March 18, 2014

John Wesley’s Failed Marriage (Reprise)

by Nathan Busenitz

wesleyJohn Wesley (1703–1791) is best known in church history as the founder of Methodism. His commitment to the biblical gospel, passion for evangelistic preaching, and skill at organizing the budding Methodist movement are all notable traits. And God used those qualities to help spark the Evangelical Revival in England in the mid-18th century (a revival that paralleled the Great Awakening in North America). In that respect, there are many helpful things that we can learn from Wesley’s example.

His marriage, however, left a different kind of legacy; one which is also noteworthy, but not for good reasons.

As Methodist author John Singleton explains:

The saga of John Wesley’s marriage is a cautionary tale from the roots of Methodism that ought to resonate today with any couple so involved in church life that they fail to leave enough space for each other.

Wesley and Mary Vazeille, a well-to-do widow and mother of four children, were married in 1751. By 1758 she had left him—unable to cope, it is said, with the competition for his time and devotion presented by the ever-burgeoning Methodist movement. Molly, as she was known, was to return and leave him again on several occasions before their final separation.

Due to her husband’s constant travels, Molly felt increasingly neglected. She grew jealous of her husband’s time since he was often away. And she became suspicious of the many friendly relationships he maintained with various women who were part of the Methodist movement. Wesley for his part did little to assauge her fears.

Consequently, their marriage was a rocky one, as Stephen Tomkins’ blunt biography reveals. Here are just a few brief episodes recounted in his book:

[When Wesley left for a ministry tour in Ireland in 1758, Molly reported that her husband’s parting words to her were:] “I hope I shall see your wicked face no more.” (p. 155)

“Reunited in England, they clashed violently—Wesley refusing to change his writing habits [of sending affectionate letters to other women] and Molly accusing him of adultery and calling down on him, in her own words, ‘all the curses from Genesis to Revelation.'” (p. 155)

“Almost the sole surviving record of this marriage from Molly’s side dates from December 1760, when she said Wesley left a meeting early with one Betty Disine and was seen still with her the following morning. She told him ‘in a loving manner to desist from running after strange women for your character is at stake.'” (p. 159)

“In 1771, Molly announced that she was leaving John again. On 23 January, the Journal reports, ‘For what I cause I know not to this day, [my wife] set out for Newcastel, purposing “never to return.” I did not leave her: I did not send her away: I will not call her back.'” (p. 174)

Numerous other anecdotes could be cited. But as that final excerpt reveals, Wesley was not sad to see his wife leave. The trouble in their marriage had started just three months after their wedding, and it ended in a permanent separation. Sadly, John Wesley didn’t even hear about his estranged wife’s passing until four days after she had died.

Commenting on the tragic marriage of Methodism’s founder, Singleton brings the issue home:

The gap between husband and wife widened emotionally and physically until they reached the point of no return. If you have the opportunity to visit Wesley’s Chapel in London, you will see among the artifacts in Wesley’s house his bureau, complete with hidden compartments. It was here, at this very piece of furniture, that Molly read some of her husband’s letters to his “dear sisters” and misinterpreted and misconstrued their often affectionate and florid language. And so the fires of jealousy were fueled.

It is a sad episode, but at least it brings home to us the humanity of Wesley. On this occasion and others, the founder of Methodism reveals some of the inner turmoil taking place behind his relentless regime of travel, pastoral work and preaching. There must be a lesson there for many of us.

Indeed, John Wesley’s failed marriage stands as a sober warning to any would-be pastor or elder. For those tempted to confuse their God-given priorities, Wesley’s negative example in this area ought to be a powerful wake-up call. God’s Word sets the standard high for those who would lead in the church; and those qualifications include an elder’s home-life.

As I remind the students in my seminary classes, you can lose your ministry and keep your marriage, but you cannot lose your marriage and keep your ministry.

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • george canady

    What would have appeased her? Did she consider the cost? Was she truly saved? These are the questions of a P.K. who watch his Evangelical Methodist pastor father try and fail to please his wife and finally leave the ministry after 12 years. She is appeased and a happy Charismatic now.

    • I think should would have been quite pleased to have had a husband that loved her like Christ loved the church. A husband who, if he had to leave for an extended period of time assure her of his love and devotion to her and her alone, however it seems he did none of these things. To be clear, none of this comment was directed to your remarks about your family, but only in relation to your first question regarding Wesley and his wife.

      • george canady

        It turns out that she loves clothes, Cadillac’s and custom homes more than the Jesus of scriptures. She is now a full on “worst of the kind” Charismatic. I pray for her salvation. there are many long suffering wife’s that declare Jesus their Lord by the way they forgive. In that way no root of bitterness sets in when her pastor husband turns out to be a lesser lord. Forgiveness is the default when expectations are not met. He ,her husband, will not be her excuse on judgment day.

  • andrew

    A sad episode which suggests that churches and elders have often failed to hold celebrity pastors accountable. (Wesley’s story shares some surprising similarities with Charles Stanley’s.) Ephesians 5 applies to these men, even if the crowds think they are the most exciting to listen to…

    • allen

      Could you supply a specific source on Charles Stanley’s situation being similar? I am not attacking you but I heard the same thing last year from one of the ladies at Church. I went all over the net and spoke to individuals who attend First Baptist and no one said anything of the kind in his situation being similar to Wesley. I would love to look it over.


  • It seems to be a very tough situation to be in those positions and yet keep your marriage alive and nurtured. Billy and Ruth Graham were an example of a couple who, by the grace of God survived, and from all I have read, much of it had to do with the strength and resolve of Ruth who, after struggling in the early years with Billy’s absence, made peace with it and supported him. I believe it takes a very strong woman who is confident in her own right, to be able to survive and persevere. All these years later, we see the impact Billy and Ruth Graham have had on the world in bringing souls to Christ, each in their own right. I am grateful they both listened and heeded the call of God!

  • Todd

    Nathan what would you do as a minister and married to the most vile and wicked of women? I’m not being snarky by the way. Let me rephrase so it won’t sound combative. What would you suggest someone do who is married to someone who loathes the ministry and appears to have no affection for God?

    • Eugen

      To be in a position of leadership and teaching – as Wesley clearly was – demands qualification as an elder (see 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1). Considering these, particularly “…he must manage his household well, with all dignity…” and that leaders will be held to ‘a stricter judgment’ Wesley should have done the right thing and stepped down having been disqualified from the position he held. As John Piper once answered the painful question, “should I pursue my gift of teaching and preaching considering my wife is an unbeliever?” The answer was rightly, “No.”
      Moreover, it appears Wesley certainly dismissed Ephesians 5:25ff and instead of “laying down his life for his wife” he sacrificed her on the altar of his ministry.
      Having looked at the ministry of Wesley, he became an authority to himself rather than submitting to his church eldership. This (as in the life of Arthur Pink) leads to personal disaster, and often, shame to the name of Christ.

      • todd

        Thanks Eugen for your answer to my question.
        You seem very thoughtful and I appreciate that. Here is my concern. In evangelicalism I am finding a strict adherence to the qualifications for a pastor/elder when it comes to marriage but a more relax view when dealing with the other qualifications in 1st Tim. & Titus.
        For example,
        Jonathan Edwards or George Whitfield. (Before I begin let me announce I am Caucasian and am not attempting to
        start a dialogue concerning race relations so please if anyone responds A) race is not the issue B) neither am I contending that Edwards or Whitfield are disqualified)

        Edwards and Whitfield obviously violated 1st Timothy 3 mandate that a pastor be hospitable. (As I have argued with my atheist friends and have been corrected, those men being hospitable to their slaves in accordance to the times does not justify the biblical definition of hospitality. It may have been hospitality in accordance to the cultural times and comparison to others but it doesn’t fall in line with scriptural standards. The North American/European slave trade was a direct violation against scripture. Moses explicitly condemned this form of slavery in Ex. 21:16 & Paul explicitly condemned this form of slavery in a vice list with sexual immorality in 1st Tim. 1:9-11) They may have violated having a good report with those who are without. Once again in a cultural comparison they may shine but in harmony with scripture on this particular issue I am not sure they do.

        One last question
        Eugen, and once again I thank you for your response. John Macarthur asserts in “The Master’s Plan
        the Church” that Apostles are essentially the NT type of a prophet and that priests would be the NT type of the pastor/preacher. Working under that assumption as being true (it may not be but it maybe) if that assertion is true Mal. 2 and numerous other texts in the Old Testament consistently call the priest to repent of their sexual immorality without God banishing them from the priesthood. How would you reason those narratives?

        For those who maybe reading this and are assuming I am pushing liberal theology or I’m seeking to muddle the issue, please let me assure you that is not my intention. As Eugen said “teachers are held to a stricter judgment” and if I am to teach on this issue clarity is a must. If anyone has any books, articles, or materials that they know of that are fair and balanced while being meticulous
        with the scripture…… PLEASE RECOMMEND!!!! I have greatly benefited from the Counterpoints and Perspectives series.

        Eugen, thanks again and grace and peace to you all and it is very encouraging to live in age where with just a click of a button you can be connected to Saints.

        3rd John 2

        • Eugen

          Hi Todd,

          Thank you for your questions and I do greatly appreciate your tone. Sorry for only responding now, I have been untangled from the interwebs for a couple days. While I certainly am not an authority on this, I’ll try toss my two-cents into the can of worms we just pried open…

          I don’t think the issue of slavery and hospitality are strictly linked – the hospitality qualification is a fairly obvious requirement for a pastor/elder, as he is to live an open life, with a good reputation before his congregation especially, and by his open door and generosity, affirm the character required of him. A man who shuts his door to guests and lives a life separated from his congregation is inviting suspicion, denying the sharing and participation of fellowship that marks believers, and is usually an indicator of a life of sin – starting with pride. Remember that Paul, writing a defense of his character and authority to his congregation in Corinth (against accusers claiming that he was living a shameful life of secret sin) invites them to remember how he lived among them, interacting with them.

          Now, as much as we could argue that Edwards was a product of his time, that he treated his slaves well (some were converted under his ministry, and attended his church and having an affection for their master) there is no excusing the American slave trade – it was an utterly abhorrent and an abomination. He clearly thought they were worthy of the Gospel, and yet at the same time thought it was ethical to buy a soul for labour.

          I think the issue is that while we look back aghast that any Christian could even consider slavery acceptable, in his day, Edwards was a man ‘above reproach’ in his community. So while this is not an issue of ‘hospitality’ per se, I do believe that any Christian who deeply considered Scripture should have found it irreconcilable with godly living to own a slave who had been kidnapped, taken from his home, sold against his will for indefinite service to the highest bidder…

          On the issue of priests being a ‘type’ of the elder/pastor, it is a mistake to simply transfer everything a priest was to an elder. Moreover, if a priest fell into adultery, he would be stoned (effectively removing him from his office). The qualifications of an elder are explicit and clear, and I believe that we should stick to “the Master’s Plan” in these things particularly, as we bring people together in worship, a holy mandate that has judgement looming close by. Deviation from God’s commands here is especially serious. And as the priest who led the worship of the people was called to be holy, separate, and held to a higher standard, so are elders. Start with the clearest texts, and have them illumine the more obscure ones.

          I’m afraid ecclesiology is not my strong point, and I hope some good resources will be recommended by the far more capable guys on this blog. If anything comes to mind I’ll post!

          • Todd

            Greetings Eugen,

            Your last response was one of the most helpful, thoughtful
            and even minded post I have ever read.
            Although I disagree with you slightly on certain issues, let me first
            announce I have a major disagreement on one particular issue. This statement “I hope some good resources will be
            recommended by the far more capable guys on this blog”. I disagree your Christ-like tone and Christ-like
            response proves that there maybe guys who are as capable but its hard for me to
            fathom that there is someone “more capable”.
            Allow me to reemphasize it is extremely rare that such clarity,
            conviction, and compassion is found in one post and I thank you, Brother Eugen.

            Let me first assert some of our agreements. I agree with you that I don’t think
            hospitality and slavery are strictly linked.
            According to Acts 13
            Barnabas was either a pastor/ or teacher and he was guilty of being inhospitable
            to the congregation he formerly or presently served as their pastor in Gal. 2. I
            believe that describes a strict link in how a pastor should treat his congregants.

            Now concerning Edwards………… we disagree. History has taught me that any disagreement
            where Edwards is concerned incites emotion on his defenders and detractors and
            I do not seek to twist our interaction or the intention of Nathan’s post. By the way, I in no way am accusing or
            implying that you would be such a person.
            I repeat, that was the most thoughtful response I have read anywhere.

            I return to my original concern and maybe I can assert my
            concern with more clarity. The vice
            lists of the New Testament (1st. Cor. 6:9-11; Gal. 5:19-21; 1st
            Timothy 1:9-11 ect) these vice list announce various sins which if not repented
            of evidences the fact that one is not saved.
            However, the virtue list for pastoral qualifications (1st Tim.
            3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9) seems to
            be evangelically interpreted as the marital qualification being supreme on the
            list while the others are not adhered to as a rigidly.

            For example, you noted according to O.T. case law priests
            were to be stoned for adultery. However,
            Malachi 2 indicates the
            priests were not. Moreover, according to
            O.T. case law all adulterers were to be stoned.
            David and Bathsheba were not. (I
            doubt it was due to Nathan’s fear or even to David being king since God explicitly
            had Nathan delivered the punishment for his sin and never mentioned stoning).

            I am not advocating lawlessness. I am not advocating antinomianism. I am not an advocate of “cheap grace” or easy
            believism. My concern is there appears
            to be some inconsistencies to what we call foul in a virtue list that does not
            explicitly address one qualification being more important than the other.

            On a much lighter note Brother Eugen. Although I disagreed with certain points I
            understood your rational and your process and what was supremely evident is
            your desire for God to be glorified and your understanding that you can’t
            successfully dumb down and reach out. I
            appreciate and share your convictions. Whenever,
            I encounter a man I respect I always wonder what or who grounded that man. In short what authors do you generally read?

            Thanks Eugen

            3rd John 2

            P.S. To Nathan and
            the guys at Cripplegate I thank you also for your commitment and clarity. I own the Wordsearch 10 Bible software and it
            has been beneficial to search through your articles and cross reference them,
            in my search engine, with my other periodicals and commentaries and to receive an
            exegetical eternal approach that is articulated to our times and in laymen
            terms. God Bless the work you all

  • Ty Gardner

    Mr Busenitz, where were the elders in all this? How was it possible for Mr Wesley to continue in pastoral ministry with his home in shambles? I’m not asking this rhetorically…I’ve studied Wesley’s theology, but I haven’t studied his life. Was there really no accountability established for him?

  • Link Hudson

    It is a good lesson for choosing a spouse, too. His brother John had opposed another potential marriage and either talked him out of it or influenced him not to marry. A close friend had married another woman who he was interested in to nurse him to health. So when this opportunity for marriage came around, I’ve read he just kind of announced it without seeking the counsel of others. He should have carefully considered whether the woman he married could go for months without him and whether she could have even travelled with him. He needed a woman who was intensely passionate about his ministry, also level headed, and not jealous or violent. Maybe he could have been more careful, for example having another minister or apprentice with him while he counseled with women.

    I’ve read he kept a list of her wrongs against him written in Latin. Love keeps no record of wrongs. Hopefully he forgave her. And she him if necessary. Even if his relationships with all the women in the Methodist movement were pure, he could still have been concerned with her feelings on the issue. I wonder if his struggles in marriage contributed to some of the doubts about himself later in life. It must have been quite a difficult for him.

  • Link Hudson

    Another issue to consider is how the Bible places an emphasis on church eldership/bishopric on the man ruling his house well. That implies the existence of a house.

    We talk about ‘pastors.’ The main name for the role was renamed in the Reformation time period from ‘priest’ to ‘pastor.’ ‘Priest’ comes from the Greek word for ‘elder.’ For 1500 years or so, priests were referred to with a word derived from ‘elder’ in some of the Germanic languages like English and Germany. (The Anglo-Saxon mission is believed to have taken the terminology to the mainland in the time of the Anglo-Saxon language.) Geneva used a term for ‘pastors’ and Presbyterians and other groups copied.

    So our problem nowadays is that there is no list of qualifications for ‘pastor’ and we’ve created another role of board member called ‘elders’ in a lot of churches. (That was taken from a different kind of ‘elder’, the city council of Geneva. The early Presbyterians copied that as a church office, with both groups initially considering their pastors to be Biblical elders, and their ‘elders’ to be ‘governments’.)

    But let’s consider. “Elder” implies something about the maturity, if not physical age of the candidate. The focus is on those who are married and have stable households. Post-New Testament, the role of elder and bishop was considered to be two roles and it because a tradition for ‘bishop’ to be celibate. They associated the role with the apostles and Paul was celibate. But Paul gave instructions to Timothy and Titus about appointing ‘bishops’ who were married. In general, that should be the profile. And they should rule their houses well.

    How many pastoral search committees [not saying that’s Biblical per se] focus on how we the pastor gets along with his wife and how he raises his kids, and how faithful the children are? If deacons are to be examined or tried first, what about elders?

    Jesus taught the principle that He that could be trusted with little could be trusted with much. We see in Paul’s instructions about appointing elders the same principle. First he is faithful in his own household, then the church. If he can’t lead his own house, how can he lead the church of God? How can he be trusted with the larger responsibility if he can’t be trusted with the smaller responsibility?

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  • Nick

    “you can lose your ministry and keep your marriage, but you cannot lose your marriage and keep your ministry.” This is memorable but is it true? Is it in keeping with Scripture and experience? Wesley, after all, DID keep his fruitful ministry despite losing his marriage. And I can think of at least one Christian leader currently in ministry whose wife left him, she seems to have been to blame, and he has retained his fruitful ministry.

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