Wesley’s Family Stock
John Wesley came of a stock which had been much harrassed and put about by our unhappy religious difficulties. Politics, business, and religion are the three things Englishmen are said to worry themselves about. The Wesleys early took up with religion. John Wesley’s great-grandfather and grandfather were both ejected from their livings in 1662, and the grandfather was so bullied and oppressed by the Five Mile act that he early gave up the ghost. Whereupon his remains were refused what is called Christian burial, though a holier and more primitive man never drew breath. This poor, persecuted spirit left two sons according to the flesh, Matthew and Samuel; and Samuel it was who in his turn became the father of John and Charles Wesley.
Samuel Wesley, though minded to share the lot hard though that lot was, of his progenitors, had the moderation of mind, the Christian conservatism which ever marked the family, and being sent to a dissenting college, became disgusted with the ferocity and bigotry he happened there to encounter. Those were the days of the Calf’s Head Club and feastings on the twenty-ninth of January, graceless meals for which Samuel Wesley had no stomach. His turn was for the things that are “quiet, wise, and good.” He departed from the dissenting seminary and in 1685 entered himself as a poor scholar at Exeter College, Oxford. He brought f 2 6s. with him, and as for prospects, he had none. Exeter received him.
During the eighteenth century our two universities, famous despite their faults, were always open to the poor scholar who was ready to subscribe, not to boat clubs or cricket clubs, but to the Thirty-nine Articles. Three archbishops of Canterbury during the eighteenth century were the sons of small tradesmen. There was, in fact, much less snobbery and money-worship during the century when the British empire was being won than during the century when it is being talked about.
Samuel Wesley was allowed to remain at Oxford, where he supported himself by devices known to his tribe, and when he left the university to be ordained he had clear in his pouch, after discharging his few debts, f 10 15s. He had thus made f 8 9s. out of his university, and had his education, as it were, thrown in for nothing. He soon obtained a curacy in London and married a daughter of the well-known ejected clergyman, Dr. Annesley, about whom you may read in another eighteenth-century book, The Life and Errors of John Dunton.
The mother of the Wesleys was a remarkable woman, though cast in a mold not much to our minds nowadays. She had nineteen children and greatly prided herself on having taught them, one after another, by frequent chastisements to—what do you think? to cry softly. She had theories of education and strength of will, and of arm too, to carry them out.
She knew Latin and Greek, and though a stern, forbidding, almost an unfeeling, parent, she was successful in winning and retaining not only the respect but the affection of such of her huge family as lived to grow up. But out of the nineteen, thirteen early succumbed. Infant mortality was one of the great facts of the eighteenth century whose Rachels had to learn to cry softly over their dead babes. The mother of the Wesleys thought more of her children’s souls than of their bodies.
A Domestic Squall
The revolution of 1688 threatened to disturb the early married life of Samuel Wesley and his spouse.
The husband wrote a pamphlet in which he defended revolution principles, but the wife secretly adhered to the old cause; nor was it until a year before Dutch William’s death that the rector made the discovery that the wife of his bosom, who had sworn to obey him and regard him as her over-lord, was not in the habit of saying Amen to his fervent prayers on behalf of his suffering sovereign. An explanation was demanded and the truth extracted, namely, that in the opinion of the rector’s wife her true king lived over the water. The rector at once refused to live with Mrs. Wesley any longer until she recanted. This she refused to do, and for a twelvemonth the couple dwelt apart, when William III having the good sense to die, a reconciliation became possible. If John Wesley was occasionally a little pig-headed, need one wonder?
The story of the fire at Epworth Rectory and the miraculous escape of the infant John was once a tale as well known as Alfred in the neat-herd’s hut, and pictures of it still hang up in many a collier’s home.
John Wesley received a sound classical education at Charterhouse and Christ Church, and remained all his life very much the scholar and the gentleman. No company was too good for John Wesley, and nobody knew better than he did that had he cared to carry his powerful intelligence, his flawless constitution, and his infinite capacity for taking pains into any of the markets of the world, he must have earned for himself place, fame, and fortune.
Coming, however, as he did of a theological stock, having a saint for a father and a notable devout woman for a mother, Wesley from his early days learned to regard religion as the business of his life, just as the young Pitt came to regard the House of Commons as the future theater of his actions.
“My Jack is Fellow of Lincoln”
After a good deal of heart-searching and theological talk with his mother, Wesley was ordained a deacon by the excellent Potter, afterward Primate, but then (1725) Bishop of Oxford. In the following year Wesley was elected a Fellow of Lincoln, to the great delight of his father. “Whatever I am,” said the good old man, “my Jack is Fellow of Lincoln.”
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Wesley’s motive never eludes us. In his early manhood, after being greatly affected by Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Dying and the Imitatio Christi, and by Law’s Serious Call and Christian Perfection, he met “a serious man” who said to him, “Sir, you wish to serve God and go to heaven. Remember you cannot serve Him alone. You must therefore find companions or make them. The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.”
He was very confident, this serious man, and Wesley never forgot his message. “You must find companions or make them. The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.” These words forever sounded in Wesley’s ears, determining his theology, which rejected the stern individualism of Calvin, and fashioning his whole polity, his famous class meetings and generally gregarious methods.
Therefore to him it was given
Many to save with himself.
We may continue the quotation and apply to Wesley the words of Mr. Arnold’s memorial to his father:
Languor was not in his heart,
Weakness not in his word,
Weariness not on his brow.
If you ask what is the impression left upon the reader of the Journal as to the condition of England Question, the answer will vary very much with the tenderness of the reader’s conscience and with the extent of his acquaintance with the general behavior of mankind at all times and in all places.
Wesley himself is no alarmist, no sentimentalist, he never gushes, seldom exaggerates, and always writes on an easy level. Naturally enough he clings to the supernatural and is always disposed to believe in the bona fides of ghosts and the diabolical origin of strange noises, but outside this realm of speculation, Wesley describes things as he saw them. In the first published words of his friend, Dr. Johnson, “he meets with no basilisks that destroy with their eyes, his crocodiles devour their prey without tears, and his cataracts fall from the rocks without deafening the neighbouring inhabitants.”
Wesley’s humor is of the species donnish, and his modes and methods quietly persistent.