Did John Wesley really say that? The purpose of this post is to help you be able to find out for yourself, usually relatively quickly, whether Wesley really said that (whatever “that” is).
Of all the things I have written on this blog over the years, my series of posts on things commonly attributed to John Wesley that he did not actually say are among the most popular.
Because of these posts, I now fairly regularly receive questions from readers through email, facebook, and twitter asking me if Wesley did say something that they’ve come across. I really appreciate these questions, because they show that people really do care about being good stewards of their tradition. Preachers don’t want to unintentionally misquote Wesley in a sermon or church newsletter. I also can’t help but smile when someone says something like, “I read this attributed to Wesley online, but it doesn’t sound like Wesley to me.” It gives me joy to see evidence of people reading Wesley for themselves and starting to get a feel for his literary voice.
One of the deep goals of this blog and my work as a scholar, teacher, and pastor is to equip people to better engage their own tradition for themselves. While it is great to have people ask me to confirm a quote from Wesley, it is even better to help people gain confidence in finding out for themselves whether Wesley did or did not say something. (Note: This basic approach can be used for any historical figure.)
So, here is how to find out in about five minutes whether John Wesley really said something:
Imagine you are playing a game called “Did Wesley Really Say That?” (This could be a best seller!) There are two ways to win the game. First, find the quotation in a scholarly edition of Wesley’s works. (Examples of scholarly editions of Wesley’s works that count are any of the volumes in this series, or this, this, and this. Of course, there are others. A book of quotations like this does not count.) If you find a quote in a scholarly edition of Wesley’s sermons, Wesley did actually say that. You win!
Second, find a scholarly article that states that Wesley did not say this. Professor Richard P. Heitzenrater of Duke Divinity School has published a number of pieces that draw attention to quotations commonly attributed to Wesley that he did not actually say – or at least that cannot be demonstrated to have come from him. My favorite is an article he wrote in this book. If you find a scholar in the field of Wesleyan/Methodist studies saying that Wesley did not say that, you win! You are safe assuming that Wesley did not say it.
The quickest way to get to win is by doing an internet search for the quotation followed by a comma and then John Wesley. If Wesley said it, you will usually be able to fairly quickly find a link to a trustworthy internet source. Not all online sources are trustworthy, in fact most aren’t (for more on what sources are trustworthy, see below).
Let’s take two different quotations commonly attributed to Wesley as a way of illustrating each way to win.
“An ounce of love is worth a pound of knowledge.” Did Wesley really say that?
The picture below shows the way the search should be entered, with the first results.
Remember that winning is not finding any webpage that attributes the quote to Wesley. In the image search, the Wikiquote page is good because it has an actual citation to a scholarly edition of Wesley’s letters. You can also use the date of the letter to look up the letter in the Telford edition of Wesley’s letters, which is currently the most comprehensive scholarly edition of Wesley’s letters. So, you win! Wesley did say that.
To illustrate the challenge of the internet, the second link, goodreads.com, is not a good source. If you click on the link, none of the quotes have any citations. And, not surprisingly, they include many things Wesley did not say. Towards the bottom of the first page on the Google search, there is a link to the Wesley Center Online site, which is a reliable online source. It is also always a good sign when you get the specificity of a letter written to a specific person on a particular date, in this case to Joseph Benson on November 7, 1768.
Let’s try one more.
“I set myself on fire and people come from miles to watch me burn.” Did Wesley really say that?
The picture below shows the way the search should be entered, with the first results.
The first link on Google “John Wesley Quotes (Author of John Wesley’s Sermons)” initially looks promising. But it is again from goodreads.com, and you will not find a citation at all. So, this is not a reliable website. The second link is a blog post I wrote four years ago saying that Wesley did not say this. A blog post should be considered to be suspect. However, a blog post by a PhD in the field of Wesleyan/Methodist Studies gives you very good evidence that Wesley did not in fact say it. A scholarly article like the one I mentioned by Professor Heitzenrater is even better. Of course, if you can find a citation in a scholarly edition of that person’s writings then you are entitled to say he or she did in fact say this. In this instance, you will not find a citation to a scholarly edition of Wesley’s writings because there is no evidence that he said this.
Things that do not count as winning:
Any kind of commerorative or decorative item. I would guess that Cokesbury has sold thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands, of items that attribute things to John Wesley that he did not actually say. Just because you bought something at Cokesbury store with a quotation attributed to John Wesley does not mean he actually said it.
A book of quotations. These are notorious for not having good citations. Their primary goal, to inspire with short pithy sayings, makes them notorious for misquoting historical figures.
Any non-academic book. A non-academic book should site the source of any direct quotation. They often do not. If they do, they also often still do not site a scholarly edition. Citing a quote from another book that is still citing it from another book means you are still playing the game. To win you must find it in a scholarly edition of Wesley’s works.
Let me say a bit more about the internet. Finding the quote on the internet may or may not count as winning. Think of the internet as being like paper publications. Blogs and other forms of social media are like pen and ink publications (journals, letters, etc.). You would not ordinarily consider these to be authoritative in an academic sense. However, a handwritten letter by Frank Baker (who edited the first two volumes of the best scholarly edition of John Wesley’s letters) to Albert Outler about a Wesley quote would be very good evidence, precisely because of the specific person who wrote the letter.
If the website is a respectable academic or ecclesial website that is making Wesley’s works available online, then, that counts. You win! Wesley did actually say that. (You can find a few examples here and here.)
If the website is a personal website, facebook, twitter, or anywhere else online, the safest approach is to say that it does not count, especially for demonstrating that Wesley did say something. You still have to get to a scholarly edition of Wesley’s works. I have been amazed (and exasperated) at how misquotes of Wesley absolutely thrive on twitter.
Another option is a draw. If you cannot find the quote by Wesley in a scholarly edition of his works, then you neither win or lose. In this instance, do not attribute the quote to Wesley. You should only attribute a quote to someone when you have a primary source citation that shows the person actually said that. In this case, you don’t have it.
The final option is to lose. How do you lose the game? You lose by saying that Wesley said something that he did not actually say. Being as careful and accurate as we can be with our heritage matters. When you say that Wesley’s self-professed evangelistic strategy was to “set myself on fire and the people come from miles to watch me burn” you misrepresent and distort the tradition, because Wesley did not really say that.
I hope this helps you find out for yourself whether Wesley really said “that.”
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Steve Perisho said:
Cleverly written, Kevin. Google (and my preference Google Books, as supplemented by the Hathi Trust, the Internet Archive, and so forth) allows for the use of quotation marks. Quotation marks force Google to return only *the exact phrase*. This is especially useful when you want to search for the fragments of a saying that you think least likely to have been modified in transmission. See also https://www.google.com/advanced_search.
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So who did say any of these things? These are used a lot in the circles I find myself in and not in a good way.
Rev. Asiri P. Perera said:
As a Child I learnt that Charles Wesley once wrote to John asking him to return to to London as people were character assassinating John Wesley. John Wesley’s reply was “When i gave my heart to Christ I gave my Character too” and continued with his work.
Could you please help me to find the exact story or wording of this incident. Thanks