John Wesley - Man of One Book
H B McGonigle
Near the end of his life John Wesley wrote of how he had loved and believed the Scriptures from his earliest days. ‘From a child I was taught to love and reverence the Scripture, the oracles of God.’1 This devotion to Scripture as the Word of God characterised Wesley’s entire life and ministry. He described how ‘Methodism’ began at Oxford University in the late 1720s.
Four young men united together, each of them was homo unius libri – a man of one book. God taught them all to make his ‘Word a lantern unto their feet, and a light in all their paths.’ They had one, and only one rule of judgment with regard to all their tempers, words, and actions, namely, the oracles of God. They were one and all determined to be Bible-Christians. They were continually reproached for this very thing; some terming them in derision Bible-bigots; others Bible-moths – feeding, they said, upon the Bible as moths do upon cloth. And indeed unto this day it is their constant endeavour to think and speak as the oracles of God.2
The phrase homo unius libri, meaning ‘man of one book,’ became a description of how John Wesley made Scripture the foundation for both his faith and his practice. He didn’t mean by it that he read only the Bible. Far from it. The evidence from his Journal and his Letters tells us that he was one of the most widely read men of his century in England. From his days at Oxford University and throughout his busy life, he read widely in philosophy, history, biography, poetry, medicine and travel as well as divinity, theology and Church history. By ‘man of one book’ he meant that all other books were compared to the ONE book – the Bible. When he published the first series of his sermons in 1746, he described his own method of reading and studying the Bible.
Here then, I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone: only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his Book; for this end, to find the way to heaven. Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of lights: ‘Lord, is it not thy Word, “If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God?”… Thou hast said, “If any man be willing to do thy will, he shall know.” I am willing to do, let me know thy will.3
Almost the first thing we notice when we read any of John Wesley’s publications is how often he quoted and made references to Scripture. This is not only true of his sermons but of all his other publications as well. They are all punctuated with quotations from the Biblical books. Wesley knew the Biblical text so well that he was able to weave the very words of Scripture into all his writings. He encouraged all his ‘Methodist’ people to read and study the Scriptures diligently and he advised them in particular to pray for the Holy Spirit’s help in understanding what the Scriptures mean. To help them further he published his Explanatory Notes Upon The New Testament in 1755 and his Explanatory Notes Upon The Old Testament in 1765. These Notes were brief but helpful explanations of what the Biblical text means. The ‘man of one book’ wanted all those under his pastoral care to love and cherish and study the Scriptures as he did. He insisted that Scripture not only gives us information but that it also gives us counsel, direction and warning. We must not only read the Bible and study it and believe it – we must obey it! The Scriptures alone show us the way of salvation. When he taught and emphasised the Biblical doctrine of sanctification he constantly referred to it as Scriptural holiness. Explaining his ‘Methodist’ ministry to the Revd Henry Venn in Huddersfield in 1763, he wrote of himself, tongue in cheek, ‘If I am a heretic, I became such by reading the Bible.’4
Always practical in his counsels to his people, he directed them to read and study the Bible regularly every morning and evening. His advice, given two and half centuries ago, is still good counsel for us as we live our busy lives in the 21st century.
If you desire to read the Scriptures in such a manner as may most effectually answer this end (to understand the things of God), would it not be advisable (1) to set apart a little time, if you can, every morning and evening for this purpose? (2) At each time, if you have leisure, to read a chapter out of the Old, and one out of the New Testament; if you cannot do this, to take a single chapter, or a part of one? (3) To read this with a single eye to know the whole will of God, and a fixed resolution to do it?5
Revd Dr H B McGonigle is Senior Lecturer om Historical Theology, Church History and Wesley Studies at Nazarene Theological College Manchester
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1 J Wesley, Works, 13:272,
2 J Wesley, Works, 7:203,
3 J Wesley, Works, 5:3,
4 J Wesley, Letters, 4:216,
5 J Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the Old Testament, Bristol, 1765, p. 5.