THERE were several reasons why the mobs began to treat John Wesley roughly. The people did not understand what he was seeking for them or what he had found himself. Opposition sprang up in town and country.
Sometimes it was the result of an alliance between the local parson and the squire, both of whom imagined that the Methodists were ‘levellers’. As the Duchess of Buckingham wrote to the Countess of Huntingdon, ‘It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth. This is highly offensive and insulting; and I cannot but wonder that your Ladyship should relish any sentiment so much at variance with high life and good breeding’.
At other times it was stupidly rumoured that Wesley was a supporter of the Young Pretender, and therefore a Roman Catholic and a friend of the French. The mob was not slow to seize upon him as a spy and to discover a new sport in baiting the Methodists.
There were, however, a few who felt a real concern about the heretics and enthusiasts who were disturbing the normal course of their religious life. To some sincere clergy John Wesley appeared to be a rebel preacher, who treated things that were important to them with no respect at all. He, himself, had found it most difficult, at first, to recognize the functions tf the lay-preachers, and when he accepted laymen as co-workers in the preaching of the Gospel, they were shocked and enraged.
Bull-baiting was a favourite sport and the mob suddenly discovered a pleasant variation. They would plague the bull till he turned upon the Methodists.
So it happened one day as John rode into Pensford he dismounted by the village green and began to preach. Scarcely had he begun, when a mob, paid for its pains, came charging down on him. They were driving a bull, already maddened by fierce blows and the hideous din, goading it on till they steered it towards the preacher. But the beast was wiser than its drivers: time and time again it swerved to right or left of the little man who stood bareheaded, singing a hymn and sometimes praying quietly. A group of people who had invited him to come, stood round him—afraid but very steady!
The mob was exasperated. The bull was tired. A dozen dogs snapped at its heels, a score of boys prodded it with sharp sticks. The rabble thrust at it, urging it towards the wooden table on which the preacher stood. He did not flinch. The beast was very near. He reached down his hand, and turned the shaggy, blood-stained head aside. The poor brute passed by, but the mob, roaring in vexation, surged towards the little table. Just as it toppled over, the faithful body-guard bore John Wesley away on their shoulders.
For a moment or two the rabble spent its rage on smashing the table to bits; then they turned to find the preacher. He was standing, close by, finishing his sermon. Like whipped dogs they slunk away a little distance, then sat down to listen!
It did not always end like that. One Sunday, later in the same year, John walked out to preach on Coverlet Fields, near Whitechapel Road. Thousands of people came to hear him. Most of them listened eagerly, but a few hooligans rounded up a herd of cows, and tried to drive them into the crowd. The cattle were obstinate and ran away. Sport was being spoiled. The disappointed men seized stones and hurled them at the preacher. They roared with delight as he was hit, but suddenly fell silent. He was badly cut. ‘One of the stones struck me just between the eyes: but I felt no pain at all; and, when I wiped away the blood, went on testifying with a loud voice that God had given to them that believed not the spirit of fear but of power, and of love, and of sound mind. And, by the spirit which now appears to the whole congregation I plainly saw what a blessing it is when it is given us even in the lowest degree to suffer for His Name’s sake.’ There is no word of complaint in his description. He rather pities the people who were tormenting him.
Persecution did not dismay him. His tormentors were more troubled than he. Sometimes they amused him, sometimes they forced him to righteous indignation, but they never made him surrender.
Once, at Bedford, two or three men continued to interrupt his sermon by shouting. One of them had filled his pockets with rotten eggs to throw at the preacher. A friendly soul in the audience noticed it, stole up quietly behind the interrupter, clapped his hands on the bulging pockets and smashed the eggs. John Wesley wrote in his journal with boyish glee: ‘In an instant he was perfumed all over, though it was not so sweet as balsam.’
The most serious and, perhaps, most famous of the riots happened in 1743 in Staffordshire. The ancient footway ran across heath-covered commons honeycombed with rabbit warrens. Here, on holidays, great crowds assembled for the bull-baiting and the cock-fighting which was their chief amusement. The agricultural labourer, unable to read or write, toiled all day in the fields, ate frugal meals of rye bread and cheese, or potatoes, and in the evening sat somnolent or drunk in the village ale-house. The squire seldom travelled far afield, but lived and died in the parish where he was born, as illiterate as the peasants who tilled his fields. Bewigged, he rode out in his long coat with silver buttons to the tavern where he drank heavily, then mounted his horse to leap five-barred gates with the abandon of a schoolboy and a complete disregard for his standing corn. On Sundays he snored heavily in the dismal church, and coming home sat on an uncomfortable settle, drowsing.
In such a dull world the ‘cockings’ at Wednesbury or the bull-baiting at High Bullen were welcome interludes. No wonder that the baiting of the Methodists was popular. It was an extra holiday and cost nothing.
At first Wednesbury received the Methodist preachers kindly. Both Charles and John Wesley gathered numbers of the townspeople into ‘societies’. Then disaster came.
Tactless preachers arrived, and criticized the clergy. Feuds sprang up. The local vicar, originally friendly and helpful, was now indignant. The more unruly elements got out of hand, windows were smashed and houses raided. It was the first time the members of the little society had realized the price they might have to pay for their loyalty. They did not waver. Spasmodic outbursts were followed by more organized attacks. The vicar and some of the magistrates began to take a hand. A proclamation was issued. It was a pompous and ridiculous document: ‘Whereas we, his Majesty’s Justices of the Peace for the said County of Stafford, have received information that several disorderly persons, styling themselves Methodist Preachers, go about raising routs and riots, to the great damage of His Majesty’s people….’ The few scattered folk sat behind their broken windows, amidst the debris of their homes, and waited to be arrested for their ‘unlawful doings’.
Word was brought to John Wesley at Birmingham. Immediately he rode out to see for himself. On October 203 1743, he came to the town. At noon he dismounted in High Bullen, climbed a horseback, near the malthouse, and began to preach. ‘Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today, and for ever.’ He read the words from the little Bible and began to expound them. The crowd listened in silence; not a hand was raised nor a stone thrown. ‘The Lord fought for us, and we held our peace.’ A difficult beginning if Justices Lane and Persehouse are to impound him for ‘unlawful doings’.
In the afternoon he sat quietly writing at Francis Ward’s. Suddenly he heard shouting in the street. Through the window he saw a mob gathering outside the house. He laid down his pen, fell on his knees and ‘prayed that God would disperse them, and it was so. One went this way, and another that; so that in half an hour, not a man was left’. By five o’clock they had come back again. ‘Bring out the minister’, they cried. ‘We will have the minister.’ ‘Bring in your leader’ was Wesley’s answer. A great strapping fellow came noisily into the quiet room. John spoke to him for a minute or so, and the lion had become a lamb. ‘Go and bring some more of your friends to me—the angriest you can find.’ The man went obediently, and returned in a moment with two others ‘ready to swallow the ground with rage’. In two minutes they were as calm as their leader.
John got up and went out to the great crowd gathered in the street. ‘Bring me a chair’, he said. ‘Now, what do any of you want with me?’ ‘We want you to go with us to the Justice’, the shouted, expecting him to refuse. ‘That I will’, said John, ‘with all my heart.’ Before he got down from his chair, however, he spoke a few words ‘which God applied’. The crowd was astonished and impressed. ‘The gentleman is an honest gentleman’, they said, ‘and we spill our blood in his defence.’
‘Shall we go to the Justice tonight or in the morning?’ asked John as though it was a pleasure not to be deferred. ‘Tonight, tonight’, cried the mob accommodatingly.
Quite calmly he set off with two or three hundred following him.
They had gone no more than a mile when night fell, and with the darkness came a heavy storm of rain. The magistrate, Mr. Lane, lived at Bentley Hall, about two miles from Wednesbury. Some of the mob ran on ahead to tell him they were bringing the preacher. ‘What have I to do with Mr. Wesley?’ he shouted. ‘Go and carry him back again.’ The door slammed but in a few moments the whole crowd arrived, shouting and banging the gate. A servant came out to tell them Mr. Lane was in bed. They wouldn’t listen to him. The son of the magistrate appeared and asked them what was the matter. Some one shouted, ‘Why, an’t please you, they sing Psalms all day; ay, and make folks rise at five in the morning. And what would your Worship advise us to do?’ ‘Go home and be quiet,’ was the reply.
It rather staggered the mob. They would get no satisfaction from Mr. Lane, so they decided to go on to Justice Persehouse who lived at Walsall. When they got there the Justice sent word that he was in bed. They were nonplussed. What should they do next? Just as they had decided to take John back, a new mob coming from Walsall met them. In a moment there was a free fight. The newcomers were fresh and eager for ‘sport’. The rest ran away. Shouting and hustling they bore their prisoner back to town. Twice he tried to slip out of their hands, and find refuge in a house as they. passed. Once a man grabbed him by the hair and pulled him out of the doorway. Once the householder thrust him away, lest the mob pull his house about his ears. John stood fast on the threshold. ‘Are you willing to hear me speak?’ he shouted, but the mob screamed back, ‘no, no, knock his brains out; down with him; kill him at once’. A few answered them, ‘Nay, let’s hear him first’.
When they ceased to shout, being out of breath, John spoke very calmly. ‘What evil have I done? Which of you all have I wronged in word or deed?’ He tried to make them hear, but his voice broke under the strain. ‘Bring him away! Bring him away,’ howled the mob. His voice came back and he prayed aloud. Something happened—not to the mob but in the heart of their leader. He called to the little man praying on the doorstep. ‘Sir, I will spend my life for you: follow me, and not one soul here shall touch a hair of your head.’ The shopkeeper regained his courage and cried out, ‘Shame on you, let him go’. A butcher standing near took up the cry, and laying about him, stopped four or five who rushed fiercely towards Wesley. The people fell back. The leader and his companions closed round John and bore him safely through the crowd. They followed muttering and angry. On the bridge they grew more threatening, but the bodyguard clambered round the mill-dam, hurried through the meadows, and brought their man, by God’s help, safe to Wednesbury. He had lost nothing, save a flap of his waistcoat and a little skin from one of his hands.
It was a wonderful deliverance. When he got back to Francis Ward’s, he found many people praying for him. They welcomed him as one risen from the dead, and, indeed, he might have died that night. Once they had tried to trip him on the steep, slippery hill, but he kept his feet or he would surely have been kicked to death. Clutching
hands had striven to tear his clothes from his back, but they could not get a hold. One man had torn the flap of a pocket off but it was the wrong one. The only banknote he had was in the other pocket! Several times a man beat him with a great oak stick. ‘If he had struck me once on the back part of my head, it would have saved him all further trouble.’ Another came rushing at him, with arm raised to strike, but suddenly let drop his club and stroked John’s head, crying, ‘What soft hair he has!’
How did it all happen? It is a stark, straight story of an angry mob, incessantly on the move, on a dark wet night. One may hazard a guess at hypnotic influences when one thinks of a congregation gathered in a lighted hail, listening to an impassioned orator, but here are enraged people, out for sport, drenched with rain, baulked of their prey in the darkness. Here, too, is a prizefighter from the bear-garden, depending for his livelihood on providing the mob with sensation and rough horse-play suddenly snatching from his patrons the very thing he has set out to provide.
There is heroism in the happenings that night. All through the adventure a little group fought their way to his side whenever they could—William Fitch, Edward Slater, John Griffiths, and Joan Parks. Yet in the last issue it was no human hand which changed the heart of the grim old bruiser and his boon, companions so that they risked the vengeance of the rabble to deliver the man they had come to bait. In the darkness John had stumbled on beneath a shower of blows, his face and mouth battered and bleeding but feeling, as he says, ‘no more pain than if they had touched me with a straw’. There were more forces at work in the darkness than can be analysed in a laboratory or defined in a book! They were forces so wonderful that, as he looked on them, he said, ‘By how gentle degrees does God prepare us for His will!’
In the morning he got up, mounted his horse not stealthily but quite openly, and rode on his way to Nottingham. Every one he passed called out affectionately to him. In the afternoon Charles met him. ‘My brother came, delivered out of the mouth of the lion. He looked like a soldier of Christ; his clothes were torn to tatters. . . . But his work is not finished.’ He had come to Nottingham to preach the Gospel, not to mend his clothes or lick his wounds. The light of the next battle is already in his face.
Mobs are often more difficult to fight than armies. They have no tactics and are for ever doing the unexpected. He discovered one way of defeating them—he always looked a mob in the face. Time and again they came like a great wave rolling towards him, but he looked straight at them, spoke quietly, and presently the wave rolled back. Sometimes individuals, spurred on by the fury of the mob, or by the hope of reward or favour from the local clergyman or squire, came to arrest him. Almost always they went away without him, muttering some paltry excuse.
In 1745, when all England was agog because of the rumoured coming of the Pretender, gossip had it that John Wesley was a Jacobite, if not a Jesuit. The press-gang was busily recruiting men, and it was easy to use its powers to remove undesirables from a district and to press them into His Majesty’s Navy. More than one attempt was made to get rid of Wesley and his preachers by this method.
In midsummer he rode west, coming presently to the great pit at Gwennap. In the amphitheatre the crowd was just settling down on the grassy banks to listen to him, when two horsemen came riding furiously, followed by a posse of men. They spurred their horses into the crowd to seize such likely fellows as might be there, fit for the King’s ships. The people began to sing a hymn, perhaps a little defiantly. The horsemen were exasperated. One of them, Francis Beauchamp, afterwards Sheriff of Cornwall, looked at Wesley and shouted, ‘Seize him, seize him! I say seize the preacher for His Majesty’s service!’ Not a man stirred. Beside himself with rage, he struck wildly at his servants, cursing them the while. Still no one moved to do his bidding. He leaped from his horse, snatched at Wesley’s cassock, and cried out, ‘I take you to serve His Majesty’. Without a word of protest John Wesley turned and went with him.
This was not quite-what Mr. Beauchamp had expected.
‘But, sir, is it not better for you to hide yourself?’ she asked, and pointed to a cupboard.
‘No, it is best for me to stand just where I am,’ he answered.
The fury of the crowd increased. Sailors, from the privateers just come into harbour, pushed their way through, determined to see the fun. They set their shoulders to the door, crying, ‘Avast, lads, avast’. The hinges groaned, and the door fell with a crash.
Before the sailors could regain their balance John stepped into their midst. ‘Here I am,’ he answered sharply. ‘Which of you has anything to say to me? To which of you have I done any wrong? To you, or to you, or you?’ They fell back, like schoolboys, shamefaced. And so he came through the midst, bareheaded, into the street.
The crowd gaped. He raised his voice and said loudly, ‘Neighbours, countrymen, do you desire to hear me speak?’ In a moment the crowd swayed. ‘Yes, yes, he shall speak, he shall, nobody shall hinder him.’ He looked round for a chair or a stool on which he might stand. The crowd hemmed him in. He raised his voice, and shouted. As far as the sound carried, the people were hushed and still. Some of the leaders swore not a man should touch him. A clergyman and two or three other gentlemen surrounded him, and he walked with them to the house of Mrs. Maddern. The crowd had followed, and now stood sullenly before the door.
He would like to have mounted his horse and ridden off, but his friends feared for his life. They led him through the house to the back entrance, across the little garden, beyond the gate to the edge of the sea. In a moment they had bundled him into a boat and were rowing him to Penryn. The mob saw they had been cheated, and ran cursing and threatening along the shore. When the boat reached the landing-place, John clambered out, strode up the steep, narrow passage from the sea, and walked calmly through the waiting crowd. The leader stepped towards him. He looked him straight in the face and said, ‘I wish you a good night’. The man did not speak; he stood motionless. No rapier could have transfixed him so completely. As he waited, silently staring, John walked towards the horse that had been brought, put his foot in the stirrup, mounted and rode away. ‘I wish you a good night.’ The words had only slowly reached the man’s brain. Suddenly he began to curse, but the only answer was the clatter of hoofs in the distance.
So through the years of persecution, the Knight of the Burning Heart rode without fear and without serious hurt. Even the armour of an Achilles or a Lancelot was not invulnerable, but John Wesley, with his old riding coat and the little Bible, rode safely clad in armour not made with hands, which no weapon forged on earth could pierce.
Often, in the heat of attack, men saw how stupid their anger had been. Turning, they faced the mob which, the moment before, they had been urging to the attack. Many a day a leader became his bodyguard.
His own reaction to this time of stress is faithfully recorded in the 7ournal. His comments are always full of gratitude to God for his deliverance. There is never any arrogance, and seldom any criticism of the sheep who posed as wolves! It was a triumphal progress—not of John Wesley but of his Master. After the riot at Falmouth he wrote: ‘Though the hands of perhaps some hundreds of people were lifted up to strike or throw, they were one and all stopped in the mid-way, so that not a man touched me with one of his fingers. Neither was anything thrown from first to last, so that I had not even a speck of dust on my clothes.’
The years rolled on. He was white-haired, shrunken in body a little, but brave as a lion still. He rode into Falmouth forty years after the riot, and said, ‘The last time I was here I was taken prisoner by an immense mob, groping and roaring like lions. But how is the tide turned! High and low now lined the streets from one end of the town to the other, out of stark love and kindness, gaping and staring as if the King were going by’. And so the King was, in the heart of His servant John Wesley.