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Wesley and the Wesleyans: Religion in Eighteenth-Century Britain
Wesley and the Wesleyans: Religion in Eighteenth-Century Britain
John Kent
Cambridge University Press, 2002
236 pp., 36.99

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David Bebbington

Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley and 300-Revival Reconsidered

In May 1988, while on holiday in Cornwall, I was deeply stirred by hearing a Methodist choir sing the conversion hymn of the Wesleys. The haunting 18th-century tune was one I had never heard before, and the powerful words conveyed a sense of the raw experience of men newly entering on a hitherto unimagined spiritual world. "Where," asks Charles Wesley in the first line, "shall my wondering soul begin?" The freshly composed hymn was probably sung by his brother John on the day of his conversion, May 24, 1738. The choir was marking the 250th anniversary of that event, often taken to be the birth of Methodism. The decisive stage in the Christian pilgrimage of John Wesley was considered well worth celebrating.

Now, 15 years on, there is another reason to commemorate the great evangelist. The current year, 2003, is the tercentenary of Wesley's birth. To mark the occasion, several biographical studies have appeared. None has been able to draw on the final volume of Wesley's journal, issued earlier this year in the authoritative version edited by Reg Ward for The Works of John Wesley. Nor does any of them, including each of the titles reviewed here, supersede Henry Rack's life of Wesley, Reasonable Enthusiast (Epworth Press, 1989), published just after the earlier commemoration. The two books by John Kent and John Munsey Turner considered here are reinterpretations of Wesley rather than detailed accounts of his life. Neither is chronologically arranged; both encompass the rise of Methodism as well as the founder himself. The similarities do not end there, for the authors are both retired English Methodist ministers who were trained as historians at the University of Cambridge.

Yet the perspectives are very different. Whereas Turner adopts a professedly Methodist standpoint, seeing Wesley as the creator of the tradition in which he stands, Kent takes a much more detached view, eyeing the evangelist more as a figure in the history of world religions. Both attack Wesleyan myths. ...

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