A Not-So-Commonplace Book

In this episode, we look at the content of John Wesley's early diaries and what his life was like at Oxford and at Epworth before the Holy Club.

Episode 34

Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s Episode: A Not-So-Commonplace Book

On Good Friday of 1725, March 26, John Wesley began to keep notes on his life, his temptations, his resolutions, and other various things. His father and grandfather had kept similar books, often called, at that time, commonplace books. These have been kept by literate folks since ancient times. They are a place to write down quotes from interesting books, personal noted, thoughts on life, and other things. Marcus Aurelius’s classic, Meditations, is an excellent example of a commonplace book, as are Seneca’s Letters).

Thus began the constant companion of John Wesley for the rest of his life. The format changed but the practice did not. The story of cracking the code of John Wesley’s diary was told in our last episode. Now, we are going to look at the fruit of that labor in what his early diary was about.

As well, it is important to be clear about the difference between John Wesley’s Journal and John Wesley’s Diary. The diary was a personal document he kept and saved as much as feasible. The journal was a published selection of moments from his life. In some places, adapted from notes in his diary. In other places, not at all.

When John started his first diary, it took him a while to figure out what kind of tool this really was.

Surrounding John Wesley’s first entry were quotes from Jeremy Taylor’s Rules for Holy Living, which we discussed back in Episode 18 on English Spirituality. Taylor’s work inspired the general rule he gave himself, which is as follows.

A General Rule in All Actions of Life

Whenever you are to do an action, consider how God did or would do the like, and do you imitate His example.

General Rules of Employing Time

  1. Begin and end every day with God; and sleep not immoderately.
  2. Be diligent in your calling.
  3. Employ all spare hours in religion; as able:
  4. All holidays.
  5. Avoid drunkards and busybodies.
  6. Avoid curiosity, and all useless employments and knowledge.
  7. Examine yourself every night.
  8. Never on any account pass a day without setting aside at least an hour for devotion.
  9. Avoid all manner of passion.1

Following these rules, Wesley wrote his first entry on March 26, which includes the following.

I found a great many unclean thoughts arise in prayer, and discovered temptations to it:

  1. Too much addicting myself to a light behavior at all times.
  2. . Listening too much to idle talk, or reading vain plays or books.
  3. . Idleness, and lastly—

Want of devotion—consideration in whose presence I am.

From which I perceive it is necessary

  1. To labour for a grave and modest carriage;
  2. To avoid vain and light company; and
  3. To entertain awful apprehensions of the presence of God.
  4. To avoid idleness, freedom with women, and high-seasoned meats;
  5. To resist the very beginnings of lust, not by arguing with, but by thinking no more of it or by immediately going into company; lastly To use frequent and fervent prayer.

Finally, after the first entry, Wesley included a few more rules mostly taken from Taylor.

General Rules as to Intention

  1. In every action reflect on your end;
  2. Begin every action in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost;
  3. Begin every important work with prayer;
  4. Do not leave off a duty because are tempted in it.

Within two weeks, the subject matter had shifted from the general to the granularly particular. It starts with a dull reporting of reading, writing, and other activities, with a break after five days when Wesley goes into town.

It was during this time that John wrote in the diary, “First saw Varanese,” a nickname he had for Sarah Kirkham, an early love interest. Kirkham was soon to be married, but they continued to meet and write in a platonic fashion even after she was married.

As Wesley came closer to ordination in September, of 1725 the diary moved away from daily affairs into a deeper religious sentiment. As Richard Heitzenrater writes, “His notebook also began to serve him as a private confessor to bear the record of his self-examination. On August 16, the first record of his concern for “purity of intention,” he made his initial diary confession, partially hidden behind his cipher—t•ld /l_k.e. (“teld a ly; kyrie eleison”). A week later it was “a lie in deed,” and the day after that, “sins in thought.”2

For much of this time, the diary was filled with two entries per day. One in the morning and one in the afternoon I am going to quote from Nehemiah Curnock’s which leaves some of the code untranslated. If you remember from the last episode, Curnock was the editor who wrote that some of the code came to him in a dream. The specific footnote is written in the third person. “He had discovered a place, far on in the Diary, where ‘:’ meant, and could only mean, ’12.’ This, as a clue, proved useless, until in a dream he saw that ‘2’ stood for ‘a.’ This was the first ray of light.”3

For example, here are some entries from September around the time of his ordination.

Sept. 17, 1725.

Friday. Breakfast with Mr. Sherman

Aft. Read The Gentleman’s Library, subscribed the Articles, read Dr. Bennet. p.i.k.e. Sat at the Coffee House. Idle Talk

Sat Read Mr. Russell’s sermon, Dr. Bennet: p.i.k.e. Rean Bishop Bull’s Companion p.c.T.F.

Aft. Saturday inde: Boasting, greedy of praise, intemperate sleep, detraction, lying: k.e.p.i.k.e.p.c.T.F: head in arguing: p.c.T.F.

Morn. Was ordained Deacon by the Bishop of Oxford.

Aft. Walked in Trinity Gardens: collected Dr. Bennet: heard Mr Bear on the Holy Ghost teaching the Apostles all truth: collected Bennet: p.c.T.F. Sat at Burtman’s: read Bishop Burnet

By December, his list of sins had grown.

breach of vows…careless in fixing days of mortifying, etc., pride of my parts and holiness, greedy of praise, peevishness, idleness, intemperence in sleep, sins in thoughts, causeless and sinful anger, breach of promise, dissimulation, lying, rash censuring, condemning others, disrespect of governours, desire to seem better than I am.4

In this period, after he had been ordained a deacon and started his teaching at Oxford, he began to keep more resolutions as a response to his sins. For instance, on January 29, 1726, Wesley wrote:

I have loved women and company more than God. Resolve never to let sleep or company hinder from going to prayers.

I have taken God’s name in vain. Resolve never to mention it but in religion, in devotion, prayer, and humility.5

These resolutions continued to fill space in the diary, as did his daily and weekly schedule of activities. His own resolutions concerning “intemperate sleep,” as Heitzenrater notes, “soon resulted in an earnest resolve to rise early.”6 His daily routine was soon noted and followed for much of the next two years.

Rise at Seven—Breakfast at Eight—Prayers at Nine—Dinner at twelve—Private prayers at five—Family Prayers at Six—Supper at Seven—to Bed at Ten.

This also soon turned into a weekly schedule of Sundays for studying theology, Saturday for sermon writing and letters, Mondays and Tuesdays were for Classics, Wednesday for Logic (one of the courses he taught at Oxford), Thursday for languages, and Friday for philosophy and physics.7

John Wesley also kept sermon notes in his diary. For example

Heard Mr. Colley: Think of God with reverence and modesty: avoid a sanctified forwardness; let your thoughts of Him be mixed, compounded of all His attributed, and not unfruitful; but imitate Him in truth, love, and holiness, and consider Him under the characters He assumes Himself, as a Good Shepherd, a Friend, [etc.].8

During this time, Wesley was teaching Logic and Philosophy at Lincoln College. He also wrote around 20 sermons and preached over 30 and attended over 50 worship services.

Every month, he would also give himself a Monthly Review. At this young age, John focused mostly on his studies and the works he had read. Curnock notes a number of example.

In these, Latin and Greek classics, or Hebrew, take precedence. French or English literature follows. Theology, church history, and works of devotion are included under the head of Religion. In the six months following ordination he read Drake and Le Clerc’s Phsyics, Burnet [on] the Reformation, Dennis against Pope, Salmon’s Review, Welstead’s Poems, Lee against Locke, Hickes [on] Schism, The Great Atlas, Dr. Halley [on] Magnetism and Gravity, Ditton [on] Matter’s Thinking, the Souls of Brutes, Watts, Keil’s Principia, Cowley, Locke, Norris, Heautonimorumenos, Cheyne [on] Fevers, Ezra in Hebrew, Horace’s Odes, Horace’s Epodes and Satires, Life of Whiteways, Horace de Arte Poetica and Epistles, St. Matthew, part of the 15th chapter of Proverbs (which he translated into Latin verse), Virgil’s Eclogues, Logic, Virgil’s Georgics, St. Mark, St. Luke, the Aenaid, Life of Plutarch, Epectetus, the Acts, the Iliad, Romans, Xenophon, Colossians and Thessalonians, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, Cornelius Nepos, Jackson, Cowley and Watt, On the Case of Subscribing, Prior and Berkeley, Satires of Juvenal, Vertôt’s Revolutions of Rome, Synge on Toleration, Clarendon, Milton, Rapin on Eloquence, Ephesians, and twelve Odes of Anacreon. 9

There were also plays he read and attended and letters he wrote. “Each letter as received was endorsed, dated, and, in many instances, entered in the Diary.”

What we are missing from the historical record are the letters Wesley wrote and received from Sarah Kirkham, or Varanese. Curnock goes so far as to say the discovery of these letters would give us a Spiritual Autobiography of John Wesley. John and Sarah corresponded for a decade and Wesley visited the home of Sarah and her husband, John Chapone, many times.

Wesley wrote Sarah’s down in his diary about how they could maintain friendship in the midst of her marriage:

I would certainly tell you if my husband should ever resent our freedom, which I am satisfied he never will; such an accident as this would make it necessary to retain in some measure the appearance of the esteem I have to you, but the esteem as it is grounded on reason and virtue and entirely agreeable to us both, no circumstance of life will ever make me alter.10

Sarah Chapone is famous in her own right as the author of “The Hardships of the English Laws in Relation to Wives”, published in 1735, a polemical pamphlet arguing that the rights of women in England were akin to slavery.

This is an outline of the argument she makes.

I. That the Estate of Wives is more disadvantageous sic than Slavery itself.

II. That Wives may be made Prisoners for Life at the Discretion of their Domestic Governors, whose Power … bears no Manner of Proportion to that Degree of Authority, which is vested in any other set of Men in England. …

III. That Wives have no Property, neither in their own Persons, Children, or Fortunes.

Alas, the Varanese letters were lost and the aspect of his character and thought which he shared with Sarah Chapone is lost as well. We have a few of her letters to John Wesley, where she rights in a glowing manner.

I think myself extremely obliged to you for the favor of the sermon, and those letters that alone were worthy of the correspondence they maintained.

There are many surviving letters to Sarah’s mom, Mary Granville, who was windowed and then remarried and became Mary Pendarves, but the absence in our understand of Wesley due to the loss John’s letters to Sarah is great.

His second diary was, also, lost.

Charles came to Oxford in 1726. In 1727, after earning his MA, John moved back to Epworth for a time to be his father’s Curate and to help with Samuel’s great book, Dissertationes in Librum Jobi, which we discussed in Episode 26.11 John’s only trip back to Oxford for two years was in September of 1728 for his ordination service.

This diary is lost, but there is a distinct change in character taking place. Samuel, Jr., noticed the change of Charles in the summer of 1728 when he told John, “his every motion and look made me almost suspect it was you,” because of his solemnity and gravity.12

That winter, a new sort of correspondence sprung up between John and Charles that will lead us directly to the Holy Club in the Winter of 1729 and Methodism’s formal entry into the world. Next time on the History of Methodism.


Sarah Chapone, The Hardships of the English Laws in Relation to Wives, 1725.

Richard Heitzenrater, John Wesley and the Oxford Methodists, 1725-1735, Diss. (Durham: Duke, 1972).

Richard Heitzenrater, “Wesley and his Diary”, in John Wesley: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. by John Stacey (London: Epworth, 1988).

Richard Heitzenrater, Mirror and Memory: Reflections on Early Methodism (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1989).

Richard Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodist (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995).

Clarissa Campbell Orr, (3 March 2016). "The Sappho of Gloucestershire: Sarah Chapone and Christian Feminism". In Heller, Deborah (ed.). Bluestockings Now!: The Evolution of a Social Role. London: Routledge.

John Wesley, The journal of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M., sometime Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford : enlarged from original mss., with notes from unpublished diaries, annotations, maps, and illustrations Volume 1, ed. by Nehemiah Curnock (1909).

  1. John Wesley's Journals 1:48. ↩︎
  2. Heitzenrater, Oxford Methodism, 58. ↩︎
  3. JWJ 1:72. ↩︎
  4. Cited in Heitzenrater, 59. ↩︎
  5. Cited in Heitzenrated, 59. ↩︎
  6. Heitzenrater, 60. ↩︎
  7. Rack, 83). ↩︎
  8. JWJ 1:65. ↩︎
  9. JWJ 1:65-66. ↩︎
  10. Orr, 98. ↩︎
  11. Heitzenrater, Wesley, 37. ↩︎
  12. Heitzenrater, Mirror, 70. ↩︎