Study Guide

John Wesley

John Wesley Essay - Critical Essays

Wesley, John

Introduction

John Wesley 1703-1791

English religious leader, essayist, editor, poet, translator, and writer of sermons.

The founder of the Methodist Church and one of the most celebrated religious leaders in history, Wesley wrote or edited hundreds of religious books and tracts during a career that spanned more than fifty years. It is estimated that he traveled a quarter of a million miles—mostly on horseback—throughout England, and that during these travels he preached forty or fifty thousand sermons. A tireless advocate of the poor, Wesley not only argued that the rich were to blame for the lot of the lower classes, but he donated all he made—some thirty thousand pounds, chiefly from the royalties of his immensely popular works—to alleviate the misery of the poor. His social conscience extended beyond the plight of the impoverished, and his angry indictments of slavery are credited with altering the views of many who read them. At the time of his death Wesley had 77,000 followers in England and 58,000 in America, and his founding of the Methodist Church revived English religious feeling in the eighteenth century.

Biographical Information

Wesley was born at Epworth Rectory, Lincolnshire, England, on June 17, 1703, the fifteenth of nineteen children of Samuel Wesley, an Anglican vicar, and Susanna, the daughter of a Presbyterian clergyman. Wesley was raised in a disciplined atmosphere of prayer, biblical study, and strict morality. Although Anglicans and Presbyterians were generally at odds, Wesley's upbringing demonstrated to him the possibility of reconciliation between the two differing doctrines. A fire at the rectory almost took his life in 1709; his survival was interpreted by his mother as a sign from God that Wesley was a member of the Elect. He received his early education at the Charterhouse School of London, beginning in 1714. In 1720 Wesley enrolled at Oxford University's Christ Church College. He graduated in 1724, and was ordained a deacon in the Church of England in 1725. The following year he became a fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford; his studies included Greek and philosophy, and he read avidly on many subjects, a practice he would maintain for the rest of his life. In 1727 he received a master's degree from Oxford. Beginning in 1729 and continuing through the early 1730s, he served as leader of a group of religious students who gave freely of their time to social service. The group was derisively called by fellow students the Holy Club or the Oxford Methodists, after their methodical devotion to their studies and religion.

In 1735 Wesley became a missionary under the auspices of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, and he embarked late in the year for the colony of Georgia, then under British rule, in North America. During his two years in Georgia, Wesley attempted to convert Native Americans to Christianity and personally witnessed the evils of slavery, an experience that strongly influenced his morality and writings. Years later he called the slave trade the “execrable sum of all villainies.” Additionally, he and his brother Charles published A Collection of Psalms and Hymns (1737) for the congregation under Wesley's guidance in Georgia. He returned to London in late 1737, and in 1738 had a profound religious experience, an “infilling of the Holy Spirit” that made his heart “strangely warmed.” He studied at the religious settlement of the Moravians, in Saxony, and soon adopted elements of their organizational structure for his own use in Methodist societies, which he began forming in 1739. Unable to gain permission to sermonize in various churches, he preached outdoors instead, sometimes to a few listeners, sometimes to vast crowds. Wesley maintained an almost ceaseless schedule, traveling from town to town, spreading his spiritual message to everyone he met. Although Wesley insisted that he was loyal to the Church of England, the relationship was strained. When, in 1740, Anglican clergy refused Wesley's followers the sacraments, Wesley administered them himself at Methodist meetings. Lay preachers soon began spreading the word on Wesley's behalf, and in 1744 the first formal Methodist Conference was held. Wesley married a widow, Molly Vazeille, in 1751; the marriage was unsuccessful, in part because Molly suspected her husband of infidelity with his many female helpers. In 1778 Wesley opened the City Road Chapel in London. In 1784 he assumed for himself the authority to ordain priests, and many of them voyaged to America as Methodist ministers. Wesley died on March 2, 1791, in London.

Major Works

Wesley wrote more than two hundred works, some very short, others comprising multiple volumes. He also edited more than one hundred other works, and produced an unknown number of sermons, 151 of which are extant. Wesley abhorred obscurity of language, and all of his writings are characterized by their plain, unadorned style. A Collection of Psalms and Hymns was the first of some twenty-three volumes of hymns Wesley published, and itself went through many editions and revisions from 1737 through 1780. Scholars are perhaps most interested in the eight volumes of The Journal of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M. (1909-1911), which chronicle his travels and activities between 1739 and 1790. Scholars are also intrigued by his private letters, of which 3,500 are extant; an eight-volume edition was edited by John Telford in 1931. In Thoughts upon Slavery (1774), Wesley indicts the practice of trade in human beings; while cognizant of the economic upheaval that would result in the abolition of slavery, Wesley nevertheless insists in this work that slaves are the equal to anyone in the eyes the God, and that slavery must end, no matter the consequences. In his Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament (1755) and Explanatory Notes upon the Old Testament (1765-1766) Wesley synthesized the works of several different commentators for the benefit of the uneducated in their studies of the Bible. Wesley made great use of his first four volumes of Sermons on Several Occasions, which were published between 1746 and 1760, instructing Methodist preachers to study and adopt them for their own sermons. Wesley oversaw the publication of his complete prose output in The Works of the Rev. John Wesley, M.A., Late Fellow of Lincoln-College, Oxford, which was published in thirty-two volumes from 1771 to 1774.

Critical Reception

Hundreds of volumes have been written about John Wesley during the two centuries since his death. Many scholars have attempted to assess the scope and significance of his impact. F. W. MacDonald, writing in 1906, characterized Wesley's legacy in superlative terms: “He is held in honour by men of all forms of belief, and all schools of thought. His name is now a national, not a denominational glory. He is recognised as belonging to that foremost few in whom the best qualities of our race have found expression. His century produced no better man, and few greater men than he.” A. Skevington Wood has surveyed Wesley's body of work and assessed his abilities as a writer, noting that many critics find his best prose “may bear comparison with anything produced in the eighteenth century and that for clarity and effectiveness he is indeed superior to some of his more fashionable contemporaries.” Several critics have examined Wesley's prolific output and tireless work schedule, surveying his hundreds of works and ceaseless activity as an itinerant minister for over fifty years. Thomas Walter Herbert has noted Wesley's rigorous scholarship and dissatisfaction with superficial learning. Critics have noted and appreciated a similar devotion in trying to overcome any obstacle Wesley faced. Maldwyn Edwards has observed that Wesley believed that it was up to the individual to restructure society and that inward change in man would manifest itself in outward change in society. This devotion to positive change has caused many critics, such as Warren Thomas Smith and Ronald H. Stone, to examine Wesley's anti-slavery works. Wesley's philosophy has also been the subject of much criticism; Richard E. Brantley, for instance, has observed that John Locke, particularly his An Essay concerning Human Understanding, profoundly influenced Wesley's thought. While interest remains strong in all aspects of Wesleyan studies, probably no work of Wesley's has received more critical attention than his Journal; it has been the subject of studies by Elisabeth Jay, Richard P. Heitzenrater, and numerous others.

Principal Works

A Collection of Psalms and Hymns [editor; with Charles Wesley] (songs) 1737

The Character of a Methodist (essay) 1742

An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion (essay) 1743

A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion (essay) 1745

Advice to the People Called Methodists (essay) 1745

Sermons on Several Occasions. 9 vols. (sermons) 1746-1800

Primitive Physick: or, An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases (nonfiction) 1747

A Christian Library: Consisting of Extracts from and Abridgements of the Choicest Pieces of Practical Divinity, which have been Publish'd in the English Tongue. 50 volumes [editor] (essays) 1749-1755

The Complete English Dictionary, Explaining Most of Those Hard Words, which are Found in the Best English Writers (dictionary) 1753

Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament (essay) 1755

A Short History of Methodism (history) 1765

Explanatory Notes upon the Old Testament (essay) 1765-1766

The Works of the Rev. John Wesley, M.A., Late Fellow of Lincoln-College, Oxford. 32 vols. (essays) 1771-1774

Thoughts upon Necessity (essay) 1774

Thoughts upon Slavery (essay) 1774

A Concise History of England, From the Earliest Times, to the Death of George II. 4 vols. (history) 1776

A Collection of Hymns, for the Use of the People Called Methodists [editor; with Charles Wesley] (songs) 1780

The Journal of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M. 8 vols. [edited by Nehemiah Curnock] (journal) 1909-1916

The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M. 8 vols. [edited by John Telford] (letters) 1931

Criticism

F. W. Macdonald (essay date 1906)

SOURCE: Macdonald, F. W. Introduction to The Journal of John Wesley, Volume I, pp. ix-xiii. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1906.

[In the following essay, Macdonald suggests that Wesley's moral and religious motivations for writing be taken into account in the critical discourse concerning his works.]

During Wesley's life, and for some years after his death, his countrymen, speaking generally, did not care to claim him as in any sense a national possession. They were quite content to leave him in the private possession of his followers, excellent people, doubtless, but not very interesting or influential. But time is a great readjuster of perspective. The point of...

(The entire section is 1430 words.)

Thomas Walter Herbert (essay date 1940)

SOURCE: Herbert, Thomas Walter. “John Wesley as Poet.” In John Wesley as Editor and Author, pp. 46-60. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1940.

[In the following essay, Herbert examines Wesley's transition from the translation of secular works to his adaptations of George Herbert's verse and translations of German hymns, and then to the composition of original devotional works.]

John Wesley very early gave evidence that he shared the strain of poetry which ran in his family. A capable student in every department of study, he was particularly distinguished at the Charterhouse for his excellent translations from the Latin. The source of pleasure thus...

(The entire section is 6593 words.)

Maldwyn Edwards (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: Edwards, Maldwyn. “The Nature of His Influence.” In John Wesley and the Eighteenth Century: A Study of His Social and Political Influence, pp. 180-91. 1933. Revised. London: Epworth Press, 1955.

[In the following essay, Edwards discusses Wesley's political and economic philosophy in terms of his religious beliefs.]

No century was more contented with its lot than the eighteenth. Critics so widely diverse in position as Blackstone, Paley, Burke, and Goldsmith, united to sound with unqualified praise the glories of the English Constitution. In such a feeling Wesley fully shared. The great note of his political pamphlets was liberty, and this he felt to be...

(The entire section is 2895 words.)

Stuart Andrews (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Andrews, Stuart. “The Intellectual Climate.” In Methodism and Society, pp. 3-9. London: Longman, 1970.

[In the following essay, Andrews examines Wesley's place as a Methodist religious thinker within the Deist controversy of the Age of Reason.]

The Methodism movement grew up in a climate of irreligion. Montesquieu observed in his Notes sur l'Angleterre that ‘in England there is no religion and the subject, if mentioned in society, excites nothing but laughter’. And it was only two years before John Wesley's Aldersgate Street experience that Joseph Butler, soon to be Bishop of Bristol, penned an even more famous indictment:

...

(The entire section is 2668 words.)

Richard E. Brantley (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Brantley, Richard E. “An Orientation.” In Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, pp. 1-26. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, Brantley proposes that John Locke's An Essay concerning Human Understanding was central in forming Wesley's methodology and that Wesley's model of experience was vital to and pervasive in British romanticism.]

Probably when our unified field theory of British Romanticism finally arrives, the materials will be somewhat nearer at hand than either the distant past of Milton or the far future of Joyce. … Thinking about British Romanticism primarily in...

(The entire section is 17981 words.)

Warren Thomas Smith (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Smith, Warren Thomas. “Wesley's Thoughts upon Slavery, 1774.” In John Wesley and Slavery, pp. 90-103. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Smith studies Thoughts upon Slavery, examining its structure, publication history, and critical reception, and then describes other anti-slavery works by Wesley.]

John Wesley had a social conscience. In his Preface to List of Poetical Works he insisted:

The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness. “Faith working by love” is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian...

(The entire section is 4410 words.)

Elisabeth Jay (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Jay, Elisabeth. Introduction to The Journal of John Wesley: A Selection, edited by Elisabeth Jay, pp. xi-xxviii. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Jay discusses theJournal as a public document, and closely considers the rigorous self-examination evident in the work.]

In my way to Perth, I read over the first volume of Dr. Robertson's ‘History of Charles the Fifth’. I know not when I have been so disappointed. It might as well be called the History of Alexander the Great. Here is a quarto volume of eight or ten shillings' price, containing dry, verbose dissertations on feudal government, the substance...

(The entire section is 6786 words.)

Richard P. Heitzenrater (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Heitzenrater, Richard P. “Wesley and His Diary.” In John Wesley: Contemporary Perspectives, edited by John Stacey, pp. 11-22. London: Epworth Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, Heitzenrater examines Wesley's private notebooks and the ciphers employed therein, maintaining that although the works reveal details of Wesley's private life, they do not significantly alter history's evaluation of him.]

No single name in the history of our tradition is more familiar to Methodists world-wide than John Wesley. Nevertheless, historians and biographers, as well as painters, have had difficulty for over two centuries in capturing a portrait of Wesley that commands a...

(The entire section is 4574 words.)

A. Skevington Wood (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Wood, A. Skevington. “Wesley as a Writer.” In John Wesley: Contemporary Perspectives, edited by John Stacey, pp. 190-201. London: Epworth Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, Wood extols the literary merit of Wesley's work, arguing that he be seen as not only as a historical figure.]

Although his literary output was considerable, John Wesley did not set out to make his name as a writer. What he published was in the interests of the nationwide mission which engrossed his attention. He was concerned with the communication of the Christian message and regarded his writings as an extension of that ministry. He was no mere dilettante who fancied himself as an...

(The entire section is 5080 words.)

Richard P. Heitzenrater (lecture date 1988)

SOURCE: Heitzenrater, Richard P. “John Wesley and the Historian's Task.” In Mirror and Memory: Reflections on Early Methodism, pp. 205-18. Nashville, Tenn.: Kingswood Books, 1989.

[In the following essay, originally presented as a lecture in 1988, Heitzenrater describes different aspects present within the study of Wesley's work and offers an overview on present-day scholarly thought.]

Many people recognized John Wesley as a significant man in his own day,1 even referring to him as “one of the most extraordinary characters this or any age ever produced.”2 During the following two centuries, this evaluation was reinforced in part by the...

(The entire section is 6300 words.)

Frank Baker (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Baker, Frank. “John Wesley, Biblical Commentator.” Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 71, no. 1 (spring 1989): 109-20.

[In the following essay, Baker discusses Wesley's commentaries on the Bible and their textual histories.]

Not until John Wesley was in his fifties did he experience any clear call to serious expository scholarship apart from preparing sermons and conducting extemporaneous Bible study in his societies. He ventured into the world of biblical commentaries very diffidently and reluctantly, partly because of what he felt to be his own inadequacy, partly because of his enormous responsibilities as chief administrator...

(The entire section is 5496 words.)

Henry Abelove (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Abelove, Henry. “Notes and Documents: John Wesley's Plagiarism of Samuel Johnson and Its Contemporary Reception.” The Huntington Library Quarterly 59, no. 1 (1996): 73-79.

[In the following essay, Abelove discusses the charges of plagiarism and lack of political credibility, brought by the Baptist minister Caleb Evans against Wesley.]

About the last week of September, 1775, John Wesley published A Calm Address to Our American Colonies. In it he argued that “the supreme power in England” had a clear, legal right to tax the colonies and that the Americans who thought otherwise and were “all in an uproar” had been misled by a small cabal of...

(The entire section is 3340 words.)

Graham Maddox (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Maddox, Graham. “Introduction: Methodism and Politics.” In Political Writings of John Wesley, pp. 9-41. Bristol, England: Thoemmes Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Maddox discusses Wesley's attitudes toward the plight of the poor, slavery, and the capitalist system.]

If the two-party system is the paradigm case of parliamentary democracy in the modern world, then the influence of the Methodist movement upon emergent modern democracy is almost measureless. Founded in the 1730s by Charles and John Wesley, Methodism set the course not only for the modern Labour Party but also the organizations which nurtured it, namely the Chartist, Adult Education and...

(The entire section is 11428 words.)

Ronald H. Stone (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Stone, Ronald H. “Maturation (1760s-1770s),” and “Slavery.” In John Wesley's Life & Ethics, pp. 145-56; 187-97. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 2001.

[In the first excerpt below, Stone analyzes the ethical basis of Wesley's views on perfection and predestination. In the second essay, he analyzes Wesley's arguments for the abolition of slavery within the context of the political situation at the time.]

MATURATION (1760S-1770S),

THEOLOGICAL-ETHICAL WRITINGS

Despite the emergence of Wesley as a social philosopher in this period of political engagement with a king whom he appreciated, his other...

(The entire section is 9239 words.)