Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s episode: Samuel Wesley Part 1.
Growing up in the United Methodist Church and going to a United Methodist seminary, Samuel Wesley did not hold an important position in the imagination of any of my pastors or teachers. Samuel didn’t break societal norms and expectations did like Susanna, but he had a profound impact on his children. His was a life of a world that was passing away. But what was of value in that world, he passed on to his children.
Samuel’s father and grandfather were both ministers and dissenters to the established church. The Rev. Bartholomew Westley (W-E-S-T-L-E-Y) was born in 1596, the third son of a Devonshire knight. He was educated at Oxford and preached in the south of England near Dorset for much of his career. He was a supporter of Parliament during the Civil War and subsequently ejected from his parish in 1662 because he refused to accept the Book of Common Prayer.
Samuel’s father, John Wesly (W-E-S-L-Y) was born in 1636. He graduated Oxford with a BA in 1655 and an MA in 1657, during the height of the protectorate. Because there were no legal bishops in England at this time, John Wesly was nor ordained by a bishop but appointed as an evangelist and a vicar by Cromwell’s Commission of Triers, which had taken the place of the episcopacy in placing clergy (there was also a committee of ejectors who went around and dismissed folks). After the restoration, John Wesly was repeatedly imprisoned for his Dissent from the Church of England.1 After the conventicle act of 1665, John was able to preach in small groups around the country, but it was a hard life for him and his family. He died a young man of 42, in 1678, when Samuel was 16 years old.
Samuel had been born in December of 1662 and his early life took place with his father in and out of jail. He was educated at various Dissenter academies before going to Oxford as a servitor, which meant he got to be a student by serving the rich kids.
During this time, Wesley also made the decision to conform to the Church of England. He had seen the life of his father and grandfather as dissenters, which may have shaped his decision. Debates about why specifically Samuel conformed have been going on for two hundred years. Some placed the decision before he went to Oxford, but students could, at that time, attend without making a pledge of support to the 39 articles. Some dissenting leaders promoted this path as a way to infiltrate the positions of power. Different biographers have made different claims about Samuel’s decision to join the Church of England, but all of it is speculation. His true motive may be lost to history.
It was at Oxford that Samuel started publishing poetry. His first book, Maggots: or, Poems on Several Subjexts, Never before handled, was published in 1685.
Here in is an excerpt from the titular poem
THE Maggot Bites, I must begin:
Muse! pray be civil! enter in!
Ransack my addled pate with Care,
And muster all the Maggots there!
Just at the Gate you 'l bless your Eyes,
To find one of so large a Size:
'Tis true he's hardly full as tall,
As the two striplings in Guildhall;
Yet is he Jolly, Fat, and Plump,
With dainty Curls from Snowt to Rump:
And struts, says Iordan what he can,
As goodly as any Alderman.
The Law of Poetry's not broke,
If, since an Horse in Homer spoke;
I steal, for my dear Worms Occasions
A scrap of Livy's fine Orations:2
They were printed by John Dunton, who was man that probably introduced Wesley to his future wife Susanna. And Wesley hoped to earn a little from the poems, as he wrote in his letter to the reader
If I write silly enough, why mayn't my Book sell as well as any Christmas Tales and Wonderments that has been clapt into Fist since Bills were invented? I'm sure my Verses—dribble down daintily, as Bro. Bunnyan has't, as well as the best Sing-song in e're a Pilgrim's Progress of 'em all3
What is striking here is the humor: some lines are actually funny, in a way that is very different from his later work and from the work of his sons. Wesley continued to publish poetry throughout his life, which meant there was some demand. Wesley also published works in what today would be called literary criticism, articulating his views of what poetry should be, and boy did he have opinions.
Wesley graduated Exeter College, Oxford, on June 19, 1688. That year was momentous not only for Samuel Wesley, but also for England. As we discussed in Episode 16 about the Glorious Revolution. if you remember from that episode, one of the principle turning points of antagonism towards King James II was the birth of his son, James Edward, who was baptized Catholic and became the principle heir to the thrown of England. James II was tolerable as long as his protestant sister Mary was heir, but with a new Catholic heir, the tide began to shift.
James II wanted a book of poetry published commemorating the birth of his son and Samuel Wesley was asked to contribute. The poem he wrote is an allegory that praises James for many-things and predicts fortune for the new Prince of Wales and England.
I feel, I rising feel the God within:
There, there I see the glorious Mystic scene.
In decent Ranks each coming Bliss appears,
And in their hands lead up the harness years.4
As William Gibson writes, “it was a scene of panglossian optimism, which may have suited the nature of hyperbolic poetry, but was not perhaps realistic to the circumstances.”5
The sincerity of Samuel’s words is hard to perceive. Samuel Wesley Jr. later wrote a poem presenting his father as against James II, but this is not an accurate position. Henry Moore’s biography of John Wesley, from 1837, invents a scene or Samuel refusing to read a declaration of the king (which James II had made all clergymen read) and instead read from the Book of Daniel. This was impossible because Samuel Wesley was not even a deacon in May of 1688 when the declaration was required to be read.
Whatever his actual feelings about King James, Samuel was ordained a deacon in August of 1688 at Bromley Palace by Bishop Thomas Sprat of Rochester. Bishop Sprat was a vocal supporter of James so still, at this time, Samuel Wesley supported the King and made vows in his ordination to continue to do so. Wesley was a little order than most deacons, so he didn’t have to wait the requisite two years for his priestly orders. He was ordained a priest in February of 1689, at a time when James II had fled the country. William of Orange had landed soon after Samuel’s ordination into the diaconate on November 5, 1688.
But a far more important event in his life took place ten days later with his marriage to Susanna Wesley, whom we met over the last two episodes.
Once married and ordained, Wesley’s first appointment was as a naval chaplain. Cromwell had made public worship mandatory on all naval vessels and the Royal Navy had maintained the post with the Restoration of the Stuarts and the Glorious Revolution. He did not enjoy the experience, saying,
At sea I tarry’d about 6 months where I was very I’ll used and almost starved and poisoned.6
Susanna lived with her parents in London during this time. At the ignoble end of his naval tenure, Samuel was a curate (basically the associate pastor of the English church) at Newington Butts, a place that could only be in England. Newington Butts was a small hamlet at the time, but is now in London proper near the Imperial War Museum.
It was around this time that their first child, Samuel, Jr., was born.
The naval post did not last long for the young family because the vicar didn’t like Samuel.7 He was offered a post in Virginia before taking the job at South Ornsby, which I described in Episode 22, so I won’t go over those details here.
One of the important aspects of Samuel during this time was his continued relationship with his brother-in-law, John Dunton. Samuel was not as prolific a writer and publisher as his John and Charles Wesley, but he was quite prolific for people of the day in poetry, prose, theology, literary criticism, and many others fields. Dunton was the publisher of the Athenian Mercury and Samuel contributed in numerous issues. He published two large volumes of poetry, including an epic poem about the life of Jesus in rhymed iambic pentameter with allusions to Milton, Homer, and Virgil among others.
I Sing the Man who reigns enthron'd on high;
I sing the God, who not disdain'd to dye:
Him, whom each modest Seraph trembling sings,
The most afflicted, yet the best of Kings:
Who from th'Eternal Father's side came down,
Stript of his Starry Diadem and Crown;
From Satan's Chains, to ransom captive Men,
And drive him to his own sad Realms agen.
What Pain, what Labour did he not endure,
To close our Wounds, and Happiness secure?8
Another work was a set of elegies for Queen Mary II and Archbishop Tillotson. The Queen had been an advocate for the moral reforms Samuel appreciated, which we discussed in Episode 18 on English Spirituality.
In 1695, the Wesley’s moved to Epworth. William Gibson describes Epworth in the following way:
As a priest in Epworth, Wesley found himself in a parish badly divided by Dissenters, and in which he saw widespread irreligion and immorality. His pastoral initiatives did not bring agreement and unity, quite the reverse. This was made more problematic by the appointment of William Wake, as a bishop of Lincoln, who was a Whig latitudinarian and did not always share Wesley's view of the dangers posed by dissenters or the need to force their return to the church.9
Wesley began to publish more than poetry, as well. He published a sermon on the reformation of manners in 1698 that had much in common with the religious societies being formed in London at the time. Wesley was uncompromising on the dangers of vice and the importance of punishing vice so that others could learn by example. He lamented the fact that police stopped arresting people for public vices because they couldn’t learn unless they were punished.
When Wesley set up his own Religious Society in Epworth. Some joined but he was wary of them because he didn’t know them. As well, only men could be involved because he didn’t want the scandal of women present and thought that it was incumbent upon husbands to teach their wives and daughters. Entry in the society had to be unanimous. Needless to say, it did not spark a great awakening in the north of England.
Susanna continued to bear children as Samuel continued to preach and write. He wrote a history of the Old and New Testaments in verse, as well as numerous other texts throughout the more than thirty years of his tenure at Epworth.
Samuel wrote a book about the importance of the Eucharist, or communion, but he found administering communion at Epworth a challenge since few people cared. In 1709, in a town of 1,100, around 40 people communed at Easter.
Samuel wrote a heroic poem about the Duke of Marlborough that earned him a chaplancy in the army, but it didn’t last long (he was fired again) and the money didn’t come. After the election of 1705, the Whigs won in Lincolnshire and Samuel had made a number of Whig enemies who didn’t like that he switched votes to the Tories and who pounced on a thirty pound debt of his to put him in debtors jail. His oldest son, Samuel Jr., later wrote a poem called “The Electioneer” about an honest voter who many see as Samuel sr.
If, in Susanna, we can look back and see the vestiges of John Wesley’s affirmation of female preachers and evidence that can lead to the ordination of women. In Samuel, we see glimpses of George Eliot’s pedantic priest from the novel, Middlemarch, Edward Casauban. There are virtues to be found in his writing. The sheer scope of his poetry is impressive, as is the breadth of his learning, as exhibited in all his works. Samuel Wesley was an extraordinarily well-read man in many languages. He was also a very hard man. As William Gibson writes,
Samuel Wesley was a difficult man. In the 1730 he admitted to his new curate that he had antagonized many parishioners and had failed to be reasonable to them...his behavior had led to marital breakdown, threats of violence, imprisonment, and formal legal proceedings. He was stormy petrel, inclined to argument as a way of life and unwilling to compromise.10
His marriage to Susanna contained numerous moments of conflict, as discussed in Episode 20 and 22 around praying for the king. Wesley’s travels to London were frequent, especially starting in 1710 when Samuel was elected as proctor for all the clergy of the Diocese of Lincoln to the Convocation of Canterbury. At this time, the War of Spanish Succession still continued, as did Susanna Wesley’s bible study, of which Samuel did not approve. Convocation did not end until 1715 with little gain for Samuel’s High Church allies, since the king, George I, was himself a dissenter and an ally of the Whig party which was the enemy of Tories like Samuel.
Another moment of conflict in this time is found in the letters of Samuel to Bishop Wake, the bishop of Lincoln. Wake was set to visit Epworth and asked if there were any unbaptized in the parish. Samuel said none save for Susanna Wesley, who only had a Presbyterian baptism. This did not seem to bother Bishop Wake or Susanna, who had been baptized by her father.
A final story of their life together cannot but help to shed negative light on Samuel. This concerned their daughter Mehetabel, or Hetty. Samuel had taught Hetty Greek and Latin and she had helped him in his work.11 Yet when Hetty was courted by a Lawyer that Samuel didn’t like him, Hetty eloped and returned home pregnant. Samuel would not let her back and would only let Susanna go visit Hetty whenever he explicitly allowed it. Hetty found refuge with her older brother, Samuel Jr., at nearby Wroot, spelled WROOT. We will come back here, again with the life of John Wesley. Hetty eventually begged her father to find someone for her to marry that he approved because she just wanted to be reconciled to him. He did, a dullard named William Wright, who gave her little joy and no family.
What should we do with this hard man? William Gibson writes that “The root of Wesley's rigidity lay in the sense that the world he had committed himself to in 1685 was passing away. He had left Dissent for the church of England, and found, within a decade of doing so, that its values seemed to be under attack and were being eroded by state policy.”12
History is not filled with only the likable just like the present is not only filled with the likable. And yet people are shaped by their surroundings and shaped especially by their parents. John and Charles Wesley were shaped by Samuel as much as by Susanna. As Ken Collins writes, “Samuel was obstinate, but he was also a man of high moral courage. He was domineering, but he could also be pastoral and supportive…He was not an ideal man, but a man with ideals, a flesh and blood man in a flesh and blood world, and John loved him.”13
We have met the man, Samuel Wesley, and encountered much of his poetry and some of his morality, but what of his theology? What did Samuel Wesley believe about God and how did it shape the Methodist movement? Next time on the History of Methodism.
Kenneth J. Collins, “John Wesley’s Correspondance with his Father”, Methodist History 26:1 (October 1987): 15-26.
William Gibson, Samuel Wesley & the Crisis of Tory Piety, 1685-1720(Oxford: Oxford UP, 2021).
Alan Torpy, The Prevenient Piety of Samuel Wesley, Sr. (Baylor University Ph.D. thesis, 2006).
- Gibson, 1. ↩︎
- https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A65464.0001.001/1:6.1?rgn=div2;view=fulltext ↩︎
- Ibid ↩︎
- quoted in Gibson, 46. ↩︎
- Gibson, 46. ↩︎
- Cited in Gibson, 55. ↩︎
- Gibson, 56. ↩︎
- https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A65459.0001.001/1:13?rgn=div1;view=fulltext ↩︎
- Gibson, 6. ↩︎
- Gibson, 2. ↩︎
- Torphy, 131. ↩︎
- Gibson, 1. ↩︎
- Collins, 26. ↩︎