Most of my Irish ancestors indicated Methodist on the census forms of the early to mid 1800`s. This roused my curiosity since I knew nothing of Methodism or its founder. What I discovered is fueling ideas for a character in my new novel!
Had you been strolling a country road, in the early 1740s, near Bristol or London you may have observed John Wesley approaching on horseback. He’d have been oblivious to your presence with his face pressed close to his bible and reins laying slack across the horse’s neck. It may have been difficult to see in him, as the man who’d withstand persecution by the Church of England, argue passionately for prison reform, or urge William Wilberforce to continue in his struggle to end slavery. But he did these things and more.
(Please enjoy this Wellspring Podcast of John Wesley and the Methodist Movement.)John Wesley, the father of the Methodist Movement, spurred the faith of people – across England, Ireland, America and the Caribbean – by teaching that religion was meant for everyone regardless of social class and wealth. His teaching methods shadowed the same disciplined approach he applied to his own spiritual life. He strove not to create a new religion, but rather a new way of being Anglican, the church of which he was an ordained minister.
Born July 1703, John was the fifteenth child of Samuel and Susanna Wesley. Through their example, he became a devout man and an independent thinker. In September 1684, John’s father registered as a “Pauper Scholar” at Exeter College in Oxford, tutoring fellow students and serving their evening meal to in order to finance tuition fees. Even as a Church of England clergyman, financial woes plagued Samuel Wesley. His loyalist politics, controversial poetry publications and delivery of verbose academia from the pulpit failed to interest parishioners.
The relationship between John’s parents was often stormy. His mother stood her ground in the face of marital disagreement, stating that “since I’m willing to let him quietly enjoy his opinions he ought not to deprive me of my liberty and conscience”. John’s father often sought refuge by traveling to London.
During one of Samuel’s absences, Susannah took dissatisfaction in the curate’s performance. She took the spiritual well being of her ten children in hand by conducting Sunday evening prayers that quickly expanded into sessions of worship. The rectory floor was soon filled with 200 worshipers, far exceeding the attendance of Sunday morning services. Samuel wrote to Susanna following the curate’s urging that her activities must cease. She promised to desist, as an obedient wife, but warned Samuel that he would be responsible for these souls in need of saving.
John was only six years old when he awoke one February evening in 1709 to discover himself surrounded by flames. His family had been fully evacuated from the Epworth rectory, but it was only after taking a headcount that his parents realized he was missing. The fire’s heat prevented rescuers from reentering the house. John climbed onto a desk and shouted through a window. Onlookers formed a human ladder and boosted Samuel close to the window so John could jump into his arms. Seconds later, flaming timbers crashed into the room.
Susanna henceforth claimed that her son been saved for a higher purpose, “a brand plucked from the fire”. John Wesley would spend his life trying to determine and fulfill that purpose.
In 1715, at the age of ten, John Wesley left the rigours of his mother’s home schooling program for enrolment in Charterhouse School where he would spend the next six years. He was nominated for pauper scholar status by the duke of Buckingham, lord chamberlain to King George, a patron credited with sustaining the Wesley family at Epworth. Following Queen Anne’s death that same year, Britannia’s enemies plotted for the return of a Catholic King. A failed rebellion in the Highlands led by the earl of Mar, paved the way for the Whigs to label every Tory a traitor. The church became a place not for prayer and ministerial duties, but rather an opportunity for patronage and self-promotion. In his adult years, John Wesley would observe this system with disdain.
By 1720, John was studying at Christ Church College, Oxford, where he partook in tennis, billiards, dances, plays and the company of several young women. Upon being elected a fellow at Lincoln College in 1726, he reevaluated his immersion in such social circles. Driven by a need to discover God’s purpose in sparing him from the fire, he directed every waking moment toward the methodical pursuit of faith, free from the commission of sin.
In that same year, brother Charles joined him at Oxford. Together they discussed ways of living, praying and thinking in order to develop strict practices for a more holy life. Charles formed a group of students whose focus was to pray and study scripture. Fellow students mocked their activities by dubbing them the Holy Club. After a stint of working at his father’s parish, John returned to Oxford and took over the running of the club. He operated it in near monastic style, with members fasting and taking communion each week. The Wesley brothers involved the group in aiding the unfortunate through prison visits, giving alms to the poor, organizing education for young children and a loans system that enabled local tradesmen to purchase necessary tools.
John became an ordained priest of the Church of England in 1728. Seven years later, he and Charles set sail for Savannah Georgia, in America, with plans of converting natives to Christianity.
On the crossing to America, their ship, The Simmonds, encountered a violent storm during which John made an important self-discovery. He lacked faith. Below deck, a group of Moravians continued their quiet worship. When John enquired after the source of their calmness, they answered that they were unafraid of death because salvation through grace was for anyone who would choose to follow Christ.
Nearly two years later, John returned to England without Charles, defeated by the failure of his mission and a botched relationship with Sophia Hopkey, the magistrate’s niece. He became overwrought at his deficient faith. Why had he not experienced a transformation, as the Moravians had? “I went to America to convert the Indians, but oh, who shall convert me?”
John traveled to Germany along with friend and Moravian, Peter Böhler, on a quest to understanding Moravian beliefs. Böhler observed that John was ruled by his head, not his heart, owing to his focus on strict practices. He recommended that John preach faith until he had faith. During a Moravian bible study, John experienced the spread of a warming sensation through his heart and he was filled with faith. He felt compelled to share salvation through grace with others. While he preached that man determined his fate, the church protected its Calvinist view by turning him away from their pulpits.
He reunited with George Whitfield, a Holy Club friend, who invited him to preach in the open air. The idea repelled John. The saving of souls was a sin if not performed inside a church. In 1739, John arrived in Bristol to attend Whitfield’s sermon in a field. He moved to preach at his own open air meeting two days later with tremendous results.
The outdoor meeting sites were not the rolling grassy meadow of romantic novel, but rather dangerous locations like mines and brickfields where people battled for their very survival. In the absence of social welfare, schooling, and healthcare, people were considered a resource to be used up and tossed aside. Children toiled underground. The average life expectancy was 30 years.
Audiences flocked to this never before heard message – God’s love was inclusive and they had only to believe in him to access heaven. Religion had never been extended to their class. Pew rents and lack of appropriate raiment prohibited their church attendance.
John Wesley’s ability to organize and educate proved vital in perpetuating the revival’s momentum. He understood that without teachings to grow in their faith, peoples’ enthusiasm would wane. He also insisted that pride in one’s social standing be cast aside. Each man should serve his neighbour, thus addressing the physical needs of the expanding Methodist flock.
To that end, he sectioned his followers into societies. Inside the societies were classes which were further divided into bands. If people had confidence in the leaders of the small groups, they could grow in faith. Lives would be changed.
In 1732, John wrote to his mother, Susanna, asking for the guidelines she employed in educating himself and his siblings. Her approach to educating children had been methodical, with set hours and strict curriculum. Every week, she’d designated an hour for one-to-one time with each of her ten surviving children. Similarly, John visited each society according to a schedule, but as the number of societies grew, the task proved impossible. In 1743, he drafted General Rules for the operation of each society. Circuit preachers were appointed to visit the societies located across England and Ireland, classes of approximately a dozen people studied with a teacher each week, and annual conferences were held for the purpose of coordinating doctrine.
The New Room, constructed in Broadmead, Bristol (1739), was the first building officially licensed for Methodist worship. The site functioned as a residence for John and a place for his preachers to come for instruction, inspiration and support.
Life was not easy for Methodist preachers as many people questioned their motivations. Even John Wesley had suffered physical attacks. He was beset by paid mobs, a prizefighter and once, by a bull purposefully released into a meeting. Although John and Charles were ordained Anglican ministers, many thought they were intent on attacking the Church of England. A challenge against the church equaled a challenge to the state and king. Some people feared the Wesleys were Catholic sympathizers intent upon rallying supporters to overthrow the king. Still others protested open air preaching, claiming that soul saving should be conducted inside a church.
John Wesley continued to open air preach, drawing crowds upwards of 10 000. He’d begin at daybreak and deliver three sermons a day always taking care that his worship times didn’t interfere with local church services.
By the end of his career, he had ridden over 250,000 miles on horseback, preached 40,000 sermons of which he published 5000 in pamphlets. At the time of his death, he’d 79,000 followers in England and 40,000 in America.
This article originally appeared on the award winning English Historical Fiction Authors website.