City of Dreaming Spires

WHEN gown-boys left Charterhouse they received £100 if they decided to go into business, but if they went to the University they were given £40 a year for three years, and £100 for the fourth year. There was no hesitation as to which of the two courses young Jack Wesley should take, and so he was entered at Christ Church, Oxford, on June 24, 1720.

He was seventeen, the age of dreams, and the coach was carrying him to Oxford, a city of dreams. The horses galloped down the High Street to the old Mitre Inn; he had arrived at a new beginning. The road was still paved with cobble-stones, heaps of rubbish lay round about, but the boy with perhaps the sharpest eyes in the world, looked down the street, and saw the dreaming spires and the challenging towers of Oxford. He was a lucky fellow. His father had been a student at Exeter College, very poor but very happy. His brother Samuel was also an Oxford man, That night, when he settled down, feeling a little lonely in his room at Christ Church, his dream of what might be, mounted up to the heavens like the spires and the towers about him.

He decided to keep a diary, and its rather browned pages still tell us of his life as an undergraduate. The little book, with its marble-cardboard cover, is a revelation of his life from the age of seventeen to twenty-two.

It was not very easy for him to live on the little money he had. His father and mother made heroic efforts to send him some from time to time, but there were all sorts of expenses—shoe-leather, sugar for his tea, and the hire of a horse to go and see his friends, the Kirkhams, over the Cotswolds. There was the expense of paying for a window he had broken, the need for money to buy books and to ensure a very meagre allowance for clothes. All these things threatened to force him into debt. As he struggled to make both ends meet his mother tried to help him, ‘Dear Jack, Be not discouraged; do your duty; keep close to your studies, and hope for better days. Perhaps, notwithstanding all, we shall pick up a few crumbs for you before the end of the year. Dear Jackie, I beseech Almighty God to bless you’. They were struggling against a bad harvest, a reduced income and the-ravages of small-pox in the rectory at Epworth.

Meanwhile Jackie kept them posted with the news. ‘We are most of us now very healthy at Oxford, which may be in some measure owing to the frosty weather we have had lately. Fruit is so very cheap that apples may be had almost for the fetching; and other things are both plentiful and good. We have indeed, something bad as well as good, for a great many rogues are about the town, in so much that it is exceedingly unsafe to be out late at night. . . . The chief piece of news with us is concerning the famous Jack Sheppard’s escape from Newgate, which is indeed as surprising as most Stories I have heard.’ The rest of the letter tells about his reading a book on health which prescribes a special diet for students, about his having a bad cut on his thumb which was now nearly cured, about his writing to his sisters, and his desire for news from Epworth. The letter ends, ‘The scantiness of my paper obliges me to conclude with begging yours and my father’s blessing on your dutiful son, John Wesley’.

For five years the undergraduate worked very hard eking out his scanty allowance as best he could. His mother wrote to him, ‘I wish you would save all the money you can conveniently spare, not to spend on a visit, but for a wiser and better purpose—to pay debts, and make yourself easy’.

In the rectory, though there was never any money to spare, Samuel Wesley, proud of his boys at Oxford, struggled to send them a little money now and then. ‘Since you have now for some time bit upon the bridle’, he writes, ‘I will take care hereafter to put a little honey upon it, as oft as I am able; but then it shall be of my own mere motion, as the last five pounds was, for I will bear no rival in my kingdom. Your affectionate father, Samuel Wesley.’

Meanwhile John was quite natural in his social relationships. He had a few friends but he did not waste time with mere acquaintances. The Knight was on his quest. He scarcely knew what he was seeking, but he struggled towards a dim goal, and the first thing was to fit his mind for the journey. He rode a little and walked a good deal, played tennis and other games, but the question of money was always worrying him. There were hundreds of other students at Oxford and most of them were well-to-do. They dressed smartly and drank deeply, but John Wesley struggled on, and tried to pay his way. His mother wrote asking him to go to the barber and have his hair cut because she thought it would improve his health! He was determined, as he wrote, that unless his health was really bad he would not spend two or three pounds a year on the barber. Behind him there always seemed to be this spectre of poverty.

Life at the University was notoriously shallow. Students who studied were in the minority. Degrees were given almost solely for residence. Only the determined few attained that culture which is the reward of self-discipline and ordered thought.

John was very dissatisfied with himself during the first few years. He still said his prayers and read his Bible, but he was uneasy. Something was missing. He had no joyous sense of pleasing God. Things that other people would not have noticed seemed to make a deep impression on him. One night, for instance, when he was feeling particularly happy the old porter came to his rooms to speak to him. ‘Go home and get another coat,’ said John, as he looked at the old one the man was wearing. ‘This is the only coat I have in the world and I thank God for it,’ said the man. ‘Go home and get your supper then,’ said Wesley. ‘I’ve had nothing today but a drink of water, and I thank God for that,’ the man replied. ‘It is late,’ said Wesley, and you’ll be locked out, then what will you have to thank God for?’ ‘I will thank Him that I have the dry stones to lie on,’ said the porter. ‘John,’ said Wesley, ‘you thank God when you have nothing to wear, nothing to eat, no bed to lie upon; what else do you thank Him for?’ ‘Well,’ said the porter, ‘I thank Him that He has given me my life and being, a heart to love Him, and a desire to serve Him.’ The smile faded from Wesley’s face —it was not a joke any more. Somewhere in the man’s heart was something that he himself did not possess. He wondered what it was; he longed to find out. The Knight was beginning his quest.

In 1725 he read two books, one by Thomas a Kempis called The Imitation of Christ, the other by Jeremy Taylor, called Holy Living and Holy Dying. These books made a great impression on him. He did not agree with them. No undergraduate agrees with any book! But he wrote home to his mother, Susanna, and asked her what she thought about his problem. She answered him at length. It was not a very good answer really, and he was not satisfied.

About the beginning of the year, after he had been four years at Christ Church, he wrote to his parents and told them he wanted to become a Christian minister. They were surprised, but after three weeks his father wrote, giving him his blessing. In due course he was ordained a deacon by Bishop Potter. The entry in his little diary reads, ‘On September 19, 1725, I was ordained Deacon by the Bishop of Oxford. Afternoon: Walked in Trinity Gardens….’

He preached his first sermon at South Leigh, a little village near Witney, in January 1726. Two months later his father was delighted because he was elected Fellow of Lincoln College. The old man had scarcely a penny left, but what did money matter? He wrote, ‘What will be my fate, God only knows. Wherever I am, my Jack is Fellow of Lincoln’. The fact that he had this Fellowship meant that John would receive a sum of money each year which lightened one of his burdens considerably.

He was now working very hard. ‘Leisure and I have parted company’, he said. It was a final farewell for one can never imagine him at leisure again. He was made Greek Lecturer and Moderator of the Classics, which meant that he presided at the debates which were held every day in Lincoln College.

When Samuel, his elder brother, came up to visit John and Charles, who was now at Oxford too, he was evidently anxious for he wrote a poem:

One or two questions more before I end,

That doth much concern a brother and a friend,

Does John seem bent beyond his strength to go,

To his frail carcass literally so?

Lavish of health, as if in haste to die,

And shorten time, to ensure Eternity?