The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 15. John and Charles Wesley
Of John Wesley himself, as a writer, it need only be said that he was, with the pen as with the tongue, a master of direct English and simple strength. Southey chose a passage in which he summed up his chief answer to the Calvinists, as “the most remarkable and powerful in all his works” to illustrate his theology. It, also, illustrates his style. A few sentences will suffice to show the kind of writer he was. His manner is eminently that of an orator. The sentences are short, the points clear, the assertion incisive, the repetition emphatic: “Here I fix my fort”—“Let it mean what it will it cannot mean that”—“Hold! what will you prove by Scripture? That God is worse than the devil? It cannot be.” Here we have the familiar trick of the special pleader. He asks his opponent a question, supplies an answer on his behalf, and then knocks him on the head for it. This manner has the appearance of logic; but, often, a fallacy lurks behind. As a theologian, whatever else he is, he is smart, direct, deeply serious and utterly uncompromising.
But Wesley is not only remembered by his theological writings and his work as an evangelist. His Journal has all the charm of a pious Pepys, and, now that it is being published as it was written, the world can see through it closely into the writer’s heart, as in the curious account of his love for Grace Murray. In pathos and descriptive power, its simple narrative shows the rugged force of Walt Whitman: the word is not sought for, it comes naturally, and, one feels, is inevitable. Whether one reads the Savannah journal, with its marvellous record of faith, inconsistency and courage, or the unvarnished record of the long years of laborious ministry, one meets the same straight-forward, clear-eyed observer, enthralled by the Divine vision which he saw and tried to make known among men, yet full of humour and observant, to the very minutest detail, of everything that concerns the daily life of mankind. When he scolded or denounced, he thought that he was showing “that childlike openness, frankness, and plainness of speech manifest to all in the Apostles and first Christians.” He had no doubt of himself, nor any of God’s constant guidance and protection. This gives to his everyday life, in all its realism, a touch of romance, which shines through the stupendous record of what he did and said. In the Journal, we see how English divinity was breaking from the trammels of its literary convention, and the deliverer was John Wesley. If we judge the Journal with the life which it lays bare, it is one of the great books of the world.
No one would call John Wesley a man of letters. He had no horror, such as Hervey’s, of literature which was not spiritual. He read Prior, and Home (of Douglas fame), Thomson, Lord Chesterfield and Sterne: he delighted to quote the classics. But he had not the taste for “style” which was born in his brother Charles. John was no poet; but Charles, among his six thousand hymns, has left some verses that will never die. In his case, we see that, after all, methodism was not entirely apart from the literature of its day. He reminds us, again and again, of his contemporaries, especially, perhaps, of Shenstone, for whose rather thin sentiment he substitutes a genuine piety. He can be virile, felicitous, vivid; if his sweetness often cloys, he has a depth of feeling which frequently brings him within the ranks of the poets. Though he might feel strange in the company of Crashaw or George Herbert, of Newman or Keble, Christina Rossetti would take him by the hand. In English literature, so long as the hymns of Charles, and the Journal of John, Wesley are read, methodism will continue to hold an honoured place.