On May 24, 1738, John Wesley reluctantly went to a meeting to hear a reading of Martin Luther’s introduction to the book of Romans. In his journal, Wesley described it like this: “About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Although Wesley identified as an Anglican to his death, he is rightly seen as the founder of Methodism and, in his day, one of the most indefatigable preachers of the Gospel.
Although Wesley is usually lauded for the evangelical revival he stoked in England and the US, there is generally far less attention given to his private life. Wesley had a disastrous marriage to his wife Molly. Although most of Wesley’s biographers blame Molly for the unhappy marriage, more recent treatments have concluded differently, noting that Wesley had a conflicted relationship with women his entire life.
Like a modern-day workaholic, Wesley subordinated his family to his ministry, leading to a terribly discontented domestic life. When Molly finally left Wesley, he wrote: “I did not forsake her; I did not dismiss her; I will not recall her.”
Marriage is a great mystery. Why is marriage the source of the greatest joys for some and the source of great misery for others? Despite the difficulties, marriage continues to be one of the most enduring institutions in history, essential for the continuation of the society through the procreation of children. Marriage has been a uniform constant in almost every society.
Jesus takes a surprisingly hard line on marriage. The Pharisees, trying to trap him, asked Jesus whether divorce was lawful, knowing full-well that most rabbis took a permissive stance towards it. For example, in the Mishna, Rabbi Akiba wrote that divorce was permissible “even if [the husband] found another fairer than she.”
Jesus replied that Moses permitted divorce because of “your hardness of heart” (Mark 10.5). Jesus then grounds marriage not in the law, but in creation itself, saying, “but from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female’” (Mark 10.6). Thus Jesus defines marriage based on created human nature, not legal consent, identity or preferences.
Jesus’ perspective is well-articulated in our prayer book: “The union of husband and wife in heart, body and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord.” Thus marriage is a comprehensive union of body, soul and mind.
No marriage works perfectly because we’re all sinners. But, when it works well, marriage is a visible symbol of Christ’s love for us and his Church.