Ephraem Graecus and John Wesley

The name of John Wesley is not well-remembered today; and indeed the same could be said of the organisation that he founded, the Methodist church.  Born and raised as an Anglican high churchman, he was converted and became one of the most important figures of the 18th century.

Few will be aware that he refers to Ephraim the Syrian in his copious works, which in the 1872 Methodist Conference edition fill 14 volumes.  But he does.  Let’s hear the words of Ephrem Lash, in his article “The Greek Writings Attributed to Saint Ephrem the Syrian”, in: Abba: The Tradition of Orthodoxy in the West, 2003.  Page 90:

In more recent times [the works of Ephraim Graecus] have attracted the attention of people as diverse as … John Wesley, who had a particular fondness for Ephrem, and refers to him a number of times in his journals. In his Fourth Savannah Journal, on 12 October 1736 at Frederica in Georgia, he describes him as “The most awakening writer, I think, of all the ancients.” Eleven years later, in Newcastle, he wrote in his journal on Ash Wednesday, 4 March 1747, “I spent some days in reading ‘The Exhortations of Ephrem Syrus.’ Surely never did any man, since David, give us such a picture of a broken and contrite heart.”

Wesley was almost certainly using the Oxford edition of 1709, since the Greek volumes of Assemani were only published in 1732, 1743 and 1746. He cannot, despite what some of his biographers have written, have been using the Syriac texts, since these the first of these was only published in 1737; with the other two following in 1740 and 1743.

Wesley also seems to have known what is, I suspect, the earliest work of Ephrem to be translated into English, which was published by W. Bowyer in 1731.[29] It is a pamphlet of some fifty pages in small quarto. Only seven copies are known to exist, three of which are in the USA. Neither the British Library nor any Oxford library possesses a copy; there is, however one in Liverpool University Library, which I have been able to consult.

The translator is anonymous, but was almost certainly the publisher, William Bowyer, who was a good Greek and Latin scholar. The translation was made from Thwaites’s Oxford edition of the Greek, together with the Cologne edition of Gerard Vossius’s 16th century Latin translation. It is the sermon known as the Sermo Compunctorius, which is to be found in the first volume of Assemani’s edition on pages twenty-eight to forty.

Apart from this extremely rare edition, nothing of the Greek Ephrem has been published in English, so far as I am aware, except for the Prayer of Saint Ephrem, of which there are numerous versions.

[29] … The title is, “A Serious Exhortation to Repentance and Sorrow for Sin, and a strict and mortified Life; written about the Middle of the Fourth Century by St. Ephraim, the Cyrian [sic], Deacon of Edessa. Translated into English from the Greek and Latin compared.”

I wonder what would be necessary to get the Liverpool University Library copy of this translation online?  This particular Sermo Compunctorius is CPG 3908.

Lash gives us just two quotes, neither very well referenced.  The first, from 1736, and indeed before his conversion, is in fact on p.42 of the 1872 edition of the Works of John Wesley.  It reads:

Tues. Oct. 12.—We considered if any thing could yet be done for the poor people of Frederica ; and I submitted to the judgment of my friends ; which was, that I should take another journey thither: Mr. Ingham undertaking to supply my place at Savannah, for the time I should stay there. I came hither on Saturday, the 16th, and found few things better than I expected. The morning and evening prayers, which were read for a while after my leaving the place, had been long discontinued; and from that time every thing grew worse and worse, not many retaining any more of the form than the power of godliness.

I was at first a little discouraged, but soon remembered the Lord which cannot fail: “Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.” I cried to God to “arise and maintain his own cause;” and after the evening prayers were ended, invited a few to my house; as I did every night while I stayed at Frederica. I read to them one of the exhortations of Ephraim Syrus: The most awakening writer, I think, of all the ancients. We concluded our reading and conversation with a psalm ; and I trust our God gave us his blessing.

The second passage is in volume 2, pages 47-48:

Wed. 4.—(Being Ash-Wednesday.) I spent some hours in reading “The Exhortations of Ephrem Syrus.” Surely never did any man, since David, give us such a picture of a broken
and contrite heart.

I had intended to search all of the volumes of the edition.  But as we all know, Google Books is terribly bad at handling multi-volume series.  I was quite unable to locate volumes 3 and 5 of the edition, although I am quite certain that they are there somewhere.

Another article on the same subject is by Gordon Wakefield, “John Wesley and Ephraim Syrus”, in: Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies, Vol. 1.2 (1998) 273-286.  He writes:

In 1756, in his “Address to the Clergy,” he writes: Can any who spend several years in those seats of learning (the universities) be excused if they do not add to that of the languages and the sciences, the knowledge of the fathers.—the most authentic commentators on Scripture as being both nearest the fountain and eminently endued with that Spirit by whom ““all Scripture was given”” [cf. 2 Timothy 3:16]……

I speak chiefly of those who wrote before the Council of Nicea. But who would not likewise desire to have some acquaintance with those that followed then——with St. Chrysostom, Basil, Jerome, Austin, and, above all the man of a broken heart, Ephraim Syrus?[3]

3. Volume 10, p.484.


In his letter of 1749 to the Cambridge deist Conyers Middleton, who asserted that “miraculous powers” ceased with the Apostolic Age, he recognises the Fathers’ limitations and mistakes. He does not regard them as powerful intellectuals, but they were Christians and describe “true, genuine Christianity.”

He writes “I mean particularly Clemens Romanus, Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen, Clemens Alexandrinus, Cyprian, to whom I would add Macarius and Ephraim Syrus..” In that letter, marred by his careless garbling of Middleton’s text, he has sixty pages of analysis of patristic authors to refute his antagonist, though Middleton had not written specifically against Wesley. … [4]

4. Works, vol. X, 1-79.


Wesley read Ephraim in sermon preparation. He was too inclined to be influenced by the latest book he had read, but Ephraim was a permanent guide and he included him with authors ancient and modern in his required reading for his assistants. He once said that Ephraim was .“the most awakening writer among all the ancients.” and translated one of his stories.

Unfortunately there is no reference given to allow us to locate the story translated by Wesley.

I have searched the volumes of the 1872 edition that I have, and have found a couple more slight references to Ephrem (or Ephraim).

In volume 7, p.424 (sermon 132, “On laying the foundation of the new chapel near the city-road, London”, April 21, 1777), we find this:

3. This is the religion of the primitive Church, of the whole Church in the purest ages. It is clearly expressed, even in the small remains of Clemens Romanus, Ignatius, and Polycarp; it is seen more at large in the writings of Tertullian, Origen, Clemens Alexandrinus, and Cyprian; and, even in the fourth century, it was found in the works of Chrysostom, Basil, Ephrem Syrus, and Macarius. It would be easy to produce “a cloud of witnesses,” testifying the same thing; were not this a point which no one will contest, who has the least acquaintance with Christian antiquity.

In the same volume, p.459, Sermon 134, “True Christianity Defended”, June 24, 1741 (a Latin copy of the same sermon also exists among the Wesley papers; probably to be preached at Oxford):

7. Know ye not then so much as this, you that are called moral men, that all idleness is immorality; that there is no grosser dishonesty than sloth; that every voluntary blockhead is a knave He defrauds his benefactors, his parents, and the world; and robs both God and his own soul.

Yet how many of these are among us! How many lazy drones, as if only fruges consumere nati! “born to eat up the produce of the soil.” How many whose ignorance is not owing to incapacity, but to mere laziness! How few, (let it not seem immodest that even such a one as I should touch on that tender point) of the vast number who have it in their power, are truly learned men!

Not to speak of the other eastern tongues, who is there that can be said to understand Hebrew? Might I not say, or even Greek? A little of Homer or Xenophon we may still remember; but how few can readily read or understand so much as a page of Clemens Alexandrinus, Chrysostom, or Ephrem Syrus?

And as to philosophy, (not to mention mathematics, or the abstruser branches of it,) how few do we find who have laid the foundation,–who are masters even of logic; who thoroughly understand so much as the rules of syllogizing; the very doctrine of the moods and figures ! O what is so scarce as learning, save religion?

That’s all that there is.  Which “exhortations” Wesley read we cannot say, beyond the one mentioned above.  Thwaites edition is not online.  The Bowyer translation is not online.

Let’s end with a longer version of one of the passages above, which is interesting for its own sake, from volume 10, 78 f., in the reply to Conyers Middleton.

Fifthly. What reasonable assurance can you have of things whereof you have not personal experience? Suppose the question were, Can the blind be restored to sight? This you have not yourself experienced. How then will you know that such a thing ever was?

Can there be an easier or surer way than to talk with one or some number of men who were blind, but are now restored to sight? They cannot be deceived as to the fact in question; the nature of the thing leaves no room for this. And if they are honest men, (which you may learn from other circumstances,) they will not deceive you.

Now, transfer this to the case before us: And those who were blind, but now see, — those who were sick many years, but now are healed,—those who were miserable, but now are happy, will afford you also a very strong evidence of the truth of Christianity; as strong as can be in the nature of things, till you experience it in your own soul. And this, though it be allowed they are but plain men, and, in general, of weak understanding; nay, though some of them should be mistaken in other points, and hold opinions which cannot be defended.

11. All this may be allowed concerning the primitive Fathers, I mean particularly Clemens Romanus, Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen, Clemens Alexandrinus, Cyprian; to whom I would add Macarius and Ephraim Syrus.

I allow that some of these had not strong natural sense, that few of them had much learning, and none the assistances which our age enjoys in some respects above all that went before.

Hence I doubt not but whoever will be at the pains of reading over their writings for that poor end, will find many mistakes, many weak suppositions, and many ill-drawn conclusions.

12. And yet I exceedingly reverence them, as well as their writings, and esteem them very highly in love. I reverence them, because they were Christians, such Christians as are above described. And I reverence their writings, because they describe true, genuine Christianity, and direct us to the strongest evidence of the Christian doctrine.

Indeed, in addressing the Heathens of those times, they intermix other arguments; particularly, that drawn from the numerous miracles which were then performed in the
Church; which they needed only to open their eyes and see daily wrought in the face of the sun.

But still they never relinquish this: “What the Scripture promises, I enjoy. Come and see what Christianity has done here; and acknowledge it is of God.”

I reverence these ancient Christians (with all their failings) the more, because I see so few Christians now; because I read so little in the writings of later times, and hear so little, of genuine Christianity; and because most of the modern Christians, (so called,) not content with being wholly ignorant of it, are deeply prejudiced against it, calling it enthusiasm, and I know not what.

That the God of power and love may make both them, and you, and me, such Christians as those Fathers were, is the earnest prayer of, Reverend Sir,

Your real friend and servant,

John Wesley

January 24, 1748-9.

Interesting indeed.

UPDATE: (7 Nov 2018).  Commenter “Diego” has located volume 3.  This contains part of John Wesley’s journal.  On p.56 (Thu 21 May 1761) we find the following entry, with the story that was mentioned.

Thur. 21.—I was much struck with a story told by Ephraim Syrus. I wonder it was never translated into English. It is as follows :—

“My beloved brethren, I have a desire to relate to you what our brother Abraham did in his old age. This blessed man had a brother according to the flesh, who had an only child. When her father fell asleep she remained an orphan. Her friends brought her to him, being six years old. He ordered her to be placed in the outer cell : He himself abode in the inner. A little door was between them. He taught her the Psalms and the other Scriptures, and watched and sang with her. And as he lived an austere life, so did she, willingly profiting in every exercise, and labouring to excel in all virtues. The holy man often besought God for her with tears, that her heart might be fixed on God, and not entangled with the care of worldly things; for her father had left her much wealth, which by his advice she gave to the poor. And she entreated him, saying, ‘Pray for me, that I may be delivered from evil thoughts, and from all the wiles and snares of the devil.’ The blessed man rejoiced, seeing her good conversation, and forwardness, and tears; her lowliness, meekness, quietness of spirit, and earnest love to God. And for twenty years she thus exercised herself with him, as a fair lamb, a spotless dove.

“When the twentieth year was fulfilled, the devil was mad against her, and lay in wait to get her into his net. There was a man, in name religious, but not in truth, who frequently came to consult Abraham. He saw the maid, and his heart burned within him. He lay in wait for her a whole year, till her heart was inflamed also : And opening the door of her cell, she went out to him, and consented to his will. But no sooner had she committed wickedness, than she rent her clothes, smote her breast, and thought of putting an end to her own life; for she said in herself, ‘Now I am dead, and I have lost all my time and all my labour, and my austerity and my tears are perished, and I have destroyed my own soul, and I have brought sorrow upon the man of God, and am become a laughing-stock to the devil : Why do I live any longer? Ah me, what have I done! Ah me! from whence, how low am I fallen! How shall I be hid? Where shall I go? Into what pit shall I cast myself? Where is the exhortation of the blessed man, Keep thy soul spotless for thy immortal Bride groom? I dare no more look up to Heaven! I am lost both to God and men. I dare not approach that holy man, sinner as I am, and full of uncleanness. Were I to make such an attempt, surely fire would come out of that door, and consume me. It is better for me to go where none knows me; for I am undone, and there is no salvation for me!’ And rising up, she went straight to another city, and became servant at an inn.

“A little before this, Abraham saw a vision;—a dragon, great and terrible, rising out of his place ; and, coming to his cell, he found a dove, and devoured it, and then returned to his place. The holy man, coming to himself, was much troubled, and wept bitterly, and said, ‘ Thou, Lord, knowest all things ; and thou only knowest what this vision meaneth.’ After two days he saw the same dragon again; and he came out of his place to the blessed man, and, laying his head under Abraham’s feet, burst asunder, and the dove was found alive in the dragon’s belly.

“Coming to himself, he called once and again, saying, ‘Child, where art thou? Behold, here are two days that thou hast not opened thy mouth in the praise of God.” Finding that none answered, and that she was not there, he perceived the vision related to her; and he groaned in spirit, and said, ‘ O Saviour of the world, bring back this lamb into thy fold, that my grey hairs come not down with sorrow to the grave! Lord, despise not my supplication; but send down thy hand, and take her out of the mouth of the dragon that hath devoured her!’

“After a season he heard where she was; and, having learned all things concerning her, he called one of his friends, and said to him, ‘Bring me an horse and the habit of a soldier.’ And having put it on, with a large cap on his head, he left his cell, and rode away. Being come to the place, he alighted, and went in ; and, after a time, said to the inn keeper, ‘Friend, I have heard thou hast a beautiful damsel here : Call her to me, that I may rejoice with her.’ Being called, she came. When the holy man saw her in her harlot’s attire, he was melting into tears; but he refrained himself, that she might not perceive it. After they sat down, she embraced him, and kissed his neck; and she smelled the smell of his cell, and called to mind past things; and, groaning deeply, said, ‘Woe is me! What am I?’ The inn-keeper, being astonished, said, ‘Mary, thou hast now been with us two years, and I never heard thee groan before, or heard such a word from thee. What is come to thee?’ She answered, ‘Would I had died three years since ; then I had been happy.’

“Immediately Abraham said to him, ‘Prepare us a supper, that we may rejoice together ; for I am come from far for her sake.’ After supper she said to him, ‘Let us go into the chamber.’ And when they were come in, he saw a bed made ready; and he sat upon it, and said, ‘Make fast the door.’ She made it fast, and came to him. Having taken hold of her, so that she could not run away, he took off his cap, and said to her, weeping, ‘ My child, Mary, dost thou not know me? Am not I he that brought thee up? Mary, what is come to thee ? Who hath destroyed thee, my daughter? Where are thy prayers and thy tears, thy watching and holy exercise? My child, when thou hadst sinned, why didst thou not tell me, that I might have humbled myself for thee? My daughter, why hast thou done this? Why hast thou forsaken thy father?’ She remained in his hands as a lifeless stone, till he said to her with tears, ‘ Dost thou not speak to me, my child, Mary? Dost thou not speak to me? Am I not come hither for thy sake? I have besought the Lord concerning thee.’ Till midnight he continued exhorting and comforting her. Then, coming a little to herself, she said to him weeping, ‘I cannot look at thee, for I am defiled with sin.’ The blessed man replied, ‘On me be thy sin; only come, let us go to our place.’ She said to him, ‘ If it be possible for me to repent, and if God can accept my repentance, I come, and I fall down, and kiss thy steps, wetting them with my tears, that thou hast thus had compassion on me, a forlorn wretch, and art come hither to draw me out of the mire of sin.’ And laying her head at his feet, she wept bitterly all the night; saying, ‘What shall I render thee for all thy benefits?’

“Early in the morning he set her upon the horse, and went before her with great joy. And being come to his place, he put her in the inner cell; where she gladly resumed her former
exercise, with sackcloth and ashes, and much humiliation, with mourning and watching, and ceaseless calling upon God: And the merciful Lord gave her a sign that he accepted her repentance, healing many that were sick, through her prayers.

“Holy Abraham lived ten years after, beholding her good conversation, and blessing, and praising, and magnifying God. Then, having lived seventy years, he slept in peace. Mary survived him thirty and five years, calling upon God night and day ; insomuch that all who passed by glorified God, who saveth them that were gone astray.”

Now that I see it, I recall reading this in Wesley’s journal.  But I had not remembered that it was from Ephraim Graecus.  I wonder which Greek text this is?

Now I think about it, if Ephraim was “required reading for his assistants”, then Wesley must specify somewhere which bits of it must be required.  I wonder where this list might be.