Be Always Ready
The recently completed seven-volume critical edition of John Wesley's Journal and Diaries is a significant landmark in the publication of the Bicentennial Edition of Wesley's works and a fitting commemoration of Wesley's 300th birthday (June 17, 1703). Because of the care with which the edition has been prepared, and especially because of the brilliance of its notes, this set offers a great deal more than much- appreciated insight into the convictions, actions, frustrations, and aspirations of one of the key figures in the modern history of Christianity. So delightfully instructive is the reading found at the top on the page (what Wesley himself published) and at the bottom (what the editor supplies) that, before saying anything else, it is appropriate simply to dive in.
The wisdom, erudition, and bracing good humor with which all seven volumes are filled can be illustrated by the record of Wesley's doings in February and March, 1789—as, at age 85, he continued the incredibly energetic level of activity he had sustained for 60 years. So, we learn from Wesley that on Friday, February 6, he urged 20 or 30 of his local preachers in London to go on preaching "the doctrine of Christian Perfection which God has peculiarly entrusted to the Methodists." Over the next several weeks, he was out and about: preaching, writing, reading, encouraging local Methodist societies, and preaching some more. Then on Tuesday the 24th, before preaching in the evening on Ephesians 3, he enjoyed "an agreeable and useful conversation" with William Wilberforce. To Wesley, it was especially welcome that Britain's prime minister, William Pitt, was being so ably assisted by "such a friend as this." The next day, which Wesley had instructed his societies to spend in solemn prayer for King George III, was transformed into a day of rejoicing when word was received concerning "the recovery of His Majesty's health." And so at 5:00 and 9:00 in the morning, as well as at 1:00 in the afternoon and also in the evening, Wesley led prayers of gratitude for the King's recuperation.
On Sunday, March 1, Wesley recorded that someone had prophesied his death in the month to come, to which he replied, characteristically, with a scriptural phrase: whether he lived or not, it would be quickly seen if the prophecy was correct, and "one way or the other, it is my care to 'be always ready' [1 Peter 3:15]." Then came more preaching, more visiting of Methodist classes, and more conferences with old friends, including this one on Friday, March 13: "I spent some time with poor Richard Henderson, deeply affected with the loss of his only son, who, with as great talents as most men in England, had lived two and thirty years and done—just nothing."
Wesley's delight in Wilberforce, his concern for the health of the monarch, and his unvarnished opinion of the younger Henderson all cry out for elucidation. In the annotations we find that elucidation, and more. Concerning Wilberforce and Pitt, a note provides the information that Wesley's earlier opposition to the American Revolution was now flowing into ardent support for Pitt as the new prime minister went about setting things right after the American debacle; we learn that "of course JW and Wilberforce were and had long been one in a detestation of the slave trade"; and we find out that Wilberforce wrote up a memorandum from this meeting about which he said, "I called on John Wesley, a fine old fellow." The notes on the king's health and on the deceased young man are such gems, and they are so representative of the treasures spread thickly in all seven volumes, that they must be quoted in full:
George III had suffered repeated ill-health during 1788: first bilious attacks, then irritation, sleeplessness, and garrulity. Never one to desert his post, he held a levee on October 24 in order, he said, "to stop further lies and any fall of the stocks"; J. Ehrman, The Younger Pitt (London, 1969), p. 644. When, however, "while driving in Windsor Park, [he] alighted and shook hands with a branch of an oak tree, asserting it to be the King of Prussia," it was clear that his sanity had given way (J. Holland Rose, William Pitt and National Revival [London, 1911], p. 407, n. 2). At the end of November, his physicians moved him by deception to Kew, advising the Privy Council that his disease was not incurable but that it was impossible to forecast how long it would last. The immediate political consequence of the collapse (which was what alarmed JW) was that if the Prince of Wales succeeded to the Regency by unfettered right, he would certainly turn out Pitt's government and bring in Fox. The battle between Pitt and Fox over this issue need not be related here, but Pitt's delaying tactics were supported by the knowledge that the King was now in the charge of Dr. Francis Willis, the most distinguished practitioner of the century in the field of mental illness, who declared an early recovery certain. JW's prayers were planned too late; the chancellor announced the King convalescent on February 19, and he resumed his authority on March 10.
John Henderson (1757-88) had been born in Ireland when his father was an itinerant preacher there, and was educated at Kingswood [school, founded by Wesley]. "At eight years he understood Latin so well as to be able to teach it at the school. At twelve he taught the Greek language in the school of Trevecca," leaving that establishment at the same time as John Fletcher. At the age of 24, he went up to Pembroke College, Oxford, where he acquired a reputation as a polymath, in languages, philosophy, law, and medicine, which attracted the attention of the literary world of that day; and his philanthropy matched his learning. The Wesleyan world attributed his downfall to the study of Boehme's "wild philosophical divinity, and …. the profound nonsense that abounds in the dark regions of mysticism," of Lavater, and of magic and astrology. More immediately, he became addicted to smoking, drinking, and experiments on himself with opium and quicksilver. He had become completely introverted for some time before his death on Nov. 2. He was buried in Kingswood, but "his father, Mr. Richard Henderson, was so strongly affected by the loss of his affectionate and only child, that he caused the corpse to be taken up again, some days after the internment, to be satisfied whether he was really dead"; Arminian Magazine 16 (1793): 140-44. See also Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill and L. F. Powell, 6 vols. (Oxford, 1934-64), 4:151, n. 2; 286, n. 3; 289-99.
Along with thousands of other annotations of similarly revealing precision, such exquisite mini-essays open up theological and personal meanings of Wesley's important labors in a most revealing way. They are the work of W. Reginald Ward, professor emeritus at Durham University in England and, taken in the round, the greatest living historian of religion and society for Europe's long eighteenth century.1 In addition to the annotations, Ward also supplied the first volume of the series with a breath-taking introduction to Wesley's journals in the context of 18th-century autobiography.
Work on the journals' texts, which Wesley had published and re-published in short "Extracts" from the early 1740s, as well as on the daily diaries that Wesley used as a memory prompt for preparing the published journals, is also of exceedingly high quality. The reconstruction of those diaries, which involved cracking a shorthand code that had long baffled scholars, is the work of Richard Heitzenrater, professor of Wesley studies at Duke Divinity School, who is also the general editor of the Bicentennial Edition and author of his own helpful books like Wesley and the People Called Methodists (Abingdon, 1995).
While the level of textual and critical work on this edition has been extraordinarily high, it has not been rushed to completion. Discussion for the project began in 1960, spurred by the late Albert C. Outler (1908-89) of Southern Methodist University, who campaigned throughout his life for the recognition of Wesley as a first-order theologian. The leading Wesley historian of mid-century, Frank Baker (1910-99), served as the first editor-in-chief. His responsibilities also included securing a reliable text for the works to be included in the critical edition—no small challenge in itself, since Wesley prepared for the press more than 450 separate works (each reprinted, often with fresh editing, on average four to five times).
The first volume of the Bicentennial Series, an edition of Wesley's Appeals to Men of Reason and Religion, appeared nearly 30 years ago in 1975. In 1983, when the project's first publisher, the Oxford University Press in England, was forced to give up the venture for financial reasons, it was taken up by Abingdon Press in Nashville. At that time it was also renamed the Bicentennial Edition in honor of the 200th anniversary of the founding of American Methodism in 1784 and, in general, to memorialize Wesley's lifework. In 1986, Heitzenrater took over for Baker as the general editor. Of the 30-plus volumes planned, 16 have now been published (including four of sermons, two of letters, one each of doctrinal works and tracts on the Methodist societies, and a splendid edition of the 1780 Collection of Hymns for the Use of The People Called Methodists representing the writing of Charles Wesley as well as the editing of John). Lest the pace of publication seem slow, it is useful to compare the modern critical edition of The Works of Jonathan Edwards, which began publishing as long ago as 1957 with Paul Ramsey's edition of Edwards' Freedom of the Will, and then crept along at a glacial pace until new leadership and fresh funding quickened the pace in the early 1990s.
Volume 7 of the Wesley Journals and Diaries is especially welcome not only because it brings Wesley's singular account of his own life to a close but also because it includes a thorough index for all seven volumes. The journal must, of course, be used with caution, for by the nature of the case it is partial to Wesley's own viewpoint. For balanced treatment of any theme or event in his momentous career, it must also be read alongside Wesley's many other writings and the writings of his contemporaries. Yet with a full index for a superbly annotated journal, it is now much easier to chart the ebb and flow of Wesley's opinion on all sorts of important subjects.
In his tussle with evangelical Calvinists of his era, for instance, it is important to grasp why Wesley could write to John Newton in 1765 that, "I think on justification just as I have done any time these seven and twenty years, and just as Mr. Calvin does. In this respect I do not differ from him an hair's breadth" (21:509). Likewise, it is instructive to learn why Wesley could conclude in 1755 that "the hand of the Lord (who does nothing without a cause) is almost entirely stayed in Scotland and in great measure in New England" because many of their leaders "were bigots, immoderately attached either to their own opinions or mode of worship…. . Mr. [Jonathan] Edwards himself was not clear of this" (21:19). It is similarly revealing to see Wesley report enthusiastically in 1753 after reading a pamphlet on the electrical experiments of Benjamin Franklin—"What an amazing scene is here opened for after ages to improve upon!" (20:447). There are also many reminders of how closely Wesley's work was interwoven with that of his brother, Charles, among which one of the most poignant took place two weeks after Charles' death in April 1788. As described in the notes, when Wesley tried to line out his brother's hymn, "Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown," and came to the lines, "My company before is gone / And I am left alone with Thee," he broke down in a flood of tears (24:76-77n50).
In sum, because of the extraordinary diligence that went in to the preparation of these seven volumes, readers are in a much better position to measure the insights as well as the mistakes of a truly remarkable Christian, to understand his life and thought against the background of 18th-century history, and to peer more deeply into the inner workings of this initial period of evangelical history. That the 3,845 pages making up these books are also an awful lot of fun to read does not in the least detract from their historical and theological value.
Mark Noll is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College. He is the author most recently of America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford Univ. Press).
1. As examples, see Christianity under the Ancien RÉgime, 1648-1789 (1999); The Protestant Evangelical Awakening (1992); Religion and Society in England, 1790-1850 (1972); and The English Land Tax in the Eighteenth Century (1953).
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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