A number of people have written to tell me they plan (or wish) to go on a Methodist heritage tour, retracing the steps of John Wesley from his birthplace in Epworth to his grave on City Road in London. This is a very rewarding experience; I have made the trip seven times, always learning something new and feeling newly inspired—though we must guard against making an icon of the man to whom we owe so much.
Let us review some of the places that carry potential for theological reflection, spiritual revitalization or missional re-visioning.
If you are planning a Methodist tour, try not to begin in London. Most people have difficulty keeping their timeline straight if they jump around from St. Paul’s Cathedral to Aldersgate to Wesley’s Chapel and his grave, before traveling 165 miles to his birthplace. Rather let us walk more or less chronologically.
Wesley was born in rural, northeastern England, an area considered remote by Londoners then and now. Epworth, in the county of Lincolnshire, is a small village where the streets are still laid out much as in Wesley’s day. Called “fen” country, it is a swampy region where the original roads were dredged from wetlands and often impassable. Much of the year, the village was surrounded by marsh.
The Wesley ancestry was aristocratic. His great grandfather, Bartholomew Westley, was an Oxford graduate and pastor of a Puritan church in the time of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth (1649-1661). John and Charles’ grandfather, John Westley, also a minister, finished Oxford at age 22 and was given a “living” (church, land, tenants, rectory and stipend). Both these clergy were expelled from their pulpits in 1662, when King Charles II was restored to the monarchy.
John Wesley’s father, Samuel, entered Oxford in 1683 and rejected the Dissenter theology of his elders, changing his name from Westley to Wesley. Samuel worked his way through college by waiting on wealthy students as a “servitor.” He finished his education in 1688, the year of the “Glorious Revolution” when Parliament took over the country, inviting William and Mary to come from Holland and reign—on Parliament’s terms.
Also in 1688, Samuel married Susanna Annesley, the daughter of a Dissenter clergyman. Susanna mastered four languages, home-schooled all her children and had more parishioners in her small group than Samuel had in church. Samuel, a high Anglican churchman, was never popular in Epworth; indeed, the laity wanted him out so much that they set fire to the rectory when little John was 5 years old, “a brand plucked from the burning”! After her husband’s death in 1735, Susanna reclaimed much of her evangelical, Dissenter family heritage and was involved in the early Methodist movement before she died in 1742. She is buried in the Dissenter’s Graveyard in London, across the street from Wesley House and in sight of John’s study window.
You can tour the rectory in Epworth. When you are there, go upstairs and look eastward toward St. Andrew’s Anglican Church. Samuel was landlord of all the pastures and fields from the rectory to the church. You can see where John was born, the window where he was rescued from the fire, and the kitchen where Susanna taught her children and led the small group.
Both parents were very strict and expressed little emotion in their parenting. At age 11, John was sent to London to attend Charterhouse, a boarding prep school where his tuition was paid by a nobleman friend of the family. John was never cuddled, never coddled. Once when John signed a letter to his mother, “Your Affectionate Son,” she responded, “The conclusion of your letter is very kind. . . . But I know myself enough to rest satisfied with a moderate degree of your affection. It would be unjust in me to desire the love of anyone.”
In your itinerary, go from Epworth to Oxford University. Wesley never really “sowed wild oats,” but he was not a prude either. At 17, while attending Christ Church—the largest and most prestigious of all the 37 Oxford colleges—he blossomed and was described as “gay, sprightly, full of wit and humor.” His auburn hair was shoulder length; he loved to dance and went to many parties, but to communion only three times in his freshman year!
By 1724, however, he was struggling with a call to ordained ministry and his mother encouraged him in her correspondence. His first theological decision was to reject predestination, the prevailing theology of the Oxford “divines.” After undergraduate school, John was elected as a teaching fellow at Lincoln College of Oxford. In 1729, after a brief stint as his father’s parish associate, Wesley returned to his teaching at Lincoln and quickly became the leader of the “Oxford Methodists,” a group derisively dubbed “The Holy Club.”
He intended to stay on the Oxford faculty for life, but was struggling constantly with the state of his soul as he devotedly pursued what he called “holiness of heart and life.” He had much the mentality and lifestyle of a monk. Samuel died in 1735 and four months later, John and Charles boarded a ship going to the British colony in Savannah, Ga., where John served as pastor of an Anglican church and Charles was personal secretary to General James Oglethorpe. Once again, though, the parish turned out to not be Wesley’s “cup of tea.”
In your itinerary, you should now go to London, starting with St. Paul’s Cathedral and moving on to Aldersgate Street. Wesley returned to London in February 1738, and on behalf of himself and his brother Charles, said to their new Moravian friend Peter Bohler, “Give us of your oil, for our lamps are gone out.” Wesley was under the spiritual, theological and psychological influence of the Moravians throughout the next few months until his experience at Aldersgate on May 24, 1738, when he wrote, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
The next column will detail the beginning of the Methodist revival. Your itinerary will include Bristol, in the “West Country,” and then back to London for study of the Foundery and Wesley Chapel.
Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference. He is the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: email@example.com.