The Oxford Holy Club required that each member pledge to stay a “eunuch for God.” For several decades, John Wesley insisted on the celibacy of dedicated Methodist leaders, believing marriage and family would only be a burden on their intense call to transform the world with social holiness. And yet in spite of this insistence on being set apart for God’s special work, John’s desire for a normal life and the affection of another human occasionally caused great conflict in his soul. Even as he was designing the “eunuch’s for Jesus” movement, he was romantically flirting with two different women. On his missionary journey to Georgia where he felt destined to convert the Native Americans, he fell in love with an engaged woman in his parish. Only months after debating with colleagues that true believers in Christ shouldn’t marry, John proposed marriage to a woman he just met.
Some scholars have argued that Wesley’s ambivalence about marriage is rooted in a lack of affection from his mother, Susanna Wesley. On the one hand, Susanna gave John special attention among her other children. When he was five, John was trapped in a house fire, and thought dead, until one man climbed on another’s shoulders and pulled John out of the second story window. Susanna said that she had to be “more particularly careful for the soul of this child, which God had so mercifully provided for.” And John quoted Zechariah 3:2 about himself, that he was “a brand plucked from the burning.” Yet while Susanna made John to feel special, she routinely withheld affection, once saying to John when he was a college student, “I know myself enough to rest satisfied with a moderate degree of your affection. It would be unjust in me to desire the love of anyone.” This letter upset John so much that he wrote her back this:
“You say you have but little time to stay in the world, and therefore should not have much affection for anything in it. Most true! not any of those things which perish with the world. But am I one of those things? If you think I am ‘sick unto death,’ [because John expressed affection for his mother] love me the more, and you will the more fervently pray for me that I may be healed. If you rather incline to think there is no hope for recovery, then what if you are to leave the world in a little time? Whom God hath joined can Death put asunder?”
Notice the end of that uses the language of the marriage vows. None of this means John had inappropriate desires, and perhaps that’s why he was so confused about his desires for women. With a mother treating him like he is especially chosen by God, yet intentionally keeping a cool distance from his affection, John spent many years struggling to understand the balance between a holy life dedicated to God, and a life lived in intimate relationship with another person. It’s a balance that many Christians struggle with, often leading to overcompensation in our attitudes around human sexuality.