Strange Interlude

THE next ten years of John Wesley’s life were a strange mixture of romance, drudgery and stern self-discipline. In his quest he passed from the joyous circle of friends in Stanton Harcourt through the dismal servitude of Wroote, to the stress and strain of the Holy Club at Oxford. It was an amazing pilgrimage.

On an early spring day in 1725 two young men rode out from Oxford on their way to a rectory, set in a beautiful village, thirty-six miles away. The rector’s son, Robert Kirkham, was rather proud of his friend, and John Wesley, perhaps a little timidly, valued his friendship for his own sake but even more, for the sake of his family.

The merry circle of the Kirkhams was a welcome change from the remorseless studies at Oxford. No wonder that the vivacity of Sally, and the daring ridicule of Betty—Bob’s two sisters—shook the young don out of his natural solemnity. There were days of happy wandering over the Cotswolds, days of pleasant dalliance on the terrace at Stanton, days when the grim struggle to attain seemed unreal, almost unnecessary. It was not that John lost his sense of values, but that suddenly he entered a new, care-free company of normal people who were willing to be interested in the things that were dearest to him. It was Sally who introduced him to a book which made a deep impression on him, The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis. They discussed it together, for Sally was something of a theologian, but she was also a woman with bright eyes and a ready wit. Whilst Betty was amused at his solemnity, Sally had a mood which accepted it.

Recent research by Mrs. Elsie Harrison, seems to prove conclusively that it was Sally and not Betty who won Wesley’s heart. It was an idyllic friendship which, for a moment, seemed as though it would become more intimate.

There were others who visited the rectory at Stanton, and formed a little circle. From the neighbouring village of Buckland came Anne Granville and Mary, her sister, already a widow. They were descendants of the famous Sir Richard Grenville, and were ‘ladies of quality’. How could the young Oxford tutor withstand the charm of Mrs. Pendarves, whom Edmund Burke described as ‘the model of a perfect fine woman’, and whom all her friends had pitied when at the age of eighteen she had been married to a dissolute and gouty husband! Now she was a young widow, brilliant rather than tragic, polished and well-versed in a wisdom of which Wesley knew nothing.

It was a new world to him and he enjoyed it. The friends wrote to each other constantly, following the fashion of the day in using nicknames with a romantic and semi-classical sound. Sally was Sappho and sometimes Varanese, Mary Pendarves was Aspasia, John Wesley was Cyrus, and Charles when, later, he joined the group was Araspes. The correspondence was interesting but to a modem reader would seem utterly unreal and artificial.

How deeply John Wesley was affected by Varanese it is difficult to judge. Certainly he admired her and rejoiced in her friendship. Whether he would Like to have married her is a moot point. She settled the question, if question there were, by marrying the village schoolmaster, John Chapone. Recent writers have suggested that John Wesley was heartbroken, and that all the rest of his life, he was influenced by this disappointment. That is a purely speculative conclusion. It is certain that his friendship with Varanese and with Aspasia was a treasured memory. It is equally certain that it was an education. There is no evidence to suggest that the marriage of either of these ladies had any tragic significance for John Wesley. His association with them was an innocent and beneficial experience, but it was neither a lifelong obsession nor the occasion of an act of desperate renunciation.

They were happy days, these, in the Cotswolds. Perhaps they tided him over the period of stark struggle through which he had to pass. No one who appreciates the value of evidence could describe them in the language of vulgar intrigue or amorous adventure.

In August 1727, he left Oxford to help his father who was sixty-five and in indifferent health. In addition to Epworth, Samuel Wesley was responsible for the neighbouring parish of Wroote, and his son now relieved him of this charge.

It was a sudden change from the comparative comfort of his rooms at Lincoln College to the dismal house in the little village in the Isle of Axholme. ‘It was a poor place surrounded with bogs,’ he said. The old parsonage was ‘roofed with thatch and made lively by the mingled music of kittens and whelps, pigs and porkets, bellowing kine and bleating lambs, quacking ducks and fluttering hens’. For a great part of the year it was isolated by flood-water, and the parishioners were compelled to journey by boat.

It was a dreary picture of village life, but it is only fair to compare it with eighteenth-century conditions in Europe at large. The peasant on the Continent fared worse than his English neighbour. He was little better than a serf still. The princelings looked upon their subjects as useful for beaters in the hunting season, for lackeys in their stables and palaces, or for soldiers in the ambitious games of statecraft. They sometimes as Thackeray said ‘swapped a battalion to buy a necklace for a pretty dancer’.

Whilst the villagers were ignorant and crude in their habits, they were free to choose their occupations and to win a livelihood from the soil. Life was hard enough, and their outlook was limited, but the squire was little better off. He lived in his uncomfortable mansion, with little thought of occupying his mind with anything beyond fox-hunting, visits to the tavern, and a certain set attitude towards all innovation. He made, once in a while, a journey to town. His portrait was painted in coat and waistcoat which his father had worn before him, and as he adopted his father’s clothes so he held tenaciously to his father’s policies. The portrait in the Tatler describes him, mounted on a stout cob, followed by his favourite spaniel—’a good dog, sir—always bites Dissenters’. ‘Weather, sir, what weather we’ve had since the Whigs came into power!’ Dear old Tory, fox-hunting  squire, growing up on his little patch of ground with the vegetables, and like them rotting in decay on the same little patch. He knew no better, nor was he likely to learn until a prophet arose in the land. Sunday by Sunday he slept peacefully in his great square pew, while the parson droned his platitudes.

If the squire was dull the rest of the parishioners were duller. In Wroote, according to Hettie Wesley, ‘the people were unpolished wights, their heads as impervious as stones’. They needed a message which would reach their hearts. For more than two years John Wesley remained amongst them. He does not seem to have had much success in his ministry. He himself wrote of it, ‘I preached much, but saw no fruit of my labour. Indeed, it could not be that I should; for I neither laid the foundation of repentance, nor of believing the gospel’. Week after week he preached in the little brick church, but his sermons did not do much to change the people of Wroote. There was something obviously missing. He was discouraged and uneasy. Clouds were gathering at Epworth, where his sister had met with misfortune. There seemed no clear call to him. He buried himself in his books.

Once he considered the prospect of securing a post as schoolmaster in Yorkshire, hoping that he might live in seclusion and continue his study of the mystics. His mother strongly opposed the suggestion, but it was not Susanna who finally dissuaded him. In the North he met ‘a serious man’ whose advice made a permanent impression upon him. ‘Sir,’ said he, ‘you wish to serve God and go to heaven; remember you cannot serve Him alone; you must, therefore, find companions or make them; the Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.’ It was a severe rebuff to the curate of Wroote. Once more it was unpleasantly plain that he was lacking in the qualities of a Christian minister. Canon Overton describes him as being at this time ‘simply a highand-dry Churchman of the old school’.

In 1728 he had been ordained priest by Bishop Potter at Oxford, but had returned again to Wroote where he remained till November 1729. A letter from Dr. Morley, Rector of Lincoln College, recalled him to take up his duties as a junior Fellow again. He left the pitiful little parish, where he had failed so lamentably, and came back to Oxford to find that something had happened which vitally affected him.

His brother Charles, four years younger than John, had gone to Westminster School at the age of eight. Fortunately brother Samuel was a master there, and more fortunate still, he had married the daughter of the Rev. John Berry who kept a house for boarders at Westminster. When he was fourteen Charles was elected a King’s Scholar, and four years later became Captain of the school.

We can catch a glimpse or two of him through the years. Every morning he rises at a quarter past five, washes in the cloisters, joins in the Latin prayers, and proceeds to ‘do his Latin grammar’ till breakfast-time, at eight o’clock. Lessons continue till noon; then comes dinner. Two hours more of lessons are followed by a short interval, then still more lessons till supper, and at eight o’clock he goes to bed. Monitors take care that he speaks Latin all the time. It is not an easy day; even the rigours of the school at the Epworth rectory seem less demanding.

Once he had a never-to-be-forgotten fight. Little James Murray was surrounded by a crowd of bigger boys. ‘Jacobite! Jacobite!’ they shouted as they pounded him with their fists. A trim figure burst through the ring, smiting right and left. The suddenness of the onslaught scattered the bullies and young Murray was rescued. Long years afterwards two old men met—Charles Wesley and James Murray who had become the famous Lord Mansfield. They remembered the hour of deliverance and chuckled.

Just before he left Westminster, Charles had to make a momentous decision. A distant relative, Garrett Wesley, had written from Ireland to the Rector of Epworth offering to adopt Charles and make him his heir. The youth wrote to his father for advice, but old Samuel sturdily refused to make the decision. So many writers have caricatured the Rector of Epworth, conveniently ignoring this and many another evidence of his good qualities. The ‘Quilp-like figure’ they have described would hardly have missed such an opportunity! It would have meant one less child to feed and a little more money for Samuel, ‘the spendthrift’. Such a picture does not fit this incident. Besides, something made Charles, himself, refuse the tempting offer. What was it? If it was, as seems most likely, the fact that he did not want to be separated from his family, it is a further criticism of recent pictures of the stem, almost inhuman relationships which are alleged to have existed in the Wesley family. Charles refused the fortune, preferring to remain the penniless son of a poverty-stricken country parson and his patient, strong-willed wife.

In 1726 he went up, with a scholarship, to Christ Church, Oxford. He was a bonny lad, not very tall but handsome enough. Almost immediately he was surrounded by friends. He was merry and enthusiastic. Life at Oxford, or indeed life anywhere, attracted him. One of his contemporaries, John Gambold, said, ‘He was a man made for friendship, who by his cheerfulness and vivacity would refresh his friend’s heart, with attentive consideration, would enter into and better all his concerns; so far as he was able would do everything for him, great or small’. What a success he would have been amongst the impulsive countryfolk who were Squire Garrett Wesley’s tenants in County Meath!

The prim little Fellow of Lincoln must have felt somewhat ruffled by the sudden visits of his brother. ‘He would burst in on John in his rooms at Lincoln, recite scraps of poetry, turn over the papers on his desk, peer among them with his near-sighted eyes for what he wanted, and pour out a stream of questions and remarks without waiting for the answers. He was orderly in nothing but his handwriting, which was exquisite.’ So writes his biographer. Miss Dora M. Jones.

It is the picture of a harum-scarum, in whom there is no vice and much attractive virtue. He respected and admired brother John. At Stanton Harcourt he was welcomed, but was a little subdued, perhaps because he was younger than the rest of the group of friends. He does not seem to have been worried by any thought of the quest on which his brother had set out. Life at Oxford was a great and happy adventure. Every day brought him some new enthusiasm, some new friendship. He accepted such gifts gladly but never selfishly.

Presently John left to take up his curacy at Wroote. What would happen next? Would Charles drift with the stream or was there some sterner stuff in him? The answer came most unexpectedly. Impetuous, careless, unmethodical Charles was face to face with a spiritual crisis. Even in these days, when emotions are analysed and classified with the utmost freedom and confidence, no one has ventured to trace the stages of the process. No one ever can! Suddenly —as though the Divine Love were impulsive too—Charles Wesley was smitten into a new sense of responsibility.

He had missed his brother greatly, and when he realized this strange crisis he wrote to him forthwith: ‘God has thought fit (it may be to increase my wariness) to deny me at present your company and assistance. It is through Him strengthening me I trust to maintain my ground till we meet. And I hope that neither before nor after that time I shall relapse into my former state of insensibility. It is through your means I firmly believe, that God will establish what He hath begun in me; and there is no other person I would so willingly have to be the instrument of good to me as you. It is owing in great measure to somebody’s prayers (my mother’s most likely) that I am come to think as I do, for I cannot myself tell how or when I awoke out of my lethargy, except that it was not long after you went away.’

There is no arrogance here, no trace of priggishness. He soon gathered his friends together to share his experience. It was partial, it is true, but it was definite. The friends began to attend Holy Communion regularly. The change was sudden and it could not pass unnoticed. The little group of men were dubbed ‘Sacramentarians’, then another word was revived and they were called ‘Methodists’. In one of his letters Charles explained that this was because they had ‘agreed together to observe with strict formality the method of study and practice laid down in the Statutes of the University’. They began to meet regularly for prayer and Bible-reading.

When John Wesley returned from Wroote he joined the little group. At once he was accepted as its leader. The meetings were held in his room at Lincoln College, on the first floor on the south of the quadrangle. They read their Greek Testament together; they were called Bible Moths! They began by meeting on Sunday evenings but soon they met every night from six to nine o’clock; they were called the Holy Club! They appeared to many to be self-righteous and spiritually arrogant, but they were in fact, sincere and eager to learn. It is true that they disciplined themselves rigorously, and were punctilious in outward observances, but it is not true to say that they were a handful of selfish young prigs. Amongst them were three respected tutors, and several who proved themselves, in widely differing spheres, men of strong character and nobility of soul.

One of the difficulties of understanding their attitude has been that modern critics have forgotten that the phraseology of the day sounds stilted and pompous two centuries later. They did not, claim that they had found what they sought; still less did they remain introspective and selfishly inactive.

They made some attempt to rediscover the practices of primitive Christianity. They were not altogether successful, nor, as some of them learnt later, would the discovery and practice have been the solution to their problems. At the same time it decided their habits. They rose early, spent certain definite hours in prayer, attended Holy Communion every week, repeated a Collect three times each day. They studied the Greek Testament methodically, and lived sparingly, devoting what they saved to charitable work. It is easy to be cynical and suggest that they were smugly anxious to save their own souls but that is not the whole truth.

One of the number, William Morgan, visited the Castle prison to minister to a man condemned to death for the murder of his wife. He brought back a terrible account of the conditions in which the prisoners lived. They were ignorant and hopeless; many of them were imprisoned for debt and were the victims of misfortune. The other members of the Holy Club went to see for themselves. They were dismayed at what they saw! At once they resolved to make regular visitations. It is unfair to suggest that they ‘were using the helpless prisoners as raw material on which to practise the zeal that was, they hoped, to save their own souls’. They brought books and medicine and clothes for the prisoners. They scraped together enough to pay the debts of some of them and so to set them free. They taught the illiterate to read—surely a priceless boon. They prayed with them, and celebrated Holy Communion in their midst. What more could they do? They had not yet learnt the secret of a radiant and personal Christian experience themselves, but what they had they gave freely. It is childish to suggest that the medicine was ‘compounded by ignorance’ and the books ‘dictated by superstition’. That is to assume either that the medicine and the books of today are perfect and final or to assert that they, also, should be withheld!

Regularly they visited the Bocardo, the debtors’ prison, over the north gate of the city. The debtors were a quarrelsome lot, but the Holy Club were not deterred.

In the prison at the Castle, where the criminals were, they seemed to succeed better. They melted the heart of a hardened old sheep-stealer. They encouraged one, Jempro, to read aloud to his fellow-prisoners. We cannot imagine the latter suffering it unless they had enjoyed it. They struggled to teach a horse-stealer to read. He was a slow scholar, but they persevered and taught him his letters. He was eager to learn, and one of them went ‘to hear his lesson’ three times a week.

They were only a handful of men, never more than twenty-seven, and sometimes only five in number, yet they excited the interest of the whole University. The Common Rooms discussed the situation. Many scoffed. Some criticized the austerities severely. A few were impressed. John Clayton, tutor of Brasenose, joined the little band. They extended their activities. Money was gathered from the scanty resources to start a school for the poorest children of Oxford. The children came ill clad and cold. As soon as it was possible the Holy Club bought them clothes.

The old rector watched the progress from afar. ‘Bear no more sail than is necessary, but steer steady,’ he wrote to John. Varying his metaphor a little he advised Charles, ‘You are now fairly launched. Hold up your head and swim like a man’. Brother Samuel wrote from Westminster when he heard of the charges brought against them, ‘The charge of enthusiasm can weigh with none, but such as drink away their senses, or never had any. For surely activity in social duties, and a strict attendance on the ordained means of grace, are the strongest guards imaginable against it’.

In spite of unceasing opposition, and many disappointments, the Holy Club persisted. Its members believed they were obeying the divine command and no ridicule or punishment could turn them back. They were rigid and formal in many of their beliefs and practices, but at least they tried to express such religion as they knew in service to the poor and the distressed.

Suddenly the little world of the Wesleys was changed. The old rector was dying and John went as often as he could, afoot or on horseback, to visit him. During these journeys he learnt to read whilst riding, and he kept up the habit for more than forty years.

In 1735 the old man finished his masterpiece on Job, and lay down to die. His son John was thirty-two years old, and to him he committed the volume of six hundred pages to be taken to London to the Queen. This done, he sank to rest, almost content. No more worrying about debts! No more facing angry parishioners! All his little books were finished. The Book of Life was opened. A very gallant little gentleman passed on.