Time laid his hand gently on John Wesley. The years were more crammed with activities than before, but he showed no diminished energies. Today the Charterhouse School Song reminds us again of a man who never grew old.
Wesley, John Wesley was one of our company,
Prophet untiring and fearless of tongue;
Down the long years he went
Spending, yet never spent,
Serving his God with a heart ever young.
Towards the end of his long life he maintained a vigorous and unwearied appearance, according to a description of one of his preachers, John Hampson.
‘The figure of Mr. Wesley was remarkable. His stature was of the lowest, his habit of body in every period of life the reverse of corpulent, and expressive of strict temperance and continual exercise; and notwithstanding his small size, his step was firm, and his appearance, till within a few years of his death, vigorous and muscular. His face, for an old man, was one of the finest we have seen. A clear, smooth forehead, an aquiline nose, an eye the brightest and the most piercing that can be conceived, and a freshness of complexion scarcely ever to be found at his years, and impressive of the most perfect health, conspired to render him a venerable and interesting figure. Few have seen him without being struck with his appearance; and, many, who have been greatly prejudiced against him, have been known to change their opinion the moment they were introduced into his presence. In his countenance and demeanour there was a cheerfulness mingled with gravity; a sprightliness which was the natural result of an unsual flow of spirits, and was yet accompanied with every mark of the most serene tranquility. His aspect, particularly in profile, had a strong character of acuteness and penetration. In dress he Was a pattern of neatness and simplicity. A narrow, plaited stock, a coat with small upright collar, no buckles at the knees, no silk or velvet in any part of his apparel, and a head as white as snow, gave an idea of something primitive and apostolical; while an air of neatness and cleanliness was diffused over his whole person.’
None of his contemporaries faced more problems than he, and none concentrated on their solution so remorselessly. He had to defend himself and his Societies against attacks by the clergy and laity, in sermons, speeches, periodicals, and tracts. He had to devise and control the gradually evolving administrative machinery of what was becoming a Church, though he was unwilling to recognize the fact. Conferences of preachers, disciplinary courts of the leaders, and the co-ordination of all the little Societies must be developed and guided. Though it was inevitable that he should assume autocratic powers that almost amounted to benevolent dictatorship, it was equally necessary that he should prepare his successors for the day when he should be no more in their midst. As Methodism grew, more rapidly than he realized, a new problem as to the actual ownership of its property was created. In 1784 there were 359 Methodist chapels in the United Kingdom. On February 28, he executed the Deed of Declaration or Model Deed which appointed a hundred preachers as legally constituting the Conference. This body had a legal and continuous existence, held the chapels in trust and appointed ministers. It might have created a kind of ‘upper house’ amongst the Methodist ministry, but it remained until its dissolution in 1932, merely the instrument which confirmed the actions of the whole Conference, making them valid in the eyes of the law.
Another major problem had been created by the spread of Methodism overseas. When the American Colonies established their Independence most of the Methodist preachers serving there returned to England. There was no longer an ordained clergyman amongst those left. All the non-Methodist Anglicans had left America as soon as war broke out. The colonists began to complain that their ministers were not authorized to administer the Sacraments. They would gladly have agreed to their taking upon themselves the necessary powers. John Wesley was shocked by the thought of such irregularity. The Bishop of London refused to help him by ordaining one of the Methodist preachers who was leaving for America.
At this crisis he decided to send out Dr. Thomas Coke, himself in Anglican Orders, to superintend the work. He refused to go unless he received authority from Wesley to act virtually as bishop. ‘The more maturely I consider the matter, the more expedient it appears to me that the power of ordaining others should be received by me from you, by imposition of your hand.’ So wrote Dr. Coke and John Wesley was convinced that the time had come for him to take the drastic step. On September io, 1784, relying on his belief that as presbyter of the Church of England he possessed the adequate atuhority, he ordained Dr. Coke as Superintendent and Whatcoat and Vasey as presbyters, to serve in America. The die was cast.
As real necessity arose he proceeded to ordain preachers for work in Scotland, in Ireland and the West Indies. His brother Charles was shocked beyond measure. He wrote to Dr. Chandler, ‘I can scarcely yet believe it, that in his eighty-second year, my brother, my old intimate friend and companion, should have assumed the episcopal character, ordained elders, consecrated a bishop, and sent him to ordain our lay preachers in America. . . . Lord Mansfield told me last year that ordination was separation. This my brother does not and will not see; or that he has renounced the principles and practice of his whole life’. But John remained adamant. He was convinced that he had acted within his rights as a presbyter, and Charles, though disagreeing, remained loyal and affectionate. The actual separation of Methodism from the Church of England did not take place until both the brothers were dead.
In spite of these intricate and vital problems, and in spite of his continual journeyings from one end of the kingdom to the other, John Wesley remained young in spirit and unimpaired in health.
In 1764 when he was sixty-two years old, he breakfasted with George Whitefield, ‘who seemed to be an old man, being fairly worn out in his Master’s service, though he has hardly seen fifty years’. In himself John Wesley felt ‘no difference from what I was at five-and-twenty, only that I have fewer teeth, and more grey hairs’.
At seventy-two he declared that his sight was better and his nerves stronger than they were thirty years before. What was the secret of his youthfulness? That was a question he sometimes asked himself, and answered: ‘The chief means are—i. My constantly rising at four for about fifty years. 2. My generally preaching at five in the morning; one of the most healthy exercises in the world. 3. My never travelling less, by sea and land, than four thousand five hundred miles in a year.’
At seventy-eight he rejoiced that he had preached three times a day for seven days.
On September 25, 1785, he made a somewhat apologetic entry in his 7ournal, ‘I now applied myself in earnest to the writing of Mr. Fletcher’s Life, having procured the best materials I could. To this I dedicated all the time I could spare till November, from five in the morning till eight at night. These are my studying hours. I can not write any longer in a day without hurting my eyes’. That same year, when he was eighty-three years old, he travelled seventy-six miles in a day and preached three times, remarking, ‘I was no more tired than when I rose in the morning’.
At eighty-seven years of age he wrote on March 26, 1790, ‘I finished my sermon on the Wedding Garment; perhaps the last I shall write. My eyes are now waxed dim; my natural force is abated. However, while I can, I would fain do a little for God before I drop in the dust. . . . In the evening I preached to a crowded audience at Salop’. So it goes on, without a single trace of morbid apprehension or any desire to slow down. In May he was up in Scotland. ‘We returned to Aberdeen, and I took a solemn farewell of a crowded audience. If I should be permitted to see them again, well; if not, I have delivered my own soul.’
There are those who still imagine him to have been solemn, almost inhuman, in his detachment from the joys of life. This is completely untrue. Few men loved the freedom of the open road better than he, few were more observant of its passing interests. He would constantly turn aside to see a famous building or to visit some historic spot. As he rode he read, yet he was never too absorbed in his book to talk with other travellers. Nor was he so sourly intolerant of other people’s amusements as some have suggested. He had his own opinions and stated them fairly and on the whole, with tolerance. As a schoolboy he saw Macbeth and on several occasions went to Latin plays given by the boys of Westminster. Occasionally he listened to an oratorio though not without feeling he must make certain caustic comments. ‘There are two things in all modern pieces of music which I could never reconcile to common sense: One is, singing the same words ten times over; the other, singing different words by different persons, at one and the same time.’
Sometimes he went to concerts given by his nephews, the sons of Charles Wesley. It is evident that he was less narrow than some of his contemporaries. ‘John Wesley, in gown and bands, attended one of the concerts with his wife, to show that he did not consider that there was any sin in such entertainments, as some of the Methodists were inclined to think.’
On February io, 1787, he wrote: ‘At six I preached on Hebrews iv. 14. In the afternoon I went with a gentleman to hear the famous musician that plays upon the glasses. By my appearing there (as I had foreseen) a heap of gentry attended in the evening; and I believe several of them, as well as Mr. T. himself, did not come in vain.’ There is a sane humanity in the man who could, quite conscientiously, go to the entertainment between his two services on Friday.
At eighty-five years of age he visited ‘the celebrated waxworks at the museum in Spring Gardens’, and in the evening of the same day preached at Peckham ‘to a more awakened congregation than ever I observed there before’. Evidently the morning ‘dissipation’ had not affected his ability to hold and to arouse his hearers.
There was a richer humanity in his make-up than some people have realized, yet it was a humanity which never lost its proper sense of relative values. His youthful spirit survived the onslaught of the years because within his heart was a peace the world could neither give no take away. Deep down, beyond the reach of all contrary winds or sudden gales, was the untroubled calm which comes from infinite resources—the tranquillity of one who knows he can rely upon the inexhaustible love of God.
All through the long years he had been blessed with friends. His own vibrant personality attracted men and women and little children to him for very joy of his companionship. He could have been the centre of a circle which would have made the Johnsonian group look small and tawdry by comparison, but he possessed what Dr. Johnson could not understand, a sense of purpose, of urgency, and of eternal values. ‘I hate to meet John Wesley’, said Johnson petulantly to Boswell; ‘the dog enchants me with his conversation, and then breaks away to go and visit some old woman.’ It was impossible for the old oracle of Fleet Street to realize that a man might feel an inward compulsion to render strict account of every hour he lived. How could he know, as he sat comfortably on his favourite settle, that the little man, whose brilliant mind so matched his own, was urged from his retreat to be off about his Master’s business? ‘He is never at leisure’, he said almost wistfully. Perhaps the old doctor heard so many other voices that he did not hear the Voice which called his friend away. If there had been just a dash of Johnson in Wesley, and the ‘warmed heart’ in Johnson what a team they would have made!
His friends were many, his admirers innumerable and his lovers—perhaps fewer than some of his biographers imagined! His personal contacts, especially with women, were child-like and ingenuous. There were a few people who shared a deeper intimacy. It is difficult to judge how far they influenced his career or how long they remained active forces in his life. His chief concern was his vocation as a preacher of the gospel. Even a casual glance at the record of that work in the Dictionary of National Biography, in his journal, or in any serious study of his life, will make that fact clear.
Unfortunately, few of the women, whose associations with him have been described in such highly coloured language, were able to enter deeply into his religious struggle or to appreciate the urgency of his evangelism. For a moment they seemed to make a sudden appeal, and then to fade away like ghosts, frightened by his austerity, repelled by his methodical routine or just left astonished at one whose gentleness had charmed them but whose busyness made him forget their existence. So Sally Kirkham, Mrs. Pendarves, and Sophie Hopkey cross his path, and make him stop a moment happily, but the moment passes and he rides on. From Oxford to America, from Georgia to England and the ‘work of the Lord’—it must have been more puzzling to them than disturbing to him. He did not leave behind him a trail of broken hearts, nor did he ride on deeply wounded himself. He was so passionate a crusader that such contacts were of secondary importance. His honour and his heart remained intact.
The real love story of John Wesley is almost modern in its heavy sense of tragedy, and its vague unhappy ending. It has been brilliantly told in a short study by Mrs. Elsie Harrison. None of the longer books are more than chonicles of events, but her words throb with the anguish of heart-breaking days John Wesley spent with Grace Murray. From that experience he did not emerge heart-whole. Perhaps it was necessary that he should pass through such fires. In mind and body he came out Unscorched but his soul had known the torment of unjust, unnecessary frustration. When he rode across the hills a happy lover, eager to keep the promised tryst, he found his dream shattered. She had married John Bennet, the ambitious, rebellious Methodist preacher. Condemn Charles for his interference, or Grace for her mistaken judgement, but John Wesley stands out a tragic figure, stripped of the great love of his life. The desire of his eyes, as he put it, was taken from him with a stroke. It was more even than that. Humanly speaking Grace Murray remained for Wesley, the desire of his heart. The lovers were separated. Grace went to take up a strange but faithful task as consort to a stormy petrel. John, forty-four years of age, passed through a valley of deep shadows, squared his shoulders and came out to do battle for ft Lord again. Grace looked far beyond even the future towards a timeless joy, and unearthly fellowship which should be granted to her hungry heart. For her came consolation in the children she bore. John rode on alone, even though he married Mrs. Vazeile. He was incapable of sharing quiet or unquiet domesticity. It would be difficult to blame his unfortunate wife for all the broken record of their marriage. The only marriage he could have transfigured was one which would have given him a comrade at his side, riding the roads of England with the message of his Lord. Such a comrade Grace Murray might have been. Their ways divided but the human factors in the tragedy are beyond our judgement. Charles Wesley, John Bennet, and some others assumed the right of guidance which God alone may exercise or delegate. Grace Murray and John Wesley went their separate ways, accepting the pitiful facts and remembering the divine opportunity. In all England there was no messenger of God more blithe in his proclamation of the Good News than John Wesley; in all England there was no man whose heart bore deeper wound.
The years brought their new challenge, and stored up the memories that bless and burn. He heard the challenge, and tucked away the memories for some convenient season when his work should be done. He had no time for the luxury of morbid recollection. Men waited for the message—God’s message through him. He mounted his horse and rode on, till the toll of the years grew heavy. Reluctantly he took to a chaise, and rattled over the rough roads reading hard between the stopping-places. The little bookshelf he had fixed in the ungainly carriage carried comrades no one could take away.
His earthly friends were translated one by one. Vincent Perronet and John Fletcher passed on, leaving him the lonelier. His brother Charles began to fail. In January and February 1788, John wrote to him several times. He was insistent that his brother should go out each day. He begged him not to spare expense. ‘I can make that up. You shall not die to save charges.’ He sent prescriptions to his brother’s wife. Time could not be stayed and Charles Wesley died on March 29, 1788. John did not hear the news for five days. He was preaching at Madeley and Salop, at Stafford and Burslem, at Newcastle-under-Lyme, and Leek. Meanwhile his brother was buried in Marylebone Churchyard in ground ‘as holy as any in England’, as John wrote when he heard. ‘It contains a large quantity of “bonny dust”.’ On April 4 he drove through a violent storm to Macclesfield, and there received the letter telling him Charles was dead. There is no reference in his 7ournal or his Diary. He could not write glibly of such things.
He cannot stop, even now, to mourn. On from Macclesfield to Bullock Smithy, to Ashton, Oldham, Northwich, Warrington, Liverpool, Wigan, and Bolton. It is only a fortnight since he heard the news of Charles’s death. The crowded congregation sings well. They bow in prayer. Again it is time to sing. The tired hands turn the leaves of the book. He has found the place:
Come, O Thou Traveller unknown,
Whom still I hold, but cannot see!
My company before is gone,
And I am left alone with Thee…
He cannot end the verse. The pent-up tears have burst the dam. He sinks down on the pulpit seat, burying his face in his hands. There is a deep hush everywhere—deepest in his own heart. Charles is rushing in to that tidy room at Lincoln College, scattering the papers left and right, Susanna is teaching him his alphabet in Epworth, old Samuel is giving him the precious book on Job—’gone, and I am left alone . . . with Thee’. He brushes away the last tear, stands up and sings,
What though my shrinking flesh complain,
And murmur to contend so long?
I rise superior to my pain,
When I am weak, then I am strong…
It is Charles’s hymn, and the people are singing it now like ‘the singing of angels in our Father’s house’. The moment of anguish is passed. Wrestling Jacob is on his feet again.
Through all eternity to prove
Thy nature and Thy name is Love.
Yet a year or two more he rides through England and Wales preaching to sinners and strengthening those who struggled to be saints.
In February 1791, his plans for his next journey were nearly complete. He would preach through England again. But he had made a mistake. It was a longer journey he must take. One last entry in his Diary—the Journal ended on October 24, 1790. At 4.45 a.m. he was at prayer, and the last word for the day was ‘9.30 prayed’. One more sermon to be preached—at Leatherhead on February 23, 1791. One more letter to be written—to Wilberforce, protesting against ‘that execrable villainy’ the slave trade, urging him to continue his struggle to abolish it. ‘Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.’
His work is almost done. He is back in his room at City Road. There are signs that a new and longer journey is impending. He need not pack his belongings. The little book-shelf in the chaise is empty; the two silver spoons are safe; the little Bible is in good keeping. Friends come to see him in those days that linger a little. Once he sings and his voice is quite strong.
I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath
And when my voice is lost in death,
Praise shall employ my nobler powers;
My days of praise shall ne’er be past,
While life, and thought, and being last,
Or immortality endures.
Or immortality endures! Here is proof it is un-ending. Those eighty-seven years point to something beyond the range of time. They are but madness if they end in death.
The weary wheels of life are turning very slowly now. His brother’s wife stoops over him. He whispers faintly, ‘He giveth His beloved rest’. The wheels turn slower still. He cries out one last triumphant certainty, ‘The best of all is God is with us’, and again, ‘Farewell’.
The wheels have stopped. The horse he rode is forgotten. The old chaise stands empty. The weary wheels at last stand still. He does not need them. His soul is winged. The wings are spread. He is away.