The Trial of John Wesley

In this episode, we continue the story of John Wesley's relationship with Sophy Hopkey beginning with her engagement to William Williamson up through John Wesley's Trial and final departure from the Colony of Georgia.

Episode 44

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

In our last episode, we covered the early days of John Wesley’s relationship with Sophy and ministry in Georgia up until Sophie’s engagement to William Williamson on March 8, 1737. We will pick up the story there.

When John first heard the news of Sophy’s engagement to Mr. Williamson, he was challenged by a notion that were he to propose to her at that moment, she would change engagements to him but he writes that it was the one thing he could not do. He writes that “he went home full of perplexity.”1

The next day, he saw Sophy and her fiancé. Sophy tried to keep things as they were, but John was having none of it. From his writings, he seems exceedingly stiff and stilted in the moment. He refused to marry them or even bless the marriage. He writes

From the beginning of my life to this hour, I had not known one such as this. God let loose my inordinate affection upon me, and the poison thereof drank up my spirit. I was as stupid as if but half awake, and yet in the sharpest pain I ever felt…yet one way remained: to seek God, a very present help in time of trouble…I could not pray. Then indeed the snares of death were about me; the pains of hell overtook me. Yet I struggled for life, (Wesley Quotes the Greek scriptures here in citing Romans 8:26) stenagmois alalatois, Or ‘with unspeakable groanings’…About four o’clock [God] so far took the cup from me that I drank so deeply of it no more.2

John then wrote to Sophy’s uncle, Mr. Causton, advising against the marriage. The next day, he saw Mr. Williamson again with Sophy. John read from Bishop Hall’s, Meditation on Heaven. Afterward, Williamson said that he would be glad for John’s advice. John said ‘I hope we shall all be happy together in the place we have been reading of.”3

On March 12, 1737, 4 days after their engagement, in Purrysburg, Sophy and William Williamson were married by a rival pastor, as was Miss Bovey, with whom John also spent a lot of time. In his diary for the day, Wesley notes: “Today Miss Bovey and Miss Sophy were married at Purrysburg!!!” He rated his grace a 7 three times on that day.

On March 13, a Sunday, John noted the absence of Sophy at worship in his diary. The next day, at prayers, Sophy was there but John marks in his diary: lively, zeal, pain.

On March 15, everything changes. Mr. Williamson came to John’s house very angry. He tells John that Sophy will not come to his house and that Sophy asked him not to go for fear that John would murder him. Something took place in those intervening days of which John is in the dark, but Mr. Williamson never looked at him as an ally again. My speculation is that in that time since the marriage, Sophy conveyed the depth of her affection for John and Mr. Williamson became very reasonably jealous. But again, this is pure speculation.

Four days later, John met with Sophy and Miss Bovey. John tried to understand the situation and Sophy said that her husband was confused. It was not John but Mr. Mellichamp’s friends who were dangerous. Mellichamp being the criminal to whom she had a prior relationship.

The next day, Sophy came to communion, but she said that her husband thinks talking to John makes her uneasy so Williamson advises against her seeing him.

John doesn’t talk to Sophy until April 8. In the mean time, he had given advice to the former Miss Bovey to convey spiritual instructions. They had a longer conversation in public on the 8th of April, Good Friday, in which he gave her the advice ‘In things of an indifferent nature, you can’t be too obedient to your husband. But if his will should be contrary to the will of God, you are to obey God rather than man.’ He also noted that she fasted that day.

On the following day, John saw Sophy again. She clarified that Mr. Williamson did not find John to cause unease in her, but that Mr Williamson worried that talking to John would make Sophy too strict.

In May, John begins to reflect about whether he could admit Sophy to communion. He writes in his journal account that he “was in doubt whether I could admit her to the Communion till she had in some manner or other owned her fault, and declared her repentance of it. I doubted the more because I was informed she had left off fasting, and because she neglected all the Morning Prayers, though still acknowledging her obligation to both, which made a wide difference between her neglect and that of others.”4

John then says he will bear with her till he has a chance to speak directly on the topic. Sophy showed up at morning prayers on Thursday, May 11, which John noted in his diary with an exclamation point. He then began writing what he call’s Miss Sophy’s Case. He worked on it for much of the rest of the day and then for the morning of the following day and every day until May 16, when he had a chance to speak to her again. He writes in the journal that he “earnestly exhorted her to avoid all insincerity as she would avoid fire; to hold fast all the means of grace; and never to give way to so vain a thought as that she could attain the end without them. I hoped my labour was not in vain, for she promised fair and appeared deeply serious.”5

Life continued for John.

On May 27, Mrs. Causton, Sophy’s aunt, became ill and John spent time at the house with her and her husband, the imminent Mr. Causton, to which he was still on good terms.

John doesn’t mention Sophy in the diary until Monday, May 30, when he notes that she was not there for the noon Sacrament. The following Saturday, he strikes up a conversation with a Mrs. Brownfield about Sophy that causes him to write in his journal that “God showed me yet more of the greatness of my deliverance, by opening to me a new and unexpected scene of Miss Sophy’s dissimulation. O never give me over to my own heart’s desires, nor let me follow my own imagination!”6

After the story of Mrs. Brownfield, John felt that Sophy had lied to him concerning her relations to Mr. Mellichamp, but John still conceded that he should to admit her to communion.

In June, the beginnings of a fissure between John and Mr. Causton come up over a vague incident where Causton accuses John of joining with his enemies. The matter settles quickly, and John is ministering to Causton after a fever in two weeks time, but the fissure once started, could only grow. Sophy is nowhere to be found in the diaries of June.

In July, John begins to note Sophy’s absence from communion. He calls it a new hindrance in that Sophy won’t admit herself. On July 3rd, after the sacrament (to which Sophy did not attend), John confronted her about her absences and she pled innocence. John then went to Mr. Burnside, the husband of her friend Miss Bovey, and pled his case. Burnside confirmed Wesley’s thoughts that he should bar her from communion if she did not repent.

John wished to be more direct with Sophy but he could not find her. He then wrote a letter to Mr. Causton which said the following.

To this hour you have shown yourself my friend; I ever have and ever shall acknowledge it. And it is my earnest desire that he who hath hitherto given me this blessing would continue it still.
But this cannot be unless you will allow me one request which is not so easy as it appears: ‘Don’t condemn me for doing in the execution of my office what I think it my duty to do.’
If you can prevail upon yourself to allow me this, even when I act without respect of persons, I am persuaded there will never be, at least not long, any misunderstanding between us. For even those who seek it shall, I trust, find no occasion against me, except it be concerning the law of my God.

He then wrote the following note to Sophy

If the sincerity of friendship is best to be known from the painful offices, then there could not be a stronger proof of mine than that I gave you on Sunday, except this which I am going to give you now, and which you may perhaps equally misinterpret.
Would you know what I dislike in your past or present behavior? You have always heard my thoughts as freely as you asked them. Nay, much more freely. You know it well. And so you shall do, as long as I can speak or write.

In your present behaviour I dislike, (1) Your neglect of half the Public Service, which no man living can oblige you to; (2) your neglect of fasting, which you once knew to be a help to the mind, without any prejudice to the body; (3) Your neglect of almost half the opportunities of communicating which you have lately had.

But these things are small in comparison of what I dislike in your past behaviour. For, (1) You told me over and over, you had entirely conquered your inclination for Mr. Mellichamp. Yet at that very time you had not conquered it. (2) You told me frequently, you had no design to marry Mr. Williamson. Yet at the very time you spoke, you had that design. (3) In order to conceal both these things from me, you went through a course of deliberate dissimulation. O how fallen! How changed! Surely there was a time when in Miss Sophy's lips there was no guile. Own these facts, and own your fault, and you will be in my thoughts as if they had never been. If you are otherwise minded, I shall still be your friend, though I can’t expect you should be mine.

The next day, Causton came to John confused by the letter. John said it had to do with a family member not being admitted to communion. Causton said that as long as it wasn’t his wife or himself, they could take care of themselves.

On July 11, Sophy had a miscarriage. Mrs. Causton told John and she blamed him because of his letter to her. John doesn’t note the exchange in his diary.

After some travels the rest of July, John returns to Savannah August 3. On Sunday, August 7th, five months after her marriage to Mr. Williamson, John repels Sophy from Holy Communion. He writes in his journal that it was because of the reasons he noted in his letter from July 5, as well as because she did not give him notice. That evening, Sophy expressed anger at John to her friend Mrs. Burnside. She tells her, “You was much to blame…but you may easily put an end to this, by going to Mr. Wesley now, and clearing yourself of what you are charged with.” Sophy’s reply (according to John), was, “No, I will not show such a meanness of spirit as to speak to him about it myself, but somebody else shall.”7

The following day, a warrant was written.

To all Constables, Tithingmen, and others, whom these may concern:

You, and each of you, are hereby required to take the body of John Wesley, Clerk;
And bring him before one of the bailiffs of the said town, to answer the complaint of William Williamson and Sophia his wife, for defaming the said Sophia and refusing to administer to her the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in a public congregation without cause; by whcih the said William WIlliamson is damaged one thousand pounds sterling. And for so doing this is your warrant, certifying what you are to do in the premises. Given under my hand and seal the 8th day of August, Anno Domine 1737.

In the currency of today, the fine of one thousand pounds would be worth around $275,000.8

The following day, John was served the warrant and taken before the Bailiff with the specific charges that he had defamed Mr. Williamson’s wife and that he causelessly repelled her from communion. John denied the first charge and then claimed that only an ecclesiastical court could prosecute the second, so he did not acknowledge it at all.

That same day Mr. Williamson posted an advertisement in Savannah that if anyone helped John out of the colony, that would be liable to the charges.

John also received a letter from Causton that seemed civil, but was in reality a letter to the Trustees in England. John didn’t know what to say and asked for a more private accommodation to the matter.

On August 11, Causton came to John’s house and was far rougher about everything leading to him screaming, “I will not rest till I have revenge.”

John attempted to quell the situation by writing to Sophy again and explaining his actions. John quotes directly from the Book of Common Prayer: “So many as intend to be partakers of the holy Communion shall signify their names to the Curate, at least some time the day before.”

And then

“And if any of those…have done any wrong to his neighbours by word or deed, so that the Congregation be hereby offended; the Curate…shall advertise him, that in any wise he presume not to come to the Lord’s Table, until he hath openly declared himself to have truly repented.”

No one was convinced by these arguments.

The following day, Mr. Causton read out loud all the letters John wrote to Sophy or himself. Some of John’s friends started to turn against him.9 Causton tried to get Mr. Burnside (who clerked for the Trustees) to sign a document against John, but Burnside wouldn’t do it.

The next tactic of Mr. Causton was to avail himself to all potential Grand Jury members. he did so by forgiving all debts and giving away items from his story. He and his wife also refused to go to church while John was there.

It was then that John saw a lengthy affidavit signed by Sophy which accused John of many things. John was able to get Mr. and Mrs. Burnside to testify in favor of him, which gave him a little comfort.

August 22 was the day of the trial and John was confronted by charges of a nature far beyond the scope in which he had prepared himself. There were forty-four members of the Grand Jury, and Mr. Causton both presided as magistrate and gave the charges.


THAT whereas the Colony of Georgia is composed of a mixed number of Christians, members of the Church of England and Dissenters, who all or most part would attend divine ordinances and communicate with a faithful pastor of the Established Church : the Rev. Mr. John Westley, who for the present serves the cure of Savannah, has not as the law directs emitted any declaration in this place of his adherence to the principles of the Church of England. We have the more reason to complain of grievances, that the said Revd. person (as we humbly conceive) deviates from the principles and regulations of the Established Church, in many particulars inconsistent with the happiness and prosperity of this Colony, as —

Prima, by inverting the order and method of the Liturgy ;

  1. By changing or altering such passages as he thinks proper in the version of Psalms publicly authorized to be sung in the church.
  2. By introducing into the church and service at the Altar compositions of psalms and hymns not inspected or authorized by any proper judicature;
  3. By introducing novelties, such as dipping infants, &c., in the Sacrament of Baptism, and refusing to baptize the children of such as will not submit to his innovations;
  4. By restricting the benefit of the Lord's Supper to a small number of persons, and refusing it to all others who will not conform to a grievous set of penances, confessions, mortifications, and constant attendance of early and late hours of prayer, very inconsistent with the labour and employments of the Colony ;
  5. By administering the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper to boys ignorant and unqualified, and that notwithstanding of their parents and nearest friends remonstrating against it, and accusing them of disobedience and other crimes, &c. ;
  6. By refusing to administrate the Holy Sacrament to well-disposed and well-living persons, unless they should submit to confessions and penances for crimes which they utterly refuse and whereof no evidence is offered ;
  7. By venting sundry uncharitable expressions of all who differ from him, and not pronouncing the Benediction in church, until all the hearers except his own communicants are withdrawn ;
  8. By teaching wives and servants that they ought absolutely to follow the course of mortification, fastings, and diets of prayers prescribed by him, without any regard to the interest of their private families, or the commands of their respective husbands and masters ;
  9. By refusing the Office of the Dead to such as did not communicate with him, or leaving out such parts of that Service as he thought proper;
  10. By searching into and meddling with the affairs of private families, by means of servants and spies employed by him for that purpose, whereby the peace both of public and private life is much endangered ;
  11. By calling himself 'Ordinary,' and thereby claiming a jurisdiction which we believe is not due to him, and whereby we should be precluded from access to redress by any superior jurisdiction.

We do with all respect and deference to the person and character

of the Revd. Mr. John Westley, present these our grievances : not

from any resentment, but only that such relief may be afforded in

time coming as shall be judged necessary for the interest of peace

and religion in this Province.

Mr. Williamson testified in the afternoon and then the Causton’s the following day. Sophy testified that she had had no objections to John before her wedding. On Wednesday, the 24th, the Grand Jury moved on to look into the ecclesiastical matters and this is where John felt the tide turn. Mr. Causton played himself and turned more than half of the jury against him, so that they began to look anew at all the grievances. But Mr. Causton held out and the Grand Jury delivered ten indictments against John on September 1, which he summarized in the following way.

  1. By writing and speaking to Mrs. Williamson against her husband’s consent.
  2. By repelling her from the Holy Communion.
  3. By dividing the Morning Service on Sunday.
  4. By not declaring any adherence to the Church of England.
  5. By refusing to baptize Mr. Parker’s child by sprinkling unless the parents would certify it was weak.
  6. By repelling Mr. Gough from the Holy Communion.
  7. By refusing to read the Burial Service over Nathanael Polhill, an Anabaptist.
  8. By calling myself Ordinary of Savannah.
  9. By refusing to receive William Agliony as a godfather, because he was not a communicant.
  10. By refusing Jacob Matthews for the same reason.

John responded the following day, saying.

As to nine of the ten indictments against me, I know this Court can take no cognizance of them, they being matters of an ecclesiastical nature, and this not being an Ecclesiastical Court. But the tenth, concerning my speaking and writing to Mrs. Williamson, is of a secular nature ; and this therefore I desire may be tried here, where the facts complained of were committed.’10

He then moved to have an immediate trial. John’s friend, Delamotte, thought John should get back to England as soon as possible but on September 10th, John “laid aside the thoughts of going to England, thinking more suitable to my calling still to commit my cause to God, and not to be in haste to justify myself.”11 John didn’t flee America. He stayed because he still thought his cause and actions just.

The next Sunday, John read the same document in church that he read on his first Sunday in Savannah about his authority. The following day, twelve members of the Grand Jury wrote to the Trustees that they had already changed their mind and come to the opinion that Wesley was innocent of all charges and that the whole affair was an artifice of Mr. Causton to blacken Wesley’s character.

It as at this point that the whole matter goes out, not with a bang, but with a whimper. The diary account breaks off at this time and all we have is the journal, wherein not much happens for another month.

At the end of November, John meets with Causton and they attempt a civil compromise. During the conversation, a Mr. Anderson told John that a court had stated that he was “an enemy to and hinderer of the public peace.” He leaves the meeting peacefully, but the next day, John tells Causton that he “did not think it proper for a hinderer of the public’s peace to stay in the place where he was so, and that I designed to set out for England immediately.”12

On December 2, the magistrates published a warrant keeping John from leaving. This time, he ignored it and headed out towards Port Royal, then Charleston, then home to England.

We have gone over a lot of details of the trial and its aftermath, details that are often ignored in accounting for the last weeks of John Wesley’s ministry in Georgia. It does not end well, but he also didn’t flee after his actions against Sophy. According to the 1662 prayerbook, he was well within his rights. When the Trustees of Georgia addressed the issue of his trial in December, they come to the same conclusion. The issue for the Trustees was the tension in the colony and the division between those who sided with Causton and those with Wesley.

Wesley landed in England on February 1, 1738. On April 26, he left his documents of appointment to Savannah with the Trustees.13 Thus he officially resigned.

John was not the same man when he returned and England was not the same place. But before we get to those vital first four months in England between landing and Aldersgate, we must return to Georgia one last time to see how John was shaped theologically by the experience.

Next time on the History of Methodism.

  1. WW 18:484. ↩︎
  2. WW 18:486. ↩︎
  3. WW 18:487. ↩︎
  4. WW 18:506, ↩︎
  5. WW 18:508/ ↩︎
  6. WW 18:513. ↩︎
  7. WW 18:536. ↩︎
  8. Eric W. Nye, Pounds Sterling to Dollars: Historical Conversion of Currency, accessed Thursday, January 11, 2024, ↩︎
  9. WW 18:544. ↩︎
  10. WW 18:562. ↩︎
  11. WW 18:563. ↩︎
  12. WW 18:568. ↩︎
  13. Rake, 133. ↩︎