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 Issues | Church History | John Wesley


Great Churchmen (No 7)

John Wesley

by W Leathem

A Study in Sainthood and Genius

Published by Church Book Room Press


March 2nd, 1791, was a momentous date in the unpublished calendar of the Holy Catholic Church. How momentous she herself is not yet aware, though perhaps it is fair to record a growing consciousness. On that day John Wesley finished his earthly course and left it to history to discover that in eighteenth-century England there had been “a man sent from God whose name was John”.

To enter upon a study of John Wesley is to plunge into the perennial problem of human greatness. Let us, therefore, not be impatient if for a very brief space we turn from the particular to the general. It will not be without its value when we return to study our hero. Human greatness is a problem both fascinating and tantalizing, fascinating because we are dealing with what is rare and precious, tantalizing because greatness, easy to recognize, is difficult to analyse. The understanding of such calls for more than accumulations of knowledge or even of insight begotten of experience. It calls for imagination which enables the lesser mortal to jump beyond himself towards that realm where the great man really lives if haply he may find him. For such belong to an order which only the artist can capture and translate, and to a realm which only the eye that has some poetic or prophetic impulse, however small, can see.

Wherein does such greatness really consist? Certainly it is not the accumulation of quantitive bigness, no mere outsize in the common stuff of humanity. It is essentially a qualitative difference, something which passes beyond degree into the sphere of a different kind. How this greatness should be further described seems to depend on whether its essential spirit is religious or secular. If the former it is sainthood, if the latter it is genius. The one is a gift of grace, the other is an endowment of nature. When they we united in one person he becomes the embodiment of a fresh epoch of the Kingdom of God in human history.

This delicately balanced problem is further complicated by cross-currents of prejudice. On the one hand there is the partisan who tends towards idolatry and on the other the unsympathetic critic who is the victim of an inherent or an acquired dislike. This little booklet seeks to avoid these errors; but it makes no pretence to unbiased opinion, though it has sought real justification for the views it expresses. When we return to the subject of our present study it is to find that John Wesley has suffered more than most at the hands of friends and foes alike. The early Methodist biographers were, for the most part, strong in their partisanship. The name of “Mr. Wesley” was uttered with an exaggerated reverence sometimes lacking in their address to Wesley's Lord. He was as often mis-represented by the opposite school (Southey (1) is probably the best representative) who could not appreciate the inner core of his message because they could not see beyond the rude garb of his unconventional methods, so distasteful to eighteenth-century decorum.

It is the prerogative of a particular nationality to start at the finish! Without disclosing this the writer would ask for the same privilege as he sets out on his task. The method has more than novelty to commend it, though that is not to be despised. We will, therefore, start beyond the grave and only halt far beyond the birth of our hero. We will commence with what he is to our present consciousness, and then work back to what he was in his earthly life to discover what lies behind it-his conversion, and God's choice of him for a particular service.

(1) The Life of Wesley and the Rise and Progress of Methodism, by Robert Southey.


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