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John Wesley

Biography

John Wesley, the son of the rector of Epworth, Lincolnshire, was born in 1703. After being educated at Christ Church College, Oxford, Wesley 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 Charles Wesley. The group of Christians, which included George 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 George Whitefield in 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 Methodist 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 Chart
ists.

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 Kingswood School in Bristol. Wesley and his followers became known as Methodists. 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 Granville Sharp, 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, Anthony Benezet. 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 your hands.

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 same panic.

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 William Wilberforce - written six days before he died, on 2 March 1791.


Bibliography

Selected Works

  • Thoughts Upon Slavery (London: R. Hawes, 1774)
  • Journal of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M., Bicentenary Issue, 8 vols, ed Nehemiah Curnock (London: The Epworth Press, 1938)
  • 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 Slavery)
  • The Political Writings of John Wesley, ed. Graham Maddox (Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1998). (Contains Thoughts Upon Slavery)

 

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 information
  • 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 Home Page]
  • 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."

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