We have seen the edition of Wesley’s letters from 1721-1755 which Frank Baker put together; we have heard of the online collection of 138 letters that the Bridwell Library put on their website; but – until today – I did not come across an edition of Wesley’s letters that covered the entire period of Wesley’s letter writing, which was from 1721 until 1791.
John Wesley wrote his first letter at the age of 18 to the treasurer of Charterhouse, “a famous school he loved so much and owed so much.” Upon reading the letter it becomes clear that even at such a young age his style was already clear and direct, something he would only get better at in later life. His last letter he wrote on the 24th of February in 1791 (a mere 6 days before he died), to William Wilberforce, and was supposed to be a last call to keep doing God’s will and work. (Source: The Wesley Centre Online).
In 1931 John Telford edited a collection of 2,670 letters, and put together seven volumes: each covering roughly 10 years of Wesley’s long life. The entire collection of letters can also be found online, on the website of the Wesley Centre Online.
For my Master Thesis I was looking for letters written by John Wesley to his wife, Mary Wesley. I knew that they had been married from 1751 onwards, and I also knew that their marriage had not always been a stable one. Mrs. Wesley, apparently, was of the extremely jealous kind, and did not like it that Mr. Wesley would not give up keeping in touch with many female friends. Mrs. Wesley, always suspecting the worst, stole a bundle of Mr. Wesley’s letters one day and started to read them with her extreme-jealousy-goggles on. After years and years of fighting, Mrs. Wesley left Mr. Wesley, and the fight between the two lingered for years.
The beginning of Wesley’s letter to his wife he wrote on 23rd October 1759 show their instable relationship:
Dear Molly, – I will tell you simply and plainly the things which I dislike. […] I dislike (1) your showing any one my letters and private papers without my leave. […] I dislike (2) not having command of my own house, not being at liberty to invite even my nearest relations so much as to drink a dish of tea without disobliging you. I dislike (3) the being myself a prisoner in this house; the having my chamber door watched continually so that no person van go in or out but such as have your good leave…
The list goes on and on; there are 10 dislikes in total. After that, there is an equally long list of points of advice Wesley has for his wife. Even 15 years later, in 1774, Wesley found it necessary to send his wife a letter with a summary of their marriage and when and where it went wrong. This summary shows the great patience that John Wesley always had with his wife and her fits of anger and jealousy, as well as it shows the many ways Mary tried to blacken her husband whenever she could:
[…] till poor, dying T. Walsh asked me at Limerick, “How did you part with Mrs. W. the last time?” On my saying “Very affectionately,” he replied, “Why, what a woman is this! She told me your parting words were, ” ‘I hope to see your wicked face no more.’ ” I now saw you was resolved to blacken me at all events, and would stick at no means to accomplish it. 15/07/74
To be honest, it feels slightly rude to read these private matters and investigate the use of language in their correspondence.
However, I cannot wait to get my hands on the letters that Mary wrote in response, if I ever even manage to get my hands on such letters. I have contacted the Wesley Centre, so hopefully they – or somebody else – can help me out.
In the meantime, I will continue secretly enjoying the quarrels of this unfortunate couple, and can recommend anyone who is still short on a topic for their class paper to have a look at this wonderful collection of letters.
Wesley, John. 1931. Telford, John (eds.). The Letters of John Wesley, vol. 4, p. 75-76.
Wesley, John. 1931. Telford, John (eds.). The Letters of John Wesley, vol. 6, p. 100-101.
It is amazing that when reading a private letter written hundreds of years ago can still give one the feeling of being rude or a voyeur in other people’s private affairs. This topic sounds indeed exciting.