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The Life of John Wesley by John Telford - Chapter 21



WESLEY made two pleasant excursions with some friends to Holland in the summers of 1783 and 1786. The notes of his tours show how thoroughly the old man enjoyed the change of scene. Nothing seemed to escape his attention. The cleanliness of the streets and houses was such that he could not find a speck of dirt. The women and children seemed the most beautiful he had ever seen. “They were surprisingly fair, and had an inexpressible air of innocence in their countenances.” He had much pleasant intercourse with pious people, and returned to his work at home refreshed and cheered by his three weeks of holiday. In the summer of 1787 Wesley spent nearly four weeks in the Channel Islands. Methodism had already been introduced into those lovely islands. Wesley’s visits greatly encouraged the workers there. He preached every day to large congregations, and was everywhere received with marked respect. The beauty and fruitfulness of the islands made a great impression on him, whilst the kindness of friends and the pleasant change of scene added to his preaching tour the charm of a summer holiday.

Wesley lived three years after his brother Charles. Those years were full of honour. The Methodist Societies felt that their founder could not long be with them, and hung eagerly upon his lips. His visits to all parts of the country were public holidays. Multitudes thronged to listen to the venerable preacher, who had endeared himself to all by his labour of love. Increasing infirmities did not check his restless itinerancy. On the first anniversary of his brother’s death he landed at Dublin on his last visit. He remained in Ireland for three months and a half. Gravel Walk House, he says, was “filled as I never saw it before; and they all seemed to hear as for life.” Another of his congregations was a brilliant assembly. Honourables and Right Honourables were present, and he felt that all were given into his hands. At Pallas, near Limerick, all the neighbouring gentry came to hear him. No place would hold the crowd, so that Wesley was obliged to stand outside. “The people, as it were, swallowed every word; and great was our rejoicing in the Lord.”

Such scenes marked every step of Wesley’s progress through Ireland. One instance may show how he was received in the homes of the people. When he was about to leave a house where he had stayed, “one and another fell on their knees all round me, and most of them burst out into tears and earnest cries, the like of which I have seldom heard; so that we scarce knew how to part.” When Wesley embarked for England, on July 12th, 1789, multitudes followed him to his vessel. Before he went on board they sang a hymn together; then Wesley fell on his knees and implored God’s blessing on their families, their Church, and their country. It was a bitter but a blessed hour. Not a few fell upon his neck and kissed him. The ship moved from the shore he was nevermore to see whilst the venerable patriarch stood on deck, with his hands lifted in prayer for Ireland.’

The vessel was the Princess Royal, of Parkgate, the neatest and most elegant packet Wesley had ever seen. The company on board was exceedingly agreeable, and he slept as well as if he had been in his own bed. Next day he shut himself up in his chaise on deck and read the life of a man who claimed to be the premier nobleman of Ireland, one of the most cool, deliberate, and relentless murderers Wesley ever heard of. He felt such interest in this extraordinary story, that he had already devoted nearly two pages of his journal to an account of him. In the evening Wesley and his friends sang a hymn on deck, which soon drew the company around him. Without delay he began to preach on “It is appointed unto men once to die.” All seemed affected by the solemn message. This was a fitting close to Wesley’s visits to Ireland.

On his return to England, he suffered much from thirst and fever, but Dr. Easton, whom he consulted in Manchester, gave him medicine, which soon relieved him. A month after he landed from Ireland he paid his last visit to Cornwall At Falmouth the change wrought by God’s grace filled him with thankfulness. “The last time I was here,” he writes, “above forty years ago, I was taken prisoner by an immense mob, gaping and roaring like lions. But how is the tide turned ! High and low now lined the street, from one end of the town to the other, out of stark love and kindness, gaping and staring as if the King were going by. In the evening I preached on the smooth top of the hill, at a small distance from the sea, to the largest congregation I have ever seen in Cornwall, except in or near Redruth. And such a time I have not known before since I returned from Ireland. God moved wonderfully on the hearts of the people, who all seem to know the day of their visitation.”

Wesley’s reception at other places was equally enthusiastic. He had scarcely ever spent such a week in Cornwall before. More than twenty-five thousand assembled at Gwennap Amphitheatre, the scene of so many memorable Cornish services. When he made a passing call at MaraZion, the preaching-place was filled in a few minutes, so that he could not refrain from giving them a short sermon. In the market-place at St. Ives, on August 25th, 1789, “well-nigh all the town attended, and with all possible seriousness.” “Surely,” he adds, “forty years’ labour has not been in vain here.” This was Wesley’s last visit to Cornwall, the Methodist county.

Wesley’s health was wonderful. He had suffered much on several occasions from the family gout,’ of which his mother died, but abstemiousness and constant exercise had helped him to throw off this weakness. In 1782 he writes, “I entered into my eightieth year, but, blessed be God, my time is not ‘labour and sorrow.’ I find no more pain or bodily infirmities than at five-and-twenty. This I still impute (I) to the power of God, fitting me for what He calls me to; (2) to my still travelling four or five thousand miles a year; (3) to my sleeping, night or day, whenever I want it; (4) to my rising at a set hour; and (5) to my constant preaching, particularly in the morning.”

On January 1st, 1790, he wrote, “I am now an old man, decayed from hand to foot. My eyes are dim; my right hand shakes much; my mouth is hot and dry every morning; I have a lingering fever almost every day; my motion is weak and slow. However, blessed be God, I do not slack my labour: I can preach and write still.” Henry Moore, who lived with Wesley at this time, was surprised at this description. Wesley still rose at four, and went through the work of the day with much of his old vigour, and with astonishing resolution. His own statement, therefore, sets Wesley’s devotion to his work in a striking light. One of the most interesting services of the year was held in West London. “I preached a sermon to the children at West Street Chapel. They flocked together from every quarter; and truly God was in the midst of them, applying those words, ‘Come, ye little children, hearken unto me; and I will teach you the fear of the Lord.’”

On the 1st of March, 1790, he issued a circular giving the dates for his visits to various towns in his northern journey. He still caught and treasured up those pleasant little facts which give such life to his journals. Wigan, for many years proverbially called “wicked Wigan,” was not what it once had been. The people, he says, “in general had taken a softer mould.” Other touches show that Wesley’s interest in everything he saw was unabated. Crowds assembled to hear him. On Sunday, August 4th, he preached at the cross in Epworth market-place to such a congregation as was never seen in the town before. A correspondent of the Methodist Recorder’ mentions that he had conversed with an old Methodist in one of our villages who “stated that a large number of Wesley’s admirers accompanied him on the way from one town or village to his next appointment, never leaving him till they were met by another company coming from an opposite direction, to whom they safely delivered their precious charge.” The women walked on one side of the road, and the men on the other. Such scenes were frequent in these last days.

When he visited Colchester on October 11th, Wesley had a wonderful congregation. Rich and poor, clergy and laity, assembled to do honour to the old man and listen to his message. Henry Crabb Robinson heard him in the great round meeting-house. One of his preachers stood on each side of him in the wide pulpit, holding up the veteran. “His feeble voice was barely audible; but his reverend countenance, especially his long white locks, formed a picture never to be forgotten. There was a vast crowd of lovers and admirers. It was for the most part a pantomime, but the pantomime went to the heart. Of the kind, I never saw anything comparable to it in after-life.” After the people had sung a verse, Wesley rose and said, “It gives me a great pleasure to find that you have not lost your singing, neither men nor women. You have not forgotten a single note. And I hope, by the assistance of God, which enables you to sing well, you may do all other things well.” A universal “Amen” followed. A little ejaculation or prayer of three or four words followed each division of the sermon. After the last prayer, Wesley “rose up and addressed the people on liberality of sentiment, and spoke much against refusing to join with any congregation on account of difference in opinion."

Crabbe, the poet, who heard him a few days later at Lowestoft, was much struck by Wesley’s venerable appearance and the way in which he quoted Anacreon’s lines with an application to himself:— Oft am I by woman told, “Poor Anacreon! thou grow’st old; See, thine hairs are falling all:

Poor Anacreon ! how they fall !" Whether I grow old or no, By these signs i do not know; But this I need not to be told, ‘Tis time to live, if I grow old.

At Lynn every clergyman in the town was in his congregation, except one who was lame. “They are all,” he says in one of the last lines he wrote in his journal, “prejudiced in favour of the Methodists, as indeed are most of the townsmen, who give a fair proof by contributing so much to our Sunday-schools, that there is near twenty pounds in hand.”

The rest of the year was devoted to short journeys in his “home circuit “—the counties lying around London. His last “field-preaching” was at Winchelsea on October 6th, 1790. Many a pilgrimage has been made to the large ash-tree under which Wesley took his stand. The tree was near a ruined church. Most of the inhabitants of the place listened while he spoke from those words, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand; repent, and believe the Gospel.” “It seemed,” Wesley wrote, “as if all that heard were, for the present, almost persuaded to be Christians.” One who was with him bears witness that “the word was attended with mighty power, and the tears of the people flowed in torrents.” The old field-preacher had not lost his power.

In these last days people gazed on Wesley with veneration as he passed through the streets. He returned their friendly greetings in the words of his favourite Apostle, “Little children, love one another.” In 1790, the summer before his death, he ceased to keep any account of his personal expenditure. “I will not attempt it any longer,” he writes, “being satisfied with the continual conviction that I save all I can and give all I can; that is, all I have.” No entreaty could make the old man omit any duty. His constant prayer was, “Lord, let me not live to be useless !" At every place he visited he gave the Society his last advice “to love as brethren, fear God, and honour the king.” He generally closed these touching services with the verse which he gave out so often in the family circle at the preachers’ house in City Road :— Oh that, without a lingering groan,

I may the welcome word receive,

My body with my charge lay down,

And cease at once to work and live!

Wesley fully intended to make his usual journey to the north in March, 1791. He sent his own carriage and horses to Bristol, and secured places for himself and friends in the Bath coach. That journey, however, was never taken. He preached at Lambeth on February I7th. When he returned to City Road, he seemed unwell, and said he thought he had taken cold. Next day, however, he read and wrote as usual. In the evening he preached at Chelsea, but his cold compelled him to pause once or twice. On Saturday the fever and weakness increased, but he was able to read and write. The following day, February 20th, he rose early, but was so unfit for his Sunday’s work,t that he lay down again for a few hours. When he awoke, he said, “I have not had such a comfortable sleep this fortnight past.” In the afternoon he slept an hour or two, then two of his discourses on the Ser mon on the Mount” were read to him, and he came down to supper. On Monday he seemed better and dined at Twickenham. He preached for the last time in City Road Chapel on Tuesday evening. Next day he preached at Leatherhead on “Seek ye the Lord while He may be found; call ye upon Him while He is near.” This was his last sermon.

These were some of his appointments on the Plan for the Preachers in London (January to March, 1791). This Plan is printed in Stevenson’s “History of City Road Chapel,” p. 118

His last letter was written on Thursday from Baiham to William Wilberforce. It shows both the old man’s sympathy with the wrongs of the slave, and his warm interest in Wilberforce’s great mission. Wesley had become familiar with the horrors of slavery during his residence in America, and Wilberforce was well known to his brother Charles and himself.

"LONDON, February 24th, 1791.

"My DEAR SIR,—Unless the Divine Power has raised you up to be as Athanasius, contra mundum, I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils; but God be/or you, who can be against you Are all of them together stronger than God Oh, ‘be not weary in well-doing.’ 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.

"Reading this morning a tract, wrote by a poor African,

I was particularly struck by that circumstance that a

man who has a black skin, being wronged or outraged by

a white man, can have no redress; it being a law in our

colonies that the oath of a black against a white goes for

nothing. What villainy is this!

"That He who has guided you from your youth up may continue to strengthen you in this and all things is the prayer of, dear sir, your affectionate servant,


One could wish for no more beautiful close to Wesley’s correspondence than this trumpet-peal to the young soldier who was stepping out to his life-long struggle. The letter is a prophetic epitome of the history of emancipation.

About eleven o’clock on Friday morning Wesley returned to City Road to die. He sat down in his room, and desired to be left alone for half an hour. Some mulled wine was then given him, and he was helped to bed, where he lay in a high fever. On the Saturday he scarcely moved. If roused to answer a question or take a little refreshment, he soon dozed again. On Sunday morning, February 27th, he got up, took a cup of tea, and seemed much better. As he sat in his chair he looked quite cheerful, and repeated the lines,— Till glad I lay this body down,

Thy servant, Lord, attend;

And, oh ! my life of mercies crown

With a triumphant end !

The Mends who were present talked too much, so that he was soon exhausted, and had to lie down. About half-past two he told those who were about him, “There is no need for more than what I said at BristoL My wordi then were

I the chief of sinners am,

But Jesus died for me."

His head was sometimes a little affected by the fever, which rose very high. In the evening, however, he got up again. Whilst he sat in his chair he said, "How necessary it is for every one to be on the right foundation

I the chief of sinners am,

But Jesus died for me.

We must be justified by faith, and then go on to full sanctification.” Next day he slept much. He repeated one verse three or four times: “We have boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus.” After a very restless night he began to sing,— All glory to God in the sky,

And peace upon earth be restored

o Jesus, exalted on high, Appear, our omnipotent Lord !

Who, meanly in Bethlehem born,

Didst stoop to redeem a lost race,

Once more to Thy people return,

And reign in Thy kingdom of grace.

Oh, wouldst Thou again be made known.

Again in Thy Spirit descend;

And set up in each of Thy own

A kingdom that never shall end !

Thou only art able to bless,

And make the glad nations obey,

And bid the dire enmity cease,

And bow the whole world to Thy sway.

He lay still a while, then asked for pen and ink. When they were brought, he was too weak to use them. Some time after he said, “I want to write.” The pen was put into his hand, and the paper held before him. “I cannot,” he said. Miss Ritchie, one of the company, answered, “Let me write for you, sir; tell me what you would say.” “Nothing,” he replied, “but that God is with us.”

In the afternoon he wished to get up. While his clothes were being brought, he broke out singing with such vigour that all his friends were astonished :— 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

Happy the man whose hopes rely

On Israel’s God: He made the sky

And earth and seas, with all their train;

His truth for ever stands secure,

He saves the oppressed, He feeds the poor,

And none shall find His promise vain.

These were the last lines Mr. Wesley “gave out” in City Road Chapel when he preached his last sermon there a week before. When helped into his chair, Wesley seemed to change for death. This was on Tuesday afternoon, March 1st. With a weak voice, he said, “Lord, Thou givest strength to those that can speak and to those that cannot. Speak, Lord, to all our hearts, and let them know that Thou loosest the tongue.” He then sang— To Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Who sweetly all agree.

Here his voice failed, and he gasped for breath. His mind seemed to wander. “Now we have done,” he said. “Let us all go.” He was laid on the bed from which he rose no more, and after sleeping a little, begged those around him to pray and praise. The friends who were downstairs were called up. Wesley’s fervour of spirit and his loud “Amen” to the petition that God would continue and increase His blessing upon His servants’ work showed how fully he joined in these devotions. After they rose from prayer he grasped their hands and said, “Farewell, farewell” When some one entered, he strove to speak. Finding that his friends could not understand what he said, he paused, and with all his remaining strength, cried out, “The best of all is, God is with us.” “Then, lifting up his dying arm in token of victory, and raising his feeble voice with a holy triumph not to be expressed, he again repeated the heart-reviving words, ‘The best of all is, God is with us.’”

When Mrs. Charles Wesley came to see him, he thanked her as she pressed his hand, and endeavoured to kiss her. His lips were moistened; then he broke out in the words of the grace he used before meals, “We thank Thee, 0 Lord, for these and all Thy mercies. Bless the Church and King, and grant us truth and peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord, for ever and ever.” Other words fell from his lips; then he called those who were in his room to join in prayer. His fervour was remarkable, though his bodily strength was fast ebbing away. During the night he often attempted to repeat the forty-sixth Psalm, but he was too feeble. He was heard, however, to say, “I’ll praise—I’ll praise.” A few minutes before ten o’clock the next morning, Wesley found the long-sought rest. Joseph Bradford was praying. His niece, Sarah Wesley, and a few friends, knelt around his bed. The last word they caught was “Farewell.” Then, as Mr. Bradford was saying, “Lift up your heads, 0 ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and this heir of glory shall come in,” without a lingering groan, Wesley passed to the presence of his Lord. His friends, standing around the bed, sang together—.

Waiting to receive thy spirit,

Lo! the Saviour stands above,

Shows the purchase of His merit,

Reaches out the crown of love.

Wesley died on Wednesday, March 2nd, 1791, in the eighty-eighth year of his age. The day before the funeral his body was laid in the City Road Chapel, near the entrance. A heavenly smile lingered on his face. The crowd that came to take a last look upon the man to whom they owed so much was said to number ten thousand persons. It was, therefore, thought desirable to bury him between five and six in the morning. No notice was issued till a late hour the previous evening, but some hundreds of people were present. A biscuit was given to each of the company in an envelope, on which was a portrait of Wesley in his canonicals, with a halo and a crown. According to directions in his will, the coffin was borne to the grave by six poor men, each of whom received a sovereign, as Wesley desired.

The funeral service, on Wednesday, March gth, was read by the Rev. John Richardson, who had been one of Wesley’s clerical assistants for nearly thirty years. When he came to the words, “Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God to take unto Himself the soul of our dear FATHER here departed,” loud sobs took the place of silent tears. Wesley was laid in the vault which he had prepared for himself and the preachers who died in London. The inscription on his tomb says that “this great light arose (by the singular providence of God) to enlighten these nations.” “Reader,” it adds, “if thou art constrained to bless the instrument, give God the glory.” At ten o’clock on the morning of his burial, a funeral sermon was preached in City Road Chapel by Dr. White-head, one of Wesley’s preachers, who had retired from the itinerancy, and had long been his favourite physician. He was now one of the London local preachers. Black cloth draped the front of the gallery and the pulpit Every corner of the building was crowded. All were in mourning with the exception of one woman, who wore a piece of blue ribbon in her bonnet. When she noticed her singularity, she pulled out the ribbon, and threw it under her feet. She became the ancestor of the wellknown family of Gabriels. One of her sons was Lord Mayor of London; another, the late Mr. J. W. Gabriel, was the senior trustee and steward of City Road Chapel at the time of his death.

Wesley's will provided that all profits arising from the sale of his books should be devoted to the support of Methodism. Eighty-five pounds a year was to be paid out of this amount to his brother’s widow, according to the arrangement made at her marriage. Some other bequests were made to friends or to Methodist objects. Wesley’s manuscripts were given to Dr. Coke, Dr. Whitehead, and Henry Moore, “to be burnt or published, as they see good.”