We are continuing to explore the story of John Wesley and early Methodism. We learn about Methodist history not to relive the past, but to learn from it. The Holy Spirit moved powerfully through America and England in the time of the Wesleys, and we are wise to glean all we can from our vibrant history and tradition. To catch up on the series, check out Part 1 and Part 2.
We left the story of John Wesley as he and his brother Charles were about to depart for this new colony James Oglethorpe was developing called Georgia. On October 15, 1735, they set sail for America, part of a company of 80 English passengers. There were also 26 of a group of missionaries called Moravians, who had come from Germany. Most of the passengers would end up spending nearly 4 months on the ship to America.
Right away, John set himself to occupying every hour of the day with purposeful activity, as he wanted to be obedient to Ephesians 5:16 (in the KJV, “Redeeming the time, because the days are evil”). John, Charles, and a few of their companions would rise at 4am for an hour of private prayer before studying the bible together from 5 to 7. After breakfast, they would lead about 40 passengers in morning prayer. From 9 to 12, they would study Biblical Greek or German (to speak to the Moravians, presumably), write sermons, read a religious book, or teach the children. At noon they gave an account for how they had been spending their time. From after eating until 4 they would read and minister to others on the ship. At 4 was the public evening prayer. From 5 to 6 was private prayer again. From 6 to 7 was more reading to other passengers. From 7 to 8 was the Moravian service. At 8, the group met again to strengthen, encourage, and correct one another. At 9, it was time for bed. Don’t you get tired just thinking about it?
Just as Wesley’s zealous striving in his Oxford years had failed to produce in him an assurance of God’s acceptance, even amid all of this religious discipline, John was again finding that he was not truly at peace with God. One week in January, there were three violent storms that tested John’s faith. After the first two, he wrote that he felt he had no faith, because he was unwilling to die. This was not so with the Moravians, though. A third storm began one evening when John went to visit the Moravians for their evening service. As soon as the service began, powerful waves began to overtake the ship. Wesley describes the situation in his journal:
[The sea] split the mainsail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans looked up, and without intermission calmly sang on. I asked one of them afterwards, ‘[Weren’t you] afraid?’ He answered, ‘I thank God, no.’ I asked, ‘But were not your women and children afraid?’ He replied mildly, ‘No; our women and children are not afraid to die.’
Whoa. It’s not hard to imagine what a deep impression this had on John. It certainly would have made an impression on me! John and Charles would go on to have many meaningful encounters with the Moravians. The next one came soon after the ship reached the Savannah River in early February of 1736. John met a man by the name of August Spangenberg, who had previously led the first group of Moravians to Georgia. John assessed him to be a very faithful and earnest Christian, and so he asked for his council concerning his spiritual walk. Spangenberg asked him several questions. First, he asked “Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?” (phrasing Romans 8:16 as a question).
Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?
Wesley wrote, “I was surprised, and knew not what to answer.”
Spangenberg pressed on. “Do you know Jesus Christ?”
After pausing, Wesley said, “I know He is the Saviour of the world.”
“True,” Spangenberg replied, “but do you know He has saved you?”
“I hope He has died to save me,” Wesley responded.
“Do you know yourself?” Spangenberg pushed.
Wesley said, “I do,” but commented later that he feared these were “vain words.” John would continue to seek the wisdom and counsel of the Moravians as he carried out his ministry in Georgia, but their greatest impact on him would happen once he returned to England. (More on that next time. Read on if you’re interested in the drama that forced him back to England.)
Savannah Ministry and Wesley’s Romantic Drama
John’s ministry among the colonists in Savannah began on March 7, 1735. John wanted to minister among the American Indians, but both the parishioners and the colonial leaders did not want his evangelism efforts to leave the colonists without a minister. Wesley didn’t feel like ministry to the colonists was his core calling, but he tried to make the best of the situation. He organized the people into a “society”– a group that met weekly “in order to reprove, instruct, and exhort one another.” He also created a smaller group, not unlike the “Oxford Methodists” (Indeed he would later call his time in Georgia to be “the second rise of Methodism”). He began to visit all the homes of all his communicants (those who were regularly present for Holy Communion).
During this time, Oglethorpe, the colony’s founder, and Causton, the Chief Magistrate of Savannah, played matchmaker, setting Wesley up to fall in love with Causton’s niece, Sophy. Presumably if Wesley ‘married well,’ he would settle permanently in Georgia and prove useful to the colony leadership. John seems to have fallen head over heals in love with Sophy when they ended up on the same boat coming back to Savannah from nearby Fort Frederica, where Sophy had fled a previous suitor.
By the spring of 1737, John had nearly decided to marry Sophy. A spiritual retreat cooled his passions, and he resolved not to marry her until he had ministered among the Indians. He told her this, and so Sophy gave up marrying Wesley. She accepted an engagement to another man, leaving Wesley devastated, despite his lack of commitment to the relationship.
Once Sophy was married, things got very complicated. She (understandably!) began to distance herself from John. Problematically, however, those who wished to receive communion on Sunday needed to meet with the clergyman on Saturday. Sophy did not do this, and thus she was absent from communion for a period of time. Given her apparent lack of penitence, and presumably swayed by his broken heart, Wesley decided that it was his duty not to admit her to Communion. When Sophy offered herself at the Communion Table, Wesley refused her. This caused Sophy and her husband file a legal complaint against Wesley and demand 20 years worth of his wages in damages.
Wesley’s legal troubles spiraled out of control, owing in part to the fact that Sophy’s uncle was the chief magistrate and was able to throw his weight around. After months of legal battles, Wesley felt forced to flee for his life.
Wesley was a failed missionary and a failed minister. He boarded a ship for England defeated. He wrote aboard the ship, “I went to America, to convert the Indians; but oh, who shall convert me?”
God would do it, and God would do it soon. And that is the exciting topic for next time.
Questions for Reflection
- How do you think you would have spent your time if you had been on a 4 month journey from England to Georgia?
- Have you ever encountered people like the Moravians?
- Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?
- Have you ever had a period in your life that left you feeling like you had completely failed? How did God figure in to your response?