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Last year I wrote for First Things on John Wesley's reaction to anti-Methodist riots in the mid-1700s as it relates to contemporary assaults on religious liberty. Recently a letter by John Wesley revealing his views about law enforcement and religious freedom was tweeted by its owner, the Wesley Hobart Museum of the Uniting Church in Tasmania, Australia. The letter, addressed to an ironmonger turned Methodist preacher in Winchester named Jasper Winscom, dated May 9, 1785, when Wesley was almost age 83, barely appears in Methodist literature. This letter initially concerns plans for a Methodist preaching house but mostly focuses on how to deal with anti-Methodist rioters, with whom Wesley and his Methodist followers in Britain had contended since almost their start.

CORK, May 9, 1785.

Dear Jasper, 

You are in the right: that ground would be too small. Either have a proper place or none at all.

If you have any magistrate that is resolved to do justice, he will soon make those rioters afraid to move a finger; and those that support them will soon be weary of the expense. The Justice will quickly make an end of your valorous women; for they may send women rioters to jail as well as men. The law makes no distinctions. But if you have no resolute magistrate you have another way. Let any man that was struck order a King's Bench writ against him that struck him, and arrest him immediately. And he may refuse an insufficient bail. This will soon make them weary of their bad work.

But you must take particular care not to make it up with the rioters till they have made good all the damage which has been done by any person whatever from the beginning and given sufficient security for their future good behavior. Unless you do that, you do nothing at all. Prosecute them not on the Toleration Act, which allows only twenty pounds' damage, but on the Riot Act, which brings their necks in question.

I am, dear Jasper, Your affectionate brother.

J. Wesley

Interestingly, the one online version of the letter I could find alters “necks” to “wishes,” changing the meaning significantly, and making Wesley sound far less hard nosed.

But apparently Wesley had no objection to capital punishment or other punitive instruments at the law's disposal. And he certainly expected the magistrates of civil law to give Methodists the rights owed to all citizens of the realm to live unmolested by violence and to practice liberty of conscience. (Read John Telford's account of Wesley's persecutions by rioters.)

Reputedly King George II had declared, with the Methodists in mind, earlier in Wesley's ministry, “I tell you, while I sit on the throne, no man shall be persecuted for conscience’ sake.” And often local magistrates did defend Wesley and Methodist gatherings from angry mobs, even providing military protection. But sometimes magistrates themselves stirred up physical resistance to Methodism, and other times they ignored riots, hoping the troubles would disperse on their own. At times magistrates even tried to charge the Methodists for disturbing the peace.

Wesley had no doubt about the ultimate force behind the riots against him. “It is no wonder that Satan should fight for his own kingdom, when such inroads are made upon it,” Wesley wrote only months after his letter to Winscome. “But beyond his chain he cannot go; Our Jesus shall stir up his power, And soon avenge us of our foe.”

In the battle against mobs, Wesley's recommended tools were mostly spiritual. “GOD will hearken to the prayer that goeth not out of feigned lips; especially when fasting, is joined there with,” he advised later that year. “And provided our brethren continue instant in prayer, the beasts of the people will not again lift up their head.”

The “beasts of the people” had assaulted and nearly killed Wesley, his brother Charles and numerous other Methodists across the years. He had been punched, slapped and hit by bricks and rocks, so that he tried not to preach where there was a ready supply of projectiles. After one hours-long encounter with rioters, Charles Wesley marveled at his brother, saying that he “looked like a soldier of Christ. His clothes were torn to tatters.” Charles also deduced that “God was on his [brother's] side, when so many of us could not kill one man.”

John had once observed, probably with justifiable drama, that the mob's war on Methodism was “everywhere carried on with far more vigour than that against the Spaniards,” citing his nation's then conflict with an old foe. “Such rage and bitterness I scarce ever saw before in any creatures that bore the form of men.”

Besides fasting and prayer, Wesley across decades became an expert in psychologically facing down mobs by showing no fear and responding with mild words. Sometimes his fans physically subdued his assailants. But Wesley believed in the law and expected the civil authority to handle the disorders against him and Methodism. “Since we have both God and law on our side,” Wesley explained, “if we can have peace by fair means, we had much rather; we should be exceeding glad; but if not, we will have peace.”

The Wesley of 1785 was no longer an upstart evangelist often perceived as potentially subversive by a religiously indifferent Britain, as was true in the 1740s. He was by now a widely acclaimed religious leader whose increasingly respected Methodist movement was transforming the nation toward the more pious, refined and charitable era that would become Victorian. Yet even then, riots still sometimes raged against Methodism, which was still loyal to the Church of England. The threats and persecution did not fade away even amid that swelling tide of established British Christianity. 

And Wesley himself, even though his own personal confrontations with angry mobs were far less frequent, had not grown mellow. His admonition to one of his followers about the right response to tormenting mobs was unequivocally “prosecute them,” and “make them weary of their bad work.” Even as an elderly man, he did not counsel passively turning the other cheek and yielding to even occasional persecution. Rather he knew that contending for religious freedom and a lawful society were and would remain the obligation of Christians of every generation.

Mark D. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.

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