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God, Man, Woman, And The Wesleys
In early Georgia, the founders of Methodism got off to a terrible start
April/May 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 3
In 1735, after John had bound himself to go to America with Oglethorpe as “Minister to Savannah and Missionary to the Indians” at a salary of fifty pounds a year, his younger brother agreed to go as secretary to the L governor. The Reverend Dr. John j Burton, one of the Georgia trustees, insisted that Charles take his religious orders before leaving so that Oglethorpe would have two “full clergymen.” Charles was reluctant. “I took my degree, and only thought of spending all my days in Oxford,” he recalled years later. “But my brother, who always had the ascendant over me, persuaded me to accompany him and Mr. Oglethorpe to Georgia. I exceedingly dreaded entering into Holy Orders but he over-ruled me here also, and I was ordained deacon by the Bishop of Oxford, and the next Sunday, priest by the Bishop of London.”
How poorly fitted Charles was to his secretarial post is indicated by his diary entry after his first day of writing letters for Oglethorpe: “I would not spend six days more in the same manner for all of Georgia. ”
In a letter to Dr. Burton, John explained why he was going: “My chief motive is I the hope of saving my own soul. I hope to learn the true sense of the Gospel of Christ by preaching it to the heathen.” The prospect of the venture was distasteful to him—which was precisely why he had to go. He was convinced that the self-denial and discomforts, sacrifices, and dangers involved would be mighty factors in the soul-saving process.
John and Charles Wesley were both short and slight, but they were handsome young men. John, according to one account, was “a prince charming … his countenance was singularly impressive and arresting. ” Charles was “fair-haired, with sunny blue eyes and fresh Saxon complexion.” He was “softer” than his older brother, and he “had a musical mind and a voice of true beauty.”
From the beginning the brothers found the stormy Atlantic forbidding, but they “unrolled their Holy Club rules” and determinedly organized their days. They rose at four each morning, prayed privately for an hour, then read from the Bible for two hours with two friends who had sailed with them: twenty-three-year-old Benjamin Ingham, the youngest member of the Oxford Holy Club, and twenty-one-year-old Charles Delamotte, son of a London sugar merchant, who was a great admirer of John. At seven each morning the Wesleys ate breakfast, after which they conducted public prayers; all the eighty English passengers were urged to be present, but usually only thirty or forty turned out. The entire day until nine each night was meticulously segmented, with duties, all related in some way to soul-saving, assigned to each segment.
During one daily period Charles wrote sermons and John studied German. John felt it was necessary that he learn the language of the twenty-six Moravians, German emigrants whom the Georgia trustees had given free passage aboard the Simmonds as religious refugees. He also attended the Germans’ public service each night at seven.
The Wesleys ate dinner at one o’clock and from then until four read to and instructed the passengers. At four there were evening prayers, after which “the children were catechized and instructed before the congregation. ” Then there was another period of private prayer, another period of public reading, this one with attention to individual passenger needs—as the clergymen saw those needs—and on and on until bedtime. The Wesleys were determined to “improve every soul on board”—including themselves. They consumed no meat or wine and limited their diet to rice, vegetables, and biscuits. John made a minor step up the ladder to Heaven by learning to “sleep well on the hard floor.”
Blind to the two women’s charms, John was surprised when they became hostile toward the end of the voyage.
Oglethorpe was soon faced with complaints that the preachers were overzealous. Many passengers strongly objected to the public cabin being taken over for religious services so much of the time. An uneducated servant woman complained that John read to her for nearly two hours from books she did not understand and that he refused to believe she did not like it. Several young married women who John said were “giddy” fussed about “being exhorted to night and day.” Charles Wesley, the passengers said, “flounced and bounced” too much as he “pursued sinners,” and he was too sure he knew what was good for everybody.
John Wesley wrote in his diary, “All the people are angry at my expounding so often”; he added that he would continue to expound until all were “convinced and affected.” One passenger was so angry at the Wesleys’ interference with his life that he decided to interfere with theirs: he danced on the deck above their cabin between twelve and one o’clock for several nights, keeping them awake.
Oglethorpe soothed the complainers as best he could, partially by providing a place between decks for some of the prayer and reading sessions that had previously monopolized the public cabin. He gave the Simmonds passengers short respites from the Wesleys by taking the two with him when he was rowed over to the London Merchant to check on the welfare of its passengers. The busy preachers did as much soul-saving on the second ship as time and circumstances allowed.