The father of Methodism led a charmed life, narrowly escaping death from fire and angry mobs, and winning converts by his quiet dignity and unquenchable (some would say heretical) enthusiasm.
The parishioners of Epworth cared little for Samuel Wesley. Their worldly ways and fierce independence left little room in their hearts for a curate who took his work too seriously. For the vicar’s part, he showed scant tolerance for anyone lacking a proper fear of God. In this world of immovable objects, Samuel’s son John was born.
Epworth’s animosity towards its spiritual shepherd grew so powerful that when Samuel fell into debt and was imprisoned, he wrote, “A gaol is aparadise in comparison of the life I fed before I came hither.”
As if to verify the vicar’s grim appraisal of his flock, the townsfolk celebrated his incarceration by burning his fields and killing his livestock. Samuel returned home three months later, after a benefactor, the Duke of Buckingham, paid his debt. But Wesley’s troubles with the townsfolk only worsened. On the night of 9th February 1709, they set fire Lo the rectory. The flames feasted on the wood-frame building with its thatch roof and, aided by strong
winds, quickly spread through the entire structure. Samuel, the maid, and most of his many children made their way safely outside, but Samuel could not find his wife, and, to his horror, he heard the voice of five-year-old John calling for help from inside the rectory.
Unable to go back through the fire to the boy’s room, Samuel prayed for God to receive him. God, though, wasn’t yet ready for John. The boy leaped from a window into the arms of a waiting Samaritan just as the building’s roof collapsed. Samuel found John, and his wife, safely together. Having accounted for the safety of his entire family, he then told those who had gathered to lend assistance, “Let the house go, I am rich enough.”
John Wesley never forgot his narrow escape, referring to himself throughout his life as “a brand plucked from the fire.” But the incident did not instill in him an immediate sense of destiny or mission. Within a few years of the fire, he was enrolled in the Charterhouse School, in part through the efforts of an old family friend, the Duke of Buckingham.
There, away from the influence of his devout parents, John took up the undisciplined lifestyle of his schoolmates. ‘the next six or seven years were spent at school,” he later remembered, “where … I was much more negligent than before, even of outward duties and almost continually guilty of outward sins, which I knew to be such? though they were not scandalous in the eyes of the world.” John was probably overly critical of himself, but no doubt he showed little inclination towards the religious “enthusiasm” of which he was later scornfully accused.
John entered Christ Church College, Oxford, in 1720. As he had at the Charterhouse School, he passed his days at Oxford with little thought of entering the ministry until the time came to plan seriously for a career. Seeking advice, or perhaps approval, he wrote to his father to inform him that he was considering whether he might follow in the elder Wesley’s ‘footsteps. Samuel replied that he should enter such a life only in response to a profound conviction, not simply in order to secure an income. John knew this advice to be apt and that his own motivation was more earthly than heavenly.
Wesley's Chapel, Bristol
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It is somewhat ironic that so many of the sites most closely associated with John Wesley are chapels and meeting rooms. Within a very short time of launching his Methodist movement, he had become infamous for preaching outdoors. Those who responded to his enthusiastic brand of preaching formed “societies” whose only meeting places were in their homes.
Soon, though, the ranks of Methodists swelled, and Wesley discerned a need for a more formal chapel. He bought a piece of land and built the first Methodist chapel in 1739. Wesley used the “New Room” not only for preaching but also as a schoolhouse and a health clinic. It is still in use, although there is no regular Sunday service.
The New Room was enlarged and renovated in 1748, but many of the furnishings seen there today are original, including the communion table and the lower part of the two-tier pulpit.
Upstairs are the rooms where John Wesley lived while in Bristol, and where his brother Charles stayed from 1748 to 1749. Both rooms contain many personal items. The Francis Asbury Room, commemorating the man known as “the Saint Paul of American Methodism,” houses displays relating to Methodism’s growth in America.
Still, his mother gently encouraged him, and her words, coupled with his father’s warning, led him to consider his own beliefs more seriously than ever before. He “set in earnest upon a new life,” devoting “an hour or two a day to religious retirement …. I began to aim at and pray for inward holiness.” Soon, he wrote with confidence that “I was a good Christian.”
His peers noticed the change in John and made him the butt of many jokes. His father, who had suffered much worse, encouraged him with the observation, “Surely virtue can bear being laughed at.” One of the quips aimed at Wesley, his brother Charles, and several companions became immortalized in the name that came to be applied to them. “Here is a new set of Methodists,” one wit said, in reference to their strict daily routine of study and prayer.
JOHN WAS ORDAINED ON 22ND SEPTEMBER 1728. While he had been something of an oddity at Oxford, he fit neatly into the High Church establishment during his early years in the ministry, a period he later called “fruitless.” Then, in 1735, his life took another unforeseen turn when he sailed for America, to the recently established Georgia colony, to preach among the American Indians. Aboard ship with John and his English companions was a group of German Moravians.
Wesley greatly admired the courage, faith, and simplicity of these fellow Christians and began to recognize that, in comparison, his own faith seemed superficial. He returned to England to write in his journal, “I went to America to convert the Indians, but O! who shall convert me? … I have a fair summer religion; I can talk well, nay, and believe myself, while no danger is near; but let death look me in the face, and my spirit is troubled.”
Enlightenment came when he attended an informal prayer meeting in London where he listened to a reading from Martin Luther’s commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. John reacted by turning away from the High Church ritual he had practiced since his ordination, then travelling to Bohemia to study under the Moravians.
John initially had no intention of forming a new sect or of separating himself from the Anglican Church, but his newfound energy led him down a path that made such a break inevitable. Banned from preaching in most churches, Wesley undertook the building, in Bristol, of the first Methodist meeting room, known appropriately as the New Room. Wesley’s own description of the chapel came in response to a charge that it was too ostentatious. “The society room in Bristol is adorned, how? Why with a piece of green cloth nailed to the desk, and two sconces, for eight candles each, in the middle.”
WHILE METHODISM NOW HAD A HOME, John did not settle down there. The missionary spirit that had driven him to America now drove him throughout Britain. In a typical year he travelled between four and five thousand miles on horseback—more than 100,000 miles in total during his lifetime. He planned his itineraries to maximize the number of people he could preach to, while at the same time not neglecting small villages he passed through along the way. He continued this routine of horseback ministry well into his 80s, rising at four o’clock each morning because he despised the idea of wasted time.
Wesley’s voice and bearing must have been extremely enticing, for while it has been said that his published sermons reveal no special literary flair, those who heard him speak were transfixed. According to one account, “His expressive features, his vivid eye, his clear voice, and manly, graceful carriage made his hearers either forget his small stature or wonder that a frame so slight should enshrine a manhood so sturdy.”
The effect he had on those who listened to him was never more evident than during his encounter with a mob in November 1742. By that time, Wesley’s deviation from the standard practices of the Church of England—most notably his habits of preaching outdoors and allowing unordained laymen to preach—had made Wesley the object of some inflammatory sermons. As a result, a riot broke out in Staffordshire after a visit by John’s younger brother, Charles. John hurried to the scene to lend assistance. Upon his arrival, a mob surrounded the house where he was staying and demanded that he emerge to face their wrath.
John responded by inviting the ringleader to enter and meet him face to face. Within minutes, the man’s anger had faded. Wesley next invited in two more of the chief antagonists, with the same result. Next Wesley emerged from the house and asked the mob what they wanted of him. When they replied that they would take him before the magistrate, John reacted so peacefully that most of them, feeling their anger was misplaced, returned to their homes.
The rest, still some 200 strong, marched Wesley to the magistrate’s home, but the magistrate refused to speak with them. Instead, his son came out to ask what complaint they had against Wesley. One of the mob replied rather sheepishly, “To be plain, sir, if I must speak the truth, all the fault I find with him is that he preaches better than our parsons.”
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The magistrate’s son sensibly advised everyone to go home. Conceding the wisdom of his advice, 50 men provided John an escort. A second mob intercepted them along the way, and his escort defended him until they were outnumbered and overpowered. Wesley suffered blows to his chest and mouth. He began to pray aloud, and his words so moved his attacker that the man declared, “Sir I will spend my life for you! Follow me and not one soul here shall touch a hair of your head !” Sure enough, Wesley again received an escort back to his lodging.
THE SAME YEAR THE NEW ROOM WAS BUILT, Wesley leased a disused foundry in London and transformed it into a Methodist meeting room. The Foundry was the hub of the Methodist movement for 38 years, and Wesley preached there often. The crowds who flocked to the services often exceeded its 1,500-person capacity, however. Wesley estimated that no less than 5,000 attended the very first service held there. Eventually, the Methodists moved a stone’s throw away, to a new, purpose-built chapel in City Road. This building still stands and contains original furnishings. Wesley’s house sits to the south of the chapel.
These buildings provided one element necessary to turn Methodism from a personal conviction into a full-blown religious order. The other was an organized structure. Wesley provided the necessary missing piece in 1740. That year several men came to Wesley, asking him to share his faith with them. He took note of their names and residences so that he could call on them to offer prayers and encouragement. He also proposed a day each week when they all might gather together. “Thus arose,” he recorded in his diary, “without any previous design on either side, what was afterward called a society ….”
This society quickly grew until Wesley was unable to minister personally to everyone in his charge, so he organized “classes” which met for mutual encouragement and fellowship. Wesley declared that the only requirement for membership in these classes was “to evidence their desire of salvation, first, by doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind,” and “doing good of every possible sort, and as far as possible, to all men.”
Epworth and the Old Rectory
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Following the fire from which the young John Wesley barely escaped, Samuel Wesley rebuilt the rectory, and John and Charles continued to live there. The World Methodist Council restored the house in 1957, and it contains many items that belonged to the Wesley family. The rectory is perhaps most famous for the meetings that Susanna Wesley, John’s mother, held in her kitchen while Samuel was away. Susanna received much criticism for holding these meetings, not the least of which came from her husband.
In reply, she wrote: “I need not tell you the consequences if you determine to put an end to our meeting …. If you do, after all, think fit to dissolve this assembly, do not tell me that you desire me to do it … but send me your positive command, in such full and express terms as may absolve me from guilt and punishment for neglecting this opportunity of doing good when you and I shall appear before the great and awful tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Chastened, Samuel backed down.
Additional sites associated with the Wesleys lie scattered throughout Epworth and include the Market Cross where John later preached, St. Andrew’s Church where his father Samuel had his living, and the Wesley Memorial Church, built in 1888.
The societies expanded rapidly, and the established church’s disdain for them grew apace. Wesley and his followers were banned from Anglican pulpits and from Anglican Communion. The Bishop of London charged them with “enthusiasm,” with believing that they were guided by “impressions of the Spirit of God,” and with believing that God approved of their actions. Consequently, and against his own desire, Wesley separated completely from the Church of England.
WESLEY’S LIFE WAS ONLY HALF OVER when he made his fateful split with the Anglican Church. He spent four more decades, much of it in the saddle, spreading his enthusiastic brand of faith throughout Britain and America. On the first day of 1790, he wrote, “I am now an old man, decayed from head to foot. My eyes are dim; my right hand shakes much; my mouth is hot and dry every morning; I have a lingering fever almost every day; my motion is weak and slow.
However, blessed be God, I do not slack my labour; I can preach and write still.” In that year, the last full year of his life, he returned to Epworth to preach in the village where his life had nearly come to a premature end nearly 80 years earlier. It’s tempting to ponder how differently history might have turned out had God not plucked that young brand from the fire and turned him loose.
* Originally published in July 2016.