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This article was written by Alexander Gordon and was published in 1899
John Wesley, evangelist and leader of methodism, fifteenth child and second surviving son of Samuel Wesley (1662-1735), was born at Epworth Rectory, Lincolnshire, on 17 June 1703. The day and month rest on his own testimony, the year is deduced from his father's certificate of his baptism. Through his father he was descended from Adam Loftus (1533?-1605), primate of Ireland; his more immediate ancestry, on both sides of the house, was nonconformist. Though baptised John Benjamin (his parents having lost infant sons of those names), his second name was never in use. His early education from the age of five was under his mother, whose methods were exacting; a single day was allowed for learning the alphabet. His rescue from the fire (9 February 1708-9) at Epworth Rectory fixed itself in his mind as a work of divine providence. He was early noted for firmness of character and for his reflective turn, his father remarking that ‘our Jack’ would do nothing (non etiam crepitare) ‘unless he could give a reason for it.’ At eight years old he was admitted to the communion. On the nomination of his father's patron, John Sheffield, first duke of Buckingham and Normanby, one of the governors, he was admitted (28 January 1713-14) on the foundation of the Charterhouse school, London. At this time he wrote his surname ‘Westley.’ His morning run (by his father's order) thrice round the Charterhouse green strengthened his constitution. For some years he fared ill; the younger boys, robbed of rations by the seniors, had to make shift with bread. The story is told in a pamphlet of 1792 that the usher Andrew Tooke of the ‘Pantheon’ remonstrated with him for associating with his juniors whom he harangued, and got the answer ‘Better to rule in hell than serve in heaven.’ To his absence at school during the mysterious disturbances (1716-1717) at Epworth rectory we owe the minute accounts of this affair, supplied by members of the family in satisfaction of his curiosity; in the ‘Arminian Magazine’ (October-December 1784) he maintained the supernatural character of the occurrences. His brother Samuel, then head-usher at Westminster school, writes of him (1719) as a good scholar and ‘learning Hebrew.
On 24 June 1720 he was elected scholar of Christ Church, Oxford; he matriculated on 18 July, when his age is given as 16. Just before going up, he was introduced to Henry Sacheverell, whom he found ‘as tall as a maypole and as fine as an archbishop.’ He relates, with great contempt, Sacheverell's advice to him, being ‘a very little fellow,’ to ‘go back to school’. He was a diligent and sprightly student, much pinched for money. In a letter (17 June 1724) to his brother Samuel he gives a specimen of his English versifying, a trifle from the Latin on Cloe's ‘favourite flea’. The perusal of the ‘Essay of Health and Long Life,’ 1724, by George Cheyne, about which he writes to his mother (1 November 1724), fixed his lifelong principle of spare and temperate diet, to the improving of his health. He graduated B.A. in 1724. Till the following year he had apparently no thought of taking orders. He writes) that his father pressed him to do so. When he had decided for this vocation his mother warmly approved, though ‘your father and I seldom think alike’, and advised his applying himself to ‘practical divinity’ as ‘the best study for candidates for orders.’ He was much influenced by writers who inculcated ‘the religion of the heart,’ but he used them with discrimination. He read the ‘Imitatio Christi’ in Stanhope's version, and was ‘very angry at Kempis for being too strict’. Taylor's ‘Holy Living and Dying’ struck him as inculcating a false humility. He found difficulties in the Anglican article on predestination and in the excluding clauses of the Athanasian creed. His home correspondence on these topics is interesting as showing his resort to his mother's counsel, and her abhorrence of rigid Calvinism. On 19 September 1725 he was ordained deacon by John Potter (1674?-1747), then bishop of Oxford. His first sermon was preached (16 October) at South Leigh, near Witney, Oxfordshire. John Morley (d. 1731), rector of Lincoln College, used influence for his election (17 March 1726) as fellow; this was a tribute to his high character, his facility in argument, and his classical taste. His father writes with pride, ‘my Jack is fellow of Lincoln.’ The development of his poetical powers is shown in a paraphrase of part of Psalm civ, begun (19 August) at Epworth. On 7 November he was chosen Greek lecturer and moderator of the classes. He graduated M.A. on 9 February 1726-1727. Long afterwards he gave curious proof of the soundness of his scholarship. Warburton, who attacked him in 1762, sent the manuscript of his work to Wesley, who corrected the classical quotations and returned it.
In August 1727 he became his father's curate, living and officiating mainly at Wroot, paying visits to Oxford, where he was ordained priest (22 September 1728) by Bishop Potter. He was much impressed by a saying of Thomas Haywood (d. 1746), who examined him, to the effect that entering the priesthood was ‘bidding defiance to all mankind’. He paid a visit to Staunton, Worcestershire, the home of Betty Kirkham, sister of Robert Kirkham. About this time he read the ‘Christian Perfection’ (1726) of William Law, followed by his ‘Serious Call’ (1729). These writings aided him by setting a higher standard for the religious life, and ‘everything appeared in a new view.’ Wesley, in July 1732, made Law's personal acquaintance at Putney, and was by him introduced to the ‘Theologia Germanica’ and other books of the same class. His break with the mystics in after life was complete. Jacob Boehme he treated as ‘fustian’, and Swedenborg as a madman. His severe ‘Letter’ (1756) to Law has never been reprinted in full.
A kindly letter from Morley (21 October 1729) recalled him from his curacy to fulfil the statutory obligations of his fellowship. He returned to residence at Lincoln College on 22 November, and was at once placed in charge of eleven pupils. He found his brother Charles associated with two other undergraduates, William Morgan (1712-1732), of Christ Church, an Irishman, and Kirkham (above-mentioned) of Merton; the three were already labelled as ‘methodists’ from their strict rules of study and religious observance, including the practice of weekly communion. On joining these young methodists John Wesley naturally became their head, and directed their plans, getting the nickname of ‘curator of the holy club,’ a Merton witticism. The company of Oxford methodists never reached large proportions. Two or three of John Wesley's pupils were admitted to their meetings in 1730, and one pupil of Charles; Benjamin Ingham of Queen's, and Thomas Broughton (1712-1777) of Exeter were admitted in 1732; at later periods of the same year John Clayton (1709-1773) of Brasenose, with two or three of his pupils, was admitted, and James Hervey (1715-1758) of Lincoln; George Whitefield of Pembroke was not admitted till 1735. Their proceedings were attacked in ‘Fog's Weekly Journal’ of 9 December 1732, and a defensive pamphlet was issued by an outsider, ‘The Oxford Methodists’. Samuel Wesley, the father, visited Oxford in January 1732-3 to learn ‘what his sons were doing,’ encouraged them to persevere, and helped them from time to time by his advice. Bishop Potter was friendly to them; though ‘irregular,’ he affirmed that they had ‘done good.’
The Oxford methodists were assiduous in study (in 1731 John and Charles Wesley began a lifelong practice of conversing with each other in Latin); every night they met for consultation before supper; they relieved the poor, and looked after the clothing and training of school children; they daily visited the prisoners in the castle, read prayers there on Wednesdays and Fridays, preached there on Sundays, and administered the communion once a month. Their religion was formed on the prayer-book; next to the bible in point of doctrine they valued the books of homilies. Nor did they deny themselves recreation; it would be unjust to charge their temper as morbid; their philanthropy kept them in touch with real life; Wesley's strong sense, his cheerfulness (he did not disdain a game of cards, as his private accounts show), and his knowledge of human nature, gave a manly tone to their zeal. The marked divergence of their subsequent careers, while showing reaction in some cases from an ideal overstrained, proves also that the discipline of strictness was not ruinous to the independence of individual minds. Wesley himself was little of an ascetic; to be methodical and exact was with him an essential part of happiness. He rose at four to cure himself of lying awake at night. At five, morning and evening, he spent an hour in private prayer. His diary and accounts were kept with constant precision. One day a week he allowed for friendly correspondence. His first publication was a small collection of daily prayers (1733) for the use of his pupils. On 11 June 1734 he preached what his brother Charles calls ‘his Jacobite sermon,’ before the university, having taken the precaution to submit it to the vice-chancellor for approval before preaching.
Between August 1730 and July 1734 he corresponded as ‘Cyrus’ with ‘Aspasia,’ i.e. Mary Pendarves (formerly Granville, and better known as Mary Delany); she was a friend of his ‘Varanese.’ The correspondence shows warmth of interest on both sides. In November 1734 his father was anxious to see him appointed as his successor at Epworth. His brother Samuel, who had himself declined the post, wrote strongly, almost angrily, to urge compliance upon John. But Wesley was moved neither by his father's entreaty nor by his brother's arguments. He thought there was more good to be done at Oxford, and that he could do it. The correspondence extended to February 1734-5. Yet it appears from a letter of 15 April (when his father was dying) that he had then applied for the succession to Epworth; Edmund Gibson, bishop of London, was ‘the obstacle’ to his promotion. Ten days later he attended his father's deathbed. What altered his view of the Oxford situation is not known; but his judgment as to the right field for his powers must have undergone a revolution, since by 18 September he was ready to undertake the Georgia mission, promoted by John Burton, one of the Georgia trustees, most of whom, however, were dissenters. Wesley, with his brother Charles, was on a visit to James Hutton (1715-1795) at Westminster, when he met Burton, who introduced him to James Edward Oglethorpe. His first extemporary sermon was preached at this time in Allhallows, Lombard Street, on the failure of John Heylyn.
The Wesleys, with Ingham and Charles Delamotte (1714-1790), son of a Middlesex magistrate (he went as John Wesley's famulus), embarked for Georgia in the Simmonds at Gravesend on 14 October 1735, though the vessel did not actually begin her voyage from Cowes till 10 December On board were twenty-six German Moravians, with David Nitschmann (1696-1772), their new-made (13 March 1734-5) bishop. Wesley at once (17 October) began to learn German (he was already master of French, ‘the poorest, meanest language in Europe;’ he learned Spanish in 1737 to converse with Jews in Georgia). Savannah was reached on 6 February 1735-6. Next day Oglethorpe introduced Wesley to August Gottlieb Spangenberg (1704-1792), afterwards (1744) Moravian bishop, whose interrogations gave Wesley a new view of the importance of evangelical doctrine. For a month he lodged with Spangenberg and his friends. The ordination of Anton Seiffart as Moravian bishop for Georgia, on 28 February, greatly impressed him by its ‘simplicity, as well as solemnity.’ His first letter to Zinzendorf was on 15 March 1736-7.
Wesley's Georgia mission lasted less than two years, the latter part broken by squabbles. Savannah was his headquarters, but after his brother's departure he spent much time at Frederica and other places. The whole of Georgia he considered his parish; he was accused of calling himself (10 August 1737) ‘ordinary of Savannah’. Ingham left for England on 26 February 1736-7, with the object of bringing over further help, without which there was no prospect of evangelising the Indians. On this side the aims of the mission were not fulfilled, though Wesley made some attempt in this direction; in other respects it was unsuccessful in detail. Wesley's preaching was regarded as too personal, and his pastoral visitation as censorious. His punctilious insistence on points of primitive usage (e.g. immersion of infants at baptism and use of the mixed chalice), his taking the ‘morning service’ at five, and ‘the communion office (with the sermon) at eleven,’ his introduction of unauthorised hymns, his strictness in the matter of communicants, excluding dissenters as unbaptised, his holding a private religious ‘society,’ provoked the retort ‘We are protestants’. With Oglethorpe himself Wesley had no quarrel, and it must be admitted that, as a whole, Wesley's Georgia mission, brief and troubled as it was, impressed men's minds with a new sense of the reality of religion. His first hymn-book was published at Charlestown in 1737.
On his arrival in Georgia Wesley had made the acquaintance (12 March 1735-6) of Sophia Christiana Hopkey, an intelligent girl, niece of the wife of Thomas Causton, chief magistrate of Savannah. Wesley taught her French; she dressed in white to please him, and tended him through a feverish attack. Delamotte asked if he meant to marry her. It is certain that he had proposed to her, and offered to alter his ‘way of life’ to gain her acceptance, which she apparently withheld. Wesley, acting in the spirit of a Moravian, referred the case to Nitschmann, and agreed, ‘after some hesitation,’ to abide by the decision of the Moravian authorities, which was that he should ‘proceed no further’. The date was probably 4 March 1736-7. On 8 March Sophia became engaged to William Williamson, and married him on 12 March. She showed Wesley's letters to her husband, who ‘forbade his wife attending either his chapel or his house in future’. She was present at the communion service on 3 July, after which Wesley, as they walked home in the street, specified some things ‘reprovable in her behaviour;’ she was naturally indignant. Wesley wrote (5 July) to Causton implying, as he distinctly explained next day, that it might be his duty to repel one of his family from the communion. Causton angrily replied that unless it were himself or his wife he should not interfere. On 7 August Wesley repelled Mrs. Williamson from the communion. Williamson obtained the recorder's warrant (8 August) for Wesley's arrest for defamation, laying damages at £1,000. On 22 August the grand jury by a majority of thirty-two to twelve found a true bill on ten articles of indictment, including all the points of ecclesiastical usage objected against Wesley. Wesley was right in saying that nine of these articles, being purely ecclesiastical, were not within the cognisance of a civil court. He repeatedly asked to be tried on the first article, alleging communications with Mrs. Williamson contrary to her husband's order. No trial took place. Oglethorpe was in England. On 2 December the magistrates issued an order forbidding him to leave the province. He departed the same evening, leaving Delamotte behind, embarked for England from Charlestown on 22 December 1737, and landed at Deal on 1 February 1737-8. Whitefield was just starting for Georgia; Wesley wrote to dissuade him, but (having drawn a lot) avoided meeting him. On 4 February he visited Oglethorpe in London, and during the next fortnight had interviews with the Georgia trustees, giving reasons for resigning his commission.
On 7 February 1737-8 he met Peter Böhler (1712-1775), just landed from Germany, took him to Oxford, and to Stanton Harcourt on a visit to John Gambold, and frequented his company till he left England (4 May). He corresponded with Böhler as late as 1775. Fetter Lane chapel, where Böhler founded (1 May) a ‘religious society’ which Wesley joined, was the scene of the ministry (1707-1728) of Thomas Bradbury, and is now the oldest nonconforming place of worship in London. From Böhler the Wesleys imbibed their doctrine of ‘saving faith;’ hence Wesley broke with William Law. He was constantly preaching in parish churches with no variation on established usage, but at society meetings from 1 April he used extempore prayer. He dates his ‘conversion,’ following that of Charles, on 24 May (at a society meeting in Aldersgate Street), yet there is clear evidence, in his journal and his letters to his brother Samuel, that his new experience was but a step on the way. His debt to the Moravians impelled him to visit Herrnhut. Starting on 13 June with Ingham and John Töltschig (1703-1764), he travelled through Holland and North Germany; at Marienborn visited Zinzendorf, who set him to dig in his garden; reached Herrnhut on 1 August, stayed there a fortnight, and got back to London on 16 September.On 21 October he waited with Charles on Edmund Gibson, bishop of London, and asked whether ‘religious societies’ were ‘conventicles.’ Gibson thought not, adding, ‘I determine nothing.’ After spending a month at Oxford he drew up rules (end of 1738) for the Moravian band societies. He was soon to strike out a path for himself.
The example of Whitefield's open-air preaching was repulsive at first to his sense of ‘decency and order;’ but after expounding at Bristol the Sermon on the Mount, a ‘pretty remarkable precedent of field-preaching, though I suppose there were churches at that time also,’ he next afternoon (Monday, 2 April 1739) preached ‘from a little eminence in a ground adjoining to the city, to about three thousand people’. On 12 May he laid the foundation-stone in the Horse Fair, Bristol, of ‘a room’ which, when opened, was called the ‘New Room,’ and was in fact the first Methodist chapel. His encounter at Bath (5 June) with Richard Nash (Beau Nash) exhibits his remarkable power of conclusive repartee. Of more moment is his interview, in August, with Joseph Butler of the ‘Analogy,’ then bishop of Bristol. The Bristol societies had become marked by convulsive phenomena, to which John Wesley was more inclined to attach religious importance than Charles, till he found his societies invaded by the ‘French prophets’. Butler had ‘once thought’ Wesley and Whitefield to be ‘well-meaning men;’ his altered opinion was due to ‘the pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Ghost,’ which he characterised as ‘a horrid thing, a very horrid thing.’ Wesley declined responsibility for Whitefield's utterances, denied that he had administered the sacrament in his societies (‘and I believe I never shall’), claimed to be ‘a priest of the church universal,’ and to Butler's advice ‘to go hence,’ replied, ‘I think I can do most good here; therefore here I stay.’ He does not appear to have read the ‘Analogy’ till 21 January 1746 (again, 20 May 1768). He thought it ‘far too deep’ for its purpose.
On 11 November 1739 Wesley first preached at the Foundery (a long-disused government building for casting brass ordnance) in Windmill Hill (now Tabernacle Street, Finsbury Square), London. He afterwards bought the ruinous structure for £115, repaired and enlarged it, and for a generation it was the headquarters of methodism in London, till superseded by the opening (2 November 1778) of the City Road chapel (reopened after reconstruction, 1899). A little later, apparently 24 December 1739, was the origination of the ‘united society,’ specially formed by Wesley himself, consisting first of eight or ten persons, who agreed to meet every Thursday evening. From this date (1739) Wesley usually counts the formation of the methodist societies, though sometimes from the Oxford society (1729), which had been followed by the Savannah society (April 1736) and by the Fetter Lane society (1738) with its offshoots in Bristol and elsewhere. Wesley's severance from this last organisation was due to the rise in it of a spirit of quietism, opposed to outward means of religious advance. He was excluded from the Fetter Lane chapel on 16 July 1740, withdrew from the society on 20 July, and transferred his own society to the Foundery on 23 July. It was not, however, till August 1745 that, by advertisement in the ‘Daily Advertiser,’ Hutton, acting upon Zinzendorf's order, formally declared that the Moravians had nothing to do with Wesley. They made fresh overtures to him in the following year.
Thus severed from his Moravian friends, he proceeded to dissociate himself from Calvinism by the publication this same year of his ‘free grace’ sermon (preached at Bristol); he had drawn lots to determine whether he should publish or not. Whitefield replied in a ‘Letter,’ written on 24 December 1740, and published in March 1741 in spite of Charles Wesley's remonstrance. Wesley would have been willing to work with Whitefield, but not on terms of silence respecting the points in dispute. ‘So there were now two sorts of methodists’. The divergence produced the separate organisation (5 January 1742-3) of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists, founded (1738) by Howel Harris (Wesley attended their conference in January 1745-6), and the ‘Connexion,’ founded (about 1756) by Selina Hastings, countess of Huntingdon. Wesley and Whitefield became personally reconciled in 1742; in January 1749-50 they conducted services together. Whitefield's funeral sermon, at his own desire, was preached by Wesley. The breach with Hervey did not occur till 1755. The controversy with Calvinism was resumed, in a very acute form, owing to Wesley's biting summary (March 1770) of the positions of Augustus Montague Toplady, who had originally sided with him. Toplady's extreme virulence in reply caused Wesley (after 1771) to leave him in the hands of Walter Sellon; but the most powerful writing on Wesley's side was in the ‘Checks to Antinomianism’ (1771-5), by John William Fletcher or de la Flechere. The dispute raged, with miserable personality, till Toplady's death, some months before which Wesley established (1 January 1778) the ‘Arminian Magazine’ as an organ of his teaching. Moderate Calvinists, such as Charles Simeon, never had any quarrel with Wesley.
Standing clear of Moravian and Calvinistic allies, Wesley developed by degrees the organisation of his own movement. His first lay preacher was Joseph Humphreys, in 1738, who seceded (April 1741) to the Calvinistic side. The next was John Cennick (1718-1755), who led (6 March 1740-1) ‘the first schism in methodist history’. These failures naturally made Wesley cautious. Of Thomas Maxfield (d. 1783) he writes to his brother Charles (21 April 1741): ‘I am not clear that Brother Maxfield should not expound at Greyhound Lane; nor can I as yet do without him.’ Whitehead has a story of Wesley's acting on his mother's judgment in countenancing a lay-preacher; Moore says this was Maxfield, who left Wesley on 28 April 1763, led away by the millenary fanaticism of George Bell.
In forming by degrees a strong band of missionary preachers from the laity, Wesley was unconsciously working on the lines of Vavasor Powell and George Fox (1624-1691). But his preachers were to be communicants of the Anglican church, and their preachings were not to take the place of church services, but be ‘like the sermons at the university’. Wesley's own activity in the itinerant ministry would be unexampled were it not for the example of Fox. The class-meetings began in Bristol (15 February 1741-2) on the suggestion of Captain Fry, and primarily as a means of raising funds (‘a penny a week’) to discharge a chapel debt. Wesley at once perceived the germ of an organisation for moral and spiritual inspection; the class system was extended to London on 25 March. The ‘society tickets’ (renewable quarterly) were now first issued. Constant care was taken to remove unworthy members; the process acted as a check on the rapid growth of the societies; ‘number,’ said Wesley, ‘is an inconsiderable circumstance’. Two remarkable sermons belong to this period. The first, his ‘almost Christian’ sermon, at St. Mary's, Oxford (25 July 1741), illustrates Wesley's discretion; he had prepared in Latin and English a discourse of much more severity, with a galling text; he made inquiry at this date about the exercises for B.D., but did not proceed with the matter; his last university sermon was on 24 August 1744. The other, at Epworth, on the evening of 6 June 1742, was preached (as John Romley, the curate, excluded him from the church) standing on his father's tombstone, and was the first of four addresses delivered in the same circumstances.
In 1743 Wesley opened two additional chapels in London: one (29 May) in West Street, Charing Cross Road, formerly French protestant; this was the headquarters of methodist work at the west end till 1798; the other (8 August) in Snow's Fields, Bermondsey, formerly Arian. In all his chapels men and women sat apart; they were noted for ‘swift singing,’ without organ accompaniment. The first methodist conference or ‘conversation’ (25-30 June 1744) was held at the Foundery by the Wesleys, four other clergymen (three of them beneficed), and four lay preachers, of whom but one, John Downes (d. 1774), remained constant to methodism. By the institution of this conference Wesley consolidated his movement and provided a safety-valve for divergences of opinion; the choice of those invited to consultation rested with him, and he retained an uncontrolled power of direction. The method of conducting business by answers to queries had been anticipated in the quaker organism, of which apparently Wesley knew nothing; quaker doctrine, as taught in Barclay's ‘Apology,’ repelled him (1748) by its lack of sacraments and its silent meetings; yet he had reprinted (1741) extracts from Barclay on predestination. This first conference began the division of the country into methodist ‘circuits.’ While the first conference affirmed the duty of canonical obedience to the bishops ‘so far as we can with a safe conscience,’ and declared against separation from the church, pressure of circumstances was rapidly altering Wesley's views of ecclesiastical order. At the second conference (Bristol, 1-3 August 1745) it is clearly affirmed that Wesley ‘may be called the bishop or overseer’ of all congregations gathered by him as ‘a preacher of the Gospel’. On the road to Bristol he read (20 January 1745-6) the ‘Enquiry into the Constitution … of the Primitive Church,’ published anonymously in 1691 (enlarged 1713) by Peter King, first lord King. It seems to have taught him nothing (though he refers to it as late as 1784), for his two deduction from it, ‘that bishops and presbyters are (essentially) of one order, and that originally every Christian congregation was a church independent on all others,’ are anticipated in the conference minutes of 1745. In his noteworthy correspondence (May 1745 to February 1748) with ‘John Smith,’ i.e. Thomas Secker (whose attitude is in curious contrast to that of George Lavington a little later) he treats all ecclesiastical order as subordinate to spiritual needs. His own reiterated account refers his change of view to the influence of the ‘Irenicum’ (1660-1) by Edward Stillingfleet.
Wesley had published in 1743 his ‘Thoughts on Marriage and Celibacy,’ giving a preference to the latter. His opinion was modified by a discussion at the conference of June 1748. Taken ill in the following August at Newcastle-on-Tyne, he was nursed for four days by Grace Murray, then in charge of his orphan house there. Grace (b. 18 January 1715-16, d. 23 February 1803), daughter of poor parents, Robert (d. 1740) and Grace Norman, had married (13 May 1736) Alexander Murray, a sailor, drowned in 1742. Wesley proposed marriage to her, and she did not refuse. He took her with him on his missionary errands through Yorkshire and Derbyshire, and left her in Cheshire with one of his preachers, John Bennet (d. 24 May 1759, aged 44), to whom in a day or two she engaged herself. Having convinced her that this engagement was not binding, Wesley in April 1749 took her to Ireland, employed her there in religious work, and before leaving Dublin in July became contracted to her there. She resumed correspondence with Bennet in a groundless fit of jealousy about one Molly Francis, and for some weeks, while accompanying Wesley on his journeys, was on and off with Bennet. Wesley, learning this, and assured by Grace that she loved him best, would neither give her up nor consent to an immediate marriage. On 7 September he wrote to Bennet, claiming Grace as his own. He sent a copy of the letter to Charles Wesley, who at once interfered, calling in the aid of Whitefield, who seems to have acted against his own judgment, as expressed to Wesley. In their presence Mrs. Murray (though ‘at her request’ the Dublin contract with Wesley had been renewed before witnesses on 20 September) was married to Bennet at St. Andrew's, Newcastle, on 3 October 1749. Wesley met the pair at Leeds on 6 October; he did not again see Mrs. Bennet till 1788, in company with Henry Moore (1751-1844), who was very favourably impressed by her. Wesley's keen smart of disappointment was also embodied in verses, written on 8 October, and first printed by Moore.
He received sympathy from Vincent Perronet, and it was Perronet who convinced him that he ought to marry. Having reached this conviction on 2 February 1750-1, he lost no time in acting upon it. His choice was Mary Vazeille, a lady seven years his junior, originally a domestic servant, now the widow of Anthony Vazeille (d. 1747), a London merchant, with a fortune of £3,000, in half of which she had only a life interest.
She had four children, the youngest (Noah) under five years old. Charles Wesley had made her acquaintance through Edward Perronet, and had been her guest; of the match he ‘never had the least suspicion’ . On 9 February a marriage settlement was executed, securing Mrs. Vazeille's property to her own exclusive use. On Sunday, 10 February, Wesley sprained his ankle, and ‘spent the remainder of the week’ under Mrs. Vazeille's roof in Threadneedle Street, ‘partly in writing a Hebrew grammar.’ By 4 March he was still unable to walk (he preached on his knees), but on 18 or 19 February he was married to Mrs. Vazeille (it is said, by Charles Manning, vicar of Hayes, Middlesex), his brother Charles being ‘one of the last that heard of his unhappy marriage’. Moore speaks of Mrs. Wesley as ‘well qualified’ for her position; she agreed that her husband should relax none of his labours, and for four years usually accompanied him on his journeys, travelling with him on his second visit to Scotland in 1753. She was tart of temper, and Wesley's ways were trying. Conscious of purity of intent, he corresponded with his women helpers with a familiarity which his wife deeply resented. This has been set down to jealousy, but may be construed as reasonable distrust of women whom she knew much better than he. When Wesley made Sarah Ryan (1724-1768) his housekeeper at Kingswood, and confided to her (writing as her ‘affectionate brother’) his domestic sorrows, his wife, finding Mrs. Ryan presiding at the preachers' dining-table, referred to the fact of her having ‘three husbands living’ (of three different nationalities) in terms inelegant but exact. The serious breach began in September 1755, when Mrs. Wesley opened a packet of her husband's letters, sent for delivery not through her, but through Charles Perronet. That she used violence, dragging her husband by the hair, rests on Hampson's testimony. Charles Wesley proved a most ineffective intermediary; Mrs. Wesley was zealous for her husband's position, and contrasted his labours with Charles's comparative ease. Wesley's letters to her are full of excellent sense, but show a fatal failure of sympathy. In his will of 1768 he made her his residuary legatee. His well-known ‘non revocabo’ (23 January 1771), when she left him for her married daughter at Newcastle, was not the end of their connection. In July 1772 she returned, took part in his mission work, and did not finally desert him till 1776. She is then accused of publishing garbled extracts from his letters to damage his character. The manuscript account of the Grace Murray episode came through her son Noah to Naphtaly Hart, who owned it in 1788, and bequeathed it (1829) to the British Museum. She died on 8 October 1781, and was buried in the churchyard of St. Giles, Camberwell; her tombstone has disappeared, the widened roadway now passes over her grave. By her will (dated 4 September 1779) she left Wesley a ‘mourning gold ring, in token that I die in love and friendship towards him.’ His last reference to her (in a letter of 25 July 1788) is not unkindly. The children of her married daughter are mentioned in his will as ‘my dear granddaughters.’
His marriage involved the resignation (1 June 1751) of his fellowship; from his society he never received more than £30 a year and part of his travelling expenses, but his income from his publications was by this time considerable, and was all spent on purposes of religion and charity. By the sale of cheap books and tracts for the people, he says (1789), ‘I unawares became rich.’ When he thought himself dying in 1753, and wrote his own epitaph, he made a point of his ‘not leaving, after his debts are paid, ten pounds behind him.’ To the commissioners of excise in 1776 he gravely returned the amount of his plate as ‘two silver teaspoons at London, and two at Bristol.’ His charities often exceeded 1,000l. a year.
His journal of missionary travel would serve as a guide-book to the British Isles, and is replete with romantic incident and graphic pictures of life and manners. Forty-two times (from 1747) he crossed the Irish Sea (the first Irish conference was held at Limerick on 14 August 1752). A mission tour in Holland was a recreation of his eightieth year. In Scotland, which he constantly visited (from 1751), his religious apart from his theological influence was greater than is generally allowed; in 1772 he received the freedom of the city of Perth (28 April) and the town of Arbroath (6 May). He was several times in the Isle of Man, and rejoiced to find there neither papist nor dissenter, but would have made an end of the Manx language. That he encountered much rough and even violent usage was a consequence of his determination to reach the lowest stratum of the population and compel a hearing. His perception that his ‘building materials’ were to be found in the neglected classes was justified by results. More has been made of his exclusion from churches than the facts warrant. As the real nature of his movement became apparent, prejudice declined.
Secker admirably describes Wesley's aim as ‘labouring to bring all the world to solid, inward, vital religion’. Throughout his work he was the educator and the social reformer as well as the evangelist. His brother Charles said of him that he was ‘naturally and habitually a tutor, and would be so to the end of the chapter’. He found ‘more profit in sermons on either good tempers, or good works, than in what are vulgarly called gospel sermons’. His ‘Christian Library’ (1749-55) in fifty handy volumes gave the cream of English practical divinity. With amazing industry and versatility he provided his followers with manuals of history, civil and religious, physics, medicine, philology (including ‘the best English Dictionary in the world’), abridging Milton to suit their capacity, and condensing for their use a novel, ‘The Fool of Quality’ (1766), by Henry Brooke (1703?-1783). The marriages, dress, diet, and sanitary arrangements of his community were matters of his constant vigilance, along with the care of the poor, a system of loans for the struggling, provision for orphans, institution of Sunday schools. It must be owned that, with the exception of Thomas Tryon, no educator had a worse system with children; they were neither to ‘play nor cry’; Tryon would not let them even laugh. Wesley's treatise on medicine, ‘Primitive Physic,’ was published in 1747, reached its twentieth edition in 1781, and its thirty-sixth in 1840. It contains definitions of diseases, followed by prescriptions for their cure, many of which are taken from the writings of Sydenham, Dover, Mead, Cheyne, Lind, and Boerhaave. The only efficient remedy for ague, chinchona bark, is omitted as ‘extremely dangerous,’ while onions, groundsel, frankincense, yarrow, and cobwebs are prescribed. In the edition of 1760 and thenceforward the use of electricity is recommended in several diseases.
By 1763 Wesley was practically the only itinerating clergyman, and the need of clerical provision for his societies began to be acutely felt. His lay preachers were ready for separation as early as the conference of 1755. The celebration of the eucharist by lay preachers had already begun at Norwich in 1760, while Wesley was in Ireland. Earlier than this he said to Charles (19 October 1754) ‘We have in effect ordained already,’ and ‘was inclined to lay on hands’. Maxfield, who quitted Wesley in 1763, had been ordained by William Barnard, bishop of Derry, ‘to assist that good man, that he may not work himself to death’. His place as Wesley's London assistant was taken by John Richardson, a curate from Sussex. In April 1764 Wesley projected in vain a union of methodist clergy; the Calvinists held aloof. In and about November 1764, Wesley obtained ordination for several of his preachers from a certain Erasmus, bishop of Arcadia in Crete, of whose episcopal character he had ‘abundant unexceptionable credentials’. Erasmus knew no English, and his candidates knew no Greek. It is not stated whether Erasmus ordained them to the priesthood; it is certain that two of them, John Jones and Lawrence Coughlan, on leaving Wesley, were again ordained by the bishop of London. Toplady and Rowland Hill (1744-1833) affirmed that Wesley had asked Erasmus to consecrate him bishop and been refused, a statement denied by Wesley in both its parts. Much later (20 September 1788) he writes ‘men may call me a knave or a fool, a rascal, a scoundrel, and I am content; but they shall never, by my consent, call me a bishop’. Yet he considered (8 June 1780) that he had ‘as good a right to ordain as to administer the Lord's Supper’. However in August 1780 he made a second application to Robert Lowth or Louth for the ordination of a preacher for America, and was refused because the candidate was no classical scholar. Two of Lady Huntingdon's clergy (Wills and Taylor), having been prosecuted for irregularity, seceded from the Anglican church, and held a public ordination on 9 March 1783. Wesley must have strongly felt the pressure of this example.
On 28 February 1784 he executed the ‘deed of declaration,’ which was enrolled in the court of chancery, and constitutes the charter of Wesleyan methodism and the beginning of its modern history. Its object was to settle the uses of the methodist chapels (359 in number) after the deaths of Wesley and his brother; and for this purpose to create a legal ‘conference,’ limiting its number to a hundred preachers (selected out of 192), and defining its powers and procedure. In this measure, Wesley's chief adviser was Thomas Coke, whom he first met in 1776; the limitation and selection of the ‘legal hundred’ was Wesley's own act, overriding Coke's judgment. Coke was destined, with Francis Asbury, to act as joint superintendents of the methodists in America (a chapel had been opened in New York in 1767). At Bristol, on 1 September 1784, Wesley in conjunction with Coke and James Creighton, an Anglican clergyman ordained Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vasey as presbyters for the American mission. On 2 September Coke, in presence of Creighton and others, was ‘set apart as a superintendent’ by the imposition of Wesley's hand. Next Christmas, Coke and his coadjutors exercised their ordaining powers on Asbury; Wesley severely rebuked Coke's assumption of the title of bishop. On 1 August 1785 Wesley ‘set apart’ John Pawson, Thomas Hanby, and Joseph Taylor for Scotland. At the conference of 1786 Joshua Keighley and Charles Atmore were ‘set apart’ for Scotland, William Warrener for Antigua, and William Hammet for Newfoundland. In 1787 five were ‘set apart.’ In 1788 John Barber and Joseph Cownley were ‘set apart’ in Scotland; and, at the conference of that year, seven others, Alexander Mather being set apart as a superintendent. On Ash Wednesday (27 February) 1789 Wesley, with Creighton and Peard Dickenson, an Anglican clergyman (1759-1802), set apart Henry Moore (1751-1844) and Thomas Rankin as presbyters. These were the last ordained. Entitled to administer sacraments and transmit this right, they were to exercise it as Wesley's deputies, within a defined sphere of labour. ‘Whatever is done in America and Scotland,’ wrote Wesley in 1786, ‘is no separation from the church of England’, an argument inapplicable to the last three cases. Creighton affirms that Wesley repented of his action. His sermon on ‘the ministerial office’ (Cork, 4 May 1789) denies that the unordained may administer sacraments, and was regarded, somewhat unreasonably, as receding from his earlier position.
As early as 1760 methodists at Norwich had taken the benefit of the Toleration Act. On 3 November 1787 Wesley, under legal advice, decided to license all his chapels and travelling preachers ‘not as dissenters but simply “preachers of the gospel”’. Owning that he ‘varied’ from the church (Cork sermon) he would never allow that this amounted to separation; he laid stress on the fact that he was under no ecclesiastical censure. His position was not unlike that of Richard Baxter, whose spirit he contrasts with the bitterness of Michaijah Towgood. With few exceptions (e.g. Doddridge) he had no personal relations with dissenters, though be expresses high admiration of the ejected nonconformists of 1662, as known to him through Neal.
Wesley writes (26 June 1785), ‘I am become, I know not how, an honourable man.’ His attitude (from 1775) towards the revolt of the American colonies (earlier he had somewhat favoured their cause) contributed to his popularity, and severed him from the politics of dissent. Johnson, the arguments of whose ‘Taxation no Tyranny’ he embodied in his own ‘A Calm Address to our American Colonies’ (1775), wrote to express his satisfaction at having ‘gained such a mind as yours’ (6 February 1776). On the same subject Wesley added ‘A Calm Address to the Inhabitants of England’ (1777) and ‘A Serious Address’ (1778). In this connection it should be noted that he was the earliest religious leader of the first rank to join the protest against slavery. He lost no popularity by his protest (21 January 1780) against toleration of Roman catholics; this brought him into controversy with Arthur O'Leary, whom he met on friendly terms in 1787. At the same time he denounced the mischievous folly of the Irish penal laws against Roman catholics.
After 1787 he published nothing except in the ‘Arminian Magazine,’ but to the last continued to travel. He is said to have preached forty thousand sermons and travelled 250,000 miles. He suffered from various ailments, including hereditary gout (of which his mother died), had undergone a surgical operation (1774), and was attacked by diabetes in 1789. His last entry in his account-book is dated 16 July 1790; his last sermon (at Leatherhead) was preached on 23 February 1791; his last letter (to Wilberforce) was written the following day. John Whitehead (1740?-1804) attended him from 25 February; he declined further medical advice. On 2 March 1791 he died at the chapel-house in City Road. His body was visited by vast crowds, both at the house and (8 March) in the chapel. At the early hour of five on the morning of 9 March he was buried in a vault to the rear of the chapel, Richardson, his assistant, reading the burial service (substituting ‘father’ for ‘brother’). Whitehead preached the funeral sermon. The body was recoffined in 1828. In addition to the inscribed tomb, there is a marble tablet within the chapel, and a statue in front of the building. Of other monumental memorials the most notable is the tablet (1871) in Westminster Abbey with profile likenesses of John and Charles Wesley. His will (dated 20 February 1789; codicil 25 February) is printed by Whitehead and other biographers.
Like all the Wesleys, he was of short stature; his person was slim and his countenance fresh-coloured. His eye was ‘the brightest and most piercing that can be conceived’. From early life he wore his (originally auburn) hair in long locks reaching to his shoulders. In January 1774 he sat for his effigy in wax for Mrs. Wright's museum in New York. A very impressive profile sketch, taken after death, was engraved in 1791. His punctual habits and even temper gave him happiness in a life severely laborious. ‘It was impossible to be long in his company without partaking his hilarity’. He was a good swimmer, in early life a great walker; on horseback he read as he rode, holding up the book to his eyes owing to near sight; only in late life did he take to a chaise. He early learned to sleep on the floor. In 1742 he left off tea. At seventy-one he thought preaching at five in the morning ‘one of the most healthy exercises in the world;’ at seventy-seven he recommended fasting on Fridays as a remedy for nervous disorders, and affirmed that he had not ‘felt lowness of spirits for one quarter of an hour’ since he was born; at eighty-five he had ‘never once lost a night's sleep.’ Of his preaching there are interesting notices by Horace Walpole (10 October 1766), who thought him ‘as evidently an actor as Garrick;’ by Sir Walter Scott, who heard him in 1782, and speaks of his sermons as ‘vastly too colloquial,’ but with ‘many excellent stories;’ and by Henry Crabb Robinson, who draws an impressive picture of his preaching at Colchester (October 1790), held up in the pulpit by two ministers. In his ordinary services he rarely preached more than twenty minutes, taking his text from the gospel or epistle for the day; his matter, according to Henry Moore's personal testimony, was very unequal. To his conversational powers Johnson (who introduced him to Boswell, thinking ‘worthy and religious men should be acquainted’) bears testimony, lamenting that he was ‘never at leisure.’ He said himself, ‘though I am always in haste, I am never in a hurry’ (10 December 1777), in this resembling Priestley, with whom he shared many traits of character.
His correspondence is wonderful for terse clearness, lighted by irony, full of epigram, often abrupt, rarely betraying any trace of sentiment. In controversy he was a consummate master of apt and telling statement of a case; as he never wrote without conviction, he convinced others. Hampson says he offered his services to the government in answer to ‘Junius;’ if this is true, the government missed a powerful ally. Controversy never soured him against persons; he rejoiced to receive the communion (1762) with his old adversary Lavington; William Dodd, who had bitterly opposed him, turned at once to Wesley in his distress; and he never deserted a fallen friend. His prejudices were vivid rather than strong, for his mind opened to facts with the utmost readiness; when young, he was ‘sure of everything,’ but in a few years ‘not half so sure of most things’. To claim him for any one ecclesiastical party is as futile as the attempt to fix the religion of Shakespeare. He was continually breaking bounds. He had ‘no doubt’ of the salvation of Marcus Antoninus, whom he contrasts with ‘nominal Christians’. Those who adopted John Taylor's view of original sin were ‘silver-tongued antichrists’ (ib. 28 August 1748); yet his challenge to Taylor (3 July 1759) is a fine specimen of the true temper of serious debate; nay, he could ‘guess’ Pelagius to be ‘a wise and a holy man’ (7 July 1761), and he had used exactly the same expressions of Servetus (in a Dialogue, 1741, mainly borrowed from Thomas Grantham (1634-1692) but this phrase is Wesley's own); in 1786 he abridged the life of Thomas Firmin for the ‘Arminian Magazine,’ with a preface allowing that an antitrinitarian might be ‘truly pious.’ His intense biblicism (he called himself a ‘Bible bigot’) led him to write ‘the giving up witchcraft is, in effect, giving up the Bible’; but, after reading (1769) Glanville's ‘Saducismus Triumphatus’ (1681), he remarks ‘supposing the facts true, I wonder a man of sense should attempt to account for them at all.’ Yet he had his heresies; he was (quite disinterestedly) for marriage with a deceased wife's sister, and he believed in a future life for the brute creation. Great as methodism is, as a religious power, the personal influence of Wesley is greater, and has affected every section of English religion.
As a religious poet his reputation has paled beside that of Charles Wesley; but allowing for Charles greater spontaneity and (at his best) richer quality, it must not be forgotten that his hymns were indebted to John Wesley's editing hand. The latter's best hymns are translations from the German. Wesley, by himself or with Charles, published between 1737 and 1786 twenty-three collections of hymns, including compositions by various writers. His pieces are contained in Osborn's ‘Poetical Works of John and Charles Wesley,’ 1868-1872,; but it is difficult to apportion in all cases the respective work of the two brothers.
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