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A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature/Wesley, John

< A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature

Wesley, John (1703-1791). -- Theological writer, diarist, and founder of Methodism, was the second surviving s. of the Rev. Samuel W., Rector of Epworth, Lincolnshire. The name was also written Westley and Wellesley, and the family appears to be the same as that to which the Duke of Wellington and his brother the Marquis Wellesley belonged. W. was ed. at the Charterhouse and at Oxf., and was ordained deacon in 1725, and priest in 1728. After assisting his f. for a short time as curate, he returned to Oxf., where he found that his brother Charles, along with G. Whitefield (q.v.) and others, had begun that association for religious improvement from which sprang the great religious movement known as Methodism. About the same time the two brothers came under the influence of William Law (q.v.), author of the Serious Call, and in 1735 John went on a mission to Georgia to preach to the Indians and colonists, and became closely associated with the Moravian Brethren. Difficulties of a personal character, however, led to his return in 1738 to London, where he continued to associate with the Moravians.page 401 It was at this time that, hearing Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans read at a meeting, he found his religious and ecclesiastical views revolutionised. Hitherto holding strong High Church views in some directions, he now assumed a position which ultimately led to his abandoning the doctrine of Apostolical succession, and ordaining pastors and bishops, and finally creating a separate ecclesiastical organisation. Consequences soon followed; the pulpits of the Church were closed against him, and he began his marvellous career of itinerant and out-of-door preaching, which was continued to the close of his long life. He soon became a mighty power in the land; vast crowds waited on his ministrations, which were instrumental in producing a great revival of religious interest, and improved morality among the people. At the same time violent opposition was aroused, and W. was often in danger of his life from mobs. In the end, however, he lived down this state of things to a large extent, and in his old age was the object of extraordinary general veneration, while in his own communion he exercised a kind of pontifical sway. During the 50 years of his apostolic journeyings he is said to have travelled 250,000 miles in Britain, Ireland, and the Continent; but notwithstanding this phenomenal activity he was able, by extreme economy of time, to write copiously, his works including educational treatises, translations from the classics, histories of Rome and England, a history of the Church, biblical commentaries, manifold controversial treatises and ed. of religious classics. Most of them had an enormous circulation and brought him in £30,000, all of which he expended on philanthropic and religious objects. The work, however, on which his literary fame chiefly rests is his Journal, extending from 1735-90, which is one of the most graphic and interesting records of its kind in existence. He also wrote many hymns, largely translations from the German, and he had a considerable, hand in giving their final form to the almost innumerable hymns of his brother Charles. W. was a man of practical and organising ability of the first order, of intense religious earnestness and sincerity, benevolent feelings, and agreeable manners. At the same time he was of an autocratic temper, and often showed keenness and even intolerance in his controversies, which were largely against the extreme Calvinism of his old friend and fellow-labourer, Whitefield, and Toplady, the author of the hymn "Rock of Ages," himself a bitter polemic. In 1740 he had formally withdrawn from association with the Moravians. W. was m. in 1751 to a widow, Mrs. Vazeille, with whom, however, he did not live happily, and who separated from him in 1776.