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THE EVANGELICAL REVIVALIST
The First Leaps (1741-1743) AND now a new Wesley, the real Wesley, emerged, the man of action, indomitable, full of explosive energy. The prig-Wesley of Oxford, together with the smoothly fashionable parson; the rigid authoritarian of Savannah, together with the egotistic savior of his own soul; the torn and riven Wesley, the almost fanatical theolept of the recent months, gradually disappeared, to give way to the man who — the phrase is famous — transformed the countryside of England. To say that in his great leadership, in his organizing which amounted to genius, in his passionate and untiring work of regeneration, he at last found himself, is in a sense true; to say that he at last lost himself is truer still.
Wesley had made his port, but the society had yet to squeeze through perilous straits, only just scraping between the rock of predestinarianism on the one hand, and the maelstrom of Moravianism on the other. For, cogitating in America, Whitefield had decided that he must fly the colors of Calvin. Not, he explained, that he had read anything of Calvin’s; no, the doctrine of election had been imparted to him more simply by the agency of Christ and His apostles; indeed, he had had it direct from God, who had singled him out. Thus authorized, he implored Wesley, whose feet he repeatedly said he was ready to wash, to read and to think, and to rid himself of his pestilential notions of “universal redemption,” of “free grace,” of possible “sinless perfection” in this life. Why must Wesley dispute? he asked fretfully, who, after all, had disqualified himself from judging the question by admitting that he had not the witness of the spirit within himself. He, Whitefield, daily felt Christ’s blessed Spirit filling his soul and body as plain as he felt the air which he breathed or the food which he ate. “I hope,” he wrote, “at this time I feel something of the meekness and humility of Christ.” There seemed to be more hope than fact in the statement, and Wesley was not the man to submit to such arrogance.
Let Whitefield plead as much as he liked that a dissuasion in their ranks would injure the cause, that it was likely to rob them of a satisfactory martyrdom; he would never for a moment, for any reason, confess adherence to a doctrine of predestination. Why, it made God out to be worse than the Devil! He believed in universal redemption (which is not the same thing as universal salvation), and that if there were some elected to do special work (as he knew there were, feeling himself to be one), most men deserved hell, from which they were only saved by the righteousness of Christ being imputed to them. Whitefield did not relieve the tension by bidding Wesley be more cautious in discovering God’s will by lot, and reminding him that the method had told Wesley that Whitefield ought not to go to America, where he had glamorously spread the light. Either Wesley must abandon sortilege, or suppose that God might be wrong.
The astonishing lucubrations from Whitefield, in which he begged Wesley not to dispute, and himself disputed, in which he swore he would never leave Wesley, yet left him as he did so, were private and far away; they called for no immediate action. But Wesley had to contend with a center of disaffection nearer at hand, and public. The Kingswood school for colliers’ children, of which Whitefield had laid the foundation, and which Wesley had completed, was under a layman, ignorant but holy, called Cennick, who was devoted to Whitefield, and now embraced the stimulating doctrines of election and reprobation. In continual visits to Bristol, Wesley fought the heresy which at one time sadly depleted his own meetings.
Cennick wrote orgulously to Whitefield: “I sit solitary, like Eli, waiting what will become of the ark.” Once, he sighed, but with spiritual pride behind the sigh, the Gospel had seemed to flourish gloriously at Kingswood; but now “with universal redemption Brother Charles pleases the world. Brother John follows him in everything.” The letter, with all its sting, fell into Wesley’s hands; he saw he must be prompt Cennick was about to found a rival society.
Wesley therefore called a general meeting, at which he accused Cennick of plotting behind his back, and produced the letter, which Cennick unrepentantly avowed; whereupon the gathering warmed to recriminations both theological and personal. Wesley adjourned the meeting for a week — not, however, to resume the discussion: for, born to command, he was about to show that he was. After letting the Calvinists babble for awhile, he read a short statement, which concluded that he, John Wesley, with the approbation of the Kingswood faithful, declared the predestinarians expelled from the society, not for what they might think, but because of their “talebearing, backbiting, and evil-speaking, for their dissembling, lying, and slandering.”
The reasons he gave were excuse enough, but the real point at issue, however much he might glaze it over, was the doctrinal one. This was made clear enough by Whitefield, when he came over from America in the spring of 1741, to renew body to body the contest of which the long-range preliminaries had already made some noise in London. For, on February 1st, those who went to the Foundery were mysteriously given printed copies of one of Whitefield’s most controversial, we might say most insubordinate, letters to his leader. Wesley, holding out one of the papers, had explained that it was an underhand production, printed without authority, and saying: “I will do just what I believe Mr. Whitefield would do were he here,” he tore it in pieces, an example universally followed, so that in two minutes there was not one whole copy left. “Ah, poor Achitophel!” Wesley commented in his Journal. The evil moment was shelved, but only shelved. When Whitefield arrived indeed, he protested that he would never, never preach against the Wesleys, he would rather die; but a week later he declared with equal vehemence that he must attack the brothers. It would be sinful not to do so. Wesley did his utmost to avert the rift; he pleaded that the subject of election might not be discussed at all; he drew as close as he dared to the predestinarian point of view: but it was all in vain. Whitefield set up his own tabernacle; the Countess of Huntingdon, hitherto an ardent follower of the Wesleys, founded her “Connection,” and the Wesleys were alone.
But by now Wesley had reached the stage where a doctrinal difference, within limits, could not separate him from a man whom he liked, and who had the spirit of regeneration in him. Dissenters, even Quakers, his bêtes noires, were admitted to the society. He was acquiring charity. Though Whitefield for some time attacked him, he himself never riposted, and when asked why he did not answer one of his former disciple’s pamphlets, he replied, “You may read Whitefield against Wesley, but you will never read Wesley against Whitefield.” It was not only because he felt controversy futile, but because he saw that a public difference put a weapon in the hands of their common enemies. In two years the leaders were friends again; and as a proof of how little Wesley felt resentment, he would consult Lady Huntingdon on the publication of his Journals.
Then Moravianism. There, it was not divergence but likeness that was the danger, for both the Wesleys were ineluctably drawn to the Moravians, John so much so that when he again met Peter Böhler, in April 1741, he exclaimed, “I wonder how I refrain from joining these men! I long to be with them: and yet I am kept from them.” Charles was even more attracted; in fact, for a short time nothing did keep him from them. John made no complaint, for Charles was always completely open with him; he merely explained why he himself could not join them, although they were in many ways exemplary. They were too mystic; they sometimes acted with guile — the thing in the world Wesley most hated — they were inclined to exalt their own Church too high; they despised, actually scoffed at, self-denial. “O my brother,” he cried out, “my soul is grieved for you: fair words have stolen away your heart.” John saw himself about to be completely isolated. but Charles’s loyalty to his brother, his intense reverence and love for him, dragged him back from the gulf, and the two were from then on inseverably united.
But two men, or three or four, cannot officer an army, and who was to help the Wesleys? Not the scandalized pastors of the Church of England, or at most one or two of the less easily frightened souls among them.
Pastors of some sort there had to be, for without them the flocks relapsed from zeal, or slipped on the uncertain paths of theology. Wesley therefore appointed, to act as expanders, a few ardent souls who loved to explain: but what is the use of explaining if you are not anxious for a result? If you are, your explanation will insensibly merge into exhortation, and then, all unaware, you are preaching. Lay preachers! — then unknown to Mother Church. What would this lead to? The expanders could not be reined in, all the less so that they were unpolished men, unused to making nice distinctions between their thoughts and their emotions. Maxfield, for instance. During Wesley’s absence at Bristol, he had taken wing, and from expounding had risen to preaching, till even Lady Huntingdon, the most exalted expert, had been deeply impressed. Wesley rushed up to London to stop this irregularity; but his mother, in her room beside the Foundery, which she occupied until her death in July 1742, uttered the words, “John, take care what you do with respect to that young man; for Thomas Maxfield is as much called to preach the Gospel as ever you were!”
Wesley hesitated, heard him preach, and gave in. “It is the Lord,” he declared; “let Him do what seems to Him good.” He excused the step to the reluctant Charles: “I am not clear that Brother Maxfield should not expound in Greyhound Lane; nor can I as yet do without him.” Nor can I as yet do without him — that was the crux. What was a mere Church ordinance compared with the work, Wesley’s work — so far had he already got from his worship of every rubric he could lay his hands on.
Before another four years had passed he had irrefutably convinced himself that lay preachers were scriptural, for necessity knows no law, not even the law of logic. Not all the scribes who preached had been of the tribe of Levi, he concluded; “and if we come to modern times,” he added, “was Mr. Calvin ordained?” Apparently not. Further, in Germany, neophytes had to prove themselves preachers before they could be ordained at all: and even in the English Church parish clerks often read prayers, witness “that singing man” at Christ Church who murdered with his excruciating chant every lesson he read. Who had ordained him? Wesley triumphantly asked. Why, there was not even a hint of separation from the Church in appointing — no, not “appointing,” “allowing” — lay preachers.
But indeed, every haphazard event, every necessity of the moment, seemed to conduce to the fated end, the founding of a separate Church, however abhorrently John Wesley might cast the idea out of his mind. The general organization itself of the society came into being through a mere practical need of money; for Wesley’s appeal for funds for his Bristol buildings having failed to produce more than a fraction of the sum required, it was suggested that every member of the society should subscribe a penny a week. A vague organization indeed; but when it was pointed out that some of the members could not afford this, one of the richer ones said that he would be responsible for eleven other brethren, and would make up from his own purse what pennies were lacking. This was a system with a form, and since it was universally adopted, the society was split up into classes of twelve, and these soon became, not only the financial unit, but the disciplinary one as well. The overseer became responsible, not only for the material harvest of his class, but also for its spiritual one. And it was Wesley, the master, who chose him, with extreme care as to his religious fitness. The class leader would make house-to-house visits, until these were found both impracticable and unsatisfactory; impracticable because mistresses did not always find it convenient for their cooks to be taken away from their work to indulge in religious exercises, unsatisfactory because if there were internecine squabbles, it was better for the parties to meet face to face. In this way was the weekly meeting established.
Thus it was easy to watch jealously over the membership of the classes, and of the society; there were frequent and salutary purgings of backsliders, of disorderly walkers, of insincere members; the precious were sifted from the vile. Further, “bands” were formed, of chosen folk, separated according to sex, to stimulate each other by the recital of their religious experiences, of their temptations, of their relapses into sin — with consequences that were not always happy, because to admit a temptation sometimes seemed to imply yielding to it, and the result was a scandal. Tickets for the society, a form of passport, were issued, signed as often as not by one of the Wesleys, renewable at stated intervals; and these, sometimes plain, sometimes adorned with texts, mottoes, pictures of cherubim blowing trumpets, or whatever design seemed at the moment suitably allegorical, served as further checks. No longer need Wesley cry, “O Discipline! Where art thou to be found?”
The next step was obvious enough — the provision of buildings, for open-air preaching is not convenient in all weathers: and besides, since many parsons refused communion to Methodists, it was necessary to have somewhere where the Wesleys could officiate. Today these buildings dot the countryside with models of inspired dreariness, but comely or not, they marked a definite stage; for once a religious society has an organization of its own — and this was made clearer still when the first Annual Conference was called in 1744, and the society became the United Society of Methodists.— its own preachers, and its own buildings, there is little use pretending that it is still within the fold of the Established Church. Nevertheless Wesley passionately repudiated dissent: far from being Dissenters, he declared, the Methodists were the sound part of the English Church.
Methodism, then, was being put on a solid basis, but no more in an outer atmosphere of calm, than, within, deliberately and with foreknowledge of the end. All the time there was the feverish excitement of night-watches, where sometimes they would sing and shout for joy till morning, of conversions, of schisms, of hectic opposition from outside. Still people would be struck down when Wesley preached, or, seized with fits, would come to the knowledge that their sins were blotted out; still there would be startling general conversions, as when at an all-night meeting Wesley descended to find a roomful of people groaning and crying out at the strength of the Lord, expelling their demons, and coming to the birth; still there were seceders to the Calvinists and to the Moravians, and occasional drastic purgings of the classes or the bands. Soon also the bitter paper attacks began to give place to physical violence. There had, indeed, in the early Bristol days been noisy interruptions, but the faithful had been able to sing louder than the intruding roughs had bawled; now, however, in London and elsewhere, the opposers became more brutal, and began to wrestle, to throw wildfire and crackers, to use cudgels, to hurl mud and stones; while in Wales, Seward, the first Methodist martyr, was killed with bludgeons. Wesley warmed to the fight, became more absorbed in the glorious work, was ever more active for every moment of his eighteen-hour day, feeling that ten minutes once lost were lost for ever, preaching, privately exhorting, making raids, as Charles also did, into Wales and into Cornwall, editing works of edification, to compose The Christian Library (once getting into trouble over copyright), and printing his own sermons, hymns, journals. Even a severe fever hardly checked him in his course, that of the born organizer who was also a born evangelist; it was indeed the evangelist in him that brought the organizer into play.
But what, precisely, was his mission? To found a new Church? God forbid! To rescue the vast mass of the poor from a state of hopelessness, accomplishing, in fact, a social reform of unlimited dimensions? No. To revivify a drowsy Church then? If asked, he would probably have answered that he was merely carrying out his duties as a priest of the Establishment. What he was doing primarily was to satisfy his nature by engaging in works justified by faith, for if works without faith are meaningless, even impious, when grace is present they are the flower of faith. But apart from any conscious reasoning, almost one might say, unaware of what he was after, he was really impelled by an uncontrollable intent to impart the revelation that had been renewed in him. Woe unto all possessors of the truth who do not tell it! His faith before his conversion had been a reasoned approval, however hard to give, of God and his decrees; now it was a surrender, a surrender which made it urgent for him, not to save his own soul, but those of others. Not that he had yielded up reason — that philosophy of his was never purged away — and when an opponent stated that it was a fundamental principle in the Methodist school that all who came into it must renounce their reason, he retorted sweepingly, “Sir, are you awake? Unless you are talking in your sleep, how can you utter so gross an untruth? It is a fundamental principle with us that to renounce reason is to renounce religion: that religion and reason go hand in hand, and that all irrational religion is false religion.”
Yet, though he refrained from saying so, the reason he meant was not that to be found in books, nor, exactly, the unaided reason of the mind. What had made his “rational religion” significant to him, and precious, what indeed had been essential to his receiving it, had been a personal contact, a living connection — it was this that Peter Böhler had been to him — as though the torch must be passed on from hand to hand, in an actual apostolic succession. The torch! Wesley thought in terms of flame, of fire, heavenly fire, not that of hell, though he always felt that his rescue at the age of six from the blazing Epworth parsonage was symbolic of his being a brand plucked from the burning. Flame and fire were the words that came to his lips whenever he wanted to image the inner truth, the divine reality.
Had not his heart been “strangely warmed” at his conversion? “There are twelve of you,” he told the Methodists of Carlisle, “and all professing to have hearts on fire with the love of God.” At Woodhouse, when he preached, “a flame,” he said, “is suddenly broken out.” Fire, the pure devouring element: Christ had said He came “to throw fire upon the earth.” And, ever since Charles had written in a hymn: Oh that in me the sacred fire Might now begin to glow, Wesley had loved to chant it as he rode about the country on his endless itinerancy; “Spirit of burning, come!” he would sing; “Refining fire go through my heart!” And at the end, when very old, he would still recur to the idea of the torch, saying — again the words are his brother’s: Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire To work, and speak, and think for Thee, Still let me guard the holy fire, And still stir up Thy gift in me.
Guarding the holy fire; that was what he was doing.* He was himself a flame going up and down the land, lighting candles such as, by God’s grace, would never be put out; and as one reads the colossal Journal one gets the impression of this flame, never waning, never smoky, darting from point to point, lighting up the whole kingdom, till at last in due course it burnt out the body it inhabited. * This, from Eayrs’s Wesley , requires separate acknowledgment. The Glorious Battle (1744-1769) A NOBLE monotony! Not to the man who lived those fifty years of whirling incident, of hard work, of tense excitement and danger. He flashed up, down, and across the three kingdoms, organizing, purging, preaching, every year riding at least four thousand five hundred miles, undaunted by weather, uncowed by mobs, indefatigably scheming, and bringing not only hope and happiness to degraded thousands, but clothes, food, health. Not alone, however; for besides one or another companion that he took with him, he felt that an angel was ever by his side, while again and again it was clear that a special dispensation was granted him. Storms would obscure the landscape all around him when on the road, but where he travelled it was fine; the ships on either side of him when he went to Ireland (which he did twenty-one times) might lie becalmed, but his own was bowled along by a spanking breeze. If he was so placed at a preaching that the sun dazzled him, God would gently interpose a cloud, or if He did not, would give his eyes strength to withstand the glare. Calling on Christ would not only instantaneously drive away lingering fevers, but would also cure persistent lameness in his horse. “Cannot God heal either man or beast, by any means, or without any?” Wesley asked. It was clear that He could, and did. “What I aver here is the naked fact,” Wesley would write in recording some such incident; “Let every man account for it as he sees good.” On the other hand, alas, Satan was sometimes dominant; and then he would stir up contrary winds, though it was not always certain that these should not be ascribed to God wishing Wesley to stay a little longer in a place to do more good; and on one occasion the Prince of Darkness inspired Wesley’s horse with so stubborn a reluctance to leave his stable that it was with great difficulty that he was got on to the road, after much jibbing and backing into gates. Influences not of the earth were constantly operating — had Wesley not known this ever since the days of Old Jeffrey? — even to the point of bringing back to life men who were virtually dead. “It is not the work of man that hath lately appeared,” Wesley declared; “all who calmly observe it must say: ‘This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.’” More marvelous, however, in eyes such as ours, removed from these manifestations, is Wesley’s own gallant hardihood. If ever a spirit refused to be shackled by that inert thing the flesh, it was that which drove, or carried, John Wesley’s body over hundreds of thousands of miles, through storms at sea, through blizzards on land, torrents in rivers, and which in 1753 caused him to survive, unimpaired, an attack of consumption so severe that, to prevent, as he said, “wild panegyric,” he composed his own epitaph. Accidents, what did they matter? And since he used to read as he rode, his reins slack on his horse’s neck, over the roughest of paths and fells, tumbles were frequent enough: but then, treacle and brown paper were easily got, and they provided a sovran cure for bruises. If inhospitably treated, as he was at first in Cornwall, he could feed on blackberries; if there was no bed to lie on, well, he would lie on boards.
Once, after about three weeks of such sleeping, he turned round in the night to his companion, and clapping him on the side, said: “Brother Nelson, let us be of good cheer; I have one whole side yet, for the skin is off but one side.” Rain, snow, roads slippery with ice, these were nothing to him. From his youth he had inured himself to weather, wearing both by day and by night as few clothes as was possible, and he had proved his toughness in Georgia. Besides, what he willed, he willed.
EXTRACT FROM THE “JOURNAL,” FEBRUARY 1747. “Sunday, 15th.
I was very weak and faint; but on Monday the 16th I rose soon after three, lively and strong.... The wind was turned full north, and blew so exceedingly hard and keen that when we came to Hatfield neither my companions nor I had much use of our hands or feet. After resting an hour, we bore up again, through the wind and snow which drove full in our faces. But this was only a squall. In Baldock Field the storm began in earnest. The large hail drove so vehemently in our faces that we could not see, nor hardly breathe. However, before two o’clock we reached Baldock, where one met and conducted us safe to Potton. About six I preached to a serious congregation. “Tuesday, 17th. We set out as soon as it was well light; but it was really hard work to get forward, for the frost would not well bear or break; and the untracked snow covering all the roads, we had much ado to keep our horses on their feet. Meantime the wind rose higher and higher, till it was ready to overturn both man and beast.
However, after a short bait at Buckden, we pushed on, and were met in the middle of an open field with so violent a storm of rain and hail as we had not yet had before. It drove through our coats, great and small, boots and everything, and yet froze as it fell, even upon our eyebrows, so that we had scarce either strength or motion left when we came to our inn at Stilton. “We now gave up hopes of reaching Grantham, the snow falling faster and faster. However, we took advantage of a fair blast to set out, and made the best of our way to Stamford Heath. But here a new difficulty arose, from the snow lying in large drifts. Sometimes horse and man were wellnigh swallowed up. Yet in less than an hour we were brought safe to Stamford. Being willing to get as far as we could, we made but a short stop here, and about sunset came, cold and weary, to a little town called Brig Casterton. “Wednesday, 18th. Our servant came up and said: ‘Sir, there is no traveling today. Such a quantity of snow has fallen in the night that the roads are quite filled up.’ I told him: ‘At least we can walk twenty miles a day, with our horses in our hands.’ So in the name of God we set out. The north-east wind was piercing as a sword, and had driven the snow into such uneven heaps that the main road was unpassable. However, we kept on, afoot or on horseback, till we came to the White Lion at Grantham. “Some from Grimsby had appointed to meet us here, but not hearing anything of them... after an hour’s rest we set out straight for Epworth.”
That was stout enough work in all conscience; but what strikes us with still more amazement and admiration is Wesley’s behavior when assaulted by mobs, his astounding escapes, his utterly fearless outfacing of human brute-beasts in the riots which distinguished the Methodist crusade.
Wesley never flinched or quailed; not once would he hide or slink away. If infuriated gangs of hulking ruffians murderously battered down doors to get at him, he would face them serenely, and so terrific was the spell he cast, that when this man, less than five foot six inches tall, looked the burliest drunken hero in the eye, it was the latter who recoiled. Or Wesley would start talking in his calm voice against a howling fury, and gradually the tumult would subside; and often the rabble that had come to injure him would disperse blessing him. If he had to walk through a ravening mob, he would uncover his head so that they might see his face, and then the surging mass would give way before him. His favorite method was to go up to the ringleader and take him by the hand; and then, time and again, the man who had come to incite others to homicidal wrath would become his protector. It seemed as though his life were charmed. Although occasionally he would be struck to the ground, or be hit by stones, times without number he emerged unharmed when missiles were hurled at him, blows aimed at him, walls on which he stood to preach pushed down from under him. He tells as an instance of “how God overrules even the minutes circumstances,” that when preaching at the Cross at Bolton, “one man was bawling at my ear, when a stone struck him on the chest, and he was still.
A second was forcing his way down to me, till another stone hit him in the forehead: it bounded back, the blood ran down, and he came no farther. A third, being got close to me, stretched out his hand, and in the instant a sharp stone came upon the joints of his fingers. He shook his hand and was very quiet till I had concluded my discourse and went away.” Again and again mud and stones were thrown into his coach when driving away from meetings, but he was always miraculously preserved, if once not so miraculously owing to the protection afforded by a very large lady who sat in his lap to shield him.
The most amazing example was at Wednesbury. He was preaching there one afternoon, when a mob from Darlaston assailed the house. Dispersed once by prayer, the rioters came back at about five, and cried: “Bring out the minister; we will have the minister.” Two or three of the ringleaders, brought into the house, and ready to swallow the ground with rage, were turned from lions into lambs after a few words with Wesley, who then went out to address the mob. Standing up on a chair, he asked: “What do you want with me?” “We want you to go with us to the Justice.” “With all my heart.” The mob cried out with might and main: “The gentleman is an honest gentleman, and we will spill our blood in his defense.”
Nevertheless they insisted on dragging him that night to the Justice, two miles through pouring rain. The magistrate, however, was wary. “What have I to do with Mr. Wesley?” he asked. “Go and carry him back again.”
The silly mob then decided to go to another Justice at Walsall, where they arrived at seven, to be met with the answer that the magistrate was in bed.
Well, there was nothing for it but to go back, and fifty or so undertook to convey Wesley home. But just then a huge rush of excited Walsall men poured in like a flood, and overwhelmed the Darlaston convoy, battering them hideously. Wesley tried to speak, but “the noise on every side was like the roaring of the sea.” When he could make himself heard in the din, the mob-leader turned and said: “Sir, I will spend my life for you; follow me, and not one soul here shall touch a hair of your head.” Vain boast. For three mortal hours the possessed rabble impelled Wesley up and down the streets, and across the river, shouting “Knock his brains out! Down with him! Kill him at once! Drown him! Hang him on the next tree!” and even “Crucify him!” Somehow he survived with no further damage than a flap of his waistcoat being torn off, mercifully not the one with papers and money in it. When he tried to slip in to the door of a house that he saw stand open, they dragged him out by the hair. He was hit twice, but both blows were as nothing, “for though one man struck me on the breast with all his might, and the other on the mouth with such a force that the blood gushed out immediately, I felt no more pain from either of the blows than if they had touched me with a straw.” Going down a slippery hill, many tried to push him over, but he knew that if he fell he would never get up again, so he did not even stumble. Angels, Charles recorded, held him up.
A lusty man behind him struck at him several times with an oak cudgel, a knock from which would have meant death, but every time the blow was turned aside; how, Wesley did not know. Another man came rushing at him through the press, and raising his arm to strike, suddenly let it drop gently, and stroked Wesley’s head, saying: “What soft hair he has!” The scene is typical of many which went on through years, down to the final act of the magistrates who had refused to see Wesley: they issued a warrant for his arrest on the charge of raising routs and riots!
And why, we ask, all this violence? This mobfury? It seems inexplicable till we remember that the eighteenth century populace dearly loved a riot.
Anything was an excuse for this diversion — the Gin Act, an alteration at Drury Lane, Wilkes’s Westminster elections — the frenzy culminating in the supreme orgy of the Gordon Riots, which nearly burnt London for a second time. But why the Methodist riots especially? That is a question that needs several answers. First, men are apt to resent being told they are sinful; they revolt against the idea of having to make an effort to be saved; and then, if one or two of a family of sinners repent, life becomes extremely uncomfortable for the rest. Why should anyone interfere with their cock-fighting, their drinking, their lust? This sort of thing must be put a stop to. Other incitements, happily invented, were not lacking. Wesley was in Spanish pay, plotting for the invasion of England; he was one of the Pretender’s agents, for he was certainly a Papist in disguise; he had been punished for illegally selling gin; he had tried to hang himself, but had been cut down at the last moment. Of course such a mad dog must be hunted! And then, a public speaker is always fair game, or seems so to half-witted elements, and the Methodists deliberately went amongst the most degraded of the people. Go not only to those who need you, Wesley told his helpers, but to those who need you most. Again, the mob was egged on by the self-styled gentlemen, who were very well content with their placid religion, and who, not without just cause, dreaded enthusiasm, knowing well from the history of the last century what it might lead to.
And why disturb the submerged tenth in this way? Wesley felt instinctively that the educated Christians were his worst enemies, with their indifference (worst of insults), their security in their faith, and it was for them that he reserved his sermons on hell-fire and the wrath to come, preaching the love of God to the poor. As for the magistrates, apart from sharing the feelings of their class, they could not help seeing that though the Methodists might not incite to riot, it was on account of them that riots took place. And besides, some of Wesley’s preachers were crude men, arrogantly making much of their own sanctity, without the innate good manners of the Wesleys themselves; they did undoubtedly stir up passions unnecessarily. Some, such as Nelson, best of men and most devoted of followers, were pressed into military service, and attempts were made to take Wesley himself; but the man who twice tried to do so grew so ashamed of his task that he let Wesley depart quietly. But from day to day no Methodist preacher knew what might be in store for him.
But if it was Wesley’s magnetism, his personal charm, his apparent humility that saved him, it was his unswerving determination, his almost ferocious will-power, that enabled him to carry out the work, with its complicated structure, its wheels within wheels of which he was in complete and sole control, and its ever-growing finance. His will! Even strangers grew aware of that. One day he found himself riding with a serious man; naturally they spoke of religion, and as naturally disagreed, till finally the stranger, who got warmer and warmer, told Wesley he was rotten at heart, and supposed that he must be one of John Wesley’s followers. When he discovered whom he was talking to, he was filled with horror, as though he had met the Devil, and spurred his horse on to get away. “But,” Wesley relates, “being the better mounted of the two, I kept close to his side, and endeavored to show him his heart until we came into the street of Northampton.” Only force majeure could prevent Wesley talking, as when on the day of the snowstorm we have seen him battle with, he fell in with a clergyman; but alas, toothache quite stopped his mouth. Those who had business dealings with him soon found what sort of man they had to do with. “Sir,” he wrote to a landowner at Newcastle, “I am surprised. You give it under your hand that you will put me in possession of a piece of ground, specified in an article between us, in fifteen days time. Three months have passed, and that article is not fulfilled. And now you say you can’t conceive what I mean by troubling you. I mean to have that article fulfilled. I think my meaning is very plain.
I am, Sir, Your humble servant.” He got the piece of ground.
The building, the Orphan House, for which he wanted the land, was one of the corner-stones of his structure, the apex of a triangle of which London and Bristol were the base points. He had first gone to Newcastle at the suggestion of Lady Huntingdon, the St. Theresa of the Methodists, as Horace Walpole called her. Immediately his heart went out to the “wild, staring, loving society,” for it was always enlarged towards the desperately poor, even if in the north he sometimes had to speak “strong, rough words.” The land, however, was only a beginning; how put up a building which would cost seven hundred pounds? He had not a penny, he struggled along as best he could himself, and there was nothing for it but to build on in faith. Luckily it had got about that he was rich, and so the Orphan House went up on his credit and trifling subscriptions from the society. Eventually he did become rich, “unawares” as he said, by the sale of his books; but at this early time it really seemed that it was only by the grace of God that the building went up at all.
Usually the societies met in private houses, or rented buildings, which were occupied by the lay preachers, who now formed a considerable band.
They were, it need hardly be said, chosen by Wesley himself, who exacted from them promises of unquestioning obedience; they were to go where he wanted them to, and when he wanted; he might dismiss them when he wished. No preacher was allowed to remain long in the same circuit — they were all itinerant preachers within that circuit, as the Wesleys were over the whole country — for a man would be apt to lose his fire, would go dead, if there were not something new constantly to be dared and done.
And the excitement must never be allowed to cool to dimness, for the Methodist movement fed on excitement: the singing, the night watches, the spectacular conversions, trances, demoniac possessions, the thrice-yearly love-feasts (though materially of only cake and water), the fervid emotional appeal and the searching examinations, all contributed to keep the movement at an exalted tension. Wesley deliberately whipped it up in others, as he did in himself by every day renewing his experience of miraculous aid. It is not surprising that there were frequent fallings away, purgings by fifties and hundreds; even his preachers could not all maintain themselves on the dizzy peaks, and retired into private life. It really needed the continual impregnation by Wesley himself to keep the movement quick, whence his extreme jealousy to keep all the appointments in his own hands, his great reluctance to hand over buildings to trustees, his insistence that even when given up, the right to name preachers to chapels and masters to schools should be vested in himself and his brother during their lifetime. Trustees! If they appointed preachers, they would take care that none should preach against their patrons. The rule was peremptory: everybody should be responsible to Wesley; he was the fountain head, the oracle, the Pythoness herself.
Ambition? Not quite, at least not in the ordinary sense; but the passion of the organizer, the will to power of a man determined to carry out some special work, the indestructible, burning need to rule. He had made this thing; he and no one else could be suffered to touch it.
And then, 1748, across these scenes of effort and strife, of dust and turmoil, of ceaseless journeyings, amid the tense concentration of constructive work, there floated into Wesley’s vision the beckoning figure of Grace Murray, promising succour. She was a charming widow of thirty-two (she had recently refused an offer of marriage), and though she had risen to emotional heights and taken downward plunges, had been converted and counter converted, she was now reconverted and happily in part-charge of the Orphan House at Newcastle; and she was so refreshing as a nurse, that if the itinerant preachers fell sick, they did so more often at Newcastle than anywhere else. Wesley himself was slightly ill there in this year and, considering his nurse —so good a worker, so cheerful, so neat — he thought that she would be the very wife for him: he did not know that she was almost engaged to one of his preachers called Bennet. He proposed, and she, dazzled at the prospect of marrying the man who was by far the greatest in her sphere, and in apprehension so like a God, blurted out that “it was too great a blessing,” and that “she couldn’t tell how to believe it.” Then, for eighteen months, there was played out the most amazing and wryly farcical series of scenes. First Mrs. Murray said that she could not bear the idea of ever being parted from Wesley; in less than a month she protested that Bennet was her only love. Sometimes she traveled with one, and sometimes with the other; then for some time Wesley thought she was engaged to him, and then it would appear that she was promised to Bennet, who for his part did not seem to know which of them she was engaged to. In the summer of 1749 indeed, in Dublin, she went through a contract of marriage de praesenti with Wesley; but in September, at Epworth, she sobbingly agreed, before Wesley, to marry Bennet, who claimed her as his by right; yet, by the end of the month Wesley had once more made a de praesenti contract with her at Whitehaven, after he had written a reproachful letter to Bennet, in which he accused him of trying to snatch the widow from him — “such a person as I had sought in vain for many years, and then determined never to part with.” This seemed to settle the question; the marriage would take place in a few days. But then, suddenly, a fiercely angry, red-hot whirlwind blustered up from the south — Charles Wesley. He stormed and fumed at his brother. If this marriage took place the whole of Methodism would be wrecked; the woman was of no standing, she was engaged to Bennet, Wesley would be looked upon as a seducer. Since Wesley was immovable, Charles, still raging, rushed off to meet the vacillating woman at Hindley Hill. He flung himself at her and embracing her cried, “Grace Murray, you have broke my heart,” and then, by sheer impetuosity, he carried her off to Newcastle, summoned Whitefield, summoned Bennet, hurled the latter and Mrs. Murray through the marriage ceremony and went back to John. “I renounce all intercourse with you,” he shouted, “but what I would have with a heathen man or a publican.” He was beside himself.
Wesley had been in agony for some days, but calm and resigned, in spite of nights restless with fever: he had known what was happening, the desire of his eyes was being taken from him at a stroke. And here was Charles, the devoted, beloved brother, reviling him. But he felt numbed; “it was only adding a drop of water to a drowning man,” his capacity for emotion was exhausted. Whitefield prayed, Nelson prayed, they both burst into tears, the room was full of anguish — and then, infinitely relieving, Wesley’s abounding charity overcame everything, and he and his brother fell speechless on each other’s necks. John Bennet came in; neither of them could speak; they kissed each other and wept.... And the next day Wesley preached at five in the morning as usual.
But marriage called to him; he wanted to get married. For years he had declared against it for priests, in Georgia he had renounced it, at conferences he had intimated that preachers should be as eunuchs for the Lord’s sake — even if he had for a long time sought in vain for such a helpmeet as Grace Murray. But now he was sure that he would be more useful married, that God wanted him to get married; he had felt this order with especial clearness when looking at Grace Murray: and in 1751 he felt it again when looking at Mrs. Vazeille, a widow of forty, staid, well-ordered, and of a good disposition. And why should he not marry?
Charles had married in 1748, and Whitefield in 1741 — though indeed the latter had declared when proposing that he was “free from the foolish passion that the world calls love” — and it had made no difference to their ministrations. So, on the understanding that he would preach not one sermon the fewer, nor travel one mile the less, he married Mrs. Vazeille — but this time he did not tell Charles about it; indeed his brother was one of the last to hear of the sad event. And alas, the event did prove sad: for twenty years Mrs. Wesley, who appears to have verged on dementia, harried the life out of her husband. At first she did her best, but she could not bear the constant traveling, the hideous discomfort, the occasional mobbing, and besides, she was sea-sick when they went to Ireland. But why, it may be asked, need she cling to him so burr-like? Ah, Wesley was so inordinately attractive to women! And, it must be admitted in extenuation of his wife’s behavior, that he wrote incredibly foolish letters full of warmth — purely Christian warmth, no doubt, but it is difficult to distinguish — to many of his tenderer converts. His wife became insanely jealous; she watched all his goings out and his comings in, she rifled his pockets, broke open the drawers of his desk, accused him of making Charles’s wife his mistress, would travel a hundred miles to see who was sharing his coach with him, and even, it was reported, pulled him about by his graying hair. “My brother,” Charles wrote pungently, “has married a ferret,” a phrase echoed by Berridge of Everton. John bore it all with exemplary patience, was unfailing in his care for her; but even he sometimes complained — to one of his female penitents moreover — that he could not bear “the being continually watched over for evil, the having every word I spoke, every action I did, small and great, watched over with no friendly eye; the hearing of a thousand little, but unkind reflections in return for the kindest words I could advise.” When she left him in 1771, never to return she said (not quite accurately), he wrote: Non eam reliqui, non dimisi: non revocabo. No, he would not call her back. And after all, he decided, God had provided such a wife out of His wisdom: for since the temptations of a calm hearth had not been offered him, he had not been interfered with in his divine calling: he had not, as could be seen, preached one sermon the fewer, nor traveled one mile the less.
But whatever troubles and trials there might be in his public or in his private life, there were two offshoots of his work which gave him great joy. The first was his dispensary, which he opened in 1746 for the poor of London. For many years he had “made anatomy and physic the diversion of his leisure hours,” and now, taking an apothecary as assistant, he set about putting the means of health at the disposal of the poor, even prescribing for simple ailments, amid the splutterings of the outraged Faculty. He did not care. Must a man in imminent danger of death wait for Dr. Mead to come in his chariot — and die before he came? “And when the doctor was come, where was his fee? What! He cannot live upon nothing! So, instead of an orderly cure, the patient dies!” The dispensary proved an enormous success, of continual benefit to the poverty-stricken, and another one was opened at Bristol. Further, in 1748, to reach those in out of the way places, he wrote a little book of Medicine, Primitive Physic, or An Easy and natural Method of Curing Most Diseases, admirable as far as general principles go (it is excellent that people should shave and wash their feet frequently), but perhaps a little wild in details. It might, for instance, be inadvisable to swallow three pounds of quicksilver ounce by ounce as a cure for twisted guts; and whether to wear leaves of celandine under and upon the feet will cure jaundice, is still, we may think, very conjectural. However, the booklet, easily slipped into the pocket, was immensely popular, reaching its twenty-first edition in 1785; and lest it should be objected that a man concerned with spiritual things should let the bodily ones alone, the epigraph it bore was Homo sum; human nihil a me alienum puto. Two hundred and eighty-eight ailments are treated of, from infantile rickets to old age (though death is the only certain cure for that), running through serious diseases such as cancer, cholera morbus, and consumption, to such comparatively trivial ones as baldness, canine hunger, and stings: its perusal will teach you how to cure madness, or how to destroy fleas and bugs. Some of the eight hundred and twenty-four remedies involve the most enticing concoctions of herbs and drugs, but Wesley pinned his faith most to cold baths, and electricity, which he regarded as a species of fire. The handy little vade mecum of medicine might be obtained at any of his chapels.
Of less immediate success was the school at Kingswood which Wesley opened in 1748 to train up preachers, and which is not to be confused with the school for colliers’ children. In the first few years the purgings of the unworthy had to be so frequent and so wholesale, that the numbers dwindled alarmingly, a result all the more disappointing in that everything was done to make the boys wholly perfect, by molding them in their impressionable years, none being admitted after twelve years old. They got up at five, spent two hours in prayer, were sparingly fed, were every minute kept under the eye of a master, were put through a strenuous course of learning such as would not disgrace the Sorbonne, and were never on any account allowed to play, or, of course, allowed to be idle for a second. As a relaxation, however, they were occasionally permitted to see a corpse. At last, in 1768, Wesley had his reward. “God,” one of the masters wrote him, “broke in upon our boys in a surprising manner... the power of God came upon them, even like a mighty rushing wind, which made them cry aloud for mercy.... While I am writing, the cries of the boys, from their several apartments, are sounding in my ears.” Nor did it stop, for every hour more children — their ages ran from eight to fourteen — found peace, for they had been lying at the pool waiting to be put in!
The house rang with praise, to the high gratification of all who heard, or heard of it. Could there be a clearer justification of Wesley’s educational system? No wonder he despised Rousseau’s Émile! Some might avert their eyes from a painful scene of juvenile hysteria, but Wesley felt it as a return for all his struggles as the founder of a school, as direct evidence of the approval of God, and as a triumph for methodic discipline.
Discipline! The salt of religion: it sometimes appeared, indeed, that discipline was religion. At all events without it religion was like wine which lacked a vessel; spilt on the ground it became mysticism, enthusiasm, or sank dully out of sight. From being “a politician of God,” Wesley, himself so disobedient, so defiant of the Church while professing humility, seemed at times to become the mere drill-sergeant, as when he expelled two hundred of his Norwich members for slackness in attending class meetings. Discipline, in short, meant doing, and saying, exactly as Wesley ordered. It is not surprising that sometimes there were revolts.
That one or two people should break away was natural; Bennet’s defection, and his becoming an anti-Wesley agitator eight months after his marriage with Grace Murray, had nothing significant in it. But the case of Maxfield was different. A man of no education, he had, we remember, been one of Wesley’s first lay preachers. Ordained later as a priest of the Church of England by the Bishop of Londonderry, “to assist that good man [Wesley] that he may not work himself to death,” he had flourished exceedingly, and had married a rich wife. Feeling the importance of his mission, in 1762 he began to think that he might improve on the religion he had preached so long, especially on Wesley’s doctrine of Perfection. The theological point is a little confusing to the layman, and Wesley’s earlier utterances, not to mention Charles’s poems, may easily lead one astray; but the issue seems to have been that whereas Wesley’s Perfection meant a whole-hearted love of God and one’s neighbor, which, by the constant help of Christ, kept ever-present sin in abeyance, for Maxfield Perfection meant that sin had been killed at the root; it was the difference between Perfection in Christ (the Arminian position) and Perfection outside Christ.
Those who had attained the latter, as Maxfield had, were on a level with the angels, they needed no preachings, no sacraments, and they were beyond learning anything except from those equally sinless. Thus Wesley, who had no illusions about sin, was not fit to teach them. Then, to increase the ardour, Maxfield was joined by an ex-corporal of the Guards, named Bell, who, discovering from Revelation that he and his group would never die, announced that the end of the world would come fairly soon, in fact on February 28th, 1763. What Wesley objected to most, however, was not only these heresies and absurdities, and the excessive addiction of their people to meetings, but the behavior of these in chapel, their “irreverent expressions in prayer; their extolling themselves rather than God, and telling Him what they were, not what they wanted; their using poor, flat, bald hymns; their never kneeling at prayer, and using postures and gestures highly indecent.” Besides, they had little love to their brethren, no meekness, and they hated being contradicted. Worst of all, the preachers screamed, making what they said in their sermons unintelligible, and Wesley hated screaming. Their prophecies and ravings made some public stir and caused reflections to be made on Methodism; and while Wesley, as he said, gladly suffered the opprobrium of Christ, he had no mind to suffer that of enthusiasm. He was surprisingly patient with Maxfield, while the latter, on the other hand, intrigued against him, and invented improbable stories. Wesley bore certain resignations unperturbed, and even the declaration of some of the society that they would not be browbeat any more by him; but in the end a break was forced on him, and Maxfield left the society, taking some two hundred members with him.
His explanation of the schism was that Wesley had said to him: “Dear Tommy, I will tell the people you are the greatest Gospel preacher in England, and you shall tell them I am the greatest,” and that on his refusal Wesley had expelled him. Such was the ingenuity of Thomas Maxfield.
The break, however, was serious in that it deprived Wesley of one of the very few of his people who could administer the Sacrament. Whitefield, though Wesley in a sense worked with him as being a laborer in the same field, was not of his society; Charles had practically retired and lived at Bristol; the few clergymen who were Methodists, such as “Mad” Grimshaw, Berridge of Everton, who was hardly less mad, and Fletcher of Madeley, were tied to their country cures. What was to be done? No English bishop would ordain Methodists. Luckily, just at the right moment, towards the end of the year there appeared in London the incongruous figure of Erasmus, a Greek bishop. Any bishop would do for Wesley, as long as he was a real bishop. But was he? Wesley made careful inquiries. Yes, Erasmus was a bona fide bishop — of Arcadia; of Arcadia in Crete, however. Wesley approached him: would he “set apart” Mr. Jones? He would, and did. But the matter did not rest there, in spite of Charles’s vehement protests. For when other lay preachers saw Jones exalted, they wanted to know why they also should not wear white bands, why they also, who performed so many priestly duties, should not share the privilege, for which they had long been pining, of administering the Lord’s Supper? The complaisant Bishop of Arcadia gratified a number of them, but when some of them demanded to be consecrated bishops, he said he could not go as far as that. The experiment, however, was not altogether successful. Jones left the society, another was stopped from performing priestly functions, and a third made a schism in Sheffield.
Nevertheless it was a finger post which showed the way (horrible thought!) to separation from the Church of England which Wesley loved. The End Crowns All (1770—1791) “ I CAN hardly believe,” Wesley wrote on June 28th (N.S.), 1770, “that I am this day entered into the sixty-eighth year of my age. How marvelous are the ways of God!... I am now healthier than I was forty years ago.
This hath God wrought!” He seemed, indeed, to have eternal youth; and though at the insistance of friends he had exchanged his horse for a carriage, he could still be seen, year in, year out, “hurrying on, still hurrying, hurrying onward,” plying his anxious visitation throughout the country, the only active survivor of the Holy Club.
He was not much given to looking back, the present was enough for him, the future would take care of itself; but still, if he wished, he might glance behind to forty years of pilgrimage. The Holy Club, Varanese, Aspasia; Georgia and Sophy Hopkey — years of struggle against something resistant even to his will; and then Peter Böhler, and his conversion, followed by thirty years of the evangelical revival which had flowered ever since he became a “Gospel preacher.” There had been stirring scenes, glorious manifestations of God’s power; and even now, occasionally, repentant sinners would roar aloud or be struck to the ground when they heard him. It was a long time since that glorious triumph in 1742, when, forbidden by the new Rector of Epworth to preach from the pulpit, he had held forth in the evenings, standing on his father’s tombstone, to congregations larger than had ever filled the church, and so movingly that many had dropped down as dead; when his brother-in-law, Whitelambe, incumbent of Wroote, had told him that his presence inspired awe. But the work had gone on, steadily increasing; the flame had spread over the whole country; thousands of the most degraded people had been rescued from misery and, better still, had got rid of the terror of death. The organization had grown, till now he had a hundred and twenty-three preachers serving fifty circuits, alive with nearly thirty thousand members of the society. If acrid hostility spat as formidably as ever in papers and in pamphlets, the violence of mobs had largely died down; magistrates were becoming more reasonable, people in general less averse to the movement. It was being accepted. And all the reins were firmly in his own hand — the preachers, the stewards of the funds, the trustees of the buildings, the class leaders: there was no item he did not know, no thread he did not direct. Even the professional musicians had been brought to heel when they had wanted to improve his hymn tunes in preparing them for the press: the tunes should be pricked as his people sang them, he insisted, effectively. His will! it was adamant still, his power unassailable, his energy unchecked by any brake. There was no diminution in his outpourings of sermons, letters, controversial pamphlets; he still kept his diary, published his Journal, edited the Christian Library and through it all allowed no relaxation whatever in his incessant traveling. “I am still a wonder to myself. My voice and strength are the same as at nine and twenty.” Such was the jotting as he entered his sixty-ninth year.
There was need for him yet as the inviolable guardian of the holy fire, for in 1771 the Calvinists once more tried to undermine him. Whitefield was dead; his plump figure, shaken by asthma, had worn itself out as he had wished it should: but he had left behind him a college at Trevacca in Wales, a seminary largely financed by Lady Huntingdon, impetuous, independent, proud. Wesley had preached there, and Fletcher of Madeley was the visiting superintendent. Now, however, released from the authority of its founder, its fledgling prophets wished to shake themselves altogether free of Wesley and his benign doctrine. Their opportunity arose when, in 1770, Wesley, himself liberated, since Whitefield was dead, from any restraint in openly expressing his sense of predestination, directed his Conference to declare in its minutes that Methodism had of late steered much too close to Calvinism. Lady Huntingdon took violent umbrage, and issued an edict to her rejoicing college that all must renounce these minutes or leave the seminary for ever — which Fletcher promptly did. The jubilant youths of Trevacca, styled by Wesley “pert, ignorant young men, vulgarly called students,” swelled with self — conceit, decided to attack Wesley at the Bristol Conference of 1771. Their leader, the Hon. Walter Shirley (of Lady Huntingdon’s family), shot out an encyclical calling upon all men of his own sound faith to rally at Bristol for the Conference: they would gather together in their hordes, they would march upon the stronghold, they would force Wesley to expunge the obnoxious minutes. Alas, only about ten people answered this stirring trumpet-call, and Shirley found himself reduced to crawling humbly to Wesley, saying that he had not meant this and had not meant that, and would Wesley receive a deputation to discuss the question? Patient as ever (he could afford to be), Wesley agreed, and a satisfactory document was signed to pour balm on the theological sore: but oddly enough, when this healing paper is examined, it is seen to contain nothing about election, but to deal entirely with refutation of the doctrine of justification by works! The real battle took place outside. Calvinists flew to the rescue, championed by the Rev. Augustus Toplady, known to fame as the author of “Rock of Ages,” who, by pamphlet after pamphlet of adept scurrility, of theological Billingsgate, and accusations of bad faith, drew from Wesley the retort that he did not bandy words with chimney-sweeps, those notoriously dirty persons. The controversy was, however, raised to a dignified level by Fletcher, in his Checks to Antinomianism, which remains the classic on the subject. As far as Wesley was concerned, the result was the utter severance from Lady Huntingdon’s Connection, and the complete washing of Wesleyan Methodism from the least taint of the deadly doctrine of reprobation.
This attack, however, was from the outside and so feeble that it could never have seriously injured Methodism. Far more grave was the threat to Wesley’s domination which arose within the society in 1779, in the form of restiveness among the lay preachers. Charles was really at the bottom of it. As he got older and less powerful in the ministry, he became bitterly suspicious of his lay coadjutors. He had never liked them. They were uneducated, arrogant; they usurped functions they had no right to; and if John did not take great care, they would drive him, or carry him, out of the fold. “The preachers do not love the Church of England. When we are gone, a separation is inevitable.” They, on their part, had no liking for Charles. In 1768 he had come to live in London, and now that the new chapel had been built in the City Road and was ousting the Foundery as the center of Methodism, he insisted on preaching there twice every Sunday, to the exclusion, the excluded ones considered, of better men than himself. And besides not being so fiery in preaching as they were, he was most lamentably allowing his sons to take up careers as musicians (Charles was sure that this was God’s will, but John knew better), which seemed to involve giving concerts in his house to the fashionable and the noble, no doubt excellent people in their way but devoid of justifying faith. There was a tussle, which the lay preachers looked upon as one between themselves and preachers in orders; but Wesley upheld his brother.
The crisis, however, was only delayed, and it soon exploded at Bath.
M’Nab, the preacher Wesley had appointed there, was able to affect the Bath Society in a most edifying manner; but an Irish preacher named Smyth had recently so impressed Wesley that the latter had ordered him to preach at Bath every Sunday evening until he went back to Ireland.
Charles was at his elbow, egging him on to be firm, to deal strongly with these upstarts, to show none of that deplorable weakness and tendency to hedge that he had observed in him lately. The truth was that Charles in his old age was becoming panic-stricken; his behavior indicated not strength but ossification, whereas Wesley himself was strong enough to be able to yield when it suited his purposes; he did not dote upon consistency. On this occasion, however, he fulfilled all his brother’s expectations. He took the highest possible line and read the rebels a paper which declared his absolute right to rule without question, to exact obedience to the last movement of a man’s little finger. That was “the fundamental rule of Methodism,” he stated, and we do not wonder that Toplady dubbed him “Pope John.” The preachers had indeed one inalienable right, yes; that to leave the society if they wished. He made his meaning plain enough.
Further, it appeared, from a letter he wrote soon after this, that he found it necessary to correct a little error into which some of his society had fallen in their view of the Conferences. These were not at all the parliamentary institutions many had seemed to suppose. They were merely meetings to which he called a few preachers together, to advise him, by no means to control him. In short, he made it perfectly clear that Methodism was Wesley. But then, he had no belief in democracy; administrators rarely have: in fact, it was plainly a fallacy, as he proved when Wilkes arose with his contention that power resided in the people. What nonsense! If this was true, why then everybody would have a vote. But since comparatively few people had votes, it was obvious that power did not reside in the people and was not meant to. He agreed with Charles that the society must be ruled by some head, who would be, while he was alive, and as far as possible after he was dead, himself. “I chose to exercise the power which God had given me in this manner....” “Which God had given me”: “I chose” — the fiat had gone forth; and, though there was muttering and even protest among his helpers, the rebellion was crushed, and Wesley ruled supreme.
Yet at this stage it was not will power alone which made Wesley dominant; mere strength could not have done it. There was something else — the devotion he inspired in his followers. They adored him, called him Rabbi, because there was a quality in him they would all have shared if they could — his infinite charity. It might seem, perhaps, that he loved only those who obeyed him; but those he loved so well, so wholeheartedly and forgivingly, offering himself to them so utterly, that they could not but surrender. He never spared himself. All the time he gave, gave everywhere, of the spirit that was in him. And it was abundant. Certainly there was in him the desire to rule; it was an instinct which shared the honor of possessing him with the desire to give, but then the end for which he wished to rule was selfless. Or at least, since Wesley was Methodism, and Methodism was Wesley; since his pride was transmuted into identification of himself with the thing he had made; since the morbid preoccupation with himself which had marked his early years had taken an outward direction — his actions had precisely the same effect as though he had been selfless. Without his intense egotism he would never have accomplished what he did. That it was as robust as ever is plain from his printing his Journals, an act which assumes that everybody will find their writer as interesting as he does himself, for, candidly, they are self glorification from end to end. Even the Arminian Magazine, which he founded as a counter blast to the chief thorn in his flesh, the Calvinistic Gospel Magazine, deals largely with himself, though some of the first numbers were devoted to a discussion of the friend of his childhood, Old Jeffrey, and contained verse such as Prior’s “Henry and Emma,” the inclusion of which love-poem scandalized those who were most stern for truth. Nevertheless, because giving was a part of his egotism, he came to be the best loved man in England and Ireland.
In Scotland it was different; there he was only respected. He became chaplain to the Countess Dowager of Buchan, he was presented with the freedom of Perth, his congregations were crowded and attentive: but the Scotch, nurtured on theological discussion, would not receive justifying faith, the assurance of grace, and the possibility of sinless perfection (in Christ); “they knew too much,” Wesley commented, “therefore they could learn nothing.” They obstinately refused to fall down as though dead.
Distinguished visitors were no compensation for this failure to strike fire, even if they included Boswell, armed with a letter from Dr. Johnson on the score that “worthy and religious men should be acquainted with each other,” for Johnson liked Wesley and his conversation, complaining only that the dog always had to be off somewhere and would never stay to fold his legs and talk. The acquaintance, however, did not develop: Boswell could not be convinced by Wesley’s proofs of the existence of a ghost which was then making some stir.
This, indeed, was to get Wesley on the raw, for the common attitude towards ghosts was disappointing. The skepticism of most men was such that they would not accept them, though what was worse was the sad growth of disbelief in witches, in spite of the evidence for their existence being so irrefutable. There were other trifling set-backs. For instance, Dr. Madan, whose work as a preacher had once been so much blessed, flourishingly produced a treatise in favour of polygamy, a philosophy which Wesley’s brother-in-law, Westley Hall, had practiced. Also there was a period when the discipline at Kingswood School grew so lax that some of the boys actually turned against religion (that was because they had been allowed to play), and the staff had to be changed. Petty disagreements here and there were only to be expected, for, to quote one of Wesley’s favorite texts, “it must be that offense will come.”
But these minor rubs were of no real importance, for in spite of everything the society was spreading. In the ten years between 1770 and 1780 the circuits were increased by fourteen, the preachers by forty-eight, and the membership of the society by more than fourteen thousand. Moreover, there were the followers in America, over eight thousand, and rapidly increasing, served by forty-two preachers in twenty circuits. The difficulty there was that nobody was capable of administering the Sacrament. In 1780, Wesley implored the Bishop of London to ordain one of his preachers for the purpose, a man filled with God; but instead the bishop had sent out two men stuffed only with Greek and Latin, and what was the good of that? Well, there was only one thing left to do — Wesley must himself ordain. And why not? Many years ago he had been convinced by a book of Lord King’s that bishops and presbyters were of the same order, a belief strengthened by a study of Stilling fleet’s Irenicon: therefore, since he was a presbyter, and a presbyter was a bishop, he had a right to ordain. He would ordain. The only thing he must be careful in was to keep it very secret from Charles, who would most certainly object in no measured terms; so it was swiftly and discreetly that Wesley consecrated three priests for America. This was separation; Lord Mansfield, Chief Justice, had said, “ordination is separation.” Charles was, as Wesley had foreseen, appalled: he agreed with Mansfield: Methodists were now Dissenters. The end he had so dreaded had come, the issue which had been raised, combated, and defeated at more than one Conference had finally triumphed. Samuel had been right; John had excommunicated the Church!
However, he could not bring himself to quarrel with his brother; but he wrote to him: “I believe God left you to yourself in that matter, as he left Hezekiah, to show you the secret pride that was in your heart.” Pride! it sounds like an echo from the very early years; but Wesley might argue that if he was still tainted with this sin, it had at least served a very useful turn.
Wesley, however, stubbornly refused to admit that anything crucial had happened; he rested securely on Lord King. Nevertheless the immediate consequences were alarming. One of the men he had ordained, Coke, applied Wesley’s argument that bishops and presbyters were of the same order and concluded that, since he was a presbyter, he was therefore a bishop as well. He and Asbury, whom Wesley had appointed “superintendent” in America, called themselves bishops, and it appeared likely that Coke would take upon himself to ordain priests. They had forgotten “the fundamental rule of Methodism,” of which Wesley was forced to remind them, namely that Wesley alone could appoint a preacher, and that therefore Wesley alone could consecrate one. But even this symptom would not persuade Wesley that he, or any of his members, had left the Church; he instantly forgot that one of his reasons for ordaining had been that priests consecrated by English bishops would “expect to govern” the American Methodists — “and how grievously would this entangle us!” But no; Wesley’s heart was perfectly clear upon the point (it is best not to inquire what his head was doing); he was to say till the hour of his death, what he had again and again said before, “Separate from the Church of England, and you separate from me.” But he must have seen what was happening, what had happened; he had founded a new Church. He was not a very logical thinker, but in this, surely, he deliberately deluded himself So he went on happily exercising the functions of a bishop, in all ordaining twenty-six priests, for overseas, for Scotland, and finally for England.
The fated end had come, but for a few more years the small, spare figure could be seen driving about the country in his chaise as tirelessly as ever, his wide, bright eyes glowing beneath the still abundant but now snow-white hair, his whole face mellowed by the years, shining with the beauty of holiness. Twice a day his yet active figure, extremely neat, extremely simple, without buckle or ruffle (no Methodist was allowed to wear a ruffle), the uniform black relieved only by the white bands of a Church of England parson, would mount the pulpit and exhort in a scarcely failing voice, sometimes for three hours on end, for if he found the people loving he would not know how to stop, and would begin over and over again. And visible upon his face, no longer quite so awesome, there dwelt an all-pervading serenity: for he had done his work, had provided for the further governance of the society, and, looking back upon all that he had done, he saw that it was good. “I never fret,” he wrote to, of all people, his wife. The only danger was that he might become too serene. “Many years ago,” he wrote in 1785, “I was saying, ‘I cannot imagine how Mr. Whitefield can keep his soul alive, as he is not now going through honor and dishonor, evil and good report, having nothing but honor and good report attending him wherever he goes.’ It is now my own case... I am become, I know not how, an honorable man. The scandal of the cross is ceased.” His early troubles, distractions, periods of deep depression, faded out of his memory so completely that he declared that he had never felt more than a quarter of an hour’s low spirits. He never felt them for a moment now: he had passed into the calm of accomplishment.
But old age will not be denied for ever. In 1789, when on a pastoral tour in Ireland, he was forced to record, on entering his eighty-sixth year, “I now find that I grow old.” He could no longer walk as briskly as he used to do, and small print bothered him unless the light was very good. On New Year’s Day, 1790, he wrote: “I am now an old man, decayed from head to foot. My eyes are dim.... However, blessed be God, I do not slack my labor. I can preach and write still.” But he could not read, worst of deprivations for a man who had read every spare moment of his days, on horseback, in his chaise, everywhere — and everything — theology, history, poetry, the classics; Barclay’s Apology (which he thought a feeble book), Hume, Milton, Tasso, Plato. However, he could still travel and preach. The poet Crabbe went, at Lowestoft, “to hear the venerable John Wesley on one of the last of his peregrinations. He was exceedingly old and infirm, and was attended and almost supported in the pulpit by a young minister on each side. The chapel was crowded to suffocation. In the course of his sermon he repeated, though with an application of his own, the lines: Oft I am by women told, Poor Anacreon! thou grow’st old; See, thine hairs are falling all, Poor Anacreon! How they fall!
Whether I grow old or no, By these signs I do not know; But this I need not to be told, ‘Tis time to live, if I grow old” which he declaimed “with a beautiful cadence.”
And he was still living, thriftless of his energy, when at the age of eighty-eight, on March 2nd, 1791, death overtook him hard by his chapel in the City Road, to which he had just returned after preaching his last sermon at Leatherhead. He knew he was dying and gave directions that he should be buried in nothing but woollens. On his death-bed he still sang hymns, cheerfully, until he was too weak and could only murmur phrases. “Farewell, farewell,” he whispered to those who came to say good-bye, the only one among them unmoved, happy. “Now we have done,” he murmured, “let us all go.” The last evening, “finding his friends could not understand what he said, he paused, and with all his remaining strength cried out, ‘The best of all is, God is with us.’ Then, lifting up his dying arm in token of victory, and raising his feeble voice with a holy triumph,” he again repeated the words, “The best of all is, God is with us.” That night, “I’ll praise, I’ll praise,” was all he could utter. The next morning, at about ten o’clock, he passed quietly away, without a groan; and his friends, standing around his bed, sang together a valedictory hymn.
Each of the hundreds who gathered to the funeral was presented with an effigy of John Wesley, arrayed in canonicals, adorned with a halo and a crown, the whole beautifully stamped on a biscuit and handed them in an envelope of paper.
A SHORT BIBLIOGRAPH
IT would be easy to compile a voluminous bibliography; Mr. Vulliamy provides a good one at the end of his book. I append a short one dealing with John Wesley only, and for light collateral reading I would indicate the admirable Hetty Wesley by “Q.” There are several abridged editions of the Journals, of which that by P. L. Parker, with an Introduction by Mr. Augustine Birrell, may be cited as a good one. There is an Everyman edition in 3 volumes. The Journal of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M., edited by Nehemiah Curnock. 8 vols. 1914. The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M., edited by John Telford. 8 vols. 1931. The Arminian Magazine (now the Wesleyan Methodist Magazine). seq. Life of John Wesley, by. J. Whitehead. 1793-1796. Life of John Wesley, by Robert Southey. 1820. 2 vols. 1925. Life of John Wesley, by H. Moore. 1824. Wesley and the Evangelical Reaction of the Eighteenth Century, by Julia Wedgwood. 1870. Life and Times of John Wesley, by L. Tyerman. 3 vols.1871 Wesley, Christian Philosopher and Church Founder, by G. Eayrs. 1926. John Wesley, by C. E. Vulliamy. 1931.