John Wesley - A Biography

Another Wesley biography! When I was asked to review this book, that was my immediate response. Many people have written biographies of John Wesley over the years, and we should not be surprised that a few more have found their way into print in this, the tercentenary year of his birth. Undaunted, though, I opened what transpired to be a very readable book.

Tomkins begins his biography with a long view of the genealogy of John Wesley, taking into account the two main - and extremely divergent - branches of his family line. This background gives a clear impression of the complexities which worked together to produce the character of John Wesley prior to the great fire on 9 February 1709, an event often referred to as the divine providence of God saving this ‘brand plucked from the burning’ for some mighty work. Tomkins helps us to see how the human and divine worked in the young John Wesley, often in tension.

Tomkins has researched his subject well, and his bibliography records many familiar names and titles. He is, therefore, very pragmatic in his reflections. Early in the book he reflects on the reliability (or otherwise) of Wesley’s Journal. It is too easy to use this single source, revered by many a Methodist, and miss the truth. Tompkins skilfully avoids this trap, and offers some interesting opinions of his own drawing upon other writings and evidence too in order to unpack the events and incidents recorded in the Journal. This style of reflective writing in itself makes the book sufficiently different from the vast array of Wesley biographies to warrant it a place on the bookshelf.

The book is sub-divided into 24 chapters, each appropriately entitled for the subject matter to be addressed. For me, however, a ‘nice touch’ comes in the sub-titles of each chapter where Tompkins uses a phrase from Charles Wesley’s hymns to underline the feeling of what is to come. For instance, chapter 9 reflects on Wesley’s first attempts at field preaching and is entitled, ‘The Gospel in the fields (1738–39)’ with the sub-title, ‘And publish abroad his wonderful name.’ This subtle acknowledgement of the importance of Charles’ hymns to the early and growing Methodist movement is fitting and appropriate.

Towards the conclusion of the biography, Tompkins summarises his findings about Wesley in this simple sentence: ‘… if Wesley’s impact on the world has been phenomenal, it is not a mere accident, because he was a phenomenon in his own right’ (p199).

If, as Herbert McGonigle suggested in his review of Hattersley’s biography of Wesley ‘the many errors [in Hattersley’s biography] factual, theological and interpretative’ left you constantly irritated, then let me introduce you to Stephen Tompkins!