At 200 pages, Stephen Tomkin’s biography of John Wesley (Eermans 2003) is relatively short and relentlessly interesting. Tomkins does not gloss over the faults of this remarkable man, but neither does he shy away from noting how remarkable he was.
All evangelical Christians should be thankful for his tireless preaching of the gospel. Wesley’s impact on the world was phenomenal because, as Tomkins puts it, “he was a phenomenon in his own right.” By conservative estimates, “he rode 250,000 miles, gave away £30,000 (an amount that could have kept a gentleman for a decade) and preached more than 40,000 sermons. He was a man of rare ability, passion and commitment and unique energy” (199).
With all this energy, perhaps it is not surprising that Wesley could be domineering, more so to his friends than to his enemies:
He bore anti-Methodist assaults without the least anger, but challenges from his own preachers enraged him. His words reverberate with the grinding of an axe, but there was , indeed, a contrast between Wesley’s meekness in the face of the enemy and his imperiousness with his friends. (197).
If his anger made Wesley a chore for his friends, his organizational ability and institutional sensibility is what set him apart from his fellow preachers. Tomkins argues that the biggest difference between Whitefield and Wesley was not their theology but their “job description.”
Wesley was a preacher, pastor, leader, administrator, and an architect of religious organization; Whitefield was a preacher. Although he founded some successful ‘tabernacles’, he had very little interest in organizing converts and left this mostly to others. At the very beginning, this was Wesley, later Cennick and later Howel Harris. Consequently, while there were over 400 predestinarian Methodist societies in Wales, there were only about 30 in England. (128)
Christians ignore the importance of organization and institutions to their peril. That’s one thing we can learn from Wesley. For more lessons, both good and bad, pick up Tomkins’ book.