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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
John Wesley made the difficult trip to Frederica as fast as he could. He was able to convince Oglethorpe of Charles’s innocence. The governor said he had intended to have Charles “tried and imprisoned for spreading false rumors to hide his own sin” but had delayed, “considering the effect it would have on religion”; now he was glad he had hesitated. John improved the situation further by spending a week on the secretarial work that had piled up during his brother’s trouble and illness.
One day, when John stopped by Dr. Hawkins’s house to get some medicine, Mrs. Hawkins threatened him with a pistol in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other; she was going to cut off all his curls, she said—and she nearly succeeded. Rescued by a sergeant who happened to be in the house, the priest had hardly regained his composure before Mrs. Hawkins pushed him down and tore his cassock with her teeth. This time it took both the officer and Dr. Hawkins to save him. He hurried to tell Oglethorpe what had happened. The governor reprimanded Mrs. Hawkins, and he privately lamented that “wild women and prying priests” were about to “wreck” his colony.
Oglethorpe did forgive Charles his “errors in judgment, ” but he was also quite sure the colony would be better off without the young man. As a sop to the preacher’s dignity, the governor suggested that he return to England with “important dispatches” for the trustees. Charles, more than ready to go, offered his resignation, which was promptly accepted. Just before he sailed in August 1736, he got this advice from Governor Oglethorpe: “On many accounts I should recommend to you marriage, rather than celibacy. You are of a social temper, and would find in a married state the difficulties of working out your salvation exceedingly lessened …”
Thirteen years would pass before Charles Wesley took Oglethorpe’s advice. He would live to become a remarkably powerful preacher and “the great hymn-writer of all ages,” according to Canon Overton; “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” are two of his bestloved hymns. Long before his death in his eightieth year, Wesley would declare, “Whatsoever I do prospers.”
John Wesley, as pastor of Christ Church in Savannah in 1737, continued to labor devoutly and devotedly—and largely to fail because he “estranged his people by his malapropos zeal.” He simply would not let go of his “rubrical rigor.” Nor was he successful as a missionary to the Indians, but that was partly due to the fact that major Indian missions were forbidden because of the danger of French attacks.
However, it was mainly an affaire de coeur that completely doomed John Wesley’s ministry in Georgia. He fell in love with pretty, intelligent Sophia Hopkey, the eighteen-year-old niece and ward of Thomas Causton, the chief magistrate of Georgia and the trustees’ storekeeper. A regular attendant at his services, she often visited the parsonage to receive “spiritual guidance and comfort.” Then “Miss Sophy,” as John called her, nursed him through an attack of fever, and he began giving her daily French lessons. Both Causton and Oglethorpe promoted the attraction between the two, with Causton going so far as to tell Wesley that Sophia was quite well off, so that the poor financial status of the minister would in no way hinder a marriage between the two. Oglethorpe strongly advised John to get married, and then, playing cupid, directed him to escort Sophia to Frederica and back to Savannah.
John Wesley was deeply in love but feared that marriage “would probably obstruct the design” of his endeavors; he was “not strong enough to bear the complicated temptations of a married state.”
He fled Savannah for a few days, leaving his surprised love a note: “I find, Miss Sophy, I can’t take fire into my bosom without being burnt. I am therefore retiring for a while to desire the direction of God. Join with me, my friend, in fervent prayer, that He would shew me what is best to be done.”
He returned to inform the anxious young woman that he had decided against marriage until he had “accomplished a mission to the Indians”—which was about as indefinite as he could get. Sophia, at Mrs. Causton’s urging and to the preacher’s shock, married William Williamson, Causton’s clerk. Wesley in his old age recalled, “I was pierced through as with a sword.” His stark diary entry reads: “Could not pray. Tried to pray—lost—sunk.”
A few months later Rev. John Wesley felt it his duty to rebuke Sophia Williamson for neglect of her religious duties and for “falseness and inconsistency of life.” He refused her the Communion. His diary entry that night was also short: “Eucharist, Miss Sophy repelled.”
The next day, August 8, 1737, a warrant was issued for the arrest of John Wesley “on the complaint of William Williamson and Sophia, his wife, for defaming the said Sophia in a public congregation without cause. …” All Savannah buzzed. A week later Sophia swore to an affidavit accusing John Wesley of attempting to seduce her, vowing she would be made holier by living with him.