The Courtship of Sophie Hopkey

In this episode, we go in-depth into the relationship between John Wesley and Sophy Hopkey in Georgia up until he discovers her marriage to William Williamson.

Episode 43

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

John Wesley did not go to Georgia with the goal of finding a wife. He was a goal oriented person and this did not top the list, even though he had seen the influence and import of women such as his mother Susanna.

The Georgia Colony was a frontier land. As described in Episode 40, it was founded by James Oglethorpe and the Colony Trustees to give a future to the recently released prisoners of England. These were men. Some married women came over, especially the religious refugees from Spain or Salzburg, but the population as a whole was around 70% male at the time the Wesleys arrived in Savannah.

John was used to having friendships with strong-willed, intelligent women in England. He did not avoid women in Georgia, though his intentions throughout his stay are often opaque, even to himself. He kissed one young woman, Sophy Hopkey, on multiple occasions and contemplated marriage many times. He walked with her almost every morning for six months. The brief story is that after a certain amount of time spent with her, John cast lots about marriage and they came back for him to stay single so he didn’t propose to Sophy. She married William Williamson and stopped praying and fasting as much as she previously had. She also stopped going to regular communion. A few months after her marriage, when she tried to receive communion, she was refused by John. The next week a warrant was issued for John Wesley’s arrest. Because of the trial and confusion, John left Georgia.

Now, this story is often told in a quick and jokey manner. I often tell it in a quick and jokey manner. A woman broken John’s heart, so he got vindictive and wouldn’t give her communion. Like most of history, the reality is much more complicated and tells us a lot about John, Georgia, and women in the 18th century.

There are two main records which guide John’s relations with women during this time: his diaries and his manuscript journal. The diaries, as described in Episode 33, cover daily affairs and activities according to a timed schedule. The journal offers a narrative of some of the more pertinent events. The journal offers stories about Sophy, many of which were shared as evidence in favor of John’s innocence with regard to the suit against him. Thus, these records are biased. We don’t have Sophy’s version of events. Her voice is lost but her presence is not. She covers nearly every page of John Wesley’s Georgia journals. He couldn’t erase those many days, and he didn’t try.

Were this the journal of a British aristocrat or a local lawyer, the bias may lead to suspician. In John Wesley’s case, I don’t think it does. He was an excruciatingly precise recorder of his own personal history. He judged himself harshly many, many days. If John Wesley felt he wronged another person, he would have arrested himself.

With the bias in mind, the diary and journal can offer us an accurate account of what transpired and help us to enter more deeply into the world of John Wesley.

On March 13, 1736, at 9:30 in the morning, John Wesley was visiting one of the parissioners of Savannah, Mr. Causton, whose niece, Sophy Hopkey, was present with her friend Miss Fawset. The conversation lasted 30 minutes and covered religious topics. It was the first of 74 conversations with Sophy between March and October alone that lasted over 210 hours.

John met with Sophy and Miss Fawset the next day, a Sunday. He noted in his diary that Miss Sophy and Miss Fawset [were] much affected.

Mr. Causton was an important business owner on the island and a frequent correspondent of the Trustees in London. Causton was a central political player in Georgia. If you were on his good side, everyone loved you. If you were not, you best be leaving town soon.

In his manuscript journal, John describes these early encounters in the following way:

At my first coming to Savannah, in the beginning of March 1736, I was determined to have no intimacy with any woman in America. Notwithstanding which, by the advice of my friends, and in pursuance of my resolution to speak once a week at least to every communicant apart from the congregation, on March the 13th, I spoke to Miss Sophy Hopkey, who had communicated the Sunday before, and endeavoured to explain to her the nature and necessity of inward holiness. On the same subject I continued to speak to her once a week, but generally in the open air, and never alone—always in the presence of Miss Fawset.1

I had a good hope that herin I acted with a single eye to the gflory of God and the good of her soul, both because I did not act by my own judgment and because, though I approved of Miss Sophy’s constant attendance both at the morning and evening service, and at the Holy Communion, yet I had a particular dislike to her person, and a still greater to her common behavior, which was reserved, I thought, even to affectation.

Soon after, being at Mr. Causton’s house, Mrs. Causton, when I went f of the room, said, ‘There goes a husband for my Phiky’ (her common title for Miss Hopkey). And in June following she told me, ‘Sir, you want a woman to take care of your house.’ I said, ‘But women, madam, are scarce in Georgia. Where shall I get one?’ She answered, ‘I have two here. Take either of them. Here, take Miss Fawset.’ I said, ‘Nay, madam, we shan’t agree. She is too merry for me.’ She replied, Then take Phiky; she is serious enough.’ I said,’ You are not in earnest, Madam!’ She said, ‘Indeed, sir, I am; take her to you and do what you will with her.”2

John Wesley only saw Sophy three times in April and four times in May, though he did ask Sophy and Miss Fawset into his house for breakfast in April, which he says: “though I hope my eye was single in this too, yet I doubt whether it was not a step too far, as tending to a familiarity which was not needful.”3

After visiting Frederica Island for much of May and June, John saw her again on June 30th at noon and noted that she was much affected. In the manuscript journal, John writes that Mrs. Causton had come to him saying that Sophy is ruined because she wants to marry a person then in prison for forgery. Mrs. Causton tells John that he is the only person she listens to, so he went to see her. He writes:

soon after, Miss Sophy came, all in tears, and with all the signs of such a distress as I had never seen. She seemed to have lost both comfort and hope. I stayed with her about an hour. At the end of which she said she was resolved to seek comfort in God only, and through his help to tear from her heart an inclination which she knew did not tend to his glory.

I was deeply affected with her distress…my friends believed it was now my duty to see her more frequently than before; in compliance with whose advice I accordingly talked with her once in two or three days often alone. In all those conversations I was careful to speak only on things pertaining to God. But on July 23, after I had talked with her for some time, I took her by the hand and, before we parted, kissed her. And from this time I fear there was a mixture in my intention, though I was not soon sensible of it.4

Thus begins, in one sense, the unintended courtship of Sophy Hopkey. In another sense, thus begins John Wesley stringing along an innocent girl. She was a reserved girl and it is easy to imagine situations where John is going on and on about holiness and she is nodding along in approval. In much the same way today as if he were droning on and on about fantasy football, and she was nodding along in approval.

Because of the limited data, conjecture and projection fill descriptions of John Wesley and Sophy Hopkey’s relationship. We should hold our assumptions lightly, but also see that the relationship was complicated and it was a two-way street. Sophy Hopkey had agency in the relationship and she had things that she wanted out of John Wesley.

John talked with Sophy 23 times in July. In August, Oglethorpe asks John to spend more time with Sophy. After talking with Oglethorpe, John then went to Sophy and “talked with her near an hour. I told her I would now lay aside the reserve I had used with her in Savannah, being convinced that God had in a peculiar manner committed her to my charge; that therefore in all my intercourse with her I should look upon her as one of my sisters, and omit nothing in my power which might be conducive to her giving herself up to God.”5

A few days later, John was sick. It was August of 1736. Sophy helped nurse him. During that time, he read to her prayers and tracts.

“I began the Devotional Tracts on the Presence of God. I was quite surprised to find in one of so little experience a taste for the noblest passages in them. Those thoughts, she often said, gave her comfort and ease in the bitterest of afflictions. Twice or thrice after our reading I kissed her; but I ((soon)) immediately condemned myself as having done foolishly, being convinced (and the more so because she seemed not displeased) that it was not expedient either for her or me. In private she commonly employed herself in Mr. Law’s Serious Call and Christian Perfection. She made no objection to the strictness of either, being fully convinced, as she frequently said, that ‘as there is no happiness but in holiness, so the more holiness the more happiness.’6

It was during this time John also read The Negro's and Indian's Advocate, suing for their Admission into the Church, by Morgan Godwyn (London, 1680).7 the first anti-slavery tract he injested, but certainly not the last. Frank Baker argues that, while John came to Georgia to convert the Indians, he “instead found him-self led along the way to a deeper spiritual experience. In fact his ministry there spurred him to accomplish much more for Blacks than he was able to do for Native Americans.”8

He met with her 33 times in August.

John was apart from Sophy for most of September and early October, though he did write to her on September 23.9

It is in October when John is seemingly caring for Sophy through a depressive episode that he falls for her. I am going to read a number of journal entries from this time in a row because of the descriptive nature of

Tuesday, October 12, I asked, ‘Sir, what directions do you give me with regard to her’ He said, ‘I give her up to you. Do what you will with her. Take her into your own hands. Promise her what you will; I will make it good.’..Even poor Miss Sophy was scarce a shadow of what she was when I left her. Harmless company had stole away all her strength, Most of her good resolutions were vanished away…she was resolved to return to England immediately. I was at first a little surprised, but I soon recollected my spirits, and remembered my calling. ‘Greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world (1 John 4:4).’.. I reasoned with her much, but with no success; she could not see she was at all changed, and continued fixed in her resolution of leaving America with the first ship that sailed. I dropped the argument for the present, finding the veil was upon her heart. I begged of her to pray earnestly to God that he would direct her to what was best. I then read to her some of the most affecting parts of the Serious Call and of Ephraem Syrus and Paradise Lost. But I expressly desired we might leave out the love parts of that poem, because I said they might hurt her mind.10

In the evening of Tuesday the 19th, I asked Miss Sophy if she was still determined to go to England. On her answering, ‘Yes’, I offered several arguments drawn from the topics of religion against it. But they did not appear to make any impression. Then I pressed her upon the head of friendship, upon which she burst into tears and said, ‘Now my resolution begins to stagger,’ as it did more and more every day…My next point was to divert Miss Sophy from her fatal resolution of going to England, in which, after several fruitless attempts, I at last prevailed; nor was it long before she more than recovered the ground she had lost.11

Monday October 25. I set out for Savannah with Miss Sophy. I asked Mr. Oglethorpe in what boat she should go. He said, she can go and none, but yours, and indeed, there is none so proper. I saw the danger to myself, but yet had a good hope I should be delivered out of it, (1) first, because it was not my choice which brought me into it; (2) because I still felt in my self, the same desire, and design to live a single life; and (3) because I was persuaded, should my desire in Design, be changed, yet her resolution to live single would continue. we set out about noon… in the evening we landed on an uninhabited island, made a fire, supped, went to prayers together, and then spread our sail over us on four stakes to keep off the night dews. Under this, on one side were Miss Sophie, myself, and one of our boys, who came with me from Savannah; on the other, our boat’s crew. The north east wind was high and piercingly cold. And it was the first night she had ever spent in such a lodging. But she complained of nothing, appearing at satisfied, as if she had been warm upon a bed of down.12

On Thursday, October 28, in the afternoon, after walking sometime, we sat down in a little Thicket by the side of a spring. Here we entered upon a close conversation on Christian holiness. The openness with which she owned her ignorance, Evett, and the Earnest desire she showed for further instruction, as it much endeared her to me, so it made me hope. She would someday prove an eminent pattern of it. 13

During this time, John wrote in his diary “sins of thought” while he was sleeping near Sophy at night.

The next day, they camped on an island again and John asked Sophy directly about Mr. Mellichamp, the forger to whom she was formerly engaged. She said, “I have promised to either marry him or to marry no one at all.” John responded, “Miss Sophy, I should think myself happy if I was to spend my life with you.” But then she cries says “I am every way unhappy. I won’t have Tommy [Mellichamp], for he is a bad man. And I can have none else.”14

In many ways, it is in this conversation that the controversy over communion turns. John was convinced that Sophy was not going to marry anyone. She told him that night (according to him, of course), and he held those words close to his heart.

The rest of this October account include Sophy begging John to let her avoid her uncle’s house, as well as Sophy sleeping under her apron again and impressing John with her contentedness.

And yet it is here where the love John has for Sophy really comes through with his descriptions of her character at 18 years old. He calls her guileless before describing many positive qualities as her bearing, appearance, meekness, understanding, humility, and heart towards God.

This causes John to write:

Such was the woman, according to my closest observation, of whom I now began to be much afraid. My desire and design still was to live single. But how long it would continue I knew not. I therefore consulted my friends whether it was not best to break off all intercourse with her immediately. Three months after, they told me ‘It would have been best.’ But at this time, they expressed themselves so ambiguously that I understood them to mean the direct contrary, viz. that I ought not to break it off. And accordingly she came to me (as had been agreed) every morning and evening.15

Wesley kept his resolve for a few days, but on November 20, he kissed her again, and relapsed (his words), again and again until he left for Frederica Island after Christmas.16

Into the next year, John Wesley’s manuscript journal describes his inner turmoil over Sophy. He seems convinced that she would have said yes if he had proposed because he writes, “I cannot recollect so much as a single instance of my proposing anything to her, or expressing any desire, which she did not fully comply with, expect that one on February 15, the day after I told her my resolution not to marry.”17

Before February 15, John, in his words, “uses the familiarities with Miss Sophy [he] had resolved against. And likewise again hinted at a desire of marriage, though [he] made no direct proposal.”18

During this time, it was Sophy who said that it was best for clergy not to marry and that she had resolved not marry.

Wesley’s friends were convinced that he should not marry Sophy. Mr. Causton, Sophy’s uncle, seemed convince otherwise, and it is here that John lays out the reasons he did not propose:

  1. Because I did not think myself strong enough to bear the temptations of a married state;
  2. Because I feared it would have obstructed the design on which I came, the going among the Indians;
  3. Because I thought her resolved not to marry19

It is then on February 15 that John tells this conclusion to Sophy, that is, that he resolves not to marry until he ministers to the Indians. At this she breaks off her visits to his house, though she asks him to come to her uncles for regular prayers.

Wesley takes some days to reflect upon all that had happened. He saw her a few more times over the next month, but not with the same intimacy. His friends are stridently against the match at this point. On March 4, John made three lots. One had Marry, the second, ‘Think not of it this year’. The third had, ‘think of it no more.” They cast lots and the third was selected and John was resolved.20

It is the next week that Mr. Williamson’s name comes up as someone who had been courting Sophy. John asks her about him and she gives an opaque answer. The following day, a letter from Mr. Mellichamp arrives which causes Mrs. Causton to almost kick Sophy out of her house. John offers to let her stay at his house. Instead, that very day, March 8, Sophy engages herself to William Williamson. A person that Wesley describes as “not remarkable for handsomeness, neither for genteelness, neither for wit or knowledge or sense, and least of all, for religion.”21

Everything changes for Sophy and John, though their paths are still intertwined for months to come. Yet, instead of two friends walking a path, their relationship now becomes more like two trains on the same track headed for each other. There is an inevitably to conflict from which neither can swerve, and the result will be a warrant, a trial, and John Wesley’s return to England, next time on the History of Methodism.

  1. WW 18:365. ↩︎
  2. WW 18:366. ↩︎
  3. WW 18:366. ↩︎
  4. WW 18:366-67. ↩︎
  5. WW 18:408. ↩︎
  6. WW 18:410. ↩︎
  7. Baker, 75. ↩︎
  8. Baker, 75. ↩︎
  9. WW 18:425. ↩︎
  10. WW 18:431. ↩︎
  11. WW 18:433. ↩︎
  12. WW 18:435-436. ↩︎
  13. WW 18:437 ↩︎
  14. WW 18:438. ↩︎
  15. WW 18:441. ↩︎
  16. WW 18:442. ↩︎
  17. WW 18:467. ↩︎
  18. WW 18:467. ↩︎
  19. WW 18:469. ↩︎
  20. WW 18:480. ↩︎
  21. WW 18:483. ↩︎


Frank Baker, THE ORIGINS, CHARACTER, AND INFLUENCE OF JOHN WESLEY'S THOUGHTS UPON SLAVERY, Methodist History 12 (January 1984) 2: 75-86.