News Archives

At the Roots of Methodism: Wesley wowed contemporaries

6/12/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: 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

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."

Another 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."

Hopper 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 would today.

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. … 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. … 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."

The 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 denomination. …

"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 arduous."

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

Back : News Archives 2003 Main

Contact Us

This will not reach a local church, district or conference office. InfoServ* staff will answer your question, or direct it to someone who can provide information and/or resources.


*InfoServ ( about ) is a ministry of United Methodist Communications located in Nashville, Tennessee, USA. 1-800-251-8140

Not receiving a reply?
Your Spam Blocker might not recognize our email address. Add to your list of approved senders.