Whitehead, Dr John
1740(?)-1804; e.m. 1764

John Wesley's personal physician and a local preacher in London was born at Dukinfield, Ches., in 1740 and educated at a Moravian school at Dukinfield. He was converted by Matthew Mayer in the early 1760s and joined the Methodists. He entered the itinerancy in 1764 and served in the East Cornwall, Athlone, Lancashire/Manchester and Bristol circuits before withdrawing in 1769. He became a teacher at Staines, where he joined the Quakers, who helped him to study medicine at Leiden. In 1781 he became a physician at Letsom's London Dispensary, but in 1784 failed to obtain an appointment at the London Hospital. He rejoined the Methodists in 1784 and became a local preacher. His offer to return to the itinerancy in 1790 was declined by Wesley. As Wesley's physician he was present at his death and preached his funeral sermon.

As one of Wesley's literary executors he was appointed to write the official biography, but a dispute over his remuneration and the ownership of the copyright led to disagreement over the possession of Wesley's papers, fuelled by his distrust of the itinerants and the authority of Conference. As a result, he was expelled from the London pulpits and the other literary executors, Thomas Coke and Henry Moore, hastened to publish their official biography in 1792. Whitehead's two volumes followed in 1793 and 1796 (revised edition, Dublin, 1806). Moore's later life of Wesley (1824-25) drew extensively on Whitehead's, often without acknowledgment. In 1798, after he had restored Wesley's papers to the Conference, there was a reconciliation and Whitehead composed the inscription for the memorial tablet to John Wesley in Wesley's Chapel. He died in London on the 7th March 1804. The large crowds attending his funeral were proof of the respect in which he was held.


'[Whitehead's biography], much more extensive than either Hampson's or Coke and Moore's, benefits greatly from access to the manuscripts. Though it has often been accused of being tinged with party feeling (as one might expect, given the circumstances), the work is remarkably free of polemic. In some ways it is a more balanced work than Coke and Moore's, though the author is not hesitant to criticize such things as Wesley's Deed of Declaration as the cause of Methodism's "corruption and final dissolution" at the hands of a powerful party of preachers. He also attacks Wesley's ordinations of 1784 as, in fact, Coke's "stalking -horse" to gain influence and dominion. Whtehead, a Quaker for some years, was very sensitive to the charge of enthusiasm often levied against Methodism and its leader. He is therefore careful not to accentuate some of the events that emphasize the emotional side of Wesley. For instance, he treats "Aldersgate" as part of a crucial period of transition that extends over the whole of 1738 during which Wesley calmly and rationally considers the evidence (scriptural and otherwise) as to his own state of salvation.'

Richard P. Heitzenrater, The Elusive Mr. Wesley (Nashville, 1984) II p.172

  • Leslie F. Church, More about the Early Methodist People (1949) pp.40-41
  • Richard P. Heitzenrater, The Elusive Mr. Wesley (1984) 2 pp.170-3
  • Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists (Nashville, 1995) pp.314-15
  • Norma Virgoe, 'The Whitehead Controversy: a Provincial View', in WHS Proceedings, 55 pp. 53-63
  • Oxford DNB