Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Methodism founder Charles Wesley's secret code diary cracked by Anglican priest

Charles Wesley is one of the most interesting of all the early Methodists, not least because of the kind of relationship he had with his older brother John. Some long time ago, Richard Heitzenrater and other fine Methodist scholars decoded and translated John Wesley's secret diary, and now the same has been done to Charles Wesley's diary. You can read the story in the Times, and here is the string----


A professor from Liverpool Hope University, Kenneth Newport, has done the decoding and translating of the some 1000 handwritten pages, that cover the years 1736-1756. The diary begins with his time in Georgia in Savannah and elswhere and it provides various clues as to why Charles so opposed John Wesley's marriage to Grace Murray, and how that whole mess (which included Charles kidnapping Grace and forcing her to marry another Methodist!) put an enormous strain on the relationship between the brothers. The work of John Tyson and others has opened up the study of Charles Wesley in recent decades and he deserves further scrutiny not only for his enormous hymn output (over 6,000 hymn texts)but for the role he played in birthing the Methodist movement. This diary will add grist to the mill and help us understand this crucial figure in the English revival of the 18th century.

Here is a juicy little sample of one page from the diary translated:

"Monday, March 22 [1736] While I was persuading Mr Welch not to concern himself in this disturbance, I heard Mrs Hawkins cry out: “Murder!” and walked away. Returning out of the woods, I was informed by Mr Welch that poor blockhead Mrs Welch had joined with Mrs Hawkins and the Devil in their slanders of me. I would not believe it till half the town told me the same, and exclaimed against her ingratitude."

Oh those Wesley boys and their tempestuous relationship with women!


Ted M. Gossard said...

uh, Interesting. I wonder how Susana Wesley fits into that. Maybe no one could measure up to her in their minds. Though I do understand that Charles had a good relationship with his wife.

Am enjoying your book, "The Living Word of God: Rethinking the Theology of the Bible", particularly the chapter, "The Art of Reading Scripture in a Postmodern World." But the entire book is helpful. And certain parts have been most helpful to me.

Ricky said...

Dr. Witherington,
I was wonder if the secret diary of John Wesley has ever been published? And if you knew how to get ahold of it?


krus said...

Um, yeah. There's just one problem. The Wesley brothers encoded their diaries for a reason; they were private. They didn't want anyone to read them.

Historians and gawkers may well glean some juicy tidbits from these decoding efforts, but their work crosses the line into a space normally reserved for the paparazzi and peeping toms.

Not unlike the recent betrayal of Mother Theresa, if there's a book or to be published, anybody's private business is fair game.

Pastors, Sunday school teachers, and spiritual directors can talk about the benefits of journals and private prayer time all they like, but why should I risk it if it's in print soon after I'm dead?

As long as we're willing to devour these salacious morsels, we're the Christian equivalent of 12 year old boys who find a copy of Hustler behind the gym.

We may well learn a few private details about the Wesley brothers, but the same could be said about the crew that gave us pictures of Britney getting out of a limo.

I'll take a pass thanks.

BTW, I'm a huge fan ;]

Ben Witherington said...

First of all yes, John Wesley's Diary has been published. There is a popular version out by Heitzenrater many years ago, and the critical edition of Wesley's works includes this, published by Abingdon. Thirdly, I think from a historical point of view, its alright to publish a diary that is now 270 years old. The right to privacy expired a long time ago on that one.


Spud said...

I read the title to this post and thought I had accidentally stumbled upon The Onion!

Leslie said...

I've got to agree with Krus on this one. You say the right to privacy expired, but what's your basis for that? Why should privacy have an expiration date? It just kind of seems like there's nothing sacred these days.

I think I should request to be buried in the middle of nowhere, and make sure I never keep a journal of any sort. I doubt if I'd be a person of interest to future historians, but at least that way I won't become one.

Whozep68 said...

While I'm not a methodist, I loved the stories of John Wesley when I studied him in my Church in Modern Europe Class. He is by far one of the most interesting figures in all of history.

I love hearing Charles' explanation of John's love lorn in Georgia. Way to bring a smile to my face!

Ben Witherington said...

The answer to this question should be obvious.

There is no 'right' to privacy in the Bible. What you have is a responsibility for 'accountability' to your brothers and sisters in Christ.

As John Wesley said, we should confess our sins to each other, not merely to God, and keep a short account with both. Read Wesley's sermon the "Cure for Evil Speaking" in which he says we should neither say nor write anything 'evil' or salacious etc. of any absent person, even in a secret diary, because God is watching! The whole point of the Methodist band meetings was full disclosure in a confidential setting, so all sins are confessed each week. There is a big difference between a 'right to privacy' and a right to confidentiality in some contexts.

In short, Christians don't have private lives vs. public lives. Their whole lives are of course personal, and are supposed to be a personal witness for the Lord always.

A Christian has a right to confidentiality in certain matters and for a certain period of time, but there comes a point where no good or necessary purpose is served by such an approach, and indeed more good is served by the opposite--- full disclosure.

We in America are used to thinking of things like a right to privacy and a right to retire with a pension and all that sort of thing, but in fact, these are not Christian ideas. A Christian is at no point and at no time a private person unaccountable to anyone else.


Unknown said...

"Oh, for a thousand tongues to wag..."

Rev Tony B said...

I can warmly recommend the 2006 biography of Charles Wesley written by Gary Best, then headmaster of Kingswood school in Bath. It was the first original piece of research into Charles for many years, using the original materials rather than rehashing other people's research. Charles comes across as an engaging man, often frustrated by the excesses of his big brother, but who behind the scenes was at least as responsible for the success of the revival as John. It was Charles who thought of the Holy Club; he was the first to try open-air preaching, and better able to maintain the balance between the different schools of thought in the movement. Not to mention 6,000 hymns and a very happy marriage.

John stole the limelight then, and has continued to do so in most folk's understanding of Methodist history. I rather think he owes his little brother a great deal, and this book goes some way to acknowledging that debt.

A. C. Mattern said...

Certainly there is a certain amount of confidentiality that we need to practice when the living may still be affected by it, but I would imagine that those who are in the presence of the Lord aren't as concerned with privacy as much as we may want to cling to it.

Otherwise I'm sure Adam, David, Paul and a whole host of others would prefer us not to read our bibles too closely. There's much to learn and enjoy from the lives of others and their past is their gift to us.

C# said...

actually read it on the technology news today!

krus said...

No question, the Wesley brothers had access to a fire place, or at least a trash can. One way or another the diaries survived. In the end their codes acted as a sort of time capsule, intentional or otherwise. Their lessons may well be our lessons.

Where accountability is concerned, I think that's another matter. Accountability should happen in relationship, perhaps covenant, and always mutual submission. Love should be at the heart of accountability, not curiosity.

Maybe I'm ranting here, because I'm still sore about the Mother Theresa thing. The woman asked that her writings be destroyed, but someone deemed them fit for public consumption. What's the point of the 270 year rule when we don't follow the 5 year rule?

If we need to read a spiritual journal or diary we already have plenty of submissions from people who wanted us to read them.

Sadly, many people arn't looking for lessons or wisdom or spiritual food. They're looking for the nasty bits, and, as C.S. Peirce already told us; "the public prefer the cheap and nasty."

krus said...

c#, thank you for the informative and timely link.

Here's a great bit of edifying data:

"The diaries reveal previously unknown information, including a sex scandal. Wesley wrote that after joining his brother John in an American colony, he fled home amid allegations that he had intercourse with a colonist after trapping her husband under a tree."

A few academics and Wesley aficionados will comb through the boring sections about tea, the weather, and arminianism. "I read it for the articles" they'll say. Everyone else will flip straight to the centerfold.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Dr. Ben,
I'm wondering from your book, The Living Word of God: Rethinking the Theology of the Bible, and in light of this post by RJS, who is a professor I believe at the University of Michigan, a scientist, who wrote this post at >Jesus Creed in reference to a book partly authored by Scot McKnight...

I'm wondering whether you think it's viable or possible to hold to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden as being symbolical for what happened to early humankind in disobeying God and becoming sinners. Here's a short position posting by an evangelical in the UK from a site dedicated to helping Christians and nonbelievers (Scibel)- It takes the tack that the story is something probably like true myth, God's word to us about the Fall. Related to that is whether or not one can hold to macroevolution as a Christian with a high view of Scripture and truth. It's obvious one can, as Allan R. Bevere has stated, as I remember it, that he does. I was looking at your commentary on Romans, and notice you don't address the issue of whether or not Adam and Eve were historical persons- as in the first man and woman, at least not from my look at it so far (I'm getting my own copy, soon).

I know of particularly one atheist, Maalie, who has shown interest and even respect for the Christian faith and gospel on at least one blog (in which the Christians, including a lady scientist whose blog it is- hold to a literal view of Genesis 1-3), but ends up ridiculing it because his understanding of science makes literal accounts of Adam and Eve in the Garden, along with the story of a global flood along with animals in the ark, impossible according to scientific understanding. He's a former professor and now retired, but still does some scientific work, especially with reference to birds, their migration, etc. He believes in evolution; he's in the line of mainstream Science.

I'm not asking you to read all these links, but if you would, just to give me something of your take on this, or a book or books that might be helpful.

I was helped by your book on Scripture (mentioned above), as some of my reading on "Jesus Creed" has raised issues that I've been unable to resolve.

I didn't know how to contact you, so I did this. Sorry it's not related to the post.

Thanks for all your work in the Lord, which so many of us immensely benefit from.

Ted (Gossard)
email: tedebg73@gmail.com, or here: Email

Ben Witherington said...

Boys, Boys. There was no John Wesley sex scandal. He refused a woman communion he had previously been seeing, and this caused her daddy the magistrate to get angry, and John skedaddled. That's all.