John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of Methodism, proves to be a biographer’s dream come true. The man was a bundle of contradictions—and what biographer does not love to portray a human life torn asunder from within, thrashing about on the stage of history? As Stephen Tomkins explains at the conclusion of his almost novelistic biography, Wesley fascinates because he embodied so many of the conflicts of his age and fused them into a life of remarkable achievement:
He combined a Catholic devotion to the sacraments of the Church with a Pentecostal welcoming of healings, ecstasies and Low Church spontaneity. He had an evangelical horror of trying to satisfy God by good works, but an even greater horror of trying to satisfy God without good works. He was a founding father of evangelicalism, but for his last twenty years, he consistently retreated from its stark certainties.
But Wesley’s contradictions were more than theological; they were personal too, especially in his relations with women. After nearly marrying twice (and leaving both women feeling jilted), Wesley eventually married Molly Vazeille, a widow of French Huguenot descent with four children of her own. The marriage was not happy—indeed, the spouses proved scarcely able to tolerate each other. When Wesley, at a Methodist conference in Bristol, got word that his wife was dangerously ill, he headed back to their London home. Arriving at their apartment at the ungodly hour of one o’clock the following morning, he discovered that her fever had abated—and he turned around and headed back to Bristol an hour later.
When Wesley suspected his wife of reading his private mail, he had his desk outfitted with a secret compartment in which to hide his sensitive papers from her. These presumably must have included portions of his famous Journal, for in one bitter letter to her he explained that his indictment of her character was incomplete because he did not have his journal with him at the moment: “I have therefore only my memory to depend on; and that is not very retentive of evil.” No surprise, then, that he did not attend her funeral, and of her own legacy of five thousand pounds (holdings from her first husband, a wealthy merchant), she bequeathed to him only a ring.
Tomkins does, however, absolve Wesley of the charge of adultery, a charge hurled at him by none other than his ultra-suspicious wife. But while always faithful to his marriage vows, Wesley, as his biographer freely admits, “suffered from a failure to discern between the romantic and pastoral, which blighted his romances and cast a shadow over his pastoring.” This was a blind spot that afflicted more than one early Methodist preacher. Perhaps the most disastrous of these philandering clerics was Westley Hall, one of Wesley’s first converts while they were both students at Oxford. Auspiciously enough, Hall married Wesley’s sister Martha; but then, after a string of seductions among his flock, he began to preach a gospel of polygamous deism and finally deserted Martha after most of her ten children had died, fleeing to the West Indies with another woman.
According to the famous twentieth-century Catholic writer, Ronald Knox, the real problem here was “enthusiasm.” But Tomkins shows that such an interpretation goes too far. The real problem was that legitimate religious enthusiasm had become too bottled up by the established church. The author recounts the rather amusing tale of one budding Quaker who quit the Church of England because, when he approached various curates and vicars about his oppressive sense of sin, he was told to go see a doctor. Such anodyne advice was clearly not for Wesley, who advocated what he called “heart-religion,” meaning “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.” For Wesley, these fruits of the spirit must be felt, or else they have no being, and when excluded from the devout life religion becomes but a “dry, dead carcass.”
All well and good, and no one doubts that the enthusiasm that greeted Wesley’s sermons owed at least something to the starved condition of souls planted in the fallow soil of a desiccated, established Christianity. Unfortunately, enthusiasm sometimes bursts its own bounds, especially when sexual energy gets commingled with spiritual fervor. But of the authenticity of the fervor, both in Wesley and in most Methodists, there can be no doubt. “At fairly sober estimates,” Tomkins writes, Wesley “rode 250,000 miles, gave away 30,000 pounds, . . . and preached more than 40,000 sermons,” while the published version of his Journal ran to over twenty volumes. Moreover, under his influence England became, in all its classes and throughout the land, a thoroughly Christian nation, so much so that nonconformists grew from six percent of churchgoers in Wesley’s youth to over 45 percent by 1851.
Most remarkably, much of this growth came from the zeal of just this one man, and yet Wesley never seems to have attained the inner peace that was the goal of his entire adult life. In perhaps the most astonishing passage in this riveting book, Tomkins quotes John writing to his brother Charles in these stark words: “I do not love God. I never did. Therefore I never believed, in the Christian sense of the word. Therefore I am only an honest heathen.” But unlike similar-sounding crises of faith in later times, this did not cause Wesley to despair of his mission: “And yet I dare not preach otherwise than I do, either concerning faith, or love, or justification, or perfection . . . I want all the world to come to what I do not know.”
Without quite saying so explicitly, Tomkins implies that Wesley’s dilemma, expressed so poignantly here, came from an unresolved tension located in the Christian religion itself, above all in the still unresolved interpretation of the letters of St. Paul regarding justification and sanctification. While fully admitting that salvation is pure gift (in fact his early preaching was entirely premised on this foundational Reformation doctrine), Wesley also knew that static, untransforming faith was valueless; and so he came to advocate his most distinctive doctrine, claiming—against St. Augustine, Luther, and Calvin—that perfect holiness can be attained in this life. But with such an ideal in mind, dissension was bound to arise within the Methodist ranks between those who claimed such perfection and those who were all too aware of their ongoing sinfulness.
The irony of this dilemma is easy to picture, and Tomkins captures it well: “The immoderately perfect condemned ordinary Methodists as thoroughly as the Methodists condemned the ‘almost Christians’ of the Church of England, and complained of persecution from the ordinary Methodists as the ordinary Methodists did from the unregenerate Anglicans.” To make matters worse, preachers soon sprang up who began to claim that “a believer till perfect is under the curse of God and in a state of damnation.” Wesley rejected this teaching, but as Tomkins says, “he did not distance himself very much from it.” How could he? For the doctrine of perfect holiness had finally become both the wellspring and the goal of his apostolic zeal, the one doctrine that could resolve all his personal and theological tensions: “The conquest of sin, and not just its forgiveness, was what he most hoped for from his evangelical conversion.” Faith, Wesley said, was the door of religion; holiness was “religion itself.”
St. Augustine often insisted on the ineluctable sinfulness of Christians, no matter how seemingly perfect they might be. To him innate, incorrigible imperfection was one of the legacies of Adam’s sin. Original sin, he said, turned the human heart into a fomes peccati (tinderbox or powder keg of sin), operative at all times, even in the regenerate. This teaching Wesley seems never to have taken to heart, although the experience of his flock often told him of it, especially when those supposedly “perfect” saints later returned to their previous lives: “Formerly we thought,” wrote Wesley, “one saved from sin could not fall; now we know the contrary. We are surrounded with instances of those who lately experienced all that I mean by perfect. They had both the fruit of the Spirit, and the witness; but they now lost both.”
Recounting Wesley’s story this way might make it seem that he ended his life a tragic failure. But just as dissenting Christianity in England grew to encompass nearly half of English worshippers by the middle of the nineteenth century, so too Wesley’s insistence that holiness is the substance of religion (with faith but its portal) soon gave birth to the various “holiness churches,” and these later gave birth to Pentecostalism, now the fastest-growing form of Protestant Christianity in the world.
Whether Wesley himself would have counted these vast numbers of nonconforming Christians as representing “success” might be doubted, for it was never his intention to break away from the Church of England (in which, like his father Samuel and his brother Charles, he was ordained). But by the end of his days the split was becoming inevitable. Indeed, Wesley himself provoked the split (which took place only after his death) when he went ahead and ordained ministers for America. That move proved Wesley’s Rubicon, for to ordain without his bishop’s permission meant a de facto break; and we are not surprised to learn that at this point he was finally claiming that priests and bishops are the same, so that he had the authority to ordain.
How non-Methodists react to his innovations no doubt depends on their attachment to the ancient creeds and to the apostolic succession which they express. But for me the greater interest in Wesley’s life comes not from his break with Anglicanism, determinative as that was for the paths taken by American Methodism, but from the constancy and consistency of his zeal, often in the face of ferocious persecution (he escaped death several times by only the narrowest of margins, merely for preaching outdoors and to all comers). Yet he kept doggedly on, never wavering, always preaching, always writing in his journal, always on the go, always interrogating his own soul, but never on that account cooling his zeal for the gospel, which he preached in season and out. Perhaps the final word on this remarkable man can only be made by that apostle on whom he most modeled himself, St. Paul: “We are only the earthen vessels that hold this treasure,” he said in 2 Corinthians 4:7, “to prove that such an overwhelming power comes from God, not from us.”
Edward T. Oakes, S. J. is co-editor, with David Moss, of The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar.