The Voyage to Georgia

In this episode, we follow the journey of John and Charles Wesley from England to Georgia, looking at how they lived and grew and changed in the process.

Episode 41

Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s Episode: The Voyage to Georgia.

Like most Atlantic journeys in the 18th century, the Simmonds did not have an easy or direct voyage to Georgia. John and Charles Wesley boarded the ship on October 14 and began a new life. The Simmonds didn’t leave England for over a month, but the Wesley’s stayed on the ship during this time. He began a new diary on October 17 and continued it throughout his mission to Georgia. The Simmonds had to wait a week for the London Merchant to be ready to sail. Both ships left Gravesend, a port on the Thames east of London, on October 21st. The London Merchant had 136 passengers and the Simmonds had 121.

By November 1, they had reached the Isle of Wight, only to discover that the naval Man-of-War, the HMS Hawk, which was the convoy’s escort, was not yet ready at the Naval yards in Portsmouth. The Hawk was finally ready on November 19, though bad winds kept the convoy in harbor until December 10.

The irony of this extended delay was that captains of the Simmonds and London Merchant were impatient with the slow pace of the enormous HMS Hawk and left it behind on December 12. All the delays added some 40 days to the voyage for all the passengers. 1

During this delay, John was not discouraged, as he writes in his diary. “Wednesday and Thursday we spent with one or two of our Friends, party on board and party on shore, in exhorting one another to 'shake off every weight, and to run with patience the race set before us.”2

The following day, he writes:

I began to learn German, in order to converse with the Moravians, six and twenty of whom we had on board. On Sunday, the weather being fair and calm, we had the morning to service on quarter-deck. I now first preached extempore, and then administered the Lord's Supper to six or seven communicants. A little flock. May God increase it!3

By the time Simmonds sets sail on October 21st, Wesley has already entered into a routine. Oglethorpe had given the Wesley’s two cabins above deck in the forecastle of the ship, a location reserved for gentry or officers.4

John methodically recorded their routine in his diary.

Our common way of living was this: from four in the morning till five each of us used private prayer. From five to seven we read the Bible together, carefully comparing it (that we might not lean to our own understandings) with the writings of the earliest ages. At seven we breakfasted. At eight were the public prayers. From nine to twelve I usually learned German, and Mr. Delamotte, Greek. My brother writ sermons, I and Mr. Ingham instructed the children. At twelve we met to give an account to one another what we had done since our last meeting, and what we designed to do before our next.! About one we dined. The time from dinner to four we spent in reading to those of whom each of us had taken charge, or in speaking to them severally, as need required. At four were the evening prayers, when either the Second Lesson was explained (as it always was in the morning), or the children were catechized and 20 instructed before the congregation. From five to six we again used private prayer. From six to seven I read in our cabin to two or three of the passengers (of whom there were about eighty English on board), and each of my brethren to a few more in theirs. At seven joined with the Germans in their public service, while Mr. Ingham was reading between the decks to as many as desired to hear. At eight we met again, to exhort and instruct one another. Between nine and ten we went to bed, where neither the roaring of the sea nor the motion of the ship could take away the refreshing sleep which God gave us.5

Many of the devotional practices that the Wesleys had begun at Oxford were increased during the voyage. Though it is only conjecture, I would imagine that the extended delay for the voyage allowed John, Charles, and their friends, to develop and practice habits of Holy Living unencumbered by the true challenges of open ocean travel. They were also extremely limited in their distractions because of the closed off nature of life on the Simmonds.

Benjamin Ingham, one of their Oxford friends, wrote in his diary some general rules that the Methodists had put together on their voyage.

First. That none of us will undertake anything of importance without first proposing it to the other three.
Second. That, whenever our judgments or inclinations differ, any one shall give up his single judgment or inclination to the others.
Third. That, in case of an equality, after begging God’s direction, the matter shall be decided by Lot.6

Geordan Hammond, whose recent work on Wesley’s life in Georgia, describes some of the experimental devotional practice that the Methodists started onboard the ship.

He writes:

In agreement with their resolution to share devotional practices in common, the Wesley brothers along with Ingham and Delamotte gave up the use of meat and wine and later gave up eating supper (the evening meal) while en route to Georgia. Vegetarianism and fasting were two ascetical practices adopted by the Methodists and seen by them to complement their Nonjuror-inspired liturgical practice and rigorous discipline of study, prayer, worship, teaching, and preaching. Such practices of denying bodily pleasures were seen by the Methodists (as in Orthodox and Catholic monastic traditions) as providing an avenue for opening one’s inner self to God’s direction. It may not have been a coincidence that Wesley’s resolution to adopt a vegetarian diet was entered into his diary on a day when he read The Life of Francis Xavier, a Jesuit missionary known for his occasional vegetarianism and rigorous fasting.7

John offered weekly communion aboard the ship for the entire duration of the journey. During the voyage, 30-40 attended morning prayer and 189 total attended weakly communion, which increased from three people a few days before departure, to an average of twenty before they arrived.

Once the journey begins on the open sea, John’s diary mostly contains comments about his ministry that are positive.

For instance, he wrote on December 18, One who was big with child, in a high fever, and almost wasted away with a violent cough, desired to receive the Holy Communion before she died. At the hour of her receiving. she began to recover, and in a few days was entirely out of danger.8

Charles had an entirely different journey. His biographer, John Tyson, writes that “Charles’s spirits seemed to be quite high as he began the voyage…but by November 28th…the weariness, sea-sickness, and drudgery of the voyage were beginning to wear on Wesley.”9

Tyson also argues that Charles wrote the hymn, “Written for midnight” on the voyage. It includes the following stanza.

Absent from Thee, my exiled soul
Deep in a fleshly dungeon groans;
Around me clouds of darkness roll,
And laboring silence speaks my moans:
Come quickly, Lord! Thy face display,
And look my midnight into day.10

In a letter from February, Charles also wrote: God has brought an unhappy, unthankful wretch hither, through a thousand dangers, to renew his complaints, and loathe the Life which has been preserved by a series of Miracles.11

During the delay, the crew was able to regularly resupply the food for the passengers, so they all ate well. Once on the open ocean, meals became different.

An account of another Atlantic ocean voyage gives us a sense of the kind of food offered during this time.

The passengers had to group themselves in messes of five persons each. A mess received daily four pounds of biscuit, one quart of beer and two quarts of water. On five days of the week each mess was given two pieces of beef or pork, weighing six pounds. This meat was sometimes replaced by "fresh and large beans." On Sundays and Wednesdays, the passengers received a pudding which Michel describes as "a good dish." Two pounds of flour, half a pound of lard and grape juice were worked into a thick paste and cooked in a linen sack. He concludes his comments: "The food was often, on account of the heat and because it is not salted sufficiently, like the water of such bad taste that we suffered considerably, especially because the large number of mice spoiled our bread altogether."12

Storms were common during these voyages, though for the most part, the Simmonds was spared the worst. On January 20, in a letter to one of his friends and financial backers, Sir John Philips, Wesley wrote about the only storm he had yet experienced.

We have had but one storm since we were at sea, and that lasted but a few hours. One unaccustomed to the sea would have imagined the ship would have been swallowed up every moment.13

His own diary describes this storm in the following way:

The people were very impatient at the contrary wind. At seven in the evening they were quieted by a storm. It rose higher and higher till nine. About nine the sea broke over us from stem to stern, burst through the windows of the state cabin where three or four of us were, and covered us all over, though a bureau sheltered me from the main shock. About eleven I lay down in the great cabin, and in a short time fell asleep, though very uncertain whether I should wake alive, and much ashamed of my unwillingness to die. O how pure in heart must he be who would rejoice to appear before God at a moment's warning! Toward morning 'He rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.14

This is was the first many storms which would challenge the final days of the voyage. The most famous of which occurred in the following week during a Moravian prayer service. As John Wesley writes in his journal,

In the midst of the psalm, wherewith their service began the sea broke over, split the mainsail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on. I asked one of them afterwards, Was you not afraid? He answered, 'I thank God, no.' I asked, 'But were not is your women and children afraid?' He replied mildly, No; our women and children are not afraid to die.' From them I went to their crying, trembling neighbors, and pointed out to them the difference in the hour of trial between him that feareth God and him that feareth him not. At twelve the wind fell. This was the most glorious day which I have ever hitherto seen.15

On February 1, they saw a ship heading east from Carolina. On February 4, they saw trees in the distance. The next day, they anchored within the Savannah River. And on February 6, as Wesley writes in his diary,

About eight in the morning we first set foot on American ground. It was a small, uninhabited island, over against Tybee. As Mr. Oglethorpe' led us to a rising ground, where we all kneeled down to give thanks. He then took boat for Savannah. When the rest of the people were come on shore, we called our little flock together to prayers. Several parts of the Second Lesson, Mark 6, were wonderfully suited to the occasion; in particular the account of the courage and sufferings of John the Baptist, our Lord's directions to the first preachers of his gospel, and their toiling at sea and deliverance with those comfortable words, 'It is I, be not afraid.”16

With landfall, the Wesleys and Methodism enter the next stage of their journey. While students and professors at Oxford, Methodism was restricted to a select few. In Georgia, John attempts to share his understanding of faith with an entire community. How does it go? What does he learn? And how does Methodism grow and change in Georgia, next time on the History of Methodism.

  1. Hammond, 44-45. ↩︎
  2. 16 oct 1735, WW 18:312. ↩︎
  3. 17 October 1735., WW 18:312. ↩︎
  4. Hammond, 44. ↩︎
  5. 21 October 1735, WW 18:314. ↩︎
  6. Benjamin Ingham’s Diary December 1, 1735, cited in Hammond, 47. ↩︎
  7. Hammond, 48. ↩︎
  8. Hammond, 141. ↩︎
  9. Tyson, 24. ↩︎
  10. Charles Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Poems 1756, 32. ↩︎
  11. February 5, 1735 ↩︎
  12. Laus Wust, 33. ↩︎
  13. John Wesley, WW 25:447 ↩︎
  14. John Wesley, WW 18:341. ↩︎
  15. John Wesley, WW 18:345. ↩︎
  16. John Wesley, WW 18:349-350. ↩︎


Geordan Hammond, John Wesley in America: Restoring Primitive Christianity (Oxford: OUP, 2014).

John and Charles Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Poems (1756).

Klaus Wust, “Feeding the Palatines: Shipboard Diet in the 18th Century”, Society for the History of Germans in Maryland (1984) Volume 39:32-42.