclusivity and equality
  • Medical treatments
  • Nutritional deprivation
  • Alcohol abuse/temperance
  • Ethical/moral decline
  • Curbing the abuse of power

It has to be said that Wesley did have his failings, he was not lacking in courage certainly, and his generosity was legendary, but other areas which might have helped him spiritually [and he himself recognised he needed help] were in

  • Avoiding conflict – Wesley did like verbal battles
  • Minding your own business and Tolerance [Stop being judgemental] – Wesley was both far too judgmental and interfered far too much in other people’s spiritual development.  Sermon 65 - The Duty Of Reproving Our Neighbour  Lev 19:17  is devoted to this.  He also saw no value in many other faiths and called a great many people who had wisdom equal if not far surpassing his – heathens or pagans.  However, this unfortunately was a sign of the times, though not very Christian
  • Peacemaking and diplomacy – not, as we shall see from his life, one of his strong points
  • Questioning and doubting all existing beliefs – Wesley did not question his own understanding of the Bible.  The Bible was, as far as he was concerned, a literal truth.  He neither understood its symbolism not its intensely esoteric subtleties.

 The reason he is not classified as a mystic, is all the above held him back.  He knew that purification was needed, but he seems not to have been able to fathom out how it should be achieved.  It shows that the devotion needed to the sort of cause he embarked upon, does occasionally hinder one’s own spiritual progress.  As such, he made a huge sacrifice by persevering as his did with the mission at the expense of his own ‘salvation’.

Life

John Wesley was born in 1703 in Epworth, 23 miles (37 km) north-west of Lincoln, as the fifteenth child of Samuel Wesley and his wife Susanna Wesley (née Annesley). Samuel Wesley was a graduate of the University of Oxford and a poet who, from 1696, was rector of Epworth. He married Susanna, the twenty-fifth child of Samuel Annesley, a dissenting minister, in 1689. Ultimately, she bore nineteen children, of which nine lived beyond infancy. She and Samuel Wesley had become members of the Church of England as young adults.

A Rake's Progress' (1735), William Hogarth

As in many families at the time, Wesley's parents gave their children their early education. Each child, including the girls, was taught to read as soon as they could walk and talk. They were expected to become proficient in Latin and Greek and to have learned major portions of the New Testament by heart. Susanna Wesley examined each child before the midday meal and before evening prayers. Children were not allowed to eat between meals and were interviewed singularly by their mother one evening each week for the purpose of intensive religious instruction.

 In 1714, at age 11, Wesley was sent to the Charterhouse School in London (under the mastership of John King from 1715), where he lived the studious, methodical and, for a while, religious life in which he had been trained at home.  Wesley was elected a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford in 1726.  He was ordained a priest on 22 September 1728, Wesley served as a parish curate for two years, but returned to Oxford in November 1729 at the request of the Rector of Lincoln College and to maintain his status as junior fellow.

 On 14 October 1735, Wesley and his brother Charles sailed on The Simmonds from Gravesend in Kent for Savannah in the Province of Georgia in the American colonies at the request of James Oglethorpe, who had founded the colony in 1733 on behalf of the Trustees for the Establishment of the Colony of Georgia in America. Oglethorpe wanted Wesley to be the minister of the newly formed Savannah parish, a new town laid out in accordance with the famous Oglethorpe Plan.  It was not exactly successful:

John Wesley Trial: 1737 - Threats, Flight, And A New Church - John S. Bowman

…. Wesley was removed from the church in Savannah and assigned to a smaller settlement, but this did not stop his evangelical preaching and praying. Then on November 22, Magistrate Causton sent for him and produced an affidavit in which he, Causton, accused Wesley of "calling him a liar, villain, and so forth."

He continued to preach but he also let it be known that he was considering returning to England. At that, William Williamson issued a notice that he had brought an action asking for £1,000 damages and that anyone assisting in Wesley's escape from the colony would be prosecuted. On December 2, the court sent for Wesley and warned him not to leave; when the bailiff insisted on his posting a bond, Wesley refused and left the premises. The court immediately published an order requiring all officers and guards in the colony to prevent Wesley from leaving.

That evening, Wesley and four other men left under cover of darkness and made their way by boat some 20 miles along the river from Savannah. From there they walked overland to Port Royal, South Carolina, which they reached on December 7. There he took a ship to Charles Town, and on December 22, 1737, he sailed for England.

 

The episode soon faded from the public's awareness in both Britain and America.  Wesley would never return to North America, however the incidents did not stop the Methodist Church he founded in England, from flourishing in the United States.

Wesley returned to London and joined a religious society led by Moravian Christians. On 24 May 1738 he experienced the  ’ evangelical conversion’ quoted above.  But late in 1739 Wesley broke with the Moravians having decided to form his own followers into a separate society. "Thus," he wrote, "without any previous plan, began the Methodist Society in England." He soon formed similar societies in Bristol and Kingswood.

From 1739 onward, Wesley spent most of his time being criticised by the clergy and magistrates.  Wesley flouted many regulations of the Church of England concerning parish boundaries and who had authority to preach, and the clergy were not slow in attacking him and his followers in sermons and in print.  They even had mobs attack them. They were denounced as promulgators of strange doctrines, fomenters of religious disturbances, and as blind fanatics, leading people astray.

Wesley- by William Hamilton

Wesley’s persistence in the face of all this stemmed from his utter abhorrence of a corrupt and indolent clergy who did nothing to help those in need. No opposition, persecution, or obstacles could prevail against his sense of the divine urgency and authority of his destiny.

Wesley began to provide chapels, first in Bristol at the New Room, then in London (first The Foundery and then Wesley's Chapel) and elsewhere. As the number of societies increased, Wesley could not keep personal contact, so in 1743 he drew up a set of "General Rules" for the "United Societies". These were the nucleus of the Methodist Discipline.

From then until his death he formed societies, opened chapels, examined and commissioned preachers, administered aid charities, prescribed for the sick, helped to pioneer caused based treatment of illness,  superintended schools and orphanages and published his sermons.

Wesley married very unhappily at the age of 48 to a widow, Mary Vazeille, described as "a well-to-do widow and mother of four children." The couple had no children. Vazeille left him 15 years later. John Singleton writes:
"By 1758 she had left him – unable to cope, it is said, with the competition for his time and devotion presented by the ever-burgeoning Methodist movement. Molly, as she was known, was to return and leave him again on several occasions before their final separation."
Wesley wryly reported in his journal, "I did not forsake her, I did not dismiss her, I will not recall her."

 Wesley_preaching_in_the_City_Chapel.

Death

Wesley's health declined sharply towards the end of his life and he ceased preaching. On 28 June 1790, less than a year before his death, he wrote:

This day I enter into my eighty-eighth year. For above eighty-six years, I found none of the infirmities of old age: my eyes did not wax dim, neither was my natural strength abated. But last August, I found almost a sudden change. My eyes were so dim that no glasses would help me. My strength likewise now quite forsook me and probably will not return in this world.

Wesley died on 2 March 1791, in his 87th year. As he lay dying, his friends gathered around him, Wesley grasped their hands and said repeatedly, "Farewell, farewell." At the end, he said, "The best of all is, God is with us", lifted his arms and raised his feeble voice again, repeating the words, "The best of all is, God is with us." He was entombed at his chapel on City Road, London.

Because of his charitable nature he died poor, leaving as the result of his life's work 135,000 members and 541 itinerant preachers under the name "Methodist". It has been said that "when John Wesley was carried to his grave, he left behind him a good library of books, a well-worn clergyman's gown" and the Methodist Church.

When someone asked Whitefield if he thought he would see Wesley in heaven, Whitefield replied, "I fear not, for he will be so near the eternal throne and we at such a distance, we shall hardly get sight of him."

William Hogarth, 'A Rake’s Progress (plate 4)' 1735

 

References

  • Primitive Physic, Or, An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases, London: 1744
  • The Desideratum; or, Electricity Made Plain and Useful (1759) London: Bailliere, Tindall, and Cox. Published 1871.
  • The Poetical Works of John and Charles, ed. G. Osborn, 13 vols., London, 1868–72
  • Journals (originally published in 20 parts, London, 1740–89; new ed. by N. Curnock containing notes from unpublished diaries, 6 vols., vols. i.-ii., London and New York, 1909–11)
  • Wesley, John, The Works of John Wesley: Third Edition, Complete and Unabridged.
  • J Med Biogr. 2006 Nov;14(4):218-22.  John Wesley (1708-91).  Storey GO.  PMID:  19817060
  • Br J Hist Sci. 2006 Sep;39(142 Pt 3):341-62.  Revealing sparks: John Wesley and the religious utility of electrical healing.  Bertucci P - CIS, Dipartimento di Filosofia, University of Bologna, Via Zamboni 38, 40126 Bologna, Italy. paola.bertucci@unibo.it   PMID:  17147136
  • J Relig Health. 2008 Jun;47(2):237-52. doi: 10.1007/s10943-007-9146-x. Epub 2007 Sep 25.  The holistic way: John Wesley's practical piety as a resource for integrated healthcare.  Hughes MD - Theology and Ethics, Duke University Divinity School, 705 Soft Tree Lane, Durham, NC 27712, USA. mdobsonhughes@gmail.com  PMID: 19105014
  • Yale J Biol Med. 1978 Jan-Feb;51(1):81-90.  Pills for the poor: John Wesley's Primitive Physick. - Rogal SJ.
  • J Health Psychol. 1996 Apr;1(2):147-59. doi: 10.1177/135910539600100201.  John Wesley's Primitive Physick: An 18th-century Health Psychology.  Malony HN Jr1.  PMID: 22011701
  • Forty-Four Sermons – Wesley’s written sermons are characterised by spiritual earnestness and simplicity. They are doctrinal but not dogmatic. His sermons can be found on the Wesleyan website.
  • Collection of Psalms and Hymns  - It has been widely recognised that one of the most significant accomplishments of Wesley's Georgia mission was his publication of a Collection of Psalms and Hymns. The Collection was the first Anglican hymnal published in America.

An online facility is available with sermons and other texts for John Wesley at the Wesley Centre

Observations

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