March 28, 2013

John Wesley’s Failed Marriage

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.
  • Michael Andrzejewski

    I’ve never heard of these accusations before. Particularly damning to me is this, “Wesley left a meeting early with one Betty Disine and was seen still with her the following morning”. Just from these few instances, their marriage seems to have been nothing less than caustic. May we as ministers of the gospel shine as lights of biblical authenticity and always seek to reconcile quickly with those who we have offended or have been offended by us. Thanks for the post. It helped me realize that no one is exempt.

  • Michael Andrzejewski

    I also wonder how quickly they would have simply given in to a public divorce if it were today.

  • Joey Espinosa

    I like this article, but I think the danger is that the last line doesn’t always appear to be true. Look at the example of Wesley — he had a failed marriage but to all appearances he had a very successful ministry.

  • Rational νεόφυτος

    There’s a curious irony here, in that Wesley’s life was marked by the presence of a strong-willed, domineering woman. Wouldn’t that type of woman describe most Methodist pastor’s these days…? lol….

    • Elissa

      A woman having an opinion on the behavior of her husband is domineering?

  • Jason Kanz

    The thing that I find curious about this, if it is true, is that it seems, perhaps, to undermine the assumptions of Methodism. If I understand Wesley’s viewpoint correctly, he believed that a Christian could become completely sanctified in this life and this would argue against that, I think. One would think that the leader of a movement would conform to the standards that he proposed to be true. Thank you for sharing this.

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  • Sara Koller

    As a pastor’s wife, I have to add that this paints a very generous picture of his wife, which is probably a little too generous. As I’m sure Wesley was in fact guilty of a lot of these things, maybe all of them, I can also guarantee that his wife was probably just as guilty, if not more so, of things that we are unaware of simply because her personal life was not the one directly in the spotlight. Because a man is a pastor, his wife tends to put much higher, and sometimes unrealistic expectations on him, as though he ought to be the incarnation of Christ Himself. She may not admit it, and may not even act it out, but we are really good at hiding our true feelings, specifically pride, discontentment, and resentment. These things are just as much sin, as the outward, more noticeable ones. In my opinion, I think they are much more dangerous especially when it comes to a marriage relationship. It’s unfair to the husband, who is a pastor to be burdened like this, not only from the world and sometimes the congregation, but also from his wife. Our responsibility as a pastor’s wife, though it’s rarely easy and definitely not pleasing to the flesh, is to be a reflection of the way the Church is to relate to, serve, honor and love Christ. Maybe that’s why we get it wrong so often these days, because there are so few examples of this to be seen in the West. I appreciate this article very much, and agree wholeheartedly that it is a fair warning for pastors, but I think the ladies reading this should also be served with a fair warning as well. Ministry is tough. Count the cost! Let’s pray for and support our husbands. They have a way harder job than we think!

  • Sam Van Dyke

    Thank you for that, a strong charge.

  • BobbyJ

    Sounds like Wesley had another problem besides his marriage.

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  • Dan McGhee

    This being the case, was Wesley Biblically qualified to be an Elder? Hmmmmm.

  • Richard JeannaLynn May

    Many in ministry are “yes” people. If there are legitimate needs, we hate to turn them down even if we ignore the legitimate needs of our families. This article is a great warning. Of course, what we don’t know is the nature of Mary before the role of preacher’s wife. In our ministry, we have engaged with many women who have simply become angry because they have have been ignored while their husbands chased after their mistress named “Church.” We wrote about it at

  • Garland Files

    Good Article…I never heard of this before…a warning to all in ministry…..Family IS IMPORTANT!! COMMUNICATION IS A NECESSITY!!…Loose zippers and greedy pockets can Kill or Hinder ministries!!

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