This is the second post in a series: “Wesley – The man, the myth, the legend“
“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, as long as ever you can.”
“Set yourself on fire with passion and people will come for miles to watch you burn.”
“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.
“Be present at our table Lord. Be here and everywhere adored. Thy creatures bless and grant that we, may feast in paradise with Thee. Amen.”
People regularly attribute these four quotes to John Wesley. You may have seen them on t-shirts, printed on materials in your church, used them in your sermons, or tweeted them out.
Yet, none of them were written by John Wesley, and there is no record that he said any of them either.
The internet has only helped spread such mis-quotes further. Although we now have better access than ever to historical archives, the abundance of information online leads many of us to trust information that is repeated often and communicated by people we respect. The “set yourself on fire” quote is a particular favorite in the twittersphere due to its length, which is < 140 characters. See the latest tweets and how they all seem to somehow modify this fake quote here.
The above information may make some of you feel the same way you did on the day when your elementary school friend told you that he saw his parents sneak into his room and place a half-dollar under his pillow after losing a tooth.
For consolation, I offer a word from a scholar who has spent his life debunking Wesley myths and providing the church and academy with new insights about the great man of faith. Heitzenrater has written, “Many of the quotations cited to Wesley simply sound like something he might have said or written, rather than being something he actually expressed.”
See, even the expert cuts you some slack for believing them.
Mis-quotes like the ones above may not be true in the historical sense, but often they align with principles found throughout Wesley’s writings that we can apply to our world today. Doing good, being full of passion for the gospel, exhibiting charity to others, and giving blessings for God’s gifts to us are all great things Wesley that Wesley promoted.
Even so, as I mentioned in the first post in this series, we must be wary of re-creating Wesley for our own purposes. Cherry picking quotes from his works—quotes that may be way out of context or even historically inaccurate—are a quick and easy way to fall into this trap.
Below is a portion of an interview I did with Richard Heitzenrater where we discussed his encounters with misinformation associated with Wesley. Here, he discusses some of the most common items he comes across and how he has handled such situations:
I know you encounter a lot of misinformation about Wesley in the church and in the media. What are some of the legends that you continually come across in literature, emails, and casual conversation?
Heitzenrater: Well it started out, I suppose, when I was a student here [Duke Divinity School]. I was a youth director over in Raleigh, and Ralph Fleming, a long since retired pastor who is still around down near Hilton Head, met me and said, “I hear you’re interested in Wesley.”
I said, “Yes.”
And he said, “I bet you didn’t know that Wesley had a middle name?”
I said, “Well, I know that people think that he had a middle name. What do you think it was?”
And he says, “Benjamin.”
I said, “Really? Where’d you pick that up?”
He says, “Well, I was reading a book the other day and it made a big deal about the fact that he had the name of one of his previous siblings who had died — two of them, actually John and Benjamin who had both died — and that he was named that. And he was having to live out the life of both of his siblings. It was a lot of pressure on him. And that’s why he was so great.”
And I said, “Well, that’s just a lot of baloney, actually.” There was a John. There was a Benjamin. And there was a John Benjamin. Three kids, all of whom died. But John was just John, and we know that because there’s a copy of his baptismal certificate. The original burned in the fire, but the archives in Lincolnshire at Lincoln have a copy. He’s just listed as John Wesley.”
So all the way from that sort of trivia to the sayings. You’ve heard me talk about how many sayings there are that are attributed to Wesley that he had no connection with. A lot of them are on the web.
I might have mentioned when in 1996 the General Conference wanted to use that phrase, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.” Well, that’s not Wesley. They wanted me to write a chapter on it. I told them I couldn’t lead off their book for General Conference on how this is Wesley and how he used it because it isn’t. I don’t think he ever saw it. It’s in Baxter, so he might have seen it. And it does fit. I mean it’s like the Wesley Rule which is not Wesley. “Do all the good you can, help all the people you can,” and that sort of stuff. That sounds like Wesley’s stuff, but that’s not Wesley.
I actually saw that recently painted on the inside of a church on the wall.
It’s in Australia, in Sydney.
I saw it in Nicaragua.
Really? In Australia, I pointed it out to the pastor and said, “It says John Wesley at the bottom. If you just put ‘attributed to’ then you’re accurate because it is often attributed to John Wesley.”
Who’s the Methodist chaplain here at Duke? I forget her name.
Jenny, yes. She came up to me one day and said, “We want to put that [Wesley's Rule] on the back of some t-shirts and just put John Wesley. Now, I know it’s not John Wesley. Do you think there would be any problem with that?”
And I said, “You mean like it’s not true that it was Wesley, but we’re going to say so anyway? I mean, what’s the question you’re really asking here?”
In Singapore Lorna Khoo wrote a little thing about how Wesley never said “The world is my parish.” [She discussed how] he said, “I look upon all the world as my parish.” And there was a specific meaning to it and it didn’t mean foreign missions. But, in this case [she went on] to say that Methodism has always been very interested in foreign missions. And then at the end it says, “Wesley didn’t actually say this, but we do think of the world as our mission.”
I’m thinking, “Okay, Lorna why do you even raise this if there’s no connection? If you know that there’s no connection? If Wesley had a different sense of it?” I mean, she knows that.
I see this one continually on Twitter. The one about “Catch on fire for God and people will come from miles to watch you burn.”
There are tens of thousands of hits on the internet for that one. I don’t know where they even got that.
How do you debunk a phrase? How do you as a historian say this quote is not from Wesley?
I just don’t bother. I mean, it’s gotten to the point where in most cases it doesn’t matter. If people want to think that, fine. There’s a lot of stuff out there that’s inconsequential. You can go around correcting everybody and you get to be known as this curmudgeon who just corrects everybody, and then nobody wants to say anything because they’re afraid you’ll correct them.
But what you do—it’s sort of like what Frank Baker told me in my dissertation. When I started out Vivian Green had just written a book on young Mr. Wesley and what he thought the diaries had said. He couldn’t read the diaries very well, so there’s a lot of mistakes in there. Besides, he was a sloppy historian. So you combine the two and it’s a bad book.
I started my dissertation with all kinds of corrections of Vivian Green. Baker saw chapter one and said, “This is entirely inadequate methodology. Just forget about Green. Forget about the mistakes. Don’t put them in your dissertation. Don’t write or speak against other people and correcting other people. Just put the stuff forward as you know it positively. Stress the things that you think are important, and let the chips fall where they will.”
So that’s what I was trying to do.
Seems to have served you well.