Son of a preacher

A Brand From the Burning: the life of John Wesley

Roy Hattersley <em>Little, Brown, 451pp, £20</em

The Methodists are at present thinking about uniting - or, to be quite accurate, reuniting - with the Church of England. This is something they have been periodically pondering over the past 30 years, but this time it looks as if it might just go ahead. There are one or two little things that will need to be sorted: the Methodists don't have bishops or parishes and they definitely don't hold with the idea of "real presence" during Communion, which a surprising number of Anglicans still do. But at a time when congregations on both sides are falling, it seems overly fastidious to keep banging on about difference. One Calvinist Methodist chapel in mid-Wales regularly invites my brother, a lay reader in the Church of England, to preach. With manpower - and, crucially for both sides, womanpower - at such low ebb, what does the little business of predestination matter between friends? That is why Roy Hattersley's biography of John Wesley is particularly timely. In an age when anything ecumenical seems an obvious good, and everything sectarian a clear evil, it becomes doubly important to remember that even something as benign and familiar as Methodism once seemed odd and even downright dangerous.

John Wesley and his hymn-writing brother Charles were passionately attached to the Church of England, which is why they criticised it at every opportunity. The bookish sons of a Lincolnshire clergyman, it was almost inevitable that they would be ordained. But while other young men of the 1720s chose the Church because it offered a clear career path and a decent life (think of all those Georgian rectories), the Wesleys held to the quaint idea that they might actually have been called to serve God and save souls. Disgusted with the lax practice they saw all around them, they launched a programme of moral rearmament aimed at revitalising the Church of England from within. Called "the Methodists" because they ran a tight ship (John Wesley in particular loved nothing better than drawing up rules and putting people's names down on rotas) their aim was to bring the gospel to the growing number of urban communities that were poorly served by the Established Church.

To this end, John Wesley got himself a horse and set about criss-crossing the country, preaching ex tempore wherever two or more were gathered together (although mostly his audiences ran into hundreds, which is what made them so frightening to resident clergy and JPs). At one point, Wesley was going from London to Bristol and back again every single week. The trick, he maintained, was to keep the horse on a long rein so that you could read as you went. Given that he was riding for up to 18 hours a day, he got through an awful lot of books. He also squashed his testicles on more than one occasion.

This last point may well have cramped his style. For Wesley's weakness was women. His life was marked by a series of sex scandals that went some way to discrediting him both within the Methodist Connexion, as it was properly called, and to the delighted world at large. What usually happened was this. A vulnerable young woman would come to Wesley asking for spiritual guidance. He would lavish attention on her, not to mention a stream of intimate letters. There would be some kissing, hair-patting and, perhaps, more. Or perhaps not: one theory has it that Wesley was impotent. He would then fall ill and the woman in question would nurse him devotedly, perhaps even moving into his house. Just at the point when a proposal of marriage seemed the obvious next step, Wesley would withdraw in a flurry of hurt feelings. Often the woman went on to marry someone else, at which point Wesley would become interested all over again. Quarrels with new husbands were his particular speciality.

This pattern of emotional ambivalence had its roots in Wesley's relationship with his mother, the prickly, admirable Susanna. Despite giving birth to an unfeasible number of children, she maintained a fiercely independent intellectual and spiritual life. During her clergyman husband's extended absences in London, she ran prayer meetings that got everyone, including the curate, on edge about their legitimacy (it was one thing to get together informally for worship with your neighbours, quite another to organise something that felt and sounded like a "conventicle"). It was no wonder that Wesley was consulting his mother on points of principle, especially concerning the finer nuances of Moravian theology, until well into middle-age.

If Wesley had been able to find a wife like Susanna, then all might have been well. But, unfortunately, he made a disastrous choice in Mary Vazeille, a widow whom he married in 1751, probably on the unromantic grounds that she had £300 a year and was well past childbearing age. She, quite naturally, was irritated by his habit of conducting intense and barely platonic relationships with other women.

In response to Wesley's emotional absences, Mary went through his pockets, read his letters and periodically beat him up. Sometimes she altered his writings before sending them to other clerics, in the hope that they might denounce him as a heretic. Occasionally, she was merciful and left him for a while, although she was always careful to return. And then, after 30 miserable years together, Mary Wesley died. Wesley lived for another ten years, during which he witnessed, without perhaps being quite able to acknowledge what was happening, the one thing that he dreaded most - the formal separation of the Methodist Connexion from the Church of England.

Roy Hattersley has written a full and fair biography of a man whom it is possible to admire but harder to like. He is particularly clear-sighted about the nature of Wesley's theology, which was essentially conservative, and always pragmatic. Only in England, says Hattersley, could the most influential religious figure of the age be someone who contented himself with refining, rather than challenging, doctrines of orthodoxy. Wesley's genius was concerned with organisation, not ideas. Whenever he concentrated on matters of principle he got himself, and everyone else, into a hopeless muddle. Although he was very big on God's will, it was noticeable how often the Almighty turned out to be thinking along exactly the same lines as Wesley at any given moment.

Hattersley is right, too, to point out that, in its original incarnation, Methodism was neither a democratic nor a particularly social mission. Wesley found it impossible to delegate, even to his devoted brother Charles or to the affable George Whitefield, the man who was eventually obliged to take the Calvinist Methodists off in another direction entirely. Nor was Wesley particularly worried about the problems of the newly emerging working class. He preached his ministry to miners, bakers and grocers simply because these were the people who were left untended by the Established Church.

As a passionate monarchist, he did not want to encourage systematic social or political reform. Clothing the naked and feeding the poor was about as far as he went. It would not be until the second half of the 19th century that Methodism would take its distinctive place on the liberal-left edge of the urban and, increasingly, suburban landscape.

Kathryn Hughes is a biographer and critic

This article first appeared in the 14 October 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Why George no longer loves Tony