Wesley [Westley], John
- Henry D. Rack
John Wesley (1703–1791)
Wesley [Westley], John (1703–1791), Church of England clergyman and a founder of Methodism, was born on 17 June 1703 at Epworth rectory, Lincolnshire, the thirteenth or fourteenth child and the second of three sons to reach maturity of Samuel Wesley (bap. 1662, d. 1735), rector of Epworth, and his wife, Susanna Wesley (1669–1742), daughter of Samuel Annesley and his second wife, Mary. He was baptized on 3 July at Epworth church (that he was named John Benjamin at his baptism, as sometimes stated, is a nineteenth-century error). Samuel still spelt the family name Westley in 1694 and others occasionally did so later. Both parents, though children of dissenting ministers ejected in 1662, became high-church Anglicans early in life, and puritan influence on John's upbringing is debatable.
Early life, 1703–1720
Though much is known about the Wesley family, little but anecdote survives about John himself in this period. It has often been observed that his cool intelligence and passion for order reflect his mother's character, while his brother Charles Wesley's mercurial temperament echoed his father's, but John could be hasty too. Both brothers were junior to their precocious and talented sister, Hetty [see Wright, Mehetabel]. Several events in John's early life have commonly been emphasized as significant for his later development. His parents saw as providential the rescue of their children from a rectory fire in 1709. In 1711 Susanna resolved 'to be more particularly careful of the soul of this child that thou hast so mercifully provided for'. Later tradition related this to Wesley's adoption of the motto 'a brand plucked from the burning' to claim that he was seen as singled out early for a special destiny. However, Wesley's sense of a providential calling came much later (Heitzenrater, Elusive Mr Wesley, 1.40–43). Tight maternal discipline applied to all the children, though with variable results. Regularity was enforced in eating, sleeping, education, and religion. This was a severe, religiously focused version of John Locke's educational principles, and ‘breaking the will’ was seen as the foundation of religion and morality. In 1712, during her husband's absence at convocation, Susanna Wesley conducted informal meetings in the rectory which some have seen as an anticipation of later Methodist practice. In 1716–17 there appeared the Epworth ghost, Old Jeffery, apparently a poltergeist with Jacobite sympathies who knocked loudly when George I was prayed for. The family only gradually concluded that Jeffery was a supernatural visitant, but John Wesley, though absent at the time, believed this from the first, thus signalling a lifelong belief in divine and diabolical intervention. He also seems to have shown early the habit of a reasoned approach as the way to solve even the most personal problems. His father wisely remarked 'you think to carry everything by dint of argument, but you will find how little is ever done in the world by close reasoning'. John, he said, 'would not attend to the most pressing necessities of nature unless he had a reason for it' (Clarke, 2.321).
On 28 January 1714 Wesley became a foundation scholar at the Charterhouse on the nomination of his father's patron, the duke of Buckingham. Little but anecdotal traditions survive from this period. Thus Wesley is said to have justified preferring the company of younger boys with the Miltonic assertion 'Better to rule in hell than serve in heaven' (Tyerman, 1.20), which probably reflects later charges of ambition. His claim in 1738 that he had not sinned away the grace of baptism until he was ten years old may reflect the brutal impact of a contemporary public school, but he acknowledged even so that he was not guilty of outward sins.
Oxford and the Holy Club, 1720–1735
Wesley entered Christ Church, Oxford, on 24 June 1720 with a Charterhouse exhibition of £20 p.a. He matriculated on 18 July, was awarded a scholarship, and proceeded BA in 1724. Until 1725 his letters suggest a cheerful and dutiful son without pressing religious problems, though short of money. Like other undergraduates he wrote poetry and adopted the temperate diet recommended by the physician George Cheyne. His serious pursuit of religious discipline began in 1725 when his father urged him to seek holy orders, and in April he began a private diary as a means of self-examination. Correspondence with his mother shows that he was reading Jeremy Taylor's Holy Living and Holy Dying and Thomas à Kempis's Imitation of Christ. (It was probably only in 1730–32 that he encountered his contemporary William Law's Serious Call and Christian Perfection.) Though repelled by some of their severities, Wesley was convinced by these guides of the necessity of inward as well as outward holiness and the possibility of ‘Christian perfection’, which became his central concern. Though Wesley's diary records ever more elaborate rules and schemes of self-examination, his pursuit of holiness did not exclude playing cards, reading plays, and, as late as July 1733, dancing. He also cultivated a deeply affectionate, though also religious, friendship with Sally Kirkham (‘Varanese’) of Stanton, Oxfordshire, despite her marriage at the end of 1725. The effect of this relationship on his religious development is a matter for speculation. Between 1730 and 1734 he corresponded with her friend Mary Pendarves (‘Aspasia’), the later Mrs Delany, in a pseudo-classical style.
On 17 September 1725 Wesley was ordained deacon, and with the help of friends and Lincolnshire connections was elected fellow of Lincoln College on 17 March 1726. He proceeded MA on 9 February 1727, and was ordained priest on 22 September 1728. After acting as his father's curate at Wroot (near Doncaster) he was recalled to college for tutorial duties in November 1729.
In the same month Wesley began to organize the so-called Holy Club, initially as a study group. This was not, as traditionally portrayed, a single organization under his leadership but a network of groups in several colleges, members varying in their commitment. Among the nicknames levelled at the club was Methodist (first recorded in August 1732). An old term with varying uses, it was taken up later by Wesley, eventually with some pride. Suspicion over the club's activities deepened following the madness and death of William Morgan in 1732, blamed on Methodist excesses. They were attacked in Fog's Weekly Journal (December 1733), though described more sympathetically in The Oxford Methodists (1733; often accredited erroneously to William Law). Wesley's defence was circulated privately but published in the preface to the first instalment of his Journal in 1740. The club's activities included religious exercises and visiting sick people and prisoners. From 1732 Wesley was much influenced by high-church and nonjuror circles in Manchester through his Oxford friend John Clayton. He taught Wesley advanced notions of primitive Christianity based on early church practices such as fasting twice weekly and triple immersion for baptism, and introduced him to mystical writers. The fruit of this was his first publication, A Collection of Forms of Prayer (1733).
Looking back on this period after his conversion in 1738, Wesley dismissed his Oxford disciplines as a vain attempt at salvation by works. He later modified this judgement, concluding that he had had 'the faith of a servant, though not that of a son' (Journal of John Wesley, 1 Feb 1738, Works, 18.215 n.). By 1734–5 he probably felt in need of a fresh start. He was pressed to succeed his father at Epworth to secure his mother's home but was reluctant to do this, arguing at length that he could be more holy and useful at Oxford. However, in 1735 he responded positively to an invitation to go to Georgia as a missionary to the Native Americans for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. Significantly, he asserted that his chief hope was to save his own soul by starting primitive Christianity afresh in a spiritual state of nature and an idealized wilderness.
Wesley was accompanied by his brother Charles and his friends Benjamin Ingham and Charles Delamotte, and the published version of his Journal begins with the voyage to Georgia. It was to become a major, though partly misleading, source for future biographers, for it was not the simple and objective record that is often assumed. Appearing in three instalments from 1740, often several years after the events recorded, the selection and interpretation of material often reflects Wesley's views at the time of publication, though written up from his private diary and other materials. The first three instalments were designed to defend his conduct in Georgia, towards the Moravians and in his first evangelical work. Thereafter it became a vehicle for presenting his version of the religious revival of which he was a part and for expressing his views on many matters, both religious and secular. It was more a work of high-class propaganda and a travelogue than the diary of a soul.
Georgia was founded with a mixture of humanitarian idealism, a concern to defend an exposed frontier, and hopes of profit. The leading figure was James Oglethorpe, the colony's first governor, who evidently hoped that the Wesleys and their friends would help to discipline and civilize the unruly settlers. Wesley indeed soon turned from the Native Americans to work among the colonists.
As a minister in Georgia, Wesley revived traditional Anglican disciplines with some nonjuror additions; he experimented with small devotional groups and published his first hymnbook, A Collection of Psalms and Hymns (1737). Despite some positive response from individuals, he offended more by his austere demands. Then he compounded his offences by an unsuccessful courtship of Sophia Hopkey, the niece of Thomas Causton, a leading figure in the colony. After much vacillation Wesley drew back from a formal proposal, deterred by the opposition of friends, religious scruples, and, perhaps, psychological inhibitions. Tired of his hesitations, Sophia married William Williamson on 12 March 1737. After further attempts to influence her, Wesley concluded that she had been deceitful and excluded her from holy communion. Williamson and Causton then indicted him for ecclesiastical irregularities and excluding Sophia from communion, though Wesley gained supporters among those disaffected against the colony's leaders and Causton himself was suspected of financial irregularities. Wesley left Georgia in December 1737, virtually as a fugitive from justice, arriving in England on 1 February 1738.
While in Georgia, Wesley's religious doubts had been deepened by encounters with Moravian refugees who had accompanied him on the outward voyage. He was impressed by their calm during a storm and their example of primitive Christianity, order, and piety. Soon after landing he was challenged by the Moravian leader A. G. Spangenberg, who asked: '“Do you know Jesus Christ?” … “I know he is the saviour of the world” … “True … but do you know he has saved you?” … “I hope he has died to save me”' (Works, 18.146). Though Spangenberg privately recorded that he thought grace was at work in Wesley, Wesley himself clearly had growing doubts. On the voyage home he recorded on 24 January 1738 how he had been confused by different theological guides, and concluded 'I went to America to convert the Indians, but Oh! who shall convert me?' (ibid., 18.211).
Back in England Wesley was gradually convinced by his Moravian friend Peter Böhler that the ‘saving faith’ he sought could be received in a sudden experience, and meanwhile he was urged to preach faith until he received it. On 1 May he helped to found a new religious society in Fetter Lane, London, with some Moravian features. Charles Wesley received the gift first on 21 May. On 24 May 1738 John went 'very unwillingly' to a religious society in Aldersgate Street, where 'one was reading Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans'.
About a quarter before 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.Works, 18.248–50
Wesley preceded this account with a review of his previous religious life which he judged a vain attempt at salvation by works; in later editions of the Journal he added footnotes modifying this judgement.
The significance of Wesley's conversion for his later life and theology has been subject to conflicting interpretations. Methodists and other evangelicals have generally seen it, like Wesley himself at the time, as completely and permanently reversing his previous beliefs. At the opposite extreme, Roman Catholics, Anglo-Catholics, and others have located his real conversion in the turn to seriousness and search for holiness in 1725, with May 1738 marking a temporary surrender to Moravian ideas or, at most, a psychological stimulus giving him confidence for evangelism.
It is true that Wesley rarely referred to the May experience later, and in his accounts of Methodism often traced it back to the Oxford search for holiness. However, this needs to be set against the fact that he tended to play down Moravian influences on Methodism after he broke with them and that his views of the process of salvation also changed later. Nevertheless, he refused to abandon his belief in justification by faith as a gift of God which could be received in a moment, by grace, while maintaining his belief in the pursuit of holiness. He also retained his high valuation of the sacraments, but dropped his prejudices in favour of apostolic succession in bishops and committed many breaches of Anglican church order.
The event of May 1738 seems at first to have suggested to Wesley that justification, assurance, and perhaps even perfection could be received in a single experience. During the next few years, however, he developed a view of salvation as a process moving from conviction of sin, through repentance, to justification, followed by assurance, and on to the pursuit of holiness culminating in perfection, which may be cultivated but also received in a moment, by faith. In 1746 he wrote: 'Our main doctrines, which include all the rest, are three: that of repentance, of faith and of holiness. The first of these we account, as it were, the porch of religion; the next the door; the third, religion itself' (J. Wesley to T. Church, 17 June 1746, Letters, ed. Telford, 2.268). To ‘John Smith’ he wrote: 'I regard even faith itself not as an end, but a means only. The end of the commandment is love. … Let this love be attained, by whatever means, and I am content' (J. Wesley to ‘J. Smith’, 25 June 1746, Works, 26.203).
The long-term significance of the conversion for Wesley's personal experience is less clear. It seems that such moments of intense religious emotion were rare for him, difficult to retain or repeat. Some have suspected that he found his teaching confirmed more by observation of others' emotional experience than by his own.
Methodism emerges, 1738–1743
Wesley was indeed soon troubled by doubts about the completeness and reality of his conversion. Between June and August 1738 he visited the Moravians in Germany and from them found evidence that full assurance of faith could be delayed. On his return in September he busied himself with preaching and visiting societies in a highly charismatic atmosphere, recalling that of apostolic times, complete with conversions, visions, demon possession, and spiritual healing. Yet in the last self-examination published in his Journal on 4 January 1739 he still lacked assurance of his own condition. Churches now began to be closed to him, and old friends like John Clayton lamented his irregularities, but Wesley, disclaiming hope of a normal Anglican ministry, proclaimed 'the world is my parish' (J. Wesley to J. Clayton?, 28 March 1739?, Works, 25.616).
George Whitefield, the most electrifying orator of the revival, was evangelizing the neglected miners of Kingswood, near Bristol, and urged Wesley to consolidate the results. Still under Moravian tutelage, Wesley drew lots and, with considerable misgivings, arrived in Bristol on 31 March 1739. On 2 April, following Whitefield's example, he 'submitted to “be more vile”' (Works, 19.46) by preaching in the open air, a practice he was to continue for the rest of his life. Screaming, fainting, and convulsions affected his audiences here, as they often did in newly evangelized areas. Wesley interpreted cases as variously due to natural, diabolic, and divine causes.
In 1740–41 disputes broke out that divided the emerging revival. In October 1739 a Moravian visitor, Philip Molther, encouraged the Fetter Lane society to accept ‘stillness’—that is, to avoid all means of grace and wait passively for God to give justification. Wesley urged active pursuit of salvation and appealed to cases of people being converted while receiving communion. On 20 July 1740 he abandoned Fetter Lane with his followers to occupy the refurbished King's Foundery. He had already in May built the New Room in Bristol for society and preaching meetings. He then fell out with Whitefield over the latter's belief in predestination, which Wesley rejected. In February 1741 Wesley published a sermon on free grace to which Whitefield replied in an open letter. Early in 1741 Wesley purged the societies in Bristol, Kingswood, and London and broke with the predestinarians. Though he was later personally reconciled with Whitefield and occasionally attempting until the 1760s to form a common front with other evangelicals, for the next three years Wesley consolidated his own following.
At the same time orthodox Anglicans were attacking Wesley on three charges which would often be repeated: ‘enthusiasm’ (claims to special revelations); teaching salvation by faith to the neglect of good works; and breaches of church order. These issues were the substance of a confrontation with Joseph Butler, bishop of Bristol, in August 1739. The irregularities began to include the use of lay preachers, lay converts who moved from private testimonies to public speaking. Early in 1741 Thomas Maxfield offended Wesley in this way but Susanna Wesley is said to have convinced him that 'the Lord owns him as truly as he does you or your brother' (Moore, 2.11).
In October 1739 Wesley first entered Wales, though his influence there was restricted by the prior emergence of Welsh-speaking Calvinistic Methodism from 1735. In the midlands and north of England he had been preceded by Benjamin Ingham and the Moravians, but in May 1742 he reached Newcastle upon Tyne, where he soon created his northern headquarters. From 1743 he began work in Cornwall, which became a strong Methodist area to be visited as an offshoot of his regular annual journeys round the London–Bristol–Newcastle triangle. Ireland was added in 1747 and Scotland in 1751, though his success was limited there. To a significant extent, however, Wesley's connexion grew by absorbing networks created by local evangelists.
Methodism organized and attacked, 1744–1748
‘Methodism’, in eighteenth-century usage, was applied almost indifferently to Welsh Calvinists, the connexions of Whitefield and Lady Huntingdon, Anglican evangelical clergy, and even clergy appearing ‘serious’, as well as to Wesley's followers. Wesley's organization, however, was distinctive for its development of a centrally directed national network with common loyalties, in contrast with the localized independence of most English religious bodies of its day.
This organization emerged piecemeal between 1738 and 1748 by a mixture of borrowing and improvisation. Local societies were open to all who 'desired to flee from the wrath to come' and evidenced this in conduct (Works, 9.70). Unlike the old Anglican societies they were open to all denominations and, importantly, to women. Within them the more earnest were organized in bands, borrowed from the Moravians, and by December 1740 there were select bands or select societies, which apparently came to contain those claiming perfection. Class meetings, originally a fund-raising device, were added from February 1742. Unlike the more exclusive bands and select bands, they were used to divide the whole society into small pastoral groups.
Until 1744 the scattered societies were held together by the personal supervision of the Wesley brothers. Attempts in 1739 and 1743 to co-ordinate work with other evangelical groups having failed, in June 1744 Wesley summoned a conference of his own assistants: Charles Wesley, four other clergy, and four lay preachers. Doctrine, organization, and discipline were discussed. The conference became an annual event, and evolved from a meeting ostensibly for free discussion into a ruling and regulatory body capable of surviving Wesley's death. Wesley selected its membership, and its decisions, despite disagreements, clearly expressed his will. Proceedings were conducted in question-and-answer form like Wesley's self-examinations at Oxford. Annual minutes began to be published from 1765, but from 1753 a selection of decisions (‘Large Minutes’) were published as the basis for Methodist discipline. From 1746 societies were grouped in large circuits or rounds, which from 1748 began to be governed by a quarterly meeting of leaders. Preaching-houses were run by trustees, who from 1763 were urged to use a model deed securing control of the pulpit to Wesley and his successors, though not all complied. The system was run by full-time travelling preachers, stationed for up to two years and assisted by part-time local preachers. Though not officially recognized, from the 1760s Wesley allowed some women to preach, about forty so doing during his lifetime. This organization was designed not simply for administration, evangelism, and pastoral care, but as a vehicle for members to pursue the desired goal of holiness and Christian perfection.
In the 1740s growing publicity and hostility led to literary attacks on Methodism on the issues already raised by Bishop Butler in 1739. Wesley replied publicly by pamphlet and open letter, notably to Bishop Gibson in 1747; to Bishop Lavington's Enthusiasm of Methodists and Papists Compared (1749) in 1750–51; and in private correspondence in 1745–8 to John Smith (often erroneously identified as Thomas Secker). At a lower social level, though sometimes led by local clergy and gentry, Methodism also suffered mob violence. This was provoked by local xenophobia, alarm at the disruptive effects of Methodism on communities and families, and, in 1744–5, by suspicions that they were ‘popish’ Jacobites. Wesley did not hesitate to appeal to the higher courts against the prejudices of local magistrates.
Love and marriage, 1749–1751
In A Thought on Marriage and Celibacy (1743) Wesley expressed a preference for celibacy, and in a letter to Charles on 25 September 1749 he gave a history of his opinions on the subject. At first he thought he would not marry 'Because I should never find such a woman as my father had' (Works, 26.380–82). Later, he was deterred by financial reasons; by primitive teachings that the physical taint on marriage excluded perfection; and by fears of hindering his mission. Now, however, the objections had been removed, the purpose of the letter being to defend his proposed marriage to Grace Murray (1715–1803).
Murray was a widow who became Wesley's housekeeper at Newcastle. Wesley claimed that she agreed to marry him, and in July 1749 formally contracted to do so. But meanwhile she seems to have agreed to marry John Bennet, one of Wesley's leading lay helpers. After meeting them at Epworth on 1 September 1749 Wesley wrote sharply to Bennet asserting his claim. Charles Wesley, believing that Bennet had the prior claim, that Grace was socially unsuitable, and that her marriage to John would disrupt the societies, married Grace to Bennet at Newcastle on 3 October 1749. Wesley's private account of the story minutely justified his conduct and expressed his grief at the débâcle (published by A. Léger as Wesley's Last Love, 1910). Yet it is doubtful whether his intentions were as clear to Grace as he claimed, and his tortuous conduct curiously resembled that with Sophia Hopkey years before. By 1752 Bennet had left Wesley and become an Independent minister in Cheshire.
Wesley was probably persuaded by his friend Vincent Perronet, vicar of Shoreham, that marriage would be a wise precaution against scandal, and he chose Mrs Mary (Molly) Vazeille, née Goldhawk (1709/10–1781), the widow of a London merchant. On 9 February 1751 Wesley secured her fortune of £3000 to her use, no doubt to deter suspicions of fortune-hunting. They were married on 18 or 19 February, it is said by Charles Manning, vicar of Hayes, Middlesex, at an unknown location.
Wesley's attitude to marriage was perilously exacting, following his principle that no married preacher should travel less than a bachelor. His wife complied for a time but tired of travel. She has generally been regarded as pathologically jealous and possessive, but she had cause for complaint. She particularly resented Wesley's fondness for female friendships and correspondence. Naïvely innocent though these relationships were, they were indiscreet in his position. Mrs Wesley was particularly hostile to Sarah Ryan (1724–1768), Wesley's housekeeper at Kingswood. Ryan had a bigamous past, despite her impressive spiritual experiences and close friendship with the Methodist saint Mary Bosanquet. By 1755 the Wesley marriage was visibly in trouble. Mrs Wesley opened his letters and, according to John Hampson, once dragged Wesley round by his hair (Hampson, 2.127). Wesley's attempts to placate and control her were eventually marked by more logic than understanding, and on 23 January 1771 she left him. In his published Journal Wesley wrote, without naming her: 'non eam reliqui, non dismissi, non revocabat' ('I have not left her, I have not sent her away, I will not recall her'; Works, 22.262). Though returning for a time in 1772 she left him finally in 1776, and allegedly tried to publish doctored versions of his letters to damage him. She died on 8 October 1781 leaving him a gold ring 'in token that I die in love and friendship towards him' (DNB). Wesley heard of her death only some days later. His preference for celibacy among Methodists was reiterated in A Thought upon Marriage (1785), and though most did not agree he often discouraged their marriages.
Methodism and the Church of England, 1752–1760
While Wesley's marriage was being strained he had to face a crisis over Methodist relationships with the Church of England. He always claimed that Methodism was merely an auxiliary to the Church of England and did not separate from it so long as Methodists attended its worship and taught its doctrines, but his irregularities seemed to contradict these claims and many Methodists criticized the church. The 1744 conference defined the Church of England restrictively, following article 19 of the Anglican articles of faith, as 'the congregation of English believers in which the pure word of God is proclaimed and the sacraments duly administered'. This ignored establishment and canon law, and Methodists were to obey bishops only in 'things indifferent'. The 1745 conference sketched a pragmatic account of the origins of different ecclesiastical polities in a way which seemed to justify Wesley's creation of Methodism. In his Journal for 20 January 1746 Wesley claimed that Peter King's Enquiry into the Constitution … of the Primitive Church (1691) convinced him that bishops and presbyters were originally of one order, and at some point Edward Stillingfleet's Irenicum (1654) convinced him that no church order had divine sanction. The 1747 conference pronounced a 'national church' to be 'a merely political creation'. In the last resort Wesley subordinated church order to the needs of his mission. To John Smith he wrote on 25 June 1746:
What is the end of all ecclesiastical order? Is it not to bring souls from the power of Satan to God? And to build them up in his fear and love? Order, then, is so far valuable as it answers these ends; and if it answers them not it is nothing worth.Works, 26.206
The parish system, he implied, was inferior to his own.
In the early 1750s there were complaints of Wesley's authoritarianism, and purges of unsatisfactory preachers and of those who attacked the church. In October 1754 Charles Wesley complained that Charles Perronet had administered communion without authority and others followed suit. John said 'We have in effect ordained already' and was 'minded to lay on hands and to let the preachers administer [communion]' (Tyerman, 2.202 n.). For the conference of 1755 John prepared a paper 'Ought we to separate from the Church of England?'. He urged that, whether or not it was lawful, separation was not expedient, believing that as a result Methodism would dwindle into an ineffective sect. But in September 1755 he admitted to Samuel Walker, the evangelical curate of Truro, that he could not answer all the preachers' objections against Anglican canon law and the liturgy. He also (unlike Charles Wesley) defended the use of preachers and societies even in evangelical parishes.
From 1756 Charles Wesley virtually ceased to itinerate and settled first in Bristol and then in London as minister to the Methodists in those places. Charles had married in 1749, and though his retreat from itinerancy has often been ascribed to family cares, he had also alienated many of the preachers by his criticisms of them and suggestions that they be subordinated to evangelical parish clergy.
In 1760 Methodist preachers in Norwich once again administered communion. Though still refusing to ordain, John Wesley treated the offenders more calmly than Charles, who also condemned preachers who took licences under the 1689 Toleration Act to defend themselves against attack, while denying that they were dissenters. In 1764–5 a questionable Greek bishop, Erasmus of Arcadia, ordained some Methodist preachers, not all with Wesley's knowledge, and it was rumoured that Wesley had asked to be ordained as a bishop. The scandal this caused forced Wesley to disown those ordained.
The perfectionist controversy, 1760–1770
Much more to Wesley's taste, and more central to his vision of Methodism's mission, was an outbreak of perfectionist experiences late in the 1750s. Perfection had been preached, experienced, and discussed in the 1740s, but Wesley claimed that such cases had ceased for twenty years. Though he always argued for perfection from scripture, in 1759 he went so far as to claim that he would give up the doctrine if there were no living witnesses. The new outbreak apparently began in some places in the middle of 1758. Certain preachers had placed it in an alarming light by claiming that believers are in a state of damnation unless they have achieved it and could perish if they died before obtaining it. This led Wesley to elaborate his paradox that perfection could co-exist with infirmities of various kinds, since its essence is an unbroken relationship of love towards God and one's neighbour.
From 1760 the experiences proliferated, sometimes accompanied by shrieks and groans reminiscent of the early days of the revival. Wesley thought these experiences favourable to the growth of the movement. By 1761 some were speaking of third blessings or of separate experiences of the sanctification of the mind and of the heart by faith. The movement culminated in Thomas Maxfield and George Bell, former guardsman, and their followers claiming that God was to be found only in their meetings, that they were restored to the purity of Adam and Eve, and that they were incapable of falling away. They also claimed gifts of healing, and Bell attempted to cure blind people and raise the dead. Always attracted by perfectionism, Wesley was at first slow to act. But he was hurt when Maxfield left him, and finally repudiated Bell when he prophesied that the world would end on 28 February 1763.
The Maxfield and Bell secession may have numbered only 200 people, but more serious was the legacy of distrust of perfection among Methodists and the sharpened suspicions of Calvinists. The controversy also led Wesley to define his doctrine more and more carefully in Thoughts on Perfection (1759), and he reviewed the history of his teaching in his Plain Account of Christian Perfection (1767). He continued to teach it, however, and to emphasize more than ever that it could be received in a moment by faith. In 1790 he claimed that it was 'the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists, and for the sake of propagating this chiefly he appeared to have raised us up' (J. Wesley to R. Carr Brackenbury, 15 Sept 1790, Letters, 8.238).
The Calvinist controversy, 1770–1775
Conflicts, literary and personal, between Calvinistic Methodists and Wesley and his followers had surfaced periodically ever since the breach with Whitefield. In the early 1770s the old dispute erupted violently. Wesley was typical of the Anglicans of his day, though unusual among English evangelicals, in his rejection of Calvinism and especially the doctrine of predestination. Most evangelical Calvinists were moderates, and their Calvinism came more from experience than a detailed knowledge of earlier Western debates of predestination, though A. M. Toplady and some of Lady Huntingdon's followers were more extreme and more informed. Wesley's view of Calvinism was brutally simplistic: predestination makes God appear unjust and unfeeling and it undermines any incentive for morality.
Lady Huntingdon, though now a Calvinist, still aspired to aid all evangelical parties. She used Wesley's preacher Joseph Benson and John Fletcher, vicar of Madeley, to serve her college at Trefeca, founded in 1768—a project which seems to have excited some jealousy in Wesley. Already on 1 December 1767 he recorded some remarkable reflections in his Journal to the effect that people could have the experience and effects of justification without using the correct language; even that they could (like William Law, he said) deny the doctrine and yet possess its reality. 'He that feareth God and worketh righteousness is accepted with him' (Works, 22.114). But public controversy broke out over a minute from the 1770 conference which emphasized the goal of holiness, with an enhanced role for good works, while dismissing what Calvinists regarded as essential technical distinctions about merit as mere hair-splitting. Moreover, Whitefield had died in America on 30 September 1770 and in November Wesley preached a memorial sermon for him, emphasizing only the doctrines on which they had agreed.
Lady Huntingdon dismissed Benson from her college and Fletcher resigned. She and her supporters threatened to attend the conference of 1771 to insist on the retraction of the offending minute. Although a revised version appeared to satisfy both parties, Wesley reignited the controversy by publishing a manuscript by Fletcher defending the original offending statement. In the literary battle that followed, Wesley, though replying to pamphlets by Toplady and Richard Hill, left most of the work to other friends and, above all, to Fletcher in his Six Checks to Antinomianism (1771–5; the alleged neglect of moral law ascribed to Calvinists). In the course of the controversy Fletcher and Wesley appeared to go as far as to teach a 'second justification' by works as necessary for final salvation. This confirmed Calvinist suspicions that Wesley had abandoned salvation by grace through faith.
Politics and America, 1775–1784
Individual Methodists had evangelized in the West Indies since 1759 and there was talk of an African mission in 1778, but the missionary enthusiast Dr Thomas Coke found little support from Wesley for organizing such projects until 1786. Wesley thought they had sufficient to do at home unless they had a clear call from Providence. But voluntary activity in America from the early 1760s led Wesley to allow ten preachers to travel there to oversee the work between 1769 and 1774.
It was the American War of Independence and reformist agitations at home that provoked Wesley into his most active interventions in politics. Despite early high-church and even Jacobite associations, his advice in 1747 had been to vote for 'one that loves God' or at least one who 'loves King George who has been appointed to reign over us' (Works, 11.196–8). Between 1768 and 1778 he took sides more decisively by opposing Wilkite cries for 'liberty' in Free Thoughts on the Present State of Public Affairs (1768) and Thoughts on Liberty (1772).
On America, in Free Thoughts, Wesley conceded that the ministry's actions could not be defended and in 1775 privately warned ministers against coercion and the dangers of war. But in his Calm Address to our American Colonies (1775; based largely on Samuel Johnson's Taxation No Tyranny, 1775) and in Some Observations on Liberty (1776) he condemned the Americans and portrayed them as allied with English radicals. This volte-face provoked charges of hypocrisy and plagiarism. The French alliance with the Americans aroused in Wesley a fear that this ‘popish’ power was conspiring with the Americans and radicals to ruin England.
Despite Wesley's remarkable Letter to a Roman Catholic (1749), pleading for mutual tolerance on the basis of a few shared basic principles, Wesley more characteristically displayed the traditional English protestant paranoia towards Catholics as people who would become persecuting political subversives if given the opportunity. He was personally tolerant of individuals and the practice of Catholic worship, but resisted the granting of political rights. Hence he opposed the Catholic Relief Act of 1778 and defended Lord George Gordon's Protestant Association which landed him in controversy. He actually signed a petition against the act (Treasury Solicitor's MSS, TS11/389/1212; English, 362 and n. 70).
War and suspicion of loyalism forced all the English Methodist preachers out of America by 1778 except Francis Asbury, who was to become a kind of American Wesley. Independence, however, set Wesley free to plan American Methodism's future, which coincided with new arrangements for England as well.
Securing the future, 1784–1788
Though heartened by signs of fresh local revivals and the more rapid growth of Methodism in the 1780s by evangelism and population changes, Wesley now had to face more urgently the question of what would happen to Methodism after his death. The problem was not new. The 1763 model deed was designed, where used, to secure control of preaching-house pulpits to the Wesley brothers, followed by William Grimshaw, vicar of Haworth, and finally the 'yearly Conference of the people called Methodists'. Grimshaw died that year, and in 1769 Wesley guessed that only a third of the preachers would stay with Methodism after his death. They should be led by a small committee, taking turns to be ‘moderator’. In 1773 he proposed that John Fletcher should be his successor but Fletcher refused. In 1775 Joseph Benson proposed purging the preachers and ordaining some of them. Fletcher then proposed that if the bishops refused to ordain preachers, Wesley should ordain some himself, and set up a 'Methodist Church of England' with a revised prayer book and articles, his successors in leadership to be a body of moderators.
Nothing came of these proposals, but by 1784 not only the succession but control of the preaching-houses (nearly 400 of them by now) had become a problem, for it was found that the 'yearly Conference' had never been legally defined. Early in 1784 Wesley enrolled a deed of declaration in chancery defining the conference and its powers. It was to consist of 100 named and self-perpetuating preachers who were to elect an annual president. The hundred included some young preachers but omitted some senior ones. Some of the omitted, including Wesley's first biographer, John Hampson, then left the Methodist movement. Despite the deed, Wesley continued to select and control the conference, though in his last years he sometimes gave way to the majority and used a cabinet of advisers.
The same year Wesley devised a scheme for an independent American Methodist church, complete with a revised Book of Common Prayer and reduced articles of religion. Relying on his old claim that bishops and presbyters were originally of one order, he claimed to be a scriptural 'episkopos' with the right to ordain. On 1 and 2 September 1784, with the help of Thomas Coke and James Creighton, he ordained two preachers for America and then Coke as a superintendent, with a view to his ordaining Asbury as co-superintendent for America. This was evidently designed to secure Wesley's control over American Methodism. The Americans, however, insisted on approving the appointments for themselves and by 1788 had annoyed Wesley by labelling their superintendents ‘bishops’.
Wesley argued that he was free to ordain for America since the Church of England no longer exercised jurisdiction there after independence. From 1785 he also ordained for Scotland, where the established church was presbyterian. Those ordained for Scotland were forbidden to administer sacraments in England. Wesley's further plans for England were and are a matter of controversy. Though some alleged that he regretted ordaining at all, others denied this, or claimed that he was pressurized by unscrupulous preachers. In 1788 he ordained three men who remained in England, one of them, Alexander Mather, allegedly as a superintendent. It seems arguable that Wesley was holding these men in reserve in case he needed to concede Methodist sacraments for some places in England.
Despite these actions, Wesley continued to claim that he had not separated from the Church of England, though he was finally forced to define separation as applying only to a formal secession. His apparent inconsistency may best be explained as a policy of limited concessions where pressures for separation were greatest, with a view to keeping Methodism as united as possible, thereby reducing the pressure for a concerted and formal separation. This, in effect, is what he claimed himself, however paradoxically.
Last years and death, 1788–1791
In Wesley's last years he observed, with a mixture of surprise and wry appreciation, that he had become almost respectable. His journeys continued almost to the end, though latterly in a chaise, and became almost triumphal processions with people anxious to catch their last glimpse of an almost legendary figure. H. Crabbe Robinson in October 1790 said that Wesley's voice was barely audible. But 'his reverend countenance, especially his long white hair, formed a picture never to be forgotten … It was for the most part a pantomime, but the pantomime went to the heart' (H. C. Robinson, Diary, ed. T. Seddon, 1899, 1.19–20).
Despite many illnesses and in 1753 the conviction that he was about to die of consumption, Wesley marvelled in his Journal on his birthday on 28 June 1776 ns that he was 'far abler to preach' than when he was twenty-three. He ascribed the 'natural means God has used' for this as constant exercise and travelling, early rising, ability to sleep at will, and evenness of temper (Works, 23.21). In the later 1780s he regularly described his health on his birthday; only on 28 June 1789 did he concede that 'I now find I grow old', and not until the following year did he admit to failing sight and strength. Though he could still be sprightly, observers at his last conference in 1790 noted that he was nearly blind, with his memory much decayed so that Mather conducted the business. Yet he could still intervene sharply if opposed.
In July 1790 Wesley finally gave up keeping his accounts, saying that 'I save all I can and give all I can, that is all I have' (Journal of John Wesley, 8.80 n.). In October he preached his last sermon in the open air, and his final sermon on 23 February 1791. On 24 February he wrote his last recorded letter, urging on William Wilberforce in his anti-slave trade campaign. The same day he entered his house in City Road, London, for the last time. His friend Miss Ritchie later wrote a detailed account of these days, unfolding in a series of 'pleasing, awful scenes'. Among his last recorded words were 'The best of all is God is with us' and an attempt to sing Isaac Watts's 'I'll praise my Maker while I've breath' (ibid., 8.131–44). John Wesley died at his home on 2 March 1791 and was buried behind his City Road chapel on 9 March. By his will he ruled that there should be no hearse, no coach, no escutcheon, no pomp except the 'tears of those that love me'; and that 20s. should be paid to each of six poor men to bear his body to the grave. His papers were left to three executors and the management of his books to other trustees. Both provisions led to unseemly wrangles later. The funeral service was read by his assistant Revd John Richardson, who substituted 'father' for 'our dear brother here departed', thus emphasizing the filial relation in which the preachers stood to him (Moore, 2.394). The funeral sermon was preached by his physician John Whitehead, another later biographer.
Doctrine and devotion
Wesley's theological position has been variously described. He produced no systematic theology and was highly eclectic in his selective borrowings from patristic writers, Roman Catholics (notably the seventeenth-century French quietists), high-church and puritan Anglicans, as well as Moravians. Following Anglican tradition, he appealed to the combined authority of scripture, early church tradition, and reason, though increasingly also to experience. Though giving scripture primacy, he allowed for some textual criticism in his Expository Notes on the Old and New testaments (1761, 1755), based chiefly on J. A. Bengel's Gnomon (1742). His use of reason was influenced by John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), though even more by Peter Browne's Procedure, Extent and Limits of Human Understanding (1728). He was strongly empiricist in principle, rejecting innate ideas. However, he stretched empiricism to cover 'a new class of senses' 'opened in your souls' by God, 'not depending on the organs of flesh and blood' (Works, 8.276). His belief in the supernatural was strong, for he claimed it was justified by scripture and credible witnesses. His debt to the eighteenth-century temper also shows in his impatience with traditional protestant scholastic systems of theology and his toleration of those agreeing with him on fundamentals, though he was not always consistent here in his treatment of Calvinists and Roman Catholics.
Rejecting predestination, Wesley saw salvation as being open to all through prevenient grace, with freedom to accept or reject the offer. Unlike Calvinists, Wesley believed salvation once gained could be lost and had to be pursued actively. Similarly, assurance of salvation is usually obtainable, partly by recognition of a changed life, partly as a direct gift from the Holy Spirit, but there is no guarantee of Calvinist final perseverance.
Despite his acceptance from 1738 of justification by grace through faith as the basis of salvation, Wesley's mature doctrine of salvation shifted away from the Reformation's stress on justification and towards the development of a holy life. Justification begins this process of sanctification, which culminates in the attainment of a 'perfection' characterized by unbroken love to God and humanity. This gift may even be received in a moment, by faith. Thus Wesley seems to have combined the Moravian understanding of an instant gift with the more 'Catholic' notion of the systematic cultivation of holiness. Wesley evaded charges of 'salvation by works' by saying that even the 'perfect' depend every moment on grace and faith. Wesley denied that he taught 'sinless' perfection. This seems to rely on his definition of sin 'properly so called' as being limited to 'a voluntary breach of a known law' (J. Wesley to M. Pendarves, 19 June 1731, Works, 25.289).
Wesley retained his high-church beliefs in frequent communion and in a version of the real presence and a kind of sacrifice in the eucharist, expressed in vivid physical terms in his brother Charles's hymns. In matters of worship he was less conservative. While regarding Methodist worship as only supplementary to Anglican services he provided much else for Methodists. Hymns and extempore prayer were freely used. From various sources he adapted the love feast (a kind of folk sacrament with bread and water and religious testimonies); the covenant service, which became an annual act of rededication; and the watch-night, which became a new year counter to secular celebrations. Wesley edited Hymns for the Use of Methodists (1780), arranged to follow the pattern of Methodist religious experience, and he claimed for it the 'spirit of poetry' as well as of 'piety' (preface).
Political and social attitudes
Wesley's mother was a Jacobite, his father a tory who supported the new Hanoverian dynasty. Though possibly flirting with Jacobitism and certainly criticizing the Walpole administration during his Oxford period, Wesley soon adopted his father's position. In 1775 he said he was 'an high churchman, the son of an high churchman, bred up from my childhood in the highest notions of passive obedience and non-resistance' (J. Wesley to earl of Dartmouth, June 1775, Letters, 6.156). In 1785 he claimed that he and his brother Samuel were, like their father, 'Tories' but not Jacobites ('I am no more a Jacobite than I am a Turk'). In a letter to the editor of the Gentleman's Magazine (24 December 1785) Wesley stated that a tory is 'one that believes God, not the people, to be the origin of all civil power' (ibid., 7.305–6). This was in contradiction of social contract and natural rights ideas, and explains his opposition to John Wilkes and the American revolutionaries in the 1770s. He was influenced by scriptural injunctions to obey the powers that be as ordained by God; by the consideration that the Hanoverian kings upheld religious toleration (important for Methodists); and by his fears in the 1770s of disorder. But the description of his family traditions suggests that, like other tories, he had transferred earlier ideas of divine right to the Hanoverian dynasty.
On social matters Wesley was a philanthropist and an occasional critic of contemporary economic vices and prejudices. His sermon entitled 'The use of money' (1760) expounded the aphorism 'gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can' (Works, 2.263). The first point only partially endorsed aggressive capitalism, for it was restricted by prohibitions on speculation and bill broking. The second was directed against conspicuous consumption and elaborated in later sermons against luxury—Wesley was particularly exercised against women's hats. Gaining and saving were only in order to give—sacrificially. In 1744 Wesley had even planned a kind of apostolic community of goods, though this was not achieved. As to his own finances, on marrying in 1751 he lost his fellowship of Lincoln and its income. His allowances from Methodism were not above £30 p.a. and some gifts, but his publications eventually realized an income which enabled him to give away £1000 annually.
Wesley was in his century unusual for his distrust of the rich (who did not respond well to his evangelism) and for his love of the poor, whom he treated with respect. He did not believe their poverty was due to their improvidence. He organized collections in times of distress and in 1747 set up a free dispensary, including electric shock treatment. His Primitive Physick (1747, and later editions to at least 1840), though often mocked for its folk remedies, also drew on respectable medical authorities while avoiding their more lethal prescriptions. He also recommended fresh air, cold water, a quiet mind, and prayer.
Wesley was an early supporter of the anti-slave trade campaign, adapting Anthony Benezet's attack in his Thoughts on Slavery (1774). In education he supported Methodists' schools and the rising Sunday school movement, as well as founding his own Kingswood School (1748), though he often despaired of making it truly 'Christian'. More negatively, he praised the refounded Society for the Reformation of Manners in a sermon in 1763 and attacked the wasteful luxury of tea drinking and the poison of spirit drinking. (Wesley, however, was not a teetotaller, and among his more curious letters are those describing the debilitating effects of tea but also inveighing against the adulteration of honest English ale by hops.) Given his multifarious activities and the humble status of many of his followers it is not surprising that Wesley, while supporting the efforts of others, did not organize large-scale moral and social campaigns on the lines of the Clapham Sect.
Preacher and author
Though inferior to Whitefield as a popular orator, Wesley could often create highly emotional effects in his audiences. He contrasted his own style with his brother's by saying that he excelled in 'connexion' (reasoned argument), Charles in 'strong pointed sentences' (J. Wesley to C. Wesley, June 1766, Letters, 5.16). He preached extempore for an hour or more, striving for plain language but rising to controlled rhetoric in his concluding appeals. Horace Walpole in 1766 thought him 'as evidently an actor as Garrick. He spoke his sermon but so fast, and with so little accent, that I am sure he has often uttered it, for it was like a lesson'. Despite 'parts and eloquence' at the end he 'exalted his voice' and 'acted a very ugly enthusiasm' (Selected Letters of Horace Walpole, ed. W. S. Lewis, 1973, 119). Sir Walter Scott heard him tell excellent stories, but for some he fell too readily into anecdotage in old age, and Hampson thought he only preached well if he prepared, and too often he did not. He preached too frequently and insisted on doing so 'if he could stand on his legs' (Hampson, 3.169–71).
As an author Wesley was astonishingly prolific on secular as well as religious subjects. He valued conciseness and plain language, and much of his output consisted of extracts from, or condensations of, other men's works, not always acknowledged. His Christian Library (1749–55) included condensed versions of devotional classics both Catholic and protestant. A Survey of the Works of God in Creation (1775), based on Buddeus of Jena, was a 'natural philosophy' to display what the title suggested, but it also showed his empiricism in his claim 'barely to set down what appears in nature, not the causes of the appearances' (preface); but while he distrusted Sir Isaac Newton's hypotheses he loved to record 'wonders'. Similarly, in Primitive Physick he looked only for remedies that allegedly worked, criticizing traditional medical systems. His History of England (1776) was based on Goldsmith, Rapin, and Smollett, and he criticized historians for not showing God as the supreme ruler of the world. He wrote history, he said, 'to bring God into it' (J. Wesley to C. Wesley, 13 Jan 1774, Letters, 6.67). This was more obvious in his Ecclesiastical History (1781), based on Archibald Maclaine's translation of Mosheim. He criticized Mosheim for treating church history like secular history and omitting the role of the Holy Spirit, though he acknowledged that few saints would be found in the history of the church.
Wesley's Arminian Magazine (from 1778) was begun as a counter to Calvinist magazines, but included Methodist biographies, travel literature, snippets of science, poetry, and many accounts of witchcraft and providential interventions. In his Appeals to Men of Reason and Religion (1743–5) he addressed a cultured audience; in his short Words for various moral offenders, a more popular readership.
In controversy Wesley was generally courteous, though he could be unfair, and some complained that he evaded substantive issues by nice logical distinctions. His Journal, whatever problems it poses as an objective historical source for his life, is the record of a tireless traveller and observer of a wide range of people and manners. It was also a vehicle, like so much of what he wrote, not only for his confident opinions but also for educating his people and (he no doubt hoped) a wider audience. He never lost the instincts of an Oxford tutor. He was, it may be claimed, a kind of cultural mediator between the educated world and the moderately literate people of Methodism and even beyond them.
Appearance and character
Wesley was less of a gift to caricaturists than Whitefield, and satirical attacks on him were most prominent during the political and Calvinist controversies of the 1770s. He was typically portrayed as a hypocrite in sheep's clothing or an aged lecher. More objectively he appears as the austere Methodist of John Williams's portrait (1742), the persuasive preacher of Nathaniel Hone's (c.1766), or the benevolent patriarch of George Romney's (1789). Physically, he was short (5 feet 3 inches), slim, muscular, with piercing blue eyes, a fresh complexion, and hair (until it turned white in old age) variously described as brown or auburn. Though dispensing with a wig (except possibly in later life) his hair was curled at the ends. He had a passion for cleanliness and neatness in his person and surroundings.
Hampson's much quoted description of Wesley in old age emphasized his 'cheerfulness mingled with gravity, a sprightliness which was the natural result of an unusual flow of spirits and was yet combined with … the most serene tranquillity'. 'His manner in private life … was sprightly and pleasant to the last degree', unlike that of Methodists 'who seemed to have ranked laughter among the mortal sins'. (The preacher John Pawson thought Wesley's conversation edifying only if a serious friend kept him to the point.) Wesley dressed in 'a narrow plaited stock, a coat with a small upright collar, no buckles at his knees, no silk or velvet in any part of his apparel' (Hampson, 3.166–8, 178–9). He habitually preached in gown and bands.
In 1776 Wesley wrote: 'I feel and grieve, but, by the grace of God I fret at nothing' (Works, 23.21). The younger Wesley was less tranquil. Observers agreed that he had achieved control by discipline over a naturally warm and impetuous temperament which sometimes still erupted in old age. His judgements on people could be hasty and he tended to take them at face value, particularly if they displayed apparent spiritual gifts. Some thought him open to flattery. Judgements of this kind, however, were coloured by dislike of his policies or advisers. There are many testimonies to his wit and charm, but his isolated position as leader of a movement with few members of his own social status hindered close friendships, while his affectionate correspondence with female disciples provoked gossip and scandal, despite its essential innocence. His rigorous timetable, as Samuel Johnson complained, inhibited relaxed conversation. Behind the charm, too, there was an iron will: 'granite in aspic' (V. H. H. Green, John Wesley, 127).
The chief charges against Wesley, even by some friends, were that he was obsessed with absolute power and that he was excessively credulous. His authoritarianism and confidence in his own judgement are undeniable, though they could be defended as necessary to control an ebullient movement and, in his own eyes, as a providential charge. His credulity refers to his keen interest and outspoken belief in the supernatural as evidence of the unseen world and intervention by God or the devil. Reading as he rode on his travels, he made snap judgements on books, pronouncing on the most diverse subjects with the utmost confidence, especially against conventional wisdom. Thus he defended Mary, queen of Scots, and Richard III, but condemned Elizabeth I as a persecutor.
Wesley's spirituality is evidenced by his lifelong disciplines of devotion, though his inner life becomes hard to gauge after 1739. He said he had 'more need of heat than of light' (Works, 26.161 n.), and one of his bolder associates told him that he had 'the knowledge of all experience but not the experience of all you know' (ibid., 26.415). This and passing remarks of Wesley himself may suggest that he lacked the capacity for the felt spiritual raptures experienced by many of his followers. Despite his enthusiasm for perfection he never claimed the experience for himself, whether from prudence or lack of conviction that he possessed it. Yet his writings give glimpses of considerable spiritual insight and, if he judged himself severely, even non-Methodist obituarists agreed that he had led a life of extraordinary selflessness, discipline, and devotion to religion and the care of the poor.
Significance and legacy
For Methodist biographers the standard interpretation of Wesley evolved from the crop of studies up to 1825 by men who had known him, though their judgements were affected by current controversies about Methodism. Henry Moore's Life of John Wesley (1824–5) established the consensus that Wesley was a faultless paragon of many-sided abilities whose religious position was settled by his conversion in 1738. Moore rejected or omitted the critical observations of other biographers. An alternative view has recurred since Anglo-Catholic writers in the 1870s claimed 1725 as his ‘real’ conversion, playing down Wesley's conversionist evangelism. G. C. Cell's Rediscovery of John Wesley (1935) was unusual in that, while emphasizing justification by faith and religious experience, he concluded that Wesley achieved 'a necessary synthesis of the Protestant ethic of grace with the Catholic ethic of holiness' (Cell, 361). The accumulation of fresh information and editions of the Journals and Letters in the first half of the twentieth century inspired numerous studies of special aspects of Wesley's beliefs and activities—as evangelist, sacramentalist, mystic, puritan, and social reformer. Biographers, however, tended to recycle and popularize the traditional material without altering the overall interpretation, though non-Methodists were more critical of him. From the early 1960s use of the Oxford diaries and their more accurate decipherment revived interest in Wesley's early development. Other studies related him more closely to the continental revival. American Methodists have recently attempted to develop a distinctive ‘Wesleyan’ theology and apply it to present-day religion. The basis of future biographies has been laid by the first critical edition of Wesley's Works (1975–). The latest biographers have re-evaluated the sources and related Wesley more closely to his social and intellectual environment.
On wider issues of interpretation, Wesley has been seen as challenging and reviving the moribund Church of England and ministering to the neglected poor. It has been claimed that Methodism helped to save England from violent revolution and provided a home for people uprooted by the industrial revolution. He has been credited with a role in social reform along with Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect. His doctrine of perfection has been seen as an original contribution to theology.
None of these claims can be readily substantiated. Wesley's long life and voluminous Journal have tended to exaggerate his role as initiator and leader of a revival which was part of an international ‘awakening’. His organization, with its mixture of formal and informal worship, centralization yet flexibility, was, however, distinctive and a challenge to the localized and static character of most English churches. His perfection doctrine, though also distinctive, survived only within Methodism and as an element in later ‘holiness’ and Pentecostalist movements. Methodism's counter-revolutionary role is now debatable and some would rather see Methodism as emerging from opposition to whig hegemony.
How far Wesley affected the unchurched poor is unclear. Methodist membership was stronger among skilled than unskilled workers and perhaps appealed to, or helped, the upwardly mobile. Autobiographies also suggest that the committed membership had early concerns about religion. The movement, however, had a diffused effect beyond the membership and did attract people who found no satisfaction in conventional churches. Methodist experience of lay organization arguably helped to influence working-class movements in later times. Despite Wesley's hostility to democracy, Methodism gave much scope to male and female lay activity in contrast to the clergy-dominated churches of the day. The irony is that Wesley's stated aim was 'not to form any new sect but to revive the nation, especially the church [of England]—and to spread scriptural holiness through the land' (Large Minutes, 1763, 1789, in Minutes of the Methodist Conferences, 446). Yet his most tangible legacy was the later creation of the largest new family of churches to be thrown up by the revival in Britain and in the rest of the English-speaking world.
The works of John Wesley, ed. F. BakerFind it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat, 2, ed. A. C. Outler (1985)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat; 9, ed. R. E. Davies (1989)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat; 18–23, ed. R. P. Heitzenrater and W. R. Ward (1988–95)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat; 25–6, ed. F. Baker (1980–82)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat
- The journal of the Rev. John Wesley, ed. N. Curnock and others, 8 vols. (1909–16)
- The letters of the Rev. John Wesley, ed. J. Telford, 8 vols. (1931)
- J. Wesley, MSS diaries (1725–35), JRL, Colman Collection
- The works of … John Wesley, 14 vols. (1872)
- J. Hampson, Memoirs of … the Rev. John Wesley, 3 vols. (1791)
- J. Whitehead, ed., Life of the Rev. John Wesley, 2 vols. (1793–6)
- H. Moore, The life of the Rev. John Wesley, 2 vols. (1824–5)
- A. Knox, ‘Remarks on the life and character of John Wesley’, in R. Southey, The life of Wesley, ed. R. C. Southey, 3rd edn, 2 vols. (1846), 2.293–360
- A. Clarke, Memoirs of the Wesley family, 2nd edn, 2 vols. (1836)
- Minutes of the Methodist conferences, from the first, held in London by the late Rev. John Wesley …, 20 vols. (1812–79) [1744–98 conferences]
- L. Tyerman, The life and times of the Rev. John Wesley, M.A., 3 vols. (1870–71)
- A. Léger, Wesley's last love (1910)
- R. P. Heitzenrater, The elusive Mr Wesley, 2 vols. (1984)
- R. Green, The works of John and Charles Wesley: a bibliography, 2nd edn (1906)
- V. H. H. Green, The young Mr Wesley (1961)
- R. P. Heitzenrater, ‘John Wesley and the Oxford Methodists, 1725–35’, PhD diss., Duke U., 1972
- J. C. English, ‘John Wesley and the rights of conscience’, Journal of Church and State, 37 (1995), 349–63
- V. H. H. Green, John Wesley (1964)
- R. P. Heitzenrater, Mirror and memory: reflections on early Methodism (1989)
- M. Schmidt, John Wesley: a theological biography, 3 vols. (1962–73)
- F. Baker, John Wesley and the Church of England (1970)
- C. W. Williams, John Wesley's theology today (1960)
- J. Orcibal, ‘The theological orginality of John Wesley and continental spirituality’, History of Methodism in Great Britain, ed. R. E. Davies and E. G. Rupp, 1 (1965), 81–112
- D. Hempton, The religion of the people (1996)
- W. R. Ward, The protestant evangelical awakening (1992)
- J. E. Rattenbury, The eucharistic hymns of John and Charles Wesley (1948)
- G. C. Cell, The rediscovery of John Wesley (1935)
- J. Telford, Sayings and portraits of John Wesley (1924)
- J. Kerslake, National Portrait Gallery: early Georgian portraits, 1 (1977), 297–304
- A. M. Lyles, Methodism mocked (1960)
- J. Walsh, John Wesley, 1703–1791: a bicentennial tribute (1994)
- private information (2004)
- Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, corresp. and papers
- Hunt. L., letters
- John Wesley's Chapel, Bristol, letters and registers of the Bristol Society
- JRL, Methodist Archives and Research Centre, corresp.
- JRL, Methodist Archives and Research Centre, corresp. and papers
- JRL, Methodist Archives and Research Centre, corresp., sermons, journals, and papers
- JRL, Methodist Archives and Research Centre, letters
- JRL, Methodist Archives and Research Centre, scrapbook containing letters and related papers
- Lincoln College, Oxford, letters
- NL Wales, letters
- NRA, priv. coll., letters
- Southern Methodist University, Dallas, letters
- St John's Theological College, Auckland, letters
- University of Georgia, Athens, journal
- Wesley College, Bristol, corresp. and sermons incl. shorthand diary
- Wesley Cottage Trust, Launceston, letters
- Westminster Institute of Education, Oxford, Wesley and Methodist Studies Centre, letters
- BL, letters to Ann Tindall, Add. MSS 43695–43696, 43739–43740
- Drew University, Madison, New Jersey, United Methodist Archives and History Center
- Duke U., Frank Baker collection
- Lincoln College, Oxford, corresp. with James Hervey
- NA Scot., letters to Sir Achibald Grant
- NRA Scotland, priv. coll., Hog MSS
- J. M. Williams, oils, 1742, Wesley College, Bristol; version, Lincoln College, Oxford
- J. W. Tinney, mezzotint, 1750, NPG
- R. Hunter, oils, 1765, Wesley's Chapel, London
- N. Hone, oils, 1766, NPG [see illus.]
- mezzotint, pubd 1770 (after N. Hone), BM, NPG
- J. Russell, oils, 1773, Kingswood School, Bristol
- T. Horsley, oils, 1784, Richmond College, Surrey
- E. Wood, ceramic bust, 1785, Methodist Archives and Research Centre, London
- W. N. Gardiner, stipple, pubd 1788 (after S. Harding), NPG
- W. Hamilton, oils, 1788, NPG
- G. Romney, oils, 1789, Philadelphia Museum of Art; replica, NPG
- T. Holloway, line engraving, pubd 1791, BM, NPG
- W. Ridley, stipple, pubd 1791, BM
- W. Ridley, stipple, pubd 1792 (after H. Edridge), NPG
- coade-ware bust, 1793, Methodist Archives and Research Centre, London
- Fry, stipple, pubd 1824 (after print by Bland), NPG
- H. Bone, pencil and chalk drawing, Scot. NPG
- J. Greenwood, mezzotint (after N. Hone), BM, NPG
- J. Watson, mezzotint (after J. Williams), BM, NPG
- marble bust, NPG
- stipple and line engraving (after J. Jackson), NPG
Wealth at Death
allegedly gave away minimum £1000 p.a. in later years
legacies to be taken from main asset, profits from books (est. at £4827 10s. 3½d., 1788): Tyerman, Life and times of the Rev. John Wesley, 3.559–60
- Wesley, Samuel (bap. 1662, d. 1735), Church of England clergyman and poet
- Wesley [née Annesley], Susanna (1669–1742), theological writer and educator
- Annesley, Samuel (bap. 1620, d. 1696), clergyman and ejected minister
- Wesley, Charles (1707–1788), Church of England clergyman and a founder of Methodism
- Wright [née Wesley], Mehetabel [Hetty] (1697–1750), poet
- Holy Club (act. 1729–c. 1738)
- Murray [née Norman; other married name Bennet], Grace (1715–1803), follower of Methodism