Wesley, John (?Benjamin)

Author

b Epworth, Lincs 1703, d City Rd, Old St, Middx (C London) 1791. As a boy he was dramatically rescued from a fire at his father’s rectory at Epworth; after study at Charterhouse Sch, Surrey, and Christ Church Oxford, he was ordained and elected a Fellow of Lincoln Coll. He became the leader of Oxford’s ‘Holy Club’ which his younger brother Charles (qv) had quite informally begun and which first attracted the nickname ‘Methodist’, in which he later gloried. Its members were active in disciplined religious observances and unusual social commitments such as prison visiting. In 1735 he sailed with Charles and others to Georgia, technically as a missionary, in effect a chaplain, but in either role a self-confessed failure. After some naïve actions complicated by a near-disastrous romantic entanglement, he left in embarrassed humiliation, not before courting a rather different trouble by unauthorised tampering with the texts of familiar hymns. Back in London he built on the Moravian contacts he had made on the outward voyage, notably in friendship with Peter Böhler. After intense struggles to find a personal faith, the decisive moment of conversion came at a meeting in Aldersgate St in May 1738— recorded in detail in his published Journal, now commemorated by Methodists worldwide but strangely seldom mentioned in his later writings. ‘Conversion’ or not, the event had ‘pivotal significance’ (A Skevington Wood) for Wesley and Methodism.

It marked, however, a turning point in his life which from then on became an extraordinary career of sustained energy as a travelling evangelist (usually on horseback), church planter, teacher, author, controversialist, and in effect the founder of a denomination. Technically he remained an Anglican, but he put in place all the structures which led to the inevitable split soon after his death. He followed George Whitefield and brother Charles in ‘field-preaching’, which then became his normal method; they and their colleagues suffered cruel and sometimes near-fatal attacks. While at first keen not to duplicate or rival services provided by each local parish church (from which he was increasingly barred for his evangelical preaching), he established meeting-places, schools, teams of lay preachers, class-meetings, medical clinics, and in 1784 an annual Conference which remains the decision-making centre of Methodism. Not the least cause of division in that year was his ‘ordination’, bishop-style, of Thomas Coke and others to serve in N America, at first under his authority. Sadder, perhaps, were divisions within evangelical ranks; Wesley opposed Whitefield’s preaching of the Reformed ‘doctrines of grace’, upheld free-will and taught the possibility of ‘perfect love’ which he was constantly driven to explain or qualify. Some colleagues became disillusioned with his autocratic style; after Charles intervened to prevent an impending marriage, John married suddenly, unwisely and unhappily. While his relations with women were often problematic, he also attracted deep loyalty from followers of either sex, notably that of the remarkable Elizabeth Ritchie who attended his death-bed. In old age, continuing to travel and preach so long as it was physically possible, he mellowed so far as to become almost an establishment figure, respected by Blake, Johnson and others including royalty. But in social attitudes he remained radical, a fierce opponent of slavery who wrote his Thoughts Upon Slavery in 1774 (long before abolition), a critic of many but not all wars, with a simple lifestyle and a fascinated horror of wealth, grand houses and nobility. He never quite overcame his need to control those around him or take the credit for joint enterprises. Unlike virtually all his contemporary preachers he did not wear a wig. He compiled a popular dictionary, a practical medical handbook, and much more. His work as a hymnwriter, translator, abridger and editor has largely been overshadowed by his other achievements, but in hymnody alone his place in history is assured. Many collections of work by one or both of the brothers named them pointedly as ‘Presbyters of the Church of England’. The authorship of some texts is still disputed, as between John and Charles; Erik Routley is among those who believe that all the original texts are Charles’s, John providing only translations. A great compiler of lists and maker of rules, he naturally provided his Methodists (in 1761) with some pointed ‘Directions for Singing’, which are still commonly and deservedly quoted.

As well as Charles, John’s father and elder brother (both Samuel), his mother Susanna and sister Hetty all had outstanding gifts. There are memorials to him at City Rd, London (his house, chapel and tomb) and in Bristol’s historic ‘New Room’. Among recent biographies, those by S Ayling, R Hattersley and (notably) H Rack are all valuable. JW’s own fascinating Journals, abridged or in full, are indispensable but (like his definitive published sermons) need to be read with discernment; in all his writing, as George Lawton kindly put it, he ‘sat lightly to quotation marks’—and sometimes to facts. Biographers of the 18th-c evangelical leaders tend to take sides; Wesley left behind much more accessible printed material, including ammunition, than those who distanced themselves from his claims, policies and ‘free-will’ doctrines. Some Methodists find it especially hard to see him in proportion or take his critics seriously. See also the notes to Cennick, Perronet, Toplady and C Wesley. Nos.240, 778, 781, 844, 878*.