Sometimes the tides of history swell from quiet waters
Sometimes it feels as if history is the monopoly of politicians, monarchs and military men. Understandably enough, they do seem to get the headlines. In truth, we know that the larger tides that change social and intellectual history often swell from quieter waters. One of those tides that swept through 18th-century England and around the world began in the small Lincolnshire market town of Epworth with two brothers, John and Charles Wesley. Today visitors from across the globe make their way to Epworth to follow the Wesley Trail about the quiet town.
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The Rev. Samuel Wesley came to Epworth in 1695 as the Rector of St. Andrew’s Church with his wife, Susanna, and the first four of their 19 children (only 10 of whom survived infancy). Both children of prominent Dissenting families, Samuel and Susanna had each made their choice to live and minister in the established Church of England. Samuel was to remain at St. Andrew’s until his death in 1735; he was buried in a table tomb near the south door of the church.
As Samuel and Susanna’s young family grew, with (among others) the birth of John in 1703 and his brother Charles in 1707, several acts of vandalism and violence marked the displeasure of some in the St. Andrews’ parish. In 1709, persons unknown or unnamed set fire to the thatchedroof rectory. Famously, 5-year-old John was rescued at the last moment from an upper-story window. He never forgot the incident, and attributed his preservation to God’s high call to his life.
A new rectory, long known as The Old Rectory, was built—a lovely, brick Queen Anne manse, suitable for Rev. Wesley’s growing family and for his prominence in the community. The Old Rectory remained home to the rectors of Epworth until 1954, when, in a state of serious disrepair, it was purchased by the World Methodist Council. Following its complete restoration, The Old Rectory was opened to the public in 1957. Today, it makes an appropriate starting point for visitors following the Wesley Trail through the small town. Informed and enthusiastic guides tell the story of the Wesley household and the Rectory’s collection of Wesleyan memorabilia (including Charles Wesley’s music stand).
After a solid education at the hands of their mother, Susanna (a woman renowned for her own learning and moral discipline), John and then Charles made their way to school in London and subsequently to Oxford. There, in the middle of the worldly and often profane university city, they gathered around themselves a group of friends to seriously practice the spiritual disciplines with which they had been imbued by their parents. So regular was this group in their study and devotion that they were given the mocking nickname “Methodists.”
The rest, as they say, is history. No, of course, it’s not that simple. Ultimately, however, John and Charles Wesley went on to lead the most influential religious and social movement of the English 1700s. Though both men took orders in the Church of England, neither followed their father as a church vicar. John Wesley famously declared more than once: “The world is my parish.” He may not have covered the world, but he is said to have ridden some 250,000 miles on horseback and to have preached more than 40,000 sermons.
Wherever John Wesley went, crowds gathered, often walking for miles to hear him speak. Wesley was, if you will, the rock star of his day. More than 500 Anglican clergy, inspired by the man and his message of the evangelical gospel and holy living, became his followers in what became “Methodist Societies” within the church.
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His brother, Charles, meanwhile, no mean preacher in his own right, turned his passion to the writing of hymns, sung at Methodist gatherings in fields, chapels and market squares. In fact, Charles Wesley wrote more than 3,000 hymns, making him perhaps the most famous hymn lyricist of all time. To this day, Wesley’s hymns are a part of every Protestant hymnal in the world, including the popular Christmas carol “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and anthems such as “O for a Thousand Tongues,” “And Can It Be” and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”
It may be a truism, but activism is never popular with the Establishment. The Wesley brothers and their swelling following were certainly controversial within the Church of England. Among Wesley’s contentious practices, sidestepping the formal organization of the Church was certainly one. Wesley encouraged lay preachers and (undoubtedly influenced by his own mother) advocated emancipation and education for women. He established chapels, commissioned and ordained pastors on his own authority and used his influence to champion what we would call today “social justice” and the improvement of human life.
Pulpits of the Anglican churches were often closed to them. When John Wesley returned to Epworth in 1742, the pulpit of St. Andrews Church was denied him. That Sunday evening, John stood on the table tomb of his father in the churchyard and preached to the huge crowd that gathered, many walking for miles to hear him. He put up at the Red Lion Inn on the Market Square and stayed a week. Every evening, the crowds gathered to hear him speak at the base of the market cross outside the inn.
John Wesley returned to Epworth as often as his travels would allow, staying at the Red Lion and greeting his followers and fans. In 1784, when he was 81, he wrote, “I rode to Epworth, which I still love beyond most places in the world.”
The Wesley brothers never intended to start their own church denomination. During their lifetimes, the Methodist Societies remained a movement within the Established Church. John Wesley died in 1791, predeceased by his brother in 1788. Only after their deaths did a final break with the Anglican establishment create what went on to become the Methodist Church—the largest Protestant denomination in the English-speaking world.
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For all that the Wesleys proved the proverbial thorn in the side of the Established Church, across northern England’s mining villages in particular, there are many Methodist chapels that were built for the miners and their families by the mine owners. Ironically, while those owners themselves worshipped at the respectable Church of England, they were happy to encourage Methodism in the working class. After all, workers whose lives were governed by the principles of healthy, holy and temperate living of the Wesleyan faith were just better workers.
Roughly a century after the passing of the brothers, the General Conference of the Methodist Church decreed that a church was to be built in Epworth in memory of John and Charles Wesley. The Wesley Memorial Church was completed in 1889. The stained-glass window at the front of the church depicts Christ commissioning his disciples to go into all the world with the Gospel. The roundel above contains life-size portraits of John and Charles Wesley, taken from their memorial in Westminster Abbey. Above their stained-glass portraits arches the inscription believed to be John Wesley’s last words: “The best of all is, God is with us.”
On the Wesley Trail
Epworth lies in the A161, 23 miles northeast of Lincoln. The closest train station is Doncaster, roughly 16 miles, from which there is local bus service.
Epworth Old Rectory
The house is open from March to October. A program of special events is offered throughout the year. Behind the house, John Wesley’s Physic Garden is an 18th-century walled garden roughly based on Wesley’s book The Primitive Physic.
Red Lion Coaching Inn
Market Place • Epworth
This is the place to stay in Epworth, a part of Wesleyan history and moderately priced. It’s a classic coaching inn, and the food is very good. Get a room in the front overlooking the Market Place; the rear-facing rooms overlook the courtyard, which is noisy with smoking patrons, particularly on weekends. Across the square is the base of the old market cross, marking where John Wesley often preached when he was in town.
St. Andrew’s Church and Wesley Memorial Church are generally open for visitors.