History and Thoughts by a Church Member on the Life of John Wesley
We called into Epworth on the way to Scotland . The town is situated off the main roads on slightly higher ground than the surrounding farmlands. I understand that a hundred years before the arrival of Revd. Samuel Wesley, his wife Susanna and their first four children in 1697, it was on the Isle of Axholme, until experts from Holland were called in by Charles I to build dykes and drains to create land for farming.
When Wesley arrived, there was an active Baptism movement meeting in member’s homes in the area. However, the majority of the population worshipped at the parish church.
As we entered the small town from the north we saw that church was situated to the left, whereas the signposts for the “Old Rectory” pointed ahead. We found the Rectory to be on the south side of town, although the Church spire could be seen some way off from the windows of the Rectory. This places the home of the rector nearer to the town’s folk than to the Church. The Rectory is quite spacious. It needed to be as Susanna Wesley gave birth to nineteen children, although only ten grew to be adults. It is in good condition for its age, being rebuilt after fire destroyed the whole building on 9 February 1709.
The fire started within an hour of midnight, when all were in bed. Bits of her bedroom ceiling fell on older sister’s bed. She raised the alarm and the rector and his wife went about the house collecting the children together to escape. Their maid took Charles from his cot, but unfortunately John, the eleventh child, was left in the house on the first floor. His parents were already injured by the fire, but tried to re-enter the house without success. John then awake and climbed out through a window and was lifted down by a slim neighbour who stood on the shoulders of a more heavily build man. At this point, the roof fell in. The house and all its contents were destroyed within fifteen minutes. After that terrible night, Susanna believed that John had been saved for a special destiny, “a brand plucked out of the burning.”
Both Samuel and Susanna came from families of the clergy, who were somewhat rebellious. Samuel’s father was ejected from the Vicarage at Whitchurch in Devon, after being committed to prison for failure to use the Book of Common Prayer. Susanna’s father, Dr. Samuel Annesley was ejected from St. Giles, Cripplegate for being the “St, Paul of the Nonconformists” However, Samuel considered it to be his duty to support the High Church, the Crown, the Tories and uphold moral principles. He came to Epworth from Ormsby after conflicts with his parishioners over these principles. Strict adherence to his moral principles at Epworth made him unpopular with many and in 1702 when the Rectory was set on fire and two-thirds burnt, some thought that this was not an accident. In 1704, his crops were burnt and in 1705, his cows were maimed and his dog’s leg injured. The fire of 1709, when the Rectory was once more burnt down and John made his miraculous escape may not have been an accident.
Susanna Wesley retired every day of her life for a full hour of Prayer and Meditation. John wrote of her, “My Mother was employed in abundance of temporal business, yet never suffered anything to break in upon her stated hours of retirement which she sacredly observed from the age of seventeen to seventy two.”
In 1712, after reading a book produced in Denmark to guide missionaries, Susanna decided that she would train her children in the deeper things of life, including Greek, so that they could study the original words of the Bible. This was then extended to others and included instruction, counselling and prayer. Doing this was against the laws of the Church of England, unless approved by the Bishop or a Priest and women were forbidden to exercise any spiritual or priestly functions. Samuel was away in London at this time leaving a curate in charge of the parish, who lodged a complaint. It is said that up to two hundred of the townsfolk attended Susanna’s sessions of prayer, worship and discussion, more than went to worship on Sundays at the Church.
Samuel wrote to his wife saying that these unauthorised meetings should cease. In her reply, Susanna began with an argument of sweet reasonableness, but concluded that he should must take responsibility, all the guilt and punishment, for neglecting this opportunity of doing good, when they share appear before “the great and awful tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Samuel did not stop the meetings and it is thought that John started the Methodist Class Meetings as a result of these.
John was sent to Charterhouse School in London, where today he is regarded as their most famous pupil. From there he went to Oxford to obtain his M.A., before returning to Epworth where he became his father’s curate. In 1735, Samuel died and the family had to leave the Rectory as a new Rector was appointed at St. Andrews, Epworth’s parish church. At the invitation of General Oglethorpe John was invited to be pastor to settlers in Georgia, in the American Colonies. Charles went with his brother. However, this assigned proved to be not successful and John sailed back to the port of Deal and returned to Epworth, in 1742 and asked the new Rector if he could assist him by preaching or reading prayers. This was refused. However, it was announced at the end of afternoon worship in the churchyard that “Mr. Wesley, not being permitted to preach in the church, would preach here at 6.00 pm.”
A very large congregation appeared and John had to stand on his father’s grave stone to be seen and heard. During the following week, he visited neighbouring villages and preached every evening to great crowds in the churchyard at Epworth. The following Sunday, John preached at Wroot, in the church of his brother-in-law. There was insuffient room for all the folk who flocked to hear him. During the years of preaching throughout the country, John called in at Epworth whenever he could to attend church services and afterwards preach himself at the Market Cross. Although the Revd. John Wesley was appointed to be an itinerant preacher, he also visited prisons, including Newgate. He made visits to Norwich, a natural arena for preaching in Cornwall called Gwennap Pit, to Bristol, where a Methodist preaching room, called ‘The New Room’ was built. He formed Methodist societies throughout the country, which were sub-divided in Classes, which meet regularly in member’s homes. He appointed man as Lay travelling preachers, including John Nelson. He was also active in supporting William Wilberforce’s opposition to slavery.
Whilst John concentrated on preaching, his brother Charles wrote hundreds of hymns, including “Sing to the great Jehovah’s praise,” However, John did translate a number of hymns from the language of their original writers and arranged several others. It seems that John spoke the words such as when he visited the Moravian Church at Aldersgate Street, in the City of London and recalled his moving experience during the service, “My heart was strangely warmed,” and “My chains fell off, my heart was free,” the latter being used by brother Charles in his great hymn “And can it be.” Likewise, John’s words “Now let me gain perfection’s height,” are included in Charles hymn “God of all power and truth and grace”
John was very interested in natural medicines and wrote a book called “Primitive Physick.” He was interested in printing and produced books of sermons, prayers, psalms, hymns, a history of England and even a pamphlet on electricity. I think that John Wesley’s work for God was possible because of what he learned from his mother, Susanna, his father, Samuel, his years at Charterhouse School in London, his time at Oxford University, the support he received from his hymn-writing brother, Charles and the encouragement and attention he earned from those hundreds of thousands who heard him preach. At Charterhouse, which is very much a Church of England establishment to this day, John’s words “The World is my Parish” appear in large letters on the wall. We should not forget that he is owed much not only by this country’s Methodist Connexion, but by Methodists around the world, which greatly out number us, by the Church of England and by Christianity World Wide.
Do all the good you can,
by all the means you can,
in all the ways that you can,
in all the places you can,
at all the times you can,
to all the people you can,
as long as ever you can.
John Wesley 1703 – 1791