“So fine an old man I never saw! The happiness of his mind beamed forth in his countenance. Every look showed how fully he enjoyed ‘the gay remembrance of a life well spent.’”
alexander knox of john wesley
Like the others of the Epworth family, John Wesley was small in stature. Barely five feet six and weighing only one hundred and twenty-two pounds, he was yet muscular and strong. Bright hazel eyes, fine features, an aquiline nose, a fine forehead, and a clear complexion combined to make his face arresting. Contemporaries have said that his eyes retained their bright and penetrating quality even to his last years. Meticulous as to personal appearance and habits, he never appeared other than neatly dressed—narrow plaited stock, coat with a small upright collar, and three-cornered hat. “I dare no more write in a fine style,” said he, “than wear a fine coat.” “Exactly so,” remarked Canon Overton, “but, then, he was particular about his coats. He was most careful never to be slovenly in his dress, always to be dressed in good taste….It is just the same with his style; it is never slovenly, never tawdry.”
Henry Moore, who lived with Wesley in his latter years, says that he never saw a misplaced book or a scrap of paper lying about in Wesley’s study. His exactness and punctuality made it possible for him to carry the tremendous burden of work that fell to his lot, and to do it with perfect poise. He carefully weighed the value of his time and was never hurried in mind or manner. “He had no time to mend anything that he either wrote or did. He therefore always did everything not only with quietness, but with what might be thought slowness.” (Henry Moore)
Himself a delightful companion, Wesley disliked having people around who were in a bad humor, and if he did find himself in such company, he did his utmost to soothe ruffled tempers. “Wherever Wesley went he diffused a portion of his own felicity. Easy and affable in his demeanor, he accommodated himself to every sort of company and showed how happily the most finished courtesy may be blended with the most perfect piety. In his conversation we might be at a loss whether to admire most his fine classical taste, his extensive knowledge of men and things, or his overflowing goodness of heart. While the grave and serious were charmed with his wisdom, his sportive sallies of innocent mirth delighted even the young and thoughtless; and both saw in his uninterrupted cheerfulness the excellency of true religion. No cynical remarks on the levity of youth embittered his discourses. No applausive retrospect to past times marked his present discontent. In him even old age appeared delightful, like an evening without a cloud; and it was impossible to observe him without wishing fervently, ‘May my latter end be like his!’” (Knox)
Once when Wesley and one of his itinerant preachers were taking lunch at a wealthy home, an incident occurred which showed the great man’s tact. The daughter of the house, a beautiful girl, was much impressed with Mr. Wesley’s preaching. While conversing with the young lady, Wesley’s itinerant noticed that she was wearing a number of rings; holding her hand up for Mr. Wesley to see, he said, “What do you think of this sir, for a Methodist’s hand?” (Wesley’s aversion for the wearing of jewelry was well known.) The girl blushed and no doubt felt ill at ease, but with characteristic poise Wesley only smiled and said, “The hand is very beautiful.” The young lady appeared at the next service without her gems, and became a devoted Christian.
Robert Southey, one of Wesley’s biographers, gives us a glimpse of his love for children. “I was in a house in Bristol where Wesley was. When a mere child, on running downstairs before him with a beautiful little sister of my own, whose ringlets were floating over her shoulders, he overtook us on the landing and took my sister in his arms and kissed her. Placing her on her feet again, he then put his hand upon my head and blessed me, and I feel as though I had the blessing of that good man upon me at the present moment.”
We are indebted to the daughter of Charles Wesley for the following glimpses of the man in his family relationships. She was aware that her famous uncle had been represented as stern and stoical. “It behooves a relative to render this justice to his private virtues and attest from experience that no human being was more alive to all the tender charities of domestic life than John Wesley. His indifference to calumny and inflexible perseverance in what he believed his duty have been the cause of this idea….”
His nephew was attracted in early life to an amiable girl of low birth. This was much opposed by his mother and her family, who mentioned it with concern to John Wesley. Finding that this was the chief objection, Wesley observed, “Then there is no family, but I hear the girl is good.” “Nor any fortune, either,” said the mother, “and she is a dawdle.” Wesley’s niece continues, “He made no reply, but sent my brother fifty pounds for his wedding dinner, and, I believe, sincerely regretted he was crossed in his inclination (as she married another). But he always showed peculiar sympathy to young persons in love.”
In April, 1749, after the marriage of Charles Wesley to Miss Sarah Gwynne, daughter of a Welsh magistrate, his brother writes, “It was a solemn day, such as became the dignity of a Christian marriage.” At this time, John Wesley was himself looking forward to a happy marriage. During August of the previous year, while he was preaching at Newcastle, he had been nursed through a brief illness by Grace Murray, a widow thirty-two years of age and an outstanding Christian woman. She was a native of Newcastle, but had moved to London. There she met and married a sailor, the son of a prominent Scotch family. Sorrow over the death of her young child had led Mrs. Murray to hear the Methodist preachers. At first her husband strongly opposed her in her new belief, but she succeeded in winning him to the same faith.
After her husband’s death at sea in 1742, Grace Murray returned to Newcastle, where she later took charge of the Orphan House. Her willingness to expend herself in looking after the hundred members in her classes, meeting a “band” every day of the week, and traveling to the nearby hamlets to read and pray with people, called forth John Wesley’s high praise: “[She was] indefatigably patient and inexpressibly tender; quick, cleanly, and skillful; of an engaging behavior, and of a mild, sprightly, cheerful, and yet serious temper; while, lastly, her gifts for usefulness were such as he had not seen equaled.”
When he proposed to her in August, 1748, she answered, “This is too great a blessing for me; I can’t tell how to believe it. This is all I could have wished for under heaven.” Since she did not want to be separated from him, he took her with him on a trip through Yorkshire and Derbyshire, where “she was unspeakably useful both to him and to the societies.” But she remained for a time in John Bennet’s circuit, at Bolton. Bennet was also in love with Grace Murray, so much so that she wrote Wesley that she thought it her duty to marry Bennet. However, she later went to Ireland with Wesley and was not only a worker among the women—forming women’s bands, visiting the sick, and praying with the penitent—but was also an adviser to Wesley in matters of his own behavior. Daily his love and esteem for her increased, and when in Dublin they made definite plans to be married.
Back in England again, they found they could not lightly dismiss John Bennet and his concerns. Bennet presented himself to Wesley at Epworth saying that Grace Murray had sent him all Wesley’s letters. Being convinced then that she should marry Bennet, Wesley wrote her to that effect; but she vacillated again and declared that Wesley was the one she really loved. They might have married then, but Wesley wanted first to satisfy Bennet, gain Charles’ approval, and tell the Methodist societies of his plan. Charles Wesley was perturbed by the thought of his brother’s marrying one who had been a servant; he first hastened to persuade John from a course which he said would cause their preachers to leave them and the societies to be scattered. John assured him that he was not marrying Grace for her birth, but for her own worth. Unsuccessful in changing his brother’s mind, Charles determined to persuade the lady herself. Meeting her at Hineley Hill, he greeted her with, “Grace Murray, you have broken my heart!” He prevailed upon her to ride with him to Newcastle; there she fell at Bennet’s feet and begged forgiveness for treating him so badly. Within a week she married him.
The loss of Grace Murray was Wesley’s deepest personal sorrow. The following letter reveals his heart:
“Leeds, October 7, 1749
“My dear Brother,—Since I was six years old, I never met with such a severe trial as for some days past. For ten years God has been preparing a fellow laborer for me by a wonderful train of providences. Last year I was convinced of it; therefore I delayed not, but, as I thought, made all sure beyond a danger of disappointment. But we were soon after torn asunder by a whirlwind. In a few months the storm was over; I then used more precaution than before and fondly told myself that the day of evil would return no more. But it too soon returned. The waves rose again since I came out of London. I fasted and prayed and strove all I could; but the sons of Zeruiah were too hard for me. The whole world fought against me, but above all my own familiar friend. Then was the word fulfilled, ‘Son of man, behold, I take from thee the desire of thine eyes at a stroke; yet shalt thou not lament, neither shall thy tears run down.’
“The fatal, irrevocable stroke was struck on Tuesday last. Yesterday I saw my friend (that was) and him to whom she is sacrificed. I believe you never saw such a scene. But ‘why should a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins?’
“I am, yours affectionately,
Wesley did not see her again until 1788. Bennet separated from him shortly after his marriage, speaking bitterly of him and even accusing him of popery. He became pastor of a Calvinistic church at Warburton, where he died at the early age of forty-five.
Again we refer to Henry Moore for a word about the last meeting of Wesley and Mrs. Bennet: “The meeting was affecting; but Mr. Wesley preserved more than his usual self-possession. It was easy to see, notwithstanding the many years which had intervened, that both in sweetness of spirit, and in person and manners she was a fit subject for the tender regrets expressed in his verses. The interview did not continue long, and I do not remember that I ever heard Mr. Wesley mention her name afterward.”
Had Wesley married Grace Murray, he would have escaped the matrimonial disaster that overtook him when he married Mrs. Vazeille, wealthy widow of a London merchant. The most charitable construction that can be placed on her malicious, unreasonable behavior is that she was at times mentally unbalanced. She took papers and letters from his desk, changed the wording in his letters, then put them into the hands of his enemies or had them published in the newspapers. She is known to have driven a hundred miles in a jealous rage to see who was traveling with him. One of Wesley’s preachers, John Hampson, said, after observing one of her tantrums, “More than once she laid violent hands upon him, and tore those venerable locks…..”
One of Charles Wesley’s biographers, Jackson, states that Wesley’s letters to his wife show “the utmost tenderness of affection, such as few female hearts could have withstood; and justify the opinion that, had it been his happiness to be married to a person who was worthy of him, he could have been one of the most affectionate husbands that ever lived. Those who think that he was constitutionally cold and repulsive utterly mistake his character.”
Even in his domestic trials, the man who “did not remember to have felt lowness of spirits for one quarter of an hour since he was born” saw the bright side. He believed that even this worked out for his good: had Mrs. Wesley been a delightful companion, he says, he might have neglected his work at times to please her.
Always believing the best of his fellow men, he was many times sadly disappointed in their behavior. Incapable of malice, he was quick to forgive even his cruelest enemies.
Alexander Knox, among others, has proved that there was no taint of ambition, pride, selfishness, or personal gratification in Wesley’s motives. His ability to rule men Wesley himself considered a trust, and he never abused it.
Perhaps the best estimate of Wesley’s character and career was given by Bishop Asbury in his Journal: “When we consider his plain and nervous writings, his uncommon talent for sermonizing and journalizing….his knowledge as an observer; his attainments as a scholar; his experience as a Christian; I conclude his equal is not to be found among all the sons he hath brought up, nor his superior among all the sons of Adam he may have left behind.”