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Wrestling With Wesley

Douglas Wilson

When painting the portraits of great figures in the history of Christendom, we have a distinct tendency to airbrush the warts. Hagiography is the perennial and natural temptation of the devout historian. When it comes to church history, the love that "believes all things" (I Cor. 13:7), does not always exhibit the serpentine wisdom enjoined by Christ (Matt. 10:16).

The problem is complicated by the secular myth surrounding the study of history, i.e., that it is a value-free, neutral discipline. Under the cover of this myth, the secularist historian debunks various popular heroes from the past. This type of debunking complicates the issue because a good many of our popular heroes deserve the debunking, and devil take the hindmost.

But at the same time, we must recognize that there is a difference between revisionist history, which is sometimes desperately needed, and painting warts in, which can be done by the most sophomoric historian. By failing to recognize this distinction, godly historians have frequently imposed their agenda onto the past. The "good guys" are defended against the secularists, and the "bad guys" are attacked. We should expect this tendency since history is not a neutral endeavor. But it is not good to blur the edges of our ethical standards when applied to our heroes who lived in the past; for the sake of standing up for the truth in the present, we ought not to sacrifice it in the past.

Such confusions warrant a case study; nowhere are such complications more evident than in the popular treatment generally accorded to John Wesley, the great founder and organizer of what is now called Methodism.

Overview

John was the fifteenth child of the Rev. Samuel Wesley and Susanna his wife.[1] John was born in 1703, and lived until 1791. He went to Oxford in 1726, where he formed a group of devout and religious souls variously called the "Methodists," "Bible Moths," and the "Holy Club." The group included George Whitefield and John's younger brother Charles.

In 1735, John went as a missionary to Georgia, an endeavor which was singularly unpleasant. His behavior there was not winsome,[2] and he was soon forced to return home (1737). As a result of his contact with Peter Bohler, a Moravian, John became convinced that he was not yet regenerate. His subsequent conversion is usually placed at a meeting in Aldersgate Street, while listening to a reading of Martin Luther's Preface to the Epistle of Romans.

In the meantime, his friend George Whitefield had been both ordained and converted. A happy combination! His preaching caused a sensation almost immediately. Soon, the established church began to oppose Whitefield, and he was forced to take his message out of doors. Within a short time, Whitefield had a large following, and when he resolved to go to America to preach, he turned to his old friend John Wesley and requested that he fill in for him in England.

The reluctant Wesley was finally persuaded to preach outside the walls of the Church of England, and the rest, as they say, is history. Or is it? Because of certain widely-accepted assumptions about Wesley, many Christians would have no problem with the following assessment: "His personality was magnetic, his piety and charity uncontestable."[3] Most Christians know that Wesley endured a great deal of opposition and persecution from the unregenerate for his Christianity, and they rightly respect him for it. Less well known is the fact that he received a tremendous amount of opposition from fellow evangelicals for certain deficiencies of character. It appears that Wesley's piety and charity were not uncontestable; they were contested vigorously, and that by evangelical Christians.

Questions about Honest Representation

Unclear thinking in theology is not necessarily a sin. Academic rigor and precision is not mandatory for all those in the pew, but it is essential for those who preach and teach. The Scriptures tell us that to whom much is given, such as teachers, much is required (Luke 12:48). We know that teachers will be judged more strictly than others (Jas. 3:1). When this higher standard for teachers is applied to John Wesley, I believe that an honest examination reveals him to have been sorely deficient.

Wesley believed that he had a gift for controversy. Consequently, he refused to bury even such a talent as this in the ground.[4] Tragically, when it came to certain topics, Wesley was also gifted with an extraordinary, and culpable, sloppiness of mind. He seemed to have an especial difficulty with Reformed theology as it stood in history; he insisted on tilting at the windmill Calvinism of his own imagination. This tendency made it exceedingly difficult for him to represent his opponents accurately. Take, for just one example, his representation of the Synod of Dort. Wesley prefaces his rendition of Dort this way:

Their words are (Art. 6, et seq.): Whereas, in [the] process of time, God bestowed faith on some and not on others, this proceeds from his eternal decree, according to which he softens the hearts of the elect and leaveth them that are not elect in their wickedness and hardness.

And herein is discovered the difference put between men equally lost, that is to say, the decree of election and reprobation.

Election is the unchangeable decree of God by which, before the foundation of the world, he hath chosen in Christ unto salvation a set number of men. This election is one and the same of all which are to be saved.

Not all men are elected; but some are not elected, whom God, in his unchangeable good pleasure, hath decreed to leave in the common misery and not to bestow saving faith upon them; but leaving them in their own ways, at last to condemn and punish them everlastingly for their unbelief and also for their other sins. And this is the decree of reprobation.

The following editorial comment on Wesley's rendering is to the point: "It is worth comparing Wesley's severe abridgement here (which amounts to garbling) with the full text."[5] The original text reads as follows. (I have put in bold those portions which Wesley omitted or changed significantly and have put his insertions in brackets):

ART. VI. [Whereas in {the} process of time] That some receive the gift of faith from God, and others do not receive it, proceeds from God's eternal decree. "For known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world" (Acts 25:18; Eph. 1:11). According to which decree he graciously softens the hearts of the elect, however obstinate, and inclines them to believe; while he [and] leaves the non-elect in his just judgment to their own wickedness and obduracy. And herein is especially displayed the profound, the merciful, and at the same time the righteous discrimination between men, equally involved in ruin; or that [that is to say, the] decree of election and reprobation, revealed in the Word of God, which, though, men of perverse, impure, and unstable minds wrest it to their own destruction, yet to holy and pious souls affords unspeakable consolation.

ART. VII. Election is the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby, before the foundation of the world, he hath, out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of his own will, chosen from the whole human race, which fallen through their own fault, from their primitive state of rectitude, into sin and destruction, a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ, [This election is one and the same of all which are to be saved] whom he from eternity appointed the Mediator and head of the elect, and the foundation of salvation...

ART. XV. What peculiarly tends to illustrate and recommend to us the eternal and unmerited grace of election is the express testimony of sacred Scripture, that not all, but some only, are elected, while others are passed by in the eternal decree; whom God, out of his sovereign, most just, irreprehensible and unchangeable good pleasure, hath decreed to leave in the common misery into which they have willfully plunged themselves, and not to bestow upon them saving faith and the grace of conversion; but permitting them in his just judgment to follow their own way; at last, for the declaration of his justice, to condemn and punish them forever, not only on account of their unbelief, but also for all their other sins. And this is the decree of reprobation which by no means makes God the author of sin (the very thought of which is blasphemy), but declares him to be an awful, irreprehensible, and righteous judge and avenger.

I leave it to the reader; did Wesley quote this passage accurately or fairly? Remember that Wesley begins with "Their words are..." Does the reader detect, with me, any culpable distortion of his opponents' position? I think a simple application of the Golden Rule is sufficient to determine the question. If I were to quote John Wesley in this article, introduce the quote by saying that these are his words, and then mangle his words similarly to his citation of the theologians of Dort, I know that I would be guilty of sin. I would not just be differing with him; I would be misrepresenting him. And that is called lying. Note: the point here is not whether this passage of Synod of Dort reflects the teaching of the Bible (although I believe it does). The question is whether an honest and godly Arminian scholar should be embarrassed by Wesley's citation. The answer is affirmative.

One cannot justify Wesley's misrepresentation by saying that the words were penned in the midst of controversy. Godly controversialists are required to work with greater precision, not less. The greater the controversy, and the more important the issue, the greater the necessity for accuracy.

Now this kind of garbled quotation occurred either because Wesley was intellectually incapable of understanding these issues (which is false; Wesley was extremely intelligent and gifted), or because he was spiritually unequipped to understand them (which I believe to be the case). In other words, the mistakes in his rendering were not honest mistakes; it seems evident he was making them as a result of and on account of his well-known rebellion against a particular truth contained in the Word of God. He had a great theological enemy, and that enemy was the Bible's teaching on predestination. He was not willing for it to be true, and his enmity was such that it affected his ability to deal with the subject.

I emphasize again that I am not saying that Wesley was culpable because of the position he took. There have been and will continue to be, godly and pious evangelicals who are evangelical Arminians, and there have been, and will be, scoundrels who are Calvinistic in theology. The problem with Wesley was that he did not engage honestly with those who differed with him on this issue.

A sympathetic biographer presents Wesley's encounter with the subject of God's sovereignty in the Biblical text: "In his sermon On Predestination he plunged his head boldly into the lion's mouth, preaching from the most explicit of all the Pauline texts of the subject, Romans viii. 29,30....It might well be thought, if it was not quite severed, his head was not extracted unscathed from the lion's mouth."[6] I believe that a sober assessment of Wesley's work on this issue reveals a man, contrary to the spirit of the Bereans (Acts 17:11), who was unwilling for the Bible to teach certain things. And this sort of unwillingness is not consistent with submission to Scripture, which is the foundation of all holy living.

Questions about Plagiarism

Wesley's ministry included the time prior to and during the American War for Independence. How to respond to colonial demands was a hot political issue in England, and Wesley waded right into the middle of it. Reversing an earlier position, Wesley came out in strong support of the legitimacy of taxing the colonies. His position was put before the public in an address entitled A Calm Address to Our American Colonies. The tract caused a sensation in England (but not in America, where a friend of the Methodists destroyed all the copies, lest the Methodist preachers be persecuted[7] ).

The problem with the pamphlet was that Wesley did not write substantial portions of it. In the course of approximately ten pages, Wesley used numerous sections taken verbatim from Samuel Johnson's Taxation No Tyranny. In the first edition of Calm Address, Wesley did not indicate in any way that he had borrowed text from Johnson -- Wesley represented the work as his own. This laid him open to the just charge of plagiarism, and those charges were not long in coming. In a preface to the second edition, Wesley acknowledged his indebtedness to the other pamphlet, but this was too late. A plagiarist does not cease to be a plagiarist because he admits the obvious after he has been caught.

Compare the following samples. The first section is from Taxation No Tyranny.

An English colony is a number of persons, to whom the king grants a charter, permitting them to settle in some distant country, and enabling them to constitute a corporation, enjoying such powers as the charter grants, to be administered in such forms as the charter prescribes.[8]

Now here is the same paragraph as it appeared in Calm Address. I have italicized that which Wesley altered and bracketed what he omitted. It isn't much.

An English colony is a number of persons, to whom the king grants a charter, permitting them to settle in some far country [, and enabling them to constitute] as a corporation, enjoying such powers as the charter grants, to be administered in such a manner as the charter prescribes.[9]

There are many other sections like this. Now, what would we call this if we did not know the names of the principal individuals involved? We would identify it by its proper name -- plagiarism -- and recognize it as a species of theft. Should we refuse to call it by its proper name because the reputation of Wesley is such that such charges will only recoil on those who make them? That has a name too -- cowardice.

We must also guard against another temptation. When the world recently learned that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a plagiarist, those who had a vested interest in keeping him up on his pedestal immediately began talking about feet of clay, the human condition, and we all struggle, do we not? In other words, Dr. King was a scoundrel, but we will admit no evidence that supports the claim and treat as a scoundrel anyone who dares to present the evidence. When confronted, against our will, with indisputable evidence that our hero was not foremost among the saints, the automatic response is to interpret it as evidence that King had a "weakness" or a "failing." But never is it called by its Biblical name -- sin.

Such an option is not open to us. As Christians, we have to take into account what God's Word requires of us. The qualifications for fellowship are different than those of leadership. In Titus 1, and I Timothy 3, God's requirements for leadership are strict -- and clear. According to those requirements, John Wesley was not qualified to be a leader of God's people; he was not "blameless" in the text's sense. He stole the words of another and did not acknowledge that he had done so. As mentioned above, he acknowledged his debt to Samuel Johnson in the second edition, but even then he did not acknowledge that he had done any wrong in the silence of the first edition.

Questions about Slander

In 1769, a young man named Augustus Toplady ("Rock of Ages") published a book entitled The Doctrine of Absolute Predestination Stated and Asserted. It was a translation "in great measure" from the Latin of Jerom Zanchius.

In a polemical response, John Wesley took the liberty of abridging the book down to tract size, to which he attached the following ending:

The sum of all is this: One in twenty (suppose) of mankind are elected; nineteen in twenty are reprobated. The elect shall be saved, do what they will; the reprobate will be damned, do what they can. Reader believe this, or be damned. Witness my hand,

A.......T.......

The problem was that Augustus Toplady ("A.T.") had written no such thing. In this paragraph, Wesley was not only guilty of a grossly inaccurate summary of Toplady's thinking, he attempted to represent that inaccurate summary as Toplady's own words. This is evident through the misleading and slanderous use of "witness my hand."

Toplady, needless to say, was not pleased. "Why did you not abridge me faithfully and fairly? Why must you lard your ridiculous compendium with additions and interpolations of your own; especially as you took the liberty of prefixing my name to it?"[10] He continues, "And is it thus you contend for victory? Are these the weapons of your warfare? Is this bearing down those who differ from you with meekness? Do you call this binding with the cords of love? Away, for shame, with such disingenuous artifices."[11]

Now one biographer of Wesley interprets this exchange, not as slander on Wesley's part, but rather as Wesley picking a fight: "This was undoubtedly neat; but it was asking for a fight, and it certainly got one. Toplady rushed in again with an attack on Wesley in which no venom was spared. He had a legitimate grievance..."[12]

This provides us with an outstanding example of how our common assumptions about Wesley's saintliness affect how we read the history of his life. The events are these:

1. Wesley dishonestly abridges another man's work. (There were more problems with Wesley's abridgement than just the concluding paragraph.)

2. Wesley attaches a slanderous invention of his own to the conclusion of that abridgement.

3. Toplady replies in print, identifying Wesley as dishonest for so doing.

But how are these events interpreted? Notice how Toplady's response is understood in the quotation above, i.e. "no venom was spared." And this from someone who recognizes Toplady had a legitimate grievance! Now it is true that Toplady does give Wesley a drubbing on a number of separate occasions. "Rock of Ages" notwithstanding, was it because Toplady was a volatile and acrimonious hothead? No, in one of his responses to Wesley, we read this: "To those who know me not, it may seem needful to declare that, much as I disapprove Mr. Wesley's distinguishing principles, and the low cunning with which he circulates them, I still bear not the least ill-will to his person. As an individual, I wish him well, both here and ever....I make, however, no scruple to acknowledge that manuscript of the following sheets has lain by me some weeks, merely with a view of striking out from time to time, whatever might savour of undue asperity and intemperate warmth."[13]

Was it because Mr. Wesley was Arminian, and Mr. Toplady could not abide Arminians? No: "Observe, I speak not of all Arminians. Many there are, who, notwithstanding their entanglement in that net, stand entitled to the character of pious, moderate, respectable men."[14]

Perhaps, and I speak with some hesitancy, he spoke this way about Wesley because Wesley was not honest. The hesitancy comes from the knowledge that those who raise questions such as this do so at their own peril. If a man calls popular and universal judgments into question, he had better be prepared for the reaction. And part of the preparation consists in knowing that whether you have proven your case has nothing at all to do with the anticipated reaction. The saintliness of someone like John Wesley is not something many Christians are prepared to question. But perhaps is it necessary to rethink some of our assumptions, i.e. perhaps John Wesley was not quite the saint he is portrayed to be in popular evangelical histories of that era.

This is not an abusive ad hominem argument directed at evangelical Arminianism; it is necessary to say again that there have been hypocrites on both sides of this particular theological divide. The imperfections of individuals, by themselves, do not constitute an argument against any particular theology. Rather, this is a plea against distortions of history for the sake of a particular party or faction. In this case, I believe there has been a whitewash of history, and I believe the interests of truth demand that we all quit playing the game.

Conclusion

The apostle Paul was once confronted by the spectacle of preachers who preached the gospel simply to get Paul into greater trouble. Here was his response:

Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from good will: The former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains; but the latter out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice (Phil. 1:15-18).

It is obvious from Paul's writings that he was not at all tolerant of those who would preach another gospel (Gal. 1:8). John Wesley did not fit in that category; although he preached a muddled and deficient gospel, there was nevertheless more than enough truth for the Holy Spirit of God to use in the salvation of many. And that is precisely what God (sovereignly) did. Interestingly enough, Augustus Toplady himself was converted in a Methodist barn meeting.

So the recognition of Wesley's various character deficiencies discussed above does not at all take away from the Pauline injunction to rejoice in the work that was done by him. Rather, it is a prime opportunity to apply this teaching of the Word of God. We should regret that more of Wesley's honest (if sometimes harsh) opponents did not see in this situation an opportunity for submission to and application of God's requirements.

Our love for the truth must be irenic in character. We must never sacrifice the truth for the sake of peace, but we must never, even in the midst of controversy, forsake our love of peace. When it is necessary to question someone's public character, even someone who has been dead many years, it is necessary to do so with sadness. The apostle Paul was not gleeful over the fact that there were many enemies of the cross of Christ; he recognized that fact with tears (Phil. 3:18).

I can think of no better way to conclude this discussion than by considering a warning written by John Newton: "There is a principle of self, which disposes us to despise those who differ from us; and we are often under its influence, when we think we are only shewing a becoming zeal in the cause of God."[15] My prayer is that all our discussions about truth -- the truths of church history included -- be motivated by a sincere love for the One whose Name is Truth, along with a love for all His children.


Notes

[1] A brief look at Samuel Wesley's life illustrates a possible problem with the indiscriminate use of titles like "reverand". See Arnold Dallimore, A Heart Set Free (Weschester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1988), pp. 12-19.

[2] This is putting it mildly, "Their general frustration was further complicated by John Wesley's falling in love with Sophie Hopkey, the eighteen-year-old niece of the bailiff of Svannah. It was a preposterous and pitiful affair in which Wesley was torn between his long-standing inhibitions and his new-found affections. It was resolved by Sophie herself, who finally eloped with a rival suitor. Her jilted lover then barred her from Holy Communion and was in turn sued for defamation of character by her new husband. The result was a furious turmoil, climaxed by a formal grand jury indictment of Wesley on twelve separate counts. The trial was dragged out, and after six months of harassment, Wesley fled the tragic farce in disgust and high dungeon." Albert Outler, ed. John Wesley, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), p. 12.

[3] F.L. Cross, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 1467.

[4] Stanley Ayling, John Wesley, (Cleveland: William Collins Publishers, Inc. 1979)m p. 270.

[5] Outler, Wesley, p. 428.

[6] Ayling, John Wesley, pp. 276-277.

[7] T. Herbert, John Wesley as Editor and Author (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1978), pp. 107-108.

[8] Samual Johnson, Political Writings, Donald Greene, ed (New Haven: Yale Press, 1977), Vol. X, p. 423.

[9] John Wesley, Wesley's Works, Vol. VI (New York: Mason and Lane, 1839), p. 294. Incidentally, it is also worth comparing how accurately Wesley copied this material, as opposed to his treatment of the material out of the Synod of Dort.

[10] Augustus Toplady, The Complete Works of Augustus Toplady, (Harrisonburg, Virginia: Sprinkle Publications, 1987), p. 710.

[11] Ibid, p. 721. [12]Ayling, John Wesley, p. 270.

[13] Toplady, Works, p. 730.

[14] Ibid, p. 730.

[15] John Newton, The Works of John Newton</>, Vol. 1, (Carlisle, Penn.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), p. 272.


Douglas Wilson, M.A. (philosophy; University of Idaho) is a teaching elder of Community Evangelical Fellowship, Moscow, Idaho, editor of No Stone Unturned, author of Persuasions, Law and Love, and Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning (forthcoming, Crossway Books), and a Contributing Editor of Anithesis.


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