John Wesley, the Continuationist?

August 9, 2022

 During the month of August 1739 in Bristol England, John Wesley had three separate interviews with Bishop Joseph Butler. Butler a towering intellect and presiding bishop. Wesley an upstart preacher of a burgeoning movement. The first interview lasted about 15 minutes, the second about 30 minutes, and the final one approximately one hour. [1] Wesley who was making waves through his proclamation of justification and grace in open fields, was hopeful Butler would be open to his work.

In this meeting, the younger Wesley was perhaps a little too aggressive with the Good Bishop. Despite Wesley’s admiration of Butler’s masterful denunciation of Deism, it was perhaps too bold for him to expect that the Bishop would receive a minister the enthusiastism and manifestations that were accompanying their open-field preaching. [2]

First they talked about the nature of faith in its justifying sense, but the conversation quickly turned to what was probably irritating Butler the most about the preacher. It appeared that Wesley and the flourishing Methodist movement assumed that God was doing something special in their faith and ministry that was isolated from other believers who did not embrace their cause.

To Wesley, Butler sternly snots: “Sir, the pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Ghost is a horrid thing, a very horrid thing.” [3] Wesley’s response to Butler was the eighteenth century version of "epic" clap back. He candidly responded, “I pretend to no extraordinary revelations or gifts of the Holy Ghost—none but what every Christian may receive, and ought to expect and pray for.” [4]

The conversation that ensued between the two Anglicans must have been a civil but heated one because a few moments later Bishop Butler forbade Wesley from preaching in his diocese, and Wesley, for his part, refused to abide by Bulter’s prohibition. Wesley’s justification was his own ordination credentials in the Church of England to preach to the church universal. [5]

What he meant by his “epic" clap back was not a denial of the miraculous but an affirmation of the universality of the Sprit’s work through all believers. Within the exchange, there is an important feature of Wesley’s understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit and his conception of the experience of the supernatural among believers.

Scholars, particularly Robert Webster, have argued persuasively that John Wesley both believed in demonstrative manifestations of the supernatural and that he collected various accounts of such experiences among the Methodists in a rhetorical defense of the supernatural. [6]

John Wesley was not only committed to the idea of the Holy Spirit’s movement and manifestations but he also elevated that idea to prominence in his rhetoric of the supernatural. Because of his acceptance of supernatural occurrences, John Wesley often found himself combating charges of enthusiasm (the eighteenth century term similar to hyper-charismatics) . Regardless of various oppositions, Wesley consistently contended that the movements and gifts of the Holy Spirit that were active in the first century were also active in the eighteenth.

Wesley held an understanding of the gifts of the Holy Spirit were for all people not just a select few. At the foundation of Wesley’s argument was the idea that the charismata operative in the first century had not died out with apostolic Christianity and emerged in every generation since then. Though Wesley agreed that the primary assurance was an inward one where love, peace, and joy are realized with an incremental advancement towards spiritual maturity, it was also the case that, just as in the first century so in Wesley’s own day, believers could judge the true sense of faith working by love, which often appeared in miraculous ways. 

Two Simple Examples

Scattered throughout Wesley’s journals were a variety of stories that Wesley had collected and edited for edification; stories of healing, dreams and visions, exorcisms, and an assortment of preternatural occurrences. Here are just two of those stories.

On April 6, 1756, Wesley approvingly wrote the story of a lady who had fallen and sprained her ankle several years prior. On her way home from a preaching service, she stumbled and fell on the ankle again. Her injury was recorded by Wesley in the journal: “I thought, O Lord, I shall not be able to hear thy word again for many weeks. Immediately a voice went through my heart, Name the name of Christ and thou shalt stand. I leaped up and stretched out my foot and said, ‘Lord, Jesus Christ, I name thy name; let me stand.’ And my pain ceased. And I stood up. And my foot was as strong as ever.”[7]

Another is the case of an exorcism, Wesley recounts for an entry on October 25, 1739, how he was sent to see a young girl in Bristol. After some reluctance, Wesley entered into conversation with the demons that possessed the young girl. In the midst of the exorcism, Charles Wesley walked into the room and the demon-possessed girl screamed out: “Preacher! Field preacher! I don’t love field preaching.”[8] After two more hours of intense prayer, Wesley recorded the results: “And now it was that God showed he heareth the prayer. All her pangs ceased in a moment. She was filled with peace, and knew that the son of wickedness was departed from her.”[9]

These stories and many more like them, can be found in Wesley’s journals.



1. Frank Baker, “John Wesley and Bishop Joseph Butler: A Fragment of John Wesley’s Manuscript Journal 16th to 24th August 1739,” Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society 42 (1980): 93–100. The essence of the interview between Bishop Butler and John Wesley is found in Wesley’s journal as well. See Nehemiah Curnock (ed.), The Journal of John Wesley (London: Epworth Press, 1938), 2:256–57 and W. R. Ward (ed.), “Appendix B: Wesley’s Interview with Bishop Butler, August 16 and 18, 1739,” in The Bicentennial Edition of The Works of John Wesley, ed. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1990), 19:471–74.

2. See Joseph Butler, The Analogy of Religion, Introduction by Ernest C. Mossner (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1961). For Wesley’s complimentary remarks on Butler’s Analogy of Religion see John Wesley’s journal entries for January 1, 1746 and May 20, 1768 in The Bicentennial Edition of The Works of John Wesley, 20:112 and 22:134 respectively.

3. “Wesley’s Interview with Bishop Butler,” The Bicentennial Edition of The Works of John Wesley, ed. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1990) 19:471.

4. Ibid., 471.

5. Ibid., 472.

6. Robert Webster, Methodism and the Miraculous: John Wesley’s Idea of the Supernatural and the Identification of Methodists in the Eighteenth Century (Lexington, KY: Emeth Press, 2013).

7.  John Wesley, April 6, 1756, The Bicentennial Edition of The Works of John Wesley, ed. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1990) 21:49. 

8.  John Wesley, October 25–27, 1739, The Bicentennial Edition of The Works of John Wesley, ed. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1990) 19:110–11. 

9. Ibid., 19:111.


crossmenuchevron-down linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram