by augustine birrell, king’s counsel

JOHN WESLEY, born as he was in 1703 and dying as he did in 1791, covers as nearly as mortal man may, the whole of the eighteenth century, of which he was one of the most typical and certainly the most strenuous figures.

He began his published Journal on October 14, 1735, and its last entry is under date Sunday, October 24, 1790, when in the morning he explained to a numerous congregation in Spitalfields Church “The Whole Armor of God,” and in the afternoon enforced to a still larger audience in St. Paul’s, Shadwell, the great truth, “One thing is needful,” the last words of the Journal being “I hope many even then resolved to choose the better part.”

Between those two Octobers there lies the most amazing record of human exertion ever penned or endured.

I do not know whether I am likely to have among my readers anyone who has ever contested an English or Scottish county in a parliamentary election since household suffrage. If I have, that tired soul will know how severe is the strain of its three weeks, and how impossible it seemed at the end of the first week that you should be able to keep it going for another fortnight, and how when the last night arrived you felt that had the strife been accidentally prolonged another seven days you must have perished by the wayside.

Contesting the Three Kingdoms

Well, John Wesley contested the three kingdoms in the cause of Christ during a campaign which lasted forty years.

He did it for the most part on horseback. He paid more turnpikes than any man who ever bestrode a beast. Eight thousand miles was his annual record for many a long year, during each of which he seldom preached less frequently than one thousand times. Had he but preserved his scores at all the inns where he lodged, they would have made by themselves a history of prices.  And throughout it all he never knew what depression of spirits meant—though he had much to try him, suits in chancery and a jealous wife.

In the course of this unparalleled contest Wesley visited again and again the most out-of-the-way districts—the remotest corners of England—places which today lie far removed even from the searcher after the picturesque.

Today, when the map of England looks like a gridiron of railways, none but the sturdiest of pedestrians, the most determined of cyclists can retrace the steps of Wesley and his horse, and stand by the rocks and the natural amphitheaters in Cornwall and Northumberland, in Lancashire and Berkshire, where he preached his gospel to the heathen.


Grandfather of John Wesley


Father of John Wesley

Exertion so prolonged, enthusiasm so sustained, argues a remarkable man, while the organization he created, the system he founded, the view of life he promulgated, is still a great fact among us. No other name than Wesley’s lies embalmed as his does. Yet he is not a popular figure. Our standard historians have dismissed him curtly.  The fact is, Wesley puts your ordinary historian out of conceit with himself.

How much easier to weave into your page the gossip of Horace Walpole, to enliven it with a heartless jest of George Selwyn’s, to make it blush with sad stories of the extravagance of Fox, to embroider it with the rhetoric of Burke, to humanize it with the talk of Johnson, to discuss the rise and fall of administrations, the growth and decay of the constitution, than to follow John Wesley into the streets of Bristol, or on to the bleak moors near Burslem, when he met, face to face in all their violence, all their ignorance, and all their generosity the living men, women, and children who made up the nation.

A Book of Plots, Plays and Novels

It has perhaps also to be admitted that to found great organizations is to build your tomb—a splendid tomb, it may be, a veritable sarcophagus, but none the less a tomb. John Wesley’s chapels lie a little heavily on John Wesley. Even so do the glories of Rome make us forgetful of the grave in Syria.

It has been said that Wesley’s character lacks charm, that mighty antiseptic. It is not easy to define charm, which is not a catalog of qualities, but a mixture. Let no one deny charm to Wesley who has not read his Journal.  Southey’s Life is a dull, almost a stupid book which happily there is no need to read. Read the Journal, which is a book full of plots and plays and novels, which quivers with life and is crammed full of character.

Wesley’s Family Stock

John Wesley came of a stock which had been much harrassed and put about by our unhappy religious difficulties.  Politics, business, and religion are the three things Englishmen are said to worry themselves about. The Wesleys early took up with religion. John Wesley’s great-grandfather and grandfather were both ejected from their livings in 1662, and the grandfather was so bullied and oppressed by the Five Mile act that he early gave up the ghost. Whereupon his remains were refused what is called Christian burial, though a holier and more primitive man never drew breath. This poor, persecuted spirit left two sons according to the flesh, Matthew and Samuel; and Samuel it was who in his turn became the father of John and Charles Wesley.

Samuel Wesley, though minded to share the lot hard though that lot was, of his progenitors, had the moderation of mind, the Christian conservatism which ever marked the family, and being sent to a dissenting college, became disgusted with the ferocity and bigotry he happened there to encounter. Those were the days of the Calf’s Head Club and feastings on the twenty-ninth of January, graceless meals for which Samuel Wesley had no stomach. His turn was for the things that are “quiet, wise, and good.” He departed from the dissenting seminary and in 1685 entered himself as a poor scholar at Exeter College, Oxford. He brought f 2 6s. with him, and as for prospects, he had none. Exeter received him.

During the eighteenth century our two universities, famous despite their faults, were always open to the poor scholar who was ready to subscribe, not to boat clubs or cricket clubs, but to the Thirty-nine Articles. Three archbishops of Canterbury during the eighteenth century were the sons of small tradesmen.  There was, in fact, much less snobbery and money-worship during the century when the British empire was being won than during the century when it is being talked about.

Samuel Wesley was allowed to remain at Oxford, where he supported himself by devices known to his tribe, and when he left the university to be ordained he had clear in his pouch,  after discharging his few debts, f 10 15s. He had thus made f 8 9s. out of his university, and had his education, as it were, thrown in for nothing. He soon obtained a curacy in London and married a daughter of the well-known ejected clergyman, Dr. Annesley, about whom you may read in another eighteenth-century book, The Life and Errors of John Dunton.

Wesley’s Mother

The mother of the Wesleys was a remarkable woman, though cast in a mold not much to our minds nowadays. She had nineteen children and greatly prided herself on having taught them, one after another, by frequent chastisements to—what do you think? to cry softly. She had theories of education and strength of will, and of arm too, to carry them out.

She knew Latin and Greek, and though a stern, forbidding, almost an unfeeling, parent, she was successful in winning and retaining not only the respect but the affection of such of her huge family as lived to grow up. But out of the nineteen, thirteen early succumbed. Infant mortality was one of the great facts of the eighteenth century whose Rachels had to learn to cry softly over their dead babes. The mother of the Wesleys thought more of her children’s souls than of their bodies.

A Domestic Squall

The revolution of 1688 threatened to disturb the early married life of Samuel Wesley and his spouse. 

The husband wrote a pamphlet in which he defended revolution principles, but the wife secretly adhered to the old cause; nor was it until a year before Dutch William’s death that the rector made the discovery that the wife of his bosom, who had sworn to obey him and regard him as her over-lord, was not in the habit of saying Amen to his fervent prayers on behalf of his suffering sovereign. An explanation was demanded and the truth extracted, namely, that in the opinion of the rector’s wife her true king lived over the water. The rector at once refused to live with Mrs. Wesley any longer until she recanted. This she refused to do, and for a twelvemonth the couple dwelt apart, when William III having the good sense to die, a reconciliation became possible. If John Wesley was occasionally a little pig-headed, need one wonder?

The story of the fire at Epworth Rectory and the miraculous escape of the infant John was once a tale as well known as Alfred in the neat-herd’s hut, and pictures of it still hang up in many a collier’s home.

John Wesley received a sound classical education at Charterhouse and Christ Church, and remained all his life very much the scholar and the gentleman. No company was too good for John Wesley, and nobody knew better than he did that had he cared to carry his powerful intelligence, his flawless constitution, and his infinite capacity for taking pains into any of the markets of the world, he must have earned for himself place, fame, and fortune.

Coming, however, as he did of a theological stock, having a saint for a father and a notable devout woman for a mother, Wesley from his early days learned to regard religion as the business of his life, just as the young Pitt came to regard the House of Commons as the future theater of his actions.

“My Jack is Fellow of Lincoln”

After a good deal of heart-searching and theological talk with his mother, Wesley was ordained a deacon by the excellent Potter, afterward Primate, but then (1725) Bishop of Oxford. In the following year Wesley was elected a Fellow of Lincoln, to the great delight of his father. “Whatever I am,” said the good old man, “my Jack is Fellow of Lincoln.”

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Wesley’s motive never eludes us. In his early manhood, after being greatly affected by Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Dying and the Imitatio Christi, and by Law’s Serious Call and Christian Perfection, he met “a serious man” who said to him, “Sir, you wish to serve God and go to heaven. Remember you cannot serve Him alone. You must therefore find companions or make them. The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.”

He was very confident, this serious man, and Wesley never forgot his message. “You must find companions or make them. The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.” These words forever sounded in Wesley’s ears, determining his theology, which rejected the stern individualism of Calvin, and fashioning his whole polity, his famous class meetings and generally gregarious methods.

Therefore to him it was given

Many to save with himself.

We may continue the quotation and apply to Wesley the words of Mr. Arnold’s memorial to his father:

Languor was not in his heart, 

Weakness not in his word,

    Weariness not on his brow.

If you ask what is the impression left upon the reader of the Journal as to the condition of England Question, the answer will vary very much with the tenderness of the reader’s conscience and with the extent of his acquaintance with the general behavior of mankind at all times and in all places.

No Sentimentalist

Wesley himself is no alarmist, no sentimentalist, he never gushes, seldom exaggerates, and always writes on an easy level. Naturally enough he clings to the supernatural and is always disposed to believe in the bona fides of ghosts and the diabolical origin of strange noises, but outside this realm of speculation, Wesley describes things as he saw them. In the first published words of his friend, Dr. Johnson, “he meets with no basilisks that destroy with their eyes, his crocodiles devour their prey without tears, and his cataracts fall from the rocks without deafening the neighbouring inhabitants.”

Wesley’s humor is of the species donnish, and his modes and methods quietly persistent.

Wesley’s Humor

“On Thursday, May 20 (1742), I set out. The next afternoon I stopped a little at Newport Pagnell and then rode on till I over took a serious man with whom I immediately fell into conversation. He presently gave me to know what his opinions were, therefore I said nothing to contradict them. But that did not content him. He was quite uneasy to know ‘whether I held the doctrines of the decrees as he did’; but I told him over and over ‘We had better keep to practical things lest we should be angry at one another.’ And so we did for two miles till he caught me unawares and dragged me into the dispute before I knew where I was. He then grew warmer and warmer; told me I was rotten at heart and supposed I was one of John Wesley’s followers. I told him ‘No. I am John Wesley himself.’ Upon which


Improvisum aspris Veluti qui sentibus

anguem Presset---

he would gladly have run away outright. But being the better mounted of the two I kept close to his side and endeavored to show him his heart till we came into the street of Northampton.”

What a picture have we here of a fine May morning in 1742, the unhappy Calvinist trying to shake off the Arminian Wesley! But he cannot do it! John Wesley is the better mounted of the two, and so they scamper together into Northampton.

The England described in the Journal is an England still full of theology; all kinds of queer folk abound; strange subjects are discussed in odd places. There was drunkenness and cockfighting, no doubt, but there were also Deists, Mystics, Swedenborgians, Antiomians, Necessitarians, Anabaptists, Quakers, nascent heresies, and slow-dying delusions. Villages were divided into rival groups, which fiercely argued the nicest points in the aptest language. Nowadays in one’s rambles a man is as likely to encounter a grey badger as a black Calvinist.

England in Wesley’s Day

The clergy of the Established Church were jealous of Wesley’s interference in their parishes, nor was this unnatural—he was not a Nonconformist but a brother churchman.  What right had he to be so peripatetic? But Wesley seldom records any instance of gross clerical misconduct. Of one drunken parson he does indeed tell us, and he speaks disapprovingly of another whom he found one very hot day consuming a pot of beer in a lone ale-house.

When Wesley, with that dauntless courage of his, a courage which never forsook him, which he wore on every occasion with the delightful ease of a soldier, pushed his way into fierce districts, amid rough miners dwelling their own village communities almost outside the law, what most strikes one with admiration, not less in Wesley’s Journal than in George Fox’s (a kindred though earlier volume), is the essential fitness for freedom of our rudest populations. They were coarse and brutal and savage, but rarely did they fail to recognize the high character and lofty motives of the dignified mortal who had traveled so far to speak to them.

The Mobs He Met

Wesley was occasionally hustled, and once or twice pelted with mud and stones, but at no time were his sufferings at the hands of the mob to be compared with the indignities it was long the fashion to heap upon the heads of parliamentary candidates. The mob knew and appreciated the difference between a Bubb Dodington and a John Wesley.

I do not think any ordinary Englishman will be much horrified at the demeanor of the populace. If there was a disturbance it was usually quelled. At Norwich two soldiers who disturbed a congregation were seized and carried before their commanding officer, who ordered them to be soundly whipped. In Wesley’s opinion they richly deserved all they got. He was no sentimentalist, although an enthusiast.

Where the reader of the Journal will be shocked is when his attention is called to the public side of the country—to the state of the gaols—to Newgate, to Bethlehem, to the criminal code—to the brutality of so many of the judges, and the harshness of the magistrates, to the supineness of the bishops, to the extinction in high places of the missionary spirit—in short, to the heavy slumber of humanity.

Wesley was full of compassion, of a compassion wholly free from hysterics and like exaltative. In public affairs his was the composed zeal of a Howard. His efforts to penetrate the dark places were long in vain. He says in his dry way: “They won’t let me go to Bedlam because they say I make the inmates mad, or into Newgate because I make them wicked.” The reader of the Journal will be at no loss to see what these sapient magistrates meant.

Wesley was a terriby exciting preacher, quiet though his manner was. He pushed matters home without flinching. He made people cry out and fall down, nor did it surprise him that they should.

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Ever a Preacher

If you want to get into the last century, to feel its pulses throb beneath your finger, be content sometimes to leave the letters of Horace Walpole unturned, resist the drowsy temptation to waste your time over the learned triflers who sleep in the seventeen volumes of Nichols, nay even deny yourself your annual reading of Boswell or your biennial retreat with Sterne, and ride up and down the country with the greatest force of the eighteenth century in England.

No man lived nearer the center than John Wesley.  Neither Clive nor Pitt, neither Mansfield nor Johnson. You cannot cut him out of our national life. No single figure influenced so many minds, no single voice touched so many hearts. No other man did such a life’s work for England.

As a writer he has not achieved distinction, he was no Athanasius, no Augustine, he was ever a preacher and an organizer, a laborer in the service of humanity; but happily for us his Journals remain, and from them we can learn better than from anywhere else what manner of man he was, and the character of the times during which he lived and moved and had his being.                

augustine birrell

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