John Wesley’s Dysfunctional Marriage
A brief commentary on marriage and ministry by Mark B. Lord.
John Wesley (1703–1791) is best known in Church history as the founder of the Methodist movement. He and his brother Charles were committed to the Biblical Gospel, evangelical preaching and holiness.
His marriage to Mary Vazeille (best known as ‘Molly’), however, left a different kind of legacy; one which is also noteworthy, but not for good reasons.
Did you know that John Wesley spoke of his marriage to his wife, Molly as a “cross” that he had to bear in serving God?
John Wesley and Mary Vazeille, a well-to-do widow and mother of four children, were married in 1751. By 1758 she had left him—unable to cope with the competition for his time and devotion to preaching revivals.
Due to her husband’s constant travels, Molly felt increasingly neglected. She grew jealous of her husband’s time since he was often away. And she became suspicious of the many friendly relationships he maintained with various women who were part of the Methodist movement. Molly read some of her husband’s letters to his “dear sisters” and misinterpreted and misconstrued their often affectionate and florid language. And so the fires of jealousy were fueled.
Consequently, their marriage was a rocky one, as Stephen Tomkins’ biography reveals. While in England, they clashed violently, John being dragged across a room by the hair, witnessed by an associate John Hampson, Sr.; Molly accusing him of adultery and calling down on him ‘all the curses from Genesis to Revelation.’
As if the situation wasn’t bad enough – enter Sarah Ryan. Sarah was a new convert that had been married three times by her early 30’s. John appointed her the matron of one school for children he helped get started. At one public meeting, Molly burst into the room shouting that Sarah was a “whore”!
To get revenge, Molly doctored some of John’s letters, making it look like Sarah and John were involved in a secret love affair, and sent them to the London newspaper to be published, slandering her husband publicly.
The gap between John and Molly widened emotionally and physically until they reached the point of no return. Towards the end of their relationship they lived in separation. In 1771, Molly announced that she was leaving. They were never officially divorced. Obviously, John was not the only one at fault. Molly disrespected her husband by many of the things she did to him – both privately and publicly. John Wesley wrote in his journal, “For what cause I know not to this day, [my wife] set out for Newcastel, purposing ‘never to return’. I did not leave her: I did not send her away: I will not call her back.”
Indeed, John Wesley’s failed marriage stands as a sober warning to any would-be Minister of the Gospel, especially because one of the Biblical requirements of a ‘man of God’ is that he manage his own household well (see 1 Timothy 3:4-5).
1. Should a rebellious spouse disqualify a person from serving God? Certainly not! The Bible is full of examples similar to John Wesley’s experience:
- Job’s wife lovingly advised him to “Curse God and die” during his time of testing from the LORD (see Job 2:9).
- King David’s wife Michal “despised him in her heart” when she saw her husband disrobe and dance before the Ark of the Covenant as it entered Jerusalem, claiming that he did it for “the eyes of the maids” of Israel, rather than for the LORD (see 2 Samuel 6:20-23).
2. According to the Bible, divorce is not an option for ‘irreconcilable differences’ in marriage.
- The only justifiable cause for divorce in the Bible is Adultery (see Matthew 5:32).
- Marriage was intended by God to be permanent (see Matthew 19:8).
- Scripture proclaims that God “hates divorce” (see Malachi 2:16).
3. The Scriptural solution to irreconcilable differences: Proverbs 21:9 – “It is better to dwell in a corner of the housetop, than with a brawling woman in a wide house.” (See also Proverbs 25:24.) Proverbs 21:19 – “Better to dwell in the wilderness, than with a contentious and angry woman.”
4. Marriage and Ministry – two sides of the same coin:
A) The call to be faithful to and love your wife.
- The model Christian marriage – “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” – Ephesians 5:22-33, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be bitter toward them. Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord.” – Colossians 3:18-20.
- Marriage is symbolic of the union of Christ and the Church – “This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the Church.” – Ephesians 5:32.
- Marriage is intended by God to be permanent – “The Pharisees came and asked Him, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ testing Him. And He answered and said to them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to dismiss her.’ And Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. But from the beginning of the creation, God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’; so then they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” – Mark 10:2-9.
- Divorce is only justifiable on the grounds of Adultery – “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate. They said to Him, ‘Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?’ He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” – Matthew 19:5-9.
- Conflict between husband and wife hinders our prayers – “For in this manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose daughters you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror. Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered.” – 1 Peter 3:5-7.
B) The ‘call’ to be faithful to God is a higher calling.
- Paul was celibate and recommended other Ministers be also – “Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman… But this I say, brethren, the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none… But I want you to be without care. He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord—how he may please the Lord. But he who is married cares about the things of the world—how he may please his wife.” – 1 Corinthians 7:1, 29; 32-33.
- Jesus suggests circumstances when a man’s enemies may be those of his own household – “For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’” – Matthew 10:35-36.
- Jesus suggests circumstances when a man may have to leave his wife to serve God – “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.” – Matthew 19:29, “Then Peter said, ‘See, we have left all and followed You.’ So He said to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or parents or brothers or wife or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who shall not receive many times more in this present time, and in the age to come eternal life.’” – Luke 18:28-30.
5. Proverbs 14:1 describes a wise and foolish spouse – “The wise woman builds her house, but the foolish pulls it down with her hands.” – Proverbs 14:1.