Wesley’s psychological emphasis on rigorous self-examination over the mystical quest to lose the self in contemplation of God marks an important contrast to Jonathan Edwards. Whereas self-examination in Edwards's "Personal Narrative" is, for instance, accompanied by ecstatic longing for the absolute experience of being "emptied and annihilated" and "swallowed up" in God, Wesley focuses on sanctification as one moment in a long, living progression toward perfection that may be applied to all of the Christian's worldly actions. It is a noteworthy coincidence that to make this point Wesley uses the very same language as Edwards does: in a letter Wesley urges Ann Bolton to avoid mystics who are guilty of "refining" religion and instead to experience "humble, gentle, patient love," for "believe me, you can find nothing higher than this till mortality is swallowed up in life.... All the high-sounding or mysterious expressions used by [the mystics] either mean no more than this or they mean wrong. O beware of them!" (Wesley, Letters 5:342). The empirical emphasis on "swallowed up" here stands in direct opposition to Edwards's mystical meaning: it is the moment in which the individual confronts mortality. The highest experience in life is not the transcendental vision of dissolving into God but rather love as qualified by humility, patience, and gentleness, all of which are virtues applicable to particular situations the individual encounters daily. Similarly in an earlier letter to Bolton, he again uses the very same language of Edwards (in this case vaguely attributed to Roman Catholic writers) to show his disapproval: "They are perpetually talking of 'self-emptiness, self-iluaation, self-annihilation,' and the like: all very near akin to 'self-contradiction' as a good man used to say" (5:3i3).

Theodore Runyon perhaps puts it best when he describes Wesley's attitude toward experience as “spiritual empiricism” (189). The most important transformation on which every individual should concentrate is the one that occurs in this world: for Wesley "genuine knowledge of God [should] be of such a nature that the knower is transformed in the knowing process" (193). [26; emphasis added]


Bennett, Kelsey L. Principle and Propensity: Experience and Religion in the Nineteenth-Century British and American Bildungsroman. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2014.

Last modified 18 November 2014