Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
While the Marrow Controversy was raging among the Presbyterians in Scotland, and the church in that land was struggling with the Arminianism present in Marrow theology, England was developing its own kind of Arminianism within the Anglican Church, sometimes called the Church of England because it was the one denomination approved by the crown and of which the king was the head.
Arminianism had been present in the Anglican Church from its beginning and had been, more or less, tolerated within the church. But it came to full-blown development during the work of John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism. The impact that these two men had on England can hardly be overestimated. Their influence continues to the present. Nor is their influence limited to England. Methodism has been firmly established in this country as well, and was, in fact, the religion of the frontier when the West was being settled. And the theology of Methodism has penetrated into many other denominations, which still hail John Wesley as a saint of the first rank.
Wesley’s Early Life
John Wesley was born June 8, 1723 from Samuel Wesley and Susannah Annesley. The Wesley family was of ancient Saxon stock of some fame in the annals of early British history. Susannah was the twenty-fifth child of Dr. Samuel Annesley, and she brought into the world nineteen children of her own. John was the fifteenth child, but only five sisters and one brother had survived when he was born. Samuel Wesley was rector of the parish of Epworth, where life was grim and difficult. It was also dangerous. The people of the parish, though members of the Church of England (Anglican), were coarse, brutal, uneducated, and much inclined to violence. Nor was the manse sacred ground. When the people thought that their rector was too godly and required too much of them, they were not only threatening in their actions towards their rector, but they endangered the well-being of the children.
Because the revenues of the parish were not great, and because of a series of crop failures, the Wesley family fell on hard times, and Samuel was imprisoned for a debt of less than thirty pounds. During this time, riotous mobs with drums and guns paraded outside the rectory. The cows belonging to the rector were stabbed. The people swore that they would “squeeze the guts out” of the rector should they ever get their hands on him, and they even set the thatched roof of the manse on fire.
But Susannah was a gifted, strong-willed, capable, and pious woman, who saw her family through the hard times to which they were subjected. She taught her children at home and gave all those who survived infancy an excellent education. She instilled in them an enormous respect for the church in which their father was rector.
Her strong will often clashed with that of her husband, who was no weak personality himself. When William of Orange from the Netherlands came to the throne of England, Samuel was elated, but his wife refused to support a foreign king. When Samuel prayed for William of Orange, she refused to say “Amen.” Her husband, irritated by this lack of submission, said to her, “Very well, Sukey, if we are to have two kings, we must have two beds.” And with that he saddled his horse and rode to London. It was all, however, a bit of a bluff. He had business in London in any case, and he soon returned to the family and his wife, towards whom he was usually most affectionate.
John soon went off to school in London. He was about 10½ years old and the year was 1714. He entered the Charterhouse, a public school for boys. Here he remained for six years. But he was not alone the entire time. In 1716 John’s brother Charles, who was to be his companion and co-laborer through many years of his ministry, joined him; and that same year, his brother Samuel became an usher in Westminster Abbey. The three were now together.
John was, throughout his life, committed to mysticism in its unbiblical form. From these early years, many influences in his life seemed to drive him in the direction of mysticism, and it became an important part of John’s life, explaining in some measure the direction John’s theology took. We must mention, as we go along, these early influences.
One of them was a most peculiar series of events in the rectory back in Epworth, to which John occasionally returned. Beginning in 1716, strange and inexplicable noises were heard at different times, and were the beginning of many other different noises. The family was not unduly disturbed by them, which is probably evidence of the fact that spiritism was a part of their religious life. At any rate, the boys who were away were told of these strange goings-on, and they themselves, during the times they were home, were supposedly witnesses of them. A biographer, in recording these events, writes:
Groans and knockings were heard in every part of the house, and by every member of the family except the rector. A maid-servant noticed “a most terrible and astonishing noise, as at the dining-room door, which caused the up-starting of her hair, and made her ears prick forth at an unusual rate.” The sounds quickly became more varied and more alarming. There was a noise of breaking glass among the bottles under the staircase, and the man-servant, Robert, heard “someone come slaring through the garret to his chamber,” and gobbling like a turkey cock. Robert also declared that he saw a hand-mill at the head of the garret stairway turning of itself with incredible speed. Then the iron casements, the lids of metal pans and the latches of the doors began to ring and rattle. A rumbling, drumming and stamping seemed to move from room to room, shaking the walls and windows. Sounds were heard like those of lumps of coal being flung and splintered on the floor, pewter dishes being thrown about or glasses broken. At other times it seemed as if sheets of clanging metal were dropped heavily on the boards. Occasionally they could hear something like the rubbing of a beast along the walls. But there were never any visible signs of damage or disturbance.
Whatever may have been actually happening in the home and whatever may have been the fervid imagination of the inhabitants, these occult events made a deep impression on John and created in him a lifelong belief in spiritism.
John’s Life at Oxford
On his 17th birthday John entered, as a Commoner, Christ Church College at Oxford University, one of the most prestigious universities in all England, and, along with Cambridge, one of the most influential in the entire continent of Europe. Oxford was to be his home for many years.
It seems that it was during these Oxford years that Wesley’s spiritual life began to develop. Whatever he himself expected from religious and spiritual development, he did not consider himself truly converted, even though he engaged in all the religious exercises required by the college.
While in Christ Church, about 1725, another influence came to bear on him that also turned him in the direction of mysticism. He became acquainted with Thomas à Kempis, the late medieval mystic and the author of The Imitation of Christ. John was heavily influenced by this book and it stirred up his interest in other medieval mystics. This was also the year that he was ordained a deacon of Oxford and was licensed to preach.
In 1726 John was elected to Lincoln, another Oxford college known for its piety and learning. He was appointed Greek lecturer and moderator of the disputations. These disputations were somewhat like public debates in which students were grilled on an assigned thesis and required to defend it. In 1727 he acquired his degree of master of arts, and he spent some time in his father’s curacy. His father was becoming increasingly infirm and was burdened with the great weight of the almost negligible influence his ministry had on the coarse and hard-hearted members of the parish. John’s father begged John to stay and take over the ministry of the parish in his place, but John refused and soon returned to Oxford, where he stayed for an additional six years.
Mystical influences continued to mold his life. He spent a great deal of time reading and studying William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. The book not only emphasized the importance of a personal and experiential relationship to God, but did so within an Arminianism that was becoming increasingly strong in the Church of England. In fact, John Wesley’s father, Samuel, was a part of the Arminian party within the church. If one wonders why Arminianism was tolerated in what was intended to be a Calvinistic church, the answer lies in part in the fact that the Church of England was the established church, the church authorized by the government, and the church that alone had a right of existence within the realm. As an established church it had to have room in it for a diversity of views in order to keep all the ministers in England within its walls.
An extremely important development was the founding on campus, shortly before 1729, of the “Oxford Holy Club.” It was organized for purposes of improving the members’ spiritual life. The club never had more than twenty-five members, but it exerted an influence beyond its smallness. John Wesley was the leader. The club met together to encourage each other and to discuss how to better their lives in holiness. The way they prescribed among themselves was the way of self-denial, ascetic practices, and engaging in good works. They regularly visited prisons and poor houses and helped these poor souls as much as they were able. It seemed as if they actually sought their salvation in their good works and ascetic practices, and minimized the cross of Christ, the only hope of the believer. The Oxford Club was also to have a lasting effect on Wesley and on his theology.
The members of the club caught the attention of the people at Oxford, both students and officials. For their exercises in holiness they were ridiculed and even persecuted. From those days comes the name “Methodists,” a name scornfully given to the Oxford Club for their “methodical” exercises in piety. Wesley describes his goals and his reasons for declining the curacy of his father in these words:
My one aim in life is to secure personal holiness, for without being holy myself I cannot promote real holiness in others. In Oxford, conversing only with a chosen circle of friends, I am screened from all the frivolous importunities of the world, and here I have a better chance of becoming holy than I should have in any other place. Many good works, already begun, depend upon me for their continuance. In Epworth, on the other hand, I should be of no use at all: I could not do any good to those boorish people, and I should probably fall back into habits of irregularity and indulgence.
One cannot help but be struck with the constant emphasis on good works, with no mention made of the cross of Jesus Christ as the only hope of the lost sinner.
In 1735 Wesley was persuaded to cross the Atlantic to minister as chaplain in Georgia to a colony of debtors, sent to Georgia by the British government as punishment for their crimes. John went with his brother Charles, the hymn-writer of the later Methodist movement. While they were on board ship in the Atlantic, a terrible storm struck, in which the ship was in grave danger of foundering. Wesley was struck by the serene composure of a group of Moravians, who prayed and sang while the storm raged. Wesley made the acquaintance of these Moravians and was influenced by their theology. At the heart of their religion lay the idea, good in itself but carried to the extreme of making theology a mystical experience and little more, that the true knowledge of God was a personal communion with Him. Again Wesley was subjected to mystical influences.
His stay in Georgia did not go well, and after three years he was forced to leave Georgia. He returned to England and to Oxford in 1738. It was during this stay in Oxford that Wesley had what he considered to be his decisive conversion experience. It took place in a small chapel on Aldersgate St. in London. The biographer C. E. Vulliamy describes the event.
…On the 24th of May, it seemed to him that he had really found the assurance of belief. On the evening of this memorable day he went “very unwillingly” to the meeting of a religious society in Aldersgate Street, in which James Hutton appears to have been the principal figure. Someone was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. At about a quarter to nine, while he was listening to the reader, Wesley felt a warming of the heart. He felt that he did trust in Christ, and that he was actually saved from the law of sin and death. He began to pray fervently, and more particularly for his enemies. And then, he says, “I testified openly to all there what I now first felt in my heart.” But the assurance was not complete, for he did not feel the joy that he believed to be inseparable from a true knowledge of salvation. “Then was I taught that peace and victory over sin are essential to faith in the Captain of our Salvation; but that, as to the transports of joy that usually attend the beginning of it, especially in those who have mourned deeply, God sometimes giveth, sometimes withholdeth them according to the counsels of His own Will.”
After his return home, he was “much buffeted with temptations,” which returned again and again. Two days later he wrote, “My soul continued in peace, but yet in heaviness because of manifold temptations.” …On the 6th of June, after a terrible encounter with his fears, he felt “a kind of soreness,” and knew that he was not invulnerable. “O God,” he cried, “save thou me, and all that are weak in faith from doubtful disputations.”
In his book, Mysticism in the Wesleyan Tradition, Robert G. Tuttle, Jr. claims that one of the weaknesses of mysticism, especially as practiced in the Middle Ages, is that it really denies the atonement of Christ or bypasses it in the interests of immediate union with God. When one reads of Wesley’s Aldergate experience, as well as his life previous to May 24, one cannot help but be impressed with the fact that such was the core of Wesley’s so-called religious experience. In the same book Tuttle argues that mysticism inevitably leads to Arminianism; and, of course, a reciprocal relationship exists between a bypassing (to use a more charitable word) of the cross and a salvation by good works. But to Wesley’s Arminianism we turn in a later article.