(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.