Start the Presses

IF JOHN WESLEY had merely ridden 250,000 miles through the English, Scottish, and Irish countryside, preaching 42,000 sermons along the way, his reputation as one of the most energetic Christians in history would be secure. Yet he somehow found time—rather, made time—to publish hundreds of books, tracts, pamphlets, and a periodical as well.

Wesley was convinced that Christians should be knowledgeable about their faith and the world in which they lived. Therefore, they must constantly read, just as he did. And he was happy to supply the material.

Approximately 500 titles are attributed to the two Wesley brothers, the large majority penned by John. They can be grouped in four main categories: apologetics, spiritual development, exhortation, and instruction.

His side of the story

The Methodists took constant criticism from people who believed false reports about their doctrines and practices. Wesley defended himself and his movement with the press, seeking both to dispel misunderstandings and to generate sympathy.

His pamphlet Modern Christianity: Exemplified at Wednesbury features chilling accounts, like this one from Mary Turner, of the persecution of Methodists in a small town in Staffordshire:

"On Shrove-Tuesday, after two large mobs were passed by, came four or five men to my next neighbor, Jonas Turner’s house. I and another woman followed them, to see what they would do. They first broke the windows, then broke down the door, and went into the house. Soon after they were in, they flung out a box at the chamber window, and swore, if any touched it they would murder them. Soon after they flung out a Bible and one of them came out, and in great rage cut it into pieces with his axe.”

An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion (1743) and A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion (1745) are classic examples of Wesley’s attempt to explain his message and Methodism’s place in English life. Wesley’s published Journal, which covers the period from 1735 to 1790, describes his ideas and actions in forming the Methodist movement.

Other publications, such as The Character of a Methodist, The Principles of Methodism Farther Explained, and A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists, tell the story of Wesley’s ministry and why it was necessary for the Methodist movement to be born.

Guidebooks for life

Besides conversion, nothing was more important to Wesley than providing for believers’ sanctification, which he called “holiness of heart and life.” Consequently much of his writing aimed at nurturing Methodists in holy living.

Since Wesley was thoroughly persuaded that the Bible was the most important book Christians possessed, he published two major biblical commentaries. His Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament was published in 1755. It contained not only comments on almost every verse in the New Testament, but Wesley’s own translation of the biblical text from Greek into English. His massive Explanatory Notes Upon the Old Testament followed in 1765–1766.

Between 1749 and 1755, Wesley edited and issued A Christian Library, a 50-volume series that included selections from early church fathers, such as Clement and Polycarp, to writers of his own time. He believed that Christians would be instructed, inspired, and encouraged by reading the selections he had chosen.

Methodists not only read theology, they also sang it, often repeating the words of their foremost hymnwriter, Charles Wesley. John’s most ambitious hymnal, A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists, contained 525 hymns that fully reflected the theology of the two brothers.

Aware of the different needs in his growing movement, Wesley produced “niche” publications: for Americans, The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America (based on the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer); for prisoners, Prayers for Condemned Malefactors; and for young Methodists, Prayers for Children. The works differed more in content than in style or tone, as even youngsters were instructed to pray lines like these:

"O learn me true wisdom, and let the law of thy mouth be dearer to me than gold and silver, and let my whole delight be therein. O let me be devoted to thee from my childhood. Keep out of my heart all love of the world, or riches, or any other created thing, and fill it with the love of God.”

Since Wesley believed that the Christian life is a disciplined life, he gave detailed instructions, such as The Nature, Design, and General Rules of the United Societies . . . , which contained the fundamental mandates of the Methodist life. The Arminian Magazine, a monthly that first appeared in January 1778, offered even more thoughts on doctrine and discipline, plus spiritually enriching biographies, testimonies, and poetry.

Shape up . . . or else

Wesley regularly exhorted his readers to heed God’s call to correct their lives, the church, and the nation, thus fulfilling what Wesley saw as God’s charge to the Methodist movement: “to reform the nation, particularly the Church; and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.”

Some of his books and pamphlets urged a change in personal, ecclesiastical, or national life. Thoughts upon Slavery (1774) condemned the practice and pleaded with those engaged in the slave trade to abandon it for the sake of God and those it exploited. A Calm Address to Our American Colonies (1775) reminded the colonists of their loyalty to England and exhorted them to give up any idea of a revolution.

Wesley also wrote “words to” various groups of people, including Sabbath-breakers, smugglers, and drunkards, admonishing them to change their lives. He could be very direct, as in the tract A Word to a Drunkard:

"Wherein does a man differ from a beast? Is it not chiefly in reason and understanding? But you throw away what reason you have. You strip yourself of your understanding. You do all you can to make yourself a mere beast; not a fool, not a madman only, but a swine, a poor filthy swine. Go and wallow with them in the mire! Go, drink on, till thy nakedness be uncovered, and shameful spewing be . . . thy glory.”

The teaching preacher

Theological and doctrinal issues underlie all of Wesley’s publications. Some of his publications, however, have a specific doctrinal focus. Most notable among them are his published sermons.

Wesley published the first collection of his sermons in 1746. In the preface to the first edition, he stated that these sermons contained the substance of his preaching and teaching. They were theological tracts to be read and studied by his preachers and people as a guide for Methodist proclamation and living. He published 151 sermons in all.

Some of Wesley’s other publications tackled specific doctrinal issues. Examples include The Doctrine of Original Sin: According to Scripture, Reason, and Experience; A Treatise on Baptism; and his very important A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.

Wesley also published thoughts on a much wider spectrum of topics—an effort that produced some of his most unusual, and sometimes amusing, work.

Wesley published English, French, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew grammars, and an English dictionary. He even issued a philosophical volume titled A Compendium of Logic.

Perhaps the most renowned of Wesley’s instructional publications, and one of his most popular books, was Primitive Physick, which contains his advice on health and cures for bodily ills. Some of his ideas are remarkably modern, but most are outrageous.

To cure baldness, he recommends, “Rub the part morning and evening, with onions, till it is red; and rub it afterwards with honey. Or, wash it with a decoction of Boxwood. . . . Or, electrify it daily.”

For a head cold, Dr. Wesley prescribes, “Pare very thin the yellow rind of an orange, roll it up inside out, and thrust a roll into each nostril.”

The popularity of Wesley’s prolific publications had one unintended result: money. “Some of these have such a sale as I never thought of,” he said, “and by this means I became unawares rich.” It was his nature, however, to give all his riches away, leaving his contemporaries the funds and future generations of Christians the wealth of his writings. CH

By Charles Yrigoyen, Jr.

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #69 in 2001]

Charles Yrigoyen, Jr., is general secretary for the United Methodist Church General Commission on Archives and History.
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