John Wesley

The four volumes of John Wesley’s Journal, in the Everyman’s Library series, provide a very vivid insight into his life and character. I cannot claim to have done much more than take a few short excursions into them, covering relatively brief periods of Wesley’s life: but I soon found myself carried far beyond my starting point - i.e. curiosity about his preaching tours through my part of Yorkshire (fuelled further by some gloomy references to these in poems by the late Poet Laureate!).

The statistics of Wesley’s life as an itinerant preacher (and as minister and apostle to the growing Methodist ‘Societies’ in all parts of Britain) are extraordinary. Shortly after his death, in the ‘Review of his Character’ which concludes the printed journals, it is calculated that in his fifty years of wayfaring:

he travelled about four thousand five hundred miles every year, one year with another; which gave two hundred and twenty- five thousand miles… For fifty-two years or upwards, he generally delivered two, frequently three or four sermons in a day: but calculating at two sermons a day, and allowing... fifty for extraordinary occasions, the whole number during this period will be forty thousand five hundred and sixty’.

If ‘heroic’ connoted nothing more than sheer physical effort, this would already be impressive enough. But a reader of the Journal can quickly a achieve a much fuller sense not only of the effort but of the dangers (violent opposition, extremes of weather, illness, exhaustion), of the constant calls on his attention, his judgement, and his powers of mediation, and of the rewards - his conviction (endlessly renewed) that God worked through him.

For a modern reader there are at least two orders of interest. Wesley was a highly-civilised eighteenth century Englishman with all the ‘polite’ accomplishments - learned in Greek, Latin and modern languages, an acute reader (or ‘critic’, in the language of the day), fascinated by natural history and with a keen eye for the beauties of landscape and architecture. He was a fine conversationalist, too; but in this respect the difference between him and our earlier spiritual hero, Samuel Johnson provides a good lead into our ‘second order of interest’. The two men respected each other greatly, but Johnson (in Boswell’s Life) expresses his frustration with Wesley’s much more self- disciplined habits:

He said, "John Wesley’s conversation is good, but he is never at leisure. He is always obliged to go at a certain hour. This is very disagreeable to a man who loves to fold his legs and have out his talk, as I do".

Not only did Wesley manage his time strictly, he rose at four every morning and regularly preached at five, expecting comparable early-morning devotions, winter and summer, from all the Methodist ‘societies". His journal constitutes a kind of spiritual geography of Britain and Ireland as well as a physical and political survey, constantly updated - everywhere he notes the outward signs of the reception of his message, leaving the inward truth to God (though he tends to use some standardised modes of description, based no doubt on repeated experience - for example, the local curate is often the one member of a congregation not looking ‘serious’ i.e. spiritually attentive). The sheer strain of finding places to preach big enough for the congregation, of being able to speak loudly enough to be heard (often through wind or rain, or through organised heckling and jostling), of starting over again with local supporters who have been distracted by doctrinal or organisational ‘disputes’, is such as only God’s felt presence could counteract. It has to be said however that there are some big absences in the writing. He pays frequent and heartfelt tribute to the spiritual gifts and ministration of women, but what of all the housewives and domestic servants, who must have cooked his meals however frugal his habits, and however often (as all too evidently occurred) he was subject to food poisoning! But I don’t think we should judge his reference to the ‘large gentlewoman’ who sitting ‘in my lap’ in a coach, once protected him from the missiles of a mob entering through the open windows, to be anything more than accidentally comic! Wesley regarded himself, soberly, as God’s instrument and expected to be safeguarded, and that did not imply a lack of concern for others - in fact, quite the reverse. This is consistent with his repeated notes about the condition of his voice, and his enforced interest in outdoor acoustics.

At some points my ‘two orders of interest’ coincide, as they do in the entry for Friday 26th August 1748. Having in the morning written a strong letter of protest to the magistrate for the Rough Lee district of Lancashire, about the organised riot which had interrupted his preaching on the previous day, and ridden over the central spine of Pennine ‘mountains’ into the Yorkshire Calder valley, he narrates how:

At twelve we came to Heptonstall Bank. The house stands on the side of a steep mountain, and commands all the vale below. The place in which I preached was an oval spot of ground, surrounded with spreading trees, scooped out, as it were, in the side of the hill, which rose round like a theatre. The congregation was equal to that at Leeds; but such serious and earnest attention! It lifted up my hands, so that I preached as I scarce never did in my life.

However hastily written, this links a sense of natural beauty, human order and convenience in the topography of the hillside, reciprocal feeling between preacher and flock, and sheer spiritual exhilaration - a kind of fusion of feeling and perception which only this man at this time, working in this vocation, could produce.

Robert Cockcroft
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 29th August 1999