Samuel Wesley Part II

In this episode, we meet Samuel Wesley, learn about his family and various details about his life and poetry.

Episode 27

Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s episode: Samuel Wesley Part 2.

In Episode 25, we talked about the life of Samuel Wesley. Unlike his wife Susanna, Samuel was a published author. He was prolific in an unsystematic way. Instead of attempting to systematize the full measure of his work, in this episode, I hope to offer two close readings of his work.

Most of his work was written early in life, as Arthur Torpy notes in his dissertation on Samuel Wesley, “most of (his) writings were produced before he was forty-five years old when neither John nor Charles had yet been born. Later published writings were minimal due to increasing parish concerns, his crop failures and domestic fires, along with the added financial pressures of a large family which kept him from publishing as much as he had earlier in his life. He also concentrated on underwriting the education of Samuel, John, and Charles as well as working on his Dissertationes in Librum Jobi.”1

Dissertations on the Book of Job, a work entirely in Latin, was his most formal theological work. We will discuss that mammoth book at the end of this episode.

Early in his career, though, in 1703, he published a well-received treatise on communion titled “The Pious Communicant Rightly Prepar’d; or a Discourse Concerning the Blessed Sacrament: Wherein the Nature of it is Described, our Obligation to frequent Communion Enforced, and Directions given for due Preparation for it, Behaviour at, and after it, and Profiting by it.”

The title is long but it also functions as a thesis statement of sorts. We know precisely what we are getting into with Samuel Wesley. John Duns Scotus was known as the subtle doctor. No one would ever accuse Samuel Wesley’s prose of being subtle.

He begins the work by setting the scene.

“When so many excellent Treatises have already appear’d on this Subject, it may well be wonder’d why, after all, so mean a Pen should attempt to weighty an Argument; since ’tis almost impossible to say any thing New upon it, and the mildest Question a Man must expect, who now handles it, would be of the same Nature with that of Job to his Friends; Who knoweth not such Things as these?2 But one that is resolved to write a Book, seldom wants an Excuse for doing it, and will be ready to draw one, even from the Number of those which have gone before him, since this might have hinder’d others as well as him.”

All one sentence. I even had to cut it off. On the next page he lays out his roadmap for the treatise.

What I have aim’d at in this Manual, is to be as clear and methodical as I could, both in the Description of the Nature of the Sacrament, and the Occasion and Ends of its Institution, and in the Directions for our Behaviour in relation to the Reception of it. I have endeaver’d to give a rational and distinct View of it in all the Notions, wherein Learned and Pious Men have represented it: To press home the indispensible, tho’ much neglected Duty of frequent Communion, which I am persuaded would highly conduce to a general Reformation of Manners, and to repair the Decays of Christian Piety amongst us.”3

We can see one of the clear differences between Samuel’s theology and his wife, Susanna’s. Susanna understood doubt and the need for reasons to believe. In her apologetic letters to her children, though, she delves more deeply into the depth and who God is. Samuel assumes the veracity of Christianity and the importance of a Christian society. In letters to John, he doesn’t seek to justify God but to justify the Church of England. In one such letter, Samuel writes: “If you have any scruples about any part of revelation, or the scheme of the Church of England, which I think is exactly agreeable to it, I think I can answer ‘em.4

In this world of the established faith that cannot truly be questioned, the behavior of people as centrally important and communion can aid behavior, so it is a good action.

Another aspect strikingly missing from Samuel Wesley’s treatise on communion is grace. In the introduction, he writes:

THE End of every Christian Duty, is to make us still better and holier :The height of our Perfection, consists in the Imitation of God : unless we know God, we cannot be like him; and the clearest Revelation of his Nature, and of his Will is left us by his Son, in his Holy Gospel : The Blessed Sacrament of the Body and Blood of the Lord, is an Epitome of that Gospel, and a lively representation of that Gospel.5

Concerning the nature of the sacrament, Samuel Wesley uses the language of memorial, made prominent by Ulrich Zwingli during the reformation. There are benefits to be had, but they are representations. He writes: “the shedding of our Saviour’s Blood, is only Sacramentally actually and properly poured forth, as it was on the Cross, whereon he was once offered, to take away sin.”6 We can see that Samuel’s theology of atonement come out in this language. The sacrifice was Jesus’s once for all. The sacrament is a sign pointing to that act, but it is not a new sacrifice on its own. He calls it “not a bare Remembrance…’tis a lively Scheme and Figure of what [Jesus] endur’d.”7. But as critics of Zwingli pointed out, a memory is only thus a memory.

Samuel Wesley then highlights the connection between the Eucharist and the Jewish Passover. His connections are not strong, but they are made with the best of intentions up to the measure of the scholarship of his day.

His bias against Roman Catholic theology is found here, as well, as would be most common in his time. He writes, “Bread and Wine they are still after the Consecration; not common but Sacred and Sacramental. They are changed in their Use, but not in their substance."8 But even here, there is an assumption about what Sacred means, there is not a description. Wesley defines communion more in the negative than in the positive. He can’t bring himself to include the work of Reformed theology, influenced by John Calvin, that informed the ministries of the dissenting churches from where he came, so he is left with a High Church Zwinglianisn. He goes to pains to follow the No True Scotsman fallacy to the nth degree with this. “The Symbols, the very Bread and Wine, are in a figurative, typical, and sacramental Sense, the Body and Blood of our Saviour. They are more than a bare or ordinary Figure; they do really and actually…represent and exhibit Christ’s death unto us”.9

He says that there is “a real spiritual presence of the Body and Blood of our Saviour, to every faithful Receiver. Christ, as to his Divinity, is every where, and more effectually and graciously present to his own Institutions, and will make his promise good, to be with his Church to the End of the World.”10. Christ institutes the church and it is in the church that the effect of communion is made, but only to those who are worthy.

Later in the treatise, Samuel Wesley addresses the idea that Judas himself partook of the Lord’s table, but then he defines faith in what he calls “the largest sense,” but in a way that I see as quite narrow: faith is “practical assent to the whole Scheme of the Gospel, and consequently a ready and firm Belief of its Revelations, Threatnings and Promises, accompanies with sincere Resolutions and Endeavours to obey its Commands. Tho’ the more peculiar object of Faith in this Sacrament must be the Merits of our Saviour, and that Pardon which he purchased for us by his own Blood.”11

The work continues to focus on our obligations, self-examinations, and what happens before and after communion, but we see already in this work the institutionalized and stilted established religion out of which John Wesley and Methodism emerged. Faith is a duty. Society is good and people should change to live better in society.

In his edition of Wesley’s Sermons, Albert Outler does not cite this treatise directly. A few years after Samuel’s was published, Robert Nelson’s Companion for the Festivals and Fasts of the Church of England came out and sold thousands of copies. In 1707, Nelson published a revision of one of the chapter’s titled The Great Duty of Frequenting the Christian Sacrifice.12 Outler notes the heavy similarities between John Wesley’s sermon, the Duty of Constant Communion, and Nelson’s work. Outler’s only mention of Samuel Wesley concerns a footnote about language. 13 Wesley does not cite his father. John Wesley’s conclusion of the sermon even seems to speak directly against his father. “It has been particularly shown, first, that unworthiness is no excuse, because, though in one sense we are all unworthy.14

As mentioned earlier, Samuel Wesley’s volume of production slowed as he aged. The great work took up a significant portion of his time and life, Dissertationes in Librum Jobi was published in 1736 in London after his death. It was paid for by a subscription method and the book includes a list of subscribers who paid for the publication, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, numerous Lords and Ladies, and John and Charles Wesley.

Few secondary sources at that time or after engage the Job book. As far as methodist histories and Wesley studies go, it functions more as an albatross or a white whale that Samuel spent his life pursuing, rather than a work of substance. Henry Rack’s great biography of John Wesley doesn’t mention it. Martin Schmidt’s biography of John, originally in German, offers a summary of the argument15 and is the only secondary account I have found of actual engagement with the work.

I should confess that I have not read it all in full, but I have simply attempted, with my modest Latin, to come to a deeper understanding of it than I have seen elsewhere. If Samuel Wesley did indeed neglect Susanna for the production of this albatross, as I have heard claimed, we should at least understand what breed of albatross it is.

Before a preface or introduction of any sort, Samuel Wesley lays out the 53 unique dissertations or examinations he is going to perform. I am going to read them in full because they give a sense of the breadth of what he is trying to accomplish.

  1. Whether this story is true, or merely poetic and parabolic
  2. Author of the book
  3. On the drama of Job
  4. Digression on pastoral song and divine love in the Holy Scriptures
  5. On the images in Job
  6. Parallels to Homer
  7. On Job’s name or names
  8. On the posterity of Joktan
  9. On the posterity of Canaan
  10. On the posterity of the Phoenicians or the Canaanites
  11. On the nations being overthrown by Chedorlaomore, and some others among the SS. mentioned
  12. On the sons of Abraham and Hagar
  13. On the triple state of the Pentapoles
  14. Allusions in the book of Job to ancient things and histories before the entrance of Israel into the land of Canaan
  15. History of Edom
  16. Periplus of the Red Sea or Arabian Gulf
  17. Periplus of the Erythraean Sea
  18. Arabian Rocks
  19. On Arabian Deserts
  20. On Felix of Arabia
  21. Digression on the Magi of the Christian
  22. On Chamo, Cush, and its descendents
  23. On the triple Idumiea
  24. On the Hinges of Heaven and Bene-Kedem
  25. On the children of Job
  26. On the wife of Job
  27. On the friends of Job
  28. On the enemies of Job
  29. On the country of Job
  30. On the time of Job
  31. The knowledge of job in military arts
  32. The jurisprudence of Job
  33. Metals
  34. Gems
  35. Other Job tragedies not reviewed in the book's prologue
  36. Constellations and meteors
  37. On Phonecia
  38. On the Behemeth and the Leviathen
  39. On the origin of evil
  40. On Idolatry
  41. on Sabis
  42. On Zoroastrianism
  43. Poetic descriptions of animals
  44. Ophiolatria
  45. On Sheol
  46. On the magic of the ancients
  47. On Baalam
  48. Respectively on Holy Scriptures, Pesians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Saxons
  49. On the way of writing among the ancients
  50. On Prison and Resurrection
  51. On the recent way of interpreting the scriptures
  52. On the faith of Job and Elihu
  53. Some texts from the LXX have been turned with great caution and with their additions to the end of Job

When I say it was written in Latin, this isn’t a joke. Here is the first sentence: “Cum diu in libro Jobi versatus suerim, eumque saepius,16 Okay, I have to stop there because Samuel Wesley is long winded in Latin, as well. His tone in Latin, though is lighter than it is in English. Wesley writes, “While I was engaged for a long time in the book of Job, I read it in the first place in the vernacular, then in the Greek LXX Codex, when you compare both of them for my own model with the original, something always seemed to me to flash out of each lesson and fresh and impressive: and therefore at length I began to engage my opponents with some more worthy observation.17 He then speaks of the other languages he knows and sources and resources he has scoured: the Vatican Septuagint, the Alexandrian Septuagint, Saint Ambrose, a Chaldean paraphrase, a Syriac and Arabic version, and then more Latin commentators. The work itself contains Greek, Hebrew, and these other languages in type faces that were surely costly to acquire and use.

He continues by road mapping much of his argument and then concludes the introduction by relating his task to that of a laboror in the field, havesting wheat or grapes, who comes to the field after others have already worked. That is, he is picking off the spare grape or kernel, but instead of just scraps, he says that it came out like a river.18 before adding without humility, “I have not only labored for myself, but for all who seek the truth.”

Which leads us to the first of the 53 dissertations which sum up the whole of scholarly knowledge about the Book of Job in the early 18th century. Samuel lays it all out, but his audience is specifically the scholar and not any of his parishioners. I’ll only speak briefly about two of the dissertations. In number 39, Samuel articulates his understanding of the origin of evil. Evil, for Samuel, is a pedagogical tool of God’s. It is a way for us to understand the attributes of God. He writes.

This is how our mediocrity can be more sensitive to the vengeance of our God's providence and good on account of his permission that evil should be introduced into the office; whence his wisdom, justice, equity, care for the good, patience, and finally justice for the wicked willingly and obstinately, became known much more clearly than if sin had never entered the world.19

The evil done to Job does not besmirch God, but it is under God’s control. We can see Samuel’s same desire for a reformation of manners in his doctrine of evil. Sin allows us to live upright, decent lives. Still, grace is far from sight and we are left to our own will power to reform ourselves.

The second to last dissertations, about the faith of Job and Elihu, contains an extended attempt to claim that Job and Elihu confess the apostle’s creed within the book of Job, by breaking apart various verses of theirs to show how they match up with the latin or Greek text of the creed. Seriously. For instance, with the first clause, Credo in deum, or I believe in God, Samuel writes: “I do not know whether the father's voice, per se of God, occurs anywhere in this book; but with the addition of a pronoun we have in the apostrophe or the prayer of Elihu in Job 34:36,”O Father,”20 which he notes is in the margin of what we now call the KJV, but is in the Vulgate as well as the Tyndale translation. Few translations include this phrase today, nor is it found in scholarly Septuagint or Hebrew manuscripts, yet a marginal note is enough for Samuel Wesley to make his claim.

The faith of Job and Elihu doesn’t include grace but an attempt to anachronistically map on early modern and institutional understandings of faith onto the ancient World. Job can be a model of moral rectitude because Job was a good Anglican.

The last 185 pages of this 600 page book contain an exhaustive textual appendix about the different version history of every verse of the book of Job. It functions, in this regard, as a reference work.

In short, Samuel Wesley’s goal was to offer the final word on all scholarly knowledge about the book of Job. If you are still listening to this, congratulations. You now have a greater understanding of Samuel Wesley’s life’s work than all but a handful of people in the last two hundred years. John and Charles Wesley had subscribed to the work and so probably knew it. The Job book’s actual influence on Methodist theology was more indirect. It offered a model for the kind of theology the Wesley brothers would not do, and in that, it can be edifying for us.

Samuel’s timing was pretty unfortunate. 100 years later, he could have been a leading figure in the development of historical critical thought on biblical interpretation. As it was, he stayed until his death, a curmudgeonly rector in the north of England, in a town called Epworth.

But what was Epworth like, and how did the town shape the future Methodist movement? Next time on the history of Methodism.


Martin Schmidt, John Wesley: A Theological Biography Trans. Norman P. Goldhawk. (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962).

Arthur Torpy, The Prevenient Piety of Samuel Wesley, Sr. Dissertation at Baylor (2006).

Samuel Wesley, A Pious Communicant

Samuel Wesley, Dissertationes in Librum Jobi

  1. Torpy, 7. ↩︎
  2. Job 12:3. ↩︎
  3. Pious Communicant (PC), 3-4. ↩︎
  4. Letter of Samuel Wesley to John, WW 25:181. ↩︎
  5. PC, 1. ↩︎
  6. PC, 4. ↩︎
  7. PC, 8. ↩︎
  8. PC, 18-19. ↩︎
  9. PC, 22. ↩︎
  10. PC, 23. ↩︎
  11. PC, 41. ↩︎
  12. WW 3:427. ↩︎
  13. WW 3:431. ↩︎
  14. WW 3:439. ↩︎
  15. Martin Schmidt, John Wesley: A Theological Biography Trans. Norman P. Goldhawk. (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962), 45-46. ↩︎
  16. in lectionis quotidianae ordine perlegerim primo in lingua vernacula, deinde in Graeco LXX Codice, utrisque pro meo modulo cum Originali comparitis semper aliquid ex singula quaque lectione & recens & infigne mihi emicare videbatur: ideoque tandem quaedam observatione digniora adversariis committere coepil & cum nactus suerim Polyglotta, collectiones auxi, & Bibliorum volumne scripsi, quorum foliis pura charta alternatim inserebatur. ↩︎
  17. Dissertationes, 1. ↩︎
  18. In short, although most have labored on this argument, and have found a most fruitful harvest, will not some after so many labors remain untouched, at least some grains of corn still survive? Will not the author (as I use the prophetic figure) gather in the harvest that has remained, as he seeks the ears of corn in the valley of Rephaim, and will be left in it like a bunch of grapes, and like shaking off an olive tree or two or three olive trees at the top of a branch, four or five fruit-branches in it? I wish I could add with the wise Siracus (unless it seems too ambitious) I also came out like a rivulet out of a river, and like aqueducts from a garden. This certainly is the more daring address with him, “

    Dissertanios, 6.

  19. “Haec quandtum sensius nostri mediocritas poterit, in vindicationem providentiae & boni nostri Dei, ob ejus permissionem ut malum in munum introduceretur; unde ejus sapientia, justitia, aequitas, cura in bonos, patientia & tandem justitia in voluntarie & obstinate malos, multo clarius innotuit, quam si peccatum in mundum numquam intrasset. Quod si huic magno argumento parum satisfecerimus, siqua a nobis omissa suerint, ab aliis ea supplenda curabimus in sequentibus dissertationibus.” Dissertationes, 312. ↩︎
  20. “Nescio an vox pater, per se de Deo, in hoc libro usquam occurrat, sed cum adjectione pronominis habemus in apstrophe seu precatione Elihu” Dissertationes, 400. ↩︎