Essay / Theology

Wesley the Worker

John Wesley was a hard worker, and had tremendous confidence.

At age 23, he wrote to Charles, “Leisure and I have taken leave of one another. I propose to be busy as long as I live, if my health is so long indulged me.” He carried out that resolution. Bishop J.C. Ryle (1816-1900) noted Wesley’s “extraordinary diligence, self-denial, and economy of time,” remarking that “it puts one almost out of breath to read the good man’s Journals, and to mark the quantity of work that he crowded into one year.”

And his health was indeed “long indulged” him, so he remained physically vigorous for decades of productive work. One historian notes that Wesley “was gifted with a frame of iron and with spirits that never flagged… During the greater part of his career he was accustomed to preach about 800 sermons a year, and it was computed that in the fifty years of his itinerant life he travelled a quarter of a million of miles, and preached more than 40,000 sermons.” Other scholars have computed Wesley’s miles-and-sermons statistics somewhat differently, but everybody agrees the number is staggering.

Was Wesley too busy, and did he work too hard? “Nobody would have been more scornful of the idea that he needed what would now be called a ‘sabbatical;’” wrote Gordon Rupp, yet in his judgment, “nobody needed one more” than Wesley. Dr. Samuel Johnson relished any opportunity to visit with Wesley, but complained that it was impossible to have a leisurely visit with such a dynamo: “He is never at leisure. He is always obliged to go at a certain hour. This is very disagreeable to a man who likes to fold his legs and have out his talk, as I do.”

From Wesley’s point of view, though, he was maintaining a reasonable schedule, and was very careful not to let himself become overburdened or harried. In a 1777 letter, he said, “Though I am always in haste, I am never in a hurry; because I never undertake any more work than I can go through with perfect calmness of spirit.”

Indeed, having said goodbye to leisure as a young man, Wesley was simply carrying the twelfth of his rules for assistants: “Be diligent. Never be unemployed a moment, never be triflingly employed, never while away time; spend no more time at any place than is strictly necessary.”

Closely related to his productivity was his self-confidence, what one biographer called “his usual imperturbable confidence.” Though Wesley was capable of self-doubt, and could receive correction and criticism from others, his basic temperament was to charge ahead over the top of nay-sayers and discouragement. The best illustration of Wesley’s unflappability is from a Journal entry on April 22, 1779. That day, he read a passage in Tobias Smollett’s History of England: which attacked, derided, and dismissed the revival work that he and Whitefield had spent their lives on:

Imposture and fanaticism still hang upon the skirts of religion. Weak minds were seduced by the delusions of a superstition, styled Methodism, raised upon the affectation of superior sanctity, and pretensions to divine illumination. Many thousands were infected with this enthusiasm by the endeavours of a few obscure preachers, such as Whitefield, and the two Wesleys, who found means to lay the whole kingdom under contribution.

Imagine reading a history book that treated your life’s work in this way. Rather than being discouraged, Wesley was certain that by writing in this way, Dr. Smollett had undermined his own credibility, not Wesley’s: “Poor Dr. Smollett! Thus to transmit to all succeeding generations a whole heap of notorious falsehoods! Meantime, what faith can be given to his History? What credit can any man of reason give to any fact upon his authority?”

Now that’s self-confidence!

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