This is a reprint of a London work, although it does not so appear on the title page. We have lately read it in connection with another very interesting book, Clarke’s “Memoirs of the Wesley Family,” and have been led to far deeper interest in this great stream of religious thought and feeling, by a nearer approach to its fountain-head.
The world at large takes its impression of the Wesleys from Southey. A humbler historian has scarce a chance to be heard beside one so rich in learning and talent. Yet the Methodists themselves are not satisfied with this account of their revered Shepherds, which, though fair in the intention, and tolerably fair in the arrangement of facts, fails to convey the true spiritual sense, and does not, to the flock, present a picture of the fields where they were first satisfied with the food of immortals.
A better likeness, if not so ably painted, may, indeed, be found in chronicles written by the disciples of these great and excellent men, who, as characters full of affection no less than intellect, need also to be affectionately, no less than intellectually, discerned, in order to a true representation of their deeds and their influence.
The books we have named and others which relate to the Wesleys are extremely interesting, apart from a consideration of the men and what their lives were leading to, from the various and important documents they furnish illustrative of the symptoms and obscurer meanings of their times.
In the account of the family life of the Rectory of Epworth, where John and Charles Wesley passed their boyish years, we find a great deal that is valuable condensed. And we look upon the picture of home and its government with tenfold interest because the founders of the Methodist church inherited in a straight line the gifts of the Spirit through their parentage, rather than were taught by angels that visited them now and then unawares, or received the mantle from some prophet who was passing by, as we more commonly find to have been the case in the histories of distinguished men. This is delightful, for we long to see parent and child linked to one another by natural piety—kindred in mind, no less than by blood.
The father of the Wesleys was worthy so to be in this, that he was a fervent lover of the Right, though often narrow and hasty in his conceptions of it. He was scarce less, however, by nature, a lover of having his own will. The same strong will was tempered in the larger and deeper character of his son John, to that energy and steadfastness of purpose which enabled him to carry out a plan of operations so extensive and exhausting through so long a series of years and into extreme old age.
This wilfulness, and the disposition to tyranny which attends it, the senior Mr. Wesley showed on the famous occasion when he abandoned his wife because her conscience forbade her to assent to his prayers for the then reigning monarch, and was only saved from the consequences of his rash resolve by the accident of King William happening to die shortly after. Still more cruel, and, this time, fatal, was the conduct it induced in marrying one of his daughters, against her will and judgment, to a man whom she did not love and who proved to be entirely unworthy of her. The sacrifice of this daughter, the fairest and brightest of his family, seems most strangely and wickedly wilful, and it is impossible to read the letter she addressed to him on the subject without great indignation against him, and sadness to see how not long ago the habit of authority and obedience could enable a man to dispense with the need and claim of genuine reverence.
Yet he was, in the main, good, and his influence upon his children good, as he sincerely sought, and encouraged them to seek, the one thing needful.—He was a father who would never fail to give noble advice in cases of conscience; and his veneration for intellect and its culture was only inferior to that he cherished for piety.
As has been generally the case, however, with superior men, the better part, both of inheritance and guidance, came from the mother. Mrs. Susannah Wesley was, as things go in our puny society, an extraordinary woman, though, we must believe, precisely what would be, in a healthy and natural order, the ordinary type of woman. She was endowed with a large understanding, the power of reasoning and the love of truth, animated by warm and generous affections. Her mental development began very early, so that, at the age of thirteen, she had made, and on well-considered grounds, a change in her form of theological faith. The progress so early begun, did not, on that account, stop early, but was continued, and with increasing energy, throughout her whole life. The manifold duties of a toilsome and difficult outward existence, (of which it is enough to say that she was the mother of nineteen children, many of whom lived to grow up, the wife of a poor man, and one whose temper drew round him many difficulties) only varied and furthered her improvement by the manifold occasions thus afforded for thought and action. In her prime she was the teacher and cheerful companion of her children, in declining years at once their revered monitor and willing pupil. Indeed, she was one that never ceased to grow while she stayed upon this earth, nor to foster and sustain the growth of all round her. Even the little pedantries of her educational discipline did more good than harm, as they were full of her own individuality. And it would seem, to be from the bias thus given that her sons acquired the tendency which, even in early years, drew to them the name of Methodists. How much too may not be inferred from the revival effected by her in her husband’s parish during his absence, in so beautiful and simple a manner! How must impressions of that period have been stamped on the minds of her children, sure to recur and aid them whenever on similar occasions the universal voice should summon them to deviate from the usual and prescribed course, and the pure sympathies awakened by their efforts be the sole confirmation of their wisdom! How wisely and temperately she defends herself to her husband, winning the assent even of the somewhat narrow and arbitrary end! With wisdom, even so tempered by a heart of charity and forbearance, did John and Charles Wesley maintain against the world of customs the bold and original methods which the deep emotions of their souls dictated to them, and won its assent; at least we think there is no sect on which the others collectively look with as little intolerance as on Methodism.
(It may be remarked par parenthese that the biographer, Mr. Jackson, who shows himself, in many ways, to be a weak man, is rather shocked at Mrs. Wesley on those occasions where she shows so much character. His opinions, however, are of no consequence, as he fairly lays before the reader the letters and other original documents which enable him to judge of this remarkable woman, and of her children, several of them no less remarkable.—As we shall not again advert to Mr. Jackson, but only consider him as a cup in which we have received the juice of the Wesleyan grape, we will mention here his strange use of the word superior in ways such as these: “This book will be read with superior interest”; Lady—– met him with superior sympathy,” &c.)
The children of the Epworth Rectory were, almost without exception, of more than usual dignity and richness of mind and character. They all were aspiring, and looked upon a human life chiefly as affording materials to fashion a temple for the service of God. But, though alike in the main purpose and tendency, their individualities were kept distinct in the most charming freshness. A noble sincerity and mutual respect marked all their intercourse, nor were the weaker characters unduly influenced by the stronger. In proportion to their mutual affection and reverence was their sincerity and decision in opposing one another, whenever necessary; so that they were friendly indeed. The same real love which made Charles Wesley write on a letter assailing John, “Left unanswered by John Wesley’s brother,” made himself the most earnest and direct of critics when he saw or thought he saw any need of criticism or monition.
The children of this family shared, many of them, the lyric vein, though only in Charles did it exhibit itself with much beauty. It is very interesting to see the same gift taking another form in the genius for Music of his two sons. The record kept by him of the early stages of development in them is full of valuable suggestions, and we hope some time to make use of them in another connection. It is pleasant to see how the sympathies of the father melted away the crust of habitual opinions. It was far otherwise with the uncle, where the glow of sympathy was less warm.
The life of the two brothers was full of poetic beauty in its incidents and conduct. The snatching of the child, destined to purposes so important, “as a brand from the burning;” their college life; Charles’s unwillingness to be “made a saint of all at once;” and his subsequent yielding to the fervor of his brother’s spirit,—John Wesley’s refusal to bind himself to what seemed at the time a good work, even for his mother’s sake, because the Spirit within, if it did not positively forbid, yet did not say “I am ready,” thus sacrificing the outward to the inward duty with a clear decision rare even in great minds,—their voyage to America, intercourse with the Moravians and Indians,—the trials to which their young simplicity and credulity there subjected them, but from which they were brought out safe by obeying the voice of Conscience,—their relations with Law, Böhler and Count Zinzendorf,—the manner of their marriages, their relations with one another and with Whitfield,—all are narrated with candor and fullness, and all afford subjects for much and valuable thought. As the mind of John Wesley was of stronger mould and in advance of his brother’s, difference of opinion sometimes arose between them, and Charles, full of feeling, protested in a way calculated to grieve even a noble friend.—His conduct with regard to his brother’s marriage seems to have been perfectly unjustifiable, and his heart to have remained strangely untaught by what he had felt and borne at the time of his own. Even after death his prejudices acted to prevent his mortal remains from resting beside those of his brother. In all those cases where John Wesley found his judgment interfered with, his affections disappointed or even deeply wounded, as was certainly the case in the breaking off his first engagement, while he felt the superior largeness and clearness of his own view, as he did in exercising the power of ordination, and when he wrote on the disappointment of his wish that the body of his brother should be interred in his own cemetery, because it was not regularly “consecrated earth;” “That ground is as holy as any in England,” still the heart of John Wesley was always right and noble; still he looked at the motives of the friend, and could really say and wholly feel in the spirit of Christian love, “Be they forgiven, for they know not what they do.”
This same heart of Christian love as was shown in the division that arose between the brothers and Whitefield; and owing to this it was that division of opinion did not destroy unity of spirit, design and influence in the efforts of these good men to make their fellows good also. “The threefold cord,” as they loved to call it, remained firm through life, and the world saw in them one of the best fruits of the religious spirit, mutual reverence in conscientious difference. This rarest sight alone would have given them a claim to instruct the souls of men.
We wish indeed that this spirit had been still better understood by them, and that, in ceasing to be the pupils of William Law, they had not felt obliged to denounce his mode of viewing religious truth as “poisonous mysticism.” It is human frailty that requires to react, thus violently, against that we have left behind. The divine spirit teaches better, shows that the child was father of the man, and that which we were before has prepared us to be what we now are.
One of the deepest thinkers of our time believes that the exaggerated importance which each man and each party attaches to the aims and ways which engage him or it, and the far more odious depreciation of all others, are needed to give sufficient impetus and steadiness to their action. He finds grand correspondence in the laws of matter with this view of the laws of mind to illustrate and sustain his belief. Yet the soul craves and feels herself fit for something better, a wisdom that shall look upon the myriad ways in which men seek their common end—the development and elevation of their natures,—with calmness, as the Eternal does. For ourselves, in an age where it is still the current fallacy that he who does not attach this exaggerated importance to some doctrinal way of viewing spiritual infinities, and the peculiar methods of some sect of enforcing them in practice, has no religion, we see dawning here and there a light that predicts a better day.—A day when sects and parties shall be regarded only as schools of thought and life, and while a man prefers one for his own instruction, he may yet believe it is more profitable for his brethren differently constituted to be in others. It will then be seen that God takes too good care of his children to suffer all truth to be confined to any one church establishment, age, or constellation of minds, and it will be not only assented to in words, but believed in soul, that the Laws and Prophets may be condensed, as Jesus said, into this simple law, “Love God with all thy soul, thy fellow-man as thyself;” and that he who is filled with this spirit and strives to express it in life, however narrow cut be his clerical coat, or distorting to outward objects, no less than disfiguring to himself, his theological spectacles, has not failed both to learn and to do some good in this earthly section of existence. When this much has once been granted; when it is seen that the only true, the only Catholic Church, the Church whose communion, invisible to the outward eye, is shared by all spirits that seek earnestly to love God and serve Man, has its members in every land, in every Church, in every sect, and that they who have not this, in whatever tone and form they cry out, “Lord, Lord,” have in truth never known Him; then may we hope for less narrowness and ignorance in the several sects, also, for all and each will learn of one another, and dwelling together in unity still preserve and unfold their life in individual distinctness. Such a platform we hope to see ascended by the men of this earth, of this or the coming age. At any rate, disengagement from present bonds, must lead to it, and thus we trust, the Wesley’s have embraced William Law and found that his “poisonous mysticism” had its truth and its meaning also, while he rejoices that their minds, severing from his, took a different bias and reached a different class for which his teachings were not adapted. And thus, passing from section to section of the truth, the circle shall be filled at last, and it shall be seen that each had need of the other and of all.
Charles and John Wesley seemed to fulfil toward their great family of disciples the offices commonly assigned to Woman and Man. Charles had a narrower, tamer, less reasoning mind, but great sweetness, tenderness, facility and lyric flow, “When successful in effecting the spiritual good of the most abject, his feelings rose to rapture.” Soft pity filled his heart, and none seemed so near to him as the felon and the malefactor, because for none else was so much to be done.
His habitual flow of sacred verse was like the course of a full fed stream. In extreme old age, his habits of composition are thus pleasingly described:
“He rode every day (clothed for Winter, even in Summer,) a little horse, grey with age. When he mounted, if a subject struck him, he proceeded to expand and put it in order. He would write a hymn thus given him on a card (kept for that purpose) with his pencil in short hand. Not unfrequently he has come to the house on the City road, and having left the pony in the garden in front, he would enter, crying our ‘Pen and ink! pen and ink!’ These being supplied, he wrote the hymn he had been composing, When this was done, he would look round on those present, and salute them with much kindness, ask after their health, give out a short hymn, and thus put all in mind of eternity. He was fond of that stanza upon these occasions,
“There all the ship’s company meet,” &c.
His benign spirit is, we believe, gratified now by finding that company larger than he had dared to hope.
The mind of John Wesley was more masculine; he was more of a thinker and leader. He is spoken of as credulous, as hoping good of men naturally, and able to hope it again from those that had deceived him. This last is weakness unless allied with wise decision and force, generosity when it is thus tempered. To the character of John Wesley it imparted a persuasive nobleness, and hallowed his earnestness with mercy. He has in a striking degree another of those balances between opposite forces which mark the great man. He kept himself open to new inspirations, was bold in apprehending and quick in carrying them out. Yet with a resolve once taken he showed a steadiness of purpose beyond what the timid scholars of tradition can conceive.
In looking at the character of the two men, and the nature of their doctrine we well understand why their spirit has exercised so vast a sway, especially with the poor, the unlearned and those who had none else to help them. They had truth enough and force enough to uplift the burdens of an army of poor pilgrims and send them on their way rejoicing. We should delight to string together, in our own fashion, a rosary of thoughts and anecdotes illustrative of their career and its consequences,—but, since time and our limits in newspaper space forbid, cannot end better than by quoting their own verse, for they are of that select corps, “the forlorn hope of humanity,” to whom shortcoming in deeds has given no occasion to blush for the lofty scope of their words.
A genuine gospel minister,
A bishop bold to undertake
Of precious souls the awful cure?
The Holy Ghost alone can move
A sinner sinners to convert,
Infuse the apostolic love
And bless him with a pastor’s heart.”
“Methodism at the Fountain,” New-York Daily Tribune, 21 January 1846, p. 1.