the son of the rector of Epworth, Lincolnshire, was born in 1703. After being
educated at Christ Church College,
was ordained in 1725. After finishing his studies Wesley remained Oxford where
he taught Greek.
At Oxford University
John became a member of a small group which had gathered round his brother
The group of Christians, which included
Whitefield and James Hervey, became known as the Holy Club
or the Oxford Methodists.
In 1735 John Wesley and his brother Charles became missionaries in America.
After three years with the English settlers in Georgia, Wesley returned to
England and joined
Bristol. Wesley's passionate sermons upset the local clergy and he found
their pulpits closed to him. To overcome this problem in 1739 Wesley built a
Methodist Chapel in
Bristol. Wesley and Whitefield also gave sermons in the open-air.
John Wesley continued to travel the country where he mainly visited poor
neighbourhoods, and most of the people who attended his meetings were industrial
workers or agricultural labourers. Wesley's main message was of God's love. He
told the people who attended his meetings that if they loved God in return, they
would "be saved from sin and made holy". Wesley also had a lot to say about
personal morality. In his sermons he encouraged people to work hard and to save
for the future. Wesley also warned against the dangers of gambling and drinking.
Although there were
ministers, John Wesley encouraged people who had full-time jobs to become lay
preachers. This gave working people valuable experience of speaking in public.
Later, some of these went on to become leaders of trade unions and reform groups
such as the Chartists.
Wesley found time to write a large number of books during his life-time. This
included collections of psalms, hymns and sermons. He also founded and edited
the Methodist Magazine. Wesley received over
£30,000 in royalties from his writings. This was used for charitable work
including the foundation of
Wesley and his followers became known as
By the time John Wesley died in 1791, the Methodist
movement had over 76,000 members.
John Wesley, the celebrated preacher and founder of
the Methodist Church, was a life-long opponent of slavery. His biography is well
known, and is told in many places, both on the web and in many published works,
so this article will focus mainly on his activities as a campaigner against
slavery. His opposition to slavery and the slave trade began long before the
issue had received widespread attention, and was sustained throughout his life.
Indeed, his attitudes to slavery were formed early. In 1736-7 Wesley visited the
then British colony of Georgia in North America where he came into contact with
slaves. At the same time, he read Thomas Southerne's play Oroonoko, which
was based on Aphra Behn's novel of the same name, and which related the tragedy
of Oroonoko, an African prince kidnapped and sold into slavery. On his return to
England, he passed the time on the long transatlantic voyage by teaching a young
black man, presumably a slave, how to read and write.
These experiences fostered in Wesley an abhorrence of slavery, but it was not
an abhorrence he felt able to act upon. In his journal, Wesley records meeting
with people involved in the slave trade - including the slave-ship captain John
Newton, now more famous as the author of the hymn "Amazing Grace". Newton's
conversion to Christianity was later followed by a conversion to anti-slavery,
but it is not recorded if he and Wesley discussed the issue. In 1772, the
Somerset case, brought before the courts by
put slavery in the news. Wesley, putting aside Laurence Sterne's Sentimental
Journey (a book he described as marked by: "oddity, uncouthness, and
unlikeness to all the world") took up instead Some historical account of
Guinea, a work of anti-slavery by the Philadelphia Quaker,
Wesley recorded his thoughts in his journal:
Wed. 12.-In returning I read a very different book, published by an honest
Quaker, on that execrable sum of all villanies, commonly called the
Slave-trade. I read of nothing like it in the heathen world, whether ancient
or modern; and it infinitely exceeds, in every instance of barbarity, whatever
Christian slaves suffer in Mahometan countries.
Clearly Benezet's work, and Lord Mansfield's deliberations in the case of
James Somerset, gave Wesley some disquiet for, two years later, in 1774, he
issued a short pamphlet called Thoughts Upon Slavery which went into four
editions in two years. The pamphlet follows Benezet's work in many respects,
discussing African topology and society, the method of procuring and
transporting slaves, and the brutality of plantation life before advancing legal
and moral arguments against both slavery and the slave trade. Wesley shows "that
all slavery is as irreconcileable to Justice as to Mercy" before concluding,
first with a direct address to the slave-trader and slave-owner, and finally
with a prayer. The direct address is worth reproducing at length, as Wesley
attacks the slave-trader with considerable passion:
Are you a man? Then you should have an human heart. But have
you indeed? What is your heart made of? Is there no such principle as
Compassion there? Do you never feel another's pain? Have you no
Sympathy? No sense of human woe? No pity for the miserable? When you saw the
flowing eyes, the heaving breasts, or the bleeding sides and tortured limbs of
your fellow-creatures, was you a stone, or a brute? Did you look upon them
with the eyes of a tiger? When you squeezed the agonizing creatures down in
the ship, or when you threw their poor mangled remains into the sea, had you
no relenting? Did not one tear drop from your eye, one sigh escape from your
breast? Do you feel no relenting now? If you do not, you must go on,
till the measure of your iniquities is full. Then will the Great GOD deal with
You, as you have dealt with them, and require all their blood at
Wesley remained actively opposed to slavery until his death. In August 1787,
he wrote to the Abolition Committee to express his support, and he pledged to
reprint Thoughts Upon Slavery in "a new large edition". For some reason
this fifth edition did not appear until 1792, a year after Wesley's death. In
1788, when the abolition campaign was at its height, he preached a sermon in
Bristol, one of the foremost slave trading ports. In such a location, at such a
time, an anti-slavery sermon could not have been preached without considerable
personal risk to the preacher. Indeed, during the sermon a disturbance took
place which Wesley recorded in his journal:
About the middle of the discourse, while there was on every side attention
still as night, a vehement noise arose, none could tell why, and shot like
lightening through the whole congregation. The terror and confusion were
inexpressible. You might have imagined it was a city taken by storm. The
people rushed upon each other with the utmost violence; the benches were broke
in pieces, and nine-tenths of the congregation appeared to be struck with the
Wesley ascribed the confusion to "some preternatural influence. Satan fought,
lest his kingdom should be delivered up." A more likely cause, perhaps, was a
plot by slave-traders, anxious to disrupt a piece of abolitionist rhetoric being
sounded deep in their territory. How strong this rhetoric was is impossible to
tell as the 1788 sermon has not survived. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to
assume that it was based in some measure on his pamphlet Thoughts Upon
Slavery which was strongly argued. Wesley maintained an interest in the
abolition movement until the end: on his death-bed, he was reading the
Interesting Narrative of
Olaudah Equiano, a
text which Wesley discussed in his last letter - to
Wilberforce - written six days before he died, on 2 March 1791.
- Thoughts Upon Slavery (London: R.
- Journal of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M.,
Bicentenary Issue, 8 vols, ed Nehemiah Curnock (London: The Epworth Press,
- Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M.,
8 vols, ed John Telford (London: The Epworth Press, 1931)
- Kitson, Peter, et al, eds, Slavery,
Abolition and Emancipation: Writings in the British Romantic Period
(London: Pickering and Chatto, 1999), 8 vols. (Contains Thoughts Upon
- The Political Writings of John Wesley,
ed. Graham Maddox (Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1998). (Contains Thoughts Upon
Secondary Works: Biography and Special Studies
- Carey, Brycchan, British Abolitionism and
the Rhetoric of Sensibility: Writing, Sentiment,and Slavery, 1760-1807
(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). I discuss Wesley at pages 145-51.
Click here for more
- Carey, Brycchan, 'John Wesley's "Thoughts Upon
Slavery" and the Language of the Heart', The Bulletin of the John Rylands
University Library of Manchester, 86:3 (Autumn 2004), 269-84. [Bulletin
- Green, V.H.H., John Wesley (London and
New York: University Press of America, 1987). Useful, academic biography.
- Pollock, John, Wesley the Preacher
(London: Lion, 1989). Readable, popular biography.
From His 1754 Work,
Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament
On Matthew 24 ; The Significance of A.D. 70
"Josephus' History of the Jewish War is the best commentary on this
chapter. It is a wonderful instance of God's providence, that he, an
eyewitness, and one who lived and died a Jew, should, especially in so
extraordinary a manner, be preserved, to transmit to us a collection of
important facts, which so exactly illustrate this glorious prophecy, in
almost every circumstance." (Matt. Intro)
On Deuteronomy 28:49 "But in the following
he foretells their last destruction by the Romans. And the present
deplorable state of the Jewish nation, so exactly answers this prediction,
that it is an incontestable proof of the truth of the prophecy, and
consequently of the divine authority of the scriptures.
And this destruction more dreadful than the
former shows, that their sin in rejecting Christ, was more provoking to
God than idolatry itself, and left them more under the power of Satan. For
their captivity in Babylon cured them effectually of idolatry in seventy
years. But under this last destruction, they continue above sixteen
hundred years incurably averse to the Lord Jesus." (in loc.)
On Isaiah 66:6 " A voice — The expression
of a prophetical extasy, as if he said, I hear a sad and affrighting
noise; it comes not from the city only, but from the temple, wherein these
formalists have so much gloried.
There is a noise of soldiers slaying, and of the
poor people shrieking or crying out. Of the Lord — A voice of the Lord,
not in thunder, but that rendereth recompence to his enemies. Thus he
seems to express the destruction of the Jews by the Roman armies, as a
thing at that time doing." (p. 1972)
On Matthew 10:23 "Till the Son of man
be come - To destroy their temple and nation."
On Matthew 16:28 "For the Son of man shall
come - For there is no way to escape the righteous judgment of God. And,
as an emblem of this, there are some here who shall live to see the
Messiah coming to set up his mediatorial kingdom with great power and
glory, by the destruction of the temple, city, and polity of the Jews."
On Matthew 22:7 The king sending forth his
troops ; The Roman armies employed of God for that purpose. Destroyed
those murderers &; Primarily the Jews."
On Matthew 24:2 " This was most punctually
fulfilled: for after the temple was burned, Titus, the Roman general,
ordered the very foundations of it to be dug up; after which the ground on
which it stood was ploghed by Turnus Rufus."
On Matthew 24:5 "And, indeed, never did so
many imposters appear in the world as a few years before the destruction
of Jerusalem, undoubtedly because that was the time wherein the Jews in
general expected the Messiah."
OnMatthew 24:15 "When ye shall see the
abomination of desolation - Daniel's term is, 'The abomination that maketh
desolate' (xi. 31); that is, the standards of the desolating legions, on
which they bear the abominable images of their idols.
Standing in the holy place - Not only the temple,
and the mountain on which it stood, but the whole city of Jerusalem, and
several furlongs of land round about it, were accounted holy; particularly
the mountain on which our Lord now sat, and on which the Romans afterward
planted their ensigns."
OnMatthew 24:34 "This generation of men
now living shall not pass till all these things be done - The expression
implies that great part of that generation would be passed away, but not
the whole. Just so it was; for the city and temple were destroyed
thirty-nine or forty years after."
On Matthew 27:25 "25. His blood be on us
and on our children — As this imprecation was dread. fully answered in the
ruin so quickly brought on the Jewish nation, and the calamities which
have ever since pursued that wretched people, so it was peculiarly
fulfilled by Titus the Roman general, on the Jews whom he took during the
siege of Jerusalem.
So many, after having been scourged in a terrible
manner, were crucified all round the city, that in a while there was not
room near the wall for the crosses to stand by each other. Probably this
befell some of those who now joined in this cry, as it certainly did many
of their children: the very finger of God thus pointing out their crime in
crucifying his Son."
On Luke 19:23 43. Thine enemies shall cast
a trench about thee, and compass thee around — All this was exactly
performed by Titus, the Roman general.
On Luke 21:31 "The kingdom of God is
nigh-The destruction of the Jewish city, temple, and religion, to make way
for the advancement of my kingdom."
On Luke 21:32 "Till all things be
effected-All that has been spoken of the destruction of Jerusalem, to
which the question, Lu 21:7, relates: and which is treated of from Lu
21:8-24. Take heed, lest at any time your hearts be overloaded with
gluttony and drunkenness-And was there need to warn the apostles
themselves against such sins as these?
Then surely there is reason to warn even strong
Christians against the very grossest sins. Neither are we wise, if we
think ourselves out of the reach of any sin: and so that day-Of judgment
or of death, come upon you, even you that are not of this world-Unawares.
Mt 24:42; Mk 13:33; Lu 12:35."