An English preacher and writer, John Wesley and his brother Charles were the founders of Methodism. Born in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England to Anglican rector Samuel Wesley, John was educated at the Charterhouse School and was elected fellow of Lincoln College in 1726. Wesley viewed the clergy of the 18th-century Anglican church as incompetent, corrupt, and unconcerned with the large class of non-churchgoing people, a group to whom he directed many of his efforts, often at outdoor sermons. In 1729, he became an important participant in a religious group founded by his brother Charles at Oxford. This “Holy Club” was the first to adopt the name “Methodists,” originally a pejorative descriptor given to the group by other students. After a disappointing attempt to introduce his religious views to the American colonies where his own outlook was deeply influenced by Moravian settlers, Wesley returned and began in 1739 to establish Methodist societies throughout England, traveling over 250,000 miles in his ministry. He spent most of his life traveling and preaching, and, in 1784, gave the Methodist societies a legal constitution. Before his death in 1791, he ordained Thomas Coke the principal Methodist Episcopal minister for the new church in the United States, marking the beginning of a Methodist separation from within the Church of England, although Wesley and his brother in particular would continue to urge their English followers to remain with the Church of England.
The impetus for Wesley’s fervent proselytizing came in 1738, when he experienced a significant spiritual conversion. During a small religious meeting in London, he reported that his “heart was strangely warmed.” He wrote, “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation.” This message became the central tenet of Wesley’s lifelong missionary work.
In a very brief piece dated April 8, 1790, later published among his letters, Wesley discusses his thoughts on suicide. He is concerned that the then-existent laws of England, which held suicide to be a felony criminal offense (felo de se) and were designed to deter suicide, were ineffective, since the courts were able to avoid conviction (and its disastrous consequences for heirs) by declaring the person insane. In the case of such a verdict, no action, such as seizing the suicide’s estate for forfeiture to the crown or refusing a suicide Christian burial, could be taken. Recalling Plutarch’s [q.v.] account of the way further suicides among the young women of Miletus were prevented by public exposure of the dead bodies naked, Wesley offers as his solution that the body of the suicide be hung in chains and publicly displayed. Surely, he thinks, this would end the “English fury” of suicides.
John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, vol. XIII: Letters. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958. From the authorized edition published by the Wesleyan Conference Office, London, 1872.
THOUGHTS ON SUICIDE
It is a melancholy consideration, that there is no country in Europe, or perhaps in the habitable world, where the horrid crime of self-murder is so common as it is in England! One reason of this may be, that the English in general are more ungodly and more impatient than other nations. Indeed we have laws against it, and officers with juries are appointed to inquire into every fact of the kind. And these are to give in their verdict upon oath, whether the self-murderer was sane or insane. If he is brought in insane, he is excused, and the law does not affect him. By this means it is totally eluded; for the juries constantly bring him in insane. So the law is not of the least effect, though the farce of a trial still continues.
This morning I asked a Coroner, “Sir, did you ever know a jury bring in the deceased felo de se?” He answered, “No, Sir; and it is a pity they should.” What then is the law good for? If all self-murderers are mad, what need of any trial concerning them?
But it is plain our ancestors did not think so, or those laws had never been made. It is true, every self-murderer is mad in some sense, but not in that sense which the law intends. This fact does not prove him mad in the eye of the law: The question is, Was he mad in other respects? If not, every juror is perjured who does not bring him in felo de se.
But how can this vile abuse of the law be prevented, and this execrable crime effectually discouraged?
By a very easy method. We read in ancient history, that, at a certain period, many of the women in Sparta murdered themselves. This fury increasing, a law was made, that the body of every woman that killed herself should be exposed naked in the streets. The fury ceased at once.
Only let a law be made and rigorously executed, that the body of every self-murderer, Lord or peasant, shall be hanged in chains, and the English fury will cease at once.
Liverpool, April 8, 1790. JOHN WESLEY.