John Wesley and the Bishop of Exeter

Posted in Blog, Christianity, Devon
John Wesley (1703-91)

    John Wesley always claimed that he didn’t enjoy controversy.  However due to the opposition which Methodism, which he founded, generated he was often drawn into controversy.  When he began to write his second letter to Bishop Lavington of Exeter, who had compared Methodists to Papists, he described his task with a sigh. “Heavy work, such as I should never choose; but sometimes it must be done. Well might the ancient say, ‘God made practical divinity necessary, the devil controversial. But it is necessary: we must “resist the devil,” or he will not “flee from us.”’  “Oh that I might dispute with no man !” he says on another occasion. “But if I must dispute, let it be with men of sense.” Wesley’s controversial writings are brief and direct. The real issue is kept resolutely in view and not a word is wasted. Wesley was attacked from every quarter by men of all shades of thought, but his skill in argument and the strength of his cause often (but not always) made him victorious in these encounters. To his great credit, when he discovered errors of scholarship, he didn’t mention them in his reply, but sent a private letter to the writer. For this he received the special thanks of some of his most distinguished opponents.

The controversy with Dr. Lavington, Bishop of Exeter, was one of the most painful Wesley ever had. One of Wesley’s biographers, Robert Southey, considered that Wesley didn’t treat the Bishop with the urbanity which he showed to all other opponents. But we should note that Lavington, who wrote anonymously, indulged a spirit sadly unbecoming such a subject and such a writer.  The historian Veronica Wedgwood said of Lavington: that he “deserves to be coupled with the men who flung dead cats and rotten eggs at the Methodists, not with those who assailed their tenets with arguments, or even serious rebuke.” Wesley clearly pointed this out to Lavington: “Any scribbler with a middling share of low wit, not encumbered with good-nature or modesty, may raise a laugh on those whom he cannot confute, and run them down whom he dares not look in the face. By this means, even a comparer of Methodists and Papists may blaspheme the great work of God, not only without blame, but with applause, at least from readers of his own stamp. But it is high time, sir, you should leave your skulking place. Come out, and let us look each other in the face.” The controversy continued for two years. It is good to note that in August, 1762, a fortnight before the Bishop’s death, Wesley was at Exeter Cathedral. “I was well pleased,” he wrote in his journal, “to partake of the Lord’s Supper with my old opponent, Bishop Lavington. Oh, may we sit down together in the kingdom of our Father!”