Wesley on The Rack: Rack on Wesley -- By: Ben Witherington, III

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 23:0 (NA 1991)
Article: Wesley on The Rack: Rack on Wesley
Author: Ben Witherington, III

Wesley on The Rack: Rack on Wesley

Ben Witherington, III

A Review Article

Dr. Witherington is professor of Biblical and Wesleyan Studies at ATS.

John Wesley has not been well-served by those who have attempted to write his biography, and doubtless there are many reasons for this fact. Certainly one of the most important factors in the 20th century has been that there has been no adequate critical edition of Wesley’s works on which to base such a biography. Consequently, Wesleyan scholars have found themselves severely handicapped, expecially in comparison to their colleagues who have done their work on other major Protestant figures such as Luther or Calvin. Now that we find ourselves in medias res in regard to the producing of the necessary critical edition of Wesley’s works, many will want to ask if it is not premature to either attempt or expect an adequate critical biography of Wesley. Nonetheless, various attempts have been and will continue to be made in this direction, and none of those so far produced more deserves our close scrutiny than Henry D. Rack’s Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1989). In many ways this work is a summing up of some of the best insights of Wesleyan scholarship in this century, and we would lose much of the mature fruit of long reflection on Wesley in this century if a biography like this had not been produced, even if it has come to us as “one untimely born.”

Rack’s Reasonable Enthusiast is clearly the most comprehensive, critical treatment of the life and work of John Wesley currently available. Among its virtues are a detailed interaction with the primary sources, a rather extensive grasp of the secondary literature (though with notable lacunae), and an attempt to set Wesley in the context of both his world, through socio-historical analysis, and of his Revival movement, by examining his antecedents and co-revivalists.

The background chapter which introduces the life of Wesley is, in many ways the weakest chapter of the entire work. It would have been well if Rack had begun at least as early as 1611 in his survey and carefully traced the religious, political, social, and economic developments and their interweavings up to the point of John Wesley’s birth. Wesley’s views on a variety of matters could have been better understood if sufficient space had been devoted to a variety of groups and factors such as the non-Jurors, or the various societies with which Anton Horneck was involved, or the important influence and interrelationship of Puritanism and Pietism in English society in general and in Samuel and Susanna’s families in particular. Later in the work the attempts at...

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