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The Life of John Wesley by John Telford - Chapter 22



JOHN WESLEY, like all the Epworth family, was J short of stature. He measured not quite five feet six inches, and weighed eight stone ten pounds. He seemed not to have an atom of superfluous flesh, but was muscular and strong. His face was remarkably fine, even to old age. A clear, smooth forehead, an aquiline nose, an eye the brightest and most piercing that can be conceived, conspired to render him a venerable and most interesting figure. In youth his hair was black; in old age, when it was white as snow, it added fresh grace to his appearance, which was like that of an Apostle. He wore a narrow plaited stock, and a coat with a small, upright collar. He allowed himself no knee-buckles, no silk or velvet in any part of his dress.

Wesley was scrupulously neat in his person and habits. Henry Moore never saw a book misplaced or a scrap of paper lying about his study in London. His punctuality and exactness enabled him to transact the enormous work which rested on him for half a century with perfect composure. He once told a friend that he had no time to be in a hurry. “Though I am always in haste, I am never in a hurry, because I never undertake any more work than I can get through with perfect calmness of spirit.~ He wrote to all who sought his counsel, and had perhaps a greater number of pious correspondents than any man of his century.~ He did everything deliberately, because he had no time to spend in going over it again. Moore says that he was the slowest writer he ever saw. Wesley once said to his brother Charles’s youngest son, “Sammy, be punctual. Whenever I am to go to a place, the first thing I do is to get ready; then what time remains is all my own.” t His coachman was expected to be at the door exactly at the moment fixed. If anything detained his carriage, Wesley would walk on till it overtook him. Every minute, both of day and night, had its appointed work. “Joshua, when I go to bed, I go to bed to sleep, and not to talk,” ~ was his rebuke to a young preacher who once shared his room and wished to steal some of Wesley’s precious moments of repose for conversation on some difficult problems. To one who asked him how it was that he got through so much work in so short a time, he answered, “Brother, I do only one thing at a time, and I do it with all my might.”

His extensive reading, his vast experience, and his natural amiability of temper combined to make Wesley a singularly interesting and welcome guest. Dr. Johnson greatly enjoyed his company. “John Wesley’s conversation is good,” he said, “but he is never at leisure. He is always obliged to go at a certain hour. This is very disagreeable to a man who loves to fold his legs and have his talk out, as I do.” This is high praise from the greatest talker of the eighteenth century. Wesley once dined with the Doctor. He had set apart two hours for this visit. Dinner, however, was an hour late. Wesley was therefore obliged to get up immediately it was done. His sister, Mrs. Hall, who was Johnson’s intimate friend, tried to soothe the lexicographer, who was greatly disappointed at the departure of his guest. “Why, Doctor,” she said, “my brother has been with you two hours.” “Two hours, madam !" was his answer; “I could talk all day, and all night too, with your brother.”

Wesley’s cheerfulness under all privations is one of the most notable features of his life. At the close of 1780 he writes, “I do not remember to have felt lowness of spirits for one quarter of an hour since I was born.” Twenty-five years before he had told his friend Mr. Blackwell that his companions were always in good humour when with him, and that he could not bear to have people about him of any other spirit. “If a dinner ill-dressed, a hard bed, a poor room, a shower of rain, or a dirty road, will put them out of humour, it lays a burden upon me greater than all the rest put together. By the grace of God, I never fret; I repine at nothing; I am discontented with nothing. And to have persons at my ear fretting and murmuring at everything is like tearing the flesh off my bones. I see God sitting upon His throne, and ruling all things well.” t

Wesley was greatly beloved in the homes where he was entertained during his long itinerancy. He would spend an hour after dinner with his friends, pouring forth his rich store of anecdotes, to the delight of young and old. “He was always at home and quite at liberty.”

He generally closed the conversation with two or three verses of some hymn strikingly appropriate to the occasion, and made every one feel at ease by his unaffected courtesy and his varied conversation. Two years before his death his friend Alexander Knox had an opportunity of spending some days in his company. He endeavoured to form an impartial judgment of the venerable evangelist. The result was that every moment afforded fresh reasons for esteem and veneration. “So fine an old man I never saw! The happiness of his mind beamed forth in his countenance. Every look showed how fully he enjoyed

The gay remembrance of a life well spent

Wherever Wesley went, he diffused a portion of his own felicity. Easy and affable in his demeanour, he accommodated himself to every sort of company, and showed how happily the most finished courtesy may be blended with the most perfect piety. In his conversation we might be at a loss whether to admire most his fine classical taste, his extensive knowledge of men and things, or his overflowing goodness of heart. While the grave and serious were charmed with his wisdom, his sportive sallies of innocent mirth delighted even the young and thoughtless; and both saw in his uninterrupted cheerfulness the excellency of true religion. No cynical remarks on the levity of youth embittered his discourses. No applausive retrospect to past times marked his present discontent. In him even old age appeared delightful, like an evening without a cloud; and it was impossible to observe him without wishing fervently, ‘May my latter end be like his !

Wesley’s relations to children and young people set his character in a peculiarly attractive light. His visits were eagerly anticipated by his young friends. He provided himself with a stock of new money, and often gave them one of these bright coins. He would take the children in his arm and bless them, reconcile their little differences, and teach them to love one another. In his last years he greatly rejoiced at the rise of Sunday-schools all over the country, and preached sermons on their behalf in various places. The singing of the boys and girls selected out of the Sunday-school at Bolton seemed to him a blessed anticipation of the songs of angels in our Father’s house. One who loved children more than Wesley it would be hard indeed to find. “I reverence the young,” he said, “because they may be useful after I am dead.” The boys on Guy Fawkes Day always found him a kind friend. His nephew says that he used to give his present with one condition: “Here, my boys, is something for you on condition you do not drink more than will do you good.”~

Wesley and a preacher of his were once invited to lunch with a gentleman after service. The itinerant was a man of very plain manners, quite unconscious of the restraints belonging to good society. While talking with their host’s daughter, who was remarkable for her beauty, and had been profoundly impressed by Mr. Wesley’s preaching, this good man noticed that she wore a number of rings. During a pause in the meal he took hold of the young lady’s hand, and raising it, called Wesley’s attention to the sparkling gems. “What do you think of this, sir,” said he, “for a Methodist’s hand” The girl turned crimson. The question was extremely awkward for Wesley, whose aversion to all display of jewellery was so well known. But the aged evangelist showed a tact which Lord Chesterfield might have envied. With a quiet, benevolent smile, he looked up, and simply said, “The hand is very beautiful.” The young lady appeared at evening worship without her jewels, and became a firm and decided Christian.

In 1821 Wesley’s niece sent Adam Clarke a sketch’ of some incidents in his life, in which she says, “His distinguished kindness to me from the earliest period I can remember made an indelible impression. I can retrace no word but of tenderness, no action but of condescension and generosity.” She clearly shows how great a mistake it was to represent Wesley as stern and stoical “It behooves a relative,” she adds, “to render this justice to his private virtues and attest from experience that no human being was more alive to all the tender charities of domestic life than John Wesley. His indifference to calumny and inflexible perseverance in what he believed his duty has been the cause of this idea.” Miss Wesley has also given a charming description of their visit to Canterbury in 1775. “He said in the carriage, ‘You are just the right age to travel with me. No one can censure you and I.’ The instances of his tender care are fresh in my mind. As we journeyed the weather was very cold. The preacher who rode on horseback by the side of the carriage at the first stage brought a hassock, with some straw, to keep his feet warm. Instantly he asked, ‘Where is one for my little girl’ Nor would he proceed till I was as well accommodated as himself. You knew him. Did you ever see him inattentive to the feelings of others when those feelings did not impede his plan of usefulness As we proceeded he pointed out every remarkable place we passed, and condescended to delight and instruct with the same benign spirit which distinguished him in public. I remember reading to him part of the way Beattie’s ‘Minstrel,’ a book then lately published, and which, he said, as I loved poetry, would entertain me, making remarks as we went on upon the other poems. He would not allow the people to call me up till six in the morning, though he himself preached at five, and always procured me the most comfortable accommodation in every place where we sojourned.

"My brother Charles had an attachment in early life to an amiable girl of low birth. This was much opposed by my mother and her family, who mentioned it with concern to my uncle. Finding from my father that this was the chief objection, he observed, 'Then there is no family, but I hear the girl is good.' 'Nor no fortune either,' said my mother, 'and she is a dawdle.' He made no reply, but sent my brother fifty pounds for his wedding dinner, and, I believe, sincerely regretted he was crossed in his inclination (as she married another). But be always showed peculiar sympathy to young persons in love." *

Southey’s beautiful and appreciative Life of Wesley has one blot which he himself afterwards recognised, and was prepared to remove. He had accused Wesley of ambition. After the publication of his book he was convinced that he had misinterpreted the character of the man whom he so highly honoured. “Mr. Alexander Knox,” he wrote to Mr. Nichols in 1835, “has convinced me that I was mistaken in supposing ambition entered largely into Mr. Wesley’s actuating impulses. Upon this subject he wrote a long and most admirable paper, and gave me permission to affix it to my own work whenever it might be reprinted. This I shall do, and make such alterations in the book as are required in consequence.” He made the same promise to Dr. Adam Clarke. Southey never published a second edition himself, and thus the alterations were not made. His son, the Rev. Cuthbert Southey, gave a similar promise to a member of the Wesley family, but it was never fulfilled. Wesley’s whole life is an answer to the charge of ambition. No man would have more enjoyed learned leisure or more delighted in the intercourse of men of talent than he. Yet he deliberately gave his life to the common people. His days were spent among the poor. He set himself to bring the masses to Christ, and to that purpose he was faithful for more than half a century. Wealth had no temptation for him. He gave away a great fortune to the suffering and distressed. The violence of the mob and the fierce attacks which for so many years issued from the press never caused him to swerve from his work. His desire was to do good, to do as much for the salvation of the world as he could, and do it in the best and wisest way.

Lord Macaulay’s judgment that Wesley possessed as great a genius for government as Richelieu is repeated on every hand. In a confidential letter to his sister, Mrs. Hall, dated November 17th, 1742, Wesley acknowledges with gratitude the gift he possessed for the management of his Societies. “I know this is the peculiar talent which God has given me,” are his words. No great statesman ever watched the course of public opinion more carefully than Wesley watched the progress of events in Methodism. He did not think out a system and force it on his people. There is no special evidence of inventive power in Wesley’s administration. He himself speaks of his want of any plan for financial matters.* His rule over the united Societies owed its success to the fact that he was always availing himself of the fresh light which experience gave. Methodist organisation was a gradual growth. Local experiments which approved themselves in practice were introduced into all the Societies. Leaders, stewards, and lay-preachers, the main instruments in spreading and conserving the results of the Evangelical Revival, were all the fruit of this growth. Wesley did not set his heart on such means, but when circumstances suggested them he saw their vast advantages, and soon incorporated them into his system. This method Wesley pursued from the beginning of the Revival to the last day of his life. It is the most marked feature of his work. One might almost say that he never looked a day before him. He sometimes laid himself open to the charge of slackness in dealing with such disturbers as George Bell, but he was never willing to move till the way was plain. His field-preaching, his chapel-building, his calling out preachers, and his Deed of Declaration all supply illustrations of this spirit. Methodist polity and Methodist finance were built up step by step. No man had a more candid mind than Wesley. He learned from every one, and was learning till the last day of his life. Such a spirit in the leader gave confidence to preachers and people. Charles Wesley would have forced Methodism into his own groove, and have shattered it to pieces in the attempt. His brother was willing to leave his cause in the hands of God and to wait for the unfolding of events which should mark His will. No cause was ever more happy in its head; no people ever loved their chief as the early Methodists loved John Wesley.

At the Conference before Wesley died, there were 71,463 members in his Societies in the Old World, 48,610 in the New. America had 108 circuits, just as many as there were in England, Scotland, and Ireland. The latest returns show that, including 30,924 on its mission fields, there are now about 468,000 members under the care of the Wesleyan Conference in England, with 2,540 ministers and missionaries. Separate Conferences have been formed for France, Australia, Canada, South Africa, and the West Indies. The Methodist family throughout the world now numbers about five and a quarter million members, under the care Of some thirty-three thousand ministers. If the Sunday scholars and attendants on public worship be added, the number would reach about twenty-five millions. If Wesley were with us to look upon the marvellous growth of his Societies, and to watch the enormous activities of the Church of England and other evangelical communions at home and abroad, he would preach again from the text he chose when he laid the foundation stone of City Road Chapel: “What hath God wrought !“