Saturday, February 19, 2011

Book Review: Winchester's "The Life of John Wesley"

It might not make much sense to review a book that's over 100 years old. It's not as if my words will send people flocking to Barnes & Noble to buy it. Nor is anyone likely to be clamoring for it. But if it's a book I've read, I feel as if I should review it.

The book is The Life of John Wesley by C.T. Winchester. My copy was published by The MacMillan Company in New York in 1906. I believe, from the copyright page, that it is a first edition, second printing book. I'm not sure where I got this book. Possibly at a thrift store or garage sale. Or maybe it was in some books given me for my son-in-law by a retired preacher. I let Richard take what he wanted the culled through the others, keeping some, adding some others to the garage sale pile. Either way, I love books, especially old books, and especially books by or about people like John Wesley.

At the time of the writing Wesley had been dead 114 years. His influence in the world had waned quite a bit. Methodism was still growing, but they weren't exactly practicing it the way Wesley recommended. Already a number of biographies had been written, maybe five or six. Why another one? Well, aside from Emerson's theory that each generation has to write for the next, adding to and somewhat replacing those of prior generations, Winchester said in his preference that early biographies were almost all done by Methodists, and so could be seen as biased. So Winchester wrote his.
It's not a long book; 293 pages, decent size font and not large pages. In fact, it's fairly short as a biography of a major religious reformer. I have not read the prior Wesley biographies, by the likes of Clarke, Watson, Moore, Southey, Stevens, Lelievre, Overton, and Telford (I guess that's eight, not five or six). I've read one or two written much later, in the 1960s or 70s. So I don't really know how Winchester's treatment differs from those who went before or came behind him.
I just know this was a good read. It's late enough in world history that the language is modern, the scholarship seems good, and Wesley's place in history was well established. Winchester spends time discussing Wesley's time, to demonstrate the impact he had: how awful social conditions were in Great Britain and Ireland when Wesley began his work, and how they changed as a result of it. I have heard it said that the impact Wesley had on English society—not just among the people called Methodists but on the Established Church and elsewhere—may well have saved England from a French style bloody revolution. I don't know if that's true, but it is true that Wesley changed England.

He wasn't the preacher-evangelist Whitefiled was. He wasn't the philosopher Johnson was. He wasn't as deep a theologian as Calvin was. But he had a combination of abilities (I believe "skill set" is the new buzz word) that embraced all of these and more, that allowed him to build a religious movement. Winchester clearly demonstrates this.
I anticipate that, as I write my small group study on the life and works of John Wesley, that I'll read more of those biographies. Anything before 1923 should be available on Google books, and I've got another one in hand I can read (or maybe re-read). Winchester's will stand out, however, as the first one I read as research for my book.

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