John Wesley

Not being a Methodist, I have not taken much notice of that “renegade” Anglican cleric from the eighteenth century. However, being a north countryman, I have had quite a good deal of contact with Methodists. The first thing that struck me is that they were such good and enthusiastic hymn-singers. This comes from their piety, moral integrity and the emphasis they place on the experience of the faith. Their chapels resemble those of most non-conformist denominations in England and the reformed churches on the Continent. The seating arrangements are designed for large numbers of worshippers, including side galleries, and the church is dominated by a pulpit and the organ behind where the choir would sit. In front of the pulpit, you would find the communion table in an area marked off by front and side communion rails with lots of little holes. Those holes are for the little glasses for giving communion under the species of wine (or grape juice in some places) in individual glasses. Methodist worship is close to pre-Oxford Movement Anglicanism, and I have just heard that one Superintendent Minister of Westminster Central Hall celebrated a fairly middle-of-the-road Anglican Eucharist and even wore vestments. In this, Methodism is not foreign from the high-church movement of Lutheranism and even in some local parishes of Swiss Calvinism.

The one thing we have to remember about Wesley is that he remained an Anglican to the end of his life. Even if he forced to conduct most of his ministry of evangelism outside Anglican structures, he never formally broke with the Church of England. I refer you to this article for an introduction to John Wesley.

One thing about Wesley that impressed me as I saw the life-sized statue at Westminster Central Hall is his long hair. I have no reason to believe that he ever wore the powdered wig of gentlemen, as was in fashion in those days. His coiffure always seems to have been his natural hair, as in the younger portrait of him from before he went grey.

(c) Epworth Old Rectory; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

[John Wesley]

The style is quite surprising for a man of strict ascetic life. The rolled curls seem only to be possible by means similar to what women use to achieve the same kind of effect. The third portrait shows curly hair, not unlike my own, and falling more naturally. Certainly, he saw sprucing himself up as important before preaching to a crowd and leading his movement.

Having commented on some aspects of Romanticism, I see much in common between Wesley and someone like William Blake whose life spanned into the early nineteenth century. Blake rose against the Industrial Revolution and the way it treated human beings as expendable commodities. Romanticism was really a reaction against “classical” rationalism and an appeal to the heart and the imagination. These, like in the spirituality of Francis of Assisi and Ignatius of Loyola, would define pietism and the quest for Christian spirituality and the individual person. Wesley’s theology had much more in common with the Lutheran and Moravian traditions than with the Calvinism of the Established Church.

I also admire the way he reached out to Christians of all traditions. His problem with the Church of England was canonical and disciplinary – he disregarded institutions and jurisdictional boundaries. Wesley and the first Methodists  worked among the poor as did the later Oxford Movement Romantics. They were even accused at times of trying to reintroduce Catholicism! The reasons were obvious: institutional inertia, self-interest in the clergy and spiritual apathy, inordinate wealth. One has only to compare Wesley with Francis of Assisi. What good is a Church that doesn’t put God and prayer in first place? We all have lessons to learn about our missionary duty.

What did Wesley say about the relationship between faith and reason? The issue is discussed today in the discipline called fundamental theology. In the history of Christianity, there have often been excesses of rationalism on one hand and fideism on the other. He seems to have taken a moderate position, provided that everything is justifiable by the words of Scripture. Wesley was opposed to the Calvinistic teaching on predestination. Wesley was familiar with the notion of Theosis in Eastern Orthodoxy – salvation being something progressive and beginning in this life.

Another Romantic trait in this man from before the Romantic era was his humanitarianism. Like Wilberforce, Wesley was opposed to slavery and was influential in its abolition. I read in the Wikipedia article:

He is described as below medium height, well proportioned, strong, with a bright eye, a clear complexion, and a saintly, intellectual face. Wesley married very unhappily at the age of 48 to a widow, Mary Vazeille, and had no children. Vazeille left him 15 years later, to which Wesley wryly reported in his journal, “I did not forsake her, I did not dismiss her, I will not recall her.”

Going by the life-sized statue, he was small, hardly coming up to my chin – a bit like me standing next to my Bishop who towers above my head. I read about his wife being an absolutely horrible woman, consumed by jealousy and capable of dragging her husband around by his hair. He was certainly glad to see her go!

What really is of interest is Wesley’s fundamental philosophy other than being a pious Christian. He was a logical thinker and a born leader. He wrote prose and poetry, and of course, his immortal hymns for singing in church. It would be an anachronism to call Wesley a Romantic, but several characteristics show the fundamental tendency in his thinking, his feeling – and the individual personality so beautifully symbolised by his hair.

Wesley needs a lot of study, and we all have many lessons to learn from his example as a witness of Christ’s love.

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20 Responses to John Wesley

  1. Francis says:

    The works of Wesley occupy a goodly amount of space in the theological section of the university library. I will try to dip in it. Thanks for the recommendation.

  2. Stephen K says:

    Your post on John Wesley is interesting, Father. Your description how he sought a middle way – a union of both faith and reason – and his focus on the “experience” of faith made me reflect how influential hymns and music are to that “experience”. As I was watching “Songs of Praise” on Sunday, I reflected – not for the first time – how the neat, concise theology of the great hymn writers (combined with the memorability of the metrical rhythms and melodies) often seems ‘right’ to sing where it might appear incredible or unacceptable when read or said. I wonder if others have had or have this experience or understand what I mean?

    Speaking of which, I must confess that none of John Wesley’s hymns – listed on the internet – were familiar to me. On the other hand, having played for the local Anglican congregation these last 8 years, those of his brother Charles are very familiar. (“Love Divine, all loves excelling” is just one of his many lovely hymns.)

  3. pontifexmaximus says:

    For you elucidation concerning the Rev’d Mr. Wesley, I recommend the following book:
    “Strange Fires – The story of John Wesley’s love affair in Georgia”. My early 18th century grandfather migrated to Georgia, John Wesley was the vicar of his parish, Christ Church – Savannah. George Whitfield, the Calvinist priest, preached there. Were it not for the Reformation, Wesley could have been a monk. Some day I hope to visit the states and locate my 6 x great grandfather’s grave.

    • William Tighe says:

      “Were it not for the Reformation, Wesley could have been a monk.”

      And his marriage was certainly a disaster!

      • From what I’ve been reading, you seem to be right. It seems to be a story of Wesley spending too much time away from home and not “under control” and jealousy of his friendships with other women (even if there was no sin of adultery). Also, Mary Wesley was said to be domineering and furious, and perhaps mentally deranged.

        “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”. That being said, sometimes they really need to be put in place when they are clearly wrong or when it is a matter of double standards and so forth.

        Wesley’s ministry and unhappiness in marriage are a good example of a case for clerical celibacy!

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Following up on your saying, “I also admire the way he reached out to Christians of all traditions”, it is worth noting that one and another of his popularizing (abridged) editions – such as that of William Law’s Serious Call, Baxter’s Saints’ Everlasting Rest, some of Cowley’s essays and Sanderson’s sermons, and even Pascal’s Pensees, a couple of Fenelon’s letters, and “Spiritual Letter by Don Juan d’Avila” and Molinos’s Spiritual Guide, some selections fom the Apostolic Fathers and the “Homilies of Macarius”- indeed, probably most volumes of what were called collectively A Christian Library, and variously reprinted, are available at the Internet Archive.

  5. Here in the United States, there is a growing “high church” sacramental movement among Methodists and other Wesleyans. The Rev. Gregory Neal is a prominent advocate. Besides the pictures, take a look at the liturgies. They are at least some of the official liturgies for the United Methodist Church, the Wesleyan denomination in the United States.

    • This is something lovely to see, as among Lutherans and some other denominations. Though much of the theology of Wesley is tied to the 18th century and that kind of mentality, he seems to have been rooted in the English mystical tradition that gave him the notion of a “religion of the heart”. The notion of method-ism doesn’t seem that far removed from St Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuits! We tend to be less into methods these days and more for spontaneity. We have much to learn as from Roman Catholics like Saints Philip Neri, Francis de Sales, and medieval holy men like Richard Rolle or Walter Hilton. I have always warmed to this kind of spirituality as with the best of the Orthodox mystics. They are all great guides for us on our little pilgrimages.

    • Dale says:

      I used to have a copy of the Prayer Book of the then “Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States” and it was virtually identical to the 1662 BCP of the Church of England.

  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Might a photo gallery on naturally long clerical hair from (say) “John Wesley to Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury (have a look at Sir Hubert von Herkomer’s potrait of him, in the Wikipedia article), and beyond”, be something worth someone’s while pursuing?

    Speaking of Benson’s, I see A.C. Benson and H.F.W. Tatham’s Men of Might: Studies of Great Characters (in a new 1921 illustrated edition of the 1892 work “compiled to read to small sets of boys, varying in age from fidteen to eighteen”) includes John Wesley (and is in the Internet Archive). I certainly enjoyed the sketch of him in Charles Williams’s Stories of Great Names (OUP, 1937), but fear it may not be easily found outside the great copyright libraries.

    • I think this would be a good idea. I have just looked at Archbishop Benson with his carefully groomed moderate length hair. If you can come up with some more names, that would be great. The more long hair eras were most of the 19th century, but particularly the first half (in the second half, the hair got shorter and men grew big moustaches and beards), the 17th and 18th centuries and earlier. The 20th century was the era when short hair was much more rigorous except for “rebellious” people in the 1960’s. It would be interesting to have a list of bishops, priests and non-conformist ministers who wore their hair long, especially in more recent times.

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        ‘Assignment’ accepted! – though, knowiing me, probably in a rather desultory fashion… but it is intriguing! There must be many a stately portrait… so, ‘names to try’ is probably the first step.

  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    One handy starting place is the Gallery of Archbishops of Canterbury Portraits – a selection of 37 in all – where Wikipedia found Von Herkomer’s Benson (follow the link, there): note, down the ages, Archbishops Juxon, Sancroft, Tenison, and Tait, and consider Tillotson and Longley – and even Frederick Temple and Lang.

  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Clicking along the sequence of Wikipedia articles on the Popes from Clement IX through Pius VIII is also worth the effort!

  9. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Joseph Vivien’s Fenelon is charming – as is Hyacinthe Rigaud’s Bossuet (both Wikipedia)!

  10. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    And note the various illustrations of the “Seven Bishops” committed to the Tower in 1688 which Wikipedia has assembled (one, at the “Thomas Ken” article, where his depiction is also worth noting).

  11. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Gilbert Burnet (after Riley, and variously if you follow the link from Wikipedia to the Nathional Portrait Gallery) looks like he’s wearing his own hair, rather than a wig.

  12. Re: Wesley and the Jesuits..

    There is a story that Wesley was conducting one of his open air services and while he was preaching, some bystanders started shouting, “Papist! Papist!” A Jesuit, overhearing them, said, “No, he’s not, but we wish he were!”

    • There’s a story about the Curé d’Ars (who was also moderately long-haired) receiving a message from the Devil, something to the effect of “If there were just six of you, my empire would be defeated”. Obviously, anything from that infernal source is to be taken with a pinch of salt, as Old Mephisto is a notorious liar!

  13. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    A distinctly famous long-haired non-conformist minister, and later deliberate member of the Church of England who continued to do a lot of lay preaching in a variety of churches, is George MacDonald (browse around the photos of him at various ages at – interestingly, he seems the longest-haired in the group picture with other writers: is this at all characteristic of Victorian Scots, clerical or not?

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