John Wesley, the history of Methodism, and the clash of biographies

August 21, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, writers, writing.

Most of what happened to Methodism after John Wesley‘s death in 1791 was highly predictable.

Wesley had created Methodism, a religious movement within the Anglican Church, in the 1740s by his interpretative theology, his going outside the church walls to preach to those neglected by the church, and by forming “classes” of his followers who would meet regularly, hold each other accountable, and devote themselves to advancing the love of God.

Despite a great deal of persecution — much of it in the form of physical violence directed at these classes and at Wesley himself — the Methodist movement achieved phenomenal growth. Wesley was tireless in his efforts to spread his theology. He was constantly traveling and constantly preaching. His followers numbered more than 130,000 in Great Britain and America when he died.

Wesley was also constantly writing. By the time he died at the age of 87, he had produced more than 400 books and publications. His own papers, which he collected late in life, constituted 32 volumes.

He also stayed firmly in control of the Methodist movement and tolerated no opposition.

So, when he died, not surprisingly, there was a power vacuum, and there were those who rushed to fill it. At the center of the struggle was control of Wesley’s papers and who would write his biography.

Wesley’s heir apparent was Thomas Coke, but Coke was in America when Wesley died. Coke was allied with Henry Moore, another minister favored by Wesley, but Moore was in Bristol at the time of Wesley’s death. Before these men could obtain the papers, the executors of Wesley’s will handed them over to John Whitehead, a Methodist minister who had served as Wesley’s physician.

Coke returned to London as soon as he could and with Moore asked Whitehead for the papers, but Whitehead refused, saying they could have them when he was finished writing Wesley’s biography. The idea of the biography was an important one because not only would it be a best-seller (Wesley had become one of the most venerated men in England by the time he died) but also because it would establish Wesley’s legacy and be influential in the future of the movement.

Coke and Moore continued with their efforts to get access to Wesley’s papers by appealing to the annual Methodist conference, and the war of words spilled into the civil courts. Even without access to his papers, Coke and Moore began working on a biography, Life of Wesley, and in just a few weeks they completed the manuscript and rushed it into publication in April 1792. By June it had sold 10,000 copies and was taken into a second printing.

It took Whitehead more than two years to complete the first of his two-volume history of Wesley’s life, which was published in 1794. Sales of that book were tepid.

Historian David Hart explains all of this in an article for the journal Methodist History, and he also outlines the outcome of this controversy for the Methodist Church. The article can be found here:

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