It was a queer old house in which John Wesley was born. Its timber and plaster walls had stood up bravely through many a storm, and once, a few months before little Jackie arrived, it was almost burnt down—some sparks were blown into its straw thatch, and the flames spread quickly. The rector, Samuel Wesley, had been visiting someone who was ill, at the other end of the village. ‘As I was returning’, he says, ‘they brought me the news. I got a horse, rode up, and heard by the way that my wife, children, and books, were saved; for which God be praised, as well as for what He has taken.’
On June 28, 1703, little Jackie was born. The old rectory had been restored. It was built of timber and plaster, with a thatched roof, and seven main rooms, a kitchen, a hail, a parlour, and a buttery downstairs, and three large upper rooms besides the attics. There was a great barn, built of timber planks, and thatched, like the home, with straw, and most joyous of all, a dovecote, where even the children of Susanna learnt to play hide-and-seek.
In the little garden, with its wooden palings, at the south of the rectory, the eldest boy, Samuel, gathered round him his sisters, Emilia, Susanna, Mary, and Mehetabel, and told them the great news. He was thirteen years old, and all his sisters were younger. Little Anne was only a baby still. They were happy children though they lived Spartan lives.
In this quaint old house little Jackie grew up. When he was two years old his father was arrested and taken to Lincoln Castle to be imprisoned as a debtor. Samuel Wesley was a loyal little man, very fond of his children, very clever and very conscientious, but he could never keep out of debt.
His wife, Susanna, was the daughter of the Rev. Dr. Annesley. Her sister, Judith, whose portrait was painted by Sir Peter Lely, was a famous beauty, but one who knew both the girls said, ‘Beautiful as Miss Annesley appears, she was far from being as beautiful as Mrs. Wesley.’
Some people have thought she was harsh and did not understand the training of children. When we read of the rules and restrictions laid down for the family at Epworth we must judge them by the standards of the period. It is absurd to condemn Susanna, because she did not know the fuller and freer life of today.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries education was at a low ebb. The record reveals conditions which were tragic. Rich children were spoilt. Their schooling was perfunctory and undisciplined. The peasants were for the most part illiterate, save in villages where Dames’ schools afforded crude elementary teaching. The poor in the towns were chiefly concerned in securing a few pence from the labours of their children, who should have been at school.
Judging by the standards of today we should be shocked at many things that were commonplace when John Wesley was a child. Punishment was excessive and brutal. The public taste was not outraged by the sight of executions. In 1732, when William Hutton was ten years old, he watched the agonies of a woman fastened each day to the pillory and beaten through the streets with sadistic fury. One turns, with relief, from such a description to the comparatively gentle discipline of the Epworth rectory.
It is more accurate to say that Susanna Wesley was, in many ways ahead of her time. As late as 1864, the following advertisement appeared in The Times: ‘Boarding Schools Wanted, in London, for a boy nine years old, and two girls, six and seven years old, requiring firm discipline, having become wild and unruly, through neglect occasioned by family misfortunes. No holyday could be given, as holy-days destroy any good effected at school.’ It would have been more pleasant to sit with Sukey and Mehetabel, John, and Charles in the Epworth schoolroom, than to have been the three little victims for sacrifice in 1864.
In the eighteenth century the Wesley household was a pattern. Judged by modern standards we should call the habits of the people filthy and their appetites bestial. They fed like animals and became gross in body, as contemporary pictures bear witness. It is against such a background that one must look at the clean, but sparsely furnished house at Epworth. In the big room where the children sat six hours a day, the mental discipline was certainly severe, but it was a splendid contrast to the coarse illiteracy of contemporary life. Before one condemns Susanna, or passes airy and superficial judgement on her work, we might well remember at least one of her results. In speaking of this period, Elizabeth Godfrey says, ‘Wherever the preaching of John Wesley took root a Sunday School sprang up’. Those schools which taught general subjects as well as Scripture, were born in the Epworth rectory.
When one remembers that Rousseau would have disciplined a child who broke a window by forcing him to sit in the draught and catch cold, and that Mrs. Ruskin let John hold his finger against the hot bar of a grate to teach him not to play with fire—one questions whether Susanna Wesley was the harsh and soured martinet recent biographers have suggested.
It is true that to us, her rules and regulations seem a ‘grisly code’, but Walter de la Mare in considering it asks: ‘Is it conceivable that any child thus brought up would come to a bad end? Were these children utterly cowed and suppressed, sucked dry of will and initiative? If their heredity is given its due weight a plain answer to this question at any rate will be found in the Dictionary of National Biography. Charles Wesley wrote over six thousand hymns; his brother preached over forty thousand sermons. That hardly suggests a lack of will or initiative.’
Both the grandfathers of the children in the Epworth rectory had been clergymen of the Church of England, and had forfeited their churches because they refused to accept the ‘Act of Uniformity’. Susanna was determined that her children should be strong enough to obey the voice of conscience at all costs. They were happy enough, in spite of all the discipline. Indeed, according to Dr. Adam Clarke, ‘There were few misunderstandings amongst them, and no unbrotherly or vindictive passions: and they had the common fame of being the most loving family in the County of Lincoln’.
Every day they came in to dinner and sat at a little table, with their chairs close to their father and mother. They were allowed to eat as much as they would, but not to call for anything. They had to whisper respectfully to the maid who came and told Susanna. The servants were forbidden to do anything for the children unless they were asked politely. No orders were given by the children. When they were old enough to use a knife and fork properly they came to the big table. Their mother says, ‘Morning they always had spoon-meat; sometimes at night. But whatever they had, they were never permitted at those meals to eat more than one thing, and of that sparingly enough. Drinking or eating between meals was never allowed unless in case of sickness, which seldom happened’.
It was rather a severe life for a little boy, but it helped to make Jackie a strong man. He learnt to say the Lord’s Prayer in the morning and at bed-time, and as he grew older a little prayer for his parents was added. Family prayers were taken morning and evening. One can picture the seven little children of whom Jackie, or John Benjamin—to give him his proper name—was the youngest, sitting – solemnly, listening to their father as he read the portion for the day.
The night before his sixth birthday, Jackie wondered what all the commotion was about. The house was set specially in order because another child was going to begin his schooling. It was a rule in the Epworth rectory that none of the children should learn to read until they were five. There is rather an interesting reason for that. Samuel was the eldest child, and he did not learn to speak until he was nearly five years old. He used to wander about the rooms of the rambling old house, carrying under his arm a favourite cat, and sometimes hiding away with it. One day he could not be found anywhere. His mother went through all the rooms, calling his name. Presently she heard a voice from under the table, ‘Here I am, mother’, and looking down, to her surprise, she saw Sammy sitting comfortably there with his cat. That was the first occasion on which any one had heard him speak. After that she taught him to read. Probably that is why she fixed that age for all the other children to begin to go to school.
The school itself was held in the rectory, and Mrs. Susanna Wesley was the teacher. First of all she taught the new child the letters of the alphabet—just one day was allowed for that. Afterwards he began to read, and each one began with the first chapter of Genesis. One can picture little Jackie, just after his sixth birthday, sitting solemnly on one of those special little chairs, trying to spell out the first verse of the first chapter of the first book in the Bible. That is really a landmark—’In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’. This was the first lesson he learnt in his mother’s school, and all his Life he was developing it.
It was not much wonder that John Wesley became known as a Methodist for as a little boy he learnt to do everything methodically. It seemed that the whole house at Epworth was governed by rule. Each day in the week Susanna had a special talk with one of her children. On Monday with Mollie, on Tuesday with Hettie, on Wednesday with Nancy, on Thursday with Jackie, on Friday with Patty, on Saturday with Charles, and with Emilia and Sukey on Sunday. It all sounds very stilted to us, but it worked out very well. Twenty years after he had left home John Wesley wrote to his mother, ‘If you can spare me only that part of Thursday evening which you formerly bestowed on me in another manner I doubt not it would be as useful now for correcting my heart as it was in forming my judgement’. Perhaps it is because of what she learnt on those Fridays that Patty or Martha grew up with an amazingly generous heart, so that her brother Charles once said, ‘It is in vain to give Pat anything for she always gives it away to some people poorer than herself.
Though there were so many rules, and so much strictness, Susanna was only anxious to teach the children to think for themselves. She wrote to Sukey in 1710, ‘The main thing which is now to be done is, to lay a good foundation, that you may act upon principles, and be always able to satisfy yourself, and give a good reason to others of the Faith that is in you—for any one who makes a profession of religion, only because it is the custom of the country in which they live or because their parents do so.. . will never be able to stand in the day of temptation’.
About eight months after he started school there was a sudden interruption. Everybody had gone to bed and the whole family were sound asleep at midnight. Suddenly old Samuel woke up with a start—some one was crying ‘Fire! fire!’ He leaped out of bed and rushed to the door to find the whole house full of smoke. Once again the thatched roof was burning, and was about to fall in. Quickly he wakened his wife and two of the girls. Susanna rushed to the door of the nursery where a maid was sleeping with the three other little girls and John, and Charles who was not quite two months old. The nurse leaped out of bed, taking little Charles in her arms and called to the others to follow. Three sisters ran out through the door and down through the smoke to the hail but little Jackie slept on.
Some got out through the windows, others by the garden door, and Mrs. Wesley, thinking all were safe, waded through the sea of fire to the safety of the open air. Outside the family was gathered together. Suddenly they realized that one was missing. Above the roar of the flames they thought they heard a little voice cry out. Old Samuel turned and made for the house. He tried to climb up the flaming staircase but it crashed beneath his feet. There was no way to that upper floor. He fell on his knees and besought God to save his child.
Upstairs little Jackie rubbed his eyes—they were smarting with the smoke, and the room was very bright. For a moment he thought morning had come. He peeped between the curtains about the window, and saw nothing but flames. He ran to the door and opened it. There was no way through which he could pass. At last he climbed up to the window-ledge, and suddenly the crowd saw him. There was no time to fetch a ladder—one of the villagers bent his back against the wall, another climbed up and clutched the ledge. With a struggle he managed to catch the little fellow as he knelt on the window-sill, and brought him down, safe and sound, just as the roof fell in.
Nobody knows the name of that man, but he gave a great gift to the world that night. When Jackie was grown to be a man he looked back and remembered, and saw himself, ‘a brand plucked from the burning!’
The east wind was blowing hard against the burning wood, there was little left of the rectory, but outside there, on the grass lawn, the rector knelt down with the crowd, and gave God thanks. ‘Come, neighbours’, said he, ‘let us kneel down, let us give thanks to God, He has given me all my eight children; let the house go, I am rich enough.’
So, in mid-winter, on February 9, 1709, Samuel Wesley found himself and his family without a roof to cover their heads. Friends took them in, and indeed they were not much poorer now than they had been before, except for one thing—they had lost confidence in their neighbours. The rector felt there was treachery in the air. Some of the people, he felt sure, had set the rectory on fire. The country round Epworth is called the Isle of Axholme. It was encircled by rivers and was neither fen nor marsh. Constant floods made farming difficult and uncertain. The people were irritable and hard pressed. They did not like the rector’s politics, and they detested his sermons which reproved them for their violence and ill-temper.
Once some of them gathered round the old rectory and kept up a hideous din all night long, banging tin cans and letting off guns. A little while after, three of Samuel’s cows were wounded, and his favourite dog was deliberately hurt. Evidently the fire was the work of these people but the rector did not give in. Putting his family in the homes of different friendly neighbours, he set to work to build his house again. The day after the fire he was poking about amongst the ashes and found two small pieces of paper, partly burnt. One of them was a leaf from his Bible, and on it he read, in Latin, ‘Sell all that thou hast, take up thy cross and follow Me’. The other had one of his hymns on it:
Behold the Saviour of mankind
Nailed to the shameful tree
How vast the love that Him inclined
To bleed and die for me!
The old man thanked God once again and took courage.
For a few months the children lived in other people’s houses, and their mother lost control of them. As soon as the new rectory was ready they came back, and immediately they settled down to live ‘by rule’ again.
So the days went on, and little Jackie grew brave and strong. His mother struggled grimly to feed and clothe her big family. Upstairs, in the back room which was his study, the old rector wrote hour after hour—always busy on what he dreamed would be his masterpiece. Often Hettie would sit on the back stairs to guard her father from interruptions. While the poet fought out ‘The Battle of Blenheim’ in ungainly metre, Jackie would steal past on tiptoe, hand in hand with Charles, the poet to be.
Meanwhile he had his own little battles to face. When he was eight years old he got small-pox. His father was away at the time, but Susanna wrote to him cheerfully and not a little proudly, ‘Jack has borne his disease bravely, like a man, and indeed, like a Christian, without complaint, though he seemed angry at the small-pox when they were sore, as we guessed by his looking sourly at them, for he never said anything’. That was the beginning of the courage which the Knight of the Burning Heart showed later when he faced fierce mobs or storms at sea, or the wilder storms within his own heart.
It was when he was eight years old that his father first allowed him to take the Sacrament of Holy Communion. This meant a great deal to him, for he had been instructed by Susanna and realized something of what it meant.
For five years John Wesley was taught by his mother in the little school within their home. Every day in the big room, the children worked from nine till twelve, and from two till five. They were never allowed to play in the street or to run wild. The rector grew flax and interested himself in the farming life of the people round about, and the children romped in the fields with the dogs and cattle.