A fully critical presentation of John Wesley’s writings had long been a desideratum in order to furnish documentary sources illustrating his contribution to both catholic and evangelical Christianity. Several scholars—notably Professor Albert C. Outler, Professor Franz Hildebrandt, Dean Merrimon Cuninggim, and Dean Robert E. Cushman—discussed the possibility of such an edition. Under the leadership of Dean Cushman, a board of directors was formed in 1960 comprising the deans of four sponsoring theological schools in Methodist-related universities in the United States: Drew, Duke, Emory, and Southern Methodist. They appointed an Editorial Committee to formulate plans, and enlisted an international and interdenominational team of scholars for the Wesley Works Editorial Project.
The works were divided into units of cognate material, with a separate editor (or joint editors) responsible for each unit. Dr. Frank Baker was appointed textual editor for the whole project, with responsibility for supplying each unit editor with a critically developed, accurate Wesley text. The text seeks to represent Wesley’s thought in its fullest and most deliberate expression, in so far as this can be determined from the available evidence. Substantive variant readings in any British edition published during Wesley’s lifetime are shown in appendices to the units, preceded by a summary of the problems faced and the solutions reached in the complex task of securing and presenting Wesley’s text. The aim throughout is to enable Wesley to be read with maximum ease and understanding, and with minimal intrusion by the editors.
This edition includes all Wesley’s original or mainly original prose works, together with one volume devoted to his Collection of Hymns (1780) and another to his extensive work as editor and publisher of extracts from the writings of others. An essential feature of the project is a bibliography outlining the historical settings of the works published by Wesley and his brother Charles, sometimes jointly, sometimes separately. The bibliography also offers analytical data for identifying each of the two thousand editions of these 450 items that were published during the lifetime of John Wesley. An index is supplied for each unit and a general index for the whole edition.
The Delegates of the Oxford University Press agreed to undertake publication of this new edition of Wesley’s works, but announced in June 1982 that due to severe economic problems they were regretfully compelled to withdraw from the enterprise with the completion in 1983 of volume 7, the Collection of Hymns. Abingdon Press offered its services, beginning with the publication of the first volume of the Sermons in 1984, the bicentennial year of the formation of American Methodism as an autonomous church. The new title assumed (The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley), however, refers more broadly to the bicentennial of Wesley’s total activities as author, editor, and publisher, from 1733 to 1791, especially as summarized in the first edition of his collected works in thirty-two volumes, 1771–74.
Dean Robert E. Cushman of Duke University undertook general administration and promotion of the project until 1971, when he was succeeded as president by Dean Joseph D. Quillian, Jr., of Southern Methodist University, these two universities having furnished the major support and guidance for the enterprise. During the decade 1961–70, the Editorial Committee supervised the task of setting editorial principles and procedures, and general editorship was shared by Dr. Eric W. Baker, Dean William R. Cannon, and Dean Cushman. In 1969 the directors appointed Dr. Frank Baker, early attached to the project as bibliographer and textual editor for Wesley’s text, as editor-in-chief also. Upon Dean Quillian’s retirement in 1981, he was succeeded as president of the project by Dean James E. Kirby, Jr., also of Southern Methodist University. In 1986 the directors appointed Richard P. Heitzenrater as general editor to begin the chief editorship of the project with the Journal and Diaries unit, with Dr. Baker continuing as textual editor. Dean Dennis M. Campbell of Duke University was elected president of the project in 1990. Dean Russell E. Richey of Emory University succeeded Dr. Campbell in 2003. At that same point the directors named Randy L. Maddox as associate general editor, to work alongside Dr. Heitzenrater in completing the project. Dean William B. Lawrence of Southern Methodist University assumed the role of president in 2006. And most recently Randy L. Maddox stepped into the role of General Editor, upon Dr. Heitzenrater’s retirement from that capacity.
Other sponsoring bodies have been successively added to the original four: Boston University School of Theology, The General Commission on Archives and History of The United Methodist Church, The United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, and the World Methodist Council. For the continuing support of the sponsoring institutions the Directors express their profound thanks. They gratefully acknowledge also the encouragement and financial support that have come from the Historical Societies and Commissions on Archives and History of many Annual Conferences, as well as the donations of private individuals and foundations.
On June 9, 1976, The Wesley Works Editorial Project was incorporated in the state of North Carolina as a nonprofit corporation. In 1977 by-laws were approved governing the appointment and duties of the directors, their officers, and their Executive Committee.