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IT would be merely impertinent to endeavour to explain or apologize for an attempt to tell the story of John Wesley once again. This great man's part in the development of the English-speaking people is now clearly defined by historians. When he died he left at least 135,000 followers out of a population of 6,000,000. Nothing quite like his organization had been seen in England before, and his ideas were copied both by the Dissenters, roused by his example to missionary efforts and asceticism, and by the Evangelists who worked within the Church itself, led by those wealthy public men, like William Wilberforce, who emphasized philanthropy and personal religion. John Wesley thus stimulated in many points the Church to which he declared to the last his loyalty—that Church which when he was ordained was not searching for men who had a vocation or even theological knowledge. The early eighteenth-century Church of England employed nobles, polished speakers, or mere drudges, and it was only by lucky chance that it enrolled among its bishops men like Butler and Berkeley, so that the religion of the country became drowsy and sank into an arid materialism. John Wesley altered all that; he got away from formalism and appealed to individual experience. His own work, which he loved so dearly, which he had created out of his own flesh and blood, his own brain and energy, was to a large extent bound to fade with his own death; he had been autocratic, and with the closing of his eyes and the folding of his hands the fire died down. He himself had seen that it would. But it left these great effects behind; even the Radicals who differed so widely from his views copied his methods. The horrors in the prisons and the slums that he had helped to point out did begin from that moment to attract the attention of men like John Howard and Samuel Romilly and women like Elizabeth Fry; thus John Wesley influenced the national life at many points.
It is now also accepted that the influence of Methodism helped to steady the country during the French Revolution and prevented a similar upheaval from taking place in England; all Wesley's vast influence and powerful organizations were on the side of law and order; had it not been so our history might have taken a different turn. Besides thus helping the stability of English society—by touching a huge population ignored by the Church, which had not provided for the new potential congregations of the industrial north—he deeply affected the social life of the times. It has been estimated that in the period during which John Wesley worked nearly half the population were paupers; it was these unemployed, outcasts, and criminals to whom the great evangelist appealed, giving them religion as a drug and a comfort; he is now placed with J.-J. Rousseau and Samuel Richardson as one of the great forces that moved the emphasis from the head to the heart, from Rationalism to emotionalism. Whether it was for good or evil that John Wesley so drugged and stunned the illiterate poor with his preaching of Hell-fire, a sentimental "love of God," and his doctrine of a life lived according to rigid rules as the only means of salvation, may be a matter of dispute.
Whether he wrought harmfully or beneficially in fastening the clamps of a terrible superstition on the minds of ignorant and impressionable people, whether his emphasis on self-denial, on austerity, on gloom, on an absorption in the idea of a vengeful God, was to the good or not of the national character must be left in open debate, or referred to the historians who have so carefully and lucidly examined and expounded these matters.
THE watchful mother rested her back against the dingy wall and folded her gaunt hands over the open Bible on her knee; seven children sat on stools before small home-made desks that supported lesson books; a wan and wizened infant lay in the wattle cradle. Small windows let in a watery light that cast deep shadows behind the silent pupils and their stern instructress; the furniture was scanty and worn; a spinning-wheel stood by the hearth with the carefully raked ashes; in a basket near-by were hanks of hemp and a roll of canvas. The quills scratched laboriously on the coarse paper as the words:—
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth...
were traced out by the careful, nervous fingers of the youngest child, John Benjamin. Susanna Wesley's keen eyes glanced from one to another of the bent bright heads of red-gold or red-brown hair, then at the serious, intent faces. Even John's, who was but five years old and had just begun lessons, was serious, almost sad in expression, and Hetty's, often gay and wilful, was grave and composed. Mrs. Wesley was satisfied with the heavy decorum that hung over her little school; her children were well trained, she had mastered them—"conquered their wills," as she termed it; if any of them went astray it would not be her fault, or so she tried to think.
But the weight of her double burden was almost too much even for her strong courage; her fingers trembled on her Bible as she pondered over what she had to do—to find bread to nourish these poor bodies, to find grace to save these poor souls.
In the year 1696 Samuel Wesley, his wife and four children had crossed to Axholme from South Ormsby, in another part of Lincolnshire, where, on fifty pounds a year, the poor clergyman had contrived a decent existence in what he termed himself "a mean cot, composed of reeds and clay," with a child every year and no outside resources, though he struggled to write what might be acceptable both to God and to the paying public.
Mrs. Wesley recalled with grim irony the pleasure with which they had left South Ormsby for the Island; the rectorship of this parish was worth two hundred pounds, less thirty pounds charges, and there was good glebe land as well. Epworth was in the gift of the Crown, and Samuel Wesley had obtained it through his laborious pen; not only had he written in support of the revolution of 1688, but he had composed a heroic poem dedicated to the gentle, melancholy Queen, and, having been chaplain in a great lord's house, he had had sufficient influence to get it presented to Mary II, who was always touched by loyalty to her husband and the affirmation of Anglican views.
Mrs. Wesley differed on this point, as on almost every other, from her husband; she believed in the divine right of kings and could not, therefore, admit the Prince and Princess of Orange to be Sovereigns of Great Britain, but she had been glad to accept the posthumous bounty of the Queen, though she sternly refused to say "Amen" to the prayers for the King. It had been with some hope in her breast that she had come to Epworth—a hope bitterly disappointed—she admitted this to herself as she looked across the marsh land to where the waning light spread faintly in the cloudy sky; landscape and heavens alike the colour of vinegar and ashes.
She had never left the Island, save for the briefest visit to relatives, since she had come there, and those twelve years had been spent in a fierce grind of poverty and a harsh struggle with the wild Fen people, who were certainly in grave peril of damnation, if they were not actually allies of Satan. The inhabitants of Axholme Island had lived in half-barbaric state, contented enough among themselves, until Charles I had given Cornelius Vermuyden a charter for draining the ague-infested swamps of the island. This attempt at progress had resulted in a grim feud between the brutal Fen men and the newcomers, and only after furious disputes and bloody incidents were the "low levels" turned into rich arable lands. The character of the natives had little changed, however, and they had taken very ill the stern and sour attempts of the Rev. Samuel Wesley to reform their manners, point out their sins, and set them on the path to Heaven. His congregations had always been small, though Epworth was entirely Anglican, save for one Papist and one Presbyterian, and every Church matter had always been in dispute between the pastor and his scanty flock, even to the choice of the version of the psalms. Mr. Wesley's favourite was Brady and Tate; the people preferred "Grandsire Sternhold." Among these rude Fen dwellers the gifts, the learning, the refinement of the intelligent and highly educated clergyman were causes of offence. These unpopular merits were, however, not so distasteful to the townspeople of Epworth as the intense seriousness with which Mr. Wesley took his duties. He rounded up the straying sheep with the persistency of a nervous collie, and neither delicacy nor fear kept him from a continual goading of his parishioners, not only with regard to their Church observances but also as to the details of their daily lives. He tried to introduce into his parish the rigid discipline that his wife maintained in her household, and, as Susanna Wesley often thought grimly, he was not so successful as she was; for lately the sullen hostility of the Fenlanders to their harsh parson had taken on a desperate form. Mrs. Wesley gazed now at glebe lands where scorched stalks were all that was left of a promising crop of flax, at barns where maimed cattle were being tended, at a kennel where a watch-dog lay with a bandaged leg; that very morning she had heard a lout shout over the garden paling at her children: "Little devils, we will turn you all out a-begging shortly!"
The man of God was housed, like his kine and his pigeons, in a structure of plaster and timber, covered with straw thatch. The Rectory consisted of five bays, divided into three storeys, seven rooms, and some closets. On the ground floor were the kitchen, the hall, the parlour study; above, the three bedrooms; five years before a third of the Rectory had been burnt down, and not, the Wesleys believed, accidentally; the expenses of restoring the building had been another drain on the miserable resources of the Rector, who had written at the time of the disaster: "I find that 'tis some happiness to have been miserable; for my mind has been so blunted with former misfortunes that this scarce made any impression on me."
Samuel Wesley came of a family that justified his claim that it was ancient and respectable; he was the fourth of a line of clergymen, two of them Dissenters, who had been educated at Oxford. Those sturdy, learned men, remarkable for plain living, religious zeal, and "a peculiar plainness of speech," had bequeathed so scant a supply of worldly goods to young Samuel that he had to look to the generosity of relatives to pay his expenses at Dorchester Grammar School, at Stepney Nonconformist Academy, and to obtain his University education by entering himself, one August morning when he had walked from London to Oxford, "as a servitor of Exeter College." He was then possessed of a keen narrow mind, a vindictive tongue, a revengeful temper, a sincere fear of God, and forty-five shillings. By acting as body-servant and messenger to the other students, with "his work as all his wages," Wesley obtained as good a classical education as the reign of Charles II afforded, while his deep sense of religion and his personal pride were both gratified by visits to the local prison. In Exeter College he was a menial, at the service of every idler who wanted grease on his riding-boots, or a parcel carried; in Oxford Castle he was the mouthpiece of God, preaching a sparkle of icy hope to condemned wretches shivering in the dark. When he left Oxford he left all fellowship with the Dissenters, and in the year of the Glorious Revolution, 1688, he was ordained a deacon of the Anglican Church at St. Andrew's, Holborn, London, and became what was termed a High Churchman.
Ambition tugged at the narrow spirit of the young curate; he wrote many pieces in prose and verse, waited on the young, harassed Queen, with the plan of a Life of Christ, of which she sweetly accepted the dedication. Wesley dared to hope that the royal favour would stretch to an Irish bishopric. But Mary's influence procured for the earnest youth only a chaplaincy in a man-of-war. While in this rough and dangerous employment—for England was at war with France, and naval engagements were frequent—Samuel Wesley found time to hammer out his Life of Christ in eleven thousand lines of heroic poetry, with notes, preface, and the directions for sixty copper plates. Neither this effort of misguided industry nor any other of his literary works—not even his Panegyric on Marlborough—had brought fame or more than a very little money to Samuel Wesley, and there he sat now, a soured disappointed man, nearly fifty years old, with an ageing wife, nine children, a heap of debts, and a mountain of ill-will on his shoulders—forgotten, unnoticed, a learned man drudging among boors.
Such was the situation and such the surroundings of the Rev. Samuel Wesley and his wife on this autumn evening when they were together in the gloom of Epworth parsonage; about them were cruelty, ignorance, bestiality, poverty, malice, a base materialism, people as coarse as the rough canvas they wore and bartered; and the Wesleys' inward, spiritual life was harsh and dark, illuminated only by the horrid glare of Hell-fire. The countenances of both man and wife bore severe traces of their misfortunes; Samuel Wesley was a little man, with pale flesh, withering and crinkling on to the small facial bones, with shrunken, snuff-coloured eyes and lavender-hued lips, restless movements, a perpetual frown, and a brow deeply creased with lines of anxiety; nothing was in harmony in either the spiritual or material life of this embittered man, bowed before his implacable God, defeated by a harsh world where he had never received, he was sure, a fair reward for his gifts and his labours.
Susanna Wesley showed something of the grace and poise of breeding; she was a gentlewoman and conscious of the fact; there were aristocrats among her relations; she was also, for a female, very well educated, and to her husband's chagrin, conscious of that too. Except for one unhappy episode, when Samuel had been under a tutor, John Holland, who had proved to be a drunkard and had to be taken away mad in a cart, Mrs. Wesley had been the sole instructress of her children, to whom she allowed one day in which to learn the alphabet and proportionate periods for the acquisition of other knowledge.
The lighter side of existence had always been avoided with horror by Mrs. Wesley; as a young girl she had made the resolution never to spend more time in amusement than in prayer, and by "amusement" Susanna Annesley meant the decorous distractions afforded by conversation in her father's house or the reading of George Herbert's poems.
A few conventional words were exchanged between husband and wife, and Mrs. Wesley returned to the hall where the children had finished their tedious lessons; here was beauty, though the worn mother did not see it, beauty in the small, delicate faces of the children, in Hetty's red-gold hair, in deformed Molly's "inky locks and taintless skin," in Sukey's brilliant sparkle of colour and light, in the tiny, peaked, resolute face of John, exquisitely neat, precise, and firm, with auburn hair rippling, framing cheeks tinted like a wild rose, in the earnest face of Patty, so like her brother's that, dressed similarly, they might have been taken for two little boys or two little girls.
As Mrs. Wesley lit the rushlights that the children were to take upstairs she glanced aside at her second son; he was very close in her affections; she had named him after two dead children, John Benjamin, and she thought that a peculiar sanctity dwelt on his pure brow; he was an apt pupil, too, and she admired his powers of argument that irritated and confounded his father. Partly because of that, "Jacky will do nothing until he gives a reason for it!" exclaimed the Reverend Samuel peevishly when John on being offered a piece of bread replied demurely: "I will think of it." Thus to reason out all articles of faith and all points of doctrine was Mrs. Wesley's lifelong habit, and so she persuaded herself that she approved John, because he was early on the right path; but, in reality she favoured the boy, because he resembled herself in character, and she knew that she could mould him into a masculine version of herself, and that, through him, all that she had had to suppress and subdue in her personality could be expressed.
The children dropped their curtsies and went upstairs with the stolid maid to the truckle beds under the thatch, where the absent swallows had left their tattered nests and the mice scampered through the straw. Mrs. Wesley seated herself wearily and assumed her usual smile, that was of so mechanical a tenderness that it approached hypocrisy, as she called Hetty to her knee and began to reason with her on her attitude towards her personal religion—her doubts, her perplexities, her temptations. Hetty was nearly eleven years old, brilliant, lovely, and gay; her mother greatly feared for her, even now while she sat meekly, her hands folded in her coarse apron, her eyes downcast, listening to the exposition of the doctrines of death and damnation.
There was a little gentle laughter overhead, and Hetty glanced up with a vivid smile; Mrs. Wesley rose and called up the stairs for silence. "The time will come when you will no longer laugh," she added grimly, looking over her shoulder at Hetty, for she suspected the girl of being sly—that is, of leading some secret life of her own, which she never showed to God or to her mother.
The discourse was over. Hetty crept up to bed, and the maid came down to prepare the house for the morrow; Mrs. Wesley went into the kitchen to inspect the store of food. How long would the bread last? How many ash-heap cakes could be made from the flour left in the bin? The side of bacon had been cut away almost to the bone; the salt-box was nearly empty, the bunch of herbs pulled almost bare. How could they exist through the winter with the crops burnt, the cattle maimed, and what money was coming in to meet the interest on debts?
Mrs. Wesley covered the embers, sent the yawning maid to her bed in the closet near by the children's bedroom, and taking up a rushlight went to the study.
The weary Rector had gone to bed; sheets of manuscript were piled on his desk, books of reference stacked either side of them; the quills lay in the standish, the ink horn was trim and clean; Mrs. Wesley set down her humble light and drew a scrap of paper towards her; she too would indulge in the relief of self-expression, she would write to Samuel, her once afflicted eldest son, dedicated by her to God, who had been for nearly five years at the ancient and celebrated school of Westminster, Saint Peter's College, by the Abbey on Thorny Island, near London. She would, for once, give up the last evening hours usually allotted to communion with God to this letter to Samuel the younger.
"I am concerned for you, who were, even before your birth, dedicated to the service of the sanctuary, that you may be an ornament of that Church of which you are a member, and be instrumental, if God shall spare your life, in bringing many souls to Heaven. Take heed, therefore, in the first place, of your own soul, lest you yourself should be a castaway."
The quill shook in her own hand as she thought of the terrible God whom she served.
"Is it possible that you should be damned? O that it were impossible! Indeed, I think I could almost wish myself accursed, so I were sure of your salvation. But still I hope, still I would fain persuade myself that a child, for whom so many prayers have been offered to Heaven, will not, at last, miscarry. To the protection of the ever-blessed God I commit you, humbly beseeching Him to conduct you by His Grace to His Eternal Glory."
She sealed, addressed her letter, and rose, taking up carefully her lit reed, floating in the hoarded oil; she was cold, stiff, and weary, burdened by the child she carried. "His Eternal Glory"—what did that mean? Absence of darkness and cold, relief from child-bearing, enough to eat and rest—rest?
She went heavily upstairs, the scrapings and rumblings in the old house with her, step by step.
Her husband was asleep in the bed curtained with patched serge; she heard his breathing, coming like the sighs of an exhausted beast, as she went on her knees on the hard boards to pray.
Wizened Charles was asleep in his cradle—another body to be fed, another soul to be saved.
Susanna Wesley pulled back the poor blankets and lay down beside her husband; method—it could all be accomplished by method; by the rigid keeping of rules they might yet all attain Heaven; method—the repeated word lulled her into an uneasy sleep.
ONE sordid misfortune after another fell on the Rector of Epworth; the enemies whom he had made by his pronounced religious views contrived to deprive him of a chaplaincy that he had succeeded, with toil and expense, in obtaining from His Grace of Marlborough, after he had flattered the Commander-in-Chief with a heroic poem; this further diminished Samuel Wesley's miserable resources, and it was impossible for him either to pay the interest due on his large loans or to satisfy small creditors. One of these was a man named Pinder, a relative of Whichcott's, and he, egged on by a violent opponent of the Rector, one Robert Harvey, had the pastor arrested on the steps of his church as he was leaving a baptismal service. The sum owing was thirty pounds, and it could have been raised by the sale of furniture and stock, but the harsh creditor refused even a few hours' grace, and the prisoner was taken, with brutal haste, to Lincoln Castle.
The Rector of Epworth was lodged in a filthy cell, and met in the dismal common yard other unhappy debtors, whom he ironically termed "fellow gaolbirds." These unfortunates soon provided him with an occupation, with an interest in life; two days after his arrival in the Castle the energetic little man in his rusty cassock was catechizing and preaching to the prisoners, besides writing to the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge for tracts to distribute among them. This opportunity of showing his zeal almost compensated the Rector for his lack of liberty; for if he had no freedom, neither had his congregation; they were forced to listen, even to appear attentive, lest punishment should fall on them from the warders; never had Wesley expounded to a larger gathering than that which he found in Lincoln Castle.
Mrs. Wesley, tight-lipped, patient, supported her family on the farm produce, offerings from humane neighbours, and the few pounds that there were in her husband's chest; her wedding-ring, a brooch, and a chain she sent to him to buy food with. "'Tis only what I expected of her," commented her husband. "'Tis not everyone could bear these things, but, I bless God my wife is less concerned with suffering them than I in writing them."
This accumulation of disaster, however, did not long endure; Samuel Wesley's plight was due, at least in the opinion of many, to his stern opposition to men whom he supposed to be enemies of the Church and friends of the Dissenters, and the Church came to the aid of her distressed champion. John Sharp, the Archbishop of York and a Privy Councillor, had his attention directed to the piteous case, and interrupted his studies of his ancient see and the English coinage to inquire into the means of helping the over-zealous priest.
Money, it appeared, was all that was required; Wesley gave a frank account of his debts, which amounted to about three hundred pounds; His Grace of York arranged for the payment of half these and the liquidation of the rest. The good Archbishop even journeyed to Epworth to judge for himself the straits to which the Wesleys were reduced; he was ashamed to see the stark evidences of poverty in the well-kept home.
"Pray, Mrs. Wesley," he asked, "have you ever really wanted for bread?"
With harsh irony the worn matron replied: "Truly, my lord, I cannot say that I have ever been without bread, strictly speaking, but I had so much care to get it, and so much trouble to pay for it, as made it taste very unpleasant to me. I think that to have bread on these terms is the next degree of wretchedness to having no bread at all."
Moved by this from a woman of good birth, who numbered knights and nobles among her relations, His Grace placed a handsome present of money on the bare table; Mrs. Wesley's thanks were stately; she considered that "the comfortable reflections" that the Archbishop must have received from his good deed were sufficient repayment.
A hundred and eighty-four pounds was subscribed for the Wesleys—the Queen gave forty-three pounds—"a frightful sum, if one saw it all together," wrote the Rector, who had "thanked God upon his knees" for this bounty. He was fulsome in his gratitude, and assured Dr. Sharp that if he reached Heaven first "none shall go before me in welcoming Your Lordship into everlasting habitations where you will be tried no more with my misfortunes and follies."
After three months of not unexciting sojourn in Lincoln Castle the Rector was released, freed at last from the burden of debt, grimly self-righteous, eager to print a "vindication" and to triumph over his enemies in the Fens. So unforgiving was his attitude on his return to Epworth that his well-wishers advised him to leave a parish where he aroused so dangerous a hostility. Even Archbishop Sharp thought that it would be wiser to place this fierce flock in the charge of a more discreet shepherd, but Samuel Wesley replied: "I confess I am not of that mind, because I may yet do some good here; and 'tis like a coward to desert my post when the enemy fire is thick upon me. They have only wounded me yet, and, I believe, can't kill me."
And, truly, there occurred an event not long after the Rector's return from prison that seemed as if God at last was taking some part in avenging His faithful servant.
One of the more genial faults of the Fen men was intemperance, and Robert Darwin, returning from Bawtry Fair in a state of intoxication, fell from his horse and was kicked to death. His neck was dislocated, but his friends "pulled it in again" and he lived "till the next day, but he never spoke more." This disaster, clear evidence of the avenging hand of the Lord, raised Mrs. Wesley's spirits considerably. She wrote thus of the dead man to young Samuel: "he was one of the most implacable enemies your father had among his parishioners; one that insulted him most basely in his troubles; one that was ready to do him all the mischief he could, not to mention his affronts to me and the children and how heartily he wished our ruin, which God permitted him not to see." With lively satisfaction Susanna Wesley dwelt on the miserable end of one who had mocked the Lord's anointed: "His face was torn all to pieces, one of his eyes beat out, his under-lip cut off, his nose broken down; and in short, he was one of the dreadfullest examples of the severe justice of God that I have ever known. This man and one more have been cut off in the midst of their sins since your father's confinement."
The malice of the Evil One had, however, by no means finished with the Wesleys. On a February night, in the year 1709, Hetty was awakened by a bright glow in the bedroom, and, rousing, felt a warmth at her feet that gave her a horrid foretaste of Hell; the thatched roof was on fire and blazing fragments were falling on the bed. Hetty's cry of "Fire! Fire!" was echoed by similar shouts from the street; the Rector was roused, and leaping to his door pulled it open on flames; telling his wife and Emilia, who was sleeping in the closet near-by, to shift for themselves, he rushed to the bedroom where five children slept with the maid; clad in scanty night garments the family fled to the hall that gave on to the street; the front door was locked, and the keys forgotten upstairs; the Rector dashed back for them and rejoined the others as the staircase caught fire. The door was now unlocked, but the north-east wind drove the flames from the outside of the house inwards through the opening, so that it appeared impossible to pass them; some of the children climbed through the windows, others, the maid and the infant Charles, escaped through a side door, but Mrs. Wesley, far gone in pregnancy, could neither scramble up to the window nor get to the garden exit; thrice she tried to battle through the flames to the street door, but was as often driven back. The fourth time she took the name of God on her lips and waded through the fire to the street, where she arrived naked, her shift burnt from her back, but unharmed save for a few scorches...
The little street was crowded with people staring at the blazing Rectory; the sparks from the flaming thatch and timber were flying up brilliantly into the winter night, and it was impossible to save the old building, filled with wooden furniture, even had anyone been minded to do so, and no one had brought as much as a pail of water to the rescue. The Rector, his gaunt figure in the torn night-shirt, illuminated by the flames, now counted heads; one was missing, one child had been left behind in the nursery; Samuel Wesley rushed back into the burning house; he thought that he heard a cry from the nursery, and tried in vain to pass up the blazing staircase; but this crashed in before him, and he retired to that portion of the hall not yet flaming and, sinking on his naked knees, commended the lost child's soul to God.
Meanwhile the watchers in the street saw a small linen-clad figure and a delicate child's face peering from an upper window; the little fellow was standing on a chest, against a background of flames.
There were brave and humane men among the fierce Fen people; one now cried out: "Fetch a ladder!" Another answered: "There is no time! I will stand against the wall, set a light man on my shoulders and so we will hand the child down!"
This was done and the boy passed down, as the roof sank in where he had been sleeping; as he came to the ground he ran to his mother, now wrapped in a neighbour's blanket, and explained with much composure that the light in the room had awakened him; he had thought that it was day-time and had called out to the maid to take him from the bed; on receiving no reply, he had peered through the curtains, for he had now a full-sized bed to himself, and had seen streaks of fire running along the ceiling; hurrying to the door he had opened on a wall of flames; he had then climbed on to the chest to gaze from the window at the friendly, excited faces, picked out from the shadow below by the glow of the fire. He was not frightened, and his mother, exultant with a sense of high destiny, clasped him to her heart. "Is not this," she cried, "a brand plucked from the burning?"
Overawed by her sibyl-like aspect and the seeming miracle of the salvation of the Rector's brood, the boldest of the crowd followed curiously, half timidly, to the house where Samuel Wesley had taken refuge from the bitter night air: "John!" exclaimed the rapt father. "John is saved! Come, neighbours, let us give thanks to God, let us kneel down! All my eight children are safe, and I care not for the house!"
The Rector of Epworth found this heroic mood hard to sustain the next day when he walked amid the black ruins of his home and furniture, and the bitter thought would obtrude itself: "If God had saved the children from the flames, who had ignited the thatch at dead of night, when all lights were out, all embers covered?" His enemies, of course, and he feared, for all the noble intervention of Archbishop Sharp, that he was a ruined man again.
Nothing could be salvaged from this heap of ruins save some old iron that had once formed household utensils; all linen, clothes, furniture, and household stuff, a sum of money sufficient to provide for the rest of the winter, the precious books and manuscripts—all—all gone, even the notes for the Rector's projected work on the Book of Job. Samuel Wesley, shivering in his borrowed coat, saw a patch of white among the charred embers—a portion of a leaf of his treasured, costly polyglot Bible—"Vade; vende omnia quae habes, et attolle crucem, et sequere Me." The first part of this exhortation seemed ironic—how could Samuel Wesley sell all he had, when he had just been stripped of everything? But "take up thy cross and follow Me" might be regarded as a grim command to endure this calamity with fortitude.
Fortitude was indeed required; the Rector certainly had now sufficient credit to enter upon the building of another house and the stocking of another farm, but while this work was being done the family had to scatter, far from the vigilant eye of the mother, lodged in the houses of friends or boarded in those of strangers.
Mrs. Wesley bitterly lamented this trial from which many evils resulted; the children, who had been so pious, so perfectly in subjection to their parents, came into contact with libertine natures, were allowed to learn profane songs, to indulge in games and romps "and other bad things," as the anxious mother complained, that they had not known before. A "clownish accent and rude ways" were also acquired that further depressed the precise gentlewoman, and it was with a deep sense of the time and labour required to reform these bad habits that she once more gathered round her in the new Rectory the brood that had been increased by the birth of the delicate Keziah, the nineteenth and last child of Samuel Wesley and his wife. The new building was a considerable improvement upon the old, and Mrs. Wesley looked round at her home with rare satisfaction, while the children, despite her stern checkings, ran about excitedly inspecting the imposing domain. Soon after they were installed in the new parsonage a keen excitement entered the lives of husband and wife. Mr. Wesley naturally took a personal interest in the trial of Dr. Henry Sacheverell, Chaplain of St. Saviour's, Southwark, that took place in 1710. This divine had advocated in sermons, preached at St. Paul's, London, and at Derby, the Tory, High Church cause so dear to the heart of Samuel Wesley, and he hastened up to London to assist the persecuted champion of the Church of England, who was declared by the House of Commons to be guilty of seditious libels and by the excited people to be a martyr. Samuel Wesley threw himself with much feeling into the case and helped Simon Harcourt, Sacheverell's advocate, to compose the speech for the defence.
While, however, he was engaged in this congenial occupation, his own parish was suffering from the lack of his zeal, the curate-in-charge was indifferent to the welfare of the souls of the people of Epworth, and the scanty congregations further dwindled. Mrs. Wesley felt, as she wrote to her husband, that during the Rector's absence it was her duty to look after the souls placed in his care, and she did not consider that mere Sunday attendance at church was sufficient by way of showing religious zeal. She therefore began to hold services for herself, her children, and the servants in the parlour of the Rectory; prayers were read, psalms sung, and when the three boys came home for the holidays their fine voices and ready turn for singing added beauty and grace to these services; Susanna Wesley felt much diffidence at preaching a little sermon. "I never durst positively to hope," she said, "that God would make use of me in doing good. But with God all things are possible—or, as George Herbert better expresses it:—
"Only—since God doth often vessels make
Of lowly matter, for high uses meet—
I throw myself at his feet.
There will I lie, until my Maker seek
For some mean stuff, thereon to show his skill;
Then is my time."
Mrs. Wesley was further encouraged by a book that Emilia had found in her father's desk, which gave an account of the labours of two Danish missionaries who had gone out to convert the heathen at Tranequebar; for several days Susanna Wesley could think of little else, and such a zeal was stirred in her that she conceived the idea of trying to convert the heathen near at hand, the brutish peasants of the Isle of Axholme. She therefore threw open the parsonage services to all, and as many as two hundred crowded to hear the Rector's wife preach zealously and the Rector's children sing sweetly in the side parlour of the new parsonage. This novelty was much liked; those who had not been to church for years attended Mrs. Wesley's services, and many people had to be turned away. The curate, however, and some of the parishioners sent strong protests to the Rector, and he was inclined to agree; stung by the strong-minded woman's encroachment upon his domain, he wrote to her that her proceeding was "very singular," and suggested that a member of the congregation might read the prayers.
An acrimonious correspondence ensued between husband and wife; Mrs. Wesley held her ground with spirit; the complaining curate could bring but twenty-five people to the church, she could bring between two and three hundred to the parsonage, and she marvelled how her husband "could be prevailed upon by the senseless clamours of two or three of the worst of your parish" to try to stop the successful meetings that were bringing so many lost souls to God. Thus faced, Samuel Wesley gave way, and the meetings continued until he returned from London, soured both by the failure of Dr. Sacheverell to secure an acquittal and by the striking evidence that his wife was more capable of doing his work than he was himself. Thus thwarted in two directions, Samuel Wesley turned to the subject that had lately excited his family—missionary labours in the benighted East; he interrupted his studies on the Book of Job to draw up a scheme "for enquiring into the state of Christianity in all our factories and settlements from St. Helena to the farthest Eastern countries." He particularly wished to visit Abyssinia, China, and India, and he thought that some economy of time and money might be made by seizing on "the half converts," the heathen who had come under the influence of the Jesuits, and who might be really induced to accept "the one true faith, that of the Church of England."
The energetic Rector was prepared to risk health and life in this great enterprise, if in the East India Company "or other where" might be found the means of providing a hundred pounds a year salary for himself, forty pounds a year for a curate for Epworth and some provision for his family in case he fell a martyr to his zeal.
But no one was prepared to send Mr. Wesley on these arduous travels, and he had to turn his energies again to the elucidation of the obscurities of the Book of Job, to vigorous attempts to make the farm pay, to supervising his family and his flock, who now showed very little of their ancient hostility towards the Wesleys, partly because of the effect produced by Mrs. Wesley's preaching, and partly because of the fire that had so nearly consumed so many innocent human beings and that had shocked the better feelings of most of the Fenlanders; the people of Epworth had, besides, been impressed by the salvation of the Rector's family in a manner that seemed almost miraculous and by the stern fortitude with which the Rector and his wife had borne their disaster; in consequence active torment of the Wesleys had ceased and the parishioners had shown some interest in, and good will towards, the new parsonage.
At first, peace and hope seemed to reign in the family after all their trials; Mrs. Wesley began another plan of education, sternly insisted on a rigid discipline for every moment of the day, and set herself to reform whatever faults her children had acquired while out of her charge. She had now more energy for these tasks, since she had no more children after the birth of Kezzy in 1710, and was therefore no longer "laid by" for several months of the year through sickness; materially, too, she was more at ease: the farm produced food and fuel, linen and wool, labour was cheap and good, at first at least, the different harvests showed profits, and the Rector was able now and then to take one of the horses and to amble up to London, either to attend a conference—thrice he was elected to represent the Diocese in Convocation—or to argue with the booksellers about some of his own works. Young Samuel, too, pious, gifted, hard-working, had become after two years at Christ Church an usher at Westminster School and could keep himself while he studied for his degree and to enter holy orders. John at the age of ten years had gone to Charterhouse School on the foundation, through the favour of his father's one-time patron, the Marquess of Normanby, now Duke of Buckingham. Charles had outgrown his early delicacy, he was pretty and intelligent, with an exquisite ear for music, and showed a great zest in the singing of songs and hymns; so Mrs. Wesley might have considered herself blessed as regards worldly matters and able to turn her full attention to the terrible task of saving her own soul and those of her children. She had now lost nine of them and ten survived, seven being at home in Epworth Rectory; of these the three eldest girls, Emilia, Susanna, and Mary, were grown women, and the first two were well-trained, capable housewives, able to help their mother with the younger children, while the saintly piety and facial loveliness of the deformed Mary balanced the too high spirits and daring sallies of the charming Hetty, then a maiden growing daily in beauty. Three little girls, Anne, Martha, and Keziah, shared the nursery and the schoolroom with Charles, who was being taught Latin by his father in preparation for his entry into Westminster School.
The household was completed by servants who drudged patiently, if sullenly, under the stern rule of Susanna Wesley, and by the "docile hind" who looked after the farm.
So the family fortunes were at pause; there was that lull in the home life which comes after the last child is born, until the first child goes out into the world; most of the boys and girls were past the most tedious part of their education, and had not yet disappointed any of the hopes formed from their early promise; only the merry natures of Sukey and Hetty caused their mother some anxiety. Mrs. Wesley approved of John especially, who grew more and more in her likeness, and who had distinguished himself at Charterhouse by his intelligence, his aptitude for learning, the spirit with which he held his own among the younger boys, and the courage with which he challenged the elder boys, who tried to filch the meat allotted to the juniors; in this they were often successful, and John for all his courage lived at school, as he had lived at home, mainly on bread. He was, however, one of the healthiest of the Wesley children, not afflicted with the poor eyesight of Samuel and Charles nor with the constant illnesses that made life miserable for Mary and Keziah. And Mrs. Wesley, when he came home for the holidays, rejoiced in his confident air, his bright glance, his personal neatness, his delicate, firm countenance, the cheerful eagnerness with which he sang hymns constantly in his true, pleasant voice.
Susanna Wesley now gave herself more earnestly to communion with God; morning, evening, and during the afternoon she put on her well-kept, better clothes, and thus spotlessly attired she shut herself in her chamber, closed her mind to all worldly thoughts and desires, and endeavoured to get into touch with her God. As she was no mystic, but a very practical woman, the result of this effort was merely a forcing inwards of her mind on to abstractions that were to her only formulae; the love of God, the sacrifice of Christ, the sinfulness of humanity, the prospects of Heaven and Hell.
Once it seemed to her that she had obtained the grace of God or provoked the malice of the Devil, for while praying alone in her room she heard three loud knocks on the door that could be by no means accounted for, since that portion of the house was then empty. Nor was this disturbance the only manifestation of the supernatural noticed in Epworth parsonage; the scratchings and rustlings, so common and so easily accounted for in the old thatched, plaster house, continued in the modern brick building where it was difficult even for the practical-minded to find an explanation of them.
These strange happenings came to a climax in the winter of 1716. On a December night when the Rector was in his study, the girls in the parlour, and the children in bed, a maid who had newly entered the Wesleys' service rushed into the sitting-room and told the girls, whispering over their own affairs by the firelight, that she had heard "a terrible and astonishing noise," which she thought was the outcry of "one in extremis, about to die," in the hall, near the dining-room door; on hurrying to this spot, however, she had found no one. The girls laughed the tale aside, but during the next fortnight they themselves continually heard these groans and cries, and hollow knocking in three times three, much like the Rector's own well-known signal, but by no means to be taken for it, so loud, dismal and unearthly did it sound, and in such lonely places, where there was no human agency to account for it, did it occur. A curious noise that was compared by those who heard it to the rattle of a meat-jack on being wound up or to the clatter of a windmill when it reverses owing to a changed wind preceded the disturbances that were noticed by all the children and servants, though the Rector and his wife appeared to be unaware of what was taking place in the parsonage. After a fortnight of wonder and alarm, Emilia and Sukey put the matter before their mother; Mrs. Wesley's orderly mind detested the unaccountable, yet, as an earnest Christian, she was forced to believe in miracles, in a supernatural world, and in the possibility of God's permitting many mysteries and wonders, without vouchsafing any explanation whatsoever. However, natural common sense prevailed so far over superstition as to make Mrs. Wesley declare that she believed the commotion was caused by rats. She pointed out the long, unused garret that ran over the whole length of the house and that was certainly infested with these vermin, the size and number of the rooms, most of them half empty, and the winter darkness which was only scattered by scarce fires, poor lamps, and tapers or rushlights.
Emilia thought that this incredulity smacked of blasphemy, and Mrs. Wesley had an uneasy feeling that she might be right, when the knocks were repeated violently in her presence, and she recalled similar blows on her own door several years before.
With mingled awe and horror she suspected that this might be the ghost of her son Samuel, who had not written from Westminster for some time, but before accepting this terrible idea she resolved to put it to the test by trying to discover if, after all, the noises were not caused by rats, or some small field animals that might have come into the house. She therefore summoned Robin Brown, the farm hand who helped in the kitchen, and bade him blow a horn on the staircase in order to frighten any living creatures away. The contrary effect to that hoped for was obtained; as if infuriated by a challenge, the invisible power now began to set up a din by day as well as by night, and Mrs. Wesley, as well as the children and servants, was tormented by different noises interspersed with continual knocking; sounds, as if a heavy chain had been dashed down, of breaking pots, of jingled coins, of the breaking of coals or stones, the gobbling of a turkey cock, and the drag of drapery across the floor, were now continuous.
Mrs. Wesley was most vexed at this upset in her orderly establishment, at the gradual spread of hysteria in the inmates of the Rectory, and yet tortured by the suspicion that this might be Samuel trying to tell her that he was dead—and perhaps damned.
At last she went to her husband, who so far had heard nothing, and put the case before him. Samuel Wesley also had a strong, native common sense. He looked up from poring over the legendary marvels of the Book of Job that it would have been infidelity to discredit and said instinctively, angry at being disturbed: "Sukey, I am ashamed of you. Those boys and girls frighten one another, but you are a woman of sense and should know better. Let me hear no more of it."
Mrs. Wesley, however, persisted in her view that as the noises had continued for eight weeks and as he, the Rector, had been the only one that had not heard them, they might portend his own approaching decease or else the death of Samuel in London.
But the Rector returned wrathfully from the wonders in his own house to the wonders in the Old Testament and sent Mrs. Wesley back to the girls.
These were now in a state of violent agitation, alternately laughing and crying, clinging together as they passed from one room to another, and refusing to settle to work on duties; the children Anne, Patty, and Kezzy were alarmed and nervous, the invalid Mary cast herself into a religious ecstasy, continually singing hymns and praying, while Charles, who was absorbed in his studies and his religious duties, kept a cooler head and considered the disturbances with intense curiosity.
These marvels then took on an even stranger aspect; the very night after the Rector had rebuked his wife for her credulity, he was roused by the hollow three-times-three knocks that sounded as if a heavy stick had been struck on a chest; Samuel Wesley was soon out of bed and pulling on his breeches; he was still not persuaded that some trick was not being played on him; the girls were far too wilful, and Hetty, at least, he did not trust; he lit his candle and armed with his pistol went through the Rectory, room by room, searching in every cupboard and corner and even inspecting the dark and dismal garrets.
The elder daughters soon understood his suspicions; he thought that they were working up a panic to cover up some intrigues of their own—possibly even the presence of a lover in the house.
No stranger was found, however, lurking in the Rectory that cold winter night, and from then on the invisible creature, as if angry at having its supernatural origin doubted, began to display some of its powers to the Rector; all the warming-pans, saucepans, and kitchen utensils began to clang and rattle on the walls in unearthly discords; doors opened and banged when no one was near them; latches moved up and down by themselves; lumps of coal leaped from the hods to dash on the floor; boots and shoes danced in their places, and the pride of Mrs. Wesley's housewifery, a pewter tea-set, jumped off the shelf.
Soon the whole family was caught up into an atmosphere of awe and wonder; each member of the household infected and reinfected the others with dread and amazement; marvel on marvel was passed from lip to lip and implicitly believed; some said they felt themselves pushed by an invisible object as they passed from one room to another; Robin saw the empty corn-mill grind round and round and wished it had been full; the girls heard "the rapid steps of a man in jack-boots on the stairs—he was trailing a nightgown after him." A storm rose over the island, and the inhabitants of the parsonage were sure that it shook their house with peculiar violence; the wind seemed to take up residence in the new brick building, which "shook from top to bottom," and howled in the long garret already full of dismal rumblings.
The nursemaid reported that the little ones moaned and sweated in their sleep, Robin declared that the watch-dog howled in continuous dread and refused to leave his side; levitation began; Mary's bed was hoisted up "several times to a considerable height"; when she swept out a room, the sounds of an invisible broom followed her; one of her sisters reported that some silver coins had fallen out of the wall into her lap.
Samuel Wesley kept his head in this fantastic atmosphere, where everything seemed possible; he could no longer doubt that some visitor from the invisible world was in his house; he had been himself so rudely jostled that the powder flew from his wig, and at one Sunday dinner his trencher had risen on end and executed a jig until "an adventurous wretch took it up and spoiled the sport, for it remained still ever afterwards." Then, a peculiar affront had been put upon the Rector's political views; whenever, during family prayers, he put up a petition for the King or the Prince of Wales, angry and mocking noises were heard, showing that the spirit, like Mrs. Wesley, was Jacobite at heart. Stung on a tender point, the dauntless Rector prayed twice over for His Majesty, thus provoking a double disturbance from the outraged spirit, to which Mr. Wesley replied—"that no doubt His Majesty had no wish to be popular with the Devil." The Rector's study was, however, for a long time respected, until he defied the ghost "as a deaf-and-dumb devil" to visit him and settle the matter (whatever it might be) man to man.
This challenge was accepted with a violent knock that nearly shattered the wall boards, and henceforth the Rector had his full share of the disturbances.
The great question now arose: Who—or what—was the ghost?
The memory of a former inhabitant of the Rectory hung about the place; this character had been sufficiently strange for the suspicion of his survival after death to be easily believed, and the odd noises in the ancient parsonage had been put down to "old Jeffrey." This name, therefore, was readily given to the disturber of the peace in the new parsonage, and the servants and children referred familiarly to "old Jeffrey" as if to another inhabitant of the household.
Mr. Wesley, however, remained far from convinced of the identity of the ghost, and decided to take sterner measures than he had hitherto used, especially as the waggons jolting from Lincoln with the London mail brought no letter from Samuel. A relation, Dr. Matthew Wesley, sent at this juncture an invitation to Sukey to join him in London, and she was sent off with warm injunctions to enquire after the welfare of her brother. Shortly before her departure Sukey was writing a letter, when an infernal noise was made all about her, and the night after she had left "old Jeffrey" "knocked till morning with scarce any intermission."
Mr. Wesley now invited Mr. Hoole, a neighbouring clergyman of considerable reputation as an exorcist, to visit the parsonage; when he arrived the situation was gravely and fully explained to him, and he agreed to do his best to discover the nature of the visitant—of his identity Mr. Hoole was more than suspicious, and he and Mr. Wesley agreed, not without relish, that they were probably faced with some activity of the prime enemy of man, Satan himself. "But two good Christians should be a match for him," declared the Rector.
Mrs. Wesley triumphantly related that she had commanded the spirit to leave her in peace when she was engaged in her private devotions, and that these sacred hours had not been disturbed; this seemed like a reproach to the Rector, whose study was so frequently invaded, and he urged Mr. Hoole to spare no efforts to rout the intruder.
The day passed quietly, however, and it was not until after ten at night that the maidservant came into the parlour to gasp out that the ghost had arrived; the two clergymen, formidable in black habits, bands, powdered wigs, Wesley grasping a pistol, ran up to the nursery. There, by the light of a lamp, the exorcist beheld the manifestations of "old Jeffrey"; the children gasped, shuddered, and became covered with sweat in their sleep, the beds were heaved up, the clothes tugged off; there was the usual violent knocking on the wall, three times three; Mr. Wesley became so exasperated at this that he pointed his pistol at the panelling and would have fired had not Mr. Hoole restrained him by saying: "Sir, you are convinced that this is something preternatural; if so, your attack cannot hurt it, and may give it power to hurt you."
Thereupon the Rector put up his pistol and the company went to the girls' room, where Emilia and Hetty, laughing with excitement, were seated on a bed that was being pushed up into the air. The exorcist had to confess himself baffled, and the visitations continued, nor was there any answer to the dauntless Rector's solemn command: "If you are the ghost of my son Samuel, give one knock only!"
This doubt was soon removed, however, by a letter from the young usher, who was alive and well. Minute accounts of the hauntings from various members of the family were sent to both the brothers; Samuel and John were intensely interested in the phenomena; the elder son asked: "Have you dug on the spot where the silver pieces fell out?" in the hope that the spirit was a kindly one that had come to point out the existence of buried treasure; while John was inclined to think that "old Jeffrey" was an imp of Satan, sent to torment his father because of his quarrel with his wife over the prayers for King William. The hauntings had long died away when John came home from Charterhouse School to prepare for his entrance into Oxford, but he at once eagerly questioned all the witnesses to "old Jeffrey's" activities; by then the ghost had become so familiar in the parsonage that the girls jested about it, and little Kezzy declared that it was great sport to chase "old Jeffrey" from room to room, though Emilia confessed that the noises had strengthened her belief in the spiritual world that she had found waning. The spirit had, as Samuel noted, attached itself with peculiar persistency to Hetty and made some of its more violent manifestations when she was alone with her father in the Rectory, and her suspicious parent was still not without occasional twinges of doubt whether the lively girl, sentimental and sly, was not playing tricks with the help of a lover. But nothing whatever to support this theory could be discovered, and even Mr. Wesley was forced to believe in the supernatural origin of "old Jeffrey," although quite in the dark whether the spirit came from Heaven or Hell and what its message might be.
John witnessed none of the phenomena himself, but he accepted without question and drew up an account of the whole business, adding, unconsciously, several embellishments of his own to the strange story. So "old Jeffrey" left Epworth parsonage, but he was never forgotten by any member of the Wesley family; on some of the young people he made a deep impression; this absolute proof of the existence of an invisible world was more effective in inducing a blind belief in God than all Mr. Wesley's carefully prepared sermons and all Mrs. Wesley's dismal exhortations.
Where had the creature come from, if not from Heaven or Hell? Such places, then, existed, and as "old Jeffrey" was possible, anything else might be. The mind of John, unimaginative, intensely curious, was most profoundly impressed by the sworn testimony of so many people to the existence of this supernatural creature. He was a pious boy, so exact in his religious observances that he had been admitted to the Communion table when eight years old, and in his case faith in Christianity as taught by the Church of England and credulity blended into one strong belief. He was not troubled by any doubts or questioning on the subject; he logically argued that, if one was to accept the Anglican doctrine, one might as well accept "old Jeffrey."
John was ambitious as well as pious and quite resolute, and at present his ambitions were centred on being a good Christian—thus evading Hell fire—and a well-educated man, thus evading a life of penury. In order to gain the former end he had drawn up a set of rules, following his mother's principle of "method," and the means whereby he now "hoped to be saved" were:
1. Not being as bad as other people.
2. Having still a kindness for religion, and
3. reading the Bible, going to church, and saying my prayers.
These rules were easily kept by one trained from infancy to do so, and John felt no inclination for the coarse vices, the laziness, and the corruption that he saw about him in London; used to order and the strict observance of strict rules, and with these two definite objects before him—to save his soul and to secure a good worldly position—he found no more difficulty in keeping up regular observances of religion than he did in obeying his father's injunction to run thrice round the school yard every morning in order to preserve his health.
But the Epworth ghost was outside these cut-and-dried rules; here was something unaccountable that had to be taken on faith—that was, as it were, an instance of all the unexplainable matters that God had not deigned to make clear to mankind. In this mood John interviewed his sisters and the servants and transcribed all the entries in his father's diary that referred to "old Jeffrey."
What neither he nor anyone else did was to make a full, cool investigation of these marvels, so that "old Jeffrey's" claim to be a supernatural creature rests on a jumble of evidence taken down at random from a number of witnesses, some peasants, some children, some young girls who may well, as the Rector himself first suggested, "have frightened one another" into collective hysteria, or been the willing victims of some trickster with mediumistic powers.
No one seemed to notice that the noises and sights were of a very homely nature, such as it was in the power of any country household to provide—the sound of a jack being wound up, coals being smashed, crockery dashed down, and so on; there would have been no difficulty in a clever, artful person's making, especially in the night and by artificial light, these noises with domestic utensils; doors are easily unlatched and pushed open by a light-footed person who is quick and cunning in such a way as to seem supernatural, and once a thrilling atmosphere of ghostly adventure is abroad in a household and every inmate infected with a delicious excitement, the most ordinary occurrences will take on an unearthly air.
As for the rappings, the levitations, the dancing of the trenchers and the pewter services, and the agitation of the sleeping children: these are common features of all such manifestations, always admitting that they took place, and must remain among other unsolved mysteries of this type. Many of them were present in the "Cock Lane ghost" case that stirred all London in 1760, and was finally discovered to be an imposture. If Elizabeth Parsons, "a little artful girl about eleven years of age," could trick the sharpest minds in the capital for a long period, it is not difficult to credit that one of the children in Epworth parsonage could have imposed on an enclosed household of excited young people long enough for the harder heads of Samuel and Susanna Wesley to be made giddy and confused. Besides, these two staunch Christians were bound to allow themselves to be deceived, for to doubt "savoured of infidelity," as Emilia sharply reminded her mother.
Nor was the evidence, vague and untrustworthy as it was, fully tested. It is unfortunate that neither Samuel nor John thought of putting a few straight questions to their sisters and the servants, such as: "Of what coinage were the silver pieces that fell from the wall? Who had loose money in the house, was any missed, was this hoard part of it? How could the girls tell that the sound of dragging drapery was that of a nightgown? Of what nature were these storms that shook a new solid-brick building 'from top to bottom'? Did the other houses in Epworth suffer in the same way? Moreover, and most important of all, was constant watch kept over the long, disused garret that ran the whole length of the house and might easily have hidden someone who was making the knocks and the other noises?"
No attempt at this kind of investigation was made, so "old Jeffrey" must remain a tantalizing mystery.
After the commotion caused by the ghost had died away and as there was no return of his tricks, the Wesleys settled down to a humdrum way of life. Charles was sent to Westminster, partly at the charges of his brother Samuel, who was now mingling with distinguished company in London. Alexander Pope, Francis Atterbury, and Robert Harley were among the associates of the young schoolmaster, who was much liked for his amiable character and warmly admired for his gifts; in 1718 he obtained his degree and fulfilled the vow that his mother had made before his birth by taking Holy Orders.
The remaining cost of his third son's schooling did not fall on Mr. Wesley; this was defrayed by a Mr. Garrett Wesley, who had some claim to belong to another branch of the same family. Other burdens were lifted from the ageing Rector's shoulders, but not altogether to his satisfaction, though he was delighted when John obtained an exhibition of forty pounds per annum from Charterhouse and entered Christ Church, Oxford, June 24, 1720; he had previously waited on Dr. Sacheverell with a letter of introduction from his father, and found the famous divine "as tall as a Maypole, as proud as an archbishop," and disgustingly discouraging—as successful age is inclined to be to aspiring youth.
John was "a very little fellow," who looked younger than his years, and the haughty and fashionable clergyman told him to return to school and learn more Latin and Greek before he thought of the University. This tone was unendurable to John, who "despised" his mentor "in his heart," and thought that he knew far more of the classics than did Sacheverell, and "looking at him as David did Goliath" resolved that no commands nor entreaties would make him return to seek patronage in this quarter, and so, dauntless and iron-willed, John went to Oxford to live on his forty pounds and any help his father could squeeze from the glebe lands or his pastoral dues.
Other children left the Rectory, and under less happy circumstances. After dangling high hopes in front of the eager girl, an uncle in India decided not to leave Sukey any money, and not to return to England, and Dr. Matthew Wesley could no longer keep her in his London house. She returned home in despair to face a life of drudgery, rural seclusion, and the iron piety of her father and mother, who were straining along the road to Heaven with a bitter fervour that grew sharper with their increasing fatigue. In order to escape this rigid home poor Sukey made a hasty marriage with a neighbouring gentleman of means and position, one Richard Ellison, who was so disliked by the Wesleys that the Rector called him "a wen on the family," and Mrs. Wesley wrote of him in these terms to her brother, whom she blamed for the match: "My second daughter, Sukey, a pretty woman and worthy of a better fate, when by your unkind letters she perceived that all her hopes in you were frustrated, rashly threw herself upon a man, if man he may be called, that is little inferior to the apostate angels in wickedness, that is not only her plague but a constant affliction to the family."
Emilia, who for many years had faithfully toiled beside her mother in running the thrifty, pinched household, had at last broken away from home to teach in a boarding-school for girls in Lincoln; she was handsome, spirited, sharp-tempered, and had been unlucky in an affection for a man who had not wanted her. She had also had considerable differences with her parents and "wished to be out of their sight." In Lincoln she was comparatively happy; the school, though strict, seemed freedom compared to her mother's rule, and her salary was wealth when compared to her father's penury.
Four daughters remained at home; the youngest, Keziah, was ten years old when John entered Christ Church, and she, like her sisters, was completing her education under her mother's eye. The girls were all equally well-trained in religious and domestic duties, and all were gifted; Emilia was eloquent and dramatic, a superb reader of the magnificent lines of Milton; Hetty was a brilliant versifier, a good Greek scholar as well as a wit and a beauty; all had musical talent, and Mary, who had, as she said, "lived in a state of affliction ever since I was born, being the ridicule of mankind and the reproach of my family," had a gift for piety that rendered her "half angelic" and an object of adoration to her family.
The years with their burden of disappointment and monotony had not softened the stern spirit of Samuel Wesley; his strength of character, the unyielding fortitude of his wife, and the fascination of his gifted family had gradually worn away most of the fierce opposition with which he had once had to contend; the Fenlanders had become used to this grim vicegerent of God, even fond of him and disposed to regard with pride his bold severity and the harshness with which he upheld Church discipline. His vigilance against the wiles and lures of Satan was still unremitting; lax morality and breaches of Church rule were sternly noted and quickly brought to book by the indefatigable Rector.
"I ever thought it my duty," he declared, "to prevent those persons who were obnoxious to it [the Church]...unless the criminal was so sturdy and so wealthy, as that I was morally certain I could not do it without my own inconvenience or ruin, in which case God does not require it of me."
This seems like an admission of the superior power of Satan, since God did not even expect a tussle with infernal powers if they were backed by wealth, but it left the Rector with a number of lesser victims on whom to vent his punishments, and not infrequently the gaping congregation would see some backslider publicly refused the Lord's cup, or—an even more zestful spectacle—standing barefoot on the mud floor of the church, pinched with cold and shame, wrapped in a white sheet, for three successive Sundays. No one felt more gratified by these displays of penitence than Mrs. Wesley, whose absorption in the problem of salvation had become more acute as her span on earth shortened. For herself she dared now to hope that she was saved; addressing herself she argued thus: "If He had been willing that you should perish. He might have let you perish without the expense of so many miracles to save you. Why did He give you birth in a Christian country, of religious parents, by whom you were early instructed in the principles of religion?"
There was comfort in this reflection, but when Mrs. Wesley recalled those two dreadful years before her marriage, when she had been tempted by the heresy of Socinianism, she trembled again. Would God ever forgive her for considering for twenty-four months the doctrines of Faustus Socinus, who had denied the existence of the Holy Trinity, taught that Jesus Christ was a divine teacher only, and that the Bible was to be interpreted by the light of reason? Mrs. Wesley had long weaned herself from any desire for what the world calls pleasure, though she was distressed to find that she did not yearn for death with the fervency proper to a Christian, for she could not stifle her affection for her children, though she sternly discouraged any enthusiastic expression of regard, even from her favourite John. Socinianism might be cast out of her religious life, but it was by the rules of reason that she governed her worldly affairs—reason by which she endeavoured to guide and control her emotions.
So the years came and went in Axholme with little to mark them but the changes of the seasons; the crucified trees on the red-brick "fronts" of the Rectory were whitened by blossom, enriched by fruit; the Rector tended his plums and mulberries, his apples and cherries, pleased with the agreeable labour, vexed at the lack of profit the quarterly accounts showed; the meadows ripened for the scythe, the pastures were green and lush where the cattle grazed, and the saddle horses were put out to grass; in the dairy the maids worked with pail and churn; in the hall the servants sat, between harder labours, at spinning-wheel and weaving-frame; in the parlour the girls wrote verses, sang, read, sewed, and discussed their modest fortunes. Their graceful figures in full skirts, tight bodices, with fine muslin kerchiefs knotted over slender bosoms gave touches of brilliancy to the dark, sombre house; their eager faces, bright beneath the glossy ringlets and prim caps, were like glimpses of earthly pleasure and hope in this atmosphere heavy with dull resignation, and anxious striving for a Heaven neither properly understood nor clearly visualized.
THE old University city was a stately and pleasant place when John Wesley was entered at Christ Church, and even he, who had no aesthetic sense, who was insensitive to beauty and ugliness, who required nothing save order and neatness to satisfy him in his surroundings, was agreeably impressed by the rich, elegant buildings of mellow-coloured stone, and their enclosed secluded quadrangles and flowery gardens, their spires and towers that rose impressively from the lush riverside meadows. These shady walks by cloister or Thames-side, these halls, chapels, and rooms, venerable and admirable by association and dignified by painting, sculpture, carving, and coloured glass, seemed suitable indeed for laborious, earnest study, tranquil contemplation, and polished academic discussion.
In truth, however, the great University, as John Wesley soon discovered, was in a miserable condition, and those who left its colleges as learned, cultured, or able men were reaping the reward of their own labours, not the merits of the University system or the efforts of their tutors. It might with justice be said that during the greater part of the eighteenth century the lax discipline, the ignorance, laziness, and venality of professors and tutors, and a debased standard of public morals had reduced the University, founded for the encouragement of learning and culture, to a forcing-house for vice, folly, and extravagance, where the sons of the wealthy paid for leave to stay away from lectures that the tutors never delivered, bought their degrees, and laughed at work, and where the sons of the poor, like the Rector of Epworth, polished boots and swept floors in return for what education their industry could wrest from teachers idle, cynical, and dissipated.
The University was, however, exceedingly rich in what was then termed "the mechanical apparatus of learning"—that is to say, there were fine libraries, well-endowed professorships, handsome scholarships, and many generous prizes, and it was possible for one endowed with an iron will, a constitution impervious to hardship, and a mind and heart fortified against an enervating atmosphere, sensual temptation, and the jeers of fools, to obtain what the period considered a brilliant education.
Such people are rare in any time and in any place, and John Wesley, looking about him when he first took up residence in the beautiful College, found himself surrounded by idlers and ignorant wastrels, such people as his parents had always taught him represented those that garrisoned the outposts of Hell. The young man felt a conscious superiority that intensified his natural arrogance; it was hardly possible for him to feel humble in the company of people so lost that they did not even know that they were in danger of damnation.
That, indeed, John Wesley soon perceived, was the fatal lethargy from which England was suffering; the country did not know that it was in pitiful peril of Hell fire.
Even an observer more impartial than the young man from Epworth Rectory would have found the age degenerate, lawless, lukewarm, without spirituality or enthusiasm, corrupt, and cynic. The nominal Christianity of the Church of England was vague, disheartened, and careless; at Oxford the Thirty-nine Articles were subscribed to by each student at his matriculation, but no one was expected to read the document that he had signed, and this was typical of the attitude of the Church as a whole; as long as the forms were allowed, the substance might be ignored. Christian ethics were outwardly accepted and privately defied; morality in State and family alike was at a low ebb, and crude, cruel, and disgusting vices disfigured every aspect of life. Deism, so much dreaded by earnest Christians, was popular and served often as a mask for Atheism or vague, comfortable disbelief, not only in revealed religion, but in a personal God.
Most people, either out of apathy or out of fear, acquiesced in the Church of England, but few gave the institution more than lip service; a brutal intolerance was shown towards Roman Catholics; a lukewarm friendship to the Dissenters, whose services in 1688 could scarcely be overlooked, and in whose thin and sombre ranks nearly all the sincere religious feeling of the country lay. But though there might be the strength of conviction and much loyalty to ideals of orderly conduct and what can only be termed "respectability" among the Puritans of various denominations, they were too narrow, too joyless, too absorbed in money-making and censorious watchfulness over one another to contribute to a rich spiritual national life.
The fundamental vice of the country was corruption; the extensive and skilful use of bribery had long before this period made the much-vaunted Constitution of England, her laws, and the liberties of Englishmen, a mere formula. The power exercised by birth, position, money, was enormous; to be born a "lord" was to be born to a position with only a few vague responsibilities and limitless opportunities of self-indulgence and aggrandizement; to be born outside the privileged classes was to be born to an existence of poverty, struggle, neglect, and frustration. The social services were scanty, badly administered; corruption ruled the little official as completely as it ruled the big official, and, worst of all, ignorance joined carelessness in a veritable dance of death. All the diseases due to filth, debauchery, and drink were endemic; lack of sanitation, indifference to personal cleanliness, absence of knowledge of the danger of dirty food, of contagion or infection, gross self-indulgence, caused an appallingly high rate of mortality and produced maladies that darkened the lives of the majority of the population. The story of the eighteenth century in England is a story of disease; few indeed were those who escaped some searing affliction of nerves, body, or brain, and the gloom induced by a loosely held religion, vague and cheerless, was intensified by constant physical suffering. The worst aspect of the age showed in the unspeakable condition of the prisons, in the treatment of the poor and infirm, in the hideous severity of the punishments meted out to criminals, in "pressing" and "crimping," in the treatment of soldiers and sailors, of children and animals—in brief, in injustice, brutality, and greed. The best aspect of the age showed in the efforts, feeble and spasmodic but sincere, of the minority to mitigate these horrors, and in the widening trickle of the humanitarian movement that had begun under William and Mary and been warmly fostered by the latter. The peasantry were in a state of ignorance and poverty; the unparalleled beauty of the English landscape was heightened by the cosy prettiness of farm, cottage, and hovel, but these were insanitary, inconvenient, and often in disrepair; farming was backward. But what hampered progress more than anything else was the extreme difficulty of transport. There were no canals, and the roads were of the most primitive description; old Roman highways mended by the casting down of unbroken stone, or winding cart-tracks divided by deep ruts; poor and sparse inns, robbers, and the danger of being lost or stranded in some wild place, made all travel dangerous and in some parts of the country impossible. There was no properly organized public travel service; the brief reign of the stage coach had not begun; those who had not their own carriages or horses had to use the rude carriers' waggons that jolted from town to town, conveying passengers as well as merchandise. Badly administered laws that should have been admitted to be obsolete (the severity of the penalty for crimes causing a corresponding laxity in their execution) resulted in the country's being practically unpoliced and therefore either in the hands of those wealthy or socially powerful enough to enforce their own way, or in the hands of those wretched, desperate, and bold enough to defy the law. The noble and the criminal, the duke and the footpad: these, in their different spheres, enjoyed the greatest measure of freedom; in the lordly mansion enclosed in the sumptuous park, in the thieves' kitchen hidden in the impenetrable city slum, men and women lived according to their own desires.
The classes in between these extremes, tyrannized by one and terrorized by the other, lived as best they could, paying lip service to the State that could not protect them and bowing the knee in the Church that offered no spiritual food, while the innate good qualities of the race were working, often unconsciously, towards finer ideals than these and better social conditions in which to exploit them.
Such was, in rough outline, the world on which John Wesley looked out from Epworth Rectory, from Charterhouse, from Oxford University. It is impossible to understand John Wesley and what he did unless his background is known and understood, since even the greatest of men must be in some degree a product of his times. The earliest of his many remarkable qualities to develop was his courage; this was of the temper that may truly be termed dauntless; it brought with it the serenity associated with fatalism; the young man rightly felt that everything was possible to one who was never afraid.
At home he had held his own against his formidable father and his lively brothers and sisters, and had identified himself with his stern mother, not from fear but from respect and admiration; at school he had not abated a jot his principles or his pretensions, he had calmly faced the brutality of the elder boys and established a leadership among the younger ones; now, at Oxford, he pitted himself against the whole corrupt, decaying institution, was not shifted by a hair's breadth from the convictions that he had held during his infancy nor from his determination to rise high above this crowd of dissolute idlers with their wenches, their gambling, their cock-fighting, swearing, and drinking.
As he had no money, he had to work, and this suited his disposition; he become an excellent classic scholar, studying Hebrew as well as Greek and Latin, according to the standards of his day; he possessed many of the qualities useful for any kind of success—industry, the power of concentration, joy in mental exercise for its own sake, self-confidence, and a cool imperviousness to the temptations of idleness, pleasure, or vice.
He was a careful manager of his small means, but even so was often in financial embarrassments bravely borne; he spent his holidays at Epworth, with occasional visits to Samuel at Westminster or to Emilia at Lincoln, and he kept in touch with the various members of his family by means of a frequent and lengthy correspondence.
Moreover, he was intensely curious about and interested in the supernatural; "old Jeffrey" had convinced him for ever of the existence of an invisible world, and he looked out eagerly for other evidences of the strange dealings of God and Satan with mankind; this trait has been termed "a wonder-loving credulity," but how is credulity to be distinguished from faith? Wesley had either to doubt like the sinners or to believe like the saints, and to one brought up in the Epworth tradition of Christianity all things must be possible.
John Wesley was possessed of a fine brain, a strong common sense, a lively intelligence, and his fascinated probings into the supernatural were really prompted rather by efforts to convince himself, against himself, of the reality of the miracles inherent in Christianity, than by any pleasure in fantasy; this indeed was far from his practical, unimaginative nature.
Several little incidents came to support the authenticity of "old Jeffrey"; John Wesley, walking along the Oxfordshire roads, saw a deserted house with a neglected garden; he was told that it was haunted by ghosts, and at once he planned to spend the night there in order to test the truth of this assertion. He was also much impressed by the tale that he had heard of a boy in Ireland who had a habit of flying through the clouds and supping with "demigods" in the heavens. Into what portion of Wesley's rigid theology did these deities fit? Another matter came nearer home; three Christ Church men, wandering in the river fields, had seen "a ghost"—of what appearance or nature we are not told, and it was afterwards known that the mother of one of the students, a Mr. Barnesley, had died in Ireland at the exact moment that her son and his friends had glimpsed the apparition.
John put these strange cases before his mother; Susanna Wesley still unconsciously retained a good deal of her dangerous Socinianism; though growing daily in faith as far as it meant belief in her chosen God, these senseless spectres irritated her common sense, and in her reply to "dear Jacky" she sifted the mystery through the sieve of reason, and found it reduced to rubbish.
"I do not doubt the fact," she wrote (this was probably not true), "but I cannot understand why these apparitions are permitted. If they were allowed to speak to us, and we had strength to bear such converse—if they had commission to inform us of anything relating to their invisible world that would be of any use to us in this—if they would instruct us how to avoid danger, or put us in a way of being wiser and better, there would be sense in it; but to appear for no end that we know of, unless to frighten people almost out of their wits, seems altogether unreasonable."
Her acid comments left John where he was; he had to continue in blind belief in all the ghosts, goblins, and imps of Christendom, for to reject the least of them was to reject the God who permitted their vagaries.
His immediate goal soon became Ordination with a living obtained through the influence of his father's friends or through his old school; to this end he read "good books," wrote theses, and studied dead languages; he was a cheerful companion, much liked for his even temper and air of breeding; neat and exquisitely clean in his person, he could never have been taken for anything but a gentleman; his features never lost their infantile delicacy; they were precisely shaped and freshly coloured; to save the expenses of a barber and a peruke he wore his own hair long; it was of an auburn-brown colour, parted in the middle, smoothly brushed and curling at the ends; nor was John insensible to the charm and distinction that these profuse bright locks gave him among so many wigs and floured heads. His dark habits were always well-brushed and well-fitting; his plain linen spotless, his nicely-kept hands had a feminine grace and slightness; his expression was cheerful, even gay, though his constant smile had a fixity that savoured of hypocrisy and that was contradicted by his eyes, singularly bright, of that quality known as "piercing," because they seemed to give out rays to dart into those they looked at. He was short, of no more inches than the little Rector of Epworth, but he dominated every company he was in, and his good proportions prevented him from appearing dwarfish.
His uncultivated gift for music found vent in a spontaneous singing; not only at the set times, in chapel and church, at festival and in choir, but in his rooms, during his walks and his meditations John Wesley sang the hymns and psalms of the Church of England that he had learned in Epworth Rectory. He wrote verses, too, more than mere exercises; some a translation from the Latin about Chloe's favourite flea, some original couplets, some hymns.
His diet was spare, he neither drank nor smoked, and his health remained, for that period, exceptionally good; but he was troubled with bleeding from the nose and mouth that sometimes "almost choked" him; one such attack was cured only by his throwing off his clothes and leaping into the river; he thought, evidently mistakenly, that he was threatened with "consumption"; the trouble was probably not tubercular but due to congestion and catarrh.
Mrs. Wesley blamed the long locks for these bleedings, and urged Jacky to crop them and buy a wig, but the young student, who, as he said to his sister, "could scarce afford the postage for his letters home," could not undertake the expense. Much to his distaste and in spite of the low fees that his tutor, Mr. Sherman, accepted, John was sometimes forced to borrow money, and his mother wrote in concern about the "good, generous man that lent you ten pounds," and of whom she was forced to beg a further period of grace.
Mr. Annesley had not arrived from India, but his sister had been "amused" by tales of his possible return; she could not help thinking longingly of this rich brother who might yet be the means of her being able to provide for her children. Without this hope the worldly prospect seemed dark; "a few crumbs" were to be garnered out of Epworth for the scholar at Christ Church, and the anxious harassed mother could only urge Jacky: "I only wish you were in Orders and could come and serve as one of your father's curates. Then I should see you often and be more useful to you than it is possible to be at a distance."
But her warmest consolation could stretch no farther than: "Dear Jack, be not discouraged; do your duty; keep close to your studies and hope for better days."
When John had been two years at Oxford, his father also "pressed" him to take Holy Orders, though he reminded him that it must not be "to eat a piece of bread, but for the glory of God and the good of men."
The "piece of bread" was there in the shape of any of the livings at the disposal of the Governors of Charterhouse, one of his father's curacies, or Wroote, the second Wesley living, "the hovel" on the flats. Nor did there seem to be any other worldly prospect before the young man, unless he, like his brother Samuel, were to take up teaching.
John was, however, convinced, on other than worldly grounds, of the expediency of entering the Church. He chanced to read The Christian Pattern by Thomas à Kempis and Holy Living and Dying by Jeremy Taylor, and was deeply impressed; though his life had always been exemplary, he now began to think of himself as a sinner, lost in sensual indulgences, and to experience a fervent desire for what he considered true holiness; the emotionalism of his developing manhood had to find some vent.
His letters home had hitherto been filled with such matters as the surprising escape of Jack Sheppard from Newgate, the frosty weather, the cheapness of apples, the theft of a cap and wig snatched from the head of an acquaintance, a cut thumb, papers of his own verses, and commentaries on such books as De Cheyne's Book of Health and Long Life; now they posed religious questions and asked the opinions of his parents on his proposed entry into the ministry.
Mrs. Wesley was pleased but not enthusiastic; she wished her son, she wrote, to examine himself seriously, whether he felt he had "a reasonable hope of salvation." If Jacky felt that he was in a proper state of faith and repentance, well and good; "if not, you will find a more reasonable occasion for tears than can be met with in a tragedy." A tragedy such a state of mind would be indeed, for it would mean that John, who had never done a wrong action and had scarcely had a wrong thought in his life, would feel certain of eternal damnation.
Mrs. Wesley added tartly: "it is an unhappiness almost peculiar to our family that your father and I seldom think alike," and in this case the Rev. Samuel was inclined to urge John to "critical studies" in preference to striving to discover if or no his soul was saved.
Meanwhile the money for John's ordination fees was hard to come by. Mrs. Wesley had read in the Gazette that her brother was due to arrive from India in a certain ship, by a certain date, and she took the desperate step of coming to London to meet him. Mr. Annesley was not, however, in the ship, and Mrs. Wesley had no other satisfaction from her tedious journey than a sight of Samuel, then laid up with a broken leg. Despite this disappointment and debts to the amount of three hundred and fifty pounds, the Rector of Epworth grimly resolved to scrape together the amount necessary to pay John's fees. He urged the candidate, still fascinated by a Kempis and Jeremy Taylor, to read Saint Chrysostom and a manuscript of his own entitled Letter to a Curate, while he tried to interest the Bishop of Lincoln in the young student.
For her part Mrs. Wesley sent John a coolly-reasoned letter on repentance, by which she seemed to mean regeneration, and stated she faced "a heavy financial reckoning for you and Charles."
The family fortunes were now at a low ebb; Emilia during a visit to London had fallen passionately in love with a certain Mr. Leybourne, who became a dear friend and companion to the handsome intelligent woman. She declared that "his love was sufficient recompense for the loss or absence of all other worldly comforts." Neither Mrs. Wesley nor the younger Samuel approved, however, of the proposed match, and interfered "to break the correspondence," to the bitter heartache of Emilia. Added to this trouble was the increasing misery of Sukey's marriage and the wilfulness of Hetty, fast passing, in her parents' opinion, maidenly discretion and decency. Anne had left home to marry John Lambert, a local land-surveyor, a dull fellow given to intemperance and no proper match for a daughter of the Wesleys.
Over all these people, over the wretched marriages, the thwarted love affair, the invalids, and the frustrated women, over the toiling mother and the three industrious sons, hung the unrelenting threat of poverty; all were inclined to blame the father for ill-management: he could not make the farm pay, his absorption in the Book of Job preventing him from earning any money with his pen, and he seemed to be ever deeper and deeper in debt, for no good reason.
In September, 1725, John Wesley took Holy Orders. His state of mind at this period is not clear to us and perhaps was not to himself; he had undertaken serious self-examination; he had kept a book in which he noted how he spent his time; he lived so piously as to be jeered at by "gentlemen candidates," whereby his father was provoked to exclaim: "Does anyone think that the devil is dead or asleep or that he has no agents left?" and he had argued with his mother about predestination, in which he could not believe—all on the surface at least was piously orthodox and, if the level-headed young man who never did anything without a reason entered the Church with secret, perhaps unconscious, hopes of gratifying, not only ambition but arrogance, no one could know as much.
The prelate who ordained John Wesley was John Potter, then Bishop of Oxford, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury. He had been secretary to Archbishop Tenison and Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford; a self-made man, a skilful theologian, and a fine classical scholar, he showed a kindly interest in the young candidate whose subsequent achievements were to be his own most tenable claim to remembrance.
A few months later (March, 1726) John Wesley was elected Fellow of Lincoln, that "little college of theologians" founded by Richard Fleming, Bishop of Lincoln, in 1427. The Fellows, who were bound to be in Holy Orders, were obliged to take an oath against heresy, for Fleming had been suspected of Lollardry and wished to efface this taint. "Whatever I am, my Jack is Fellow of Lincoln," rejoiced the stout old Rector of Epworth, who had but five pounds to keep his family on until harvest time, but who now felt well repaid for the effort it had cost to send his son to Oxford University.
John Wesley was thus relieved from the worst pinch of squalid poverty; his Fellowship carried with it rooms and a salary, and he soon obtained the appointments of Greek Lecturer and Moderator of the Classes. The latter position meant that he took the chair at the daily debates that were a prominent feature of the academic life in Bishop Fleming's College, where logic was developed into a whip for the Devil. John Wesley's ambition was also gratified; his industry had been rewarded, his gifts recognized; he began to have a shining reputation in Oxford; with zest he set himself to fulfil his new duties. Greek and Latin on the first two days of the week, Logic and Ethics on Wednesdays, Hebrew and Arabic next, Metaphysics and Natural Philosophy on Fridays, Oratory and Poetry on Saturdays, Divinity on Sundays: a triumph of method as inculcated by Susanna Wesley.
In the same orderly fashion he set himself to continue the struggle for salvation; he carefully followed out the rules of the Church, lived according to rote, and even carried his priggishness to such a pitch that he avoided the acquaintance of all not likely to help him on his "way to Heaven." But his natural pleasantness of disposition and his easy courtesy made him liked, if not popular, and he could not fail to be respected.
John Wesley's worldly position might then be considered fortunate and very suitable to his character and attainments, and there seemed no reason why he should not remain for the rest of his days a prudish smug Don, with a mind as narrow as the path he was so daintily pursuing to eternal bliss.
He was now pledged not only to believe in but to teach the doctrines of and to uphold the Church of England. His mother's strong views on this subject were shown in her letter to Samuel, the son she had dedicated to God. She thought that to be a clergyman required an almost impossible standard of conduct—"what separation from the world, what purity, what devotion, what exemplary virtue are required in those who are to guide others to glory! I say exemplary, for low, common degrees of piety are not sufficient for those of the sacred function."
The anxious mother could scarcely have supposed that Jacky was showing more than "low, common degrees of piety" by living comfortably in Lincoln College, engaged in those "critical studies" that she thought so lightly of. She considered that he should be in active control of a flock of sinners, and for this and some more worldly reasons she urged John to leave the cloistered ease of Oxford for Axholme, where he might struggle to save the souls of the unregenerate Fen men, of whom Hetty Wesley wrote:—
High birth and virtue equally they scorn
As asses dull, on dunghills born.
The Rector of Epworth also urged his son to come and undertake the Wroote curacy, and there John Wesley repaired in August, 1727, and took up "residence in the thatched-roofed parsonage amid the swamps where 'pigs and porkets,' 'kittens and whelps,' 'quacking ducks and fluttering hens' made a lively din about the sodden glebe land. For some months of the year Wroote was accessible only by boat; the parishioners numbered two hundred, their heads being 'as impervious as stones' and their hearts little better." It was no wonder, then, that Wesley afterwards admitted of his Wroote curacy: "I preached much, but saw no fruit of my labour."
During his residence at Wroote John wrote to Samuel an account of the various members of the family still at home, and the elder brother found these not to need "further explanation." But tragedies were taking place under the eyes of the prim young curate, and some of them were due to his meddling. Emilia had again gone to Lincoln as a schoolmistress and was thinking of investing her savings in a little school in Gainsborough; she was past thirty-five years of age, handsome and vivacious, and had fallen deeply in love with a doctor of medicine—"an excellent physician, a companion, and a friend to whom I could speak freely at all times the most passionate lover," as she lamented. But this suitor was a Quaker, and therefore repugnant to the Wesleys; John, in particular, urged his sister "as a strict duty" to part with "this faithful friend, this delightful companion," and Emilia looked upon John with "the tenderest regard" and would never "wilfully disobey or grieve him "; so her dilemma was cruel, and the unfortunate woman saw her life's happiness sacrificed to a cruel intolerance and a spiteful fanaticism that she was misled into thinking was the Divine will. She resigned herself to her dreadful God—"my Creator seems to have decreed me to a life of suffering here, and always deprives me of what I love, or embitters it to me. Who can contend with omnipotence?"
But what mattered his sister's broken heart to John Wesley? He felt that he had helped his own salvation by preventing a Quaker from entering the family, and continued to live by the rules that he had written in the front of the book in which he kept his Journal.
1. Begin and end every day with God and sleep not immoderately.
2. Be diligent in your calling.
3. Employ all spare hours in religion as able.
4. All holidays as holy-days.
5. Avoid drunkards and busybodies.
6. Avoid curiosity and all useless employments and knowledge.
7. Examine yourself every night.
8. Never on any account pass a day without setting aside at least an hour for devotion.
9. Avoid all manner of passion.
As yet no severe temptation had come his way; even the dull life at Wroote was not disagreeable to one absorbed in self-improvement. John Wesley had gained much applause with the three set pieces that he had delivered when he received his Master of Arts degree (February, 1727), De Anima Brutorum, De Julio Caesare, De Amore Dei, and it was with an eye to future academic distinction that the diligent young man sat over his books under the rotting thatch of the parsonage, a mud floor beneath his feet, and bogs beyond the farmyard without his window. His calm self-absorption not touched by Emilia's sorrow was, however, a little ruffled by the more poignant tragedy of the brilliant Hetty.
This is obscure, and so hushed up and evaded even by the family itself that it is difficult to know the details of what was a hideous disaster in the opinion of the Wesleys—the backsliding of the one, as the mother put it, that outweighed the virtues of the other living children, more bitter than the loss of the nine dead children. The lovely, graceful Hetty was now past her first youth, and her beauty, charm, gifts, and learning had not enabled her to leave the parsonage, where she drudged alike for mother and father, for more than an occasional visit to London to Uncle Matthew Wesley, who was very fond of her. She had had several suitors, but these being of the "airy and thoughtless class," were sternly dismissed by the parents. Soon after John came to Wroote, however, Hetty was sought after by a young gentleman of the neighbourhood who seemed a brilliant match for the portionless young woman. The Rector, however, quarrelled with him on the score of his supposed ungodliness and forbade him the Rectory; but Hetty, in love, frustrated for years in all natural desires, escaped from the house and eloped with her lover. Tragedy quickly overtook her. Whether the man refused to marry her, or she realized the enormity of her offence and left him in horror; whether he seduced her or attempted to do so, or they quarrelled on some point of pride or delicacy, certain it is that the miserable woman, formerly so gay and wilful, crept home humbled and broken, was received like an outcast, reproached as a lost soul, and regarded as dishonoured and utterly degraded. The most pitiful part of her tragedy was that she acquiesced in the condemnation and accepted the imposition of a lifelong penance for her fault—in "expiation of her sin," as she allowed it to be called.
This, the Rector decreed, should be marriage with the first "honest" man who asked for her soiled person and tainted affections; Hetty vowed to obey, and a suitable candidate appeared in the person of an uneducated artisan, one Wright, who was a worker in white lead—plumber—a journeyman who travelled from place to place mending pipes and metal-work; in other words, a travelling tinker.
To this husband the fair, sensitive, and gifted Hetty was given in (probably) 1729; John disapproved of the grotesque match, thought his father was harsh, and said so, even hinting at paternal severity in a sermon he preached at Wroote; but he could not save his sister, whose bitter lot was only slightly sweetened by her Uncle Matthew's giving her five hundred pounds as a marriage portion.
The husband took this as a matter of course, and decided to purchase a business of his own in London; so Hetty, dimmed and stricken, left the parsonage to take her place beside the rude mate chosen for her as "expiation for her sin" in the rude waggon jolting to the capital.
Samuel the younger was Head Usher of Westminster School, and thus was able to visit the Wrights when they set up business in Frith Street, Soho; Charles, after being Captain at Westminster, had entered Christ Church, Oxford, where he was doing brilliantly; Sukey's marriage continued in a state of wretchedness; Emilia, torn between love and duty, opened her little school at Gainsborough; and at home in the parsonage, now too large for the smaller family, were the old parents and the unmarried daughters, invalid Mary, nearly thirty-five years old, Martha, a year younger than John, and Kezzy, a sickly girl of nineteen years.
Over this diminished flock the aged mother still sternly presided. She was, as she had said of herself in the year of John's ordination, "infirm, slow of understanding, full of unpleasant business," besides being embittered by Hetty's dreadful sin; but she continued to wrestle with God for the souls of her children in the desperate hope that even the lost one, if she suffered enough on earth, might at last be admitted into Heaven.
IN October, 1729, Dr. John Morley, the Rector of Lincoln College, wrote to John Wesley, desiring him to return to Oxford to fulfil his duties as Fellow and Moderator, as was required by the Statutes. Dr. Morley had been a useful friend to the Wesleys and, besides the dislike of disobliging him, there was the fear of losing the valuable Fellowship, so John, by no means reluctantly, left the blockish congregation on whom his scholarly sermons had had no effect, mounted his neat nag, and rode back to Oxford, where his fellow-dons gave him a courteous welcome, and where he was stimulated by reading the Vice-Chancellor's edict, posted in the college halls. This was against the Deists and urged all professors and tutors to keep their pupils in the way of orthodoxy.
John Wesley was in Oxford for another five years. During that time his fortunes were static; he remained a prim High Church parson, remarkable only for his association with the religious movement started by his brother Charles and some fellow-enthusiasts, and interested only in the preservation of his own soul and the vicissitudes of the Epworth establishment. These remained uncertain; many hopes were centred in "Job" at which the Rector still toiled; influential friends continued to solicit subscribers for this monumental work; the Rector of Epworth was described to Dean Swift by Lord Oxford as "a man in years, yet hearty and able to study many hours a day; in short this is the labour of an honest, poor, worthy clergyman, and I hope that you will take him under your protection."
In 1731 the wealthy brother Matthew visited Epworth, and was shocked at the evidence of stark poverty—after all his generous help, too! The visit of the London doctor caused a great stir at Epworth—"all the town," wrote Mrs. Wesley, "took the alarm and were on the gaze, as if some great prince had been about to make an entry."
The Nonconformist Dr. Wesley was quiet and reserved, though amiable and courteous, "behaved himself very decently at family prayers," and, when the Rector was absent, said grace before and after meat.
When the rich brother left he took Martha with him to stay in London; he had been very fond of and kind to all the girls; he loved Hetty and was grieved at her wretched marriage. When he returned home he addressed a stern letter to his brother, whom he reminded of "a plentiful estate" and "great and generous benefactions," adding that he thought it "a black account" that Samuel had not provided for his unhappy family better; in short, he thought the poverty of Epworth a disgrace "which shocks me to think of." He had also evidently been exasperated by Samuel's and piety, for he added sharply: "I must advise you to be frequent in your perusal of Father Beveridge on Repentance and Doctor Tillotson on Restitution, for it is not saying, 'Lord! Lord!' that will bring us to the Kingdom of Heaven, but doing justice to all our fellow-creatures." Thus the Nonconformist to the High Churchman; Samuel was not impressed though doubtless stung by receiving some of the admonitions he gave out so liberally to others; he still quoted his large family, his two fires and his initial debts as excuses for his poverty, but his wife tartly agreed with her brother about the Rector's mismanagement of his affairs.
These became worse; unhappiness hung more darkly over all the Wesleys; Sukey left her husband, who lost all his land in the floods that drowned all his cows and horses "save one." Hetty's boorish husband drank away all her marriage portion and taught his own vices to his brother-in-law Lambert, who had moved to London, and Kezzy had to leave the school at Lincoln, because she had not a sufficiency of decent clothes. Mary, at thirty-seven years of age, married John Whitelambe, who had taken Holy Orders; this was the one happy marriage of the Wesley sisters. Whitelambe was penniless; John and Charles had to make up between them the thirty shillings that was the price of his clerical gown, but his father-in-law requested the Lord Chancellor to transfer Wroote to him, and there he took his wife in tender joy and deep affection. "They love the place, though I can get no one else to reside at it," wrote the Rev. Samuel, and to these two meek, simple people the little thatched house amid the swamps was home indeed; they felt themselves very near Heaven on the Lincolnshire fens that they glorified with mutual love and modest hopes.
Within a year Mary was dead in childbirth, and John Whitelambe, almost frantic with grief, followed the coffin of his wife and child into the little brick church; John hurried to Wroote to preach the funeral sermon; poor Hetty, who had lost her own infant through lead poisoning, wrote an epitaph, and Samuel an elegy on the lost sister.
Martha's story promised to be the happier; Charles visited her when she was staying with her Uncle Matthew, and brought with him a brilliant young man who was one of his own students, Westley Hall, who was of seductive manner, handsome, of unexceptional character and good prospects. He paid secret court to Patty, entering into an engagement to marry her without letting her brothers know of it, his excuse for this lack of candour being his youth and state of pupilage; he was well off and appeared orthodox in his beliefs (he was studying for Holy Orders), so Patty felt that she might count on a stable, serene life. When John and Charles visited Epworth in the summer they took Westley Hall with them; he saw the delicate and pining Keziah and immediately offered his hand, a proposal that her brothers urged on her acceptance.
Keziah was indifferent even to the charms of the lively young man; she was too deeply sunk in melancholy to be easily roused; she thought her suitor "worthy of love" but could not draw her mind from contemplation of death; she wished to disengage herself from the world and thought "the single state the most excellent way." However, the advice of her relations prevailed, and Kezzy accepted Mr. Hall, and even allowed her gentle and timid affections to centre on him, only for him to return to London, renew his engagement to Martha, whom he soon married.
This cruel desertion finally turned Keziah's mind towards Heaven, and accepting the wrong with fortitude, she forgave Westley Hall and set herself to await an early death.
Martha's husband obtained a cure at Wootton, and for a while this marriage seemed to be at least not as tragic as those of Hetty and Sukey, but the deception of Keziah darkened Martha's life, even though the meek woman came to stay with her sister in token of full forgiveness and Hall glossed over his conduct by declaring it had been the result of a revelation of the Divine Will, an argument that the Wesleys were chary of refuting.
John Wesley had had his full share in all these turns of fortune that concerned him deeply, for he was very fond of his family; he was also anxious about his brother Charles, who had, on first coming to Oxford, shown himself spritely and lively, even tainted with worldliness, and who when rebuked for his levity exclaimed: "What, would you have me a saint all at once!" Samuel was now married, interested in his own home and had accepted a mastership at Blundell's School, Tiverton, so that the responsibility for Charles fell solely on John, who regarded his younger brother with grave uneasiness.
Charles was a far more attractive personality than John; short, thick-set, with weak eyes and a poor constitution, he possessed a rich, warm, affectionate nature, the lovely gifts of poetry and music, a generous vivacity, a lively enthusiasm that graced all he undertook; though allured for a while by the pleasures natural to his youth, early training soon asserted itself and Charles seriously turned his mind to the subject—religion—that was an obsession with his family. Far more original and gifted than John, he at once began to create something definite of the faith that the elder brother was content to leave a matter of orthodox keeping of rule.
Like all people of genius, Charles had followers, and he found no difficulty in moulding these weaker characters; when John returned from one of his Lincolnshire visits, he found that Charles had formed a "Holy Club" or little band, consisting of himself, a sickly youth named William Morgan, and Robert Kirkham, long a friend of John's, who much admired his sister Betty.
John approved of the little community and at once assumed the leadership of it, while adding to its ranks several of his own divinity students. He had lately been deeply impressed by Christian Perfection and Serious Call, by William Law, the elder Edward Gibbon's tutor, a curate who had left the Church on refusing to take the oath to George I, and whose books had impressed a wide public. While attending to the painful affairs of his family, John had pondered much over these two books, with the result that he determined "to be all devoted to God, to give Him all my soul, my body, and my substance."
It seemed that all John's yearnings after holiness, salvation, authority, and leadership were to be fused in the organization of this Holy Club, which Charles, who greatly loved and admired him, willingly put into his hands.
Here was a chance to put into practice that love of method which he had inherited from his mother and which-he had seen her so firmly practise; he had, too, already experienced the thrill of meddling with souls. At the funeral of a young woman he had met a friend to whom he had spoken so forcibly of death and damnation that the other declared himself "converted," a state that endured until his death of consumption, a fortnight later, and the prospect of renewing this experience was tempting to the young don. At first the Holy Club met to read the Greek Testament together, then they began to discuss what the actions of the day had been, to pray and sup together, to draw up rules; it was the strict observance of these that gained them, among other nicknames, that of "Methodists."
This was not a new term; Wesley himself declared that it was given to some Roman physicians who advocated the strict regulation of diet and exercise, and it had certainly been used in Church disputes as early as 1639. At Oxford, however, it appeared "new and quaint" and clung to the little band of dons and undergraduates whose behaviour attracted a good deal of attention in the University. They were called also "enthusiastics," "Bible bigots," and excited an equal amount of derision and sympathy. There were even complaints to the Bishop of Oxford about the new club, but he could find no fault with the little fellowship, and the old Rector sent encouraging letters from Epworth: how could either he or his wife disapprove of anything so methodical as these "Bible moths"?
The name, though given in derision, was not inapt; these diligent students were almost wearing away the pages of the Holy Book by study, searching for guidance, precedents, inspiration; they tried to get back to the rules of the Primitive Church, to find out what really was the Divine Will; they communicated regularly in the Cathedral, they prayed, fasted, meditated, even "let blood" to cool their bodies, and began to visit the sick, the poor, and the infidel.
From the first John Wesley's leadership of this group of Oxford Methodists was never disputed, and the conception of Christianity that he then so enthusiastically embraced was one to which in the main (his opinion was modified on many side-issues) he remained faithful. His mental position was a curious one; he had given up the intellectual pursuits that had fascinated him—his Euclid, his Newton, his probings into ancient philosophies and speculations—lest his faith should become unsettled; he declared himself that, if he had continued these investigations, he must have become a Deist, if not an Atheist—or at least have reached that state of mind which says: "There must be something somewhere, let us call it God."
John Wesley was then afraid of knowledge and the reasoning arising from knowledge; he wished to force himself into a blind faith in the religion into which he had been born and bred; yet he was equally afraid of mysticism. This was against his nature and he persuaded himself that it was against his convictions; he dallied with it for a while, for it offered an easy way out of many difficulties, but he soon found it impossible to tolerate anything vague, without rules, inexplicable, unreasonable, anything that obviated, too, the necessity for a Saviour, for if man could get into direct touch with God, what need of a mediator, a sacrifice, or any of the elaborate machinery of sin and redemption to which John Wesley was pledged? So the mystics went with the scientists and philosophers, and the desperate seeker after salvation was left with only faith on which to fall back; he could not, however, relinquish his intellectual birthright, or wholly stop his mind until it was like a run-down clock, even though he had denied it food and freedom, and so, forced into one narrow channel, his intellect tried to reason itself into faith, thus turning an emotional into an intellectual process.
John Wesley still wanted everything proved as keenly as he had wanted it in his nursery days, but he now shut out of his consciousness everything but Anglican Christianity, refused all side-issues as temptations or sin, and thus forced an energetic, brilliant mind into a strait jacket.
At first this attitude seemed simple; keeping the rules held him up like an iron prop. How could one anger God if one implicitly obeyed Him?
A strong will and great moral courage found no difficulty, either, in overcoming carnal weaknesses; coarse sensual temptations had never been a danger, for they had never appealed to a delicate ascetic nature, but John enjoyed his sleep, secular conversation, the company of witty, clever people; he was excited by profane books, like Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels; he had an intense intellectual curiosity; every new invention, every discovery, all the fresh movements in science, art, and letters delighted him exceedingly—but all these things could be, and were, resigned; he rose earlier and earlier, he ate less and less, his reading was sternly confined to "good" books, he avoided the company of all who were likely to waste his time. At Wroote and Epworth he had sometimes taken his sisters to fairs, shot plover on the marshes, danced at village festivals, taken his wine and beer with the rest.
No more of any of that; the harmless merry-making, the stimulating conversation, went the way of optics and mathematics; he could, and did, live strictly, sublimating mind, emotions, and spirit into one channel. It was an extraordinary intellectual feat, such as only a great man could be capable of—this forcing of the reason to believe what the reason rejected; this mental search for, and acceptance of, what has usually been tolerable only when approached through heart or spirit. John Wesley tried to reach the spiritual condition of the mystics and the saints by the way of pragmatism.
He was not altogether satisfied that everything was well with this system; his note-books show a torturing self-analysis; feelings, doubts, instincts, arose in him of which he was deeply ashamed; neither human nature nor common sense could be totally extinguished, since there was no triumphant blaze of spirituality to quench their small but steady flames.
Still all the rules were so well kept that John Wesley could feel at least outwardly confident, and he was much upheld by the applause of his followers and much gratified by the exercise of his innate qualities for leadership and organization.
These impressed William Law, who had written the two books that had so moved Wesley, and who had formed a close acquaintanceship with his admirer: "You will want to convert the whole world," was Law's tribute to Wesley's burning energy and rare singleness of purpose.
Two dear pleasures John did not resign, but this was because he incorporated them in his main purpose; his love of music and poetry was used for the continual singing of hymns, often of his own composition, to the glory of God, and his delicate friendship with Betty Kirkham was refined into a tender care for her soul.
Since 1725 Wesley had been intimate with, and paid frequent visits to, the Kirkham family at Staunton, Gloucestershire, where the father was Rector, and Robert, the cheerful young theological student, who was one of the first Methodists, wished and expected to greet Wesley as his brother-in-law.
But the young don shrank from marriage, and not altogether for financial reasons; he was inclined to agree with Keziah that a single life was the "better way" and a wife would mean not only the end of the bachelor life in Lincoln that suited him so well, but the loss of the monetary dues from his Fellowship, his main source of livelihood. Not in the least sensual, John Wesley liked the companionship of women, in whose delicacy, submissiveness, and elegance he found a great attraction, while the refinement of his own nature was gratified by feminine sensitiveness. Few religious leaders have been able to resist the seductive flattery offered by the female disciple, and John Wesley enjoyed to the full this delicious homage.
All his romantic needs were satisfied by the fair Betty Kirkham, "so known, so loved," as Martha said of her, and affectionately termed "dear Varanese." It was a rectory lawn, tea-cup, and a Sunday parlour flirtation, frail and a little unctuous; Varanese was perhaps "the religious friend" who had first urged Wesley to take his faith seriously, and now it was his turn to instruct her in holy practices. He spent some delightful holidays in Staunton, where he was much admired not only for his holiness but for his breeding, his elegance, his appearance of almost porcelain neatness that was made peculiarly attractive by the unusual auburn curls and the brilliant eyes that weeping over his sins with his fellow-Methodists had not dimmed.
Martha thought that Varanese was "so dear" to John that she well might make him forget his family, but the delightful friendship was dissolving without rancour or regret; Betty Kirkham was being wooed according to the fashion of the world by a man she afterwards married, a Mr. Wilson, and in the discreet glades of Staunton Wesley had met the proper heroine for a moonshine idyll.
The Kirkhams were well connected, and among their guests were frequently the two nieces of the first Lord Lansdowne, who had been imprisoned in the Tower for Jacobitism after the "Fifteen," but who had been released to become the friend of Addison and Pope; these two ladies were Miss Ann Granville and Mrs. Mary Pendarves, a young widow. Lovely, fashionable, artificial, and cultured, they represented all that was most superficially attractive in the aristocracy of the time and were far more cool, brilliant, and seductive than any other women whom Wesley had ever met. He made no attempt to resist their polished charms, and a little Arcadia was formed at Staunton that was the feminine counterpart to the Holy Club of Oxford. The ladies lent a lighter air to the strenuous aims of the Methodists; gravely interested, the sisters hovered, like butterflies, on the edge of conversion, listening with deference when Mr. Wesley urged that they should rise early and set aside various hours in the day for public and private prayers, avoid concerts on Sunday evenings, read "good" books, while they on their side undertook to refine those manners undoubtedly well-bred but marred by those little "improprieties" that came from the lack of knowledge of the world where the sisters belonged.
John Wesley had never met ladies like these before; his own mother was a well-born woman, nicely trained, but her gentility had somewhat rusted at Epworth and she had never scintillated as did the Granville ladies. Wesley was delighted with their misleading humility that he believed to be sincere and that he prayed that he might be enabled to imitate, for he still felt that he had too much pride; the little coterie indulged in the fashionable game of pseudo-classical nicknames. Charles and John were Araspes and Cyrus, Ann was Selima, and Aspasia was the title under which John Wesley sighed for the fascinating widow. He was really dazzled; the fair women seemed to him "the image of God" and he fell in love not so much with Mary Pendarves (whom he hardly knew) but with gossamer Aspasia, who turned to him for religious instruction, who declared that she saw "the beauty of holiness" in his precise countenance, and who corresponded with him in languishing, provocative, fastidious letters.
They did not meet very often; he had to return to his duties at Lincoln College, she withdrew into the great world of London or Dublin, which Wesley visualized as full of sparkling temptations against which he anxiously warned her; but he held her in his heart. He was afraid of avowed love and he had learned from Varanese's example that these dainty ladies kept too long in airy coquetry turned gradually to more downright suitors, so he kept a little on guard.
Meanwhile the progress of the Holy Club continued, the members became more active in practical good work; missioners among the poor and outcast can hardly be long indifferent to the state of the bodies of those whose souls they are trying to save. The enthusiastic Morgan, who was hastening by fasts the tuberculosis from which he was suffering, penetrated to the horrid darkness of the Castle where the prisoners were confined in stench and filth, was stricken by the misery he saw and cheered by a spiritual success with one dying wretch; henceforth the Methodists undertook regular visits to the Castle and the other city prison. Whether these were in the nature of consolation to the victims of eighteenth-century ideas of justice or merely added torments may be questioned. The reading of Scripture in the chapel, the dissertations on such books as the Christian Monitor or Country Parson's Advice to His Parishioners may have been soothing to these unfortunates, but one can hardly suppose that anyone who found himself faced with the horrors of a gaol at the period when the prison system was at its worst was much cheered by being seized upon by an earnest young Methodist and subjected to a "searching examination" as to the state of his soul, whether he repented of his sins, whether he cherished vindictiveness towards whoever had caused his misfortune, and whether he regularly partook of the Sacraments and used prayer, private and public.
John Wesley and his followers were, indeed, doing what the Rector of Epworth had done in Oxford Castle many years before: using the helpless prisoners as raw material on which to practise the zeal that was, they hoped, to save their own souls.
They, however, endeavoured to be of some practical good to their victims and subscribed among themselves money to buy medicines and books for the "gaolbirds"; yet, as the first were compounded by ignorance and the second dictated by superstition, they might both, perhaps, have been dispensed with, but the ready cash with which these young men paid the debts of those who owed but little must have been very acceptable, and it is possible that to those confined in the misery of the Castle the Methodist prayers on Wednesdays and Fridays, the sermon every Sunday, and the Sacrament once a month, were a welcome break in the monotony of their suffering.
Another helpless portion of the population attracted the attention of the amateur evangelists; pauper children were herded in little schools, where in return for some clothing and perhaps food they were forced to listen to exhortations, lectures, and prayers. Some good was undoubtedly done, some acute distress relieved, some order, some rules of conduct, some idealism inculcated, but the young zealots were mostly using these outcasts and waifs to demonstrate their own powers, as a sculptor may use stone or clay, and to sharpen their own souls to the fineness necessary to pass through the needle's eye. Wesley noted of himself that when he had thirty pounds a year he gave away forty shillings annually; when sixty pounds, he still contrived on twenty-eight and gave away thirty-two, and so on; the emphasis being not on the good he did to others with the money given away but on the benefit to himself of the sacrifice. Money was no temptation to one who had resolved to set aside almost all that money can buy, and John Wesley had far more pleasure in using his income thus than he would have had in spending it on himself. Once when a poor child waited on him at his rooms, he found that the wretched gown that she wore was all her clothing; he had no money with which to relieve her and looked with disgust at the pictures in his room—"Thou hast adorned thy walls with money that might have screened this poor creature from the cold!"
His usually acute sense of logic failed him here; if no one bought pictures the painters also would become shivering objects of charity. These zealous administrations among the prisoners and the poor encouraged one of the worst vices of the Methodists: that of meddling. It is, no doubt, difficult, if not impossible, to be a missioner without being also an interfering busybody; obviously if a man thinks that he holds a divine commission he must feel justified in pestering everyone to listen to him, but "humanly speaking," as pious Mary Stuart was often saying, he becomes an intolerable nuisance, and when the Methodists began to attack people of their own rank, intelligence, or education, they usually met with a hostile reception. Students did not wish to be led away from the enjoyable debauchery, or tutors from profane but congenial occupations, and the outcry against the Methodists became loud in Oxford.
Some gentlemen restrained their sons or wards from joining the Methodists by threat of disinheritance, and when in 1732 William Morgan died of a wasting disease, his father roundly declared that the Methodists had starved him to death, and John Wesley was moved to a public defence of himself and his followers. Charles Kinchin soon, as his colleagues put it, followed Morgan through "the pearly gates "; it is probable that he died of gaol-fever; Charles Wesley wrote in his honour one of the noblest of the lovely hymns that streamed from the pen of this fervid and graceful poet.
It is a touching tribute both to the sincere piety of Charles and to the deep affection and respect that he bore John, that he submitted to the rigid laws required by the Methodists, for he himself, despite his mother's training, was by no means a disciplinarian; impetuous, erratic, with warm feelings and the restlessness of creative genius, he found it difficult to live by rule; he was also often harsh and censorious, but the passion of his humanity, his tender pity, and ready sympathy softened much that was cold and humourless in many of the Methodist rules. What, for instance, could be more tedious than the resolve to plan in advance any conversation to be held in any gathering and to decide how to make it edifying? Another custom was likely to lead to difficulties and blunders; in 1729 John Wesley had resolved to accept "the Bible as the one, the only standard of truth, and the only model of pure religion." So far, well and good, since the Bible was broad enough to have already comfortably accommodated a multitude of diverse thinkers, but the Methodists went farther: they decided to use the Holy Book as a kind of oracle; by opening the volume and reading the sentence on which a finger was placed at random, they believed that they discovered the direct will of God in some doubt or dilemma. This kind of spiritual sortilege was an ancient method of divination that had often been used by those whom John Wesley would have roundly denounced as children of Satan, but he firmly believed in the method and employed it all his life with varying degrees of success.
In the 1730's Wesley's life hurried to a climax; his father was ailing and urging him to apply for the Epworth living, and the friendship with Aspasia was dissolving like a rainbow. She was not a woman to marry for mere worldly reasons, since she had refused Frederick Calvert, the Earl of Baltimore, heir of the wealth of Maryland, and afterwards gave her hand to Patrick Delany, who had no great position, and she might have married the fascinating Wesley had he dared to ask her; but he did not.
The elder and the younger Samuel both strongly urged John to apply for the Epworth cure of souls; they put forward many good reasons—there was a patch of human wheat, "white for the harvest," that might never be garnered if a gross, fox-hunting parson were sent to replace the Rev. Samuel—thus nearly forty years of labour would be lost and Epworth fall back into its former state of semi-barbarism; there were, too, more intimate considerations. Toil had been put into the glebe land, the Rectory had been furnished, trees planted, gardens laid out, the stables and sties stocked; the thrifty course was to use the fruits of so many long efforts for the family benefit. Samuel, cosy at Blundell's, thought that John should go to Epworth to make a home for the mother, for Keziah and Emilia, the two unmarried daughters, a holiday place for Charles, and possibly for Sukey and Hetty, whose marriages had been so unhappy, but John also was cosy at Oxford and sent twenty-six closely argued reasons to his father to prove that he was doing more spiritual good where he was than he could possibly do at Epworth, and the Bishop of Oxford supported him in this opinion. John had a small curacy outside Oxford and this, he argued, fulfilled the promises that he had made at Ordination; it was, besides, a good excuse for keeping a horse, which would in other circumstances have been an inexcusable luxury. Among the Oxford Methodists, after the deaths of Morgan and Kinchin, after Whitelambe had retired to Epworth and the despair that finally brought him to Deism, after the marriage of Westley Hall, there were: Robert Kirkham, John Gambold (who had more of the visionary in him than pleased his fellow-Methodists), James Harvey (afterwards famous as the author of Meditations Among the Tombs, one of the many lugubrious efforts inspired by Edward Young's Night Thoughts), Benjamin Ingham (of Queen's College, a handsome Yorkshireman), John Clayton (of Brasenose College, Jacobite and humanitarian), and several other men of singleness of purpose and clear-cut views, though these afterwards became very divergent.
The Holy Club was bound very tightly together by rules; the members conversed in Latin (the Wesley brothers sometimes in Greek); they observed the same hours for the same duties and were pledged to follow strictly the ritual of the Primitive Church, as far as this could be ascertained, while their habits were of monastic simplicity; every hour was planned out so as not to waste time in the great task of achieving salvation. John and Charles found that they could read and converse while walking from Oxford to Epworth and that their health was thereby improved. There was, besides, the chance of arguing with and perhaps converting some fellow-traveller; they marched to the rhythm of the hymns that they sang and felt the exaltation of a co-ordination of mind and body in one purpose.
The Rector of Epworth was fast approaching the awful moment when he would be, he hoped, assured of the reward of his long service to his God; he had been, some time before John was advised to ask for Epworth, thrown out of a waggon when the horses took fright and had severely injured his head; "the blackness in his face" and the fact that he looked "prodigious wild" showed the severity of his injury. Mrs. Wesley had seen the Lord's hand in the road accident that had disposed of her enemy, Robert Darwin, but she made no comment on the fact that the same method was followed to remove a saint. The Rector never recovered from this fall, though he lived to endure a long illness, afflicted with palsy and gout. He still retained, however, enough energy to grapple with the six hundred Latin pages that went to form his Dissertationes in Librum Jobi and to argue with John about his refusal to apply for the Epworth living; the old man thought that John's insistence on remaining in Oxford was selfishness, not holiness, and said so tartly.
Westley Hall was then distracting the Wesleys with his double courtship of the two sisters, and family affairs were not prosperous; overcome by the arguments of his brother Samuel, John at last took steps to obtain the Epworth living, using what influence he had to get it. A friend of his, then curate at the Tower Chapel, London, solicited Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke, and Edmund Gibson, Bishop of London, on his behalf; but John Wesley did not seem to be popular with either of these powerful gentlemen, who did not admire his "strictness of views," and the other candidate, bitterly termed by the dying Rector "a mighty Nimrod," got the living.
Broughton, the interceding friend, had suggested that Job should be dedicated and presented to Queen Caroline: "it might do good. The King is not so difficult (I hope) if one could get a hearty friend to espouse you." So Job was urged towards its finish by the palsied hand of old Samuel Wesley and the dedication to the German Queen written out, in the eager hope that she might prove as gracious as Mary Stuart, who so many years ago had given Epworth to the curate of Ormsby. The plates were a matter of grave trouble; the author was obliged to pay for them himself, and Mr. Virtue, the engraver, was "dunning pretty hard" for payment; John was the intermediary in this question of the engravings that touched the old man very nearly. He wanted "Leviathan's rival, that is, the whale," introduced into one composition, as well as the crocodile, but thought the "tombs" in another illustration needed no more retouching.
The letter on this business was the last that he wrote to John. "Time has shaken me by the hand and death is but a little way behind him," he declared, while Mrs. Wesley wrote: "Your father is in a very bad state of health. He sleeps little and eats less. He seems not to have any apprehension of his approaching exit; but I fear he has but a short time to live.. everyone observes his decay but himself and people really seem very much concerned for him and his family."
The fierce and lawless Fen folk were indeed much kinder than formerly to the old man, wasted and changed by age and sickness, who still sometimes stiffly climbed into the pulpit at the services held in his church by John Whitelambe, and who was, they knew, toiling so doggedly at the book that he hoped would make some provision for his family. The thought of his worldly affairs troubled the Rector deeply, but he left the whole matter "with Him to whom I committed all my concerns, without exception and without reserve, for soul and body, estate and family, time and eternity." These were solemn words, and the hour now approached in which the weary old man was to put their truth to the test. Charles, in declining his brother's invitation to Tiverton, wrote that their father was almost at his journey's end, adding: "My mother seems more cast down at the prospect of his death than I thought that she could have been; and, what is more, he seems so too."
The two brothers went from Oxford to Epworth in the spring of 1735, to be present at the end of his long, hard, cheerless journey. To the Wesleys, death had even more than the common awfulness; it was to them, as indeed to so many of the serious Christians of their day, of ritualistic importance. They believed that a death-bed conversion or repentance could efface a lifetime of fault or error, and that in the case of one who had always walked in the right way it should be the seal on a bond triumphantly kept, a glorious affirmation of faith. One of the most popular of books was Jeremy Taylor's Holy Living and Holy Dying, and those who could not attain the first were often surprisingly successful in achieving the last. These Christian death-beds were of the eldest son, who had already been liberal, was now the main hope of the Wesleys, though a small pittance might be secured from a Benevolent Society for Mrs. Wesley, who was destitute; the brother in India on whom so many hopes had rested had not been heard of for long, Matthew Wesley had done much and could do no more, and every member of the Rev. Samuel's family was poor, save only the harassed master at Blundell's, to whom his mother must now "be burdensome." Truly the patience of that Job on whom the Rector had dwelt so long was now required by the Wesleys, and they needed to think and talk hard of Heaven, as he had advised, in order that they might forget their grim lot on earth. There was no will, as the old man had nothing to leave; a hundred pounds of debt remained, and all the improvements in the house, glebe farm, and garden, due to the care and effort of the Wesley family, must now pass to a stranger. Mrs. Wesley did not murmur; the indomitable woman packed up her few and modest belongings and left the home of her long married life to journey to the little school that sad Emilia, still grieving for her Quaker lover, kept in Gainsborough. The stock and furniture at Epworth were sold to pay the creditors, and the two brothers travelled back to Oxford, John with a copy of Job in his bundle; he had sufficient influence to be able to obtain an audience of the Queen and hoped something from her recognition of his father's great work, even though he had missed the Epworth living.
Soon after his return to Oxford, John preached before the University (June 11, 1734) a sermon that was supposed to have a strong Jacobite tinge, for which he was "much mauled and threatened," and also wrote the three books that were issued in 1735; they were not the first of his very numerous publications, Forms of Prayer being published in 1733. One of the later books was a translation of Thomas à Kempis, the second a sermon, the third advice to a young clergyman.
The Wesleys were now scattered: the married sisters in their different homes, all of them more or less poor and unhappy; Keziah, supported by doles from her brothers, staying here and there with friends, or with Martha at Wootton, her face turned, after the loss of her father, even more resolutely towards her own early death; Emilia was drudging in her school; Hetty and Sukey enduring the brutality of their drunken husbands, the former, who had lost all her infants, sinking into a deep melancholy, the latter now flying from, now brought back to, her worthless partner. John Lambert, Anne's husband, was weak and intemperate, and across the early married life of Martha was the shadow of the increasing instability and eccentricity of Westley Hall and the plaintive resignation of Keziah; the harsh training, the grim piety meted out by Samuel Wesley and his wife towards their children may have caused two of the sons to become great men, but they certainly had not resulted in making happy women of the daughters.
John Wesley was discouraged to find that, whenever he returned to Oxford after an absence, the members of the Holy Club had fallen away, and the enthusiasm of the Methodists dwindled to vanishing point. Many of his followers were earnest, sincere men, but when not galvanized by their leader's fierce energy they relapsed, not into indifference, Deism, or Atheism, for many of them remained ardent evangelists all their lives, but into their own way of thinking and into laxity regarding those rules by which John set such store. He could, however, congratulate himself on one convert who was inclined even to surpass himself in enthusiasm and who promised to be a very remarkable man; this ardent disciple whom John looked on with guarded approval and Charles with affection was a poor servitor of Pembroke College, who had brought himself to the notice of the Methodists shortly before the death of the Rector of Epworth. An apple-seller whose stall was outside Pembroke College came to Charles Wesley at Christ Church and told him that she had been sent by a Mr. Whitefield, who desired to make known the case of a woman in the Workhouse who had tried to cut her throat; the Wesleys were interested in the personality of the servitor of Pembroke, invited him to breakfast at Christ Church, and heard his story that was told in a gush of warm and dramatic eloquence quite new to these sternly-trained men, many of whom were restrained by dry complacency and formal self-sufficiency.
George Whitefield was not a gentleman by breeding, though he came of respectable people, and, though he had been three years at Pembroke, he was not a scholar and scarcely an educated man in the sense in which the others were; he was eleven years younger than John Wesley, and therefore little more than a youth, and the son of the woman who kept the Bell Inn at Gloucester, where he had been born and where for a while he had acted as pot-boy. Sent to the school of St. Mary le Crypt in his native town, he had easily developed a gift for acting and had attracted much attention in the parts—often female—that he undertook in the plays the boys gave on festivals before the Corporation of Gloucester. This early life had been, as he saw it now, extremely sinful. Not only had he been the companion of "loose livers," but he had pilfered coppers from his mother to give to the poor and to purchase the holy books, among which was that author—known as Thomas a Kempis—who had so influenced John Wesley. His schoolmaster liked him and obtained for him the position of servitor at Pembroke College—similar to that filled by the elder Samuel at Exeter College—whereby he could obtain a degree by doing menial work in return for his education. He had proved cheerful, quick, and diligent in this ambiguous situation and had pleased the young gentlemen on whom he waited, although he was not of a prepossessing appearance; flabby and pallid, he had a weak, timid look, his features were plump and insignificant, and the sole fascination of his face lay in the violent squint—the result of measles—that sent one of his eyes into the base of his nose.
Attracted by the gossip he heard about the Holy Club, he had watched eagerly and timidly the activities of the Methodists, often being among the crowd of idlers who gathered to stare and perhaps to jeer at the Wesleys and their followers going to the cathedral, the prison, or on some charitable errand, with pious books in their hands and prayers upon their lips. He now begged with passion and humility that he might be allowed to join the men whom he had so long and so profoundly admired. Charles, kind and friendly as always, agreed to accept this new member, and George Whitefield at once threw himself with dramatic extravagance into the spirit of the Holy Club. He surpassed all the other members in asceticism; prayed, fasted on dry bread and sage tea, wore a patched gown, dirty shoes, and woollen gloves, and cast himself prostrate, groaning for his sins, in Christ Church Walk, for two hours together in the rain. The normal undergraduates of Pembroke found, naturally enough, matter for amusement in these antics of the poor servitor, and the Master rebuked Whitefield as a crack-brained enthusiast and threatened to expel him. The abashed penitent then promised to abate some of his extravagances, but far from doing so starved himself into a severe illness during the coming Lent. Charles Wesley, alarmed at Whitefield's state, asked John to visit him with a view to reasoning with him, for the fanatical young man had now brought himself to such a pitch that he believed he ought to deny himself even the comfort of church-going and spiritual communion with friends. Wesley advised the agonizing convert to indulge in his former consolations, though not to rely on them, but to await peace as a direct bounty from God. Whitefield remained, however, dangerously ill, and was only saved by the practical help of his tutor, who sent a doctor to him, paid his bills, and lent him books that helped to restore his mental balance. Whitefield came out of this ordeal, which seems to have been mainly physical, with a feeling that the "day star" was rising in his heart, and returned passionately to his religious life. He had attached closely to him one already drawn to the Methodists, the melancholic, sickly, and sentimental James Harvey, whom Whitefield thought "a heavenly-minded creature." Both these young men thought much of death and damnation, but Whitefield in a zestful way that was almost cheerful. These were two brilliant converts, and John Wesley was proud of them, though sometimes a little dubious as to their ideas; he was also concerned about another Methodist, the gentle and tolerant John Gambold, who began to devote himself to that solitary study which was ill-suited to the aggressive missionary zeal favoured by the Wesleys, and resulted in that frame of mind which found a refuge and an outlet in the Moravian Church. These three men represented the three branches of religious thought that sprang from the Holy Club—John Wesley, the original Oxford Methodists; George Whitefield, the Calvinist Methodists; John Gambold, the English Moravians—but all seemed, in 1735, to be united in a common cause.
In this year John went to London, used his influence to obtain the Queen's permission to wait on her with a copy of Job, the result of so many years of intense labour on the part of Samuel Wesley and Johnny Whitelambe. While waiting for his audience John met the energetic Dr. Burton of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, who presented him to Colonel James Oglethorpe, a soldier who had gained distinction under Prince Eugene, and whose philanthropic interests had secured him the honour of two odes from the elder Samuel Wesley. Oglethorpe was about to make a second visit to a colony that he had been instrumental in founding in 1732; the Wesleys were known to him not only through their poems but through the enthusiastic encouragement and some donations given by them to his humanitarian and patriotic scheme, and he offered John and his brother the opportunity of sailing with him to America. Here was an opening so unexpected that it seemed as if acceptance must be the Divine wish; but not being quite sure of God, John, after much debate among his friends, went to consult the infallible Susanna Wesley, determined to abide by her decision. Her judgment could scarcely be brought to bear on the matter, since she knew nothing either of Georgia or of the settlers or of James Oglethorpe, nor, indeed, whether her own sons were suited to such work as was proposed for them—a secretaryship for Charles, a chaplaincy for John, and for both the task of converting the American savages to Christianity of the type taught in Epworth Rectory.
BEFORE John Wesley took his problem to his mother in Gainsborough, he put it before several of the original members of the Holy Club now installed in various parishes throughout England. John had also asked the advice of his brother Samuel and of William Law, and discussed the strange, attractive prospect with his brother's friend James Hutton, whose father kept a boarding-school in Westminster, and who was afterwards one of the founders of the Moravian Church in England. Meanwhile, Dr. Burton urged acceptance of the offer on John; it was very difficult to get clergymen for the new colony. America seemed, indeed, to offer rich opportunities of good works, and the idea instantly appealed to Mrs. Wesley, who with the brevity and the decision of a Roman matron said: "Had I twenty sons I should rejoice if they were all so employed."
In the little parlour of the modest school in Gains-borough, Susanna Wesley, her daughter Emilia, and John bravely and enthusiastically discussed the prospects of evangelical work in the New World, while the two women remembered the day fifteen years ago when Emilia had found the book on the Danish Missionaries on her father's desk. A desire to travel among and to convert the heathen had always been strong in this family, and, only a short time before, the Rector of Epworth had written to Colonel Oglethorpe warmly congratulating him on the founding of Georgia and wishing that he were young enough to offer his services to convert the Indians. Even then, palsied and infirm as he was, the gallant old man was not in the least daunted by the prospect of learning the uncouth language of these heathens. Yes, it was a wonderful task that was offered to the young Oxford don, and though at first he had been doubtful, indeed had almost refused Oglethorpe, he began to grow enthusiastic under his mother's encouragement. What, after all, could better forward his dearest project, the salvation of his own soul, than the conversion of the heathen? He began to see the Redskins under the most seductive light. Here was virgin soil indeed, unless some of them had been tampered with by French or Spanish priests from Louisiana or Florida; but he had been assured that most of these savages had never even heard of Christianity. What different material was there, from the brutal, debased Fenman or the sophisticated intellectuals of Oxford!
What different material even from the sullen wretches in the prisons, and the whining paupers, half stupefied from want and misery, to whom John Wesley had been used to preach! Besides, his work at Oxford seemed to have come to an end.
The first band of the Enthusiasts had scattered, John Gambold had gone to Stanton Harcourt, Clayton and Byrom were in Manchester, Ingham was in Essex, and Wesley could not see in the Oxford of 1735 any promising recruits to fill up these gaps in the Holy Club; then, when Dr. Burton wrote urging Wesley to accept this offer, his exhortations were mingled with flatteries of a type peculiarly agreeable to the young clergyman. "Plausible and popular Doctors of Divinity are not the men wanted for Georgia, for the ease, luxury, and levity in which they are accustomed to indulge disqualify them for such a work." In brief, "the Trustees of the new colony were looking for men who were inured to contempt of the ornaments and conveniences of life, to bodily austerities, and to serious thought."
These qualities John felt he could justly claim, and on September 18 he wrote accepting the position of chaplain for Georgia, at a salary of fifty pounds a year. Dr. Burton sent an encouraging reply, which still further stimulated Wesley's ardour by informing him that he would have many chances of being useful during the long voyage, and added, what was even more to the young man's mind, that when he arrived in the new colony he was to visit from house to house and preach everywhere, "for some of the colonists are ignorant, and most of them are disposed to licentiousness."
Georgia owed its foundation to the energetic methods of a small body of humanitarians and Imperialistic patriots. The most active of these were James Edward Oglethorpe, descended, as his Christian names show, from a family of Jacobite sympathizers, and Lord Perceval, an Irish peer who afterwards became Lord Egmont. James Oglethorpe was a man of strong character, of much influence, and with an assured position; he had been the Member of Parliament for Haslemere in Surrey since he had left the Army, and always been zealous in good causes. Once, visiting a friend confined for debt, he was appalled by the hideous state of the prison, and was instrumental in getting together a committee to enquire into this, particularly into the atrocities committed by one of the warders of the Fleet Prison, Thomas Bainbridge. Though in the end Bainbridge and a colleague were acquitted, Oglethorpe's Committee was the means of revealing at least a large number of terrible abuses, and his conscientious and laborious report called attention to, if it did not end, many of the worst horrors of the eighteenth-century prison system.
This large-minded man had also worked in the interest of the small investor and of the negro slaves. He was, in politics, a liberal Tory, opposed to any illegal pretensions and extravagances on the part of the Court, but a loyal supporter of the House of Hanover.
The scheme for founding a new colony occurred to Oglethorpe out of the Commission to inquire into the state of prisons. His exertions in favour of poor debtors had resulted in the passing of an Act which allowed those who owed only small sums to be released from prison; these freed prisoners now formed a body of useless pauper unemployed, and Oglethorpe's scheme was to send them overseas, where they might begin a new life in the New World. The scheme was from the first popular, and there was a general desire to see it enlarged to include all vagrants and beggars under sixteen years of age, who were to be sent out of the country that they were supposed to encumber. The House of Commons would not, however, agree to this, but there was no lack of material to send overseas. The Trustees for the funds and property took offices in Palace Yard, not far from Westminster and near Millbank Ferry. Many public-spirited and generous men offered them their services; among these was the secretary, Mr. Benjamin Martin, and the accountant, Mr. Harman Verelst. Lord Peter, the Duke of Richmond, and Sir Hans Sloane offered to subscribe funds to enable the Trustees to send out an ingenious person to the new colony to discover any medicinal herbs, plants, and roots, and to instruct the colonists in agriculture.
A Civil Government was to be established in Georgia, as the new province was to be named, out of compliment to the King, a town laid out to be called Savannah after the great river that flowed into the Atlantic, and the first settlers were to go out with a surgeon, an apothecary, and a voluntary chaplain. Lord Perceval was appointed the President of the Trustees, among whom were five clergymen. Oglethorpe, a liberal-minded man, tried for religious toleration, and every kind of Christian was to be acceptable in the new colony, except of course Papists, who were then scarcely considered Christians in England, and who might be dangerous as spies or mischief-makers with the Spanish on the one side and the French on the other. For the scheme, as the King well knew, was not altogether philanthropic: the interest of the Empire, as well as the interests of the paupers, was to be served, and Oglethorpe's idea, warmly approved of by the energetic and sensible Guelph, was to erect out of this kind of no-man's-land a buffer state, one to extend gradually and unostentatiously, and protect them against the French and Spanish settlements.
On November 16, 1732, Mr. Oglethorpe had sailed from Gravesend in the ship Anne, with 114 settlers "40 able, sensible men, the rest women and children"—for the lands in North America that were described in the Charter as "seven undivided parts of all those Lands, Countries and Territories situate, lying, and being in that part of South Carolina in America which lies in the most Northern stream of a river there commonly called the Savannah, all along the Sea coast to the Southward unto the most Southern stream of the said other great Water or River called the Alatamaha and Westward from the heads of the said rivers respectively in direct line to the South Seas."
James Oglethorpe was glad to have the services of men like the Wesleys, of whom he had heard nothing but good reports. He and John admired each other and got on well together; the soldier was a man of exceptional force and depth of character, magnanimous, brave, unusually humane, though autocratic and sometimes arrogant. He was what was then known as a God-fearing man, and if his private life was not spotless, it was decent; but he made little parade of religion, nor could John's anxious persistency bring him to any open enthusiasm on this point. This Imperial idealist was, besides, a well-bred gentleman of distinguished manners, then thirty-eight years of age, full of fiery energy somewhat impatiently controlled, his graceful person set off by the formal apparel of an English aristocrat. His severe aquiline face, lit by large flashing eyes, was framed in the powdered curled peruke then fashionable.
Though the founder of Georgia and the Wesleys agreed in so much, he was not as single-minded as they; earnest Christian as he was, Oglethorpe's main concern was not the salvation of the souls of the colonists and Indians, but the material success of the laborious and doubtful enterprise. Georgia, besides forming a barrier against the Spaniards, was to grow flax and vines and to manufacture silk. In the last venture lay Oglethorpe's main hope of making the money needed for Imperial defence, and on the seal used by the Trustees were cut the figures of spinning-worms; but his prospects of creating a flourishing colony were much jeopardized by his own principles and ideas; he had forbidden the introduction of rum into Georgia and refused to allow the colonists to employ slaves. This last prohibition was a serious handicap to the progress of Georgia from the material point of view; the neighbouring province of Carolina employed 30,000 negro slaves "to work six days in the week without pay."
There were other objections than those on humanitarian grounds to the employment of slaves; an able-bodied negro cost thirty pounds; the same amount of money would transport a settler from England to Georgia, provide his tools, and keep him for a year.
The Trustees argued, too, that the Spaniards at St.
Augustine would entice away the negroes, who might also possibly rise and murder the white men, unused to control them. Besides, the use of slaves would encourage laziness in the colonists, who were by no means as energetic as Oglethorpe wished to see them; to thrift, prudence and humanity joined nicely in forbidding slavery; but the position was almost as bitterly resented by the English as was the lack of rum; hard work, plain living, and self-denial were not likely to appeal to people who had been unable to cope with easier conditions in their native land.
None of these problems that burdened Oglethorpe troubled John Wesley; his reasons for going to America were clear-cut: he wrote in his Journal:—
My chief motive is the hope of saving my soul. I hope to learn the true sense of the Gospel of Christ by teaching it to the heathen. They have no comments to construe away the text, no vain philosophies to corrupt it, no luxurious, sensual, covetous, and vicious expounders to soften unpleasing truths. They have no party, no interest to serve and are, therefore, fit to receive the Gospel in its simplicity. They are as little children, humble, willing to learn, and eager to do the will of God.
He rejoiced to think that the Indians had not been interfered with by Papists, Atheists, or the hundred and one varieties of Protestants that had sprung up, to the confusion of the faithful since the Reformation. It was a magnificent opportunity for personal salvation. John Wesley declared: "I cannot hope to attain the same degree of holiness here that I may there."
Two days before he sailed John was allowed to wait on the Queen and to present to Her Majesty the Job.
Caroline of Anspach, clever, plain, and alert, was gracious to the neat little clergyman with the well-brushed auburn hair and speckless hands. "It is a handsome binding," she smiled and laid the volume aside, without as much as glancing at those laborious pages or those keenly-discussed engravings. Nor is it likely that she ever opened the covers of the book that she had so kindly accepted; she was a busy woman and she had her own troubles, nor was John any longer greatly concerned for the fate of the massive tome, for he was absorbed in preparations—almost entirely spiritual—for the American adventure, which he intended to begin by making converts of the medley of adventurers whom Oglethorpe was taking out on the Simmonds, as his second consignment of colonists. There were pleasant farewells from the Trustees, who were so delighted with the two eager, learned young men that they thought God must be favouring Georgia by sending two such model clergymen there. There were family partings, a letter from John to Samuel, and on October 14, 1735, the Methodists embarked on board the Simmonds, then lying off Gravesend.
John and Charles had a cabin in the forecastle of the timbered sailing-ship. As soon as they reached it John, full of great zest for this new spiritual venture, began to draw up yet another set of the rules by which he lived—self-discipline, to begin with, semi-starvation (only rice and biscuits), the smallest allowance of sleep, and the days minutely parcelled out.... At five in the morning they must rise and pray for an hour, until seven they must read the Bible together, then the meagre breakfast, at eight public prayers, and an exposition of the lesson. Then for three hours the four men must separate, John to learn German, in order that he might converse with the Moravians, Delamotte to study Greek and Navigation, Charles to write his sermons or his hymns, and Ingham to give religious instruction to such children as were on board and not too sea-sick. At midday more prayers, at one o'clock more water, rice, and biscuits; after this the four men must go about the ship, preaching to or cross-examining the passengers. At four, evening prayers and more sermons; children instructed in the presence of the congregation. From five to six, private prayers. Then for the next hour, each in his own cabin to read devotional works to selected numbers of the passengers. At seven, two more services, one in which Wesley joined the Moravians, and another that Ingham held between the decks. At eight o'clock the Methodists retired, but not to rest. There was an hour of instruction and exhortation, then to bed, mats and blankets being disdained. Such was the method with which John divided the hours, and at first it was strictly followed.
There was no more escape for the passengers from these zealous ministrations than there had been for the prisoners in the gaols or the paupers in the slums at Oxford, and John, for the first part of the voyage, completely enjoyed himself; he succeeded in getting a drunken woman of bad character put ashore before the ship sailed and in inducing Oglethorpe to dismiss the second mate, who was "an unrighteous and wicked man."
Storms held up the ship at Cowes, and there John had the intense satisfaction of baptizing four Quakers and of driving from the ship probably the only man among the passengers with a balanced mind, who objected to the use of the one public cabin for religious services, and went ashore in disgust. John was a little sea-sick from the tossing of the ship (as the sea rolled higher) and Mr. Delamotte was exceedingly ill for several days, but John continued an activity that seemed indeed superhuman; he was everywhere, watching, praying, sitting by the sick, struggling with them for repentance, distributing his booklets, taking his neat, smiling face, his auburn curls, his compact, black-robed figure from one part to another of the tossing ship with tireless alacrity. At first the ardent evangelist had every reason to be pleased at the success of his ministrations. Terrified by the tempestuous waves and exhausted by illness, many passengers confessed themselves converted, but the voyage of fifty-seven days was a strain on everyone's nerves, and Wesley began to find unconsciously many of his own faults in Oglethorpe, a man who resembled him, in that the soldier, like the preacher, was by nature proud, arrogant, independent, even exasperating; he would neither endure much interference nor abate the fiery hauteur of the manner that glossed his deep humanity, nor be induced to make an emotional display of religion; he supported John, but not very zealously; he was not present at many of the services.
There was much illness on the Simmonds, caused not only by the tossing of the vessel in the Bay of Biscay but also by the coarse salt provisions, the unequal distribution of water, the unhealthy accommodation, and the foul air of the cabins. James Oglethorpe, magnanimous as usual, gave up his cabin and all his comforts to the prostrate women, the Wesleys surrendered theirs to him and triumphantly endured privation and physical misery. There soon began to be—inevitably among so many people of different types, ages, and temperaments, shut up together in fear and discomfort—whispering, back-biting, quarrellings, and nervous storms. The worst trouble, of course, was with the women, and the worst of the women was a certain Mrs. Beata Hawkins, the surgeon's wife, who, at first frivolous, gay, and even lewd, suddenly plucked John Wesley by the neat cassock and asked him to instruct her in the nature of the Lord's Supper. With becoming tears in her handsome eyes she declared her contrition for her sins and begged to be shown the way to salvation.
Deeply gratified, John read to Beata Hawkins his friend William Law's leaflet on Christian Perfection, and was so impressed by her reverent reception of this work that he admitted her to the Communion table, set up in the public cabin. The other women had, however, no faith in the repentance of the frivolous charmer, and there was at once a shrill outcry at what seemed to the respectable females an impudent piece of hypocrisy on the part of a slut. Charles Wesley, Ingham, and Delamotte agreed with this opinion, and Oglethorpe, weary of all of them, would not listen to John Wesley's point of view, which was that Mrs. Hawkins really had been converted. While this undignified quarrel was at its highest pitch a dangerous storm broke over the Simmonds, silencing the dispute. John Wesley had a new experience: he found that he was afraid, and his fear had a double edge; it showed him he was not fit to die. This was a horrible realization. After so much toil, so much self-denial, after such stern adherence to rule and Method, to feel unwilling to face eternity, to doubt the goodness of God—what could this mean?
John forgot the arts of Beata Hawkins, the clamours of the other women, the trying aloofness of Oglethorpe, the disloyalty of Charles and the other Methodists, while he sat lonely, his head in his hands, speculating with alarmed curiosity on this new emotion—fear of sudden death.
While he was debating this problem—if he was afraid to die, could he be sure of salvation?—the Simmonds ran into calm weather and the bored, exasperated passengers broke into fresh bickerings over Mrs. Hawkins. Then another violent wind arose; John noted in the Journal that he now kept carefully every day:—
About nine the sea broke over us from stem to stern, burst through the windows of the state-cabin, where three or four of us were sheltered, and covered us all over, though a bureau sheltered me from the main shock. About eleven I lay down in the great cabin, and in a short time fell asleep, though very uncertain whether I should wake alive, much ashamed of my unwillingness to die.
He had never been at sea before, and to cross the Atlantic in an eighteenth-century sailing ship in the autumn under every circumstance of nervous strain and physical discomfort was a trying experience for any landsman; but John was only shaken, not overthrown; he kept on his feet and stuck to his prayers. After the third and worst tempest, when he had finished with his own congregation, whom he kept two or three hours swaying on their knees, reciting the psalm suitable to the occasion, he surrendered to his intense natural curiosity and staggered along the tossing ship to where the Moravians huddled round their drenched Bishop. John had long observed their calm behaviour, which was as puzzling to him as it was disconcerting. These meek, laborious Germans were the best behaved among the passengers; they had even cheerfully performed the most disgusting menial task, which the English had refused, saying it was good for their proud hearts, and John noted, with wondering admiration, behaviour as much to their credit as it was to the shame of the English passengers:—
And every day had given them occasion of showing a meekness which no injury could move. If they were pushed, struck, or thrown down, they rose again and went away. No complaint was found in their mouths.
There was now an opportunity of discovering whether the Germans were delivered from the sin of fear as well as from those of pride, anger, and revenge; John had noticed, in the midst of the psalm that began their service, how the sea had broken over them, split the mainsail to pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed up the shuddering vessel, and a terrible screaming began among the English, while the Germans calmly sang on, their deep, steady voices rising above the noise of the crashing waves. It was this behaviour that John now investigated as he walked among the still-drenched Germans.
"Were you not afraid?" he asked one of the Moravians.
"I thank God, no."
"Were not your women and children afraid?"
"No, our women and children are not afraid to die."
John Wesley felt a little rebuked as well as bewildered, but he at once drew a moral to his trembling confusion; here was "the difference between him that feareth God and him that feareth Him not."
The Moravians, then, had something that he lacked; he returned abashed and thoughtful to his own cowardly flock.
That interval of calm was succeeded by another hurricane, while quarrel and mutterings in the ship kept pace with the preachings and prayings. The question of Mrs. Hawkins continued to exasperate the passengers and divide the Methodists, and John Wesley alone believed in her; but even he became harassed, and uncertain in his own mind whether he was really performing the Lord's will. He got, however, much satisfaction out of finding that he could sleep not only without a mat and blanket but on the wet planks drenched with water, and he noted triumphantly in his Journal: "I believe I shall never need to use a bed again."
On February 5 the battered ship, with tattered canvas and mended masts, was steered into the wide Savannah river and anchored near little Tybee Island. John Wesley was too preoccupied to note anything in this novel prospect except that the grove of pines "running along the shore made an agreeable prospect, showing, as it were, the bloom of spring in the depths of winter."
The following day, the weary Oglethorpe and his companions landed on this island, where there was a thanksgiving, and when John was again excited by the lesson, in particular by the lines "It is I, be not afraid."
Oglethorpe then took a boat to Savannah, leaving the others to return on board the Simmonds anchored in the river, and returning the next day with a Moravian parson, Spangenberg, a new personality for John Wesley to investigate.
He at once accosted the German, who looked very impressive—asking, as a formality, however, advice about his own conduct.
The Moravian replied: "My brother, I must first ask you one or two questions. Have you the witness within yourself? Does the spirit of God bear witness in your spirit that you are a child of God?"
The "inward witness": those were the words the dying Rector of Epworth had used. John Wesley was taken aback; he was so used to questioning others that he knew not what to say when others questioned him.
Observing his amazement, the Moravian asked: "Do you know Jesus Christ?"
Again Wesley was at a loss, but at last replied: "I know He is the Saviour of the world."
The Moravian insisted: "But do you know He has saved you?"
John replied: "I hope He died to save me."
The Moravian, evidently not satisfied, asked: "Do you know yourself?"
John Wesley said: "I do." But he felt in his heart that these were but vain words, revealing as it were the darkness of his own uncertainty and bewilderment.
What! Was he not yet on the right path? Did all his zeal, all his methods, all his purging himself of pride and philosophy not suffice? He began to carry the warfare into the enemy's camp, and he attacked the Moravian with questions about his own spiritual state and the settlement at Herrnhut.
In return for this questioning, Mr. Spangenberg gave his own history, from the time that he had learned at the University of Jena the philosophy that he was now trying to forget, till the moment he came to Georgia; John was still not satisfied and asked curiously: "Where will you go next?"
The Moravian said he thought about going to Pennsylvania, but added some words the spirit of which the Englishman did not understand: "But what God will do with me, I know not. I am blind; I am a child; my Father knows that I am ready to go whenever He calls."
A few days later there was an even more exciting encounter. Old Tomochichi, with his nephew and some women and children, came on board the Simmonds accompanied by a Mrs. Musgrove, the half-caste wife of a trader, who acted as an interpreter. The Indians were all comely, gentle, well-behaved people, and John's keen eyes lit with joy at the prospect of converting them; he began at once on this tremendous topic.
The old chief was, as ever, tactful: he was glad that the missionaries had arrived; he would speak to them about the wise men of his nation; he wanted to be taught Christianity, not merely to be baptized as the Spaniards did when they converted people, without any explanation of what the rite meant.
John assumed a tone of forced humility; he did not know if it was God's wish that the Indians should be converted through him, he said, but in his heart he knew that he meant to make the attempt; the interview ended by the Indian women's presenting the missionaries with a jar of milk and a jar of honey, symbolic of what they hoped would be pleasant dealing between them.
Soon after the four Methodists took boat to Savannah, where they were cheered by hearing Oglethorpe give directions to build a church immediately; they found that this little town consisted of log buildings, the most important of which were a court-house, a prison, a store-house, a public mill for grinding corn, and a residence for the governor; round this were grouped log huts all of the same size, a parcel of land for a house and garden within the township, and some acres of land outside for farming, being allotted to each settler. Living was on a humble, even a rude scale—a coat, a musket, some tools and kitchen utensils had been given by the Trustees to each emigrant, while they were clearing and breaking the land and beginning their farming experiments; they were allowed annually liberal rations of beef, pork, Indian porn or peas, meal, coffee, cheese, butter, spice, sugar, vinegar, salt, a pint of beer a day, cotton, thread, and soap.
The forty huts in Savannah formed the largest settlement; a hundred miles away was Frederica; eighty miles away the Scottish Highlanders had settled at Darien, while there were small groups of huts near to the capital, New Ebenezer, nineteen miles away, Highgate and Hampstead four or five miles southwards, and Thunderbolt six miles southwards; the last consisted of only three families, the others of fourteen or ten. In between these white settlements the majestic country, inhabited only by wandering tribes of Choctaws, Chicataws, and Cherokees, lay luxuriant and sumptuous in its primeval beauty; the Indians dwelt in what they termed wigwams. The warriors lived in idleness and the women did the necessary work, John was told; they were very docile save when they got too much rum; but he had other work at hand for them. The English colony consisted of seven hundred souls, and John Wesley considered himself the pastor of all these people, not merely of the inhabitants of Savannah.
The previous clergyman, a Mr. Quincy, had now gone to Carolina, and the four Methodists were the only spiritual teachers the English had. Mr. Quincy's wooden hut served them as a residence and guesthouse, and they were soon installed.
In the court-house John began on March 7 his ministry by preaching a sermon in which he gave a lively picture of his father's death-bed; his spirits had soon recovered from the exasperating troubles of the voyage, and he wrote to his mother:—
We are like to stay here for some months, the place is pleasant beyond imagination, exceedingly healthful. I have not had a moment's illness of any kind since I set my foot upon the continent. Many of them are, I believe, very angry already, for a gentleman no longer than last night made a ball to begin about the same time (March 17), but the public prayers happening the church was full and the ballroom so empty that the entertainment could not go forward.
This drawing of people away from another person's show to his own was, however, John hoped, but the beginning of his achievement, and he petitioned Oglethorpe to allow him to travel at once into the wild Indian country to attempt to convert the savages. This, after all, was his main object in coming to America; the white people's salvation was merely but by the way.
But the Governor refused; he wished, above all things, to keep on good terms with the Indians, and he feared that any meddling might antagonize them. He had made them promises that they should not be molested, and he did not know in what spirit they might take the ministrations of the Methodists, since they had already shown themselves extremely hostile to the Spanish and French priests, many of whom they had beaten, tortured, and burnt.
On May 7, 1736, John Wesley opened his ministry in Savannah with the unalterable intention of putting into practice all the unfaltering obedience to the Rubrics and Canon law he had employed in Epworth and Oxford; if he could not immediately reach the Indians he could, at least, he believed, found in the new colony a replica of the Church of the Primitive Christians; surely that would please God and bring a blessing on himself?
He resolved to achieve his end by means of the rules and methods he had learned from Susanna Wesley when he was a child, then to be put into practice without mercy on himself or others. The greatest attention was to be paid to the letter of the law. None was to be admitted to the Lord's table without previous notice, trine immersion was to be used for such infants as could endure it. Nonconformists and Quakers—of whom there were several among the settlers—who desired to use the Church were to be rebaptized into the Anglican faith; the morning service was divided into two parts. There were house-to-house visits, prayers, exhortation, and chastisements on the model of the late Rector of Epworth's ministry. In brief, the medley of colonists, none of them, save the Moravians, of the best material, were exposed to a spiritual drive from the Wesleys that they soon found as galling as the sharp restrictions laid on them by the Trustees and the stinging disappointments that most of them had experienced in Georgia.
There were soon many protests, but John Wesley was unremitting in his zeal; more than ever before he exaggerated his virtues into vices. Living on bread and water, sleeping on the ground, toiling from morning to night, cutting his rest down to the minimum, he lost all sense of proportion and even of human values; he was absorbed in discipline, self-sufficiency, self-complacency, and a censorious interference with the affairs of others. Priding himself on his candour, he not only rebuked his parishioners from the pulpit and openly to their faces, but told them frankly what each had said of the other—a method of sincerity that led to incalculable mischief.
The circumstances in which the young don found himself in Georgia were very strange; he could not adapt himself to them, and perhaps, for all his levelheadedness, they somewhat affected him. There was a strange quality in the atmosphere of the New World and a tinge of hysteria or even lunacy seemed to mark the acts of many of those who found themselves in these odd situations in this alien country. To begin with, there were very material grievances on the part of the colonists. Pioneer work had proved heavy, discomforts extreme, and milk and honey had not yet flowed in this promised land. Many of the English paupers were town men and could not endure a life of husbandry. Many were idle, worthless, or even criminal; there were soon stocks and whipping-posts outside the little court-house in Savannah. Some settlers made off to Carolina, where 5,000 white men employed 30,000 or 40,000 black slaves, and rum was to be had. It was complained that Mr. Causton, unaccountably the friend and even favourite of Oglethorpe, who had appointed him chief magistrate of Savannah, was a corrupt tyrant, who meted out injustice with an arrogance and an insolence worthy of Lord Jeffreys. Then the climate was not what it had been represented to be in the well-written pamphlets that the Trustees had distributed so freely in England; the winter cold was longer, the summer heat fiercer than the emigrants had expected. Nor was it as easy to make the desert blossom like the rose as it had seemed to these poor wretches when dreaming of Utopia in a London slum. They declared that it was impossible for a family to get a living out of the allotment of fifty acres of fertile land; besides, much of the land was not fertile but "pine-barren." They did not like living in the palmetto huts or log houses, and they greatly resented Oglethorpe's tactics towards the Indians, who, the English declared, were a set of lazy vagabonds, living in idleness on the bounty of the Trustees, and doing nothing in return. The colonists suspected, and it seemed with some reason, that the Redskins with whom Oglethorpe had made the treaty were not responsible chieftains, representing the powerful tribes who had their settlements and villages inland, but a mere band of wandering outlawed vagrants, and the English much resented gifts of rum made to the savages while they were forced to remain permanently sober.
The Indians had, despite their indifferent courtesy, an equally poor opinion of the settlers. They told John when, arrayed in full canonicals, he tried to preach Christianity to them during their cadging visits to Savannah, that the Christians were no better than themselves as far as stealing, quarrelling, and drunkenness went, and they outlined, with good-humoured contempt for the white man's earnestness, their own easy faith in the Supreme Being who dwelt above and rewarded men according to their merits.
John could not be satisfied with this vague theology, and called a conference of such of the Indian chiefs as could be got hold of. Through an interpreter, and after dinner with the harassed Oglethorpe, John keenly questioned the savages, asking them what they thought they were made for, and giving them priceless truths in simple infantile language such as: "If red men will read the good book, they may know as much as white men."
It was a long and rather tedious parley, and the Indians, drowsy with Oglethorpe's drink and tobacco, could be got to say little more than: "We do not know, we cannot tell."
Theirs was a simple religion indeed, and could be improved upon by few and refuted by none; they believed that there were four Beloved Entities above—the clouds, the sun, the clear sky, and He that lived in the clear sky. When in battle with the French or in other trouble, they heard these Beloved Ones, like the noise of drums and guns and shouting and encouraging them, frightening their foes away. They thought of these Beloved Ones always, wherever they were. They talked of them and to them at home and abroad, in peace, in war, before and after they fought, whenever they met together. They believed in spirits, they believed that the spectres of the departed walked up and down near the place where they died, or where their bodies lay. John also believed in ghosts, but he drew a nice distinction. "Our belief is that the souls of bad men only walk up and down; those of good men go up." There the matter had to be left. John Wesley was disappointed and rather confused; he began to be disillusioned with the savages; he could not credit that their mythology was as harmless as they made it sound; a Frenchman from New Orleans had some horrible stories of the Redskins' methods of torturing and slaying their enemies that made John think that the Beloved Ones were in reality Devils. He forgot that in Christian England men were pressed to death, women burnt alive, and children hanged, and that the shocking orgies held by the Indians—in one village all the warriors were said to have perished of rum-drinking owed their inspiration to the fiery poison introduced by people whose drunkenness was notorious in Europe. The lively young evangelist soon regained his high spirits; after all, he was not really interested in the Indians, but only in his own soul, and it was refreshing to turn to those of his parishioners on whom he was having a powerful effect—for instance, those who were very ill, like the younger Miss Bovey, who was converted while suffering from the prickly heat, and who, "just after they had done drinking tea," was "bled about an ounce, leaned back and died." John would hardly believe that the girl was dead, she looked so radiant; he had never seen "so beautiful a corpse," but this, he reflected, was "poor comfort to the late inhabitant."
This sudden death of the young maiden filled him with disturbing thoughts; that night a storm broke out over Savannah such as John had never known before even in Georgia, and while the thunder rolled among the hills and the lightning was incessant above the palmetto huts, John knew fear again, and realized that he had no real wish "to be dissolved and to be with Christ."
He was humbled and distressed, especially as further interviews with the Indians proved fruitless, but his courage revived and he turned vigorously to more malleable material, suggesting that the more serious of his little flock should form themselves into a sort of society and meet once or twice a week in order to reprove, instruct, and report to one another. But he met with unexpected opposition; some people would not, for one thing, consent to have their children dipped at baptism; then there were the public prayers arranged according to the original appointments of the Church, at five and eleven in the morning, at three in the afternoon, with evening prayer, the whole linked together by house-to-house visits; this was, the colonists thought, far too much piety for the working day. These High Church practices, too, were taken for popery by many of the people, and the murmurs against the Wesleys began to swell; but Oglethorpe remained their friend, and so did his lieutenant, Thomas Causton. It was largely through class feeling that the aristocratic soldier stood by the four Methodists. James Oglethorpe knew John Wesley to be a gentleman, a scholar, and a Christian priest, and therefore considered that he ought to know what to do and left him, unfortunately, to do it. With even more disastrous results he did not interfere with Thomas Causton, the storekeeper, who had, oddly enough, obtained his complete confidence; Spangenberg went to Pennsylvania; his cool, disinterested advice might have saved the Wesleys from some of the troubles that now involved them, but it is unlikely that the Englishmen would have taken warning even from the impressive Moravian.
Within a few months the personal relations of all these people who had landed from the Simmonds had become embittered, entangled, and hysterical. To begin with, the four missionaries were divided among themselves. Charles was continually ill, first of a fever, now of malaria, had proved an inefficient secretary, detesting his work, making no secret of an almost frantic disappointment, and desiring to return home. Benjamin Ingham was faithful but not ardent, and disagreed with John on many points. Charles Delamotte was heartbroken at not being allowed to journey into the wilds to convert the Indians, and confined himself to acting as John's lieutenant. John had fallen readily into the traps set for him by idle, malicious, and sensual young women. Mrs. Hawkins, the pretty wife of the surgeon, had marked him down on the voyage, when she had squeezed his hand, cast up her eyes, and declared that she had found the spiritual friend she had been looking for since childhood. He had been warned against her by everyone, including Charles, but he refused to listen. How indeed could he listen? His work, his most urgent work, was to save souls. Hell's flames crackled as fiercely under the earth's surface in the New World as they had done in the Old, and how should John Wesley rescue either his own soul or those of others from them if he paid any attention to warnings against voluptuous young women, who might be hypocritical? So he refused to listen to a word against either Mrs. Hawkins or her equally frivolous friend, Mrs. Welsh, or any of the other women who made up the female gentility of Savannah, and encouraged their flamboyant displays of piety.
James Oglethorpe—a handsome prize for any woman—and the four Methodists were the only attractive and important men in the colony; Benjamin Ingham was remarkably handsome, John fascinating, Charles Delamotte emotional, young, and soft; the women, headed by Mrs. Hawkins, bored by the savage country and the rude life, determined to make havoc with soldier, priest, disciple alike.
FROM the moment that the four young and unmarried gentlemen had arrived in Savannah they had been the objects of petty, sordid gossip; the respectable people were censorious and the disreputable ready to think the worst. Too many thunderstorms and too much religion had brought everyone into a state of high nervous tension; the women were maddened by John's pose of stiff, smiling saintliness, the peevish virtue of Charles, who was ill and unhappy, the aloofness of Ingham, who knew his value, and the lofty indifference of Oglethorpe, who seemed to think of nothing but his maps and his fort at Frederica, which was quite professional, with its earthen ramparts, palisaded ditches, mounted with cannon that commanded the river.
Beata Hawkins was a wanton and a virago and, well supported by her friend Mrs. Welsh, resolved to ensnare Oglethorpe, known not to be entirely impervious to feminine charms, and to involve the exasperating young clergymen as well as in some amorous drama.
As they laid their plans they fluttered closely round the Wesleys, with cries of contrition, with sobs of repentance, with moist looks of sisterly love; their billowing muslins and palm-leaf hats tied coquettishly with coloured ribbons filled the courthouse when John preached, and they gracefully invaded the minister's house, to make and drink tea, to borrow books, to tell tales of backsliders, to ask for spiritual advice—Mr. Wesley was so clever, he could even interpret dreams, and very curious dreams visited some of these ladies.
Ingham was too blinded by self-complacency and Oglethorpe too disdainful to see the emotional tangle they were all becoming involved in, so the warnings of Charles and Delamotte were unheeded; the more so as John, indeed, rather enjoyed his delicate relations with these charming young women, who groaned over their sins at his feet, pressed his hand while he read holy books to them, and in their most becoming gowns and caps were punctual at the Communion table.
Among these dangerous women was one who disturbed him with a peculiar and painful pleasure: Sophie Hopkey, the niece of Thomas Causton's wife, who resided with the unpopular couple in the principal house of Savannah. She was young, charming, simple, and pious, much perturbed by a thwarted love affair with one of her uncle's clerks, a man named Thomas Mellichamp, who threatened violence if she gave her hand to anyone else, and kept her in a state of delicious agitation. Causton and his wife, seeing that the girl, indeed, did not know her own mind, and wishing to fortify her against this undesirable suitor, put her in the spiritual charge of John, who besides gave her lessons in French. Soon she came every day to the minister's house, her books under her arm, her face composed to gravity. She was submissive, amiable, and used many subtle forms of flattery; she had asked James Oglethorpe how John Wesley liked to see women dressed, and when the soldier replied: "In white dresses," Sophie Hopkey began to appear for her daily instruction in flowing gowns of spotless muslin that gave her fair, fragile look an angelic appearance.
The restless girl had told her teacher that she was not happy with the Caustons, that she did not want to marry Mellichamp, and that she was not at all sure of her eternal salvation, and he tried to help her with all these problems, fascinated himself by the delicious and delicate relationship—the religious teacher and the seductive female disciple.
Sophie Hopkey was not, however, an easy pupil; she hesitated in her confessions, sometimes she retracted them. She wept for no reason at all; her precise feelings as regards Mellichamp could not be ascertained.
John patiently read to her the book that was his favourite panacea for most human woes—William Law's Christian Perfection—but Sophie was not con soled. John was perilously interested in and ingeniously baffled by her state of mind and encouraged her daily visits, took the greatest interest in her welfare and was perfectly oblivious of the watchful eyes upon them in their walks together, of the smirks and winks of some of the most ill-conditioned of his parishioners, when the fair Sophie glided to the foremost pew in the new-built church, where the young priest, with his precise neat figure, smoothly curled auburn locks and upcast eyes, spoke of the horrors of Hell-fire in his moving and penetrating tones.
This enticing and difficult intimacy with Sophie Hopkey that gave a touch of brilliant hallucination to the hot days so often broken by thunderstorms was cut across by a most unexpected misfortune.
There was a desperate summons from Charles in Frederica; not only was he ill and unpopular, and not only had he quarrelled with almost everybody in the little township, but he had become the central figure of a shocking scandal that had cost him the friendship and even the respect of James Oglethorpe. It was the handsome Ingham, travelling hastily and perilously, who had brought this bad news, and he added details to Charles's letters that decided John to start at once to his brother's rescue.
There were discomforts and perils on the voyage; a plague of sand-flies covered the flat-bottomed barge—periagua—that conveyed John and the faithful Delamotte up the river, and then a violent storm and contrary winds sent the water over the boat and nearly drowned the harassed missionary. True to his custom, however, he opened his Bible and read "If God be for us, who can be against us?" and felt greatly cheered even amid the blue chain-lightning that flashed out of the darkness and the thunder. When John reached Frederica he found Charles prostrate with shock and a flux. Undaunted by the hostile atmosphere in the little town, John, the first Sunday after his arrival, preached on the challenging text: "Which of you convinceth me of sin? And if I say truth, why do ye not believe me?" There was a large but inimical congregation; John listened to Charles's story, stayed six days, then returned to Savannah to think over the strange tale; Charles, barely recovered, followed him; as Frederica, that godless place, was yet without a pastor, John and Ingham decided to undertake that difficult cure, and John went first, again being nearly drowned on the way; matters looked black for the brothers; Oglethorpe was at the fort, in a furious temper, report said, seeing no one but the engineer, while it seemed that John was to receive the same brutal treatment as had nearly cost Charles his life.
Only five people came to the first service that John held and only twenty-five to the second, and only one family came to Holy Communion. Wesley noted in his Journal:—
One reason why there were no more was that a few words which a woman had inadvertently spoken had almost sent all the town in a flame. Alas! how should a city stand that is thus divided against itself; where there is no brotherly love, no meekness, no forbearing or forgiving one another, but envy, malice, revenge, suspicion, anger, clamour, bitterness, evil speaking without end?
Savannah was indeed in a flame, and the situation was one to confound even the bold energy, the clear-cut resolution of John Wesley.
Charles had from the first made mistakes; his zeal had offended the people of Frederica, as much as John's zeal had offended the people of Savannah; his severe discipline had kept people away from church, and he had deeply offended Mrs. Hawkins's husband by protesting against his shooting on Sunday. Charles had, too, almost at once fallen ill, and again had neglected his secretarial duties with the harassed and overworked Oglethorpe; but all this was as nothing compared with the scandal that Mrs. Hawkins and Mrs. Welsh had contrived to arouse by a stupid piece of malice, with the sole purpose of creating a sensational drama in which they would be the chief actresses; this was the tangle that John, armed with his usual self-sufficient optimism, was called upon to set right.
Mrs. Welsh and Mrs. Hawkins had gone together in what seemed a mood of emotional penitence to Charles Wesley and declared that they had both been seduced by James Oglethorpe. Before Charles had recovered from the shock of this astounding revelation, the two hysterical women had fluttered off to the Colonel, then absorbed in strengthening the fort that was to protect this farthest outpost of the Empire, and told the infuriated soldier that Charles Wesley had succeeded in making each of them, successively, his mistress. Mrs. Hawkins, whose husband was still in prison for shooting on a Sunday, added the touch that Charles had accused her of being Oglethorpe's secret lover and had spread this slander over the town.
Oglethorpe had some difficulty in informing John's puritanical modesty of the real nature of the charges and counter-charges. When he finally, in the deepest anguish, understood these, he still refused to believe that the two women were wholly bad; there was some mystery—perhaps someone was possessed of devils. "God will reveal all," he noted; but Mrs. Hawkins would not; she stormed and Mrs. Welsh fainted, nor could John trace the slanders to their source, or even be quite sure in his ingenuous bewilderment that they were slanders at all. Mrs. Hawkins and Oglethorpe "seemed innocent. Amen," he wrote in his diary.
It was all very difficult. One moment the distracted Oglethorpe was civil, even friendly and soft, at another moment angry; sometimes he seemed quite open, sometimes in a suspicious temper; Mrs. Hawkins blustered and Mrs. Welsh fell in swoons; then the two women would pray and promise penitence.
What had really happened? Was Charles guilty of some terrible sin? Had Oglethorpe, annoyed at his prudery, put on these two Delilahs to tempt him? John could do nothing with these feverish complications. He had to fall back on ejaculations like: "Lord, open my eyes!"
Charles recovered a measure of health and returned to Frederica, and the two brothers stole into the virgin woods to discuss these horrors, talking together, even there, in Greek. They believed that their lives were not safe, that Frederica was an evil place, and John took Charles back with him to Savannah, leaving the two female mischief-makers to face the storm they had brewed themselves and the angry soldier to his interrupted Empire-building. He was still not on speaking terms with the younger brother, whom he now believed to be a smug hypocrite.
John and Charles took up their work in Savannah, where they soothed their outraged feelings by strict discipline, harassing their rebellious congregation, hymn-writing and hymn-singing, and attendance at several edifying death-beds; but Charles was still far from well and John far from satisfied. The younger brother had been deeply grieved and shocked by the scandal in Frederica; John had been scandalized too, so much that Oglethorpe had scarcely been able to discuss the matter with him. At the same time he was fascinated by the sordid drama, his intense curiosity played in lively fashion round these strange aspects of human nature, and he still hoped to make an attempt to convert those two disturbing women, Mrs. Welsh and Mrs. Hawkins.
Meanwhile there was Sophie close at hand, tripping in her flowing white muslin every day to the minister's house, to sit with her head drooping over holy books, to listen attentively to lectures and prayers, to smile a little, and to weep a little as she discussed her troubles, domestic and spiritual. Then in the blazing full heat of the summer Charles felt it his duty to go to Frederica again, and to see if he could make his peace with Oglethorpe; but it was hopeless. Charles was too shaken—mind, body, and soul—to plead his own cause, and again John had to go to the southern outpost, this time to arrange for Charles's departure to England and to take over his secretarial duties. Moreover, still tormented with a desire to force these strange people into his way of thinking, he tried once more to straighten out the tangle caused by these two incomprehensible women. He was met by a fresh scandal. In a letter to John, Charles had described the two ladies in two forcible Greek words, and Mr. Hawkins had stolen the letter from the post-bag and showed it to his wife, whom he somewhat oddly championed.
No one in Frederica knew Greek, but there was a strong suspicion that though John had been so chaste as scarcely to understand this lewd story, which Beata Hawkins had spread, Charles was worldly-wise enough to have accurately described the character of the two ladies, who, though they had passionately accused themselves of adultery, were still very nice about their reputations.
It was clear to John that Charles must be got to England, for little help was forthcoming from Oglethorpe, but, while Charles was being packed off, John might investigate the exciting affair of the wretched Mrs. Hawkins; therefore, under the excuse of fetching a concoction of bark for his brother and quite eager for the battle, John visited the surgeon's house.
The angry Beata flounced at once into the parlour and demanded what the two Greek words meant, declaring that all the women of Frederica felt themselves insulted thereby, for a very shrewd guess at their significance seems to have got abroad.
With his usual devastating candour, John replied mildly that the ladies of Frederica need not feel offended, since the two words applied only to Mrs. Welsh and Mrs. Hawkins; he added that he was not responsible for his brother's opinion.
Mrs. Hawkins was not in a mood to hear this reasonable protest, and she threw herself into one of her vigorous tantrums, screaming out that the clergyman was "a villain, a scoundrel, and a pitiful rascal." Her voice roused her bully of a husband, who, perhaps on a preconcerted signal, came in, and he too began to abuse John Wesley, who had to endure as best he could the reward of the meddling would-be peacemaker.
"I suppose that Charles Wesley meant me by those damned words," shouted the enraged lady, while her husband supported her with: "Did he indeed! We will unfrock the pair of them!"
John left the house of Beata Hawkins without, it may be supposed, his concoction of bark; he was deeply disturbed, for never before had this dainty and fastidious-minded man had personal contact with a vulgar virago. He hastened to Oglethorpe, but was coldly received; the soldier's temper was tending to become uncertain under the harassing strains of his position. It seemed at this time as if the scheme, in both its patriotic and philanthropic aspect, was likely to be a failure. Apart from the tiresome scandal raised by Mrs. Hawkins, Causton was causing great trouble in Savannah; Oglethorpe found him useful and continued to support him, but his insolence and tyrannies were rapidly becoming unsupportable to the other colonists. This man had left England because of some fraud on the Revenue, and was not unreasonably termed a renegade from justice. He had, however, sufficient address to impose himself on Oglethorpe, and to display himself with his guard of six freeholders armed with bayonets, as the little tyrant of the "molehill empire"; the governor, gloomy and lonely in his outpost fort, had other troubles besides complaints about Causton and the pesterings of Beata Hawkins. The enterprise had inevitably cost more than was expected, and he had, as Governor of Georgia, drawn large drafts for money that the Trustees had honoured only with alarm and protest. Indignant letters from London accused him of something like maladministration and misappropriation of funds, and he was now debating whether he should go to England to put these matters right and also to try to persuade the King to give him some regiments with which to protect his naked frontiers. The fort of Frederica was in reality on Spanish territory, and the Spanish colonists were not only complaining but arming. James Oglethorpe, in these circumstances, had very little time for Mrs. Hawkins.
Oglethorpe therefore tried to smooth over the tiresome, petty affair by suggesting to John that he leave the Hawkinses entirely alone. But Beata Hawkins did not intend to be left alone; somehow or other, after the manner of her kind, she intended to involve all those men in emotional relations to herself.
The next day she sent for John Wesley, and as she was one of his communicants he felt it his duty to go, for was she not a lamb of his flock, even though her fleece was soiled and caught in a thicket of briar? Besides, he had his keen nosing curiosity to goad him on. So he walked under the blue Georgian sky between the palmetto huts to the apothecary's residence, and ventured into the presence of the termagant, hoping to find her in that mood of melting penitence which she had often treated him to before. She sent out a message to him by a servant declaring that she was ill, and so he was bidden up into her bedroom. He found her standing with her hands behind her; white with malicious rage she cried out: "Sir, you have wronged me, and I will shoot you through the head at this moment with a brace of balls."
She then presented a pistol at the clergyman's head and with the other hand brandished a pair of large scissors. John boldly threw himself upon her, grasping her by the two wrists. A scene as disgraceful as ludicrous then followed; Wesley, though in good condition and wiry, was a small man, and he was not able to disarm immediately the hysterical woman. They fell on to the bed embraced in a struggle together, while Beata was cursing and swearing and screaming out: "Villain, dog, let go my hands!"
She declared that she would either cut off his long auburn locks or have his heart's blood. Not wishing this disgraceful scene to be noised abroad, Wesley tried to master the woman, but in vain. Even the entry of an alarmed servant did not quiet the mistress, who commanded the girl, on pain of death, to bring her a knife that she might make an end of the hypocritical parson. The maid's clamour, however, brought not only Mr. Hawkins but a passing constable into the house. The scene then became one of confused violence in which Wesley was overwhelmed. Hawkins wanted to know what the scoundrel Wesley was doing in his house, and vehemently supported his wife. He commanded the bewildered constable not to touch Beata, who had now lost grip of the pistol and was still trying to snip the sleek hair off John's head.
On her husband's managing to overpower her and to drag her off, she set her teeth into the clergyman's cassock and tore the sleeves of the garment to pieces. Exhausted and humiliated, Wesley went again to Oglethorpe, who wearily advised him to pass over the outrage, dwelling on such truisms as the necessity of some appearance of concord among the colonists, the troubles and vexatious scandals that had already split Frederica, and that satisfaction would be given to the enemies of both Wesley and Oglethorpe if this trouble were made public. So John, for the soldier's sake, and perhaps a little for his own, agreed to a truce, the main article of which was that he and the Hawkins couple should never speak to each other again, and Wesley at last agreed to obey the Governor of the colony and have no more to do with the dangerous Beata. Charles Wesley, half-disillusioned and broken in health, sailed for England under the excuse of taking a report to the Trustees, but really because he could no longer endure America and because he had made a failure of the work he had undertaken, while John promised to divide his time between Oglethorpe at Frederica and his flock at Savannah, regardless, as always, of fatigue and toil and the perilous hundred-mile journey between the two places.
When he returned to Savannah he had an unpleasant shock; the Nonconformist minister who had taken his place had lapsed from all the practices that Wesley had established; the congregations were full of backsliders, and Wesley found himself even more unpopular than he had been before, and yet Savannah was a godly place compared to Frederica, where one of his congregation, expressing the feelings of the majority, had said to him: "I like nothing you do. All your sermons are satires on particular persons. Besides, we are Protestants, and as for you, we cannot tell which religion you are of. We have never heard of such a religion before, and we know not what to make of it. And then your private behaviour, all the quarrels that have been here since your arrival have been because of you, and there is neither man nor woman in the town who minds a word you say."
John Wesley, however, doggedly went his way; he and Delamotte read together, discussed Dr. Beveridge's works on Church government, John began a library, continued expounding and praying, singing and writing, French lessons with Sophie Hopkey.
John now found himself deeply involved with her, and all his other troubles were as nothing compared to this—he had fallen in love with her, as far as it was in his nature to fall in love with anyone. But he had long since determined to remain celibate—"to go naked to Christ," as he termed it—and he dreaded the snare that might lie in a warm pleasant domestic life, the cosy fireside, the loving wife, and affectionate children.
He was pledged to one master, God; to one task, to save his own soul and those of other people. He would long since have entirely disengaged himself from Sophie, but she had assured him that she had no wish to marry, that she too considered a single life the better part, and he was simple enough to believe this, or disingenuous enough to pretend that he believed it.
When he was on one of his visits to Savannah she was sent after him by Causton, who hoped that Oglethorpe, then at the Fort, would be able to persuade this reluctant lover to come to a decision. Sophie stayed with a friend in Frederica and told John that she had left Savannah because she was miserable with the Caustons—almost, in fact, homeless; the French lessons were resumed, and John's love for the gentle creature increased to an alarming extent; he tore himself away and returned to Savannah, trying to come to a decision himself by sounding Causton, who said pointedly: "The girl will never be easy till she is married."
John was shocked by this downright and true statement, and replied that Sophie was far too afflicted, as to both her worldly position and the state of her soul, to think of marriage. Causton replied: "I give her up to you; do what you will with her, take her into your own hands, promise her what you will, and I will make it good."
Wesley now had a free hand to put himself forward as a husband for the girl. Causton's "I will make it good" meant that Sophie's husband would be received into the house and farm, one of the finest in the colony, to which Sophie was heiress. John said nothing, but returned to Frederica, where he was amazed to find everyone, including Sophie, had relapsed; evening and morning prayer had been discontinued, and the young lady's good resolutions had vanished away: she was languid, distracted, and talked vaguely of returning to England.
John was agitated and alarmed into saying a great deal, but not what the girl was hoping for—a proposal of marriage; he read to her what he thought the most affecting part of some serious books, but Sophie did not seem to listen. The harassed young woman wanted to marry John; she believed that he loved her and she knew that everyone was expecting this marriage, and there was no obstacle to it. She had almost proposed to him herself, going as far as the limits of her modesty and her inexperience allowed. But still he would not declare himself, though she could not admit that she had made a mistake about his feelings. Her amorous manner surprised and discouraged Wesley, who noted in his Journal: "I soon re-collected my spirits and remembered my calling."
Oglethorpe returned to Frederica from the Fort, when Wesley thought him cold, and said somewhat petulantly to Miss Hopkey: "Now, Miss Sophie, you may go to England, for I can assist you no longer; my interest is gone."
The young lady declared that she would not stir a foot. What, then, was to become of her? The Governor appealed to John on this point and, as tired of the parson as of the girl, said "She had better go home," and added that she could go in "no one's charge but yours, for indeed there is none so proper."
Still Wesley did not declare himself, and Sophie, pressed almost beyond endurance, burst into tears and declared that she would not return to the Caustons at Savannah. John then repeated her guardian's words: "You have only to make your own terms. Your uncle engaged himself to make good whatever I should promise you."
He committed himself no further; he was still, out of either hypocrisy or stupidity, relying on her declaration that she wished to die an old maid, yet he saw the snare: the long voyage together on the boat and they the only passengers:—
I had a good hope that I would be delivered out of the danger, because it was not my choice which brought me into it, because I still felt in myself the same desire and design to live a single life, because I was persuaded should my desire and design be changed, yet her resolution to live single would continue.
Yet this cool resolve flickered and almost wavered, his selfish complacency was almost burnt away, for he was in love, and far more deeply disturbed than he had been by either Varanese or Aspasia; besides, with those delicate and difficult ladies he had always been kept at arm's length, now he and this simple and loving girl were thrown into each other's intimate company. John had lately been reading the mystics; he had decided to reject them utterly, yet they had a little confused and unsettled him, and proved in their way a spiritual temptation, as Sophie Hopkey was proving a fleshly one; so all his being was excited and disturbed, as he took the dainty creature in his charge on the slow-moving, flat-bottomed barge.
He was face to face with what he had never experienced before, a definite temptation, and one that seemed to him almost gross, almost of the Devil, though he was chaste and high-minded; though he loved her with his spirit and his heart and his mind, he did love her also "after the flesh." Before he had sailed for Georgia he had written a letter to his brother Samuel bidding him banish all the classics from his school and introduce in their place Christian authors. The boys at Blundell's, as he remarked pertinently, were as much heathens as the Indians whom he himself hoped to convert, and he warned Samuel, already sufficiently priggish, against "the classics usually read in great schools, many of them tending to inflame the lusts of the flesh, and more to feed the lusts of the eye and the pride of life."
He was in danger of these temptations himself as the flat-bottomed barge moved slowly down the wide river between the banks luxuriant with the flaming foliage of strange gold, crimson, scarlet leaves and fruits, the brilliant hues of sour apples and harsh damsons, the dusky bloom of the wild grape festooned about the stem of pine and cypress that rose dark against the azure sky. Sophie was so docile, so delicate in her white muslin frock beneath the wayfarer's cloak, with her charming enticing face, daintily banded hair, childish profile and exquisite folded hands, that almost she succeeded in making him forget his obsessions—Hell, damnation, his own soul; almost the bitter teachings of Epworth passed out of his agitated mind and he became, not a fanatic but a normal young man. He tried to fortify himself behind holy books. He read aloud Fleury's History of the Church, and expounded to the anxious Sophie, as they sat on the deck together, the glorious examples of truth and patience in the suffering of the ancient saints, "who resisted unto blood striving against sin."
At night the boat was moored. Crew and passengers landed and slept on patches of open ground, between the pungently fragrant shrubs, their only mattress a sail pegged over the coarse grass. The wind was keen and sharp from the east, but the patient girl complained of nothing, as wrapped in her cloak she lay down between the clergyman and the servants and slept, or seemed to sleep, beneath the stars, "as if on a bed of down." One windy, starlit night when they were lying on the sail cloth, the sleeping servant between them, he could not close his eyes. Raising himself on his elbow, he looked at the pale girl, also wide awake, who lay pillowed on her folded shawl, the glow of the light from the camp fire flickering over her childish face; he had meant to resist her, but now the words that she wanted him to speak broke from him: "I should think myself very happy if I were to spend my life with you."
Sophie sobbed with relief, hoping to hear more, longing for some lover-like endearment. If she had been a more experienced woman she would have responded to his timid overture passionately, and might have swept him out of his icy inhibitions. But being a nervous, overwrought, simple girl, she began to weep and muttered something about Tom Mellichamp, who had threatened any man who tried to marry her, and foolishly begged John to speak no more of the matter, hoping all the while that he would do so and with increased ardour, but again and fatally John took her at her word: he became silent, a little relieved that his temptations had been snatched away.
But John Wesley had not escaped entirely from the effects of the enchanted voyage. He was still tormentingly in love with Sophie; nor had she lost all hope. She came daily to the minister's house for the French lessons and the devotional reading, and the little town gossiped, winked, and nodded, while John Wesley, as he admitted, began to be much afraid of the girl, for his desire and design were still to live single, but how long he could resist he did not know.
For several months the agonizing relationship continued, until the young man could no longer control himself, and let slip, on an impulse, another halfhearted proposal. The girl, wishing to urge him into a more direct disclosure, replied that she thought it was best for clergymen not to be cumbered with worldly cares, and it was best for her, too, to remain single, and that accordingly she had resolved never to marry. The protestations that she had hoped for did not come; John was silent. Upon reflection he again thought this a very narrow escape, but he asked the advice of a Moravian pastor, Mr. Töltschig.
John Wesley's dilemma was that if he forsook Sophie he thought that her soul would be lost, and if he remained friendly with her he feared he would marry her. The Moravian could not see the difficulty, and John was utterly amazed when he advised him to marry Sophie Hopkey and have done with it; Delamotte's influence was on the other side. He was all for celibacy, for keeping the vows of the Holy Club, for being rid of the dangerous interruptions of love and women. Benjamin Ingham, too, before he left for England, had warned John against Sophie. While studying the Indian language by means of Dr. Byron's shorthand, Ingham had come over from his hut near the savage settlement to warn John of the danger of these fleshly enticements, and John had been much impressed by the admonitions of his two disciples.
His distress had subtle undertones. It was not merely a question of a choice between God and Sophie Hopkey; there was his own personal difficulty, one that he could not discuss with others or, even, face himself; this was the shrinking of the born celibate from marriage. All his relations with women had been delicate, fine-spun, tinged with sentimentality, refined with religious feeling. He liked these indefinite courtships, these tender dallyings with submissive women who looked up to him as a holy teacher, as a great scholar, but he did not want marriage. He shrank from the thought of a wife as he shrank from the thought of a mistress; he thought that for a priest marriage would be "a taint upon the mind "—meaning, perhaps, that he considered that it would be an indulgence of the flesh. But this aversion from the intimacy of marriage, this wish to enjoy the company and admiration of women while keeping them at arm's length, was not a matter of conviction but of personal predilection.
His pattern of womanhood was his mother, and she had had nineteen children; his model parish priest had been his father, and John could never have thought that this numerous brood had interfered with the Rector of Epworth's attention to his duties. No; it was his own reluctance to leave a way of life that suited him, his own dread of finding either an enervating pleasure or a depressing disgust in this new relationship, that held him back, even though Sophie had troubled his temperamental coldness, which he thought a virtue too precious to be lost even in the bonds of lawful matrimony. What he liked was the fastidious, dainty pleasure, with a harsh relish of pain, of his present situation: the girl dangling after him, listening to him, obeying him, nursing him when he was ill, discussing saintly celibacy with him, everything on the surface, all words at their face value. John Wesley had always been willing to accept this kind of friendship with women; it was always the women who became impatient, irritated, and troublesome.
Charles Delamotte, young, hard, and narrow, taking pitiless advantage of his friend's agitation and confusion, urged him to decide the matter by sortilege. On three pieces of paper were written: Marry; Think not of it this year; Think of it no more. It was the last that Delamotte drew, fairly, it is to be hoped, from the bowl. John was agonized but relieved. God had spoken. Another lot was cast. Should John ever see Sophie again? The paper that was drawn had written on it, "only in the presence of Mr. Delamotte."
John then resolved to give up the woman with whose affections he had so cruelly played, whose innocent love he had so ruthlessly sacrificed. Once when she came to see him, he was out, with a note left for her; he had gone to wander in the woods. "I find, Miss Sophie, I can't take fire in my bosom and not be burned."
The forsaken girl tried to save the scattered remnants of her pride. One of Thomas Causton's clerks, an adventuring colonist who had come out soon after the Wesleys, one William Williamson, was also her suitor and not in the least afraid of either the hesitant parson or the violent Mellichamp. To his intense astonishment and dismay, John heard that the woman to whom he had proposed marriage twice had accepted this young man, who in John's opinion was plain, stupid, and irreligious. Agonized with new emotions John went to the Caustons and found Sophie there with the new lover, who said at once: "I suppose, sir, you know what was agreed on last night between Miss Sophie and me?"
Assuming the stern air of a priest, John Wesley replied that he could not believe this news unless he heard it from the girl herself.
Then once again poor Sophie gave the man she preferred his chance.
"Sir, I have given Mr. Williamson my consent unless you have anything to object to."
The meaning was so plain that even Wesley saw it, but he still hesitated, excusing himself with the reflection that if she meant, "unless you will marry me," she would say so, she was so sincere.
But all was not quite over. Desperate Sophie came once more to the minister's house to read her devotional books, but Mr. Williamson was walking up and down outside, and Delamotte, in obedience to the oracle, sat in the parlour watching the frustrated lovers, John with much agitation protesting against the proposed match. Had not Sophie promised to ask his advice before she did anything important?
The next day young Williamson met the prim clergyman on his rounds and said to him bluntly: "Sir, you shall speak with Miss Sophie no more until we are married. You can persuade her to anything. After you went from the lot yesterday, she would neither eat nor drink for two hours, but was crying continually in such an agony she was fit for nothing."
"To-morrow, sir, you may be her director, but today she is to direct herself," flashed John with intolerant scorn for a rival and an inferior.
Still he would neither let the girl go nor offer for her himself. He went to her once more, and asked her "if she were fully determined to put the marriage through?" When she said "yes," he told her that she was not acting upon a right motive, but was trying to avoid her cross, and that "it would follow and overtake her," a curious image showing distress of mind. Williamson cut through the agonizing hesitancy, delays, and neurotic entanglements by marrying the girl out of hand; it was exactly a year since she had first met the four young Methodists.
For the first and last time John Wesley lost his head. His slowly roused desires and passions were too powerful for his keen intellect, his intense self-discipline; he was in love, and the thought of the girl in the possession of another man was torment. He raged past all control, and Delamotte, alarmed at his state, could scarcely bring him to calm, even by reminding him that the Voice of God had spoken by means of the bit of paper that he had drawn out of the bowl.
Yes, John believed that he had obeyed the Lord, that he had done the right thing, that he was intended for celibacy, but the anguish was almost unendurable. Meeting Sophie out once with her husband he could not control himself, but began to abuse her violently—he had heard that she was still in love with Tom Mellichamp: what right had she to play with two men? Her husband, furious, drew Sophie away; John Wesley went home and poured out his feelings on paper; he would show, he wrote, his friendship by telling her painful truths:—
Would you know what I dislike in your past or present behaviour? You have always heard my thoughts as freely as you asked them. Nay, much more freely; you know it well, and so you shall do as long as I can speak or write. In your present behaviour I dislike (1) your neglect of half the public service, which no man living can compel you to; (2) your neglect of fastings, which you once knew to be a help to the mind, without any prejudice to the body; (3) your neglect almost of half the opportunity of communicating which you have late had. But these things are small in comparison with what I dislike in your past behaviour. For (1) you told me over and over again that you had entirely conquered your inclination to Mr. Mellichamp, yet at that very time you had not conquered it. (2) You told me frequently you had no desire to marry Mr. Williamson, but at the very time you spoke you had the design. (3) In order to conceal both these things from me you went through a course of deliberate dissimulation. Oh, how fallen! how changed! Surely there was a time when in Miss Sophie's life there was no guile. Own these acts and own your fault and you will be in my thoughts as if they have never been. If you were otherwise-minded, I should still be your friend, though I cannot expect you should be mine.
The unhappy, distracted man had nothing against the woman, whom he had lost entirely by his own fault, but such trivialities as "neglect" in matters of public worship. But his jealousy and his disappointment ran so high that he seized upon one of these—her omission to say that she was coming to partake of Holy Communion on a certain day—to refuse her admission to the Communion table, a cruel action inspired by blind jealousy that he endeavoured to justify by writing her a harsh letter, saying that not only had she not told him that she wished to come to the table, but that she was in no fit state to do so, since she had not repented the wrongs she had done. The scandal in Savannah over this action was as great as the scandal had been in Frederica over Mrs. Hawkins, and in both, as his many enemies noted, John Wesley was entangled. There was an eager outcry against John, as a tiresome man of whom the colonists wished to be rid. Oglethorpe had left for England to report to the Trustees (Charles Wesley had not yet done so) and to ask Parliament for money for Georgia; so the young clergyman had no friends save the loyal but indiscreet Delamotte.
Mr. Williamson, who, whatever his rival's opinion of him, appears to have been a resolute man of action, at once issued a writ for slander against Wesley. The angry husband was supported warmly by the powerful and tyrannical Causton, who had deserted Wesley, once his friend, and was beside himself with rage at the public insult to his niece; a thousand pounds damages for defamation of character was demanded.
John Wesley was arrested and brought before the court on August 9; bail was demanded, but the clerk declared that "Mr. Wesley's word was sufficient "; so the indomitable young clergyman went again about his work, studying his languages, writing his hymns, going from house to house, though many doors were shut in his face; preaching in the little wooden and plastered church, though his congregation had dwindled to but a few of the faithful or the curious. Almost the entire male population of Savannah was on the Grand Jury of forty-four people; these included a Roman Catholic, a Frenchman, an Atheist, and nineteen Dissenters. Besides Sophie Williamson's indictment, there were many charges against John Wesley, most of them ecclesiastical; his extreme unpopularity and the deep offence he had given to the colonists were shown by the charges that they now brought against him. The trine baptism, his attempts to inflict penance and to extort confessions, the improper ways in which he had interfered with the usual forms in conducting services, and above all the exasperation of the men at his interference with the women in house-to-house visiting, his attempts to teach wives and servants "to fast, to mortify the flesh, to pray in a manner that interfered with their husbands' interests and the conduct of their households." These indictments were finally reduced to ten; John Wesley, secure in his scholarship, pointed out coolly that this was not an ecclesiastical court, and had no jurisdiction in ecclesiastical matters. The secular charge, the alleged defamation of the character of Mrs. Williamson, he was willing to answer.
Though the Grand Jury sat several times, they could not agree about the procedure to be adopted, and a minority of the Jury, getting away from the main issue, pledged themselves to investigate the behaviour of the detested Causton and ended by declaring him to be the author of all the trouble, setting on foot proceedings against him that eventually led to his downfall for falsifying his accounts as public storekeeper. But John, though a free man, felt that he could no longer endure to remain in Georgia, a land to him of the acutest disillusionment, the bitterest disappointment; he could not live in a town where he was the centre of so much dissension and scandal; he could not be the pastor of a flock that openly defied him; above all, he could not live near to Sophie, his lost love, the wife of another man.
John put a notice outside his church in the great Square that he proposed to leave Georgia; whereupon Causton sent for him, and told him that he would have to give bail before he was permitted to depart from Savannah; John retorted that he would explain himself to the Trustees in London and there was no man there of sufficient standing, education, or personality to deal with one of his quality, and he was neither well guarded nor efficiently watched; after all, they wanted to be rid of him. After praying with a few friends he went secretly from Georgia with four men who also had good reason for wishing to escape from the colony. They were not without adventures, notably lack of water on the way, and several times missed the road. For many men such a failure after such high hopes, such a departure after such a triumphant arrival, would have been the depths of humiliation, and pride and courage would alike have been broken during his ignominious flight, stumbling in the dark in company with fugitives across a strange country; but John Wesley had abated nothing of his pretensions or of his arrogance. When Causton had told him that he should sign bonds to the amount of fifty pounds, to appear before the Savannah Court when summoned to do so, John answered him plainly: "Sir, you use me very ill, and so do the Trustees. I will give neither any bond nor any bail at all. You know your business and I know mine." In this mood he "shook the dust" off his feet and resolutely turned his back on failure, disappointment, and humiliation, and, neither faint nor weary, tramped through virgin forests and large swamps, trying to find the way from Parrysburg to Port Royal. The four wayfarers lived on water found by thrusting a stick into the ground and on a gingerbread cake that John had in his pocket, and supported, as he believed, by God, arrived at Beaufort, where the English minister offered them "old English hospitality "; here Charles Delamotte joined them, and a cold perilous journey was taken to Charlestown.
There John preached and visited a dying man; he was also taken ill with a flux; he was well received, and instantly began to torment himself for fear this "respect and attendance" as much as Sophie Hopkey should undermine his determination to dedicate himself to spiritual things; he took leave of Charles Delamotte, "the last of the friends who came with me to America," and who had never been away from him for more than a few days since they had landed in October, 1735.
On November 24 John Wesley left America on the Samuel, having made a clean cut of the missionary effort that was to have meant salvation. Instead of meeting and converting Indians he had met and lost a loved woman, glimpsed and resisted temptation stronger than he had believed temptation could be. He had brought little good to anyone and he had made himself cordially disliked by most of his flock; he knew that when he returned to England he would have to go before the Trustees to explain his conduct and to meet the charges that had been made against him.
He felt lost, ruined, and wretched as, with failure behind him, uncertainty ahead, his heart broken, his spirit disturbed, and friends scattered, he lay in the cabin of the ship that was taking him back to his England after an absence of more than two years.
JOHN WESLEY parted with the faithful Charles Delamotte on the American shores and sailed among strangers for England, on the Samuel. He felt, for the first time in his life, shaken in his soul, nervous, and depressed; he was sea-sick, too, and though this passed after he had ceased "to live delicately," and though he obtained some peace of mind by trying to convert a negro, instructing the cabin-boy, and reading the Bible with one of his fellow-fugitives, a poor Frenchman who had escaped "by the skin of his teeth" from Parrysburg, he was a distracted and an unhappy man. Touched with despair he wrote a paper—still all must be done by rule—in which he accused himself of unbelief, of pride, of levity and luxuriancy of spirit, of lack of humility in speaking of his enemies, and so on. By using his reason he tried, hopelessly, to argue away his lack of faith; the more logic he applied to his problem, the more insolvable it appeared.
John Wesley's love for Sophie Hopkey had melted much of the icy dogma, the withering superstition that had hitherto frozen and stunted his nature and his intelligence. Enclosed in solitude, on the labouring ship between the vast clouded sky and the unfathomed ocean, he saw his creed for what it was, and realized the folly and the wrong that he had done a dear and loving woman by sacrificing her to a tangle of superstitions that had held mankind in subjection for too long. The intelligence that he had deliberately suppressed, when he had turned from mathematics and speculative philosophy, now asserted itself. He had often longed for solitude in order that he might ponder over how he was to be a perfect Christian; here he was caged in loneliness amid the elements, and his thoughts flew wide. As the tempest beat overhead and the ship rocked in the deep trough of the waves, the pale sick young man in the closed cabin was released from the heavy domination of all the falsehoods that had been taught him by the sour fanatics who had brought him up, who had impressed his mind, when it was like wax, with dismal cruel superstitions more degrading and terrible than any cherished by the savages whom he had sought to save from damnation. He thought of the punning hymn of the great poet who had been so rapturously torn between the ecstasies of the flesh and those of the spirit; he was haunted by two of the lines:—
I have a sinne of feare, that when I have spunne
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore.
What could be more awful than this fear! To labour to save his soul, with all his forces, and then, exhausted as the spider that has spun his final thread, to perish on the shores of Hell. Yet, when every other sin was combated and subdued, there still remained that "sin of fear," a lack of faith in salvation. But suppose that fear was right? Suppose that it was not fear at all, but an effort of human intelligence to rise above the dismal slough of human superstition? John Wesley wrote in his Journal:—
But in a storm I think, "What if the Gospel be not true? Then thou art of all men the most foolish. For what hast thou given thy goods, thy care, thy friends, thy reputation, thy country, thy life? For what art thou wandering over the face of the earth?—a dream, a cunningly devised fable?"
It was the turning-point of his life; the truth flickered before him in the wind and rain and almost he grasped it and was delivered. "A dream," and "a cunningly devised fable"—shocked by the agony of love forgone, by the pain of human instincts violently frustrated, by the stab of self-knowledge, the young man saw his creed for what it was. Here, in mid-ocean, the stern face of Susanna Wesley was dim in the memory, the harsh voice of Samuel Wesley sunk in a deeper silence than that of the grave, the long penance that was Epworth, Charterhouse, Oxford, Georgia was rolled up—pages blotted with follies, with excesses, with errors, with dark and dank superstitions—and the young man's soul soared free—let the whole thing go, picking from it only those grains of truth that it shared with all other creeds!
Unite love of humanity, high ideals, a lofty standard of personal conduct with a mind at liberty, a heart satisfied, a soul at peace, with freedom to search for knowledge, to investigate all avenues to wisdom and truth, with a wide toleration and an indifference to all superstition! For a while this seemed possible, but custom, "heavy as frost, deep as life itself," renewed its grip on the tormented young man, and what had seemed the serene face of truth became the leering mask of the Devil. These doubts were the foul temptations of Satan, this unbelief would lead him to Hell. "Mine is a fair summer religion!" he cried bitterly, and forced himself back into his fetters, which were never to release him again. He remembered the Moravian's counsel of "stillness" and subdued himself into acquiescence with a creed in which he had not that faith which was, he knew, essential to salvation.
The Samuel weathered the storms and sailed into the Downs before a strong north wind. A passing outward-bound ship bore, though Wesley did not know it, the newly ordained George Whitefield, full of enthusiasm for the project that John Wesley had just abandoned, that of converting the Indians of Georgia. If he had been aware of this zealous new missionary, it would not have much consoled him; the clamping of himself down anew into his ancient chains was causing him great agony. He accepted it all—God, Christ, the Gospels, original sin, the Redemption, Heaven, Hell, salvation through faith—but only with an exhausted; unwilling mind, and with his spirit not at all. Terrified at his own inner and obstinate disbelief, he felt that he was damned, "never converted to God "; of what use his studies, his charities, his labours, his perils, his self-denials, his relinquishments of earthly pleasures? He had not faith, therefore he was "altogether corrupted and abominable, a child of wrath, an heir of Hell."
In a mood of deep depression he landed at Deal on the cold February morning and started on the rough tedious journey to London, preaching by the way. It was two years and nearly four months since he had left Gravesend in the Simmonds, and what had he learned? The strength and pain of human love and human desires and the impossibility of reaching faith through reason or salvation through routine. More was needed: what was it? where should he find it?
He was still tormented by the most poignant of human pains—regret; he might have married that sweet companion, that tender lover; he might have remained in Georgia, the right-hand man of James Oglethorpe, using his gifts of leadership, his energy, his zeal, his training, to build up a new nation. In that task worldly happiness and worldly ambition would have been achieved, and great qualities would have found a worthy scope. But as the familiar, misty, grey atmosphere of his native country closed around him, these regrets were softened into the self-righteous pangs of martyrdom. It no longer seemed unreasonable that celibacy was required of him, nor that God had spoken by means of a scrap of paper drawn out of a bowl by Charles Delamotte; Wesley's realization of "the dream and the fable" seemed now a hideous temptation valiantly overcome.
The shadow of Epworth parsonage was over him again; after all, the New World had offered a heady draught to the prim Oxford don—nothing had been quite in focus, under those azure skies, crowned with the purple storm-clouds, shot with gigantic lightnings, broken by the distant violet mountains. Life had gone differently in the palmetto huts, adorned with the brilliant flowers, the metallic foliage of strange plants, surrounded with those lush meadows and swamps, those forests of blue-black pines beaten on by that blazing sun. Looked back upon from the Dover shore, Georgia seemed to glitter with the rainbow hues of an hallucination, the central point of which was that flash of deluding brightness, Sophie Christiana Hopkey in her fresh muslin gown. Undoubtedly even he, John Wesley, had been affected, even intoxicated, with so much that was new, strange, and beautiful—and all so different from what he had thought it would be—aye, different indeed from the cynic Indians who came to cadge rum and scarlet cloth and countered Wesley in his full canonicals with talk of "the Beloved Ones"; to vulgar coquettes like Beata Hawkins, idle, overblown, and resolved to introduce sexual disturbance wherever they went; to Thomas Causton with his gaol and whipping-post, his falsified accounts, his mole-heap tyranny. Even James Oglethorpe had become different in the New World. Wesley had hardly recognized the correct member for Haslemere, the earnest humanitarian, the gracious gentleman, in the lean weather-beaten figure, absorbed in schemes of British aggrandizement, bent over his maps, watching the buildings of the fort at Frederica, harsh and angry when any attempt was made to draw him from his task—yes, no doubt, in Georgia, they had all been touched with lunacy.
But it was over now, and John Wesley was on his native shore. Those daring disbeliefs that had seemed possible on board the little ship, labouring with wind and water, now appeared blasphemous in this country, where nominal service was paid to nominal Christianity and a formula, devised by a Swiss professor of moral philosophy, whereby the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth were co-ordinated with modern ideas of law and order, had been adopted with cosy satisfaction by the ruling classes, who found in Erastianism a convenient compromise between an exacting but respected theology and the realities of government. In this atmosphere, the revered (if "empty save on Sundays ") churches on every hand, in a country where students tainted with Deism were sent down from Oxford University or confined for months to their room to translate orthodox writers from Latin into English, where the peculiar religion that the national temperament had made of Protestantism was stamped like a sign-manual over the land—how was it possible to dare to regard the Gospels as "a dream," "a fable"?
John Wesley shuddered with relief at his escape from this terrible temptation and went to Oxford, where he found Charles ill and irritable and the members of the Holy Club scattered. It was a drab, depressing period; the only satisfaction that Wesley could find was that the Lord "had humbled and proved him and shown him what he was." There was gratification, no doubt, in hearing of the great success achieved by George Whitefield, but there was amazement too; the raw, squinty lad from the pot-house had done more in a few years than the Wesleys had been able to do in a lifetime of effort, and without influence, training, or background. During Wesley's fruitless absence in Georgia "the worm from a public-house" had become one of the most-talked-of men in England; he filled the churches everywhere he went; journalists hurried after him, crowds pressed about him on his travels; Dissenters, Quakers, the gentry, and the outcasts all were eager to run after the former poor servitor of Pembroke College.
Yet, when John had sent a call for help from America, Whitefield had left all this excitement to hasten out, only to miss his friend and elder by the length of the voyage. He returned in November after a lightning visit and a golden harvest; in Savannah, in Thunderbolt, in Ebenezer, in Frederica he had been received with open arms, as much run after as Wesley had been avoided; he had had the honour of guiding Heavenwards the soul of Tomochichi, who had not been much impressed by Wesley and who, now nearly a centenarian, was perhaps past being impressed by anyone. Then Whitefield had founded a girls' school, an orphanage, after the German model, and had preached under a tree, because the churches were not large enough. On his return he landed in Ireland, where "mayors and bishops" were at his feet, and where he visited a family of "wild Irish," five people, two pigs, two dogs, and some geese being housed in a small log cabin. Whitefield then hurried back to London, where he had a loving reunion with his dear fellow-labourers, the Wesleys.
For John the year had been uneventfully filled with rather humdrum preaching; his energy had never relaxed; he had preached in the inn at Deal, when he had landed, and at every stage on the way to London, and he had never ceased since to preach at least on Sundays. His most important experience had been meeting with a young Moravian from Jena University, Peter Böhler, who taught him "to purge away philosophy" and the necessity of justification by faith. Implicit in this was the belief that everyone, even the most pious and moral, is damned unless he passes through the process known as "conversion "; an experience like that which cast Paul prostrate at the Damascus Gate, a conviction coming in an instant's flash—saving Faith—that through Christ the sinner has conquered sin and is saved.
Böhler was careful to explain that this emotional "conversion" had nothing to do with reason, but Wesley thought himself bound to bring reason to bear on it and to search the Thirty-nine Articles for a confirmation of the theory, and thought that he had found it in Article XII; but, whether or no, he had not experienced it, and was inclined to give up preaching, but Böhler advised: "Preach Faith till you have it, and then because you have Faith you will preach it," a piece of sophistry that was really an invitation to induce self-hypnotism. But Wesley acted on it, and in the interim of waiting on the Georgia Trustees, interviewing James Oglethorpe, who returned to Georgia with men and money, and giving an eye to his family affairs, he preached by rote, and when the churches were gradually closed to him under the excuse that it was not the Church of England that he was serving, he preached before the societies he and Charles had formed, on the model of the Holy Club; the most important being at Fetter Lane, London. George Whitefield, on his return, joined with zest in those schemes and preached as often as twenty-seven times a week, drawing thousands where the Wesleys drew hundreds.
In the London of 1738-9 there was a good deal to preach about, even on the lines of elementary morality. John Wesley, always on the side of law and order, accepted the ethical and legal codes of the day. His views of crime and criminals were those of the lawmakers and those who enforced the law, those of the magistrates and the constables, only he conceded that these wretches at Faversham, where he had found people "more savage than the wild Indians," had souls that might even at the last minute be saved by faith. The logical outcome of this point of view was, first, an attempt to reform morals and manners, to threaten with Hell and bribe with Heaven the gross, the ignorant, and the vile; then, if this failed, to snatch their souls, justly the prey of Satan, with a "brink-of-eternity" conversion.
John Wesley began to visit prisons and saw some instances of this faith that he had not got himself, and that Peter Böhler said it was essential he should have, among condemned criminals. These excited him so much that he again consulted the young Moravian; Peter Böhler, who possessed to the full that serenity which Wesley always found so fascinating among the Moravians, not only pointed to the Bible, which was full of instances of sudden conversions, but produced several people of his own acquaintance who had had this remarkable experience.
This young German was an attractive and dominating character; it was he who had been instrumental in founding the little society in Fetter Lane, and it was he who brought round Charles—who at first had been shocked by John's statement that "he was not a Christian, because he had not faith"—to see that without this belief salvation was not possible. Charles was ill of pleurisy when Peter Böhler went to his bedside to argue with him on this most important point. Soon after, the young German returned to his own country, leaving the two brothers, Charles still weak from illness, convinced that they were no better than the most depraved criminals to whom they ministered in the fever-ridden gaols, until they found this saving grace of faith.
While they were waiting for this miracle to occur, there was plenty of practical work for them to do, and the two earnest young men—Charles still weak from his sickness—set about doing what they could to reform London. There was every kind of evil with which to contend, and drunkenness was one of them. The struggle to prohibit rum in Georgia was as child's play to the struggle to bring gin-drinking within limits in London. There was a nominal duty of fifty pounds a year to be paid for selling this intoxicant, but about six thousand people were convicted annually for evading this law, and they were probably but a small proportion of those who contrived and smuggled sales of gin. The lower classes poisoned themselves with Madam Geneva in an effort to forget their wretchedness. This was one cause of the many crimes of violence in the capital, though juries were notoriously lenient, because of the severity of the law. No week went by without a hanging at Tyburn, with its attendant scenes of cruelty, debauchery, and degradation.
The Wesleys were faced with many other distressing breaches of the moral and social laws; for instance, those mentioned by a Committee of the House of Lords appointed to examine "the causes of the present notorious immorality and profanity." To begin with, Sunday was not observed as a holy day, and in vain constables and beadles were told to arrest shoeblacks, barbers, alehouse and hot coffee-house keepers who persisted in trying to ply their trades on the Lord's Day.
Then there was the neglect of Divine Worship, the shocked Committee reporting that this was "greater than had ever been known in England before." There was, besides, a want of reverence for the law and the magistrates, and "undue" insubordination in several ranks and degrees of the community. The British public were also accused by their Lordships "of abusing liberty, neglecting education, a want of care in training children and keeping servants in good order," while "idleness, luxury, gambling, and extensive use of spirits or intoxicating liquor had grown to an alarming magnitude." Worst of all, there were terrible rumours of a club of loose and disorderly persons calling themselves "Blasters," who worshipped the Devil in secret, tried to obtain fresh disciples for him, and uttered the "most daring and execrable blasphemies against the sacred name and majesty of God, which were so obscene and unheard-of" that the Noble Committee could not even mention them.
This painful state of public immorality and distress touched even the Wesley family. John could not congratulate himself on his brothers-in-law. Sukey's "bad" husband was ruined by the Fen floods, and John had to try to obtain charitable grants for him. Lambert and Wright both drank to excess, and the latter had become a dissolute ruffian, who physically maltreated the once-brilliant Hetty, now a hysterical drudge trying to keep together a miserable home and relieve a broken heart by writing touching verses to her dead children. The Rev. Westley Hall, though he had met the approval of Mrs. Wesley when she had taken refuge with him and Martha, his wife, was fast becoming alarmingly eccentric, and Emilia, who had given up love and happiness in deference to her brother's superstitious intolerance, was hardening into a stiff spinster, grimly keeping together the little school in Gainsborough. Keziah, drugged with religious melancholia, was living on the few pounds given her by her brothers, staying with relations and friends, and directing all her intelligence and all her emotions towards the thought of Heaven. Poverty stung and hampered all these people.
Samuel was, however, comfortable enough at Blundell's; he had become a careful, dull, family man, cosily in a groove, avoiding the temptations, trials, and excitement of the outer world, easily alarmed by any hint of heresy in others, quick to moralize and preach from his own safe niche.
Matthew Wesley, the liberal-minded physician, had died after a long illness which his art had been able neither to cure nor to alleviate; his death-bed had been, Charles hoped, "that of a saved Christian." He had at least been kindly towards his brother's family to the last, but he had not left them a fortune, and oblivion had finally closed over Mr. Annesley, the Indian merchant. No one now expected him to return to England to provide for his nieces, now ageing women, with all their expectancy chilled into resignation.
Susanna Wesley bore all with icy calm; to shoulder all these inexplicable burdens in the hope that some day their meaning would be explained to her was all that she could do. Like all those who are not mystic, yet follow a religion not commendable to common sense, she could only talk about "the mysterious ways of God." Relieved from forty years of childbearing, house-keeping, educating sons and daughters, she now passed from one to another of her children's modest homes reading, meditating, and talking, and preparing herself for the great day when she would meet her lost Samuel, her nine infants, and poor Mary Whitelambe before the throne of the Most High. Spending eternity with a man of whom she had said: "I agree with him in nothing," was perhaps not a very cheerful prospect, but she might confidently expect that the former Rector of Epworth would be less talkative and dictatorial in Heaven, where he would be overawed both with a sense of the presence of the Almighty and by discovering that his wife Sukey had been right after all, for she was sure that if the pious but misguided Samuel reached Heaven it would be through her prayers.
John continued to look towards this valiant old woman as censor and guide. Anxious for her sympathy and approval, he told her the strange story of his Georgian adventure, and for her dim eyes he wrote down an account of his pitiful love story, putting it all carefully and neatly on paper in his beautiful, clear handwriting, which was, like everything about him, precise and careful.
He wrote this account of Sophie while in his rooms in Lincoln College; his text was: "Oh! give me not up to my own heart's lusts, neither let me follow my own imagination." "Lusts" in the sense that John Wesley meant seemed a hard word to express his need for the delicate submissiveness, feminine modesty, and docile grace of poor Sophie Hopkey, at eighteen years of age, but the young man now plainly saw the hand of God in his escape from the seductive maiden.
But now he was not any longer afraid either of Sophie or of philosophy, or of any physical or intellectual distractions; he had returned for ever to the path on which his mother had set his infant feet; for the moment all was dark about him. He was proceeding like a blind man with neither guide nor staff, merely remembering a set of rules, and proceeding on a given way without asking either whither or why, and the ecstatic baffled mood into which his Georgian experiences and the influence of Peter Böhler had thrown him was such as to cause consternation to his friends. Charles soon understood his brother, but the parents of Charles Delamotte were shocked when John said he was not a Christian, because he had not faith, and Mrs. Hutton, another old friend, declared roundly: "If you have not been a Christian, you must have been a great hypocrite."
But John held firmly to the young Moravian's teachings. "There is such a thing, though I have not got it," he declared, and he waited, not without misery and anguish, but with grim patience, for the miracle to take place, wrestling with God for salvation and blessedness.
He had lost worldly love and worldly ambition; he must have something to put in their place, some means of self-expression, some vent for his frustrated emotionalism; the routine piety that had sufficed his father and drudges like Johnny Whitelambe was not enough for him; method, yes, but there must be something more. He felt that God owed him something more; he clamoured for faith, to be made use of as he trudged about the filthy ways of the city, through the dust of the high-roads, as he descended into the muck and stench of the prisons, as he sat in neat parlours or in his tidy college rooms.
He looked with compassion upon the sick, the vicious, the lonely, the outcast, but with no great moral indignation. These people were not beloved kin to him, as they were to George Whitefield, but the raw material of his life-work, the lumps of moist clay that the sculptor does not quite know how to use. Besides, his own feet had to be firm on a rock before he could reach out a hand to pull others out of a quagmire.
As he took part in the four feasts, the singing and praying, his disciples felt that he was apart from them, a tormented doubting man. His friends received him with alarm, wondering what heresy or lunacy he was going to develop; only Charles understood; he had been wretched since he had landed in Georgia, hating the secretarial work, the climate, his stubborn rude flock, overwhelmed by the horror of the Beata Hawkins slander. Continually ill, under the strangely soothing influence of Peter Böhler he had begun to find peace; and his relief and exultation expressed themselves in the leaping rhythms of his hymns "that danced the soul on a light jig to Heaven." Charles had a beautiful gift of rhythmic melody that broke into expression when he was deeply moved, as he was now, recovering from pleurisy, perhaps by a miracle, and waiting for the blinding flash of instantaneous conversion. But John could not emulate his brother's warm humanity, his eager, possibly rash, acceptance of Böhler's teachings, his lively enthusiasm; the elder, John, must reason, must convince or stultify his mind, already subdued but not completely in subjection. When Charles informed him joyfully that he—Charles Wesley—felt sudden and full assurance of a miraculous change in himself that could only be termed conversion, John could only whisper in miserable humility: "Lord, help thou my unbelief!"
AS he went about his good works in a gloomy mood very foreign to his natural cheerful nature, Wesley declared in bitter self-abasement: "I am not a Christian, I do not love either the Father or the Son."
He was torturing himself with self-analysis; so much was wrong, what could be right? So much had been cast away, what could replace it? There remained only the monotony of a dry routine. John lost his beautiful gift of singing. When he tried to meditate he fell into dismal forebodings, when he tried to pray it was no more than the reading of formulae. Desperately he turned on the man who had, he thought, been a false guide, and wrote somewhat bitterly to William Law, the author of Serious Call and Christian Perfection, which Wesley had followed so implicitly for so many years. Why had not Law told him what Böhler had? Why had he, Law, misled him for so long? Bailer had been to see John Gambold and William Law; though he had found the former almost a saint, he had thought the latter in "a dangerous state," and had told Wesley so. Wesley thereupon vented his own misery and uneasiness in an attack on the man whom he had once so much admired. "Once more, sir, let me beg you to consider whether your extreme roughness, morose and sour behaviour, at least on many occasions, can possibly be the fruit of a living faith in Christ?"
William Law answered with equal harshness and discourtesy, and a sarcastic correspondence took place between the two men, little conducive to the peace of mind of either. Law, by far the older, ended the correspondence by asking flatly:—
Who made me your teacher? or can make me out answerable for any defects in your knowledge? You sought my acquaintance, you came to me as you pleased, on what occasion you pleased and to say to me what you pleased. If it was my business to put this question to you, and if you have a right to charge me with guilt for the neglect of it, may you much more reasonably accuse them who have authoritatively charge of you? Did the Church in which you were educated put the question to you? Did the Bishop who ordained you either deacon or priest do this to you? Did the Bishop who sent you a missionary to Georgia require this of you? Pray, Sir, be at peace with me.
John Wesley had indeed harassed himself into a state of mind in which his common sense was in abeyance. Otherwise he would have seen the injustice and absurdity of charging the teacher whom he had selected himself for his own lack of that lovely peace that could come only, Peter Böttler said, with a sense of dominion over sin and a conviction of the love of God. Yet it is easy to understand John's bitterness, for he felt that he had wasted years of effort in barren labours, and now, doubtless was in as much danger of Hell as any poor wretch to whom he preached.
Why was the precious gift denied him?
Charles had it, and Gambold and Whitefield—all declared that they had passed from darkness to light, but John could not find the one thing needful.
His intense excitement and distress began to affect with collective hysteria those with whom he came in contact. Most of them were simple, ignorant people, starved of spiritual experience, like those who gathered in the Fetter Lane room, or people whose minds were already absorbed with religion like the Huttons, with whom the Wesleys lodged, and all those watching John, listening to him, fascinated by his latent power, his ascetic life, his dainty yet formidable personality that had the delicacy, force, and grace of a beautiful, deadly rapier of proven steel, began to catch sparks from the concentrated flame of his emotionalism. In trying to hypnotize himself, he hypnotized others. Wherever he went there was agitation, disturbance; the times were fat and drowsy, brutal and dull; there had been no spiritual excitement for more than a hundred years; it was a long time since anyone had seen visions in England. The Moravians and their native followers began to attract attention. As church after church was closed to the Wesleys, more and more crowded to hear them at the meetinghouse; this notice helped the excitement. As the audience swelled, the actors became more extravagant. What the country had long lacked and what it condemned heartily—John himself disliked it—enthusiasm, began to charge the air as electricity fills the atmosphere before a storm. Nobody knew what to believe, nor what to think; the tension caused in Epworth Rectory by "old Jeffrey" was reproduced in London. One of the friends of the Wesleys was summoned by a knock on her door in the middle of the night; on opening it she was confronted by a dazzling figure, who declared: "I am Jesus Christ." In consequence she became filled with the faith that John was seeking in vain, and went off to Charles, who was ill again, telling him that Christ had assured her he would recover body and soul. There were painfully hysterical scenes in the meetinghouse in Fetter Lane; one man fell down trembling and in a cold sweat after seeing, as he declared, a vision of a crowd of spectres bearing through the air the bleeding body of Christ; another who had come under the influence of the Wesleys' teaching went into St. Dunstan's Church and met Christ carrying His cross on the threshold; a third follower found salvation through the bursting of a ball of fire at her feet.
The Huttons, plain sensible people conventionally pious, were thoroughly alarmed, and wrote to Samuel, as the head of the family, about all these extravagances. The prosy schoolmaster was startled and vexed. He thought these evidences of enthusiasm "downright madness," and that the Moravians were "canting fellows"; he despised these "indwellings, experiences, getting into Christ," and wished that the Germans had remained in their own country. He was horrified, too, to think that John had become, as the Huttons declared, a wild enthusiast and was saying: "When we renounce everything but faith in getting to Christ, then, and not till then, have we reason to believe that we are Christians." Samuel agreed with Mrs. Hutton that, though his brothers were men of great parts and learning, they were certainly under a strange delusion, and declared that he would, if he could, "stop this wildfire."
What could Jack mean by saying that he was not a Christian? No wonder the Huttons were alarmed for the spiritual safety of their two children. This expecting to obtain salvation in an instant was a rank piece of extravagance, and not Samuel's idea of Christianity. He considered that if Jack's and Charles's wild talk meant what he thought it did, it was "wretchedly wicked." He hoped God would stop the progress of this lunacy and that Jack, until he had changed his mind, would not visit him to disturb the orthodoxy of Blundell's.
But the collective excitement increased, until the inevitable happened. John Wesley so worked on himself and so allowed others to work upon him that he passed into that state towards which he was striving and which he termed "conversion "; not that it was lasting, and that he did not blow hot and cold several times afterwards, but it was a vivid, definite experience that influenced him for the rest of his life and, exaggerated and embellished in the memory or in the telling, formed a kind of focus from which he believed he could date a new and vital spiritual experience.
The atmosphere of the little society in Fetter Lane was such that it was bound, sooner or later, to result in extravagant emotionalism; indeed, this was deliberately evoked.
The members would meet once a week to confess faults, to pray, and for discussion; they were divided into several bands, of no fewer than five or more than ten persons, and these talked together on one subject only: religion, and its different aspects of temptations, redemptions, Heaven, and Hell. There was a conference every Wednesday evening at which there was singing and prayer, every fourth Sunday was a day of intercession, and on every fifth Sunday a general love-feast was held which lasted from seven in the morning until ten at night. Two weekly fasts, Wednesday and Friday, "as observed in the ancient Church," were undertaken.
Besides this morbid preoccupation with one subject—and that both exasperating and exciting, since it dealt with the largest, most unsubstantial hopes known to humanity—morbid introspection was encouraged by mutual confession, and unbalanced egotism developed by continual dwelling on personal emotions. The members were in particular admonished to relate and to analyse their feelings about, and their experience in, "love and courtship," an unhealthy emphasis thus being placed on what was termed carnal sin, and honest, natural desires being diverted into religious mania. Natures incapable of spirituality, caught up in enthusiasm, believed that a confusion of sensual images, perfected from their own frustrate humanity, were angelic visions. There were cries, groans, faintings, embraces, sobbings, self-abasement; the atmosphere was that of any religious orgy, and had little to distinguish it from pagan saturnalia, primitive worship of fertility-gods, or the rites in honour of Satan, that John Wesley had been so horrified to hear took place in London. There is much monotony in the manifestations of fanaticism. But the leaders of this society, even educated men like Böttler and the Wesleys, could not or would not see what they were doing to their followers, nor did they even distrust the disgusting symbolism that so perturbed Samuel Wesley, this luscious dwelling on blood, and torture, "getting into" the wounds of Christ, relishing the mangled sacrifice, "the broken body," dwelling on pain, agony, visualizing the gross horrors of Hell, flaming like a pit of brimstone and sulphur, or the amorous delights of union with the melting sweetness of the Saviour.
Now none of these men saw what enthusiasm really was, or read beneath the gloss on the surface. This was labelled Christianity and that was sufficient; it would have been rank blasphemy to suggest that the Fetter Lane love-feasts had evolved from ancient customs arising from primitive instincts, and that their counterparts could be found all over the world. As surely as the Tibetan monk, meditating in darkness and solitude, begins at length to see buds of fire and flaming lotus blossom in the blackness of his cave, so these United Brethren began to see their own creations. One after another beheld the pallid, bleeding body of Christ, either borne rushing through the air or standing by their sides. The fine constitution and cool intelligence of John Wesley, the well-bred, well-educated man of thirty-five years, continued to resist these hallucinations in which, however, he forced himself to believe; but his common sense—what he called his unbelief—began to be sapped. He was leading a most unnatural life; he had, since Peter Böhler had told him "he was not really a Christian," forgone all manner of distraction, even his music, even his singing. With little food and little sleep he was consumed by a restless energy; besides belonging to the Fetter Lane society and rigidly following its rules, he was preaching, visiting the loathsome prisons, visiting the paupers and the sick in vile slums—"doing what other good I could, with my presence or my little fortune, on the bodies and souls of all men. To this end I abridged myself of all superfluities and many that are called necessaries of life. I soon became a byword for so doing and I rejoiced that 'my name was cast out as evil...'
And now I knew not how to go any farther. I diligently strove against all sin. I omitted no sort of self-denial which I thought lawful. I carefully used both in public and in private all the means of grace at all opportunities. I omitted no occasion of doing good. I for that reason suffered evil. And all this I knew to be nothing, unless as it was directed towards inner holiness." "The inward witness"—that sense of being at one with God; faith, not works.
But John still felt in a "vile abject state of bondage to sin," and as he noted in his Journal: "I continued to seek Christ though with strange indifference, dullness and coldness, and frequent lapses into sin till Wednesday, May 24, 1738."
This was the date at which he placed his conversion; his suffering on that morning was intense, and hardly eased by opening his Greek Bible and reading: "Thou art not far from the Kingdom of God."
Neatly dressed in his clerical black, with shining hair and haggard face, he wandered out through the narrow and dark streets, the huddle of merchants' houses and booksellers' shops round the great baroque Cathedral, formidable without and gloomy within, and, creeping into the dun shadows and leaning close by the massive walls hung with overwhelming emblems of mortality, he listened to the music of Henry Purcell's De Profundis. This anthem fitted exactly into his emotional state; he was overwhelmed, wretched, frightened, yet trembling, as he believed, on the verge of ineffable joy. The words "And he shall redeem Israel from all her sins" lingered in his ears. He had engaged that evening to go to the meeting of a Dissenters' society in Aldersgate Street; he went very unwillingly, feeling uneasy, nervous, as he sat on the hard bench in the plain meetinghouse while a layman read Martin Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans, but soon the agitated young man began to listen eagerly. Surely there was something supernatural here! In the Cathedral he had heard the De Profundis; here there was an account of the change that God works in the hearts of those who have faith in Christ. John felt warmed, consoled; he began to pray for his enemies. This, assuredly, was conversion. "I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation, and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death." What a burden was lifted from his spirit! He was not to burn in Hell, he was saved. He went away exalted and told everyone he met that he had experienced faith...by faith he was saved. Yet he felt no more than peace and the enemy suggested: "This cannot be faith, for where is thy joy?" He was "much buffeted with temptations" that returned again and again, but he cried out and they fled.
He ran to Charles, who rose up in his bed-gown to listen as John said: "I believe," and spoke of his conversion; yes, the blinding flash had darted into the drab little Cockney meetinghouse, even as it had flashed by the Damascus Gate!
The brothers embraced, the members of the little household came running in to see these two strange young men with their brilliant eyes and shining faces singing to the tune of the Twenty-third Psalm some verses that Charles had composed in flaming excitement:—
O how shall I the goodness tell,
Father, which Thou to me hast showed?
That I, a child of wrath and Hell,
I should be called a child of God,
Should know, should feel my sins forgiven,
Blest with this antepast of Heaven.
John had recovered his lovely gift of music. Clear, true, and piercing his voice rose as it had risen in Epworth, in Oxford, in Georgia; all his inhibitions were swept away, all his pent-up emotion released. Here was his life-work, his vent for all his energies, talents, desire; he had wrested the blessing from God. The material before him was inexhaustible: he thought of the inhabitants of the prisons and the slums, who looked up to him with awe and gratitude "outcasts, publicans, thieves"; he thought of Beata Hawkins and her kind; easy to deal with them too. God spread His arms to embrace the harlots; never therefore could John Wesley be baffled or vexed by a light woman. From an angelic height he could beam on all with angelic love. Yet, when he had left the warm presence of Charles, the cold fit touched him again.
"When I was striving, yea fighting, with all my might under the Law as well as under grace, then I was sometimes, if not often, conquered. Now I can always conquer."
The next day he awoke with the words "Jesus Master" in his heart and in his mouth, and, deliberately stimulating and forcing his mood, went again to St. Paul's and heard the anthem, "My song shall be always of the loving kindness of the Lord," rising up through the shadowed dome. Yet still there was a little creeping doubt, the last struggle of the stunned, drugged mind for freedom. "If thou dost believe, why is there not a more sensible change?"
Could these last flutterings of temptation be stilled? Mr. Töltschig, the Moravian, told him not to fight but to flee and take shelter in "the wounds of Jesus." In other words, not to use his intelligence but to rely upon his excited, emotions. Still, he had "peace but not joy," though he was exciting and disturbing his friends, acquaintances, and followers by his insistence on his conversion. By everyday folk he was called an enthusiast, a seducer, a setter forth of new doctrines, and he was delighted to find that he was not moved to anger by these attacks, but was able to reply calmly and shortly. Yet there was a relapse; he once spoke with sharpness instead of tender love to an opponent; then there was a day of despair when he had scarcely strength to open his lips or even look up for help, but by Sunday, June 4, a feast-day in the chapel in Fetter Lane, he was praying, reading the Scriptures, singing praise, or calling sinners to repentance from the time of his rising till past one in the afternoon, and every time he opened the Bible there was some great and precious promise under his eyes.
He was fully convinced now of his state of grace, but there was a certain soreness in his heart, and he prayed God to save him from doubtful disputations. Not without a long, painful, and devastating struggle did John Wesley succeed in subjugating a clear brilliant mind, great faculties, and profound gifts into that state of blind emotional credulity termed faith. Yet he and Charles had achieved something finer than they knew; something as far above the crude fanaticism of the Fetter Lane brothers as they were themselves above their ignorant followers. Behind the experience that they termed their conversion, and that Charles celebrated with an outburst of sincere and noble song, was something much higher than their narrow and repulsive creed. They did really feel conscious—if only briefly and intermittently—of that other self that is one with truth, beauty, and joy; they glimpsed the immortal light that burns behind and illuminates the thin and gaudy drop-cloth of material existence. They felt, not, as they said and thought, at one with Christ, but in harmony with the universe, aware of immortal aspirations and of fellowship with the great and the good.
John was particularly fortunate; he was able to pour all his hopes and desires into one satisfying labour, to armour himself against all trials and pains. What could touch a man chosen by his God to hold a divine commission on earth and to be rewarded for it in Heaven? Arrogance and love of power were satisfied as well as spiritual yearnings; the personal emphasis was justified: my sins are forgiven, I am saved; to which was soon to be added—"God has revealed His mind to me."
Wishing to talk of his wonderful experience to the one person above all others whom he trusted and believed, he went to see his mother. She had been distressed by the tales of Jack's extravagant behaviour in London, but she listened to him with an open mind, and was readily convinced that her son was in the right. It was a deep relief, like that of having an abscess lanced, to know that Charles and Jacky were not damned. The tired old woman could relax; her wits were not as sharp as they had been, and all the sorrow, grief, and humiliations attendant on the miserable marriages of her daughters had shaken her, so she was ready to give up the last doubts inspired by her deeply regretted Socinianism and to listen to her son. He was so changed—animated instead of prim, bold instead of cautious, he seemed to flame and sparkle! Susanna Wesley could believe that God had touched her best-beloved son, and she felt a rapturous glow of self-righteousness—her teaching, her training! John left his mother, refreshed by contact with this formidable personality whose strong will had made him what he was, but excited and baffled. What was he to do with his new-found knowledge and power? How to get at the vast hordes of sinners wallowing in darkness and peril? Nearly all the churches were closed to him, the Bishops were hostile, the Fetter Lane Society was a poor, small affair; he had had enough of trying to preach to the heathen. What, then, was he to do? He might be appointed by God to do His work on earth, but, humanly speaking, he was a poor clergyman without a parish, a chaplaincy, or any appointment, and with no means beyond the salary of his Lincoln College Fellowship.
He could, and did, write. He knew the power of the printing press, the effect of a shower of cheap pamphlets; he saw the vast popularity there would be for the fervent, melodious hymns that Charles was pouring out, but how was all this to be gathered together? under what name was it to go forward?
Faith was obviously not enough; his original plan, method, must be used too. A blinding, blazing belief in God must be taught and expressed by method; but he was no revolutionary, not even a Dissenter. He detested those practical mystics, the Quakers; he was an Anglican, in love with the Primitive Church. There remained only his friends the Moravians; it seemed as if he must merge himself with them, as Gambold, Delamotte, and James Hutton were doing. Besides, John Wesley was not altogether at peace with his experiences of the last three years, which still tore and harassed him. He kept telling himself that he was converted, that he was saved, that he really believed, but there were still intervals of depression, and that mental uneasiness which results in doubt or gloom. He had always found serenity and support with the Moravians, and he now proposed to go to Germany to visit their settlements under Count Zinzendorf at Herrnhut; one of his companions was the tranquil and soothing Töltschig, and he persuaded the handsome Benjamin Ingham to accompany him.
The little party of earnest clergymen left Gravesend on June 13, 1738. The journey was fatiguing and tedious, and Wesley was so ill when he arrived at Marienborn, the Moravian colony, about twenty-five miles from Frankfort, that even his energy was not equal to interviewing Count Zinzendorf, who was living in a decayed castle there, without an interval for repose.
The colony consisted of about ninety persons gathered up from many nations, who were being trained as preachers and missionaries. They lived together in a large house hired by the Count, who conducted services and delivered sermons there. John was taken to visit the Count, who with his son and daughter were dressed in plain cloth and linen, a seemingly remarkable contrast to the ostentation of the English aristocracy, though it was really another and less honest kind of pride. John Wesley was soothed and pleased with everything he saw here, as he had been soothed and pleased with the Moravian settlements in Georgia. He wrote to Samuel that at Marienborn he had found the desire of his heart:—
Here I continually met what I sought for; 'tis living proofs of the power of faith; persons saved from inward as well as outward sin by "the love of God shed abroad in their hearts," and from all doubt and fear, by abiding witness of the Holy Ghost given unto them.
Courteous and friendly as were the Moravians—most of them students from Jena University—they did not think so highly of John as he thought of them. He was not permitted to partake of the Communion to which Ingham was admitted. The shrewd Germans saw that he was a man in a state of agitation (homo perturbatus) and that his head still governed his heart; this even after the tremendous emotionalism of the conversion.
Zinzendorf drove the Englishman's hardly acquired humility almost to breaking point; John was ordered to dig in the garden, then, when in a sweat, directed in dirt-begrimed shirt and with soiled hands to jump in a carriage and visit a neighbouring potentate with the cry: "You must be simple, my brother."
John was outwardly submissive and listened to the Count's flamboyant sermons, and took a keen interest in every aspect of the little colony that was carefully organized in a manner most attractive to a Methodist. John examined the school, the chapel, the cemetery, and the Count took him to visit this as a diversion. John listened to all the rules for living, for marrying, for bringing up children. Was this it? Ought he to throw in his lot with the Moravians? Could he decide? First he must investigate farther. With Ingham he went on his way, stopping at Jena University, where they were pleasantly received, brought before the Duke of Weimar, who asked why the Englishmen wanted to go to Herrnhut, and who gave them "a hard look" when John blandly replied, "To see where the Christians live," but allowed them to proceed.
On August 1 the two men came to Herrnhut, about thirty English miles from Dresden, on the borders of Bohemia. There Wesley met some Moravians he had known in Georgia, who showed him over the settlement, which had one long street of about a hundred houses. Standing in the middle of this was the orphanage, in the lower part the apothecary's shop, in the upper the chapel capable of containing six to seven hundred people; beyond the town was a rising ground where the Moravians prayed, kneeling in a circle.
There was a guest-house where John and Ingham stayed, and were hospitably entertained. John admired everything here as he had admired it at Marienborn: the services, the love-feast for the married men, Bible conferences, the sermons of Christian David, the bush preacher, who had been shepherd, soldier, papist, and Greenland missionary, a procession of unmarried men singing praise to instruments of music, and prayer meetings in the great square; the eager sightseers also went to a Lutheran service at a neighbouring village, where the minister had on "a sort of pudding-sleeve gown which covered him all round." There were two large candles on the altar, the Last Supper was painted behind it, the pulpit placed over it, and a large brass image of Christ on the Cross.
John Wesley's admiration of the Moravians was entirely detached; he had no wish to incorporate himself with them, nor to enrol himself under the leadership of Count Zinzendorf. Indeed, he eyed with some distrust the odd eccentric, perhaps insane nobleman who had been able to impress his personality on so many people; but John Wesley had no intention of putting himself under any man. He knew he was as gifted, dominant, and resolute as the German; he found, too, that when he had left Herrnhut and the novelty and excitement of the visit had worn off, that he even disagreed with the saintly preacher Zinzendorf on several points, and he wrote, though he did not send, a censorious questionnaire in which—of course in a spirit of purely Christian brotherhood—he pointed out many defects in the Moravian system. Why were there not joint fasts held at Marienborn and Herrnhut? Did the Moravians work hard enough? He believed they were not quite innocent of either guile or levity and that they talked too much of their own church. He was sure, too, that the Count "was all in all, the rest mere shadows."
Besides, were they not of "a close, dark reserved temper and behaviour?"
In brief, he would not lose himself in Moravianism, another man's creation. After all, even the statements of these holy men, Christian David, Michael Linner, Augustine Neusser, and others, about their spiritual experiences were baffling. John began to feel confused himself, exasperated, as when he had tackled the mystics. The thing must be clear-cut, precise, or he could not endure it. He wrote warm letters of thanks to the Germans for their fortnight's hospitality and looked round his own country, his own field of action.
He was now certain that he would not join the Moravians. Still, they had had their part in this great wrestling with God; they had helped him through his fierce emotional state; they had eased the strain of his intense fatigue; they had helped him to recapture the brilliant light of that flame of ecstasy that he had received first in the Aldersgate Meeting that was still there, though it sometimes fluttered and sank almost to extinction.
Indeed, John returned to London refreshed, full of zeal and vigour, in a state of extravagant excitement, and again joined Charles in preaching, in visiting the prisons (where the younger brother was very successful), and in singing the hymns that the two brothers had written for publication together with pamphlets, editions of pious books, and translations from the German; the first bombardment of the outposts of Satan.
Charles Delamotte, however, met the man whom he had once offered to wait on as a body servant with a rebuke. "You are better than you were at Savannah, but you are not right yet. You have simplicity, but it is a simplicity of your own, not the simplicity of Christ. You think you do not trust in your own work, but you do trust in your own work, you do not believe in Christ."
Was this true? Had the "conversion" been a deception?
John again consulted the Bible, and found assuring texts, but he abased himself. At the beginning of the New Year, 1739, he wrote: "I affirm I am not a Christian now, I have not the peace of God." Yet he instantly noted: "I have health, strength, friends, a competent fortune, and a composed cheerful temper; who would not have a sort of peace under these circumstances?" As for that other: "That passeth all understanding, he would attain it—God should not again escape him."
In a worldly sense he was successful, noticed, envied, followed; he could not be wholly downcast.
IN the winter of 1739 there was a joyous reunion; Charles, John, Ingham, Westley Hall (drawing away from evil), Kinchin, and Whitefield, recently arrived from Georgia, met at a love-feast in Fetter Lane. Charles was wrought up by his startling success with condemned criminals, Whitefield by his spectacular accomplishments in Georgia, John had been preaching to thousands, in every church still open to him, at St. Swithin's, at St. George's, Spitalfields, at St. Bartholomew's, at Islington, in Whitechapel, at different societies and meeting-houses, and the rapture of last May was returning. He still could not quite divorce himself from earthly affections and desires, "a thousand little designs" crept between him and the great "design of my life," but almost he felt himself merged into his God.
After hours of prayer, groans, cries, and sobs in the stale air of the gloomy meeting-room—there were sixty brethren besides the leaders present—a wave of hysteria swept over the gathering—the half-crazed men turned to one another with shouts and cries, many fell in convulsions to the dusty floor; the coarse yellow lamplight shone on contorted faces and foaming lips. John, unaffected himself, stared in awe and amazement, then exclaimed in words that all repeated: "We praise Thee, O God; we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord."
Wherever John went such scenes occurred; a "middle-aged, well-dressed woman suddenly cried out, as in the agonies of death" while he was preaching in the Minories; in Oxford, where he found the Holy Club scattered, there were other like instances; "the power of God" John called it; at Reading, at Dunmer, in the prison, in the parlour, "more and more rejoiced in God."
John was now so occupied that he had hardly time to wonder if his own conversion was complete. When Whitefield, who had gone to Bristol, wrote to beg him to come to help deal with the hitherto wild and lost Kingswood colliers, John did not want to go; he was doing glorious work where he was; God's blessing was becoming daily more manifest; one woman had drunk of the Holy Blood, another washed in it; his teachings of a new birth, a direct emotional experience, as distinct from ritual, dogma, or good works, was wildly popular among the weak, the ignorant, the passion-stained, and, as they were the great majority, John was increasing his followers every day.
However, Whitefield had been appointed Vicar of Savannah, and must soon sail for America, so perhaps John ought to gather in that heavy harvest at Kingswood, though it meant, what shocked the orderly part of his nature, field-preaching. Using the Sortes Biblicae, John found the text: "Get thee up into the mountain and die in the mount."
Martyrdom was clearly indicated; the Society was doubtful; "the oracles of God" were consulted again and yet again; the answers were always plain; John was to die in Bristol. He resolved, however, to go, though his sense "of order and decency" was shocked at first at being asked to preach in a field instead of a church, but the idea was stimulating too, and so was Whitefield's account of the Kingswood colliers, a wild and hitherto neglected community, who crowded in their thousands to hear the wonderful orator preach, and listen to him with the tears making channels down the coal grime on their faces. This unorthodox way of preaching had seemed strange at first even to Whitefield, who wrote to Wesley that he had "...begun to play the madman by preaching on a table," but Wesley was soon caught up in the same enthusiasm, especially as he had had several exhilarating experiences at Bristol, beginning by preaching on the highway outside the city to about three thousand people—on his own estimation. This was the sequence of a whirlwind campaign; he held meeting after meeting in the West, in house, meeting-hall, in the field, by the roadside. Dissenters, Quakers were converted, as well as the debased colliers. John Wesley, outwardly cool, neat, inwardly full of energy and passion, began to affect his motley congregation in a way that could not but be gratifying to one of his power and ambition. He was persuaded to visit a lunatic who was continually beating and tearing himself, thrusting his hand into the fire, and putting pins into his flesh, and John had succeeded in restoring this wretch to a little calm. Soon after, another woman who had been accounted mad fell into convulsions in the preacher's presence, and after prayer was almost immediately restored to sanity. Then there was the case of another woman, a violent opponent of Methodism, who cursed and swore through John's prayers until she fell into extreme agony both of body and soul, and then, declaring, "Now I know I am forgiven for Christ's sake," became a zealous convert.
At Bristol, where Whitefield had prepared such a luxuriant harvest, and at Bath John not only made many converts, but became fascinated with the freedom of the open-air services; there was no need to ask permission of vicar or Bishop for the use of church; besides, it attracted him owing to the large numbers it allowed him to address. He preached always the same theme, often in the same words and with the same manner. He knew that he was saved himself, and he wished to tell fellow-sinners how they might get into the same blessed condition. He did not deal in polemics, in learned expositions, in arguments about points of doctrine. He went straight to the heart of the uneducated people who listened to him on his tremendous theme: the reality of God's love and of Hell, and how to escape from it, not merely in externals, by doing good or using the means of grace in works of piety or of charity, but through repentance and through faith—sudden faith, like a sword in the heart, casting the body to the ground, casting the Devil out.
The success of the field-preaching finally determined him on his lifework; there was to be no more hesitation, no turning back. To a friend who suggested to him that he should take up his work as a Fellow of Lincoln College he wrote:—
I have no business in College, having now no office and no pupils, and it will be time enough to consider whether I ought to accept the cure of souls when one is offered to me. On Scriptural grounds I do not think it hard to justify what I am doing. God in Scripture commands me according to my power to instruct the ignorant, reform the wicked, confirm the virtuous. I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean that in whatever part of it I am I judge it meet, right and my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear the glad tidings of salvation.
John Wesley's method of performing this duty and of impressing the huge congregations who jostled in the meadows and fields to hear him was entirely different from that of George Whitefield, who possessed the most fascinating personality, able to impress and seduce even those who did not believe in what he said or indeed did not listen to the words he uttered. The ex-pot-boy from Gloucester was a born actor, as persuasive and as well worth hearing as David Garrick, Dr. Johnson declared. He was neither learned nor brilliant, nor even intellectual, and apart from his wonderful histrionic gift he had little talent; his nature was simple, intensely emotional, vain, theatrical, and soft; he appeared to be overflowing with "honeyed love" for his fellow-creatures. This affection was the grateful emotion that the sculptor feels for the block of marble, the painter for the canvas and the colours, the embroiderers for the lengths of silk and the gold and silver thread; the rude, sentimental multitude was George White-field's material; that enabled him to gratify and to fulfil his entire nature.
Though, however, George Whitefield could thus sway vast congregations from one end of the country to the other, although his influence was equally powerful on the aristocrat and the peasant, though he could reduce people by hundreds to tears, repentance, though he could induce a sobbing humility, even among such grim ruffians as the Kingswood colliers, he never produced those startling manifestations of hysteria that John Wesley soon found he could arouse among those to whom he preached the "power of God." John was not as eloquent as Whitefield—he never forgot the restraints imposed on him as a gentleman and a scholar, his sermons were apt to be monotonous; how could they be otherwise when he had but one thing to say and said it so many times? His voice, like his person, was precise. He gave educated listeners the impression that he had learnt all he said by rote, and was repeating it almost mechanically, yet he was able to hypnotize people in a way that George Whitefield never could. When the delicately-made little clergyman mounted the platform, the chair, or the hillock; when he began, with his usual gesture, to speak, casting back the auburn locks with a well-kept hand and fixing his clear brilliant eyes on the faces before him; when he talked of Hell-fire and of the means of escaping it, the most extraordinary hysterical manifestations began to take place. These alarmed and disgusted all the opponents of the Methodists and were disliked even by Charles, who thought them largely impostures, though he had had some such experience when the brothers, praying together, had suddenly begun to laugh immoderately. The excitement became intense; John Wesley himself noted with complacency:—
We were treated everywhere as mad dogs. We were stoned in the streets and several times narrowly escaped with our lives. In sermons, illustrations, and pamphlets of all kinds we were painted as unheard-of monsters. This moved us not. We went on testifying salvation by faith to both great and small, not counting our lives dear unto ourselves so we might finish our course with joy.
Paper warfare against the Methodists grew, and the attacks became more pointed. "The Wesleys," said one newspaper, "are more guilty than White-field because they are men of more learning, better judgment, and cooler heads "; and the enthusiasts were bidden to join the Dissenters, the Quakers, or the Calvinists and to leave the Church of England alone. They were reproved in the papers as "bold movers of sedition and ringleaders of the rabble, restless deceivers of the people, who made it their daily business to fill the heads of the ignorant and unwary with wild perplexing notions," while from the London pulpits they were rebuked as "deceivers, babblers, insolent pretenders, novices in divinity, and newfangled teachers."
If the complaints of the clergy were bitter, ordinary people resented the tumultuous assemblies that blocked streets and commons and the disturbance of the public peace, "with the intruding into other men's labours, encouraging fasting, prayer, and other religious exercises to the neglect of the duties of the State." There was a war of pamphlets against the Methodists, one of which, by Dr. Joseph Trapp, had the pertinent title of The Nature, Folly, Sin, and Danger of being Righteous overmuch, with a particular view to the Doctrine and Practices of certain Foreign Modern Enthusiasts.
The novelty of field-preaching was much disliked by the Church of England, for obvious reasons, since the orthodox clergy had no longer any power or hold over a man who did not require a church in which to expound; while Whitefield, whose enormous success was particularly exasperating to those who had been content with the lukewarm Christianity of the first half of the century, and who was looked upon as the leader of the movement, was attacked with especial vehemence; and one writer came pretty near the truth when he declared that the young preacher "sinks the House of God into a playhouse and turns religion into a farce; prostitutes swarm at his meetings, and thus make merchandise as at a country fair; his congregations are such as crowd to a Smithfield show" and that Whitefield himself was "an enthusiast, a blasphemer, and wavering, wandering preacher of no establishment, blending his sermons with the spice of the Papist and the Mohammedan."
The charge was continually brought against him and the Wesleys that they did drive people mad; Dr. Gibson, Bishop of London, published a letter warning the people of his diocese against lukewarmness and enthusiasm, both of his arguments being against the Methodists. George Whitefield answered this attack, while John Wesley was summoned to see the famous Dr. Butler, Bishop of Bristol, who told him that he thought "to pretend to extraordinary revelations from the Holy Ghost was a horrid thing, a very horrid thing "; neither did the Bishop like the tales of the people who fell in fits in the societies while John Wesley prayed over them. His Grace concluded by saying that Wesley had no business in his diocese, and advised him "to go hence." John, of course, had a long answer to this, saying that being ordained a priest, he was "a priest of the Church Universal and not limited to any particular cure. I have an indeterminate commission to preach the Word of God in any part of the Church of England."
The entire country now became interested in a controversy that covered almost the entire ground of human interest, for there was hardly any subject, either of this world or of the next, that was not included in the furious debates that now took place between the Methodists and their opponents. Methodism, so novel, so suddenly sprung on a country sunk in indifferentism, had taken the Church by surprise; the Wesleys and Whitefield had proved that there was a vast human material that neither Anglicanism nor Dissent had touched, nor did they need the consent or protection of the Bishops in their campaign against Satan. They could do without parishes, without churches; they could go straight to the wretched pariah and the cynical aristocrat, and yet keep so well within Church rules that they could be neither restrained nor cast out. Besides, cutting through all the confusion of polemics, was this glittering truth: the Methodists were practising Christianity; they were doing exactly what St. Paul had done; nay, even as the Master Himself, before there were either churches or Bishops or any organization at all. Had there not been field-preaching by the shores of the very Sea of Galilee as well as on Kennington Common? Had those who accused Whitefield of drawing off "tradesmen to ramble after him while their families starved" forgotten Matthew, who left the receipt of custom to follow Another? When Paul expounded to the heathen, were there not much groaning, falling down, and wild babble of talk among his listeners, even as there were at the love-feasts in Fetter Lane? Mary Magdalene had met her Lord in one garden: could not another sinner meet Him in another garden?
There was no answer to these questions; if England was a Christian country, there could be no objections to the Methodists, who were "casting aside all human glories," as John Wesley said, preaching and teaching pure Christianity, a torment, a splendour, a constant goad, promise, and bewilderment. How could it be otherwise? If the thing was true, here was the way to take it; if it was not true, then it was mere lazy opportunism to acquiesce in it, as most of the clergy and their parishioners did. Taking his stand on these arguments, John Wesley's position was really unassailable; he had, besides, vast advantages over most of his opponents: great talents, a private life that commanded deep respect, enough learning to meet scholars on their own ground, a fascinating personality, an immovable arrogance. Before almost either the Church or the public knew what he was doing, he had forged a weapon of inestimable power; like a blade of fire encased in steel was his doctrine of faith, salvation, the passionate emotional appeal to the unseen, protected, as the sword by the scabbard, by a superb organization; the finest resources of materialism preserving a fiery emotionalism. He could afford to smile at the scurrilous doggerel the ballad-mongers hawked:—
All men of thought with laughter view
Or pity the mistaken crew,
Who, mad with Scripture, void of sense
And thoughtless, novelists commence,
Swerve from the rules of Mother Church
And leave her basely in the lurch;
Next round the gaols they hovering fly
To plague the wretches ere they die—
He could, indeed, afford to be magnanimous to his opponents and to turn on them his cool smile and his brilliant eyes in a gentle pity more exasperating than any rude retort. More than this, he was equal to the discussions that were arising amid the chosen flock; Charles was not wholly with his brother, and Whitefield, though out of the way in Georgia, was encouraging Calvinism among his followers; a form of quietism, savouring of the passivity of the mystics, was creeping into the Fetter Lane meetings, and John, naturally fastidious and chaste, was beginning to dislike the luscious tone of the Moravians, the mingling of the sexes at the meetings, the emphasis on confession of sexual sins and yearnings.
The pamphleteers had, of course, seized on this aspect of Methodism; in a scurrilous Life of White-field published anonymously there was printed a method of confession drawn up for the use of the women Methodists, in which the Brethren of Fetter Lane were accused of catechizing their Sisters in these terms: "Are you in love?" "Whom do you love just now better than any other person in the world?" "Is not the person an idol? Does he court you? How do you like him? How do you feel when he comes, when he stays, when he goes away?" And there had been the obvious coarse jests about the mutual "love confessions" and the means whereby a supply of future Methodists was assured.
As the atmosphere in Fetter Lane became more charged with disputes and sullen resentments, John looked about him for some place of his own where he might be entirely master; he had already begun to build a meeting-house in Bristol, trusting to God to find the purchase money, but he wanted a headquarters in London. His choice fell on the King's Foundry, near Moorfields; he bought this for £115, raising the money and some of that required to put the building in repair from his friends. This amounted to £800; nearly half remained as John's personal debt. The old Foundry stood on Wind-Mill Hill in the North-west corner of Finsbury Square; the frontage was about forty yards, and it was about thirty-three yards in depth. The Government had used it for casting cannon. Soon after the Treaty of Utrecht, while some old guns captured from the French were being recast, a severe explosion partly demolished the building and killed several of the workmen. The place was then abandoned, and the royal foundry established at Woolwich. In the reconstruction of this ruined shell of decayed timbers and a pantile covering John Wesley indulged many of his own preferences and, as near as he was able, he arranged the Foundry in the likeness of the old Primitive Church, as he conceived it; the building was divided into a chapel, a house for the preacher, and a bandroom or schoolroom. There was a plain belfry for a bell that summoned Methodists to daily services, which began at five o'clock in the morning and ended at nine o'clock in the evening. There were no pews in the chapel, which could accommodate some fifteen hundred people, but there were galleries with seats, women being in the front, and the sides were reserved for men. For infirm and aged women there were a few seats on the ground floor immediately before the pulpit. What was termed "the band-room" was the school-house behind the chapel, and large enough to hold three hundred people. Classes were held here. A portion of it was provided with desks for children, and attached to it was a small room, where John Wesley sold his publications, the profits of which were devoted to the upkeep of the establishment.
Above this schoolroom were the modest apartments in which John Wesley lived when in London, and there his mother was soon installed, to preside with the serene detachment of one already half-translated to Heaven over this unexpected outcome of her Epworth Methodism. The small house for the accommodation of parsons, and with room for visiting preachers, a stable and coach-house, necessary when horses provided the only means of travel, completed these austere, grim buildings, that were literally the cradle of Methodism, for soon after acquiring and repairing the Foundry John Wesley broke with the Fetter Lane Brethren, who were tedious, on the wrong path, and wasting his time in petty disputes. In the summer of 1740 he read to the meeting a refutation of Quietism; then, with his piercing, steadfast glance travelling from one to another of the confused and downcast faces before him, gave the Brethren the choice of renouncing the false doctrine or of losing him. There were nearly seventy people present; twenty rose at once and followed the masterful man out of the silent room, but while, with his usual method, he was searching for his hat, deliberately hidden under a pile of others, the Moravians had had time to rally, one of the leaders appealed to the congregation, and it was only with this minority that John passed into the London street. At the next meeting at the Foundry, however, there was a manifestation of his peculiar power; a crowd of women had come over from Fetter Lane to join. Soon some more of the men had swelled the ranks of Methodism. John Wesley had separated himself from the Moravians, whom he had so much admired, and whose leaders had been such an inspiration to him. Now he needed them no more, could not endure being merged in them or submitting to their authority. He had his own society, of which he would be undisputed head, and if he had thus definitely cut himself off from Moravianism, he had decided no less firmly to cut himself off from George Whitefield, whose early Calvinistic tinge had been confirmed, he declared, when writing from America, by divine revelation. As the Georgian Trustees had seen some years before, this question of divine revelation was a very embarrassing one. If John Wesley declared that God had revealed one thing to him, George Whitefield might declare that he had received another Heaven-sent message, and who was to decide between the two? A split was inevitable; Whitefield did not claim to be a theologian or to know anything of the teachings of Jean Calvin. He tartly reminded Wesley of what he had admitted in the days of his humility—that he had not the witness of the Spirit within him, whereas he, George Whitefield, felt the divine command inspiring him with every breath he drew and every step he took. God had spoken to him, poor worm that he was, and therefore he knew that predestination was right, but John Wesley could not admit this; he had to cling to his own divine revelations, and on no grounds would he admit predestination to be true. A long correspondence dragged out the issues.
Whitefield had been received with rapturous acclaim in Georgia. Less rigorous than the Wesleys, he had not set his face against rum or the introduction of slavery. This was a sad falling-off from the ideals of James Oglethorpe and John Wesley, but it was a wise concession to human weaknesses, and Whitefield, born himself in grinding poverty, and of the poorest of the poor until his Ordination, may have justified himself by thinking that the lot of the negroes working in the vineyards and silk-factories of Georgia was no worse than that of the agricultural labourers and artisans at home; besides, there was, he declared, authority for slavery in the Bible.
From the vantage point of this continued and spectacular success the one-time pot-boy took upon himself to rebuke John Wesley for trying to discover God's Will by drawing lots. Sometimes the answers given by the oracle invoked by these means would be wrong, as in the prediction of martyrdom at Bristol, and Whitefield pointed out to Wesley that, since the fault could not lie with the Almighty, it must be in the method chosen. John took no heed of these rebukes, was not even deeply interested in the controversy. George Whitefield was in Georgia, and he in England, with his exciting, absorbing work to do.
He finished the meeting-house at Bristol and founded there a school for the Kingswood colliers, taking all these expenses on his own shoulders, and trusting in the Lord to provide the means for his own work. The Wesleys now had a certain modest income from the sale of their books and pamphlets, and there was John's Lincoln College Fellowship; they gave away, however, almost all their monies, leaving nothing but what was sufficient for their modest necessities. Charles, a simple and humble man, as the highly-gifted so often are, made no further trouble nor offered any more opposition to his imperious brother's will, and John went ahead on his campaign against Satan. One of the outposts against the Devil was the Kingswood school, the idea of which had been begun by Whitefield, who had collected forty pounds towards it, the colliers themselves giving upwards of twenty pounds. For the rest of the money John made himself responsible—a heavy burden for one already laden with the debts for the Foundry—but he had that happy combination of daring in design and prudence in execution that makes for steady success; his ideas were large and boldly undertaken, but to the smallest detail of his schemes he gave exact care; his accounts were precisely kept, and every halfpenny was entered.
He had passed through his storm and darkness, the future lay serene before him. He had his work in his own hands. Sophie Hopkey was forgotten, the memory of the Georgia humiliations had vanished; he had obtained faith and discovered how to inspire that intangible quality by method; he was free from the Church, from the Calvinists, from the Moravians; Charles, who had been rebellious, was subdued; Whitefield could go his own way in peace; John had found himself, his power over men, his self-sufficiency—henceforth the issue was clear between God and John Wesley.
He was now set upon a path chosen deliberately and with much agony. It was thorny enough and full of pitfalls, snares, and stumbling-stones to satisfy even one who thirsted after martyrdom. Not only were there the attacks from the unbelievers, Atheists, and libertines with which English society was riddled; not only were the orthodox clergy arrayed against this man, who in their opinion had no right to preach without a parish, but there were dissensions among the brethren themselves, and the love-feasts in the Fetter Lane Society, founded by Peter Baler, sometimes belied their name; but John Wesley threw himself into his work with an excess of energy that can only be described as fury. He had subdued his body to his wish, making it a perfect instrument that was able to endure discomfort, excess of heat and cold, semi-starvation, a modicum of sleep, and a perpetual activity. His spirit, too, had been subdued, and all his deep emotionalism, thwarted in seeking a natural outlet, canalized into this one wrestle with God for the souls of his fellow-me—his own, as he now tried to force himself to believe, being safe.
His attitude was, indeed, the only logical one that a Christian priest could assume. It was beautifully and touchingly expressed by the blessed John Southworth, when he stood, on that stormy and rainy day, on the scaffold at Tyburn, explaining to that awed and reverent multitude about the gallows how he, a man of stainless life and known piety, came to die publicly and violently:—
I was sent by my lawful superiors to teach Christ's faith—not to meddle among any temporal affairs. Christ sent His apostles, His disciples, their successor—and their successors me. I did what I was commanded by them who had power to command me, being ever taught that I ought to obey them in matters ecclesiastical. I had permission to do it from him to whom our Saviour, his predecessor St. Peter, gave power to send others to propagate his faith. Christ Himself said: "He that will be My disciple let him take up his cross and follow Me." My faith is my crime, the performance of my duty the occasion of my condemnation.
This was, in the main, also the apologia of John Wesley. He could not conscientiously do otherwise than he did, once convinced that he had the divine command to go abroad and propagate the Gospel, or, as he would put it, "to save souls." By intense labours of body, mind, and spirit he had, as it were, at last wrested from God this permission to act as His messenger, and his self-assurance, his self-complacency, swelled with his conviction. His genius for government and organization, equal, as Lord Macaulay said, to that of Cardinal Richelieu, found its development, though gradually, in the service of his newly-grasped faith. Once he was sure he was divinely inspired, he could feel no shame or timidity in forcing his ideas on other people.
Under this disguise of divine inspiration his human wish to rule and govern was indulged; he overbore, alarmed, intimidated by his intense energy and his strong mental powers. For the Society in Fetter Lane he drew up rules that probed with merciless precision into the souls of the brothers and sisters, and those who hoped to join them. These questions were asked at the weekly meetings:—
What sin have you committed since our last meeting? What temptation have you met with? How were you delivered? What have you thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not? Have you nothing you desire to keep secret?
The Anglican Bishops could not remain indifferent to this new force within the Church, or, as the alarmed Samuel Wesley soon thought, this new force without the Church, for the orthodox schoolmaster feared that if his brothers were not excommunicated, they would excommunicate themselves from the Anglican fold.
Summoned before Dr. Edmund Gibson, the Bishop of London, a man not without intolerance, whom Sir Robert Walpole had allowed, it was complained, "the authority of a Pope," Charles and John Wesley endeavoured to explain their convictions and why they preached justification by faith only. The brothers silenced the Bishop with: "Can anyone preach otherwise who agrees to the Scriptures?" and the interview ended with Dr. Gibson's telling them, with an air of armed neutrality, that "he could not decide if religious societies were conventicler, that they had better examine the law of the subject for themselves."
The Bishop of London took no action against the Methodists, but there was a growing storm against them, and they were attacked in several well-known pulpits by many of the foremost preachers of the day. Their claim to be in a state of spiritual salvation through conversion was much disliked, one preacher saying that: "To make such a profession savours of spiritual pride and must produce evil results."
Strange tales of the Wesleys' behaviour in Georgia began to blow abroad. "These fanatics," as they were roundly called, used, it was said, to sleep under trees, and feed on boiled maize salted with the ashes of oak leaves, and run about in dried skins like the savages; while the lurid rumours that their bedchambers might be found garnished with bowls of blood drawn from their own veins to cool themselves gained credence. None of this in the least disturbed the hardness that concealed the emotionalism of John Wesley, who was not even moved by the extreme agitation of Samuel, and his continual letters of protest about this "extravagance" from Blundell's.
But John Wesley had accepted slander and persecution as part of his lifework; he even rejoiced in them. Whoever heard of an Evangelist or Saint who made his way without opposition? His intense mental and physical activity as well as his pride was pleased and excited by the powerful opposition he was arousing; if he had had none, he would have felt like a general who goes to battle and finds no foe.
At the end of 1739, Samuel, the master of Blundell's, died, still harshly estranged from his brothers, whose extraordinary behaviour he viewed with suspicion and disgust, and making himself a laudable Christian death-bed. John and Charles had no time to spare lamenting one who they believed was waiting for them in the heavenly city, and continued on their way with the momentum of stones hurled from slings. John Wesley had long ceased to regret Sophie Hopkey, to recall the temptations that had come to him under the hot, stormy skies of Georgia, even to remember the sharp unbelief that had come to him on board the Samuel in the Atlantic tempest. All his gifts, his emotions, his ambitions were now fused. He was at one with himself, therefore in harmony with everything about him. With a firm hand he began to purge the little society in Fetter Lane that he visited during the intervals of his whirlwind revivalist campaign. He was afraid of no one. His native courage had returned in full force, sharpened and purified by the fire of suffering through which he had passed. His mother continued his guide and counsellor. She declared that during a communion service she too had felt the delicious pangs of conversion, and that, until she was seventy years old, she had never been a true Christian. She encouraged him in all he did, and it was the only feminine encouragement he had ever required. There began to be differences with Charles; but John was equal to that too. Charles was not ambitious. He regretted the quieter days of the Holy Club, and the elaborate if obsolete ritual in which the members had indulged. He did not like the noisy preaching, the hysterical conversions, and he began to advocate that quietism that the Moravians had long before suggested to John. He agreed that "Be still and know that I am God" was an admirable text, but did not wish it to be applied to his followers, whom he desired to be up and doing in the Lord's sight.
Charles would not submit; there was a touch of the mystic in his poetic temperament that was not in the least understood by his elder brother, and that urged Charles away from public extravagances into the inner sanctuary of soul, but John was not going to be hampered by this heresy; he loved Charles and would always love him, but Methodism belonged to him and he could rule the thing that he had made.
SAMUEL WESLEY died as John was entering his kingdom, and Keziah was miserably ailing, while Mrs. Wesley weakened daily in her London rooms; but John had deliberately loosened his human affections. A thin love like winter sunshine he shed over all the world, but there was no warm, coloured love for his family or friends. His egotism was intact, at one with the God he had created; why should he mourn those who were safe in Heaven? His work became more and more delightful and absorbing; the Foundry to him was more than a church; it was a fort, a palace, as much the sign and symbol of his authority as the Vatican is that of the Pope of Rome; the possession of it increased his moral and mental stature.
He began to preach in the rough, half-ruined place to the poorest type of congregation, before it was put into repair; while these startling innovations, which seemed like preparations to found another Church, attracted widespread and alarmed attention; but John Wesley serenely wrote after the break with the Moravians—"the people deeply convinced of sin and earnestly groaning for redemption gathered together to help each other to work out their own salvation," and steadily completed his immense organization. When the Foundry was firmly established, he returned to travelling up and down the country, the preaching in field and meeting-house that he was to continue for the rest of his life, and directed the publication of his own writings, those of Charles and others, with steady industry, thus mercilessly bombarding the enemy with the spoken and the written word.
John Wesley had now his theatre and his audience, but somewhat lacked, however, actors to entertain these. He was himself cast for the principal role, but, as there was a natural limit even to his energy and even to his power of hastening from place to place, he needed assistance. Anglican clergy were difficult to procure, and he had cut himself off from the Moravians. The expedient of lay preachers soon presented itself; the first of these was a pious Quaker, by name of John Cennick; idle, eccentric, and emotional, this man underwent an experience similar to that gone through by John Bunyan. Walking once in Cheapside, he felt such a sudden conviction of the reality of Hell that he gave up most of the ordinary human comforts in order to try to save his soul; rejecting dry bread as too luxurious, he tried to feed on husks and grass. This mode of life soon produced the desired result; Cennick underwent a conversion and became a travelling preacher. He also wrote a number of hymns that he sent to Charles Wesley to correct for the press. John Wesley heard of the activity and piety of Cennick, saw him at Reading, and made him master of the school just then opened in Kingswood; Wesley met both Cennick and the other famous lay preacher, Howel Harris, in Bristol, and there was a moving prayer-meeting with the three evangelists on their knees in spiritual communion.
Harris returned to Wales, and Cennick continued to preach in Bristol; soon after, another young man, Thomas Maxfield, began reading sermons to the colliers, and coming to London soon after, asked Wesley's permission to preach. At first this was refused, for Wesley felt that lay preachers were a startling innovation, but old Mrs. Wesley with the icy tones of a sibyl declared that "the divine spirit was moving in Thomas Maxfield, and that he was not to be silenced." Two other lay preachers, Richards and Westall, were then added to Wesley's lieutenants. By this means he again showed himself independent of the Church of England; not only could he do without her pulpits, he could contrive without her preachers. He did not need ordained clergy trained in colleges. If he had waited for these, and if he had waited for a hearing in the Anglican churches, the whole movement must have fallen to the ground, but having obtained a large meeting-house in London, and a smaller meeting-house in Bristol, having inaugurated field-preaching, and having engaged the services of all the enthusiastic, pious, and eloquent men who liked to submit themselves to his rule, Wesley had laid the foundation-stone of the success of his movement. Naturally, the clergy, and even a large number of the lay public, were shocked and horrified at these innovations; the Bishop of Armagh told Charles Wesley that the most amazing thing in the amazing conduct of the brothers was their employing laymen, but Charles countered: "My Lord, that fault is yours, because you hold your peace, and the stones cry out." The Bishop then objected that these preachers were unlearned men. "Some are," said Charles, "but the dumb ass rebukes the prophet."
Ministrations in the gaol and to the most wretched and outcast were the noblest of the works the Wesleys undertook; the purest and most beautiful aspect of their religion and the most touching functions of the priesthood were displayed in the piety and courage with which these two gently-bred men, both refined, one with a poetical temperament, the other fastidiously dainty, descended into the unspeakable filth and the incredible misery that were an eighteenth-century gaol. Amid darkness, filth, contagion, surrounded with shocking and degrading sights, John and Charles preached a God of love and ultimate salvation, through belief, to the victims of a brutal social system and a ferocious law.
Both these they accepted: although the Wesleys had warmly seconded Oglethorpe's attempts to reform the prisons, they were not themselves reformers; they did not inquire into the justice or injustice of the sentences under which these wretches lay; their duty was to try to save their souls and to send them into eternity, into which they were hurled at a rope's end, with the hope of Paradise before their eyes.
Charles could say "that hour under the gallows was the most blessed hour of my life," and mark that of one batch of condemned men "none skewed any natural terror of death; no fear, no crying, no tears."
Touching and dreadful scenes of hysteria often followed these ministrations to condemned prisoners; they who had spent their lives in vice and crime were deeply moved at this loving attention voluntarily given by men so much their superiors. The Wesleys did not hesitate to accompany the condemned men in the cart to Tyburn, to pray and sing with them to the end, to stand under the gallows uttering words of hope and consolation to the last or to sit on the rude coffins that were to hold the broken remains of a thief or a murderer, or to press to their bosoms the ragged and despairing figures of those who at the end of misspent lives were suddenly convinced of a glorious world to come. Charles in particular often exhausted himself on these terrible journeys, but felt overwhelmingly rewarded by the ecstasy of happiness that he was usually able to bring to those to whom everyone else meted out punishments and insults.
The appearance of the Methodists at the foot of the gallows did not, however, attract so much popular attention as the phenomena that took place at their meetings, and that gave them all the name of enthusiasts and caused them to be associated with credulity, superstition, and many subjects very odious in the popular mind, all manner of witchcraft, sorcery, satanic possession, all the phantasmagoria that arises from the dark recesses of the mind and trespasses on the borderland of religion. These scenes, then inexplicable, gave rise, in the opinion of many, to the grave suspicion that Methodism was not of God but of the Devil. It was well known that John Wesley believed in witchcraft, and some of his lay preachers, notably Cennick, lived in perpetual fear of ghosts and were ready to credit any wild tale of the supernatural. Charles from the first set his face against all these extravagances, and continued to doubt the genuineness and to suspect the divine origin of the displays that accompanied his brother's preachings, but John noted them down coolly and even with relish. The mind that had resolved, so many years ago, to accept "old Jeffrey" and the ghost in the meadows outside Oxford was not going to question the supernatural origin of the extraordinary displays he was able to provoke. He could not, indeed, consistently do so, for such things were mentioned as worthy of all credence in the Bible, and John Wesley could feel nothing but pride and an assurance of his divine commission when he saw he could arouse the same state in his congregation as St. Paul had been able to arouse when preaching in Greece of the wrath of God, the mighty angels, and the flaming fire, that would destroy and burn the unbeliever. Why should not the citizens of London and Bristol, the artisans of the villages, the workers of the field, of eighteenth-century England respond to Wesley as the Thessalonians had responded to St. Paul with agonies of hope and terror? Nay, had not the preachings of Christ Himself been interrupted by the shouts and cries of unclean spirits struggling within a body that had come within reach of divine healing power?
What so impressed and encouraged John Wesley and his followers, what so shocked, startled, and bewildered his contemporaries, is no mystery to the modern psychologist, to whom it is known as glossolalia, or "speaking with tongues," for long supposed to represent divine inspiration or satanic possession. This phenomenon is far older than Christianity; instances are to be found in all primitive religions where ritualistic orgies in honour of some deity inevitably conclude with the display of incoherent babblings, trances, convulsive fits, or other strange and startling manifestations of subconscious tension. Priests, sibyls, prophetesses of all ancient faiths, had this power of working themselves up into these ecstatic displays and often of producing them among their congregations, while there were seldom lacking shrewd and intelligent people standing by who were able to interpret the incoherent mumblings uttered by priests or prophets into some message useful to themselves or to their belief.
After Paul laid his hands upon them "they spoke with tongues and prophesied," and such displays of voluble ecstasy, so impressive to the credulous and the ignorant, and such a marked feature of early Christianity, had accompanied all the revivals of the faith and all the persecution of its martyrs. It was no wonder, then, that John Wesley refused to listen to the scepticism of Charles or to the reproaches of his opponents, and continued to note down with interest and gusto the extraordinary effects that he was able to produce in those who came to listen to him preach, effects that were more pronounced inasmuch as his congregation was almost entirely illiterate, a mass of people that had hardly been touched by the Church and that had hardly heard of spiritual matters until they had listened to the level, convincing accents of the Methodist preachers. The luscious emotionalism of the Moravians Wesley had himself condemned; their revelling in physical images of blood and wounds and tears, their prolonged love-scenes, in which they swayed together in transports of affection and religious ecstasy, were as nothing compared to the scenes that Wesley now encountered. These had begun as early as 1739, continued for some years while Methodism was a novelty, and gradually died away as it became a settled institution, though instances of them re-occurred during the whole of Wesley's lifetime. Not only was his spiritual pride flattered by these displays, but that intense curiosity that he had so firmly diverted from science and philosophy was gratified, and his own hungry and thwarted emotionalism, which had been kept so well under control, vicariously sated by his observation, which seemed so cool and detached, of these extraordinary scenes of hysteria. In calm, almost in dry language, he described some of these scenes:—
At Baldwin Street we called upon God to confirm His Word. Immediately, one who stood by cried out loud with the utmost vehemence, even as in the agonies of death. We continued in prayer, till a new song was put into her mouth of thanksgiving unto our God. Soon after two other persons were seized with a strong pain, and were constrained to roar for the disquiet of their hearts, but it was not long before they likewise burst forth into praise of God their Saviour. The last to call upon God as out of the belly of Hell was a stranger in Bristol, and in a short space he also was overwhelmed with joy and love, knowing that God had healed his backsliding, and at Weaver Fall a young man was suddenly seized with a violent trembling all over, and in a few minutes sunk to the ground. We ceased not calling upon God till he raised him up full of peace and joy and the Holy Ghost. At Baldwin Street, a young man, after a sharp though short agony, both of mind and body, found himself so filled with peace, knowing in whom he had believed.
Even more terrible scenes took place when Wesley and his brother were preaching in Newgate, when, casting back the auburn locks from his brow, John Wesley fixed his gleaming eyes on the rows of prisoners and called to God to "bear witness to his Word." Immediately one, then another, and another sank to the earth. They dropped on every side as thunderstruck. One of them cried aloud: "He besought God in her behalf and he turned her heaviness into joy." A second being in the same agony, he called upon God for her also. He brought peace unto her soul. "All Newgate rang with the cries of those whom the Word of God cut to the heart." Two of them were in a moment filled with joy, to the astonishment of those that beheld them. A woman broke out with strong cries and tears, great drops of sweat ran down her face and all her bones shook; both her body and soul were healed in a moment.
Wesley noted that at some of the meetings his voice could scarcely be heard amid the groanings and the cries. A Quaker who had looked contemptuously at the display dropped down as if thunderstruck, and the agony he was in was terrible to behold. Once John Wesley noted "three persons almost at once sunk down as dead having all their sins set in array before them. Women, boys, and middle-aged men began beating their breasts, crying about their sins and falling down in convulsions; the preacher was vexed with those people who, though they had seen signs and wonders, would not believe." They could not, indeed, deny the sights, but they could explain them away. Some said these were purely natural effects, that people fainted only from the heat and the closeness of the room. Others said the hysteria was all a cheat; they might help it if they would. These disbelievers were confounded, to Wesley's triumphant satisfaction, when the phenomena began to take place at the open-air meetings, when the Lord began to make bare His arm, not in a close room, neither in private, but in the open air, and before more than twenty thousand witnesses. One, then another and another were struck to the earth and seized with trembling in the presence of His power. One cried, with a loud and bitter cry: "' What must we do to be saved?' And in less than an hour seven persons wholly unknown to me till that time were rejoicing and singing with all their might, and giving thanks to the God of their salvation. Others dropped down as dead. Thomas Maxfield began to roar out, beat himself against the ground, so that six men could scarcely hold him." John had seen both hysteria and epilepsy—these convulsions were, he said, different.
George Whitefield, disappointed, perhaps, that no such effects were produced by his magnificent preaching, although he was able to coax the money out of the pocket of the unbeliever and tears out of the eyes of the unrepentant, wrote to Wesley:—
Honoured Sir, I cannot take it right in you to
give so much encouragement to these convulsions which people have
been thrown into under your ministry...
I think it is tempting God to require such signs. That there is something of God in it I doubt not, but the Devil I believe interposes.
John Wesley had a meeting with Whitefield on this subject when he returned from Georgia, and was able partly to convince him, largely because, for the first and it would seem the last time, the sermon that Whitefield delivered immediately afterwards was accompanied by the sight of four persons sinking down, trembling violently in convulsions and groanings. It is probable that Wesley was present; Whitefield was silenced by this display and by Wesley's argument that God might be left to carry on His own work in the way that pleased Him.
The great attraction of Methodism was that it brought companionship, hope, and comfort to the outcast and to the wretched. Those people—with whom none had ever concerned themselves before and who found unexpected delight in gathering together, in attracting the interested attention of preachers and teachers, in discussing with one another their hopes and fears and the state of their souls—found themselves for the first time important, in their own eyes and in those of other people. Thousands joined the Methodists, not because of sincere religious conviction but through loneliness, misery, and that desire to be in intimacy with one another which causes people so readily to form societies and clubs.
John Wesley was so powerful an organizer, White-field so seductive a preacher, and Charles Wesley so sincere a lover of his kind, and had so many willing and talented helpers, that the structure they formed was a solid one, and Methodism was established to endure probably as long as Protestantism. It may be questioned, however, whether more than the formula remained after the direct influence of the Wesleys and Whitefield was withdrawn. The set of rules was there; those who wished to might follow it. Earnest and talented men might now and then interpret them again with force and persuasion, and cause a revival among those who founded themselves on revivalism, but what could Methodism be but another freshet to the stream of Protestant sectarianism? But were these followers of John Wesley, in the main, better citizens, more worthy human beings than those who had escaped enthusiasm? The virtues of Methodism, which were the virtues of its creator, soon sharpened into vices. Conviction became intolerance, the sense of divine guidance became arrogance, simplicity became ignorance, austerity became fanaticism, living by rule meant a severe and merciless system to enforce those rules, sometimes espionage, sometimes tyranny.
While the narrowing down of life to a preparation for Heaven, and the putting aside of every interest and energy save those that would conduce towards eternal salvation, were a logical outcome of Christianity, they led to a narrow, joyless, repellent creed, which deliberately closed the eyes of its followers, and not only their eyes, but their hearts and spirits, against almost everything that made for human satisfaction, happiness, and nobility. It was, indeed, difficult for even a man of the power of John Wesley to induce anybody but the illiterate and the wretched to embrace such beliefs, and those who were fairly comfortable in their fortunes and fairly easy in their minds preferred the vague emotionalism of George Whitefield, who belonged to no definite sect, who founded no society, and who did not require the observance of any rigorous rules from his adherents.
Enthusiasm touched the members of the Wesley family. John and Charles did their best to convert their unhappy brother-in-law, who, alternating between the intoxication of alcohol and that of Methodism, passed his time between bouts of drunkenness and bouts of repentance. Westley Hall, however, escaped the influence of the brothers, and went farther and farther into that eccentricity that was to end in the acceptance of a doctrine of all others horrible to Christians—polygamy. His wife Martha, Emilia, the decaying schoolmistress, Keziah, who had always felt she was marked for an early death, all became obsessed by religious enthusiasm and melancholia and were entirely under the influence of their powerful brothers, while Hetty, who had been delivered by the fanaticism of her father to the power of a brutal sot, found dismal consolation in Methodism.
In the spring of 1741 Kezzy died of a wasting disease brought on by melancholia and an unhealthy life; the influence of her powerful brothers had easily swayed her to their convictions; Charles especially laboured for her salvation, causing her "floods of tears" and earnest hopes of God's "personal acceptance." In the poor room where the charity of the family kept her, Kezzy threw herself, weeping, upon her brother's shoulder, or knelt beside him while he prayed for her; it was not, however, until after some weeks of these dreadful scenes of terror and distress that Charles himself became converted, and thus was able to speak with conviction to the dying girl of trust in the atonement of Christ; for a while Kezzy still shuddered before the horror of Hell, muttering: "I am weak, I am exceedingly weak." William Law's Redemption and Pascal's prayer for conversion were listened to eagerly by Kezzy, but only increased her hysteria; she even argued against conversion by faith only. "In the next world," cried the tormented woman, "you will know if I have faith!" At last her feebleness of body clouded her mind, and, half-delirious, she declared that she felt a spiritual quickening, and died in a state of excitement that was supposed to prove that she was saved from Hell; her physical sufferings were so obvious that even Charles wrote that the Lord Jesus "had cut short His work in mercy."
A few months after the death of Kezzy, the surviving children of Susanna Wesley were called to the Foundry to attend the death-bed of their mother. Susanna Wesley had been for some time failing; she "was like a child," she said, with regard to her own infirmities, but her keen mind and dominant will had remained unaltered. As her illness increased she had endured a "few mental conflicts," but John hurried back from Bristol, after being told that she was on "the brink of eternity"; he found her sweetly resigned and that the enemy had no more power to hurt her.
John and the daughters, Anne, Emilia, Hetty, Patty, and Sukey, sat round the modest bed in the bare room above the school-house in the Foundry, and sang hymns as the stalwart old woman fixed her clouding mind on that reward for which she had so long laboured. John Wesley thus describes the death-bed of the human being who had influenced him more than any other:—
She continued in just the same way as my father was, struggling and gasping for life, though, if I could judge by several signs, perfectly sensible until near four o'clock. I was then going to drink a dish of tea, being faint and weary, when one called me again to the bedside. It was just four o'clock; she opened her eyes wide, fixed them upwards for a moment, then the lids dropped, the soul was set at liberty without one struggle or groan or sigh. We stood around the bed to fulfil her last request, uttered a little before she lost her speech: "Children, as soon as I am released, sing a song of praise to God."
Her children had never disobeyed Susanna Wesley. Dark-faced, haggard men and women of middle age, they stood round her still, shrunken body in the gloomy, serge-curtained bed and sang, as she had commanded them, as meekly as they stood round her knee in Epworth parsonage to recite their prayers. Praise to God! For what? The answer is to be fund in the hymns that Charles wrote in memory or his mother and her last request; the drab gloom of their creed is shown in the pitiful emphasis on the word release:—
Lo! the prisoner is released,
Lightened of her fleshly load.
Where the weary are at rest
She is gathered unto God!
Fifteen years before the death of Susanna Wesley, her son John had expressed a fear that she would die before him. She had replied in a tone of rebuke: "You did well to correct that fond desire of dying before me, since you do not know what work God may have for you ere you do leave the world."
Now he could remember those words and think of her as a prophetess; there was work for him to do, and he was capable of doing it; it was not a sad or downcast man that turned from the death-bed of his beloved mother.
A week after her death she was buried in Bunhill-Fields Burying-ground, where John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe already lay, and John Wesley preached over her open grave, on the splendid terrors of the resurrection day. A plain stone with: "Here lies the body of Mrs. Susanna Wesley, youngest and last surviving daughter of Dr. Samuel Annesley," was set above her grave. But some verses were written in her honour:—
In sure and steadfast hope to rise,
And claim her mansion in the skies,
A Christian here her Cross laid down,
The Cross exchanging for a crown.
The daughter of affliction, she,
Inur'd to pain and misery,
Mourn'd a long life of grief and tears,
A legal night of seventy years.
The Father then revealed his Son,
Him in the broken bread made known,
She knew and felt her sins forgiven,
And found the earnest of her Heaven.
Meet for the fellowship above,
She heard the call—"Arise, my love!"
"I come," her dying looks replied,
And lamblike, as her Lord, she died.
This revolting doggerel, quoted with approval by John in his Journal, shows that the pride of the evangelist had overruled the affection of the son, for it puts on record the darkness and potential damnation of the pious matron, until Methodism rescued her at the age of seventy years.
WHILE John Wesley, the self-controlled, self-disciplined man, was taking such practical and active steps to organize Methodism, George Whitefield, returning triumphant from Georgia, was arousing the people to furies of emotionalism, as disgusting to one half of the nation as it was attractive to the other half; nor was he inactive in the vigorous paper warfare that Methodism had aroused. He published his autobiography under the title of A Short Account of God's Dealings with the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield, B.A., late of Pembroke College, Oxford, from his infancy to the time of his entering into Holy Orders. This was one of the first of those confessions in which the author claims to strip himself of all pretence, and even of all decency, for the edification of his readers, but in reality qualifies a morbid egotism. Whitefield in his desire to glorify his God could not debase himself sufficiently, and he revelled in describing what he termed with relish "the sins of his youth and childhood," and he pointed out triumphantly those "early stirrings of corruption" in him that were quite sufficient proof that he was conceived and born in sin. With gusto, too, he related the temptations, by no means always resisted, of his life as a tapster in Gloucester, his struggles as a servitor in Pembroke College, and finally his conversion with the subsequent salvation. This book did not do the Methodist cause much good among the fastidious and sober-minded; indeed, the Bishop of Exeter went so far as to call it "a perfect Jakes of uncleanness, boyish, ludicrous, filthy, nasty, and shameless a quite defiled the paper, and shocking to decency and modesty."
But George Whitefield cared nothing for criticisms such as this. Completely convinced of his own divine mission, enervated by the excitement he roused wherever he went, flattered by those who did not guess at or care about his essential ignorance or superficiality, he began to draw the aristocracy more and more into his congregation, as effectually as he had drawn the Kingswood colliers, and to become as popular in the London drawing-rooms as the Wesleys were in Newgate or the Fleet. Samuel Johnson wrote of him that he would be followed by crowds were he "to wear a night-cap in the pulpit or were he to preach from a tree," and this acute critic added that Whitefield's popularity was due to "his peculiarity of manner"; in other words, the fascination of his personality. On his return from his second visit to America he began to preach in a temporary tabernacle in Moorfields, at first no more than a shed, afterwards converted into a substantial brick building, and there he gave new vitality to a movement that had seemed spent in England—Calvinism. He was easily the most popular preacher in England, and his fame overshadowed that of John Wesley, whose more substantial, quieter qualities had not such a universal appeal and did not, oddly enough, attract those members of the aristocracy who went in coach and sedan to Moorfields Tabernacle to listen enthralled to the squint-eyed preacher's dramatic declamations on the themes of death and damnation, life and salvation. Whitefield had a peculiarly rich and fascinating voice, which had the power of carrying to a great distance; he concentrated on his gifts of oratory, concerning himself with little else; his writings, prose and verse, were poor, and he did not put nearly so much energy into either polemics or humanitarianism as did the Wesleys, though his Georgian Orphanage was very successful; he also permitted himself some human comforts that the Wesleys denied themselves, indulged in cow-heel, liked his meals served punctually, and was easily irritated though easily soothed. In 1740 he married a strong-minded widow, Elizabeth James, whom he had as carefully picked as Mrs. Primrose had her wedding gown, for durable qualities; ten years her husband's senior, this lady accompanied him on all his travels, helped to make cartridges on one of the Georgia voyages when the ship was chased by the enemy, and was capable of bidding the emotional, nervous George "play the man." As he lost his first youth the plump little fellow became corpulent and his asthma increased; it was probably complicated, though he did not know it, with angina pectoris, but Mrs. Whitefield was a good nurse, and after the early death of her one child, devoted her not inconsiderable energies to George. Still, though she was carefully chosen for qualities likely to be useful to a fashionable, overworked preacher, Whitefield was, as he precisely explained, quite free "from that foolish passion called love," and it was enough for him that the lady was a good nurse and a good housekeeper, and willing not to interfere with his divine commission. She did not fit into her difficult position with much grace or tact, and she was regarded by Whitefield's followers as a thorn in his flesh, sent either by the Devil to torment him or by God to keep him on the path of duty, and one of Whitefield's disciples termed her "a ferret," a description that brings up an unpleasant picture both of her appearance and of her character.
John still set his face against marriage; in his preachings he advocated the celibacy of the clergy, seeming to think that the sexless or chaste priest was the ideal. He certainly did not, in the ordinary sense of the word, require either a home or a wife. He had settled down into that incessant travelling over England which was to last for nearly forty years; he was indifferent to comfort, and his body, for long hardy and wiry, seemed to become with the passing of the years more and more immune from illness and fatigue.
He did not, however, discourage female disciples, although he was at some pains to keep their admiration within bounds. There was no successor to Sophie Hopkey, whose name and image alike had been erased from John Wesley's mind and heart, but there were many women who stood to him somewhat in the relation that Varanese and Aspasia had held so long ago on the pleasant rectory lawn, and in the demure rectory parlour; women whose delight it was to wait on him, to listen to him, to praise him enthusiastically, to come to him with their troubles and perplexities. Indeed, this trembling flock of enthusiastic female followers was one of the aspects of Methodism that raised the most cynical smiles and the most brutal invectives on the part of its opponents; on the part, too, of those who were not particularly averse to Wesley and his Society, but who delighted to think the worst of human nature. Even in the Georgia days a charge had been brought against the brothers of having interfered with the women, to the great disgruntling of the men, prying too deeply for decorum and decency into feminine minds and hearts. The same had been said of the society in Fetter Lane, and the favourite form of caricaturing the Methodists or Enthusiasts was to show a ranting clergyman leering at a fair and languishing penitent.
If George Whitefield's marriage was not a glittering success, he found consolation in the admiration and protection of Selina, Lady Huntingdon, who admired him, took him under her wing, introduced him to fashionable society, and finally made him her chaplain (1748).
Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, and one of the co-heiresses of Laurence Shirley, Earl Ferrers, had been converted by her sister-in-law, Lady Margaret Hastings, who married Benjamin Ingham, in the early days of the Fetter Lane Society, and she and her husband were frequent, if not prominent, figures at their meetings. She had for long been intimate with the Wesleys, whom she had entertained at her seat, Donington Park, Leicestershire, but there was no mutual fascination, although she had supported them both in their general principles, and in such daring novelties as employing lay preachers and field-preaching. After the split between White-field and the Wesleys, Lady Huntingdon made a not very vigorous attempt to heal it, but, proving unsuccessful, identified herself passionately with the Calvinistic movement. While the country was torn with the terrible excitement roused by the Jacobite revolt in the north and the war abroad, while the Wesleys and the other Methodists were being stoned and insulted as possible followers of the Young Pretender, or stoned and abused as possible French spies, Lady Huntingdon lost two of her sons from small-pox and her husband, Theophilus, the ninth earl. This triple bereavement threw her into an emotional state that found great gratification in Whitefield's ardent outpourings; she was about forty years of age when she was widowed, a plain woman with flabby features, heavy-lidded eyes, an aquiline nose, and a dreamy expression, that were no true indexes to the vigour of her character. Even those who most admired her admitted that she was obstinate, haughty, and dogmatic.
She was an ideal patroness for Whitefield; as a peeress she claimed a right to appoint as many chaplains as she pleased, and this enabled many Methodist clergymen to remain in the Church of England without cures; she was a friend to the Dissenters also, and cordially approved of Isaac Watts. When her following became too large to be accommodated in drawing-rooms, she decided to build her own chapel, and did so, at Brighton, paying for it by selling her jewels. Many notable men were among her chaplains: Rowland Hill, William Romaine, Moses Brown and the famous Swiss, Fletcher of Madeley, who was head of the Trevecca College; Augustus Toplady, who afterwards quarrelled so rudely with John, was among the great lady's warmest admirers; he termed her "the most precious saint of God he ever knew."
Backing her chosen cause with all her resources, Selina gradually founded chapels in London, Brighton, Tunbridge Wells, Bath, Bristol, Birmingham, and in several towns in the West, though she was forced, at last, to register these under the Toleration Act as dissenting meeting-houses, but she did not admit that she had renounced the Church of England, though she behaved in every way as if she were independent of that establishment, and George Whitefield, who had been so shocked when the Wesleys appeared to be breaking away from the Church, accepted Lady Huntingdon's societies, colleges, ministers, and chapels.
While George Whitefield was being supported and encouraged by this powerful female influence, Charles Wesley, after a good deal of heart-searching and reluctance, decided to get married; the proposed bride, a Miss Sally Gwynne, daughter of a well-to-do and respected Welsh family, promised not to interfere with Charles's preaching or habits of life. One hundred pounds a year was settled on him out of the profits of the publications sold by the Methodists. He on his side promised not to go again to Ireland, so in 1749 Charles Wesley, then aged forty, married Sally Gwynne, aged twenty-three, and set up house with her in a modest way in Bristol. This was the one completely satisfactory marriage of the Wesley family; Charles in late middle age found himself in a happy domestic life. His wife was kind, affectionate, and sensible. Both husband and wife were warm-natured, and though Sally was inevitably pious, even fanatic, she was not dull, nor arid, nor gloomy; she rode pillion behind her husband on his travels, and her clear, true voice led his hymns at the meetings; she bore her husband eight children; three survived to inherit the talents of their parents; Charles and Samuel were infant musical prodigies, and Sarah was a gifted example of the remarkable talent and striking characteristic of the Wesleys.
Though Charles by no means slackened in his labours, this happy marriage and absorption in the company of his wife and children somewhat divided him from John, and accentuated the differences of opinion between the two brothers. Charles became more and more averse from what seemed to him a definite separation from the Church of England, more and more doubtful of the legality of lay preachers and field-preaching, and of the reality or usefulness of sudden and violent conversion. What was sweet, rich, and mystical in his nature became developed under the influence of his calm happiness, and he approached, in the soaring enthusiasm of his hymns and poems, to the beautiful tolerance of John Gambold, who had become a Moravian bishop. Though he had several near escapes from a violent death by mob violence, Charles was one of the most respected and beloved of the Methodists; he had less of the fanatic than either his brother or George, was more original than the former and less theatrical than the latter; though a poet, he gave vigorous and practical help to the humanitarian movement that was beginning to be strengthened by the help of the various religious societies that had existed since the days of Queen Mary II and that revived now in the encouraging warmth and renewed an ardour that had begun to slacken a little. Their members pressed to hear the Wesleys when they visited their towns, and threw themselves into good works, the most substantial of which were relieving the poor, releasing the prison debtors, and sending poor children to school.
IN the midst of earthquake shocks that startled London in the February of 1750 Hetty died—destroyed, like Kezzy, by unhappiness and hardship. Her existence with her brutal husband, who frequently dealt her blows and curses, the loss of her children in infancy, her sordid poverty, and the frustration of her potential gifts and capacity for happiness, had been softened only by the blunting of her misery by the soporific of Methodism. As she lay dying in her squalid room, watched by Charles and disturbed by the maudlin tears of her gin-sodden tinker-husband, John was preaching in a summer-house at Chertsey, where the beam of the gallery cracked, without causing any hurt or confusion; three days afterwards he returned to London for the watch night at the chapel, and was deeply impressed by the three "distinct shakes or waverings to and fro" of the earthquake, "attended with a hoarse rumbling noise like thunder." The meaning of this phenomenon was clear; God was gently warning England of her sins, and Wesley only hoped that the nation would repent before worse followed. The shocks were repeated for several weeks and caused a panic in London; Wesley noticed with scorn several of the frightened rich among his congregation and the Foundry rang with his contemptuous challenge: "Who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" Had London gone up in flames or been swallowed into a bottomless pit, with only himself and the Methodists rescued, Wesley would probably have been no more startled than when he saw a hysterical maid-servant "roaring" at his feet, and probably the vanishing sinners would have heard his regretful but triumphant comments in their ears as Satan's imps seized them.
There was still another earthquake shock that threw down several houses while John was preaching at the Foundry; he expected the roof to fall, but stilled the outcry of the women and children with an appropriate text: "Therefore will we not fear though the earth be moved."
Amid these shocks and losses there was trouble with the Moravians. Wesley read Count Zinzendorf's Autobiography and did not like it. He seemed justified in his attitude towards the Moravian leader, who, always eccentric, was now probably touched with insanity, and whose bombastic use of his title was revolting to the good taste and natural simplicity of the well-bred Englishman. In the midst of this Dr. Lavington, Bishop of Exeter, made some attacks upon the Methodists that John thought required an answer. Whitefield, too, rushed into the fray, and the paper war was conducted with a lack of restraint, not very creditable to any of the combatants but very usual in this kind of polemic. John thought that the United Brethren were allowing several superstitious quackeries to be introduced among them, and he heard dark stories of gross abominations practised at their services in Leeds and Bedford.
Indeed, in Wesley's opinion, the Moravians were now little better than papists, and he thought that many of Count Zinzendorf's expressions confirmed the ugly suspicion of their sensuality; their thoughts on marriage were "dark and mysterious," and from their own account their hymns on this subject were not fit to be read by any that "attach bad ideas to bad expressions."
In the midst of this controversy with Dr. Lavington and the Moravians, and while he was settling the brothers and sisters in the new church in Spitalfields, once occupied by the French refugees, John Wesley decided upon his bride. She is an obscure personality, and not much is known of her history before she became Mrs. Wesley, nor is it known where her future husband met her. It is thought that she was introduced to him by one of the Perrotts; she was a follower of the Methodists, a merchant's widow with four children, the youngest, Noah, only four years old, on whom her entire fortune of £10,000 was secured. Although John was, of course, at once accused by his enemies of marrying a wealthy widow, he did not gain a penny piece by the marriage. The lady's name was Mrs. Vazeille. She was middle-aged, seemed of a quiet disposition, meek, and pious; she was neither well-educated nor intelligent and had less than the usual share of feminine tact and duplicity; though she was "able to accommodate herself to any company in which she found herself."
Molly Vazeille was, like Pamela, a servant who had married her master, but she had not the virtues of that fictitious heroine; her husband had pampered her and she had been put to no test of character. She was well off and pious, because a widow could be little else without causing scandal, and Molly was orthodox with the orthodoxy of the stupid female who thinks her dignity is one with her respectability. She had joined the Methodists, as so many women did, for the pleasure of cosy tea-drinkings with fellow-sinners and that delightful meddling with other people's business which is so delicious to her type when glossed over with religion. John stayed at her house, found her easy, deferential, ardent in good works, a not unworthy successor to his other diaphanous loves. Molly's bland features looked out from a huge pleated cap; she was modestly swathed to the neck in crape, with black robes and sad-coloured shawls. In this attire, suggestive both of the grave and of the angelic garments of the heavenly hosts, women surely looked their best. John, who dreaded fine ladies and painted belles, found these meek, drab widows the acme of feminine perfection. Considering her coldly, he thought that she would make a good wife, as he understood that term. He stayed in her house, and she listened to him with the deference due to one who held a commission from God, who was able to work miracles and who was attended by a number of guardian angels, who if they sometimes nodded and allowed devils to push John downstairs, yet were quite ready to snatch him up before he bruised himself at the bottom.
John, always "wondrous clean" and neat, had hardened into a figure symbolic of godliness to the entire country and was as familiar to the population as the weather-beaten visage and pale-blue oyster eyes of His German Majesty. The evangelist had, indeed, an almost heraldic significance; nothing could have been better publicity for his cause than his appearance: the black clerical clothes, the spotless linen bands, the serene countenance with the smooth hair—the auburn now dashed with grey—curling on his shoulders. His small compact figure had remained elastic and upright, his complexion was a girlish pink and white, and his cool, brilliant eyes retained that steady, commanding glance so startlingly at variance with the fixed simper on his thin, clear-cut mouth. Hundreds of prints, caricatures, paintings on china, busts, stamps, and medallions had made this impressive yet dainty countenance familiar all over the country, about which John travelled incessantly—at the rate, he reckoned, of never less than four thousand five hundred miles a year, ambling along on a nag, guided no doubt miraculously on its way, while he read or sang, his flat three-cornered hat pulled over his sharp eyes, a bag of pamphlets and his travelling desk strapped to his saddle. In the opinion of Molly Vazeille he was a great man indeed; besides, her servant-girl's mind was impressed by his gentility, his culture, his learning. She saw he was looking for a wife and she resolved to have him; he, for his part, wanted to marry and believed that Mrs. Vazeille was well fitted to be his companion, while he certainly felt tenderness for her and she was able to assume, when in his presence, that timid air of docile femininity which so attracted him. That she had a bad temper, was jealous, spiteful, and essentially vulgar, he never suspected.
John Wesley had no home of his own, only the bare rooms above the schoolroom in the Foundry, and when he slipped on the ice, crossing London Bridge, and sprained his leg, it was to Mrs. Vazeille's home in Threadneedle Street that he was taken. For a week he was confined to bed and she nursed him, while he occupied himself with writing a Hebrew grammar and lessons for children. The first Sunday after his accident he was carried to the Foundry and preached kneeling. Before he had recovered, he had quietly married the widow—February 18, 1751, according to The Gentleman's Magazine.
Charles had not been told of the marriage until it was accomplished. When he did learn of it he took it very ill. Not only did he still believe that his brother would be more useful to Methodism as a single man, but he did not approve of Mrs. Vazeille, who seemed to him the last woman in the world to satisfy his brother's peculiar need. He had some acquaintance with the lady, with whom he and his wife had stayed in London, and in his note-book he wrote: "My brother told me he was resolved to marry. I was thunderstruck and retired to mourn with my faithful Sally. I groaned all the day and several following ones. Under my own and the people's burden, I could eat no food, nor preach, nor rest, either by night or day." John, however, was calm. He was clearly convinced that he ought to marry, that he would be more useful to God in a married state. Yet, a few days after his own marriage, he called together the single brethren of the London Society to preach to them the desirability of remaining celibate, unless there was a special reason for marriage.
He continued to be crippled for some time, but as soon as he was able to get on horseback, he set out for Bristol, with his bride on the pillion behind him, leaving Charles to groan and the other Methodists to think what they would of this strange, hasty marriage. A resignation of his Fellowship of Lincoln College followed immediately and left him so much the poorer. A few weeks after the marriage Charles met the strange couple and found it difficult to be civil towards his sister-in-law. However, he tried to behave to her with Christian forbearance, and she was shallow enough to weep and complain in front of him about her husband's faults. Yet, shortly afterwards, they quarrelled, and John Wesley found himself surrounded with dissension; his wife's money affairs were also a trouble to him. There was the question of the Threadneedle establishment and the education of the four children to be settled, and all this business fell upon him. Still, she remained with him, travelling with him round the Northern circuit, then into wild Cornwall, and then with one of her daughters round the North again. This was a strange life for the cosy wife of a London merchant, used to all the comforts that the capital afforded; the ways were rough, the people they met savage, there were often scenes of violence and bloodshed, of robbery and riots, and the horseback journey over the rude roads or cart-tracks was exhausting and often perilous; Mrs. Wesley did not adapt herself graciously to this kind of life. It was, perhaps, too much to expect that a woman of her age and custom could have done so. But she knew when she married John Wesley what was before her, and now she did nothing but complain as if she had been deceived. Towards the Methodists in the various schools, societies, and centres she conducted herself peevishly and haughtily. John bore with meekness this increasing discomfort of his wife's temper and whining by taking up the attitude that the lady had been sent him as a cross by the Lord. He repeatedly told his followers that he believed that God had ordained this painful business for his own good and that, if Mrs. Wesley had been a better wife, he might have been unfaithful in the great work to which God had called him and might have been too much inclined "to treat her according to her own views."
As it was, he had enough on his mind to prevent him from paying many attentions to his wife, even if she had been minded to receive them, and in truth she offered him little comfort. And such was the state of dissension in which John and his Molly lived that when John, in 1753, thought himself on his deathbed from consumption, his last wish was that Charles and his wife should become reconciled. His brother promised this and again offered Mrs. Wesley his service and all his heart, but how the lady received the overture we are not told.
John, who had not escaped several minor illnesses, despite a liberal use of his own medicines, of which a favourite one was treacle and brown paper bound on the affected part, caught a violent feverish cold, perhaps influenza, that he believed was "consumption." A high bitter wind chilling him as he rode in an open chaise was too much even for Dr. Fothergill's prescriptions, and John had some ugly symptoms: a cough, pains, a temperature; he continued preaching, however, though burnt with fever, and his voice was so hoarse that few could hear him. Dr. Fothergill then ordered him country air, asses' milk, and daily riding, but Wesley had to leave London in a coach, being too ill to sit in the saddle. He believed that he was dying and, still preoccupied with himself, wrote his own epitaph, in order, he declared and perhaps thought, to prevent "vile panegyric," but really because he could not endure to be cheated out of the last word on the subject of John Wesley. Remembering with pride the miracle that had saved him at Epworth Rectory and his noble poverty, he wrote with a fever-shaken hand:—
THE BODY OF JOHN WESLEY.
A BRAND PLUCKED OUT OF THE BURNING.
WHO DIED OF A CONSUMPTION,
IN THE FIFTY-FIRST YEAR OF HIS AGE.
NOT LEAVING, AFTER HIS DEBTS WERE PAID,
TEN POUNDS BEHIND HIM; PRAYING,
GOD BE MERCIFUL TO ME AN UNPROFITABLE SERVANT,
HE ORDERED THAT THIS, IF ANY INSCRIPTION,
SHOULD BE PLACED ON HIS TOMBSTONE.
A concoction of powdered stone brimstone mixed with white of egg applied to his side delayed Wesley's entry into Heaven, but the epitaph was too good to lose, and he copied it into his Journal, unaware how the unconscious use of the word "ordered" cancelled the false humility of the others.
After this setback John was soon on the road again preaching in "Satan's own ground," a theatre, and remarking of a fellow-traveller to whom a large estate had fallen: "A miracle if it does not drown her soul in everlasting perdition!" while a perusal of Mr. Baxter's History of the Councils caused him to reflect what "execrable wretches" had governed the Roman Church and to apply to the Romanists criticisms that might have been directed to his own sect, "trifling, false, unintelligible, self-contradictory." His marriage was by then an open, disastrous failure, though John, at least, maintained a show of outward tenderness. In the first letter John had written to her after their marriage he had addressed her as "Dear Love" and had told her that she had "surely a right to every proof of love I can give and to all the little help which is within my power." But this affection had been worn thin by her raving, complaints, and general unsuitability, and he had after addressed her in a firmer tone: "Be content to be a private and insignificant person, known and loved by God and me. Leave me to be governed by God and my conscience. Then shall I govern you with gentle sway, to show that I do, indeed, love you, even as Christ the Church."
But Mrs. Wesley's bitterest complaint was that he loved other women as Christ the Church. She could have borne everything—the tedious, tiresome, perilous journeys, the mob, now endeavouring to attack her and her husband, now roaring in the throes of conversion, endless prayer-meetings, sermons, perpetual scenes of recrimination, hysteria, and noisy excitement that split the societies and the chapels that Wesley visited, the controversies with the Moravians, the gentle bickering with Whitefield and the Calvinists, the attacks from members of the Church of England. All this hurly-burly of her odd life Mrs. Wesley could have endured and perhaps even enjoyed, and taken part in as wife of the great leader of the Methodists, but it was the other women that soured her beyond endurance. Molly Wesley, before her marriage, had heard the usual gossiping and tattlings about Wesley's relations with some of the more sentimental and amorous of his female disciples; after marriage she had to endure, when he preached at the various meeting-houses and schools, to see him surrounded by a crowd of flattering, often hysterical females, and to note the tenderness and kindness with which he received these ecstatic praises.
Under this strain, poor Molly took the usual course of a petty-minded, jealous woman, and began to steal and sometimes to intercept his correspondence. The loving tone of the letters from the various female workers and matrons did not please her at all, and many a degrading scene broke the cultured leisure of John Wesley, that little leisure which he took from his travelling and preaching to employ in writing or editing some of the numerous works that passed through his hands. He was thankful to beat a retreat to the house of Ebenezer Blackwell, a wealthy banker, whose charming house at Lewisham was always open to him when he wished to retire awhile from the storm and stress of his chosen career, but he never for long allowed himself the pleasures of this cultured society and these delightful surroundings. His difficulties did not decrease with the passing of the years.
John had accomplished a great work, but it required unremitting labour to keep it together. Some Methodists went over to the Dissenters; others, like James Harvey, returned to the bosom of the Church of England. Then there was the Scotch experiment; Whitefield had warned Wesley against going to Scotland, saying: "You have no business in Scotland, for your principles are so well known that, if you spoke like an angel, none would hear you, and if they did, you would have nothing to do but dispute with one another from morning to night." But with his usual self-complacency Wesley replied: "If God sends me, people will hear." He accordingly went to the stronghold of Calvinism and made some, though not a very great, headway. On his return he once more visited Epworth, where he found a "poor, dead, senseless people"; so his father's work had been, after all, useless and forty years of toil had gone for nothing, unless the diligent rector had thereby saved his own soul, and of this his son had no certain assurance.
Then, again, there was a disappointment at Kings-wood. The school had begun with twenty-eight scholars, six masters, and six servants. Wesley had taken almost incredible pains with this establishment, having many books printed for the use of the pupils, written out numerous grammars. Human nature was, however, too much for his high-minded intention; the servants began to quarrel, the masters were unsatisfactory, one being coarse and rough, another a mean creature without authority, a third so unpopular with the children that they could do nothing with him, and the fourth joining with the boys in horseplay. The severe discipline copied from the Epworth model had gone to the winds, and the older boys were wicked and wild, since all their religious impressions were worn off. There were now but two masters, two servants, and eleven children; John Wesley, however, refused to be daunted and began to search round for new masters, new servants, and another matron. While this was going on, there was yet another cloud in John's sky, but it was one that gave some satisfaction to his wife. James Wheatley, one of Wesley's most popular preachers, had become tainted with Moravianism and, what was worse, had been guilty of immoral behaviour with some of his female flock in Bradford. Seven sisters eagerly brought charges against the backslider, and Mrs. Wesley had the task, perhaps no uncongenial one, of examining them. Wheatley admitted his fault, professed to be penitent, but made matters worse by declaring that most of the field-preachers were as guilty as himself. Wesley declared that these charges, examined in the case of ten preachers, were true, and Wheatley was thrown out of the fold. He, however, started on his own an evangelical mission in Norwich, and in this city the outcast Methodist, whom sin had not deprived of eloquence, soon gathered together two thousand followers, who declared they were converted, and were so noisy in their demonstrations of delight that they attracted the attention of a Jacobite society called the Hell-Fire Club, who were suspected of being Papists. These people broke up the chapel that Wheatley had built, seized the preacher, and nearly drowned him in the river; disgusting and dangerous riots followed. These disturbances, to the scare of the magistrate, continued for several months. Wheatley contrived to establish himself again as a preacher, and he and his followers held their own, although he was once more accused of immoral behaviour and of "burdening the parishes with helpless children." He was given another chapel, where he preached with much success, but once more being openly disgraced he was hauled before the Ecclesiastical Court of the Bishop of Norwich and brought to trial for adultery with his neighbours' wives—"all professing Methodism." In the words of Messrs. Baldwin and Knapp, the prim authors of the Newgate Calendar, "sufficient proof having been adduced, the judge declared Wheatley to be a lewd, debauched, incontinent, and adulterous man; and that he had committed the crimes of adultery, fornication, and incontinence, to the great scandal of good men, and pernicious to the example of others. He was then sentenced to do public penance in a linen cloth, in the parish church, with a paper pinned to his breast, denoting his crime; and condemned to pay the cost of the suit."
This sordid scandal was a great triumph for the Devil, and made a huge breach in the walls of the fort that Methodism was holding for God. John was forced to consider the state of the organization that he had built up so carefully—whether there were any other wolves among his sheep. Charles was deeply agitated and not altogether sympathetic if John had not moved so far from the Church, would these horrors have occurred? George Whitefield, snugly orthodox, despite Lady Huntingdon and Trevecca, adopted a smug attitude—"He knew nothing of Mr. Wesley's societies."
John, set back but not daunted, decided to investigate the morals of all the preachers, originally sixty-eight in number, whom he employed. Allowing for those who had been expelled or had left voluntarily, who had died, who had become clergymen of the Church of England or Dissenters, or who had given up through ill-health, there were but twenty-five of this number left. Charles, earnest and agitated, set out on circuit to enquire into the behaviour and success of these; he had a bad beginning at Worcester, where the mob threw dust and dirt over both Charles and his congregation, but the younger Wesley proceeded on his tour, sending careful reports back to his brother. More papers were written, more rules drawn up, the whole movement was, as far as possible, purged and tightened; John started again on his tours and his life settled down to a monotonous repetition of the labours he had so cheerfully undertaken so many years before, but his strained relations with Charles continued. The younger brother had become intimate with the Countess of Huntingdon and often preached in her house; he was on more friendly terms with Whitefield than was John; Whitefield found "poor Mr. Wesley striving against the stream," and wrote him from Bristol an unctuous letter about the slave trade, which John still refused to countenance. "Apart from the fact," Whitefield urged, "that keeping slaves gave one a chance to save their souls, there was Bible precedent for the custom.
"Some of them were bought with Abraham's money and some were born in his house, and I cannot help thinking that some of those servants mentioned by the apostles in their epistles were, or had been, slaves." He lamented what a flourishing country Georgia might have been had the use of them been permitted years ago! George was employing slaves himself, and at his death there were seventy-five working in his orphanage and plantations in America.
Still, despite these large and exasperating troubles, and the continual thorn in his flesh of Molly Wesley, John had some vivid consolations; there was a clergyman, slowly recovering from a violent fit of palsy, with which he had been struck immediately after he had been preaching a violent sermon against the Methodists. There was the woman who went blind, but who, on opening the Bible, found she could read every word. There was the large gentlewoman who sat in front of Wesley in the coach where he and his wife had taken refuge and so diverted the stones of the mob from him. There was the woman healed of the Devil, who had appeared and talked to her for some time. There was the success of all John's publications, of his dispensary. There was the increase in the number of the Methodists, and there was also another matter of rejoicing; his own deepened strength of character; his continued hardiness of body; the purging of his spirit from all pettinesses and littleness, although George Whitefield wrote to Charles: "I cannot help thinking that he [John] is still jealous of me and my proceedings," adding darkly, "more might be said were we face to face."
Whitefield, however, was with Wesley in his dislike of, and attacks upon, Moravianism, and published a pamphlet in 1753 against Zinzendorf and his followers, charging them with a "farrago of superstition." In this pamphlet Whitefield, evidently from firsthand knowledge, gives some curious particulars of the practices that he and so many other English people found objectionable. Zinzendorf burnt perfume in his room before he made his entrance among the brethren. He was also head over heels in debt, and in the Fetter Lane Chapel he had arranged an artificial mountain which, upon the singing of a particular hymn, was made to fall down, and behind it appeared a representation of a Moravian leader and Christ embraced together, while the clouds above were raining money. The Count was also accused of fraud, having drawn bills, according to Whitefield, on two English Moravians to the amount of £48,000.
John was extremely shocked by reported revelations, considering these practices "amazing abominations," but the Moravians countered that Whitefield had "more diabolical impudence than the devil," and declared that all he had said of them was lies.
These quarrels were entering upon very dangerous ground; in accusing one another of charlatanism, hypocrisy, lust, pride, and superstition, Moravians, Calvinists, and Methodists were exposing common faults and vices implicit in any religious enthusiasm and explicit in all meetings and ceremonies where such emotion is indulged in. The effect of Zinzendorf, the Wesleys, and Whitefield on their followers was in some degree the same as that produced a few years later by Cagliostro and Mesmer, and in some degree the means used were similar; the German, by theatrical shows and dark mysterious talk, was as skilful as the Sicilian in extorting money from his supporters, though no doubt the former employed it to a better purpose. Wesley affected people in the same way as Mesmer did, while Whitefield could sway the ladies of St. James's as adroitly as the Comte St. Germain did those of Versailles.
Where did the Kingdom of God end and that of the Devil begin? John Wesley pretended to miracles as surely as did Cagliostro; his prayers, the evangelist declared, could cure a rupture or still the agonies of a raging tooth; hundreds attested that the Sicilian's pills had done as much for them.
John firmly believed in all the stock-in-trade of the charlatan and the quack; he had not seen a witch, he admitted, but then, neither had he seen a murder, but he believed in both: "to doubt witchcraft was to doubt the Bible." Then, some of his remedies for sickness were as fantastic as those sponsored by Dr. "Spot" Ward, so viciously pursued by Hogarth's pencil; John Wesley advised thrusting one's head into a hole in the ground as a cure for neuralgia; he thought that animal magnetism was a "satanical delusion," and that a raw onion split in half, clapped to the stomach of the sufferer, would cure nausea.
IN late middle age, between his fiftieth and his sixtieth year, John Wesley had practically accomplished his work; all the tremendous energy of the rest of his long life was given to consolidating what he had already achieved: to purging, tightening his organization, to extending it, and to securing its continuation after his death.
His greatest difficulties were past; he had intelligent and willing helpers, not only in his own lay field-preachers but in such sympathetic Anglicans as Fletcher of Madeley; he had a large number of followers, and every year saw an increase in his classes, schools, societies, and meeting-houses. He had also official acquiescence, if not official recognition; he had proved that his great influence was to be used to support, not to pull down, Church and State; he was always keenly on the side of law and order.
By the steady sales of his books and pamphlets—such an important part of his campaign—he had earned enough money to keep many of his schemes going; he also had a good system for obtaining a steady flow of modest contributions from his followers that were sufficient to keep the movement financially sound. There was no muddle or confusion in his accounts, and this firm financial basis gave the whole movement a substantial place in the national life. In Methodism John Wesley had a powerful organization under his sole control that he could have used for almost any purpose he pleased.
He chose to use this power—greater power than a private person had possessed in England for a long time—merely to enforce his own opinions on an increasing number of the population. These opinions had not changed since the days of Epworth Rectory. Despite the great importance that he himself put on his conversion, despite his splits with Moravian and Calvinist, he had really altered in little since he had formed the Holy Club. He still believed in what his mother had taught him, though he had the arrogance to affirm that she had not been a Christian until he had shown her the light.
This light he was in danger of losing himself; the agony and the ecstasy struck out of him by his Georgia experience, and the change wrought in him by Peter Böhler, had died away beneath the weight of his formalism. His faith was bright and clear, but it burnt in a small, steady flame that was in danger of being smothered by method, by mundane detail, by unconscious self-glorification, by the monotony of repetition. Some great benefits John Wesley offered to those who crowded to listen to him; he appealed to every man, woman, and child to find God for himself or herself, through direct emotional experience and not in the dreary formalism of a creed or within the dull limits of a drab, lifeless orthodoxy. Yet, as soon as he had aroused their emotion, which he called faith, he drew the converts into an organization that became, as soon as his personal influence was removed, as chill and formal, as open to human fault and error, to abuse and vice, as any other attempt to clamp the things of the inward spirit into the bonds of dogma. Once, on the Samuel, riding the Atlantic storms, John Wesley had had a glimpse of that Spirituality which rises above any possible set of rules then in conflict; afterwards while Purcell's music filled the dark dome of St. Paul's, in joy he had realized that materialism is but half and the lesser half of life.
In his belief in witchcraft and ghosts was some recognition of the importance of the psychic world, some feeling towards the modern attitude that acknowledges that reality does not rest alone with materialism or Rationalism; but, lacking imagination, mysticism, a real sense of spirituality, he missed the sensitive and elusive truth. His cries of "God! God!" to those to whom nothing was real save the most sordid of brutal facts, let a brilliant light into many dark and noisome places; but Wesley at once began to obscure the glow he had himself given, not only by his instant ticketing and docketing of his converts, but by offering them, in flat terms, a hideous, depressing, and degrading creed. Accepting his "fable" and his "dream," relying on that medley of fiction, romance, poetry, ethics, and superstition termed the Bible, John Wesley took advantage of that religious emotion he was able to rouse in the wretched and ignorant, to implant some terrible falsehoods in their shivering hearts; the most dreadful of these was Hell. His disciples were shown not only the love of God, only to be reached by blind faith and a life devoid of all pleasure, but also the wrath of God; he did not often use eternal punishment as his central theme, but he hardly spoke or wrote without glancing at the awful consequences of sin and disbelief, and in at least one sermon he expatiated clearly enough on this appalling subject. Taking as his text the well-known line from Mark (ix, 46): "Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched," that has been quoted with relish by so many bitter fanatics, Wesley interpreted the Biblical references to Hell in the most literal sense possible—"an unvaried scene of horror upon horror"—and with regard to the problem of consuming fire's enduring for ever he pointed to the Linum Asbestum handkerchief in the British Museum that could remain in flame without perishing. So the soul; for ever and ever it would remain burning: "I am all over pain and I shall never be eased from it. I lie under exquisite torment of body and horror of soul; and I shall feel it for ever!"
It was no wonder that illiterate peasants and semi-idiotic slum-dwellers fell roaring to the ground, screaming: "I will be good," like a child threatened with a stick, and that even the half-educated, especially if also half-drunk, should be overcome with fear and trembling.
Apart from this emotional contact with God—faith—and a lively fear of the Devil, John Wesley taught his followers some rules of conduct excellent in themselves but embracing only one side of existence; his code was that of the middle-class trader, so dear to Puritanism; he inculcated industry, honesty, thrift, sobriety, plain living, an incessant preoccupation with the next world to which this was but a mean antechamber, a suppression of all passions and emotions, a rigid living by rule.
Though he had been at first, and in a sense always remained, a High Churchman, the result of his immense influence was to revive Puritanism. He was blind to beauty, distrusted the arts; the theatre was "Satan's own ground", when staying in a tavern he had some fine pictures that showed irreligious subjects set with their faces to the wall—but a step from this to Savonarola's burning of the vanities—everything was to be subjugated to the one great work—serving God. Without humour though not without a dry wit, John Wesley discouraged joy, pleasure, all gay and lovely things; those who could not find their happiness in striving after Heaven might remain miserable. His school system did not allow a second for play, and very few for exercise or repose; there was not a child who came into contact with eighteenth-century Methodism who must not have been the worse for it. A terrible heritage had Mrs. Susanna Wesley left behind her; her ideas of education were welded, in the hands of her son, into an evil thing that did unrecorded harm to thousands of children.
From John Wesley's teaching, which spread from his own organization to those of the Church of England and the Dissenting bodies, grew that form of religion which was to overwhelm the country for nearly a hundred years, which was to produce the typical middle-class Victorian and the English Sunday.
A nobler side of Wesley's character resulted in definite benefits to his country. As he grew old his interest in humanitarianism became more lively and sincere; blind to the harm he was doing in his schools and classes, he saw clearly the obvious horrors of crime, disease, and poverty, protested and did his best to remedy them. He was in this work the direct inspiration of reformers like Wilberforce, Elizabeth Fry, and John Howard.
The immense energy of John Wesley was not exhausted either by his incessant preaching, travelling, and writing, or by his noble efforts on behalf of the outcast and the criminal; he continued to take a deep interest in all scientific discoveries. His intense curiosity and his lively intelligence were both aroused and pleased by Benjamin Franklin's lecture on the identity of lightning and the electric fluid, which he delivered before the Royal Society of England. "What an amazing scene is here opened for future races to improve on!" exclaimed Wesley, with true prophetic insight and, in his little dispensary at the Foundry, he soon had an apparatus for electrifying persons for the cure of various disorders; and he declared that hundreds, perhaps thousands, had received "unspeakable good" from the electricity which he thought of as liquid fire.
Still, though outwardly successful, though laying the foundations of several great movements and impressing himself on the National character, John Wesley, while he was living these strenuous middle years, found them difficult, tumultuous, and sometimes almost overwhelming even to his iron courage and inexhaustible energy. The period between his marriage and the death of his wife was like a kaleidoscope in which a few odd pieces of glass of different colour keep shifting together in random patterns, always of limited shapes and design. Although officially accepted and sometimes officially protected, the Methodists made headway only by battling against the most violent opposition. Often on his travels John was saluted with curses and hard names and mauled by wild rioters or, worse still, "the congregation passed to and fro, laughing and talking, as if they had been in Westminster Abbey." He found Deists even among the ploughmen; his chapels were pulled down and he was assailed with showers of dirt and filth. Sometimes these orgies of brutalities changed to scenes of maudlin ecstasy, as when a prize-fighter, who was leading a mob against John Wesley, was so overawed by his gentle face and courageous daring that he fell weeping and began to stroke the auburn locks, now thickly sprinkled with grey, and, turning on his former allies, exclaiming: "What soft hair he has!" led the preacher to safety. The hideous scenes provoked by the Methodist preaching, the brutality shown to their followers, went far to cancel any elevating qualities in Methodism itself, while what was good in the teaching was too often enervated by the ferocity and sensuality that always lie so close to strong religious feeling. But to John Wesley, riding up and down the country in spite of mobs, sickness, fatigue, and dissensions among his own followers, there was only one sharp issue: that between God and the Devil. He was often ill with weariness, with cramp, with headache, with nausea or flux, but he was never despondent. How could he be when he was convinced that he was under Divine protection and that his guardian angels were working miracles on his behalf?
In his voluminous Journal, which he contrived to keep amid all his press of business, he noted hundreds of curious incidents and remarkable happenings as he rode over the bad, broken roads, the stony saddle-paths, the grassy tracks that connected the isolated villages, towns, cities, and country-seats of England and Ireland. There was the preacher who preached and conducted a service in his sleep, and even paused to argue with a clergyman who interrupted him; there was the consumptive Katherine Whitaker, who died singing:
I cannot fear, I cannot doubt, I feel the sprinkled blood, and exclaiming, "There are no swelled legs in Heaven!" There was Rose Longworth, who died joyfully, crying: "See how His blood streams!" There was the lively old soldier, ninety-two years of age, who had served King William and Queen Anne in the wars, and now served the Prince of Peace. There were preachings at open doors, in ditches—at one place the soldiers cut swathes of undergrowth out of the moat for Wesley to stand on. There were night watches, and fervent collections of money for preaching-houses; sometimes a hundred pounds was given in a few minutes. There were backsliders, who returned to wallow in their sins.
Amid all these signs and miracles, wonders and mysteries—and Wesley encountered enough of them to fill volumes—practical business was not neglected. At the yearly conference organization and finance passed under the master's eye and were dealt with by the master's mind. England was passing through a period of expansion in trade, in colonization; new ideas and new inventions were changing the country in which John had grown to manhood; the increasing industrial population turned to Methodism far more eagerly than to any other religion offered them, and it became almost the one creed of America. Wesley was always on the side of the Government. He quelled the Bristol colliers when they were rioting on account of the price of corn; he checked smuggling in Cornwall; he exhorted all to pay taxes and to obey the law. Through foreign wars, internal rebellions, riots, and disorders he was a staunch friend of the Hanoverian monarchy and its ministers.
But politics did not greatly interest him; he was too absorbed, not only in his life-work, but in the struggle with the Calvinists and the great question whether or not the Methodists should separate from the Established Church—a problem that had been causing a great deal of dissatisfaction and uneasiness for a good many years among several of the Methodists and that deeply troubled Charles, who was always a jealous son of the Church of England and could not endure the idea of any heresy, whereas John remained firmly of his former opinion: "We will not go out unless we are thrust out," well adding: "We have at present no thoughts of separation." But that did not mean that he would abate one jot of those practices that might exasperate or alienate the orthodox Anglican.
John, still struggling with a jealous wife and the Calvinists, had a brush with Dr. Dodd—an extremely popular preacher, with whom he had a lively but courteous correspondence, and was active up and down the country. War with France was striking fear and unrest into all ranks of the people, despite the bringing of three hundred French merchant ships into English ports; it was feared that Ireland would break into open rebellion and that the French would descend on those coasts.
These national disturbances made the field-preaching and the continual journeying more perilous than ever now there were Popish mobs and press-gangs to contend with, and refugees from the Palatinate, as well as the Quakers and Dissenters, but the trouble that touched John Wesley most closely and most severely was that caused by his unhappy marriage. This misery, that he tried to make supportable by considering it as his cross, came to a climax that he partly provoked by behaviour that would have exasperated a woman of finer mettle than Molly Wesley, one quicker to distinguish between sacred and profane love.
The leader's tender dallyings with the female members of his flock had been hard enough for his wife to bear, but the case of Sarah Ryan she felt to be unendurable. To his great relief, John had found, when he reorganized Kingswood School, a woman eminently suited to be the matron. She proved herself very successful in this position, and had shown what was known at that period as "exemplary behaviour," and John Wesley soon became on terms of affectionate friendship with her. When he and his wife visited Kingswood, this young matron, whose name was Sarah Ryan, sat at the head of the table, while Mrs. Wesley had to take a lower place, and John, about 1756—or five years after his marriage—had entered into an intimate correspondence with this young woman; she was admitted to the conferences, and there placed above the leader's wife.
Sarah Ryan had begun life as a domestic servant, and was a very ordinary young girl, vain, untruthful, fond of amusement and fine clothes. Before she was twenty years of age she had married a man who claimed to have a handsome income, but turned out to be a penniless cork-cutter. After the couple had lived together in some squalor and vice, the man ran away, and Sarah promised to marry an Italian with the curious name of Solomon Benreken. She did not fulfil this promise, however, but married an Irish sailor, Ryan. After a short period of joint misery the Irishman went to sea and Sarah married the Italian. When he, too, went to sea, she lived again with the returned Ryan and seemed, during the next two years, to have lived, now with this man, now with that, as her husband, as the fancy took her. Neither of them, however, contributed to her support, and she was obliged again to become a servant; she lived in very poor circumstances, and had great difficulty in providing herself and her mother with the barest necessaries of life. It was in Spitalfields Church, where she had gone out of curiosity, that she heard John Wesley preach, and she declared herself converted and went to live with a Methodist, Mary Clark, in a small house in Christopher Alley, Moorfields, where some of the London Methodists held their meetings. Two ardent enthusiasts, Sarah Crosby and Miss Bosanquet, also lived with Mary Clark, and John Wesley frequently favoured these ardent women with his company and his advice. He was much attracted by Sarah Ryan, whose conversion he believed to be sincere and in whose talents and capabilities he had great confidence.
Therefore he had made her housekeeper at Bristol and Kingswood. There was much murmuring among the other women at this honour to one who was, in the parlance of the time, but a converted Magdalene, and was still, in the opinion of those who knew her best, vain and giddy. She was accused—and this could scarcely be denied—of being a trigamist, and at any moment one of the men with whom she had gone through the marriage ceremony might arrive to claim her. Sarah was indeed a foolish, completely uneducated, eighteenth-century, low-type servant girl, touched with religious mania. Still John Wesley respected, admired her, and kept up a long correspondence with her, because she was a fine specimen of conversion. Several of her letters were intercepted by Mrs. Wesley, whose jealousy rose to such a point that at one of the Bristol conferences with Sarah Ryan sitting at the head of the table the wife broke in and shrieked out, no doubt to the great disgust of the preachers present, "The harlot now serving you has three husbands living!" John Wesley would not, however, give way. He would have nothing to say against Sarah Ryan's piety, and, best of all, she kept the difficult rules of Kingswood that he laid down to her in many of his letters, while the scandal associating him with Sarah Ryan and his wife's jealousy seemed to him as much to be disregarded as stones and mud flung at him by the ignorant mob of the bigoted Dissenters. To the gratified Sarah he wrote:—
On what a pinnacle do you stand! You are placed in the eye of all the world—friends and enemies. You have no experience of these things; no knowledge of the people; no advantage of education; not large natural abilities but a novice, as it were, in the ways of God! It requires all the omnipotent love of God to preserve you in your present situation, but if you continue teachable and advisable, I know nothing that should be able to hurt you.
Encouraged by letters like these, the Kingswood housekeeper took an exasperating tone towards Mrs. Wesley, praying for her, and "dealing faithfully with her," as she priggishly put it, adding: "I will not despair of Mrs. Wesley."
That outraged lady, whose temper had become so ungovernable that many thought she was insane, refused to accompany her husband on his next journey to Ireland and remained with Ebenezer Blackwell, complaining to him of her husband's behaviour.
This rupture was, indeed, difficult to heal, but it was not yet final; there was some attempt at reconciliation that led to the most degrading scenes, as when John Hampson came into the room and found Mrs. Wesley, "foaming with fury," trailing her husband about the floor by the hair of his head; while she showered abuse upon him he offered no resistance. This was a dismal replica of the Beata Hawkins assault so long ago. Incapable of subtlety of feeling or delicacy of expression, Molly coarsely accused her husband of adultery and, on discovering another affectionate letter to Sarah Ryan in his pocket, she abruptly left him, an event that John announced thus to the Kingswoodd housekeeper:—
My dear Sister, after many severe words my wife left me, vowing she would see me no more, as I had wrote you the same morning and began to reason with myself, that I almost doubted whether I have done well in writing, or whether I ought to write you at all. After prayer that doubt was taken away, yet I was almost sorry that I had written that morning. In the evening, while I was preaching at the Chapel, she came into the chamber where I had left my clothes, searched my pockets and found the letter there, which I had finished but not sealed. When she read it, God broke her heart, and afterwards found her in such a temper than I had not seen her in for several years. She has continued the same ever since, so I think God has given a sufficient answer in regard to writing to each other.
Sarah replied in general terms that probably all was for the best and that Wesley must not put too much trust in any human being. To which Wesley replied:—
My dear Sister, your last letter was seasonable
indeed, I was growing faint in my mind. The being continually
watched over for evil, the having every word I spoke, every action
I did, great and small, watched over with no friendly eye, the
hearing a thousand little tart, unkind reflections in return for
the kindest words I could devise:
Like "drops of eating water on the marble
At length have worn my sinking spirit down."
Yet I could not say "Take thy plague away from me" but only "Let me be purified, not consumed."
Freed, if only temporarily, from what he justly termed "a plague," John Wesley went his way, doubtless "purified" by the experience, the cessation of which was, humanly speaking, such a relief. He had not, he noted dryly, sent her away and he would not call her back.
Molly Wesley, who had disappeared into humdrum obscurity, returned reluctantly to her husband, to renew her scoldings and whinings, her sighings and complaints. Her husband endured her with that cold magnanimity so exasperating to a vulgar nature and continued to employ Sarah Ryan at Kingswood. In 1768 this woman died—in the odour of sanctity, Wesley thought—and he preserved some of her letters for publication. This question of sanctity was one that much agitated the Methodists. Was it possible to be, in a second, entirely sanctified by the possession of faith? John Wesley admitted that he had never received this supreme blessing completely. "My peace is more solid than it was at first, and my soul seems more centred in God. But what I judge more by is the change I feel, and my one desire to do His will, and I feel nothing but love to every creature, let them use me ill or well." This seemed a personal matter that each person could solve according to his own experience and his own desire, but it split and agitated the Methodists to an extraordinary degree.
John Wesley, like so many great men, was without imagination and a sense of humour, or he might have foreseen what his teachings were certain to produce. How is it possible to begin a religious revival, to endeavour to touch people through emotionalism, to appeal to the heart instead of the head, to tolerate talk of visions and hysterical displays, to believe that the will of God may be found through sortilege, to allow yourself to say that you feel you "have the divine commission" for what you preach, and yet to hold in check your followers? Who could be the arbiter in this dispute? Who could decide that what Wesley said came from God and what George Bell or Maxfield said came either from the Devil or from the ravings of lunatics? The whole subject was one of extreme difficulty and likely to end in distressing confusion, and it seems doubtful whether the good that Wesley's movement had done in the country balanced the evil caused by the wave of mingled hysteria and imposture. Wesley had not foreseen that his own success would provoke ignoble imitators, and that many a man, either of unsettled wits or of unlimited impudence, with a certain amount of theatrical talent, would try to copy Whitefield, who had been able to draw large enough audiences and to receive enough praise and flattery to satisfy the vainest and weakest of men. The good qualities of the Wesleys, their work among the poor, their sincere piety, their self-denial, their law and order, were not imitated, but these good qualities hardly sufficed for them to hold their own against the storm they had aroused.
When John Wesley went to Wales he was shocked to find a sect entitled "The Welsh Jumpers," who called themselves Methodists. Here was a survival of primitive rites; the Welsh peasants danced in religious ecstasy, declaring that they were imitating David dancing before the Ark. They tore off their clothes and committed other extravagances, and whenever anyone tried to reprove them they said: "You have the mark of the enemy in your forehead."
John Wesley commented: "Such are the delusions and uncharitableness of these people!" But he, himself, had said that those who disagreed with him were inspired by Satan, and his reproof made no impression on the Welsh Jumpers, who continued to intoxicate themselves with dancing and hymn-singing. Wesley was told: "They sing the verse of a hymn over and over with all their might, sometimes about thirty or forty times; meanwhile the bodies of two or three, sometimes ten and twelve, are violently agitated, and they leap up and down in all manner of postures, frequently for hours together." John Wesley thought they were simple, God-fearing men, misled by the Devil; yet, when somewhat similar scenes had occurred in the early days of his own preaching, he had thought the hand of God was in them.
At sixty years of age, his health still unimpaired, he continued his travelling, with an eye for the largest as well as the smallest thing, making notes by the way; many of his congregation "were dry and dead as stone, having been harried by disputers of every kind." Others were composed of "roaring, drunken miners"; some of the societies were all in confusion because one woman had scolded her neighbour and another had stolen a crusty loaf. John Wesley found that the want of field-preaching was "the great cause of deadness," but still he rode over the rough roads, through sun and rain, alert, eager, and cheerful, always spotlessly clean, the long hair that had always attracted such attention now snow-white, his small-featured face refined by age and stamped with that peculiar smile, at once complacent and tolerant, but that smacked of hypocrisy and maddened his opponents.
Excitement over Christian perfectibility had scarcely died away when another problem arose—the Millennium, brought forward by a Mr. Hartley, who had published a defence of John Wesley against the Bishop of Gloucester's attacks. Hartley professed to be a mystic, and John Wesley was now, as always, stoutly against mysticism, but, with his usual consistency, declared that he must believe in the Millennium, since he believed in the Bible. He took a literal and practical view of this event—"a comfortable doctrine," as he termed it. Christ would come again, the martyrs would be raised, for a thousand years Christ would reign in Jerusalem, which would be rebuilt, enlarged, and richly adorned—a Foundry on a large scale, with, doubtless, John near the Lamb he had so faithfully served. But John would not commit himself to Hartley's theory that the Millennium was near, and he had done his utmost to check the wild excitement and panic that broke out among those who were convinced that the day of Judgment was at hand, when a scare had been raised by Bell and Maxfield in 1763, when the first had been arrested because his rantings disturbed the public peace. John Wesley had preached against these mad prophets, though he declared "that prison was a poor cure for enthusiasm."
But while he remained firmly against these deluded mystics and insane fanatics, he always maintained his belief in the supernatural, though he had no experience of this himself. He wrote: "With my latest breath will I bear my testimony against giving up to infidels one great proof of the invisible world; I mean that of witchcraft and apparitions, confirmed by the testimony of all ages."
He was always collecting ghost stories, most of which he believed, though he usually wrote them without more than a few non-committal comments. As he justly said, the fact that he could not understand many details of these phenomena was no proof that they were not true. "For what is that I do comprehend, even of the things I see daily? Truly not: 'The smallest grain of sand, or spine of grass.' I know not how the one grows, or how the particles of the other cohere together."
Science would now enlighten John Wesley as to the growth of the plant and the cohesion of the sand, but there is as yet no satisfactory solution to such a problem as that offered by the story of Elizabeth Hobson, which John Wesley heard from the woman herself in 1768 and which he related at great length. Elizabeth Hobson had been surrounded with spirits of the dead and phantoms of the living since she was a child; the ghost of a drowned sailor haunted her for weeks, holding converse with her and dropping seawater on her breast; she saw the apparition of her brother who died in Jamaica; she was tormented by the spirit of her grandfather, who appeared to her in a brimstone flame, accompanied by a smell of burning that was noticed by the girl's companions. Dr. Johnson heard of this story and sent Boswell to discuss it with Wesley. On the surface the case of Betsy Hobson seems one of ordinary religious hysteria, but there were evidently circumstances about it that deeply impressed all who heard it or knew the girl.
The hand of God was again as plainly visible to John Wesley in the sad end of the buffoon who reviled Methodism in Sheffield as in the ghosts that crowded round Betsy Hobson; this wretch used to mock John Wesley and interrupt his sermons by letting loose cocks, hens, and cats into the meetinghouse; bathing in the Don, he stuck in the mud and was drowned.
WHEN John Wesley attained his seventieth year, which was then considered "man's allotted span," he found his family, his friends, and his followers much thinned about him. In the midst of the bitter but restrained controversies between the Methodists and the Calvinists, George Whitefield died in America in 1770, and left Lady Huntingdon his American responsibilities in Bethesda College as well as a medley of congregations, schools, and preachers now without a head. He died of a heart attack, worn out, as he had wished to be, in the service of his God; his life had been, for some time, a misery by reason of asthma and gout. But his success, both in Lady Huntingdon's drawing-room and in other fashionable parlours of Mayfair, as well as in the various meeting-houses that his patroness had built, remained undiminished, and even when his physical powers were failing he was always able to draw a large audience by his honey-sweet eloquence, his fascinating gestures, his seductive manner, and that dramatic power whereby he was able to persuade people that angels and devils were actually about him. John Gambold, who had been one of the Oxford Methodists, then a Moravian bishop, the most tolerant and liberal-minded of Wesley's early followers, died about the same time; so did Emilia, who, after her disappointed youth and a frustrated middle age, had married Mr. Harper, an apothecary at Epworth, when she was fifty years of age; soon afterwards she was left a widow, and as an old woman had come to London and taken up her lodgings in the rooms above the Foundry. There she resided in religious retirement, giving what was left of her once fine intelligence and generous nature to prayer and mediation. When too infirm to leave her room, she was able to open the window and thus to hear and so to join in the services taking place in the chapel below. Her faith had sometimes wavered, but she declared that it had always been restored when she thought of "the thing we called 'old Jeffrey'" at Epworth; those unexplained phenomena convinced her of the existence of an invisible world, and that once accepted—why, all else might be. Her death left only Martha, who was separated from Westley Hall, the man who had practised and preached polygamy, caused great scandal by his career in Salisbury, and died in 1776. Patty remained a close friend to her brother, but does not seem to have officially joined the Methodists; she moved in intellectual society and was a friend of Dr. Johnson's. She was the last survivor of the Epworth sisters, once so brilliant, so charming, and so hopeful a group. The brothers-in-law were dead too, and all had made those telling death-bed repentances that helped to put both John and Charles so triumphantly in the right. Dick Ellison, who had been Sukey's husband, had died, bitterly repentant, but hoping for pardon, in 1760. Nine years later, John Whitelambe, still curate of Wroote and still mourning his gentle Mary, was buried near her in his own parish church; he had lost his early religious zeal and had become, as was noted in alarm by his brother-in-law, almost a Deist. He was, in the opinions of some, a saint; in the opinions of others, a mere parish drudge. Wright the plumber, too, the blackguard husband of poor Hetty, had passed away, in terrors of contrition and penitence, wishing only that his useless career might be described and published for the benefit of other weak-minded sinners.
Charles had aged more than his elder brother, had led a much more retired life, happy in his happy family. He was constantly ill, and though he became irritable, especially on the question of separation from the Church, he preserved the fire and sweetness of his nature, and continued to write and to edit magnificent hymns. The superb health of John began to suffer, though he made the very least of his ailments and by sheer vigour of will almost cured them. He suffered, however, from a definite and exasperating complaint, a form of dropsy, the result of a riding accident, which soon necessitated an operation every five or six weeks.
This did not prevent him from continuing his journeys in all weathers, his preachings, his praying, his plans for a new chapel in the City Road, his bold front to the virulent Calvinist attacks now furiously launched, when the influence of Whitefield, his friend, was removed.
Fanned by Lady Huntingdon and her "connection," the furious controversy broke out into a blaze, and among others Augustus Toplady, a consumptive young clergyman, who had written one famous hymn—"Rock of Ales"—attacked Wesley in pamphlets so scurrilous that the Methodist leader at last found it beneath him to answer them. Toplady was particularly inflamed by Wesley's defence of the Government on the question of the American War. This political question, which neither properly understood, complicated the polemics of the two divines; Toplady, who had a good backing of Calvinists, pursued Wesley with a venom that had no regard for either truth or decency. One of John's most popular pamphlets—
"A Calm Address to the American People "—helped to rouse the Calvinists to these crude libels; they and other sympathizers with the revolting colonists were so bitter that it was said that they would have willingly burnt Wesley and his pamphlet together. A cool letter to the press answered some of the absurd charges brought against Wesley: that he was a Government agent, accepted bribes, and tried for a pension. In the conclusion of this letter Wesley wrote: "As to reviewers, news writers, London Magazines and all that kind of gentlemen, they behave just as I thought they would. And let them lick up Mr. Toplady's spittle still; a champion worthy of their cause."
In 1778 Toplady died, aged thirty-eight, and Wesley was accused of spreading the story that his bitterest enemy had died "in black despair and blasphemy," and so the miserable degrading quarrels raged, while Wesley, going deeper and deeper into party politics, published pamphlets and preached sermons in support of the Government. But a demand from the Excise for a list of his plate for taxation assessment brought forth the following reply:—
Sir, I have two silver tea-spoons at London, and
two at Bristol. This is all the plate that I have at present; and I
shall not buy any more, while so many round want bread.
I am, sir, your most humble servant,
The national distress touched him nearly. His genius for organizing and his alert intelligence were shown in a long letter he wrote to Lloyd's Evening Post, pointing out some possible remedies for the terrible state of affairs in England. Some details of the prevalent distress he gave at first hand; thousands of people were starving, perishing from want in every part of England:—
This fact I know, I have seen it with my own eyes in every corner of the land. I have known those who could only afford to eat a little coarse food every other day, and known one picking up stinking sprats from a dunghill and carrying them home for herself and children. I have known another gathering the bones that the dogs had left and making broth of them to prolong a wretched life.
One of the remedies that John Wesley suggested was that bread-corn should be used for making bread instead of for distilling, and the whole letter shows an able grasp of the situation and a keen application to detail. His energy and interests were as lively as ever, but sometimes old age, ill-health, and the confusion of the times caused a little despondency to cloud even this clear brain and stout heart. He wrote to Charles:—
Let me be again an Oxford Methodist! I am often in doubt whether it would not be best to resume all my Oxford rules, great and small. I did then walk close to God and redeemed the time, but whatever have I been doing in these present years?
Such moods and depression soon passed, and the vigorous old man would not release his grasp of the thing he had made. Was not his work itself his own justification and glorification? The buildings in the City Road were rising; his followers were increasing, he could afford to despise the Calvinists, who had no great man among their ranks; Lady Huntingdon could not intimidate him, and he thought little of her fledgling preachers, and had no reason to restrain his opinion, since now there was no fear of wounding George Whitefield, for whom he had always retained so tender a regard, so high a respect. After a visit to Trevecca, when he had been disgusted by the doctrines taught, he said: "It is no wonder that they should preach thus. What better can be expected from raw lads, with little understanding, little learning, and no experience?" Continual bouts of illnesses of increasing severity helped him to feel—often keenly—what he himself called "the heat and the burden of the day, the insults of foes, and the base treachery of seeming friends." But Heaven was getting nearer, and he was no less sure of it than he had been in the days when he had walked the cloisters of Lincoln College and meditated on how he might save souls.
His intense curiosity was not abated; he read continually such diverse books as those by Ludovico Ariosto and Francis Bacon, and Bishop Glanville on Witches and Witchcraft, and other treatises on "the wonders of the invisible world." These last books gave him occasion to affirm in a letter to Charles yet once more his belief in supernatural manifestations; he had been convinced that the Fanny Parsons ghost was an imposture, but that did not shake him. "Do you think the disturbances in my father's house a Cock Lane story?" he asked. He went to and fro among the societies, he noted that the reorganizing of the Kingswood schools had brought gratifying results. While on a visit there, he was again able to hear the cries and groans of the boys, the result of hysteria produced by fear of Hell-fire and the stringency of the rules. The worst aspect of John's fanaticism and ignorance showed in his treatment of children, in whom he deliberately provoked these painful hysterical displays, propounding to them religion, their sins, and the life to come, till they were reduced to convulsions, as in the case of the little girl of whom he notes with complacency, "her breath ceased, while she listened," until she could endure it no longer, but fell into what Wesley considered "an ecstacy of conversion," screaming out to her grandmother: "Granny, have you no sins to repent as I have?" Yet when he was free from his mania he could be generous and pitiful, and the sufferings of the poor always tormented him, as did the indifference of the rich to the misery not many yards from their own door. He noted once when visiting Bethnal Green: "I have not found any such distress—no, not in the prison of Newgate. One poor man was just creeping out of his sick-bed to his ragged wife and three little children, who were more than half-naked, the very picture of famine, and one bringing in a loaf of bread, they all ran and seized it and tore it in an instant. Who would not rejoice that there is another world?"
This last sentiment was one that would have irritated the Radicals; it was one of William Cobbett's bitterest grievances against the social system of his time that the poor were kept quiet, drugged in their misery, by promises of what they would enjoy in the next world.
In the Journal that John Wesley continued to keep regularly, portions of which he published now and again, he still noted little incidents that showed the powerful and sometimes dreadful effects that his doctrine and his preaching were having upon ignorant people. Often the Methodists rejoiced in the deaths of their little children, because these had gone straight to Heaven; John Wesley gives this little scene of a woman who had lost her little boy, a child of "eminent piety, between five and six years old," who said: "My son is gone to glory," while a consumptive youth standing up cried out: "But I am going to Hell."
This lad fell into "utter despair and strong convulsions," but died two days afterwards—in peace, or so John Wesley thought. Then there was the man who had lost the use of his "ankles and knees" for seven years, but who was cured by reading the Bible; the swelling in the shoulder of one of John's horses caused him to note that Satan had still power over his beasts but not over him. There was the man so raving mad that he had to be chained down to the floor, and who was yet "converted." Amid all these lively manifestations of God's grace John was "a little surprised" to read in Dr. Smollett's History of England what was a fair account of Wesleyism:—
Imposture and fanaticism still hang on the skirts of religion. Weak minds were seduced by the delusions of a superstition, styled Methodism, raised upon the affection of superior sanctity and pretensions to divine illumination. Many thousands were infected with this enthusiasm by the endeavours of a few obscure preachers, such as Whitefield and the two Wesleys, who found means to lay the Kingdom under contribution.
"Poor Dr. Smollett!" commented John, "thus to transmit to all succeeding generations a whole heap of notorious falsehoods!" And after coolly refuting all that the historian said, the evangelist asked: "Meantime, what faith can be given to his history? What credit can any man of reason give to any fact on his authority?" John was also shocked by reading Baron Swedenborg's Heaven and Hell; he made allowances for an "overturned understanding," but rebuked "those two pious men, Mr. Clowes and Mr. Clotworthy," for ushering in the world this "madman's dream." What John thought would do most harm to English people was the statement that there was no fire in Hell, but only a bed of hot ashes, on which some of the damned were occasionally ordered to lie down—and, worse still, all the lost souls enjoyed their favourite pleasures. "He that delights in filth is to have his filth; yea, and his harlot, too! Now how dreadful a tendency must this have in such an age and nation as this!"
In his seventy-third year, one of John's great humiliations fell upon him through the Calvinists. His wife's jealousy had risen to the point of dementia; she even accused him of being the lover of Charles's charming and faithful Sally, herself a mother of grown-up children. "Who will believe her now?" cried Mrs. Charles. Molly was continually leaving her lord in fits of petulant temper and coming back in worse fits of fury; he endured all with complete and no doubt exasperating patience, going his own way, and still accepting this wretched marriage as a destined cross.
The climax of Molly Wesley's marriage was her stealing a packet of John's letters to his female disciples and altering them, twisting expressions of spiritual love into those of lewd desire; she took these documents to a gathering of members of the Calvinist party and not only read them but allowed them to be sent to the Calvinist press organ—The Gospel Magazine—for publication. The ensuing scandal, founded on theft, forgery, and disloyalty, somewhat overwhelmed Charles, always more warm at first and impulsive than John. He implored his brother to defend himself against these false charges, but Wesley calmly replied: "Brother, when I devoted to God my ease, my time, my life, did I except my reputation? No! Tell Sally I will take her to Canterbury to-morrow." To Molly, then an old, unhappy woman, John wrote a letter of dignified rebuke:—
What reparation are you willing or able to make? Very little indeed, for the water is spilled and cannot be gathered up. All you can do now, be you ever so willing, is to unsay what you have said. For instance, you have said over and over again that I have lived in adultery these twenty years. Do you believe this or do you not? If you do, how can you live with such a monster? If you do not, give it me under your hand.
His conscience was clear; as formerly he had noted—he had not left her, had not disowned her, would not recall her; she never returned; ten years after her treachery he noted her death in his Journal and the fact that he had not been informed of it until after her burial. She left him a gold ring and a message, saying that she had always loved and esteemed him. He was largely to blame for the unhappy marriage; he should never have taken a wife, nor expected an ignorant woman, bred a servant, to be able to make the nice and delicate distinction between sacred and profane love.
ON November 1, 1778, John Wesley preached his first sermon in the new chapel; he had laid the foundation stone a year before in a torrent of rain; now he stood in the handsome pulpit in the completed building, looking at the packed galleries, on the press in the pews on which the winter light fell coldly. The site was a hundred yards north-west from the Foundry, where he had preached during forty years; it was opposite the jostling grave-stones of the Dissenters' graveyard in Bunhill Fields, where Susanna Wesley lay near the bones of Daniel Defoe, Isaac Watts, John Bunyan, Henry Cromwell, and many another stalwart Puritan. Attached to the plain, stout building was a house for the circuit preachers, and at the back a large piece of ground, where John had already marked out his grave. He was in his seventy-sixth year and still in good health, despite his recurrent dropsy, as he noted with much praise to God; his fine face was bleached and refined to a clear austere beauty; the perfect proportion and shape of the skull showed through the tightening skin, still clear, pink, and white; the saintly smile had set, as if cut in stone, the searching eyes were still brilliantly alive to pick out the backslider, the mocker, the possible convert. In his black Anglican priest's garments, his immaculate linen bands, with his delicate upraised hands, and snowy locks, curled under at the ends, he preached rapidly in his dry, even tones, on the old themes that repetition had turned almost into an incantation, while the plainly-clothed Methodists swayed together in acquiescence. When he ceased, the congregation joined with ritualistic fervour in the dramatic rhythm of a hymn selected from the thousands that Charles had written and John had published. In August, 1779, John slept for the last time in the Foundry, where his mother and Emilia had died; in the following October he took up his residence in the new house in the City Road. "How many more nights have I to spend here?" he asked himself.
It was a plain, high, gloomy house with a narrow passage and staircase, darkly panelled, with wallpapers of dull-hued poppies and pinks and some fine pieces of useful furniture; all was exquisitely neat and clean, and John's few possessions were installed here and kept in shining order. Here was his bureau and his travelling-desk, his spurs, his hat and cloak, ready for his innumerable journeys; his chair, shaped like a painter's "donkey," on which he sat astride with a lectern at the back, and drawers for pens and paper at the side; here was the huge teapot sent by Josiah Wedgwood, with a pleasant inscription about cosy drinking in Paradise; here were the library, the papers, the files, the business paraphernalia of this huge organization. John had now no intimate relation to live with him; ailing Charles was absorbed in his own family, Patty was an occasional visitor, Molly had gone with her sins on her head; John had told her that he was clear of all women save herself, and now he was clear even of her. He settled down to the donnish, bachelor life that he really liked; he kept the first floor for his own use; there was a parlour, a study, a little closet for prayer, a bedroom at the back; the rest of the house was given up to the London preachers.
John was now held in great respect by Church and State; since he had proved himself, not a revolutionary but a supporter of authority, both the temporal and the spiritual powers were eager to honour him; he received more invitations to preach from Anglican pulpits than he could fulfil, and he noted after he had preached in All Hallows: "It seems, after being a scandal for fifty years, I have at length grown into an honourable man."
An astonishing turn had now taken place in the fortunes of the Wesley family. Charles and Samuel, one now a youth of twenty-one years of age, the other thirteen years of age, had proved to be musical geniuses, and their father allowed them to hold subscription concerts of twelve nights' duration each year in his house. The elder Charles was proud of his talented sons and the sensation they caused in fashionable London, even though these concerts were offending many of the Methodists, who contended that though the society drawn to listen to the two boys might be genteel, it was not religious. But the elder Charles began to rebel against the long tyranny under which he had laboured all his life; his rich, melodious spirit longed for some measure of freedom; he was, perhaps, weary of writing hymns and listening to hymn tunes; at least he defended his sons and their gifts warmly and even with passion. There would have been a quarrel but for the imperturbable magnanimity of John; as it was, accusations of pride and jealousy passed between Charles Wesley and some of the other preachers, and there was hint of trouble of this kind between the two brothers themselves, for Charles wrote:
"Can you think I envy you your pre-eminence?"
While he vehemently declared that it was God's wish that his sons' musical talent be cultivated, John thought the opposite; each exasperated the other by the dead-end argument, the Divine will.
John had loved singing all his life; he had often ridden over rough and lonely roads, a book in his hand, his horse's reins slack upon its neck, leaving the beast to find its own way, while he raised his head and let his voice pour out praise of his Maker. But he had no encouraging word for his nephews' gift of music. After sitting through one of their concerts, he wrote: "I spent an agreeable hour at a concert of my nephews, but I was a little out of my element among lords and ladies. I love plain music and plain company best."
As a contrast to this concert where he felt out of his element were the scenes that took place shortly after at Oldham. The old man was asked to visit a dying woman, and as soon as he entered the room both she and her companions fell "into such emotions as is seldom seen. Some laughed, some cried; all were so transported they could hardly speak, for how much better it is to go to the poor than to the rich—to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting!" With this powerful weapon of emotionalism he continued to keep his scattered flock together. "Spiritual gin," his enemies called it, when they accused John Wesley of giving his followers the same kind of excitement as they received from drinking, bull-baiting, the bloody heads and broken bones of street fights. Not only had the Methodists given the lonely, the outcast, the degraded, and the hopeless encouragement and interest, company and an opportunity of talking about themselves to attentive listeners, but he had given them emotional escape. Nor did John lose his power in his old age, as he travelled from place to place: more than one servant girl began to see visions; more than one youth dropped in convulsions. Nor did John Wesley hesitate to claim for himself the power of healing. A man, dying for lack of sleep, caused by the pain produced by a poisoned toe, fell into gentle repose after Wesley had prayed for him.
The energetic old man now added to his activities by publishing The Arminian Magazine to rival the Calvinistic organ that had always been a thorn in his flesh. One number of the magazine had six original sermons by himself with grim texts such as: "Dust thou art, unto dust thou shalt return," and a tremendous discourse on the punishment of Hell. In an article in the same number John Wesley went as far as he could go in the matter of tolerance when he declared that he would not kill Romanists. But when one of his nephews became a Papist John was less affected than Charles and took a liberal view of the disaster. Among John's successes was the case of Elizabeth Warbridge, a light-haired, ruddy-faced, merry-hearted girl, twelve years old, a domestic servant, who became such an ardent Methodist that her life, published under the title of The Journeyman's Daughter, sold by millions of copies, and was supposed to have been the means of converting three hundred and fifty persons. This saintly child came from Newport, Isle of Wight. Yet despite such instances of godliness, Wesley, in his eightieth year, could write: "A total ignorance of God is almost universal amongst us; the exceptions are exceedingly few, whether among the learned or unlearned," and then proceed to lash those vices that are always with us—luxury, lewdness, sloth.
John Wesley found things pleasanter in the Netherlands, where he went full of gracious memories of those old days when he had passed through the Lowlands on his way to Germany. Holland was indeed a country after his own heart, so neat, clean, pious, so orderly, and when an English gentleman invited him to a country seat not half a mile from Rotterdam, he noted: "I never saw so pretty a place," and he declared that "the women and children were, in general, the most beautiful I ever saw. They were surprisingly fair and had an inexplicable air of innocence in their countenance." The precise old man liked everything about the country: the churches were "better lit than are our cathedrals"; the new workhouse outside Amsterdam was so exceedingly neat and a model, he thought, the English would have done we to copy.
Holland was indeed a country so near his own idea of perfection that he might easily have wondered how it was that the inhabitants, who were not Methodists, could have so much grace and godliness.
When John returned he visited Kingswood School, where he found the rules of the house faithfully observed and the children all in good order—that is, repressed to the point of imbecility. Still curious-minded, John was reading Orlando Furioso again, and was irritated by the many improbabilities in it, such as leaves turned into ships and stones turned into horses; "such monstrous fictions as never appeared in the world before and, one would hope, never will again."
Yet the man, so severe on a fairy tale, could note with satisfaction that a person who was talking against "those mad Methodists" leaned his arm on the table and died, and that, when during one of his sermons three little children wandered out and fell into a well, they were restored to consciousness by being rubbed with salt and having their mouths breathed into under Wesley's direction.
Sometimes the inward witness was dumb and faint, the mind stronger than the heart. "By reason and by Scripture I see abundantly more than I feel. I want to feel more love and zeal for God."
Apart from this lack of inner warmth, a serious practical crisis touched him nearly—that of separation from the Church; this problem had been disturbing Anglicans and Methodists alike for years and greatly troubling Charles, who would not see any need of taking this terrible step—rank heresy to him—of separating from a Church that now offered a cordial welcome to the followers of the Wesleys.
But John was immovable; not in any wish to secede from the Church, but to uphold his own rights. He believed that, as a presbyter, he had full authority to ordain others, and though he had nearly two hundred preachers working the sixty-nine circuits into which the country was divided, he needed more for America and ordained priests, not laymen, for the American Methodists, who had greatly increased in number since the days of the Georgia adventure, and he demanded men who could administer the Sacraments.
At the same time there was a crisis in the affairs of the Calvinist Methodists, who, interfered with in their chapels and schools, formally seceded from the Church, put themselves under the protection of the Toleration Act, and claimed the right to ordain their own clergy. At Spa Fields Chapel in 1783 seven young men were ordained by one of Lady Huntingdon's chaplains, Mr. Wills, and the following year John Wesley, in a private room, after a religious service, set apart Thomas Coke, already a deacon and priest of the Anglican Church, for special work among the fifteen thousand Methodists in America. "If anyone is pleased to call this a separating from the Church, he may," said John Wesley, cool amid the storm of excitement aroused. Charles, then a sick man, was shocked and alarmed. "I have lived on earth a little too long, who have lived to see this evil day." The younger brother, with his imagination and sensitiveness, saw what John could not see—that after the death of himself and his brother there would be "vain janglings" among the Methodists, who would lose all their influence and importance; "such was the case of the Moravians when Count Zinzendorf died, so it was when Mr. Whitefield was removed, and so it will be with the Methodists." They would be only a new sect of Presbyterians, "settle on their knees and come to nothing, like other Dissenters"; neither better nor worse than the Baptist, Unitarian, or Presbyterian. It was the Church that Charles wanted glorified, the Church to which he had given all his love, all his labour since the days of the Holy Club; he felt a deep personal distress at the rupture with John. "Our partnership is ended, but not our friendship; I have taken him for better or worse until death do us part; or rather unite us in love inseparable." This parting was near; Charles lived four years after his brother's first ordination, of which he wrote bitterly:—
How easy now are Bishops made,
By man or woman's whim;
Wesley his hands on Coke hath laid,
But who laid hands on him?
The painful quarrel dragged on with deep undercurrents of love and admiration. John wrote: "I see no use of you and me disputing together. You say, I separate from the Church; I say, I do not. Then let it stand." Despite his firm, if inconsistent, attitude, however, John Wesley was, from 1784, regarded as a Dissenter. In this year John wrote a long letter to the young Prime Minister, William Pitt, suggesting how money might be raised from a more methodical way of getting in the old taxes, before new were imposed; he ordained men for work in Scotland and for overseas. In 1785 Wesley lost two old friends, Vincent Perronet and John Fletcher of Madeley; the following year he wrote a statement of his own faith, feeling, though with a complete tranquillity, that he too was nearing the end of that journey which had began eighty-three years ago.
"I do not remember to have heard or read anything like my own experience. Almost since I can remember, I have been led on in a peculiar way. I go on in an even line, being very little raised at one time, and depressed at another." But his placid fortitude was greatly shaken by the separation from Charles, with whom he had been having fresh differences over the question—who was to be John's successor. In his last letter to his elder brother, Charles wrote: "Stand to your own proposal; let us agree to differ; keep your authority while you live; you cannot settle with the succession, you cannot divine how God will settle it."
John, anxiously concerned for Charles, took a deep interest in all the details of his illness, continually urging upon him daily exercise, roasted turnips to restore his appetite, ten drops of a mixture of vitriol in a glass of water; he also strongly advised Charles to be electrified, "not shocked but only filled with electric fire." John much enjoyed making up prescriptions and giving medical advice to his friends, and eighty-five years himself and still travelling about and preaching in all weathers, he found time to send these minute directions to his niece, Sally Wesley, then in charge of her father: "Boil crusts of white bread with a few drops of lemon juice and a little sugar." He knew a lady in Paris "who had lived several weeks without swallowing a grain, by applying thin slices of beef to the stomach."
Then, too, Whitefield had been "greatly helped when attacked with vomiting by an onion slit across and bound warm on the pit of the stomach...But, of course, above all let prayer be made continually."
While John was holding a service in Shropshire, and the congregation were singing:
Come let us join our friends above
That have obtained the prize,
And on the eager wings of love
To joy celestial rise.
Charles died after a long decay. John, as soon as he heard the news, sat down and wrote an affectionate letter to Sally. It was, of course, nothing but a glorious blessing for Charles to be translated to the heavens after which he had panted so long, but, humanly speaking, the old man was lonely and bereaved, and a fortnight afterwards at Bolton, when giving out his brother's hymn, "Wrestling Jacob"—
Come, O Thou Traveller unknown,
My Company before has gone
And I am left alone with Thee—
he broke down, hid his face with his hand, sat down in the pulpit, and wept.
He still had enough energy, if not enough time, to wish to write his brother's life.
The entry of Charles's career was worded thus in the Conference Minutes: "Mr. Charles Wesley, who after spending four-score years with much pain and sorrow, quietly retired into Abraham's bosom." He had no disease, but after a gradual decay of some months "the weary wheels of life were still at last." He praised least his talent for poetry, though Dr. Watts did not scruple to say that that single poem—"Wrestling Jacob"—was worth all the verses he himself had written.
John Wesley, with his usual open-handed generosity, took upon himself the burden of his brother's widow and family, for Charles had not left those dependent upon him well off; as John stated: "They have said that we were well paid for our labours and indeed so we were, but not by man."
It had been a painful disappointment to John that Charles, instead of being interred in the burial-ground of his brother's chapel in City Road, wished to be laid in the consecrated churchyard of Marylebone. His last intelligible words had been to the parson of the parish where he lived: "Sir, whatever the world may have thought of me, I have lived and die a communicant of the Church of England, and I wish to be buried in the yard of my parish church," but this disappointment, even though he felt it as a personal slight, did not prevent John from giving two hundred guineas out of his own pocket to Sally Wesley and promising to help her to the best of his ability.
It was near the end for him, too, now, but the last years of his life were cheered by strange incidents that showed the emotional value of Methodism and that the old man still possessed the strange, magnetic power of keeping the movement alive. On one of his visits to Bristol he enjoyed the dramatic contrast of preaching a sermon on the fearful narrative of the rich man and Lazarus, and afterwards dining in the Mansion House at the rich man's table. Soon after, preaching in his own chapel on the subject of slavery, about which he felt strongly (it was now one of the great questions of the day), to a closely-packed congregation, a strange commotion arose among these people, a vehement noise, that in Wesley's own words "shot like lightning through the congregation. The terror and confusion were inexpressible and you might have imagined the City taken by storm. People rushed upon each other with the utmost violence, benches were broken in pieces; nine-tenths of the congregation seemed to be shocked with the same panic. After about six minutes the storm ceased almost as suddenly as it rose. All being calm, I went on without the least interruption." Wesley believed that this disturbance was caused by Satan "fighting lest his Kingdom should be delivered up."
The episode matched in strangeness that scene during his early preaching when the floor had given way and the congregation found themselves standing on the barrels in the cellars beneath, but, absorbed in the specious eloquence, showed no fright and scarcely made any movement, or that other incident when some mocking villain having half sawn through the supports of the gallery, this collapsed in the middle of Wesley's sermon, and though some were killed and some injured, such was the excitement he led out the remainder to listen to his discourse in the churchyard.
In 1789 he was in Scotland, announcing: "Rich and poor attended from every quarter. Surely, the Scots were the best hearers in Europe."
The old man began to be plagued with more illnesses, apart from the serious disability from which he suffered—the dropsy; he had cramp and little attacks of fever; he noticed the weather. "I think it was the coldest night I ever remember. The house we were in stood on the edge of the hill, the east wind sat full in the window." He began to reflect upon his age. "Four years ago my sight was as good as it was at five-and-twenty. I then began to observe that I did not see things quite so clear with my left eye as I did with my right. All objects appeared a little browner to that eye. I began next to find difficulty in reading a small print by candlelight. Thus those who 'look out of the window are darkened'—one of the marks of old age, but I bless God that the grasshopper is not a burden. I am still capable of travelling and memory is much the same as ever it was, so I think in my understanding."
He believed that 1789 was to be the last year of his life; he once more sat for his picture to Romney, who much pleased him by striking off a likeness in an hour, whereas Sir Joshua Reynolds, the great fashionable painter of the day, had taken ten.
John Wesley now made definite preparations with his usual method and order for the end. "I retired to Camberwell, and carried on my Journal, probably as far as I shall live to write it." "I retired to High-bury Plain, and preached to a very serious congregation, though many of them were of the better ranks." "I left no money to anyone in my Will because I had none, but now considering that whenever I am removed money will soon arrive by sale of books I added a few legacies by codicil to be paid as soon as may be."
His interest in worldly matters did not abate. He read the life of Baron Trenck, and was shocked and fascinated, and wished that none that cared for his soul would read a page of it.
On January 1, 1790, he noted: "I am now an old man decaying 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, praise to God, I do not slack my labour. I can preach and write still." He finished his accounts, writing at the end of them: "I can be accurate no more. Not as I will, but as Thou wilt." With strict probity and exactitude he had accounted for every penny that had passed through his hands, and it was estimated that in fifty years he had given away perhaps £40,000 in charity. He left all his property to be divided among his schools and chapels. His gowns, cassocks, sashes, and bands, for the use of the clergymen attending the City Road chapel. His pelisse to the Rev. Mr. Crighton. All the rest of his wearing apparel to four of the travelling preachers who wanted it most, his watch to Joseph Bradford, his gold seal to Elizabeth Ritchie, his chaise and horses to James Ward and Charles Wheeler in trust to be sold, and the money to be divided among members of the Select Society. Copies of his sermons to each travelling preacher who should remain in connection six months after his decease. To his wife's granddaughters he left all the money that might be found in his bureau; that in his pocket to four friends. Of the first money arising from the sale of his books after his death forty pounds was to go to Patty, forty pounds to Mr. Crighton, sixty pounds to Mr. Heath, and a pound each to the six poor men who should carry his body to the grave.
His eye for earthly detail, even on the threshold of Heaven was remarkable, as was notable when he rebuked one of his ministers for wearing a ruffled shirt. Travelling up and down the country in some places he found the societies "lessened and cold, field-preaching discontinued, and the spirit of Methodism quite gone." Yet, wherever he went the flame rose up again and "many souls were greatly comforted." There were love-feasts, prayers, and emotional scenes as in the old days. Indeed, his preaching during the whole winter was marked by uncommon zeal. He frequently spoke, both in his sermons and exhortations, as if each time were to be his last, and often desired the people to receive what he announced as his "dying charge." When he was in Yarmouth at the end of 1790, George Crabbe was among the congregation, and heard the old man quote Anacreon from the pulpit:—
Oft am I by women told,
Poor Anacreon! thou grow'st old;
See, thine hairs are falling all,
Poor Anacreon! How they fall!
Whether I grow old or no,
By these signs I do not know;
But this I need not to be told,
'Tis time to live if I grow old—
He gave these lines cheerfully and with a beautiful cadence, although so feeble that the young ministers had to assist him in and out of the pulpit. John Wesley had almost outlived his epoch; across the Channel were taking place events that held the germ of extraordinary changes in thought, in politics, in the whole economy of Europe.
In the back bedroom in the City Road house, all about him neat and shining, polished furniture, clean linen, glittering china, John Wesley awaited his end with confidence—that vast and golden love-feast where he would meet again all those whom he had cherished on earth. He was weakening almost daily. He allowed himself an occasional cup of tea, and even a little claret, which had been ordered him by his doctor.
The old man continued to write, not only long letters dealing with a complication of subjects, but articles for his magazine. In one of these he said:—
I never had any design of separating from the Church; I have no such design now. I do not believe Methodists in general desire it, when I am no more seen. I declare once more that I live and die a member of the Church of England, and that none who regard my judgment or advice can ever separate from it.
He saw, too, what was likely to happen to his work when he was withdrawn from it, the creature without the creator:—
The danger of ruin to Methodism does not lie here. It springs from quite a different quarter. Our preachers, many of them, have fallen. They are not spiritual, they are not alive to God. They are first enervated, fearful of shame, toil, hardship. Give me but one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin, and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergymen or laymen, such alone will shake the gates of Hell, and set up the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth.
One of his last and most forceful sermons quoted the lines:—
I give up every plea beside,
Lord, I am damned, but Thou hast died.
All his affairs were in exquisite order; he had done the utmost for his creation; the Conference of 1790 had settled, as far as was possible, the future of Methodism; he had laid down rules for the preachers and for the building of chapels—all were to be on the model of those in the City Road and in Bath—and there were other regulations whereby the old man strove to leave intact the work that he had hardly allowed another to touch.
In February, 1791, he wished to take his usual annual journey to the north of Ireland, but the plans had to be postponed because of his feebleness; yet he was able to go out to Twickenham to dine, to Leatherhead to preach, and he found the vigour to write a warm letter of congratulation to Wilberforce, who had brought before Parliament the question of the abolition of slavery, which Wesley termed "an execrable villainy to the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature."
Immediately after sending this letter—his last—his feebleness increased, and his devoted friend, Joseph Bradford, sent letters to the preachers asking for their prayers: "Mr. Wesley is very ill. Pray, pray, pray."
The death of John Wesley could not have been other than it was; his last thoughts were entirely occupied with the subject that had possessed him for eighty years. How could any novelty of outlook or expression be introduced now? The faithful friends, who gathered round his modest, clean bed, were delighted to hear the old man's incoherent mutterings, scraps of hymns, his wish to write down "God is with us," his attempt to get up, and to say "Lord, Thou gayest strength to those that can speak and to those that cannot."
These anxious yet exultant watchers marked that in his wanderings he was always preaching or meeting classes. How should he have any other hallucination? These were almost all his experiences.
Propped up on the cool white pillows, he began to sing for the last time his brother's hymns, while his sister-in-law and his niece and other women prayed in the dark little room. He refused to lie down, and his friends helped him to rise, putting his black clothes on for him while he sang: "I'll praise my Maker while I've breath." Seated in his chair he muttered: "Now we have done. Let us all go." Waking after a sleep, he expressed his wishes to be buried in woollens and that his body should be carried in his coffin to the chapel.
He was still concerned about practical affairs, the keys of his bureau: "I would have all things ready for my executors." He saw no angels, he was not surrounded with visions, all was cool, deliberate; he was not alarmed when his sight failed so that he could not recognize anyone; his brother's hymns trickled from his sunken mouth; Mr. Broadbent prayed that God would bless Methodism; John was helped back to bed, and shook hands with his friends; he muttered something that they could not understand, he repeated in a strong, loud tone: "The best of all is, God is with us!"
His God would not forsake him, since He was John's own creation, clutched like a treasure in the hand, cherished like love in the heart. A friend put a sponge to his parched lips and he whispered: "It will not do, we must take the consequence, never mind the poor carcase."
The doctor, his sister-in-law, and his niece watched through the night with him; scraps of prayer and praise fell from him; by the morning there were eleven people, including a child, crowded into the death chamber. Joseph Bradford, who had long been the old man's loyal friend, prayed as the colourless March light fell on the dark and spotless bed where John Wesley lay, as neat, as pale, as serene, as if already folded in his shroud. "Farewell!" he said suddenly, and as Bradford hushed his own voice, rose and peered, he saw that John Wesley was dead. It was ten o'clock on Wednesday, March 2, 1791; and John was in his eighty-ninth year.
Bradford gave a signal; the watchers rose with a rustling movement like a sigh and began to sing the soothing melody:—
Waiting to receive Thy spirit,
Lo! The Saviour stands above;
Shows the purchase of His merit,
Reaches out the crown of love.
John Wesley had left no trouble for anyone to take on his behalf; the spot was ready, behind his chapel, where he wished his frail bones to lie. March 9 was fixed for his funeral, but such a vast crowd promised to attend that it was thought advisable to have only a few personal friends present. He was buried at five o'clock on a dull stormy morning, when it was scarcely light, but even so, hundreds pressed in the burial-ground already rank with the bodies of the saved. Each of these mourners had a curious memorial—a wafer in an envelope, on which was impressed a likeness to John Wesley, wearing his canonicals, adorned with a halo and a crown, both of which he might be supposed to be now wearing. Soon after the grave was opened to receive the body of Patty, widow of Westley Hall, the last survivor of the family of Susanna and Samuel Wesley of Epworth Rectory.
Few men had been more completely successful in what they had undertaken than was John Wesley. To making Methodism he devoted all his uncommon abilities, his inexhaustible physical energy, his cheerfulness; to this he gave the great driving power of his narrow-minded intolerance, the force of his obsession with the God of his choice. Even his own inconsistencies, which he was probably unaware of himself, helped him in his labours; how convenient for Methodism that John Wesley was able, on the one hand, to believe in such as Margaret Barlow, and, on the other, to disbelieve in the fairy stories of Ariosto! What a power there was in a doctrine that allowed him, on the one hand, to employ the full forces of emotionalism, to provoke people into incoherent hysterical ravings and lunatic action, and yet, on the other hand, to call all these same people to answer for their smallest actions in the name of method, reason, law, and order. With these two weapons—emotional appeal and method—John Wesley ruled for at least fifty years almost half the population of England, for many fell under his influence who did not definitely enrol themselves as his followers. This was a proud achievement for the son of the Epworth Rectory. He might well flatter himself that he was a brand plucked from the burning to do God's work, or rather to do John Wesley's work, for he had truly created a God in his own image, in much the same way as the primitive man who raises up a roughly-hewn stone as fetish attempts to copy his own humanity. This God was a counterpart of John Wesley himself, had all his own virtues and all his own faults, and in serving this God John Wesley was serving himself. His highest ideals, his worldly arrogance and pride, his credulity, his intelligence that he tried to stifle but that now and then broke its bonds and spoke clearly, little virtues like neatness and large virtues like magnanimity, his great faults like intolerance, little faults like jealousy—all these, compounded out of his own heart and brain, made the God whom John Wesley so dutifully served "the inward witness" who was with him to the end. Jacob had wrestled, had prayed, and had obtained his blessing.
John Wesley born, 1703
Sacheverell Riots, 1710
John Wesley enters Charterhouse School, 1713
George I. 1714-1727
Rebellion in the North, 1715
John Wesley enters Christ Church, Oxford, 1720
South Sea Bubble, 1721
George II. 1727-1760
John Wesley ordained, 1725
John and Charles embark for Georgia, 1735
Porteous Riots, 1738
John returns to England 1738
John meets Peter Böhler, 1738
John is converted, visits Herrnhut, and preaches on
"Salvation by Faith ", 1738
War with Spain. Riots, 1739
Fetter Lane Society founded by Peter Böhler, 1739
Outbreaks of religious hysteria 1739
The Foundry bought, 1739
Lay reading begun, 1739
John Wesley's split with the Moravians, 1740
Separates from George Whitefield, 1742
Fall of Robert Walpole, 1742
Treaty of Worms, 1743
Battle of Dettingen, 1743
Silesian War, 1744
First Methodist Conference, 1744
Jacobite Rebellion. Culloden, 1746
Kingswood School opened, 1748
Marriage of Charles Wesley, 1749
Marriage of John Wesley, 1751
Moravians recognized as a Church by Act of Parliament, 1751
Anti-Jew and Change of Calendar Riots, 1752
Charles settles at Bristol, 1757
John's wife leaves him, 1757
Samuel Foote's attack on Methodism, 1760
William Hogarth's satire on Methodism, 1760
George III. 1760-1820
First female Preacher, 1761
The elder Pitt dismissed from office, 1761
Trial of John Wilkes, 1763
Death of Peter Böhler, 1775
War with the American Colonies, 1775
Gordon Riots, 1780
Death of John's wife, 1781
John ordains Preachers, 1784
(Separation from the Church), 1784
Death of Charles Wesley, 1788
Meeting of the States-General, 1789
Death of John and Martha Wesley, 1791
Death of Lady Huntingdon, 1791
Dr. Priestley Riots, 1792
Execution of Louis XVI, 1793
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