Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s Episode: Opportunities for Mission.
In 1734, John Wesley did not want to go to Georgia. He was excited about events at Oxford and about growing the communities of Holy Living of which he was a member.
His father, Samuel, was sick. Before he died, Samuel was trying to finish his magnum opus Dissertations on Job, which we discussed in detail in episode 27. Every time John visited Epworth, he helped his father work. And many of John’s visits to London, during this time, were on behalf of his father to make sure the printer was ready. But during this last visit in the fall of 1734, John knew that it would be hard for Samuel to fully recover. Thus, the first rival opportunity to his life at Oxford was not across the Atlantic Ocean, but a call to return north in order replace his father as Rector of Epworth. Samuel Sr. even offered to resign his position so that John could take it over and the family could stay in the parsonage.1 The appointment system at the time went through the Bishop of London as well as the Bishop of Lincoln, so it wasn’t as simple applying for it. Yet John didn’t even know if he wanted it.
On his way from Epworth back to Oxford, John Wesley stopped to visit with his friend, John Clayton, the influential member of the Holy Club who had joined in 1732. Clayton no longer lived in Oxford, for he had been given a church in Salford, near Manchester.
There is no record of the conversation that they had there about Wesley’s future, though Wesley did record in his diary some notes about the Apostolic Fathers and John Byrom, a wealthy scholar from the Manchester area who had created a new system of shorthand which John and many early Methodists had adopted.2 Wesley liked the shorthand, but he didn’t like Byrom’s theology.
Back at Oxford on November 8, John continued many of his usual habits with a renewed zeal. The question of serving at Epworth was still on his mind, but he wrote his father on November 15, 1734, saying
…The question is not whether I could do more good to others there or here, but whether I could do more good to myself; seeing wherever I can be most holy myself, there, I am assured, i can most promote holiness in others. But I am equally assured there is no place under heaven so fit for my improvement as Oxford.3
This does not end the conversation. Samuel argues that John is being selfish and the two go back and forth. On December 10, he wrote a much longer response clarifying his notions in ways the point to future methodist theology.
By holiness I mean, not fasting or bodily austerity, or any other external means of improvement, but that inward temper to which all these are subservient, a renewal of soul in the image of God…And I therefore believe that in the state wherein I am I can most promote this holiness in myself because I now enjoy several advantages which are almost peculiar to it.4
These advantages include conversations with his friends as well as the ability to retire from social endeavors.
Wesley concludes on page 26 of this letter by saying, “these are a part of my reasons for choosing to abide (till I am better informed) in the station wherein God has placed me,”5 a fitting qualifier for what will transpire in 1735.
Life at Oxford at this time was filled with encouraging moments, including new members and new opportunities to serve. John also took multiple trips to London, continuing to build his network there. He began a translation of Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, which he would finish in the next year.6
As 1735 came, the focus of the Oxford Methodists was on the study of the Greek New Testament, but John, himself, became personally obsessed with questions of Christian liberty. In a letter to his mother, Susanna, in February, he gives a list of five Christian liberties:
- liberty from wilful sin
- Liberty from Slavish fears
- Liberty from things of indifferent nature
- Liberty from external ordinances
- Liberty from rules
Richard Heitzenrater sees a connection between these thoughts on liberty and Wesley’s inclusion of casting lots to help him on particular questions.
Wesley’s first use of [casting lots] with regard to early rising in January 1735 resulted in forty minutes more sleep for him that day.7
These questions of Christian Liberty and what the Christian is obligated to do help us understand John’s concerns during this time. He feels obligated to his father and mother but also to his friends and to the people around him who are not living holy lives yet. Where he should live is not a question of personal preference but a question of the mission that God has for him.
John’s older brother, Samuel Jr., also tried to convince John to take on the Epworth parish. Samuel Jr. brought up the question of John’s ordination vows and whether he was following through with them at Oxford. Samuel Jr.’s arguments unsettled him more and John reached out to the Bishop Potter, of Oxford concerning the vows. Bishop Potter’s response undercut both Samuel Jr. and Sr.’s arguments
It doth not seem to me that at your ordination you engaged yourself to undertake the cure of any parish, provided you can as a clergyman better serve God and the Church in your present or some other station.8
We see the roots here of John’s later claim “the world is my parish.”
In the Spring, though, all these theoretical questions were pushed aside when word came down to Oxford that Samuel Sr.’s health had rapidly declined.
John and Charles left on Palm Sunday for the journey north on muddy, spring roads. Once they had arrived in the north, John took back up duties at Wroot and conceded all the arguments to his father and brother about the Epworth position. He wrote to a London colleague who was connected to the Bishop of London, one of the figures who would help with the appointment. 9 Although there was no guarantee that the appointment would go through. Wesley’s biographer, Henry Rack, thought that it was a long shot.10 There was also the unfinished Job book that John continued to help edit.
Samuel Sr. died on April 25. John stayed to work on Job and help at Epworth before the formal appointment of a new priest. His London friend, Thomas Broughton, had informed John that the position would be filled by others only a few days before Samuel’s passing.11
John stayed at Epworth until the Summer. He then went back to Oxford via London, in order to visit his publisher about the recently printed Kempis translation. He arrived back at Oxford in late July, only to turn around and return to London at the request of his publisher concerning the Job book. As discussed in episode 27, the Job book was an enormously complex endeavor. Written exclusively in Latin and printed in two columns like the great theological works of the 17th century. It was out of step with contemporary authors and John needed to work hard to see it through to production.
This visit to London lasted a while and changed the lives of John and Charles Wesley. John moved between sleeping at the homes of his friends and staying with his sisters so that he wouldn’t wear out any of his hosts. On August 28, John was walking on Ludgate Street when he bumped into John Burton, who was an acquaintance of John’s from his early Oxford days and a Trustee of the Georgia Colony. John Burton mentioned something to the effect that the current priest in Savannah was disliked by many and that there would soon be a need for a new priest in Georgia. Wesley was intrigued by the opportunity as well as the mission in general of spreading the gospel in the new world. We will devote a future episode to the founding of Georgia. For now, it is enough to say that James Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia, was an old acquaintance of Samuel Sr., and had even tried to intervene on John’s behalf in his last minute attempt to receive the Epworth living. Samuel Sr. had even written Oglethorpe in November of 1734, saying “I had always so dear a love for your colony that if it had been but ten years ago, I would gladly have devoted the remainder of my life and labours to that place.”12 So John knew of the colony and the family connection to Oglethorpe.
John met with Oglethorpe the next day and the interview went well. Concerning the endeavor, John sought the advice of William Law and John Clayton, as well as his brothers, sisters, and mother. They were all in agreement of the mission. Susanna even writing, “had I twenty sons, I should rejoice that they were all so employed, though I should never see them more.”13
Charles was also interested in Georgia and they worked together speed up the younger Wesley’s ordination as a deacon, which took place on September 21. He was ordained as a priest eight days later and then appointed Secretary of Indian Affairs by the trustees.
On October 9, John presented the completed Job book to Queen Caroline. He was finished with his final obligation to his father.
Wesley laid out his final decision to join the Georgia mission in a lengthy letter to John Burton on October 10. I will quote from this extensively because it gives such great insight into his thinking at this time.
My chief motive, to which all the rest are subordinate, is the hope of saving my own soul. I hope to learn the true sense of the gospel of Christ by preaching it to the heathens. They have no comments to construe away the text, no vain philosophy to corrupt it, no luxurious, sensual, covetous, ambitious expounders to soften its unpleasing truths, to reconcile earthly-mindedness…A right faith will, I trust, by the mercy of God, open the way for a right practice, especially when most of those temptations are removed which here so easily best me…I then hope to know what it is to love my neighbor as myself, and to feel the powers of the second motive to visit the heathens, even the desire to impart to them what I have received, a saving knowledge of the gospel of Christ…
…But you will perhaps ask, Can’t you save your own soul in England as well as in Georgia? I answer, No, neither can I hope to attain the same degree of holiness here which I may there; neither, if I stay here knowing this, can I reasonably hope to attain any degree of holiness at all…
…To the other motive, the hope of doing more good in America, it is commonly objected that there are heathens enough, in practice if not in theory, at home. Why then should you go to those in America? Why, for a very plain reason. Because these heathens at home have Moses and the prophets, and those have not. Because these who have the gospel trample upon it, and those who have it not earnestly call for it; therefore seeing these judge themselves unworthy of eternal life, lo, I turn to the Gentiles.14
On October 14, the Simmonds was ready to embark from Gravesend, a town on the Thames near the coast. Unfortunately, another ship in the convoy to Georgia, the Hawk, was not ready until the 20th. In the meantime, John tried to convince some more friends to come with him. It was a hard sell because he was traveling as a volunteer missionary. He was able to convince a few friends, including Benjamin Ingham, whose diary helped Richard Heitzenrater crack Wesley’s code.
John left for Georgia even before receiving a formal appointment and all he was given was transportation and a few books. The Simmonds finally left on October 21st, the same day the Georgia Trustees approved the discharge of the current Savannah priest, Mr. Quincy.
Wesley left England without a job save the call of God on his heart. He was stepping out in faith to do something new and to go somewhere new. The voyage itself, is worth an episode’s investigation, but before we get to the amazing events of the Simmonds, we must go back in time to the founding of the Georgia Colony itself and to the character of its leader, James Oglethorpe. Who was he? Why did he wish to form a colony? And how did John and Charles Wesley fit into his vision of God’s kingdom in Georgia? Next time on the History of Methodism.
Richard Heitzenrater, John Wesley and the Oxford Methodists, 1725-1735, Diss. (Durham: Duke, 1972).
Henry Rack, Reasonable Enthusiast (London: Epworth, 1988).
- Rack, 93. ↩︎
- Heitzenrater, 287. ↩︎
- Letter to Samuel Wesley, Sr., November 15, 1734: WW 25:395. ↩︎
- Letter to Samuel Wesley, Sr. December 10, 1734, WW 25:399. ↩︎
- Ibid, WW 25:409. ↩︎
- Heitzenrater, 299. ↩︎
- Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People, 54. ↩︎
- WW 25:420. ↩︎
- Heitzenrater, 310. ↩︎
- Rack, 93. ↩︎
- WW 25:422. ↩︎
- Heitzenrater, 318, ↩︎
- Heitzenrater, 318. ↩︎
- Letter to John Burton, October 10, 1735, WW 25:439-442. ↩︎