John Wesley: A Biography / Edition 1

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The life and work of John Wesley (1703-1791) have had an enormous influence on modern Christianity, including his role as founding father of the Methodists, now 33 million strong worldwide. In this lively biography journalist Stephen Tomkins narrates the story of Wesley's colorful and dramatic life for a new generation.

Tomkins follows Wesley from his childhood at Epworth rectory through his schooling and university career at Oxford to his mission to Georgia, his "conversion" in 1738, and finally his life as a religious leader in England. Preaching in numerous villages, towns, and cities, Wesley and his followers faced intense and savage persecution, but their missions were also accompanied by extraordinary phenomena such as convulsions, laughter, and healings. In the course of his compelling narrative Tomkins examines Wesley's relationships with key people in his life, including his powerful and austere mother, Susanna, and his hymn-writing brother, Charles. Tomkins also explores key issues in Wesley's life, such as his renunciation of wealth and his attitude toward women, concluding with an assessment of Wesley's ongoing influence both in his own country and abroad.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802824998
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 8/1/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 705,177
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.57 (d)

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John Wesley

A Biography
By Stephen Tomkins

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2003 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-2499-4

Chapter One

Love (1748-49)

'Let us all Thy Grace receive' From 'Love divine, all loves excelling'

In 1748, Wesley's evangelical faith was 10 years old. It had been broadcast to the nation not only through his sermons but also by a stream of very readable pamphlets. The Connexion that he had built on it now incorporated 80 societies, spreading from Bristol and London down to Cornwall, up through the Midlands to Newcastle and to Ireland, with 21 preachers covering nine local preaching circuits. In the words of Horace Walpole, 'This sect increases as fast as almost ever any religious nonsense did.' Wesley's personal faith was strong - justified, bolstered and saved from introversion by the success of Methodism.

The disastrous romantic entanglement that apparently helped to propel Wesley into his conversion was thus far behind him and there had been no love interest in the story since then. His mission seems to have driven and consumed him enough to guard against any such distractions, in just the way that the Georgia mission had failed to. Yet this work had, at the same time, put him in close contact with hundreds of ardent, devout and admiring women, in increasing numbers, whose company he thoroughly enjoyed. As early as March 1740, a friend had noted, 'John Wesley and Charles aredangerous snares to many young women. Several are in love with them.' These 10 years had not changed Wesley's belief in celibacy. He had recently, for example, published a pamphlet recommending its virtues entitled Thoughts on Marriage, which now went to a third edition. In this respect, a certain Methodist widow would achieve what evangelicalism had not - drawing him into an engagement every bit as messy and unfortunate as the one with Sophy Hopkey had been.

Before that, however, came Wesley's second visit to Ireland. He had heard great things about the growth of the Dublin society since his first visit, which turned out to be wildly exaggerated. According to his reckoning, he had left them with 394 members and found them now with 395. ('Let this be a warning to us all how we give in to that hateful custom of painting things beyond the life,' Wesley reflected.) Altogether, he found that the Spirit flowed in Dublin more broadly and more shallowly than anywhere else. Progress was slow and it was only now that he brought the first society members to the joy of salvation, but almost the whole of Dublin seemed so moved as to desire it. He drew large crowds, including even Catholics now, although on Easter Sunday, the priest came and chased them away.

Wesley was unimpressed to find that preaching did not start until 6 a.m. to encourage more people to come - 'giving place to the Devil', he called it. He preached as ever at five and claimed that it only increased the numbers. As for public mockery of Methodism, he encountered hardly any: 'That is not the custom here ... They do not understand the making sport with sacred things; so that, whether they approve or no, they behave with seriousness.' Consequently, he was highly amused to report to Charles how irate the members were 'at a man's throwing a cabbage stalk over a house, which fell at some distance from me. Let them keep their courage till they see such a sight as that at Walsall or Shepton Mallet.' He left Ireland in May, confident that all the work of God yet seen there was 'nothing yet but drops before a shower'.

He toured England throughout the summer of 1748, with optimistic reflections on the state of play. St Bartholomew's in London and Epworth were both changed places, not least in the case of the latter because the curate had been struck almost dumb. Even in Wednesbury, the crowd behaved impeccably.

In Kingswood, he opened another school - not for charity this time, but to train preachers and give a Christian education to their children. He made the most stringent requirements regarding discipline, timetable and syllabus and over the years would be constantly disappointed on all three counts. The school day was from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. with plenty of time for religious and physical exercises, including fasting, but no play: 'He that plays when he is a child', Wesley explained, 'shall play when he is a man.'

On 1 August 1748, Wesley was in Newcastle when he was taken ill. He suffered one of his debilitating headaches that lasted almost a week and was nursed by the housekeeper, Grace Murray. She was an attractive widow of 32 and one of the most senior female Methodists. She had been converted in 1739, much to her husband's chagrin, but after he was drowned at sea in 1742 (in fulfilment of a dream she had had), she had become a bandleader at the Foundery. Now back in her native Newcastle, she not only kept house but also taught and examined the female classes and bands and visited the sick and backsliders. She was well-liked, committed and a successful evangelist.

Wesley fell in love with her, but unfortunately seems to have learned little from his faint-hearted dealings with Sophy Hopkey. 'If ever I marry,' he allegedly told her, 'I think you will be the person,' though even this non-proposal comes from his own later impassioned self-defence and the likelihood is that he was even less forthright than this. He claims then to have explained to her that he could not proceed any further without consulting his brother, as he and Charles had promised each other years before that neither would marry without consulting the other.

'It is so great a blessing that I know not how to believe it,' Grace is supposed to have replied. 'It seems all as a dream.'

Wesley recovered from his illness and took a preaching tour of the North West, bringing her at her entreaty as one of the party. She proved 'unspeakably useful'. He was able to observe Grace under fire when they were all assaulted by a mob at the appropriately named Roughlee in Lancashire. At some point he claims to have reprised his overtures to her. 'I am convinced it is not the will of God that you should be shut up in a corner,' he declared. 'I am convinced you ought to labour with me in the gospel. I therefore design to take you to Ireland in the spring. Now we must separate for a season; but if we meet again I trust we shall part no more.' 'I understood him not,' said Grace.

She allegedly promised to marry him and he left her at Chinley in Derbyshire at the house of John Bennet, one of his most valued and successful lay preachers, then headed south.

The reason for scepticism about Wesley's account is that Grace later insisted that she had not the faintest inkling of his feelings for her. It is impossible to say exactly where between the two accounts the truth lies. Wesley, for all his obsession with plain speaking, did anything but when it came to romance. It is entirely possible that he made his feelings less obvious than he thought and later exaggerated how explicit he had been. On the other hand, what follows suggests that Grace may have had her own reasons to be more obtuse or forgetful about Wesley's advances than strictly necessary.

The fact is that she had another suitor - John Bennet, at whose house Wesley had left her. Bennet had also been nursed back to health by her in Newcastle in 1746. Again, what passed between them is hard to ascertain. Bennet later claimed, rather unreasonably, to have taken his recovery as a sign from God that they were to marry. They had certainly exchanged letters and Bennet had apparently talked about marriage, though Grace later claimed, 'I never gave any answer concerning love affairs.'

Now, though, Bennet pressed his suit. More alert to his rival's feelings for Grace than she was herself, the night that Wesley left, Bennet had a vision of Wesley tenderly approaching the tearful woman with the words, 'I love thee as well as I did on the day I took thee first.' Whatever this was supposed to mean, in the dream Grace pushed her dream lover away. In the morning, Bennet told her of his vision.

'Is there not a contract between you and Mr Wesley?' he asked.

'There is not,' she assured him.

Would she marry John Bennet then? She said she would and so, as required by Methodist rules, they each wrote to Wesley for his consent. He did not withhold it, but wrote repeatedly to Bennet trying to dissuade him from the marriage. Bennet assured Wesley he would not marry before they had all three met in person, but insisted that God seemed to him to approve the match.

'I assure you I do not want a woman,' Bennet protested with a gallantry to rival Wesley's own. He thought it right to marry, though, for the greater glory of God and to protect Grace from passions that would be her downfall were they not harnessed by a godly husband (passions she had conscientiously confessed to Wesley too).

Wesley's response was to take Grace to Ireland, a familiarity unusual in the 18th century with a woman of good repute. He had a three-month visit scheduled from April to July 1749 and she came along with a lay preacher to interview and organize the female society members and to help with pastoral visiting.

On the way to Ireland, Wesley took a detour to Garth in Wales to marry his brother. Charles had met Sally Gwynne while he was preaching there in August 1747, when she was 21 and he 40, and he immediately warmed to her. Her father was the justice of the peace, a convert of Howel Harris, and there was some opposition in the family to the marriage because of Charles's erratic income, until John settled £100 a year on him from their combined book sales. Satisfied that the marriage was God's will, Charles entered it wholeheartedly and joyfully, without any of the confusion that disturbed his brother's love life.

The wedding was on 8 April 1749. The sum total of John's comments in the Journal are, 'I married my brother and Sally Gwynne. It was a solemn day, such as becomes the dignity of a Christian marriage.' He did provide a rather good hymn for it, though. Charles was a little more forthcoming, writing:

'Sweet day! so cool, so calm, so bright, The bridal of the earth and sky.'

Not a cloud was to be seen from morning till night. I rose at four; spent three hours and an half in prayer, or singing, with my brother, with Sally, with Beck. And led MY SALLY to church ... It was a most solemn season of love! Never had I more of the divine presence at the sacrament ...

Prayer and thanksgiving was our whole employment. We were cheerful without mirth, serious without sadness. A stranger, that intermeddleth not with our joy, said, 'It looked more like a funeral than a wedding.' My brother seemed the happiest person among us.

It was to be a happy, successful marriage, however mirthless.

Wesley's third trip to Ireland was an encouraging one, involving extensive touring. At Whitsun, he preached in Limerick Cathedral to a genteel congregation who behaved far better than he had been led to expect and twice in another church, which was packed to overflowing, where he got carried away and kept going for two hours.

Preaching in Athlone, he called on his hearers to give themselves to God and several, including the rector's wife, cried out their assent. Even after he drew the service to a belated close, the congregation would not leave and his attempt to do so himself was foiled by another woman collapsing in anguish and needing prayer. He saw enough responses to the gospel to rebuke himself for taking them for granted:

A few years ago, if we heard of one notorious sinner truly converted to God, it was matter of solemn joy to all that loved or feared him: and now, that multitudes of every kind and degree are daily turned from the power of darkness to God, we pass it over as a common thing! O God, give us thankful hearts.

However justified the rebuke, it clearly illustrates how successful his mission had become. At the same time, he was amazed at how few Methodists here could give an articulate statement of the most basic Christian doctrines. The lesson from this was that God begins his work in the heart and the brain follows later.

Wesley stayed for a week in the vicinity of Portarlington, Queen's County, a town dominated by Huguenot refugees, in which time he found the whole place transformed, immoral behaviour gone and everyone wanting to find salvation. However, experience had taught Wesley that, in most cases, the change would not last. As for anti-Methodist disturbances, 'What a nation is this!' he exclaimed. 'Every man, woman and child (except a few of the great vulgar) not only patiently, but gladly, "suffer the word of exhortation".' Two days later, he had the opportunity to rethink this opinion when he went through the city of Cork, finding the only way to avoid a riot was simply to keep riding and get out of the town before the mob had time to get itself together. In fact, the city was awash with anti-Methodist violence for many weeks before and after, Methodists being stoned and stabbed, their shops and houses wrecked and burned, though apparently none apart from an unborn baby was killed. The whole county was inhospitable to Methodism, and to the Church of England in general, yet in Bandon (a Protestant town) Wesley preached to the largest audiences he had yet seen in Ireland. He had various rumours and misinformation about the Methodists to correct in these parts, the most extravagant being that 'they placed all religion in wearing long whiskers'.

He went very hoarse in Bandon - 'I could not speak without much difficulty. However, I made shift to preach at nine, at two and at five' - but found that this was when the people most powerfully heard the call of God. He also suffered a cold and facial swelling, which he successfully treated with nettles and warm treacle.

Throughout his three months in Ireland, neither his published Journal nor his journal letters to Charles give the slightest hint that Grace was there - though this was quite often the way with his travelling companions. Wesley had the chance to view her spiritual qualities and missionary activities at close quarters and was more impressed than ever. In Dublin, in July, they apparently talked of marriage again and it seems that Wesley convinced Grace that his claims as a suitor had priority over Bennet's, who, he suggested, had probably cooled in his ardour anyway. Apparently, Wesley asked her to marry him and not only did she consent, but they exchanged vows. In common law, this was a binding ceremony.

All seemed settled, but back in Bristol, Wesley, unable to rein in his taste for female conversation, upset Grace with his intimacy with one Molly Francis. Stung with jealousy (according to Wesley), she wrote a love letter to Bennet, promising to marry him. 'Of this she told me the next day in great agony of mind. But it was too late. His passion revived.'

While at Bristol, John and Charles had a meeting with Whitefield and Howel Harris to discuss the possibility of reuniting. This was largely the work of Lady Huntingdon, who, though she was a Calvinist herself and closer to Whitefield, remained on good terms with both sides and repeatedly encouraged efforts towards greater unity. Nothing solid came from the talks, but they seem to have created more friendly feeling between them.

The fundamental difference between Wesley and Whitefield was not the theological one that so exercised them both and sadly caused conflict in proportion to its inscrutability rather than its significance. They were both saving souls and whether that meant harvesting the elect or convincing the free made no difference to how or why they did it. The great difference in reality was one of job description: Wesley was a preacher, pastor, leader, administrator and an architect of religious organization; Whitefield was a preacher. Although he founded some successful 'tabernacles', he had very little interest in organizing converts and left this mostly to others. At the very beginning, this was Wesley, then Cennick and later Howel Harris. Consequently, while there were now over 400 predestinarian Methodist societies in Wales, there were only about 30 in England.

Whitefield had mixed motives for his differing approach: 'Let the name of Whitefield die, so that the cause of Jesus Christ may live,' he said, 'I have had enough of popularity to be sick of it.' He did not want to found a Whitefieldite sect and would rather the movement die of natural causes than be ossified as a monument to him. On the other hand, it seems fair to say that the vast work of nurturing and organizing lacked the glamour of saving souls. He told Wesley, 'I should but weave a Penelope's web if I formed societies ... I intend therefore to go about preaching the gospel to every creature.' The result was that, for all his thousands of converts, Calvinistic Methodism did not survive as a significant force in England (unlike in Wales) into the next century. As Whitefield lamented in a moment of self-doubt, 'My brother Wesley acted wisely. The souls that were awakened under his ministry he joined in class and thus preserved the fruits of his labours. This I neglected, and my people are a rope of sand.'


Excerpted from John Wesley by Stephen Tomkins Copyright © 2003 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 A Troubled Prehistory 6
Ch. 2 The Rector's Wife (1703-13) 12
Ch. 3 The World: Charterhouse School and Old Jeffery (1714-20) 17
Ch. 4 The Spirit and the Flesh: Oxford (1720-29) 21
Ch. 5 The Pursuit of Holiness (1729-30) 30
Ch. 6 The Hotter Pursuit of Holiness (1731-35) 35
Ch. 7 The Wilderness: Georgia (1735-37) 43
Ch. 8 Liberation (1738) 56
Ch. 9 The Gospel in the Fields (1738-39) 64
Ch. 10 The Offence of the Gospel (1739) 75
Ch. 11 Stillness and Schism (1739-41) 84
Ch. 12 Opposition (1741-42) 95
Ch. 13 Going North (1742-43) 101
Ch. 14 The Mob at War (1743-48) 110
Ch. 15 Love (1748-49) 121
Ch. 16 Brothers at War (1749) 130
Ch. 17 Marriage (1750-51) 135
Ch. 18 The Valley of the Shadow (1752-55) 142
Ch. 19 Dissent (1755-58) 148
Ch. 20 Perfection (1759-63) 156
Ch. 21 The Horrible Decree (1764-71) 165
Ch. 22 Going to America (1771-80) 174
Ch. 23 Partings (1780-91) 182
Ch. 24 The Long Run 195
Bibliography of works cited in this book 201
Notes 202
Index 205
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