To understand his place in history we must remind ourselves again that when he and his brother Charles founded the Methodist movement at Oxford (1729) religion in England was at lower ebb than at any time in modern history. Not more than five or six members of the House of Commons went to church.42 The Anglican clergy had so far accepted rationalism as to base nearly all their writings on reasoning. They seldom mentioned heaven or hell, and stressed social virtues rather than otherworldliness. An English sermon, as described by Voltaire, was a “solid but sometimes dry dissertation which a man reads to the people without gesture and without particular exaltation of the voice.”43 Religion was active and fervent only in the Dissenting sects of the middle class. The town workers were almost wholly ignored by the Anglican clergy; “there was a huge contingent, consisting of the lowest class, who were outside the reach of education or of religion, who had no religion, and had never been taught any”;44 they were abandoned to a poverty only dimly lightened by religious hope. It was against this background that John Wesley and George Whitefield effected a powerful revival of Puritan beliefs and ethics, and established the Methodist Church.
Wesley’s ancestry was shot through with theology and rebellion. His great-grandfather, Bartholomew Westley, was ejected from his rectories in Dorset because he continued the Dissenting worship after the restoration of the Anglican Church to ecclesiastical monopoly in England. John’s grandfather, John Westley, became a minister in Dorset, was imprisoned for refusing to use the Book of Common Prayer, was ejected from his rectory, and became a Dissenting pastor at Poole. John’s father, Samuel Wesley, dropped thet from his name, worked his way through Oxford, abandoned Dissent, was ordained an Anglican priest, married Susanna Annesley (a preacher’s daughter), and became rector of Epworth in Lincolnshire. Of his nineteen children eight died in infancy—illustrating the labors of women, the careless virility of clergymen, and the quality of medicine in eighteenth-century England. The father was a stern disciplinarian at home and in the pulpit; he brought up his children to fear a vengeful God, convicted one of his parishioners of adultery, and compelled her to walk through the street in a garment of repentance.45 His wife rivaled him in strictness and piety. When her most famous son was twenty-nine she explained to him her philosophy of moral training:
I insist upon conquering the will of children betimes, because this is the only strong and rational foundation of a religious education, without which both precept and example will be ineffectual. But when this is thoroughly done, then a child is capable of being governed by the reason and piety of its parents, till its own understanding comes to maturity.… When turned a year old they [her children] were taught to fear the rod and cry softly; by which means they escaped abundance of correction they might otherwise have had.46
The eldest of her sons, Samuel Wesley II, became a poet, a scholar, and an Anglican priest who deprecated the Methodism of his brothers. The eighteenth child was Charles Wesley, who powerfully seconded John’s preaching with 6,500 hymns. John himself was the fifteenth, born at Epworth in 1703. When he was six the rectory burned down; he was left for lost amid the flames, but he appeared at a second-story window, and was rescued by a neighbor standing on the shoulders of another; thereafter he called himself “a brand plucked from the burning,” and never overcame his vivid fear of hell. In his father’s house any unexplained noise was interpreted as a supernatural presence, demonic or divine.
At eleven John was sent to Charterhouse “public” school, and at seventeen to Christ Church, Oxford. He overcame his poor health by resolute walking, riding, and swimming, and lived to be eighty-eight. He read widely, and kept careful notes and abstracts of his reading. He relished, above all other books, Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Holy Dying, and Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ. Even in his college days he began—partly in cipher and shorthand—that Journal which is one of the classics of English literature and Protestant piety. In 1726 he was made a fellow of Lincoln College; in 1728 he was ordained an Anglican priest.
It was his brother Charles who first gathered at Oxford a little group of some fifteen students and teachers resolved to practice Christianity with methodical thoroughness. It was their enemies who in derision gave them the names “Holy Club” and “Methodists.” They read together the Greek Testament and the classics; they fasted every Wednesday and Friday; they received the Lord’s Supper every week; they visited prisoners and invalids to offer them comfort and religious hope; they accompanied condemned men to the scaffold. John Wesley came to the leadership of the group through his greater enthusiasm and devotion. He rose every day at four—a habit which he maintained into extreme old age. He planned methodically, every morning, the tasks allotted to each hour of the day. He lived on twenty-eight pounds a year, and distributed the remainder of his income in charity. He fasted so frequently that at one time he seemed to have ruined his health beyond repair. He made pilgrimages on foot to William Law to solicit his advice; Law’sSerious Call to a Devout and Holy Life became his spiritual guide; from this book, his Journal records, “the light flowed in so mightily upon my soul that everything appeared in a new view.47
In 1735 he and Charles were invited by General Oglethorpe to accompany him as missionaries to Georgia. As their father had died, they consulted their mother. “If I had twenty sons,” she told them, “I should rejoice if they were all so employed, though I should never see them more”;48 how shall we divested ones understand this devotion? The Holy Club adjourned sine die, and on October 14 John and Charles, with two other “Methodists,” sailed on the Simmonds for Savannah. On board they were impressed by the cheerful piety of some Moravian Brethren who had left Germany to settle in America; when a severe storm buffeted the little vessel the Moravians showed no fear; they rivaled the tempest winds with their sturdy hymns; the Wesleys felt that this was a faith stronger than their own.
Arrived in Georgia (February 5, 1736), the brothers took different posts: Charles became secretary to Governor Oglethorpe, John became pastor to the new community, and occasional missionary to the neighboring Indians. At first he praised these as eager to receive the Gospel, but two years later he described them as “gluttons, thieves, dissemblers, liars, murderers of fathers, murderers of mothers, murderers of their own children”; we are told that he “was not a success with Indians.”49 The white population, which included hundreds of transported criminals, resented his Oxford accent, his masterful spirit, and his insistence on the strictest rules of ritual and discipline. For baptism he required total and triple immersion, and when a parent objected he refused to baptize the child. Still a “High Churchman of a very narrow type,”50 he repulsed from the Communion table a man of respected life who confessed himself to be a Dissenter; he refused to read the funeral service over a colonist who had not renounced his Dissenting sect; he forbade the ladies of his congregation to wear rich dresses or gold ornaments; and he persuaded the governor to ban fishing and hunting on Sunday—the only day on which his parishioners had time to fish or hunt. He became enamored of Sophia Hopkey, the eighteen-year-old niece of Savannah’s chief magistrate, but his Moravian friends disapproved of her. Tired of his hesitation, she married a Mr. Wilkinson. When she presented herself for Communion he refused her the Sacrament on the grounds that she had communicated only three times in the last three months, and had neglected to ask her pastor to announce the banns for her marriage. Her husband brought suit against him for defaming the wife’s character; the court condemned Wesley’s conduct as a suitor and his severities as a clergyman; he rejected its right to try him; popular feeling against him mounted. He fled to Charleston and embarked for England (December 22, 1737).
In London he renewed his austerities in the hope that they would restore his confidence. But Peter Böhler, a Moravian preacher en route to America, assured him that his faith was still inadequate; that no matter how perfect his morals might be, or how zealous his piety and ritual, he would remain in a state of damnation until, by a divine flash of illumination and conviction quite distinct from any process of reasoning, he should realize that Christ had died for him, and had expiated his sins; only after such conversion would a man be secure from sinning, and certain of salvation. Wesley commemorated in his Journal the Magna Dies, or Great Day, May 24, 1738, when this final conversion came to him:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. I began to pray with all my might for those who had in a more especial manner despitely used me and persecuted me. I then testified openly to all there what I now first felt in my heart.51
In brief, he had recapitulated the evolution of Christianity from salvation by faith and works to salvation by faith alone (Luther) to salvation by a personal and divine illumination (the Quakers). Grateful to Böhler, Wesley crossed over to Germany in the summer of 1738, and spent several weeks in Herrnhut, the Saxon village where a colony of Moravian Brethren had been established on the estates of Count von Zinzendorf.
Meanwhile Charles Wesley, on his return to England, had experienced a similar conversion; in his more gentle way he had begun to preach to the prisoners in Newgate, and from every pulpit to which he was admitted. Still more important, a personality only less powerful than John Wesley was coming to the fore in the Methodist movement. George Whitefield was born to an innkeeper at Gloucester in 1714. For a year and more he served as a drawer of liquor for his father’s guests. He worked his way through Pembroke College, Oxford, and was one of the first members of the Holy Club. He followed the Wesleys to Georgia in 1738, but returned to England in the fall of that year to be ordained an Anglican priest. Not satisfied with the opportunities given him in pulpits, and eager to bring the inspiration of his faith to the masses of the people, he began in February, 1739, to preach in the open fields near Bristol to coal miners who had seldom dared or cared to enter a church. His voice was so clear and strong that it could reach twenty thousand hearers, and his fervent oratory so moved these hardened and weary men that he could see (he tells us) “the white gutters made by their tears, which plentifully fell down their black cheeks.”52 The reputation of the new preacher, and the reports of his open-air preaching, stirred the imagination of England. Wherever Whitefield went, immense crowds gathered to hear him.
His preaching was unforgettable. He made no pretense to erudition, but he claimed to have talked intimately with God.53 His language, said Wesley, inclined to be “luscious and amorous,” using some startling images; so he spoke of Christ being “roasted, as it were, in the Father’s wrath, and therefore fitly styled the Lamb of God.”54 Whitefield in the fields, like Pitt in Parliament, brought the arts of acting to his speech; he could weep at a moment’s notice and apparently with sincere emotion; and he could make his simple auditors feel with immediate intensity the sense of sin, the terror of hell, and the love of Christ. Orators like Bolingbroke and Chesterfield, skeptics like Franklin and Hume, actors like Garrick, admitted his power. Welcomed everywhere, he made England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and America his parish. Thirteen times he crossed the Atlantic, twelve times he traversed Scotland. It was not unusual for him to preach forty hours in a week. By the age of fifty he was worn out. Too late he reduced his program to “strict allowance”—that is, he preached only once each weekday, and only three times on Sunday. In 1769 he made his seventh visit to the colonies, and he died at Newburyport, Massachusetts, in the following year.
John Wesley, returning from Herrnhut, could not quite approve of Whitefield’s hortatory style, and hesitated to follow his example of preaching under the sky. “Having been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order, … I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.”55 He overcame his distaste, and took his message to the fields and streets; “I submitted to be more vile [common] in the highway” (April, 1739). His oratory was less passionate than Whitefield’s, his language was that of a scholar and a gentleman, but he too spoke to the emotions of his audiences. He made the daily lives of simple folk seem to be part of a vast and noble drama in which their souls were the battleground of Satan and Christ; they moved with him into a world of portents and miracles; and they heard in him—as he claimed to be—the voice of God. And whereas Whitefield preached and then passed on, Wesley organized his followers into “little societies” in one town after another, and guided them to permanence. Their meetings recalled the agapes of the early Christians—feasts of religious joy and communal love; they confessed their sins to one another, submitted to scrutiny of their moral life, and joined in prayer and pious song. John had already composed or translated some stirring hymns, and Charles had begun his voluminous hymnology. In 1740 Charles wrote the most famous of his many beautiful hymns—“Jesus, Lover of My Soul.”
In these fervent groups John Wesley trained lay preachers who carried on the new gospel when the leaders could not remain. Without ordination, without any fixed parishes, with or without a pulpit, these “helpers” spread over England, Scotland, and Wales, brought the fears and hopes of the Protestant theology to the working classes, and prepared for the revivalist visits of Wesley and Whitefield. Wesley himself traveled—on horseback, in coaches, or on foot—to the remotest corners of England, often sixty miles in a day, averaging four thousand miles a year for forty years. He preached at every opportunity: in jails to prisoners, in coaches to fellow passengers, in inns to wayfarers, on vessels crossing to Ireland or from port to port. At Epworth, being refused use of the pulpit which his father had held, he preached in the churchyard, standing on his father’s tomb.
What did he preach? Essentially the Puritan creed that had seemed mortally stricken by the moral riot of the Stuart Restoration. He rejected (Whitefield accepted) predestination; following the Arminian wing of the Established Church, he insisted that man had enough freedom of will to decide his own choice or refusal of divine grace. He repudiated all appeals to reason; religion, he felt, went beyond the reach of man-made logic, and depended upon divine inspiration and inward conviction; but he turned away from mysticism on the ground that it left everything to God and did not spur men to active goodness. He shared most of the superstitions of his class and time: he believed in ghosts, in the diabolical origin of strange noises, in the reality and criminality of witchcraft; to give up belief in witchcraft, he argued, is to give up belief in the Bible. He had no doubt about miracles; he thought they were happening every day among his followers. A headache, a painful tumor, a violent rupture, a broken leg were cured by his prayers or those of the Methodist societies; and he told of a Catholic girl who lost her sight whenever she read the Catholic Mass-book, but always recovered it when she read the New Testament. He accepted the accounts of women who claimed to have seen angels, Christ, heaven, or hell; and he recorded in his Journal a number of cases where adversaries of Methodism had been struck down by miraculous punishments.56
His preaching was so vivid that many individuals in his audiences were moved to hysteria and convulsions. The Journal tells of sinners who, hearing him, were overcome with physical pain and rolled in agony on the ground, while other believers knelt beside them and prayed for their deliverance from Satanic possession.57 Wesley describes a meeting at Baldwin Street, London, in 1739:
My voice could scarce be heard amidst the groanings of some and the cries of others.… A Quaker who stood by was not a little displeased … when he himself dropped down as if thunderstruck. The agony he was in was even terrible to behold. We besought God not to lay folly to his charge, and he soon lifted up his head and cried aloud: “Now I know that thou art a prophet of the Lord.”58
An eyewitness quoted by Wesley describes a Methodist meeting at Everton in 1759:
Some were shrieking, some roaring aloud.… The most general was a loud breathing, like that of people half strangled and gasping for life; and indeed almost all the cries were like those of human creatures dying in bitter anguish. Great numbers wept without any noise; others fell down as dead.… I stood upon the pew seat, as did a young man in the opposite pew, an able-bodied, fresh, healthy countryman; but in a moment, when he seemed to think of nothing else, down he dropt with a violence inconceivable.… I heard the stamping of his feet ready to break the boards, as he lay in strong convulsions at the bottom of the pew.… Almost all on whom God laid his hand turned either very red or almost black.… A stranger, well-dressed, who stood facing me, fell backward to the wall, then forward on his knees, wringing his hands and roaring like a bull.… He rose and ran against the wall till Mr. Keeling and another held him. He screamed out, “Oh, what shall I do. What shall I do? Oh, for one drop of the blood of Christ!” As he spoke God set his soul at liberty; he knew his sins were blotted out, and the rapture he was in seemed too great for human nature to bear.59
Probably these hysterical outbreaks were caused by conditions affecting the victims before the Methodist meeting, and the hellfire sermon merely capped a climax beyond control. Wesley interpreted such seizures as Satanic possessions followed by divine cures. Sometimes, he thought, they brought no permanent good in conduct or character, but often, he felt, they cleansed the soul of sin, and inaugurated a new life.
The greatest success of Methodism was among the poor. The preachers themselves were men of modest learning, simple in their sentiments and speech; there was no barrier of class or culture between them and their audience. They brought their message of sin and repentance to peasants, miners, and criminals; and though they preached a faith that was based on fear rather than love, they gave to the letterless an ethical code that shared in the moral rehabilitation of England in the second half of the eighteenth century. It was the Puritan ethic against which our own time has moved into an extreme reaction. Wesley was hostile to almost all amusement. He allowed cardplaying, but thought it a sin to go to fairs, to wear jewelry or fine clothes, to attend a theater or to dance. In the school that he founded at Kingswood no time was allotted for play, for “he that plays when he is a child will play when he is a man.”60 But that Puritan ethic comported with the English character; it could be borne by strong men and patient women; and it gave to the working classes of England a proud sense of election and destiny that upheld them in poverty and made them hostile to any revolution that questioned Christianity. Conservatives later felt grateful to Wesley that he had saved the British poor from deism and free thought, and had turned their aspirations from social revolt to individual salvation, from an earthly utopia to a posthumous Paradise.61
Wesley himself inclined to conservatism in politics. He was ahead of his class in advocating some long-due reforms: he denounced the “rotten borough” system, the inequalities of representation in Parliament, the corrosive corruption of English politics, the inhumanity of slavery, the horrors of British jails. But he accepted the class structure of society as natural and just; he opposed any relaxation of the laws against Catholics, and in the re-volt of the American colonies his sympathies were all with George III.
He remained an Anglican by creed, but he rejected the Anglican view that only a bishop in the Apostolic Succession could validly ordain a priest; he himself ordained ministers for Scotland and America. When he said “The world is my parish”62 he proposed to preach wherever he wished, without episcopal permission or allocation; to that extent he seceded from the Established Church. But he exhorted his followers to attend Anglican services, to shun Dissenting assemblies and creeds, and to refrain from antagonizing the Anglican clergy. At first some Anglican pulpits were opened to Methodist ministers; but when Wesley’s lay preachers assumed the right to administer the Sacrament, and Methodist doctrine reverted to the medieval emphasis on hell and the Puritan preoccupation with sin, the Anglican divines withdrew their support, as Erasmus had withdrawn from Luther; they preferred an orderly development, and excluded the Methodists from Anglican pulpits.
Persecution of the new sect came far less from the Established Church than from the simple commoners who could not tolerate new ways of preaching old ideas. In town after town the open-air preachers—like their later counterparts preaching a new social gospel—were assaulted by mobs happy to be cruel without fear and without reproach. At Monmouth a lay preacher was struck on the head by a rock, and died of the blow. At Wednesbury a crowd wrecked the homes of Methodists, abused their women, beat their men. When Wesley appeared it cried out for his blood, and applauded those who cudgeled him; he prayed aloud, and it let him go. At Bolton the house where he was preaching was invaded by an angry assemblage; amid a shower of stones, tiles, and eggs he continued his sermon to the end. At Devizes a water engine was turned upon the residence of Charles Wesley, and bulldogs were loosed upon his followers. At Exeter Whitefield was stoned almost to death. At Hoxton an ox was prodded into a Methodist congregation; at Pensford a bull, maddened by baiting, was driven full against the table at which John Wesley was preaching. The courage of the preachers appealed to the British character, and gained them tolerance and support.
Wesley was a little man five feet three inches tall, weighing 128 pounds. He was impressive in old age by his white hair, but already in middle age he arrested attention by his ascetic chiseled features and dominating eyes. He took it for granted that he was made to govern; his nervous energy and intellectual force put him naturally in the lead; his unquestioning self-confidence sometimes carried him to an arrogance that a Methodist bishop pronounced quite “overbearing.”63 He was not an easy man to get along with, for he thought and moved too fast for others to keep his pace. He married in 1751, having fallen in love, as we all do, with the nurse who tended him in illness. For two years his wife traveled with him on his hectic rounds; then her health and nerves broke down and she left him, as one might leap from an unmanageable steed. He attributed his health and vitality to his perpetual journeys on horseback or foot; perhaps we should add that oratory is an aerating exercise. In 1735 he became a vegetarian; a year later he and a friend decided to live on bread alone, to “try whether life might not as well be sustained by one sort as by variety of food. We … were never more vigorous and healthy than when we tasted nothing else”;64 but they soon relapsed into diversity.
What were the results of the Methodist preaching? In one generation religion, which had seemed to be dying under Anglican dignity and deist doubts, became a vibrant element in English life, subordinate only to politics and war. At Wesley’s death (1791) his followers numbered 79,000 in England, 40,000 in North America; in 1957 there were 2,250,000 Methodists in Great Britain, 12,000,000 in the United States, 40,000,000 in the world.65 Outside of its own membership it influenced other denominations; so, in the Anglican Church that rejected Methodism, Methodist ideals aroused the Evangelical movement in the later half of the eighteenth century, and may have entered into the Oxford movement of the nineteenth. Politically the results were a conservative resignation among the working classes till 1848. Morally Methodism improved personal conduct and family life among the poor, shared in reducing electoral and official corruption, shamed many of the master class out of frivolity and vice, and prepared the English revulsion against the trade in slaves. Culturally the movement was negative; it gave the people sacred songs, but it continued the Puritan hostility to art. From an intellectual point of view it was a step backward; it based its creed on fear, its ritual on emotion, and condemned reason as a snare. In the great conflict between faith and reason it placed all its hopes on faith; it put no trust in the progress of knowledge and science; it ignored or scorned the Enlightenment that was setting France on fire. It felt that the sole purpose and meaning of life were to escape everlasting damnation, and that the one thing needed for this end was faith in the redeeming death of Christ.
In January, 1790, aged eighty-six, Wesley wrote in his Journal: “I am now an old man, decayed from head to foot. My eyes are dim, my right hand shakes much, my mouth is hot and dry every morning, I have a lingering fever almost every day.… However, blessed be God, I do not slack my labor. I can preach and write still.”66 Two months later he began a speaking tour that lasted five months and took him through England and Scotland. A year later he died (March 2, 1791). If we judge greatness by influence he was, barring Pitt, the greatest Englishman of his times.