John Wesley, Social Activist and Witch-Hunter

by Lorette C. Luzajic

Part 2 of the Pillars of Faith series.

The Wesley Family

John WesleyJohn Wesley was a social activist, evangelist, denouncer of “witchcraft” and a man who claimed he had raised the dead.

He was born an Anglican in 1703. The family lived in a rural village in England, where they were in the ministry, helping orphans and widows. Poverty was rampant given the sin of contraception — John’s mom was one of 25 kids and John had 18 brothers and sisters!

In 1709, the rectory where they lived caught fire, possibly set by disgruntled arsons who opposed the family’s social work. John was trapped, but managed to escape. To praise God for his life, he studied theology as a young man, and started a group called the Holy Club, dubbed “Methodist” for their structured method of bible study.

The “Whole World is my Parish”

John loved the Anglican church. Yet he opposed the exclusion of ordinary people from worship, and his opinions barred him from preaching. So he made the world his pulpit, preaching in fields and squares. John’s brother Charles helped spread The Word with a hymn we all know by heart: Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, as well as some 6000 others!

A Heretic

Pullquote: He railed against unbelief, slavery and predestination.

As an ingenious organizer and motivator, John trained and challenged “exhorters” to evangelize prisons and beyond. Advocacy for social reform drove Wesley’s work. He railed against slavery in the New World as “that execrable villainy,” refuting the still-popular idea that Africans were “lucky” to be taken from their heathen countries and brought to work for the white man. He wrote freely of heinous tortures of slaves by Christians.

Wesley also believed sinners could repent and be saved by faith. He thought Calvin’s predestination theory — that God handpicks a few souls ahead of time — was blasphemy, and Christians in non-evangelical traditions were “almost-Christians.” Sound familiar? Today these ridiculous ancient wars still wage over who should interpret God’s infallible word. “The doctrinally significant omissions are a sure mark of the apostasy of John Wesley,” writes Rev. Angus Stewart in the British Reformed Journal. Many believe Wesley was a “heretic” and preached a “false gospel.”

A Sorcerer Against Witchcraft

Pullquote: John Wesley believed in witchcraft because he practiced it himself.

Many don’t know that Wesley was quite the Pentecostal. He revved his audiences up into “holy laughter.” He worked them into a frenzy of holy spirit possession, beating the ground, speaking in tongues, or having convulsions. He used the Bible to predict the future by opening it randomly. He saw signs in the weather of God’s wrath or blessing. He predicted through dreams and visions. For all that, he railed against “witchcraft,” opposing the moderate laws that were  moving away from the gendercidal atrocities of previous centuries.

“Most of the men of learning in Europe have given up all account of witches and apparitions as old wives’ fables…. The giving up of witchcraft is the giving up of the Bible. With my last breath I will bear testimony against giving up to infidels one great proof of the invisible world, witchcraft … confirmed by the testimony of the ages,” he famously wrote.

John believed in witchcraft because he practiced it himself, unlike most of those accused, tortured and killed before him. Stephen Tomkins wrote that John believed in his own powers to perform miraculous healings, and was certain he had at least once raised a man from the dead! He also exorcised “demons.” All of this hocus-pocus began when John was young, and was certain a poltergeist was haunting the rectory. The demon was named Old Jeffery.

A Doubtful Ending

Perhaps we should not judge another for his contradictions. But in 1766, as an old man, John wrote, “I do not love God. I never did. Therefore I never believed, in the Christian sense of the word. Therefore I am only an honest heathen…!” Even in today’s progressive climate, it’s still difficult to address doubt honestly, and impossible to address it without repercussion.

Wesley lived until he was 88 — his last words were “God is with us.”

Lorette C. Luzajic is a full-time freelance writer in Toronto. She blogs at Facinating People.

  • Chris Tyrrell

    I was raised as a Methodist. This is the kind of stuff they didn’t mention in Sunday school.

  • http://misterjebsblog.blogspot.com TinaFCD

    Creepy.

  • Miguel

    Damn! I wanted to say ‘First!’

  • Reginald Selkirk

    his last words were “God is with us.”

    Catchy. That would make for a great belt buckle.

    • Haakon

      Already happened…
      “Gott mit uns” on the Nazi SS uniform belt buckle.
      Very catchy!

  • nomad

    What? Did he actually think of what he was doing as practicing witchcraft?

  • nomad

    John believed in witchcraft because he practiced it himself,

    Of course not.

  • http://brgulker.wordpress.com/ brgulker

    Interesting post.

    Preface: I’ve studied Wesley intensively and read all the major authorities on Wesley’s life and ministry. Not that it makes me an expert myself, but I’m not just grasping at straws either.

    You’re right about a few things, to be sure:

    Wesley was into the “Pentecostal,” as you put it, even though that’s a bit anachronistic. However, the frequency and extent to which those things happened throughout his ministry is hotly debated among Wesley scholars. Some scholars would argue that these types of events are isolated and infrequent, while others would argue they were a regular part of his ministry.

    “Most of the men of learning in Europe have given up all account of witches and apparitions as old wives’ fables…. The giving up of witchcraft is the giving up of the Bible. With my last breath I will bear testimony against giving up to infidels one great proof of the invisible world, witchcraft … confirmed by the testimony of the ages,” he famously wrote.

    John believed in witchcraft because he practiced it himself, unlike most of those accused, tortured and killed before him. Stephen Tomkins wrote that John believed in his own powers to perform miraculous healings, and was certain he had at least once raised a man from the dead! He also exorcised “demons.” All of this hocus-pocus began when John was young, and was certain a poltergeist was haunting the rectory. The demon was named Old Jeffery.

    On the one hand, you’re absolutely right. There’s no question that Wesley believed in the supernatural.

    On the other hand, it’s a bit more nuanced than your presentation suggests.

    There are two ways to think about “witchcraft.” From our modern, secular perspective or from Wesley’s older, “spiritual” (for lack of a better term) perspective.

    From our perspective, Wesley casting out demons, for example, looks a lot like witchcraft. Moreover, the quote you give seems to support this case as well.

    However, from Wesley’s perspective, there’s more going on. Witchcraft, from his perspective, would be some form of devil-worship, which would employ the powers of evil (devil and demons) for one’s own good. He never practiced this nor did he advocate for it (again, from his perspective).

    His quote about giving up witchcraft means giving up the bible should not be taken to mean that he practiced or advocated for witchcraft; instead, it should be taken to mean that he believed in that spiritual reality and that abandoning such belief was tantamount to abandoning the Bible.

    So, from our perspective, the differentiation between casting out demons (fighting evil from John’s) and employing demons to do one’s bidding (or practicing witchcraft from John’s perspective) is largely irrelevant. However, from his perspective, that differentiation was hugely important. In my opinion, we should at least acknowledge that differentiation before we accuse him of practicing witchcraft himself — or at least explicitly define what we mean when we use the word.

    Perhaps we should not judge another for his contradictions. But in 1766, as an old man, John wrote, “I do not love God. I never did. Therefore I never believed, in the Christian sense of the word. Therefore I am only an honest heathen…!” Even in today’s progressive climate, it’s still difficult to address doubt honestly, and impossible to address it without repercussion.

    I’m not sure how exactly you are trying to use this quote… maybe you could elaborate?

    I think I probably agree with you about at least some of your intent, but I’m not quite sure.

    It’s worth noting that throughout his life, Wesley doubted himself, his own faith, and consequently his own “salvation.” In other words, this moment of self-doubt is not at all unique, and by itself, it should not be taken as a definitive statement about Wesley’s life. Moreover, such moments of doubt are almost always countered in Wesley’s life by moments of assurance — such as the vivid description of his conversion at Aldersgate. To abstract this one isolated quotation from the end of his life without putting it in the context of his bigger struggles with faith doesn’t give the complete picture — and it certainly doesn’t prove he was a walking contradiction (which I think you are implying?).

    Anyway, a mostly fair post, but for the sake of balance, I thought I would highlight some things from a slightly different perspective.

  • http://www.thegirlcanwrite.net Lorette C. Luzajic

    Thanks everyone for your thoughtful comments on my new series. If I was unclear, the point I was trying to make was not that Wesley was really practicing ‘witchcraft’ but that he did exactly what he accused other blasphemers of doing. Differentiating between good and evil witchcraft should not be relevant, my friend, when determining intent. The thousands who burned at the stake for views that Wesley and his predecessors espoused burned for the superstitions of the church, not for actually practicing witchcraft. Today a zillion cults believe they are possessed by good spirits or people believe they practice magic of the holy spirit. I just don’t see the church dismissing this and saying “he believes it’s God’s magic.” It’s time to point out the ludicrous superstitions that drove history and time to move away from them.

    That said, I highlighted Wesley’s spiritual doubts to show he was very human, as we are, doubting, believing, trying to piece out the meaning of existence.

    Thanks,
    Lorette

  • DarkMatter

    “But in 1766, as an old man, John wrote, “I do not love God. I never did. Therefore I never believed, in the Christian sense of the word. Therefore I am only an honest heathen…!””

    If it was true, he said something many will not acknowlage
    in today’s churches, casting of demons. healing the sick, raising the death, those things of the gospels in the churches, his admission by his conscience a little late one like to think to disgress, but by today’s standard, not so.

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  • http://bobrixon.blogspot.com/ rix

    Wesley was a good Christian reformer given his era, & the strict class structure of England as reflected in the Anglican Church. Although American pentecostalism grew, for the most part, from Methodism, Wesley would not be too thrilled with the emphasis on a particular kind of self-authenticating “born again” experience, or narrow literalism, or Christian Nationalism, or megachurches. There’s always a danger in judging people by the standards of our time, as if they could imagine all the intermediate steps constituting great changes from their time to the present.

  • John Davies

    Hi
    You seem to have mixed up witchcraft and deliverance. There is no way that Wesley was either a witch or a sorceror.

    Wesley said that to give up believing in witchcraft is to give up believing in the Bible simply because it is prohibited and censured in the Bible, and if you look at, say, Mark 16 verses 15-18 you will see that Jesus’ followers are commanded to both heal and cast out demons in His name.

    Jesus was also said by people in His generation to cast out demons by the power of the devil, which He denied completely, telling them they had got it all wrong. He, like Wesley, healed and cast out by the power of God which is totally different.

    Hope this is of some use. Come back to me if you want to.

    Regards

    J Davies

  • Chuck Mader

    This article says a lot of things about John Wesley that are untrue. Most of the assertions are not supported by the historical evidence. His complete works are readily available. None of the statements you make about him can be supported by references to his actual historical works. I was kind of appalled to stumble across this article. Scandalous and exciting reading yes, true or based on the truth … no .

  • The Wrath of Oliver Khan

    Nice.

  • DorkMan

    as in Gott mit uns? hmmmm

  • DorkMan

    lol – better be a little quicker next time Miguel !!

  • http://unreasonablefaith.com Daniel Florien

    Let’s not start that game, okay? :)

  • http://brgulker.wordpress.com/ brgulker

    Of course not. He would have seen himself as the opponent of witchcraft.

  • Question-I-thority

    No. He would frame it as doing God’s work. Witchcraft is something heathens do. When my father came up and started trying to cast demons out of me (without asking me if I wanted this), I politely asked him to take his witchcraft somewhere else. My request was further “proof” of my possession.

  • LRA

    Love your handle Mr. Wrath of Khan!!! he he he!

  • Question-I-thority

    To be clear, my point is that how one frames shamanism is whether one is inside or outside the system.

  • Elemenope

    Cold fingers.

  • http://brgulker.wordpress.com/ brgulker

    Yes, the inside vs. outside thing is important.

    There’s also a difference between how one who believes in the supernatural engages it as well.

    “Witchcraft” would have meant at least one of two things for Wesley:
    1) Someone being tormented/oppressed by a demon — that would have been a symptom of witchcraft.
    2) Someone employing devils/demons for their own benefit or to torture/oppress others.

    Wesley would have viewed himself as an opponent of witchcraft, not an advocate of it. He would have seen himself as liberating the oppressed, not as oppressing them.

    From our perspective, that might seem irrelevant, but it’s a differentiation that’s important in terms of evaluating Wesley, I think.

  • Somegreencat

    I think it is clear explanation. I have known a few people who see it that way.

    I learned a few things from this and am glad you posted it.

  • http://avertyoureye.blogspot.com/ Teleprompter

    All those who shout “First” should be mocked and ridiculed relentlessly.

  • http://brgulker.wordpress.com/ brgulker

    If I was unclear, the point I was trying to make was not that Wesley was really practicing ‘witchcraft’ but that he did exactly what he accused other blasphemers of doing.

    To be fair, where do you demonstrate that he “accused other blasphemers” of practicing withcraft?

    You’ve claimed that he was quite “Pentecostal,” which I pointed out is debatable, but at least accurate to an extant.

    You also showed that he thought Calvinistic predestination was “blasphemy” (although you didn’t mention that by his own admission he comes “within a hair’s breadth” of it himself). But that’s different from damning other practitioners of witchcraft, isn’t it?

    To my knowledge, Wesley never condemns anyone for being “Pentecostal.” Perhaps he wrote something in terms of guidelines for how those behaviors should be practiced, but critiquing a behavior and condemning a person are two different things.

    In other words, I understand you to be saying that Wesley is a hypocrite, because he does the very thing he condemns. You haven’t shown anywhere that he condemns the “Pentecostal” behavior in which he did participate.

    Differentiating between good and evil witchcraft should not be relevant, my friend, when determining intent. The thousands who burned at the stake for views that Wesley and his predecessors espoused burned for the superstitions of the church, not for actually practicing witchcraft.

    About the latter, “Thousands burned at the stake…” I would probably agree. Definitely, many innocents were slaughtered because of the superstition of the church, and many of them never even engaged in the behavior.

    My point about differentiation of intent does matter, I think, when it comes to evaluating historical figures.

    For example, if Wesley were putting hexes on people in hopes of bringing them pain, we would have an inclination as to what his intent was — obviously, to do harm to others.

    Alternatively, if he were “casting out demons” in order to liberate a person from the evil controlling them, then we would at least know that his intentions were to help, not harm, someone else.

    From our perspective, both will seem superstitious, and if your argument is that we move from exorcisms to therapy when it comes to treating troubled people, then I’m with you 100%.

    But my impression that one of the byproducts of your analysis makes him into an unintelligent hypocrite in the process, and I don’t think that’s a fair assessment.

  • http://brgulker.wordpress.com/ brgulker

    edit:

    But my impression is that one of the byproducts of your analysis is that he appears to be an unintelligent hypocrite in the process, and I don’t think that’s a fair assessment.

  • Sock

    Those who shout first do so to annoy. So, I chose to just ignore them, and any threads in response to them.


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