J. C. (John Charles) Ryle.

The Christian leaders of the last century; or, England a hundred years ago online

. (page 6 of 36)
Online LibraryJ. C. (John Charles) RyleThe Christian leaders of the last century; or, England a hundred years ago → online text (page 6 of 36)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

that none should come into the room from nine to twelve, .or
from two to five, which were our school hours. One day was
allowx'd the child wherein to learn its letters, and each of them
did in that time know all its letters, great and small, except
Molly and Nancy, who were a day and a half before they knew
them perfectly, for which I then thought them very dull ; but
the reason why I thought them so was because the rest learned
so readily, and your brother Samuel, who was the first child I


ever taught, learnt the alphabet in a few hours. He was five
years old on the loth of February; the next day he began to
learn, and as soon as he knew the letters, began at the first
chapter of Genesis. He was taught to spell the first verse, then
to read it over and over till he could read it ofF-hand without
any hesitation ; so on to the second, &c., till he took ten verses
for a lesson, which he quickly did. Easter fell low that year,
and by Whitsuntide he could read a chapter very well, for he
read continually, and had such a prodigious memory that I
cannot remember ever to have told him the same word twice.
What was stranger, any word he had learnt in his lesson he knew
wherever he saw it, either in his Bible or any other book, by which
means he learned very soon to read an English author well."

Her energetic and decided conduct, as wife of a parish
clergyman, is strikingly illustrated by a correspondence still
extant between herself and her husband on a curious occasion.
It appears that during Mr. Wesley's long-protracted absences
from home in attending Convocation, Mrs. Wesley, dissatisfied
with the state of things at Epworth, began the habit of gathering
a few parishioners at the rectory on Sunday evenings and read-
ing to them. As might naturally have been expected, the
attendance soon became so large that her husband took alarm
at the report he heard, and made some objections to the prac-
tice. The letters of Mrs. Wesley on this occasion are a model
of strong, hard-headed, Christian good sense, and deserve the
perusal of many timid believers in the present day. After de-
fending what she had done by many w^se and unanswerable
arguments, and beseeching her husband to consider seriously
the bad consequences of stopping the meeting, she winds up all
with the following remarkable paragraph : — " If you do, after
all, think fit to dissolve this assembly, do not tell me that you
desire me to do it, for that will not satisfy my conscience. But
send me your positive command in such full and express terms
as may absolve me from all guilt and punishment for neglecting


the opportunity of doing good, when you and I shall appear
before the great and awful tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ."

A mother of this stamp was just the person to leave deep
marks and impressions on the minds of her children. Of the
old rector of Epworth we can trace little in his sons John and
Charles, except, perhaps, their poetical genius. But there is
much in John's career and character throughout life which shows
the hand of his mother.

The early years of John Wesley's life appear to have passed
quietly away in his Lincolnshire home. The only remarkable
event recorded by his biographers is his marvellous escape
from being burnt alive, when Epworth rectory was burned down.
This happened in 1709, when he was six years old, and seems
to have been vividly impressed on his mind. He was pulled
through the bedroom window, at the last moment, by a man
who, for want of a ladder, stood on another man's shoulders.
Just at that moment the roof of the house fell in, but happily
fell inward, and the boy and his deliverer escaped unhurt. He
says himself, in his description of the event, " When they
brought me to the house where my father was, he cried out,
' Come, neighbours, let us kneel down ! let us give thanks to
God ! He has given me all my eight children ; let the house
gO; I am rich enough.' "

In the year 17 14, at the age of eleven, John Wesley was
placed at the Charter-house School in London. That mighty
plunge in life — a boy's first entrance at a public school — seems
to have done him no harm. He had probably been well
grounded at his father's house in all the rudiments of a classical
education, and soon became distinguished for his diligence and
progress at school. At the age of sixteen his elder brother,
then an usher at Westminster, describes him as " a brave boy,
learning Hebrew as fast as he can."

In the year 1720, at the age of seventeen, John Wesley went
up to Oxford as an undergraduate, having been elected to


Christ Church. Little is known of the first three or four years
of his university \\[^^ except that he was steady, studious, and
remarkable for his classical knowledge and genius for compo-
sition. It is evident, however, that he made the best use of his
time at college, and picked up as much as he could in a day
when honorary classdists were unknown, and incitements to
study were very few. Like most great divines, he found the ad-
vantage of university education all his life long. Men might
dislike his theology, but they could never say that he was a
fool, and had no right to be heard.

In the beginning of 1725, at the age of twenty-two, he seems
to have gone through much exercise of mind as to the choice
of a profession. Naturally enough, he thought of taking orders,
but was somewhat daunted by serious reflection on the solemnity
of the step. This very reflection, however, appears to have
been most useful to him, and to have produced in his mind
deeper thoughts about God, his soul, and religion generally,
than he had ever entertained before. He began to study
divinity, and to go through a regular course of reading for the
ministry. He had, probably, no very trustworthy guide in his
choice of religious literature at this period. The books which
apparently had the greatest influence on him were Jeremy
Taylor's " Holy Living and Dying," and Thomas a Kempis's
" Imitation of Christ." Devout and well-meaning as these
authors are, they certainly were not likely to give him very
clear views of scriptural Christianity, or very cheerful and happy
views of Christ's service. l\\ short, though they did him good
by making him feel that true religion was a serious business, and
a concern of the heart, they evidently left him in much dark-
ness and perplexity.

At this stage of John Wesley's life, his correspondence with
his father and mother is peculiarly interesting, and highly
creditable both to the parents and the son. He evidently
opened his mind to them, and told them all his mental and


spiritual difficulties. His letters and their replies are well worth
reading. They all show more or less absence of spiritual light
and clear views of the gospel. But a singular vein of honesty
and conscientiousness runs throughout. One feels " This is
just the spirit that God will bless. This is the single eye to
which will be given more light."

Let us hear what his father says about the question, " Which
is the best commentary on the Bible?" "I answer, the Bible
itself For the several paraphrases and translations of it in the
Polyglot, compared with the original and with one another, are
in my opinion, to an honest, devout, industrious, and humble
man, infinitely preferable to any comment I ever saw."

Let us hear what his mother says on the point of taking
holy orders : — " The alteration of your temper has occasioned
me much speculation. I, who am apt to be sanguine, hope it
may proceed from the operation of God's Holy Spirit, that by
taking off your relish for earthly enjoyments he may prepare
and dispose your mind for a more serious and close application
to things of a more sublime and spiritual nature. If it be so,
happy are you if )'ou cherish those dispositions. And now in
good earnest resolve to make religion the business of your life ;
for, after all, that is the one thing that, strictly speaking, is
necessary : all things beside are comparatively little to the pur-
poses of life. I heartily wish you would now enter upon a strict
examination of yourself, that you may know whether you have
a reasonable hope of salvation by Jesus Christ. If you have
the satisfaction of knowing, it will abundantly reward your
pains ; if you have not, you will find a more reasonable occasion
for tears than can be met with in a tragedy. This matter de-
serves great consideration by all, but especially by those designed
for the ministry, who ought above all things to make their own
calling and election sure, lest, after they have preached to others,
they themselves should be cast away."

Let us hear what his mother says about Thomas a Kempis's


opinion, that all mirth or pleasure is useless, if not sinful. She
observes : — " I take Kempis to have been an honest, weak man,
that had more zeal than knowledge, by his condemning all
mirth or pleasure as sinful or useless, in opposition to so many-
direct and plain texts of Scripture. Would you judge of the
lawfulness or unlawfulness of pleasures'? of the innocence or
malignity of actions ? take this rule, — whatever weakens your
reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your
sense of God, or takes off the relish of spiritual things ; in short,
whatever increases the strength and authority of your body over
your mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may be
in itself"

Let us hear what John Wesley himself says in a letter on the
opinion of Jeremy Taylor — " Whether God has forgiven us or
no, we know not ; therefore let us be sorrowful for ever having
sinned." He remarks — " Surely the graces of the Holy Ghost
are not of so little force as that we cannot perceive whether we
have them or not. If we dwell in Christ, and Christ in us,
which He will not do unless we be regenerate, certainly we
must be sensible of it. If we never can have any certainty of
being in a state of salvation, good reason is it that every moment
should be spent, not in joy, but in fear and trembling ; and
then, undoubtedly, in this life we are of all men most miserable.
God deliver us from such a fearful expectation as this."

Correspondence of this style could hardly fail to do good to
a young man in John Wesley's frame of mind. It led him no
doubt to closer study of the Scriptures, deeper self-examination,
and more fervent prayer. Whatever scruples he may have had
were finally removed, and he was at length ordained deacon on
September the 19th, 1725, by Dr. Potter, then Bishop of Oxford,
and afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury.

In the year 1726 John Wesley was elected Fellow of Lincoln
College, after a contest of more than ordinary severity. His
recently adopted seriousness of deportment and general reli-


giousness were used as a handle against him by his adversaries.
But his high character carried him triumphantly through all
opposition, to the great delight of his father. Tried as he ap-
parently was at the time in his temporal circumstances, he
wrote : " Whatever will be my own fate before the summer is
over God knows ; but, wherever I am, my Jack is Fellow of

The eight years following John Wesley's election to his fel-
lowship of Lincoln — from 1726 to 1734— form a remarkable
epoch in his Ufe, and certainly gave a tone and colour to all
his future history. During the whole of these years he was
resident at Oxford, and for some time at any rate acted as tutor
and lecturer in his college. Gradually, however, he seems to
have- laid himself out more and more to try to do good to
others, and latterly was entirely taken up with it.

His mode of action was in the highest degree simple and
unpretending. Assisted by his brother Charles, then a student
of Christ Church; he gathered a small society of like-minded
young men, in order to spend some evenings in a week together
.in the study of the Greek Testament. This was in November
1729. The members of this society were at first four in num-
ber ; namely, John Wesley, Charles Wesley, Mr. Morgan of
Christ Church, and Mr. Kirkman of Merton. At a somewhat
later period they were joined by Mr. Ingham of Queen's, Mr.
Broughton of Exeter, Mr. Clayton of Brazenose, the famous
George Whitefield of Pembroke, and the well-known James
Hervey of Lincoln.

This little band of witnesses, as might reasonably have been
expected, soon began to think of doing good to others, as well as
getting good themselves. In the summer of 1730 they began
■ to visit prisoners in the castle and poor people in the town, to
send neglected children to school, to give temporal aid to the
sick and needy, and to distribute Bibles and Prayer-books
among those who had not got them. Their first steps were

THE ' ' II OL Y club:' 73

taken very cautiously, and with frequent reference to John
Wesley's father for advice. Acting by his advice, they laid all
their operations before the Bishop of Oxford and his chaplain,
and did nothing without full ecclesiastical sanction.

Cautious, and almost childish, however, as the proceedings
of these young men may appear to us in the present day, they
were too far in advance of the times to escape notice, hatred,
and opposition. A kind of persecution and clamour was raised
against Wesley and his companions as enthusiasts, fanatics, and
troublers of Israel. They were nicknamed the " Methodists "
or " Holy Club," and assailed with a storm of ridicule and
abuse. Through this, however, they manfully persevered, and
held on their way, being greatly encouraged by the letters of
the old Rector of Epworth. In one of them he says, " \ hear
my son John has the honour of being styled the Father of
the Holy Club. If it be so, I am sure I must be the grand-
father of it, and I need not say that I had rather any of my
sons should be so dignified and distinguished than have the
title His Holiness."

The real amount of spiritual good that John Wesley did
during these eight years of residence at Oxford is a point that
cannot easily be ascertained. With ail his devotedness, asceti-
cism, and self-denial, it must be remembered that at this time
he knew very little of the pure gospel of Christ. His views of
rehgious truth, to say the least, were very dim, misty, defective,
and indistinct. No one was more sensible of this than he
afterwards was himself, and no one could be more ready and
wilHng to confess it. Such books as " Law's Serious Call,"
"Law's Christian Perfection," " Theologia Germanica," and.
mystical writers, were about the highest pitch of divinity that
he had yet attained. But we need not doubt that he learned
experience at this period which he found useful in after-life.
At any rate he became thoroughly trained in habits of labo-
riousness, time-redemption, and self-mortification, which he


carried with him to the day of his death. God has his own
way of tempering and preparing instruments for his work, and,
whatever we may think, we may be sure his way is best.

In the year 1734 John Wesley's father died, and the family
home was broken up. Just at this time the providence of God
opened up to him a new sphere of duty, the acceptance of
which had a most important effect on his whole spiritual history.
This sphere was the colony of Georgia, in North America.
The trustees of that infant settlement were greatly in want of
proper clergymen to send out, both to preach the gospel to the
Indians and to provide means of grace for the colonists. At
this juncture John Wesley and his friends were suggested to
their notice, as the most suitable persons they could find, on
account of their high character for regular behaviour, attention
to religious duties, and readiness to endure hardships. The
upshot of the matter was, that an offer was made to John
Wesley, and, after conferring with Mr. Law, his mother, his
elder brother, and other friends, he accepted the proposal of
the trustees, and, in company with his brother Charles and their
common friend Mr. Ingham, set sail for Georgia.

Wesley landed in Georgia on the 6th of February 1736, after
a long stormy voyage of four months, and remained in the
colony two years. I shall not take up the reader's time by any
detailed account of his proceedings there. It may suffice to
say, that, for any good he seems to have done, his mission was
almost useless. Partly from the inherent difficulties of an
English clergyman's position in a colony — partly from the con-
fused and disorderly condition of the infant settlement where
he was stationed — partly from a singular want of tact and dis-
cretion in dealing with men and things — partly, above all, from
his own very imperfect views of the gospel, Wesley's expedition
to Georgia appears to have been a great failure, and he was evi-
dently glad to get away.

The ways of God, however, are not as man's ways. There


was a " need be " for the two years' absence in America, just
as there was for Philip's journey down the desert road to Gaza,
and Paul's sojourn in prison at C^esarea. If Wesley did nothing
in Georgia, he certainly gained a great deal. If he taught little
to others, he undoubtedly learned much. On the outward
voyage he became acquainted with some Moravians on board,
and was deeply struck by their deliverance from " the fear ot
death " in a storm. After landing in Georgia he continued his
intercourse with them, and discovered to his astonishment that
there was such a thing as personal assurance of forgiveness.
These things, combined with the peculiar trials, difficulties, and
disappointments of his colonial ministry, worked mightily on
his mind, and showed him more of himself and the gospel than
he had ever learned before. The result was that he landed at
Deal on the ist of February 1738, a very much humbler, but a
much wiser man than he had ever been before. In plain words,
he had become the subject of a real inward work of the Holy

Wesley's own accounts of his spiritual experience during these
two years of his life are deeply interesting. I will transcribe
one or two of them.

On February the 7th, 1736, he records: — "On landing in
Georgia I asked the advice of Mr. Spangenberg, one of the
German pastors, with regard to my own conduct. He said in
reply, ' My brother, I must first ask you one or two questions.
Have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God
bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God V — I
was surprised, and knew not what to answer. He observed it,
and asked, ' Do you know Jesus Christ?' — I paused, and said,
' I know he is the Saviour of the world.' — ' True,' replied he ;
* but do you know he has saved you ?' — I answered, ' I hope he
has died to save me.' — He only added, ' Do you know yourself]'
— I said, ' I do.' But I fear they were vain words."

On January 24th, 1738, on board ship on his homeward


voyage, he makes the following record : — ' I went to America
to convert the Indians; but oh, who shall convert mel Who,
what is he that will deliver me from this evil heart of unbelief?
I have a fair summer religion ; I can talk well ; nay, and be-
lieve myself, while no danger is near. But let death look me
in the face, and my spirit is troubled, nor can I say to die is

On February the ist, 1738, the day that he landed in England,
he says : " It is now two years and almost four months since I
left my native country in order to teach the Georgian Indians
the nature of Christianity ; but what have I learned of myself
in the meantime % Why, what I least suspected, that I, who
went to America to convert others, was myself never converted
to God ! I am not mad, though I thus speak; but I speak the
words of truth and soberness."

" If it be said that I have faith — for many such things have
I heard from miserable comforters — I answer, so have the devils
a sort of faith ; but still they are strangers to the covenant of
promise. . . . The faith I want is a sure trust and confidence in
God that through the merits of Christ my sins are forgiven, and
I reconciled to the favour of God. I want that faith which St.
Paul recommends to all the world, especially in his Epistle to
the Romans ; that faith which makes every one that hath it to
cry, ' I Hve, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me ; and the life
which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of
God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.' I want that
faith which none can have without knowing that he hath it."

Records like these are deeply instructive. They teach that
important lesson which man is so slow to learn— that we may
have a great deal of earnestness and religiousness without any
true soul-saving and soul-comforting religion— that we may be
diligent in the use of fasting, prayers, forms, ordinances, and
the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, without knowing anything
of inward joy, peace, or communion with God — and above all,


t1iat we may be moral in life, and laborious in good works,
without being true believers in Christ, or fit to die and meet
God. AVell would it be for the churches if trutlis like these
were proclaimed from every pulpit, and pressed on every con-
gregation ! Thousands, for lack of such truths, are walking in
a vain shadow, and totally ignorant that they are yet dead in
sins. If any one wants to know how far a man may go in
outward goodness, and yet not be a true Christian, let him
carefully study the experience of John Wesley. I am bold to
say that it is eminently truth for the times.

A man hungering and thirsting after righteousness, as Wes-
ley was now, was not left long without more light. The good
work which the Holy Ghost had begun within him was carried
on rapidly after he landed in England, until the sun rose on his
mind, and the shadows passed away. Partly by conference
with Peter Bohler, a -Moravian, and other Moravians in London,
partly by study of the Scriptures, partly by special prayer for
living, saving, justifying faith as the gift of God, he was brought
to a clear view of the gospel, and found out the meaning of joy
and peace in simply believing. Let me add — as an act of
justice to one of whom the world was not worthy — that at this
period he was, by his own confession, much helped by Martin
Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans.

This year, 1738, was beyond doubt the turning-point in Wes-
ley's spiritual history, and gave a direction to all his subsequent
life. It was in the spring of this year that he began a religious
society at the Moravian Chapel in Fetter Lane, London, which
was the rough type and pattern of all IMethodist societies formed
afterwards. The rules of this little society are extant still, and
with some additions, modifications, and improvements, contain
tlie inward organization of Methodism in the present day. It
was at this period also that he began preaching the new truths
he had learned, in many of the pulpits in London, and soon
found, like Whitefield, that the proclamation of salvation by


grace, and justification by faith, was seldom allowed a second
time. It was in the winter of this year, after returning from a
visit to the Moravian settlement in Germany, that he began
aggressive measures on home heathenism, and in the neighbour-
hood of Bristol followed Whitefield's example by preaching in
the open air, in rooms, or wherever men could be brought to-

We have now reached a point at which John Wesley's history,
like that of his great contemporary Whitefield, becomes one un-
deviating uniform narrative up to the time of his death. It would
be useless to dwell on one year more than another. He was
always occupied in one and the same business, always going up
and down the land preaching, and always conducting evangel-
istic measures of some kind and description. For fifty-three
years — from 1738 to 1791 — he held on his course, always busy,
and always busy about one thing — attacking sin and ignorance
everywhere, preaching repentance toward God and faith toward
our Lord Jesus Christ everywhere — awakening open sinners,
leading on inquirers, building up saints — never wearied, never
swerving from the path he had marked out, and never doubting
of success. Those only who read the Journals he kept for fifty
years can have any idea of the immense amount of work that he
got through. Never perhaps did any man have so many irons in

Online LibraryJ. C. (John Charles) RyleThe Christian leaders of the last century; or, England a hundred years ago → online text (page 6 of 36)