At the Roots of Methodism: Wesley wowed contemporaries
6/12/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.
This is a regular feature on Methodist history prepared especially for
distribution by United Methodist News Service. An artist's rendering of
John Wesley is available at http://umns.umc.org/photos/headshots.html.
A UMNS Feature By John Singleton
By John Singleton*
Celebrations to mark the 300th anniversary of John Wesley's
birth are raising the historical profile of the founder of Methodism
around the world, but what was he really like as an individual, and how
did he come across as a person whose fame went before him like wildfire?
We know that he sometimes had a mixed reception, but he cut an
impressive figure both physically and as a person of faith, according to
several eyewitnesses of his time.
One was an Anglican clergyman,
John Hampson, author of the first biography of John Wesley, published
in 1791 (the year of Wesley's death). "His face, for an old man, was one
of the finest we have seen," he wrote. "A clear, smooth forehead, an
aquiline nose, an eye the brightest and most piercing that can be
conceived, and a freshness of complexion scarcely conspired to render
him a venerable and interesting figure." Few had seen him without being
struck with his appearance, said Hampson, and many who had been greatly
prejudiced against him had been known to change their opinion the moment
they were introduced into his presence.
"In dress he was a
pattern of neatness and simplicity," he continued. "A narrow plaited
stock, a coat with a small upright collar, no buckles at his knees, no
silk or velvet in any part of his apparel, and a head as white as snow,
give an idea of something primitive and apostolical; while an air of
neatness and cleanliness was diffused over his whole person."
witness was Christopher Hopper, a young man from Ryton on Tyne, in the
north-east of England, who worked on the local coal-mining industry
wagon ways and later became one of the best of Wesley's assistant
preachers. This is how he first heard of the man who was to have such a
significant influence upon his life:
"In May 1742, we heard a
strange report of one Wesley, a Church clergyman, that had been at
Newcastle upon Tyne, and had preached in Sandgate to many thousands, who
heard him with astonishment. This new thing made a huge noise. The
populace entertained various conjectures about him; but few if any could
tell the motive on which he came, or the end he had in view. He made a
short blaze, soon disappeared, and left us in great consternation."
was also an eyewitness to the work of John's brother, Charles, with the
coal miners of the north. "Charles Wesley came, and preached at
Tanfield Cross," he wrote. "I ran with the multitude to hear this
strange preacher. When I saw a man in clergyman's habit, preaching at a
public cross to a large auditory - some gaping, some laughing and some
weeping - I wondered what this could mean.
"When he had concluded
some said: 'He is a good man, and is sent to reform our land'; others
said: 'Nay, he is come to pervert and deceive us, and we ought to stone
him out of our coasts.' I said: 'If he is a good man, good will be done,
and it is plain we want a reformation; but if he is an imposter, he can
only leave us as he found us, that is, without hope and without God in
the world.' " Hopper said he could not tell what had induced him to go
so far in his defense of Charles Wesley, but that he was now in danger
of being called "a Methodist."
In an age when the daily
newspapers contained less information than now appears every morning on a
half-page of USA Today or the Times in England, a brief paragraph in
the late 18th century would have a greater relative importance than it
In an assessment of Wesley's influence following
his death, the Public Advertizer referred to "that well-known and
celebrated minister and reformer, the Rev. John Wesley, whose eminent
abilities in every branch of polite and sacred literature, being
directed by the grace of God to the most important and valuable ends,
not only rendered him the ornament of his own age and country, but will
also endear his name to the latest posterity."
Another paper, the
Morning Chronicle, said: "Whatever may be the opinions held of Mr.
Wesley's divinity, it is impossible to deny him the merit of having done
infinite good to the lower class of people. â€¦ His history, if well
written, would certainly be important, for in every respect, as the
founder of the most numerous sect in the kingdom, as a man and as a
writer, he must be considered as one of the most extraordinary
characters this or any age has produced."
Although the biweekly
London Chronicle described Wesley's income as "prodigious" at not less
than 10,000 pounds a year, it pointed out that he "appropriated no more
to his own use than was sufficient to supply the necessaries of life."
The money went to build chapels and pay preachers throughout the
kingdom, it noted.
The influential Gentleman's Magazine said the
great point at which Wesley's name and mission would be honored was that
he directed his labors toward "those who had no instructor; to the
highways and hedges; to the miners in Cornwall, and the colliers (coal
miners) in Kingswood. â€¦ By the humane and active endeavors of him and
his brother Charles, a sense of decency, morals and religion was
introduced into the lowest classes of mankind; the ignorant were
instructed; the wretched relieved; and the abandoned reclaimed."
editorial noted that although Wesley had met with great opposition from
the clergy and "unhandsome treatment" from the magistrates, "he was,
however, one of the few characters who outlived enmity and prejudice,
and received, in his latter years, every mark of respect from every
"The great purpose of his life was doing
good," it continued. "For this he relinquished all honor and preferment.
To the bed of sickness or the couch of prosperity, to the prison or the
hospital, the house of mourning or the house of feasting, wherever
there was a friend to serve, or a soul to save, he readily repaired; to
administer assistance or advice, reproof or consolation, he thought no
efforts too humiliating, no condescension too low, no undertaking too
Wesley clearly got good press from his contemporaries,
and his stature as a major figure in Christianity has only grown since
those early days of Methodism.
# # #
*Singleton is a
writer with the weekly Methodist Recorder newspaper in London. He can be
contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.