Wesley and the death of Toplady

Lee Gatiss
In my former forays into the dangerous territory of saying anything negative about the great and famous John Wesley, I foolishly mentioned his unusually positive views of the arch-heretic Pelagius ("Who was Pelagius? By all I can pick up from ancient authors, I guess he was both a wise and a holy man" as the celebrated Mr Wesley wrote to Alexander Coates in 1761). Being challenged by a prolix 2000 word rejoinder, I replied that I was also interested in some of the restless Mr Wesley's other puzzling comments, on how he abhorred predestination, for example, how he thought there was "nothing more false" than justification by faith alone, and used some tastelessly lamentable comparisons to describe the God of Reformed theology.

My friend (and "blessed" new doyen of Ref21), Fred Sanders, responded with some apologetic work on Wesley's behalf, to silence those who would scandalously "warn people away from [him] by broadcasting the rumour that he was guilty by association with heresy." Basically what I think he says (in 3000 words) is that I need to shut up and not criticise such great ones until I have either finished reviving "a dying church movement" (presumably the Church of England!) without the Methodist's assistance, or become as 'perfect' in pious zeal as the fiery Wesley bros themselves. Episcopal weight was brought to bear in the form of JC Ryle!

True, Fred also jabbed his finger at a potentially problematic (but not in my view contextually serious) protatic ellipsis in one of my "snippet" quotations and brought up (as did Prof McCall) the entirely beside the point point that Wesley said he believed in original sin (which I personally never mentioned in my original post). He also made the fair point that Wesley preached against the love of money and was generous with his own.

However, as I show in my latest publication (fresh out from Latimer Trust this week and available for worldwide shipping immediately, at very reasonable rates), some of the money which Wesley may have earned from his publishing endeavours was at the expense of other writers whom he fraudulently copied, forged, and plagiarised...

One such victim was Augustus Montague Toplady. My buddy Fred says that nasty Mr Toplady was full of spite against Wesley (who, as usual, gets away pretty lightly there it seems to me). But why would Toplady not feel anything but warm and fuzzy about the giant genius of evangelicalism?

Might it have been because of the Zanchi Tract War, where Wesley re-published (in his own series) a bowdlerised abridgement of one of Toplady's books, denuded of all its (350+) biblical references and pregnant with infamous Wesleyan additions designed to portray Toplady as narrow and bigoted? Possibly.

It may also have been because of the rumours being spread about the much younger man as he lay breathless in bed dying an unhappily early death (aged 37). Sanctifying themselves by slander, Wesley and his friends tweeted that Toplady had renounced his faith. Not only that, but apparently he also wanted to recant his Calvinism and personally confess to John Wesley that he was wrong about the doctrines of grace. So they were saying on the circuit.

Toplady somehow got himself out of bed (against doctor's orders no doubt) and dragged himself to a pulpit to demonstrate publicly the falsehood of such calumny. Wheezing and emaciated he may have been, but he preached as he always had. He also assured his congregation that, on the edge of eternity as he was, he had no desire to delete so much as a single line from any of his published contributions to "the Arminian controversy." I imagine you could have heard a pin drop that Sunday morning. Toplady's heart was scarcely beating, the attending doctor said, anxiously; but its rhythm was still clearly Reformed, and was warmly longing for heaven and "sweet communion" with the Lord.

A few days later, a friend wrote to him and said he'd been told by two separate people that Toplady had got up that Sunday and... recanted his Calvinism and opposition to Wesley! I'd be quite annoyed by that -- wouldn't you? So Toplady published his sermon, his "dying avowal", in another attempt to stop such gossipy aspersions.

Once he was actually dead, Wesley told people Toplady had passed away uttering foul blasphemies and died in black despair, banning his Christian friends from his bedside. These (entirely fabricated) stories rippled out across the country, and Wesley was at the epicentre. Toplady's friends (at least 13 of whom certified that they had actually been with him when he died, including Dr Gifford and John Ryland Sr -- Baptists! Wesley didn't like those very much either...) attempted to challenge the senior pillar of Methodism to cease and desist. How could he vent such "gross, malicious falsehood against a dead man who cannot answer for himself, in order to support your own cause and party"?

Sir Richard Hill, who sent a letter to Wesley on behalf of Toplady's associates, records that Wesley never replied to this challenge. When approached by two of Toplady's colleagues who wanted to talk to him about his accusations and behaviour, Wesley fobbed them off as he got into his limo, saying "Those that are for peace will let those things alone."

The idea that for the sake of "evangelical unity" we must never question the conduct of the big chiefs, however deplorable, is surely anathema to truth-loving Christians. Those that are for truth, must sometimes touch the sore spot.

Wesley really did believe in original sin though, apparently. And he preached against formalism and antinomianism. So that's good.

Dr Gatiss is proud that this is the first page on the whole internet to ever use the expression "protatic ellipsis", a happy conjoining of two Greek terms which to his mind neatly summed up the issue there. He thanks Dr Sanders for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. (The phrase "gossipy aspersions" doesn't return many hits on google either). To reassure readers who get worried by friendly banter of this sort, here's a photo taken of the two relaxed and cheerful scholars one balmy July day after a great lunch in Cambridge:

Danger Mouse and Penfold.jpg