A Brand From The Burning

Dr Herbert McGonigle, Chairman of the Wesley Fellowship, reviews Roy Hattersley’s biography of John Wesley.

A BRAND FROM THE BURNING :THE LIFE OF JOHN WESLEY, Roy Hattersley, London: Little, Brown – Time Warner Books, 2002. pp. vi. 451. £20, ISBN 0-316 86020 4

This book, with its 451 pages of text, deals very comprehensively with the life and ministry of John Wesley, the revival he led in 18th century England and the Methodist Societies that emerged. Quite a lot of the important primary material has been consulted, together with some of the more important secondary texts. The author writes clearly and lucidly and sometimes very vividly. He has the art of summing up events and evaluating characters in very succinct paragraphs and some of the research is particularly well done. The reader will find the origins of the Georgia colony in America, the difficulties faced by American Methodists in the troubled years of the Revolutionary 1770s and John Wesley attempts to control the American revival from England, very fully and clearly explained. There is a particular good treatment of the growing tensions in John Wesley’s life as he sought to maintain his sincere love for, and allegiance to, the Church of England. This loyalty was tested to the full from the 1760s onwards, when there were louder and louder demands for separation coming from many Methodists, especially some of his preachers.

But the book has many blemishes, so many indeed, that its value is greatly diminished. To begin with, there are so many errors and inaccuracies relating to names, dates and places. John Wesley was not christened ‘John Benjamin’ (p.20), just ‘John,’ as the Epworth baptismal register proves. John’s first sermon was not preached at South Leigh, Oxfordshire, on 24 September 1726 (p.60); it was preached at Fleet Marston, in Buckinghamshire, on October 3, 1725. John Wesley’s Diary was not begun in 1722 (p.61), rather 1725. Jacobus Arminius did not teach his students at Leyden University that ‘Luther’s harsh interpretation of Augustine’ was wrong (p.82); it was Calvin’s and Beza’s interpretation. Charles Delamotte was not a member of the Oxford ‘Holy Club’ nor did he later take a parish in Kent (p.126). May 19, 1738 was not Charles Wesley’s ‘Day of Pentecost’ (p.135); it was May 21. The date given for John Wesley’s preaching at Islington was not in February 1740 (p.145); it was 1739. George Whitefield’s assistant, William Seward, did not die in 1741 (p.171); it was 1740. The words allegedly spoken by Bishop Butler of Bristol to Whitefield (p. 185) were in fact spoken to John Wesley. Thomas Coke was a Welshman, not an Irishman (p.363), and the very important date of John Wesley’s last open-air sermon was not November 20, 1790; it was October 7.

Listing any more of these errors would be too tedious. Likewise quite a number of the References are unreliable if the reader wants to consult the original text. These multiplied errors are the result of careless research and even more careless proof-reading. More serious, however, are some of the statements and conclusions found in the book. On page 171 the allegation is made that John Wesley preached a memorial sermon for William Seward and ‘added outrage to grief’ by preaching universal redemption. Where is the proof that Wesley preached such a sermon? Another specimen of the author’s many failures to check his sources is found on page 187. After relating how Wesley preached on his father’s tombstone in Epworth in June 1742, the author declares that ‘legend has it’ that he later said he had done more good in three days preaching on his father’s tomb than he had done formerly in three years preaching in his pulpit. But why is this described as ‘legend’? Had the author checked, he would have found that, far from it being legend, Wesley used these very words in a letter to ‘John Smith’ in March 1747; (see Wesley’s Letters, 2:96). John Bennet is described as having been ‘instantly converted by a glance from John Wesley’ (p.232). This is pure fiction. Had the author done his research a little more carefully, he would have known that while Bennet was converted in January 1742, he didn’t meet John Wesley until June that year!

Discussing John Wesley’s relations with James Hervey, the author alleges that when Hervey sent his manuscript of Theron and Aspasio to Wesley, asking for his comments, he received ‘a scathing denunciation’ (p.322). This looks like one of the many instances in the book where the writer is determined to put Wesley in the worst possible light. But the facts are very different! Wesley did reply and sent Hervey what he called ‘a few inconsiderable corrections.’ But Hervey wrote back, saying to Wesley, ‘You are not my friend if you do not take more liberty with me’ (see Wesley’s Works, 10:317). Why does this book not give the full facts before it makes accusations? On page 355, referring to the letter written by John Wesley to Lord North in June 1775, on the eve of the American War of Independence, the author asserts that the letter was ‘certainly written in the hope of gaining favour.’ Where is the proof of this? The writer produces none, and, in the absence of proof, it is nothing more than cheap jibe and insult.

Referring to Wesley’s near-death experience at Lisburn (not Lurgan, as p. 336 has it) in June 1775, the author tells how an English newspaper mistakenly reported that Wesley had died. Then we read: ‘It was easy for early Methodists to believe that Wesley had in fact died, and that he had been raised from the dead’ (p.337). Really? It is because this book has so many of these gratuitous ‘findings’ that it is of very little value in assessing either John Wesley or his work. Any event, even the fictitious, can it seems be used to portray what is described as his ‘theological intemperance’ (p.322). The author alleges that Wesley, fearing that the pupils of his Kingswood School in Bristol ‘were attracted to the heresy of election’ determined that he would ‘kill or cure - I will have one or the other – a Christian school or none at all’ (p.324). But why is the doctrine of election dragged in? Had the author researched more carefully (see Wesley’s Journal for October 5, 1765, and January 12 and 13, 1766) he would have known that Wesley was very concerned about the lack of discipline and spiritual life at the school; election had nothing at all to do with the matter.

For any reader who has some acquaintance with the letters, journals and sermons of John Wesley, the many errors in this book, factual, theological and interpretative, will be a constant irritation. John Wesley, like any other Christian leader, is not above criticism –but surely such criticism should be fair and built on sound evidence. Most of the insinuations made against Wesley in this book have neither of these foundations. Of all the flagrant allegations in these pages, and there are many, the worst is found on page 239. We are told that after John Bennet married Grace Murray, whom John Wesley came close to marrying, Bennet ‘continually feared and suspected that, despite his marriage, Wesley would persist in paying court to his wife – a suspicion probably put in his mind by Charles, who knew of his brother’s previous record with married women.’ This is deplorable innuendo. Where is the proof that Bennet suspected Wesley like this and where is the proof that Charles Wesley suggested it? But of course this book does not need proof to make allegations. The blurb on the dust jacket describes this work as ‘a fascinating account,’ but a careful and an informed reading suggests other adjectives.

Revd Dr Herbert McGonigle
Principal and Senior Lecturer in Historical Theology and Wesley Studies
Nazarene Theological College




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