John Wesley: The World His Parish

Chapter 1
Given Up for Dead

John Wesley was five years old when his life was totally altered by some sparks on a thatched roof. Until this time John’s life—and the lives of his six sisters and two brothers—had been lived in a wholly religious atmosphere. John’s father, Samuel Wesley, was the rector (another word for minister or priest) of a remote Anglican church in the English village of Epworth, located twenty miles from London. Epworth was part of the Fens district, which consisted of marshes and low-lying areas that regularly flooded. The area had very few roads.

The Wesley family had endured significant hardships. The Reverend Samuel Wesley, after relocating to the small Church of England parish in Epworth, faced hostile church members who didn’t like his stern practices. As a result, he wound up in prison for a time. John’s mother, Susanna Wesley, had given birth to many children, several of whom died at birth or in infancy. To make matters worse, Susanna struggled physically through each pregnancy, and this made life especially difficult.

Through all the hardship, Susanna continued to raise and teach her children, always trying to shield them from the realities of life around them. Her teaching efforts proved largely successful, because the Wesleys’ eldest son, Samuel, had won a place at Westminster School in London in preparation for attending university at Oxford. When Samuel left Epworth for London, young John assumed that his life would follow the same path as his older brother’s and that in several years he, too, would be heading to London to prepare for university.

On February 9, 1709, having settled into the family routine, John and his seven siblings still at home had gone to bed, anticipating another day of school and chores. John shared a bedroom in the attic with the family’s nursemaid and several of the small children. In the middle of the night, John woke up from a sound sleep, opened his eyes, and noticed a glow around him. At first he thought the light came from an unusually bright sunrise, until he smelled smoke and heard a roaring sound. He tore back the curtain that surrounded his bed to see a room of empty beds and flames licking at the doorway. Alone in a burning house, he obviously could not escape through the door and down the stairs. He looked around quickly for another means of escape—the window!

Despite the desperate situation, John felt strangely calm as he dragged the dresser up to the window and climbed onto it. He could see his father, mother, and siblings half-clothed and shivering in the front yard two stories below. He glanced behind him to see the attic filling with smoke as the orange flames crept closer and closer to him along the floorboards. He knew that this was an image he would never forget—if he lived to remember it. What John didn’t know was that the rest of his family had given him up for dead and were praying to commend his spirit to God.

Chapter 2
A Strict Regime

John’s parents, Samuel Wesley and Susanna Annesley, first met at Samuel’s sister’s wedding in 1682 and were married in 1688, the same month that King William III and Queen Mary ascended to the English throne. Following Samuel and Susanna’s wedding, John’s father earned a living as the curate (an assistant clergyman) at St. Botolph Church in Aldersgate, London. He supplemented his income by writing religious booklets and poems, which his brother-in-law published for him. These works bore odd names like The Grunting of a Hog, The Tame Snake in the Box of Bran, and A Hat Broke at Cugels. After serving at St. Botolph Church, Samuel briefly took up church positions in Newington Butts, Surrey, and South Ormsby.

In 1695 the Marquess of Normanby, a high-ranking British nobleman, offered Samuel a lifelong position as rector of St. Andrews in Epworth. The position came with a decent salary of 130 pounds per year and the use of the church farmland called the glebe. In taking up the new position, Samuel promised himself that he would continue with his religious writings.

Part of the reason Samuel accepted the position as rector was his fast-growing family. In the seven years of Samuel and Susanna’s marriage, Susanna, who was herself the youngest of twenty-five children, had given birth to six children, three of whom had survived the perils of infant diseases and were still alive when their parents made the move to Epworth. The oldest surviving child was a son, Samuel, followed by two daughters, Emilia and Susanna. Mrs. Wesley was pregnant with another child, who was born soon after the family arrived in Epworth. The Wesleys named this child, another daughter, Mary.

Although the position of rector at Epworth paid moderately well, Samuel Wesley lacked financial sense, and despite Susanna’s best efforts, the family never had quite enough money to go around. The situation was made worse by the fact that Susanna gave birth to a new baby every year and was not well during her pregnancies. As was usual in such situations, the Wesleys employed a cook, a maid, and a nursemaid to take care of the children and the family’s needs, adding significantly to their financial burden.

Life in Epworth was shockingly different for the Wesleys from what they had known in London. Both Samuel and Susanna had been raised by fathers who lived during a particularly turbulent period of English history. Samuel’s father, also named Samuel Wesley, and Susanna’s father, John Annesley, were both Dissenters, people who found fault with the ways of the Church of England and formed their own churches outside of the Church of England, the “Established Church.” Both men were supporters of Oliver Cromwell, who overthrew King Charles I and set up a parliamentary commonwealth in which both Samuel and John served as ministers. However, when the monarchy was restored to power in 1660 and King Charles II took the throne, the two men were expelled from their church positions. Samuel and Susanna, however, did not follow in their fathers’ dissenting ways but instead returned to the Church of England.

Susanna was particularly affected by the move to Epworth because she came from a lively, intellectual family that lived in the heart of London. At a time when only one in four women could sign her name, Susanna could read and write both English and French. She loved to debate various points of view about the Bible and theology (the study of the nature of God and religious beliefs), along with the views of her favorite philosopher, John Locke. But now Susanna found herself living permanently in one of the dullest and most unsophisticated regions of England. Nonetheless, she was determined to raise a cultured and God-fearing family, and she forbade her children from mixing with the local children for fear they would learn their coarse ways.

The local men and boys eked out their livings on the marshes, or fens, as they were called, that surrounded Epworth. On the fens they caught frogs, turtles, fish, and eels to eat and sell. Unfortunately the locals’ lifestyle was under siege. The village of Epworth was located on the Isle of Axholme, a tiny island created by the weaving of five rivers, the Idle, Torr, Trent, Ouse, and Don, which crisscrossed the fens, making it difficult to travel any other way than on a sturdy horse, in a skiff, or on foot.

Eighty years earlier, the fens had been partly drained by a Dutch engineer in order to turn the rich layer of silt formed by the marshes into productive pastureland. The fensmen, however, did not want to be sheep or dairy farmers and had fought back every way they could. They were fighting a losing battle, though, as more and more land came under cultivation, and this led the locals to resent any outsiders who crossed their paths. That was exactly how the locals viewed the Wesleys when the family arrived in Epworth and took up residence in the old wood-and-plaster rectory, the house where the rector lived.

In truth, the people had shown little support for the Church of England clergyman whom Samuel Wesley had replaced, and they showed even less support for Samuel once he began preaching. Samuel was a fiery preacher, an expert at pointing out other people’s wrongs, and a stickler for obeying church rules. He insisted that the “sinners” in his parish (church community) publicly confess their sins and outwardly express their regrets by standing barefoot for hours on the church’s stone floor. The locals showed their displeasure at this message by destroying the Wesleys’ flax crop growing in the glebe and by trying to kill the Wesleys’ family dog, a mastiff.

Samuel and Susanna tried to insulate their children from this harsh, new reality. Susanna governed the children with military precision. She began teaching each child to recite the Lord’s Prayer morning and night as soon as the child could talk and to memorize large sections—sometimes entire books—of the Bible. Then on each child’s fifth birthday, the child would learn the alphabet and begin reading the following day. Since the Bible was the children’s only textbook, the first word each Wesley child learned to read was “in,” followed by “the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” The children’s school week lasted six days, Monday through Saturday, from nine in the morning till five in the evening, with a two-hour break for lunch. Sunday was the only day off. By the time he was twelve, Samuel, the oldest child, was already excelling in Latin and Greek.

It was into this strict upbringing that John Benjamin Wesley was born on June 17, 1703. In the eight years since the Wesleys had moved into the rectory at Epworth, Susanna had given birth to numerous children following Mary’s birth, but only two had survived birth and infancy—Mehetabel, who was called Hetty, and Anne. When he was born, John, Susanna’s fifteenth child, had one older brother and five older sisters. He was named after his grandfather Dr. John Annesley and his uncle Benjamin Annesley, and his parents hoped that he would fare better than his two deceased older brothers who had both borne the name John Benjamin before him. John’s birth was duly noted in the family Bible, and life went on in the rectory.

During this time, John’s father was deeply in debt and more unpopular than ever in Epworth. The year before, he had taken a disastrous stand against the popular Dissenter candidate in local elections. In retaliation, one of his parishioners (church members) had demanded payment for a loan he had made to Samuel. Since Samuel lacked the money to repay the debt, he was locked up in Lincoln Debtors’ Prison. Susanna soldiered on while her husband was imprisoned, making ends meet and waiting for the archbishop to come to the family’s aid. The archbishop did so, and after three months in prison, Samuel was released to return to his parish.

Following John’s birth, more children were added to the financially strapped family. Another son was born in 1706, but he was accidentally smothered to death while sleeping with his nursemaid. Two more babies followed in quick succession—Martha, who was not quite three years younger than John, and Charles, who was four and a half years younger. When John’s brother Samuel left to study at Westminster School in London, the crowded Wesley household was happy and somewhat relieved.

Everything changed on a cold, winter night in 1709 when a burning timber fell across the foot of twelve-year-old Hetty’s bed. Jolted awake, Hetty looked up to see the roof on fire. She jumped out of bed and ran into her father’s bedroom and woke him, and her father in turn roused the rest of the family. Everyone scrambled out of bed and raced down the stairs together. The family had to wait at the bottom of the staircase because the Reverend Wesley had left the key to the locked front door upstairs beside his bed. Wincing from the smoke in his eyes, he rushed back up the burning staircase, grabbed the key, and sprinted out of the room. The staircase, now on fire, collapsed behind him as he charged down it. He quickly unlocked the front door, and the family spilled out into the yard.