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Aet. II.—Wesley and Methodism. By Isaac Taylor. London:
As the portrait painter does not need to flatter the noble and beautiful countenance, so the truly great and good man does not need from his biographer an extravagant and undiscriminating eulogiuin. For such a uiau a truthful biography is the most precious tribute and the worthiest monument. It has been the misfortune of Wesley and of Methodism, that neither the man nor the system has been (unless in the volume now before us) portrayed by a critic at once competent and impartial.
Wesley's first biographers were his grateful and admiring disciples. They wrote in the spirit in which the children of a departed parent plant flowers, with reverent and loving hands, upon his grave. Their volumes contain materials for an estimate of Wesley's character, rather than furnish such an estimate.
If Southey was not a competent and impartial biographer of Wesley, the reason certainly is not to be found in any excess of love and reverence for his subject. Wesley's evangelical faith, self-devoting piety, and burning zeal, were excellences too spiritual and heavenly to be within the range of the Laureate's sympathies, at the time when he chose the life and labours of the first methodists, as the theme on which to employ his ever active and graceful pen. In a mere literary point of view, a more competent biographer could scarcely have been wished for. His love of reading carried him through the many volumes, an acquaintance with which was necessary to the performance of his task. His literary skill was shown in the production of one of the most fascinating biographies ever written —a book which Coleridge speaks of reading for the twentieth time, and seems to have continued to read and enrich with marginalia almost until his death. But Southey writes of Wesley coldly—because with an unsympathizing heart. His bigoted churchmanship constantly restrains him, when he seems about to be captivated by Wesley's delight in doing good, and earnest efforts to save the souls of men, whether by methods regular or irregular, according to the principles defended in 'the Book of the Church.' His low and inadequate views of the Christian life completely disqualified him from judging rightly of the leading features of Wesley's character, and the chief results of his labours. Southey, the poet and philosopher, could not worthily portray Wesley the saint.
Appended to the last edition of Southey's ' Life of Wesley' is a beautiful fragment, by Alexander Knox, consisting of observations suggested chiefly by his perusal of Southey's book, and intended for his perusal. Those of our readers who are acquainted with Knox's 'Essays and Correspondence,' will anticipate from him a full-hearted sympathy with Wesley's serene and beautiful piety. Yet he also writes as a churchman, and as a churchman who in his recluse musings had been framing or imbibing superstitious theories of sacramental efficacy, which have not been without influence on the Puseyism since fully developed in the Oxford * Tracts.' If he had attempted a complete portraiture of Wesley, this superstitious bias would have given, unconsciously to himself, an inaccurate colouring to the picture. A complete portraiture Knox did not attempt. He writes only of Wesley's moral and religious excellence. Of this he speaks from long and very intimate personal knowledge; and it is delightful to read the testimony which his very heart utters. We quote a few lines from this testimony :—
'The happiness of his mind beamed forth in his countenance. Every look showed how fully he enjoyed the gay remembrance of a life well spent; and wherever he went he diffused a portion of his own felicity. Easy and affable in his demeanour, he accommodated himself to every sort of company, and showed how happily the most finished courtesy may be blended with the most perfect piety. While the grave and serious were charmed with his wisdom, his sportive sallies of innocent mirth delighted even the young and thoughtless; and both saw in his uninterrupted cheerfulness the excellency of true religion. For my own part, 1 never was so happy as while with him, and scarcely ever felt more poignant regret than at parting from him, for well 1 knew I ne'er should "look upon his like again."'
Richard Watson was first Southey's controversial critic, and then his rival as a biographer. In the latter capacity he wrote with good taste and with eminent ability. He is not greatly inferior even to the Laureate in literary skill; but he seems never to forget that he is a polemic as well as a biographer. Hence he writes like a lawyer whose brief is never out of his hand. His narrative is encumbered by perpetual controversial digressions j and when at the close of the book he might be expected to put forth his whole strength and skill in an estimate of the character of the founder of Methodism, he shrinks from the task, as if confessing that he distrusted himself, doubling whether he could write impartially on such a theme, and he substitutes various sketches, chiefly from anonymous periodical writers of the time at which Wesley died.
Our readers will remember the interest which was awakened some twelve months ago, when there appeared among the announcements of books preparing for the press, 'Wesley and Methodism,' by Isaac Taylor, author of ' Ignatius Loyola and Jesuitism.' Then it seemed that, for the first time, a biographer both competent and impartial had undertaken the task in which previous writers either had failed or attained only very partial success. In general literary ability, Mr. Taylor has, amongst living authors, very few superiors. Of special qualifications for the present work his ' Natural History of Enthusiasm' and his 'Spiritual Despotism' gave ample assurance; since Wesley had been accused of enthusiasm, and Methodism alleged (whether truly or falsely) to be a system of spiritual despotism. Here, theu, was a judge engaged in hearing evidence on both sides, and about to pronounce what seemed likely to be a just decision. In one respect only did Mr. Taylor's qualifications seem defective; that is, in personal acquaintance with Methodism. The recluse of Stamford Rivers was not likely to have attended class-meetings or love-feasts, or to have engaged in revival prayermeetings, or to have listened frequently to travelling preachers.
By education a Congregationalist, by conviction an Episcopalian, it seemed unreasonable to expect that he would write with thorough sympathy and full knowledge of a system greatly differing both from Independency and Episcopacy; yet even on these accounts, we are more likely to obtain the results of impartial consideration from him : and, all things considered, it seemed likely that we should find in the volume now before us a truthful portrait of Wesley and a just estimate of Methodism.
It is in no irreverent or self-confident temper that Mr. Taylor applies himself to his task. He well observes, that'as often as we cite another to our tribunal the sentence has a double import, and may be read off, first, as touching the party so cited, but also as touching ourselves. We decide according to our own dispositions, our principles, and moral condition.' He wishes that we should go into Methodism—'the Methodism of the past, not of the present time, 'ingenuously and modestly,' 'fairly to measure it and ourselves also with it, perhaps to gather thence some sharp lessons of humiliation.'
The book consists of four parts, in which the author discourses concerning The Founders, The Substance, and The Form of Methodism, and of The Methodism of the Time Coming. The first is the only part of the work which is biographical, and in this no complete narrative is attempted. It is supposed that the reader has acquired from other sources an acquaintance with the lives of John and Charles Wesley and their 'fellowworkers unto the Kingdom of God,' and that he needs only to have his recollection refreshed and his judgment aided, perhaps corrected.
N. S.—VOL. IV. C
To those who, like ourselves, expected a full, though a miniature portraiture of Wesley's character, as a man, a Christian, a Christian minister, and a distinguished instrument in a great national religious revival, this part of the book must be somewhat disappointing. There are but few sentences in which any attempt is made to delineate character; and they are not wrought into one paragraph, but scattered over many, and incidentally introduced. Glimpses are given us of Wesley's home, school, college; but glimpses only ; and our author then hastens to critical and somewhat controversial remarks on Moravianism; on Calvinism, as adopted by Whitefield and rejected by Wesley; and on ascetic extravagance and superstitious credulity, as ulcers in the heart of Romanism, spots only on the face of Methodism—spots which quickly disappeared when the Methodists admitted the gospel, in its grandeur and simplicity, into their hearts.
The title of the section 'Wesley the Founder of an Institute,' awakens the expectation, that in it the leading features of Wesley's intellectual character will be placed before us; but, again, we have little that is biographical. The section is an anticipation of other parts of the volume, in which the substance and the form of Methodism are specially considered. So far as we have in this section any delineation of personal character, it is striking and decisive. Mr. Taylor speaks, in sentences soon to be quoted, with the clearness, and something even of the brevity, of the judge, when he gives to Wesley the highest praise, as a master of administrative skill.
We will attempt, under our author's guidance, using freely his materials and frequently adopting his words, to present a sketch of John Wesley, as, at this distance of time, he appears to the Christian mind—to a mind delighting to discover and celebrate his excellencies, but not willingly blind to his frailties and his faults.
Born at Epworth, in Lincolnshire, of parents who, Non-conformists by birth, were Conformists from conviction, John Wesley inherited from his father the 'stern moral force and religious individuality' which marked his personal religious character and course; and from his mother • the love of order, and abhorrence of anarchy,' which are to be traced in the compact ecclesiastical constitution of Methodism.
Nurtured in the parsonage of an English parish clergyman, his mind was imbued with the truths of holy scripture, as those truths are expressed and embodied (not without some alloy of Romish superstition) in the Book of Common Prayer. He was taught classical literature at the Charter-house school, and 'as a boy learned to suffer wrongfully with a cheerful patience, and to conform himself to cruel despotisms without acquiring either the slave's temper or the despot's.' Oxford ' brought out the robustness of his intellectual structure.' As the student, and afterwards as the teacher of logic, he passed through much discipline of great value to him in later life, but logic was certainly not to him, at that period, an instrument either for the discovery of religious truth, or the detection of religious error. Oxford was to Wesley rather the sombre cell of the ascetic than the pleasant and meditative home of the student. By prayer and fasting, by readings in Jeremy Taylor and Thomas a Kempis, and, having left Oxford, by conversations with Moravian brethren on his voyage to America, and, after his return, by similar conversations in England and in Germany also, he sought 'the truth and peace,' and at length beheld 'God in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself,'' the just God and the Saviour' freely justifying the believer in Jesus. Then ' his chains fell off: his heart was free.' He was filled with all joy, and peace, and hope in believing, and from that hour to the close of his long and ever active life, his whole spirit, and soul, and body, were consecrated to the glory of God, and to the salvation of men.
As a theologian, he was clear rather than consistent, comprehensive, and profound; as a scholar, accurate rather than rich; as a writer, he draws from ' the well of English undefiled,' and might be studied by many later writers, much to their improvement, as a model of simplicity, clearness, and strength. They might learn, in the study of his more carefully composed treatises, that the language of Shakspeare, Bacon, and Bunyan has copiousness, majesty, and sweetness enough to render the new words they are so ready to coin quite superfluous. What Wesley was, as a preacher, no living witness can tell us. The results of his preaching, the seals of his ministry, and even the wild excitements which sometimes followed it, make us sure that' his word was with power.' It was power of the highest kind, not the power of impassioned oratory, speaking in every look and gesture of Whitfield; nor of splendid imagery and life-like pictorial illustration, as in the winged words of Chalmers; nor of the perfect combination of conclusive reasoning, graceful ornament, and impassioned utterance as in Robert Hall: it was the power of calm, majestic earnestness; of faith perfectly undoubting; of love to God and man, by which his mien was 'transfigured,' so that they who steadfastly listened and gazed ' saw his face as it had been the face of an angel,' and * could not resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake.'
A gift, even more important than this power as a preacher,