Wesley’s Humor

Wesley’s Humor

“On Thursday, May 20 (1742), I set out. The next afternoon I stopped a little at Newport Pagnell and then rode on till I over took a serious man with whom I immediately fell into conversation. He presently gave me to know what his opinions were, therefore I said nothing to contradict them. But that did not content him. He was quite uneasy to know ‘whether I held the doctrines of the decrees as he did’; but I told him over and over ‘We had better keep to practical things lest we should be angry at one another.’ And so we did for two miles till he caught me unawares and dragged me into the dispute before I knew where I was. He then grew warmer and warmer; told me I was rotten at heart and supposed I was one of John Wesley’s followers. I told him ‘No. I am John Wesley himself.’ Upon which


Improvisum aspris Veluti qui sentibus

anguem Presset—


he would gladly have run away outright. But being the better mounted of the two I kept close to his side and endeavored to show him his heart till we came into the street of Northampton.”

What a picture have we here of a fine May morning in 1742, the unhappy Calvinist trying to shake off the Arminian Wesley! But he cannot do it! John Wesley is the better mounted of the two, and so they scamper together into Northampton.

The England described in the Journal is an England still full of theology; all kinds of queer folk abound; strange subjects are discussed in odd places. There was drunkenness and cockfighting, no doubt, but there were also Deists, Mystics, Swedenborgians, Antiomians, Necessitarians, Anabaptists, Quakers, nascent heresies, and slow-dying delusions. Villages were divided into rival groups, which fiercely argued the nicest points in the aptest language. Nowadays in one’s rambles a man is as likely to encounter a grey badger as a black Calvinist.

England in Wesley’s Day

The clergy of the Established Church were jealous of Wesley’s interference in their parishes, nor was this unnatural—he was not a Nonconformist but a brother churchman.  What right had he to be so peripatetic? But Wesley seldom records any instance of gross clerical misconduct. Of one drunken parson he does indeed tell us, and he speaks disapprovingly of another whom he found one very hot day consuming a pot of beer in a lone ale-house.

When Wesley, with that dauntless courage of his, a courage which never forsook him, which he wore on every occasion with the delightful ease of a soldier, pushed his way into fierce districts, amid rough miners dwelling their own village communities almost outside the law, what most strikes one with admiration, not less in Wesley’s Journal than in George Fox’s (a kindred though earlier volume), is the essential fitness for freedom of our rudest populations. They were coarse and brutal and savage, but rarely did they fail to recognize the high character and lofty motives of the dignified mortal who had traveled so far to speak to them.

The Mobs He Met

Wesley was occasionally hustled, and once or twice pelted with mud and stones, but at no time were his sufferings at the hands of the mob to be compared with the indignities it was long the fashion to heap upon the heads of parliamentary candidates. The mob knew and appreciated the difference between a Bubb Dodington and a John Wesley.

I do not think any ordinary Englishman will be much horrified at the demeanor of the populace. If there was a disturbance it was usually quelled. At Norwich two soldiers who disturbed a congregation were seized and carried before their commanding officer, who ordered them to be soundly whipped. In Wesley’s opinion they richly deserved all they got. He was no sentimentalist, although an enthusiast.

Where the reader of the Journal will be shocked is when his attention is called to the public side of the country—to the state of the gaols—to Newgate, to Bethlehem, to the criminal code—to the brutality of so many of the judges, and the harshness of the magistrates, to the supineness of the bishops, to the extinction in high places of the missionary spirit—in short, to the heavy slumber of humanity.

Wesley was full of compassion, of a compassion wholly free from hysterics and like exaltative. In public affairs his was the composed zeal of a Howard. His efforts to penetrate the dark places were long in vain. He says in his dry way: “They won’t let me go to Bedlam because they say I make the inmates mad, or into Newgate because I make them wicked.” The reader of the Journal will be at no loss to see what these sapient magistrates meant.

Wesley was a terriby exciting preacher, quiet though his manner was. He pushed matters home without flinching. He made people cry out and fall down, nor did it surprise him that they should.

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Ever a Preacher

If you want to get into the last century, to feel its pulses throb beneath your finger, be content sometimes to leave the letters of Horace Walpole unturned, resist the drowsy temptation to waste your time over the learned triflers who sleep in the seventeen volumes of Nichols, nay even deny yourself your annual reading of Boswell or your biennial retreat with Sterne, and ride up and down the country with the greatest force of the eighteenth century in England.

No man lived nearer the center than John Wesley.  Neither Clive nor Pitt, neither Mansfield nor Johnson. You cannot cut him out of our national life. No single figure influenced so many minds, no single voice touched so many hearts. No other man did such a life’s work for England.

As a writer he has not achieved distinction, he was no Athanasius, no Augustine, he was ever a preacher and an organizer, a laborer in the service of humanity; but happily for us his Journals remain, and from them we can learn better than from anywhere else what manner of man he was, and the character of the times during which he lived and moved and had his being.                

augustine birrell

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