Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by J. H. Overton
John Wesley (1703–1791)
 
[John Wesley was born 17th June (o.s.) 1703, at Epworth, in Lincolnshire, where his father was rector. He owed his early training chiefly to his mother (née Susanna Wesley). In 1709 the rectory was burnt down and John was with great difficulty rescued from the flames. This narrow escape made a life-long impression upon him, and many years later he described himself as “a brand plucked out of the burning.” In 1713 he received, through the Duke of Buckingham, a nomination to the Charterhouse, and there he received his education until his entrance at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1720. In 1725 he was ordained by the Bishop of Oxford (Dr. Potter), and in 1726 he was elected Fellow of Lincoln College. He retained his Fellowship until his unfortunate marriage with the widow Vazeille in 1791. In 1727 he became his father’s curate at Epworth and Wroot. In 1729 he was summoned back to Oxford to take part in the college tuition. At Oxford he found a religious society, founded by his brother Charles, then a student of Christ Church. Of this society John became the head. The “Oxford Methodists” were ascetics of a markedly church type, and they were warmly encouraged in their lives of devotion and practical work by the Rector of Epworth. In 1735 Samuel Wesley died, and in the same year John went out as a missionary of the S.P.G. to the newly founded colony of Georgia. He was deeply impressed with the piety of some Moravians he met on the voyage out and in the Colony. He met with many difficulties in Georgia, and returned home, bitterly disappointed, in 1738. He then fell under the influence of another Moravian, Peter Böhler. He visited the Moravian settlement at Herrnhut, and on his return commenced that career of incessant activity, physical and mental, in the cause of what he believed to be the truth, which ended only with his death. He founded societies, itinerated in all parts of the kingdom, preaching wherever he went, and arranging the elaborate organisation of his societies, of which he was the absolute master. He visited Scotland and Ireland frequently, and at last died in harness, 2nd March 1791. Long before his death, he had outlived all the opposition (sometimes amounting to actual violence) which he had encountered in his earlier career. He was generally respected in the church of his baptism, to which he never ceased to affirm his adherence, while by his own followers he was regarded with a veneration, to which there is scarcely a parallel in the history of religious leaders.]  1
 
IT is not, of course, as a writer of English Prose that John Wesley is best known. Nevertheless he could and did write exceedingly well; and his publications, if we include all that he edited, abridged, or translated as well as his original compositions, were far more numerous than those of any man of his time. For more than half a century scarcely a year elapsed without something, and generally a great number of things, appearing in print for which John Wesley was responsible. He was not at all ambitious of literary fame, and declared that he dare no more use a fine word than he would wear a fine coat. But he could not help writing like a scholar and a gentleman; and the long logical training he had received at Oxford, first as a learner, and then as a “moderator of the classes,” had taught him how to marshal his arguments lucidly and effectively. “As for me,” he writes, “I never think of my style at all, but just set down the words that come first.” Perhaps that is the very reason why his style is good; there is no straining after effect, nothing artificial about it; it is terse, racy, and vigorous. In everything he wrote, as in everything he said and did, he had some practical object in view; and he always makes straight for that object. Surprise has often been expressed at the wonderful effects which his sermons unquestionably produced. No one would dream of quoting them as specimens of pulpit eloquence; nor do they show any remarkable originality of thought or depth of learning. But the want of these things was the very cause of their success; for what seem to us commonplaces were to all intents and purposes new truths to the multitudes who were roused from their torpor by Wesley. Florid language and original ideas would have flown far above their heads. Plain truth expressed in plain language was what they wanted: and Wesley gave it to them to perfection. John Wesley, however, as a prose writer, cannot be reckoned among the immortals; and therefore for the purpose of this work a few very brief extracts from his writings will suffice.  2
 
 
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