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.