John Wesley's Survey

David Bell writes

Now, most Methodist presbyters are aware of the Notes, Sermons, and Journals. However, not all may know that Wesley also wrote and revised over a long period of time, a series of volumes called the Survey. This neglected work turns out to be of prime importance. From it, it is clear that to stake a claim on the Wesleyan heritage is to become scientifically aware, to use experience and knowledge in exploring truth, and to conduct ministry out of a base of natural theology. The Survey provides essential interpretive clues to the rest of the Wesleyan literature. Let me explain why.

John Wesley’s Survey contains his personal reflection, distillation, expansion, and re-writing of some of the most important books on science in his time. We are used to thinking of Wesley as a preacher, evangelist, churchman, diarist, and a man of letters, but not as a student of natural theology. Yet, as Collier makes clear in his summary of the Survey, Wesley knew the scientific work of many of the leading figures in science.

These included Charles Bonnet, Giovanni Borelli, Robert Boyle, Tycho Brahe, Giovanni Cassini, Benjamin Franklin, Edmund Halley, William Harvey, Jan Baptisa van Helmont, William Herschel, Christiaan Huygens, Johannes Kepler, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, Isaac Newton, Joseph Priestley, and John Ray. This is a galaxy of scientific stars in Wesley’s time. Not all of them will be generally known today. Suffice it to say, the foundations of modern
• biology,
• chemistry,
• cosmology,
• electricity,
• medicine,
• optics,
• and physics
were laid by their creative insights and experiments. It is an impressive list. Clearly, Wesley considered science to be more than a subject of passing importance.

The often quoted remark about Wesley being a person of just one book, the Bible, needs to be understood within this larger framework. John Wesley’s universe is no small affair. His enthusiasm and energy saw to that. Yet he was fortunate compared to some scientists of his day. For example, the astronomer William Halley had to hide his atheism for fear of reproach. Indeed, Halley would have lost his chair at Oxford upon disclosure of his unbelief. It was thus much easier for the man of God to have an enthusiasm for science, than the atheistic scientist to muster up enthusiasm for religion.


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