Wesley: A Gallery of Family, Friends and Foes

William Law

(1686–1761) spearheaded the Evangelical Revival with his Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life ( 1728). The most brilliant young men of the time sat at his feet and absorbed his every word—the Wesleys, George Whitefield, and a host of other evangelists were his legacy. What he taught was the way to live a practical holy life. As his thought developed in the 1730’s towards mysticism, his young students parted ways with him. This vigorous champion of spirituality took on all comers in defense of Christianity. He feared no opponent. His last twenty years were spent in tireless devotions, study, and charity.

Richard “Beau” Nash

(1674–1762) was a social celebrity and master of ceremonies at the fashionable resort of Bath. He lived high, gambled with great stakes, and had very bad luck confronting John Wesley. Nash told Wesley that he did not like Wesley’s preaching. Wesley asked whether Nash had heard any. Nash had not but knows of Wesley’s preaching through the reports of others. Wesley then asked whether he should judge Nash only by others’ reports of him. Nash was silenced by this rebuke, and one old woman rubbed salt in the wound by telling Nash to leave alone the man who could give them all God’s word. Nash’s view was typical among the upper crust, but few would have condescended to speak out loud about how they felt. Even Samuel Johnson, the composer of the great English Dictionary, seems to have disapproved of Wesley’s “enthusiasm,” even though he does seem to have liked Wesley the man and attended one of his sermons!

Peter Boehler

(1712–75) the Moravian missionary and bishop, gave John Wesley the strength to seek faith in his moment of doubt after his return from Georgia. Wesley’s journal records the warm and vibrant conversation and correspondence between him and Boehler and reveals the critical role Boehler played in helping Wesley totally reassess the nature of his religious commitment and the meaning of faith. Thereafter Wesley was so interested in Moravianism that he learned German and went to Herrnhut to see the community at the source. Ultimately breaking away from the Moravians, John Wesley’s organization, some points of doctrine, and missionary zeal were deeply influenced by them.

Thomas Maxfield

(1720–85) was Wesley’s first lay preacher in England, converted at Bristol and put to use but “not to preach.” But preach he did, and Wesley, after hearing him, gave him permission. He was imprisoned and persecuted for his work. Finally ordained in 1764 he differed from Wesley over doctrinal differences and with Thomas Bell became head of a congregation that split from Wesley.

The Wesley Family

seems to have been the primary influence of John Wesley’s life. On the one hand were his mother’s devotions, on the other was his father’s scholarship and stern morality. On the one hand was his brother Samuel’s example as a High Churchman, on the other were his brother Charles’ friendship and support. At all times he endured with his siblings the regimen of hardship to which preachers’ families had to become accustomed in those days. John Wesley seems to have brought away from his family a model for the ideal society, which he had to temper with experience and with a few other models and mistakes. That John and Charles set up their own community at Oxford indicates that they desired to live a life that no one offered ready-made in the educational system of the time.

George Whitefield

(1714–70) the champion of field preaching in England and America urged John Wesley to take to the fields to preach. He was eloquent and powerful as a preacher. His sermons brought crowds to their knees. One report tells how listeners would cry and moan and turn to Christ. The people would gather in crowds numbering 20,000 to hear him preach, and he seems to have been Wesley’s match in endurance. Yet he could not match Wesley’s organizational ability, for after he had drawn a crowd he had no supportive Christian “family” for his followers to link up with. Because of his ideas on election, he and his Calvinistic Methodists broke off from Wesley’s group, but he and Wesley remained friends for life.

Bishop Joseph Butler

(1692–1752) Wesley’s contemporary, lamented the encroaching secularity of England and called for nationwide reform and revival of faith, but ironically he was opposed to Wesley’s kind of revivalism. Bishop of Bristol, where Wesley established his head camp for the Evangelical Revival, he locked horns with the young “enthusiast” and even told him to stop preaching in his diocese. Butler’s noted work Analogy, was the major defense of revealed religion against attacks by Deists. In the deepest sense the men were allies and both champions of the historic faith, even though as contemporaries they did not cooperate.

Charles Wesley

(1707–88), John Wesley’s younger brother, gave music, heart, and soul to the Methodist movement. Overshadowed by his brother, he directly influenced him throughout his career. Charles began what became the Holy Club at Oxford, went with John to the Colonies, and set up in Bristol to do the work of revival. As energetic in composing hymns as John was in keeping his journals, Charles composed around 6500 hymns, many of which are still sung today. Early in life Charles turned down a fortune to gain a greater crown—that of “Poet of the Evangelical Revival.” One of the most famous of his works was his version of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”

George Bell

(?–1807) Sometimes a convert to Methodism would turn out to be an opponent. Such a man was George Bell who converted to Methodism in the 1750’s. Bell made extravagant claims for himself and his followers, such as they had attained absolute perfection. Finally Wesley excluded Bell and his followers. Bell went on to predict the end of the world with God’s judgment on February 28, 1763. The world did not end, but Bell had done very severe damage to the Methodist cause in London.

Thomas Coke

(1747–1814), joining the Methodists in 1771, rose quickly under Wesley to become president of the Irish Conference in 1782 and joint superintendent with Francis Asbury of the Methodist Church of America in 1784. When Coke arrived in America, Asbury, who had refused Wesley’s order to return to England before the American Revolution, forced an election and became the first bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church to be consecrated in America. Coke with Asbury wrote the Doctrines and Discipline for the Methodist Church of America in 1784, but Asbury, not Coke, was the great organizer in America. Coke travelled between England and America frequently, and his commitment to be a missionary among the heathen finally led him to apply for the position of bishop of India—a position which required his return to the Church of England. Failing in this attempt, Coke raised money on his own and embarked on a Methodist mission to Ceylon, but died on the voyage out.

Francis Asbury

(1745–1816) seized the reins of Methodism in the United States just after its independence and shaped what later became the Methodist Episcopal Church. Riding over 5000 miles each year on horseback, often in bad health, he personally linked up the congregations from Maine to Georgia and set up the method called circuit riding that remained the line of communication for a century. Not always in agreement with Wesley, he was so like him in energy and organizational ability, he has been called the “Wesley of America.”

The Wednesbury Mob

a group of people from the lowest class of society, were after Wesley’s limbs and health, if not his life, and they were typical of the violence with which new preaching could be met in the eighteenth century. Not only did Wesley stand his ground as long as possible against this shouting, pot-and-stone-hurling rabble, but again and again he managed to return to the place of violence later and make it his own. In another mob incident, Wesley was interrupted by a bunch of rowdies who brought a bull up to his lectern. Undaunted, Wesley moved a little ways off and began to preach where he had been forced to leave off. In other mob scenes he actually quelled the mobs, turning the leaders back against the crowds and preaching to the quieted masses.

Richard Boardman

(1738–82) was the first Methodist missionary in America, responding to Wesley’s call in 1769. With Pilmoor he served in Philadelphia as Wesley’s associate until Francis Asbury’s arrival. Thus Boardman became not only Wesley’s bridge from England to the American colonies, but Methodism’s bridge from Wesley to Asbury.

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #2 in 1983]

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