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God, Man, Woman, And The Wesleys

July 2024
17min read

In early Georgia, the founders of Methodism got off to a terrible start

THE SUCCESS OF John and Charles Wesley in founding Methodism is well documented, but what is seldom mentioned is that they started their ecclesiastical careers with a period of unrelieved bungling. It all took place in colonial Georgia in the early eighteenth century when the Wesley brothers, as the colony’s founder, Gen. James Oglethorpe, said, attempted to “unroll their rolled-up rules for England” in this struggling young settlement. John and Charles’s adventure, Oglethorpe concluded disgustedly, should be made “a play or tale of.”

Yet it was with Oglethorpe and at his insistence that the Wesleys went to Georgia. On December 10, 1735, the general’s flagship, Simmonds , and a second ship, London Merchant , escorted by the sloop of war HMS Hawk , left the shores of England with settlers bound for Georgia, a colony that had been chartered in 1732. Oglethorpe had established a settlement there to provide a home for persecuted religious sects, imprisoned debtors, and other unfortunates. Aboard the Simmonds were thirty-two-year-old John Wesley and his brother Charles, four years younger. At the time Oglethorpe thought the two clergymen were the most important passengers. On his return to England from Georgia the year before, he had told his fellow colonial trustees that the settlement’s most urgent needs were spiritual guidance for its inhabitants and missionary service for the Indians.

Oglethorpe was an old friend of the Wesley family: Samuel Wesley, rector of Epworth, and the rector’s eldest son, another Reverend Samuel, had helped to promote his original colonization plan and to select candidates for emigration—but neither had suggested that the younger sons, John and Charles, go along. Indeed, the younger Samuel, who had paid for Charles’s education, bitterly opposed his brother’s agreeing to go on Oglethorpe’s second trip. The father had died in April 1735, before Oglethorpe had approached John and Charles about the mission. Their mother, Susanna, did not side with her son Samuel in the family argument. When John, her fifteenth and favorite child, hesitated, she told him, “Had I twenty sons, I should rejoice that they were all so employed, though I should never see them more.” Charles, her eighteenth and last child, got the same maternal prod, but it was John’s persuasion that most influenced Charles’s decision.

Oglethorpe’s selection of John and Charles Wesley, “progeny of a Race of Preachers,” was widely approved in England. Four months before his sixth birthday John had been miraculously saved from a fire that destroyed the family rectory—”a brand plucked out of the burning. ” His father saw the rescue as God’s sign that John was “intended for a Great Purpose,” and the boy was educated to fulfill whatever the purpose might be. At Christ Church College at Oxford a friend described him as “a very sensible, active collegian, baffling every man by the subtleties of his logic … a young fellow of the finest classical tastes, of the most liberal and manly sentiments, gay and sprightly, with a turn to wit and humor.” John was ordained a deacon of the Church of England in September 1725 and began preaching; a few months later he was elected a fellow of Lincoln College, and in September 1728 he was ordained a priest.

Charles Wesley, “a bright, rollicking young fellow with more genius than grace,” had entered Christ Church College in 1726. At first he had preferred writing poetry and attending the theater to religion: he “objected to becoming a saint all at once.” But many years later, looking back on his undergraduate days, he declared that his “diversions” had kept him “dead to God, and asleep in the arms of Satan.” John dismissed such statements by Charles as “unpardonable exaggerations.”

When, in 1729, John was recalled to Oxford to teach, he found his brother had lost his eagerness for Satanic diversion. Now a bachelor of arts and a college tutor, Charles had gathered around him a small circle of students so serious-minded that local wits referred to the group as the “Holy Club.” When Garrett Wesley, a wealthy, childless relative in Ireland, offered to adopt Charles so that the young man could inherit his estates, Charles refused. This didn’t much surprise anybody: as a friend remarked, “All the Wesley men are eccentric—devout, learned, superior, but eccentric.”


Charles immediately and eagerly turned leadership of the Holy Club over to John, who promptly organized the members into a “Society” and drew up rules and regulations for their living “in a manner more regular and systematic” as they “promoted each other’s intellectual, moral and spiritual improvement.” The new movement stressed intense Bible study. Charles Wesley recorded that the “harmless nickname of Methodists” was bestowed upon the society by the university community “because of the members’ strict conformity to a prescribed method of study. ” The term had been used before to denigrate dissension, but John Wesley liked it; he defined a Methodist as “one that lives according to the method laid down in the Bible.”

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.

Oglethorpe did not interfere with the Wesleys’ “methods of salvation”—except when John dared to reprove him for “talking too much to the women.” The handsome, gallant soldier at first took the admonition good-naturedly—and continued his attentions to certain of the ladies aboard. But when John rebuked him again, Oglethorpe told him in no uncertain terms to confine his shipboard efforts to the colonists. The preacher noted in his diary that he had begun most earnestly praying for the founder of Georgia.

To the Wesley brothers, one experience of the voyage stood out as the most wonderful. They were very frightened during the storms at sea, and their fear puzzled them. John, after being terrified when a wave rolled over part of the ship and nearly drowned him, asked himself, “How is it that thou hast no faith, being still afraid to die?” A few days later the ships were caught in a hurricane. While the English screamed and whimpered in terror, the Moravians calmly sang songs of praise. When the gale died down, John exclaimed to one of them, “Were you not afraid, and were your women and children not afraid?” “I thank God, no,” came the answer. “None among us is afraid to die.” John talked at length to the English passengers of the “Germans’ calm born of great faith.” That night he wrote wistfully in his diary of discovering people who had overcome fear.

The Wesleys, bachelors who had had no experience with women of questionable character, felt they had a duty to save the souls of several “women of the world” aboard the Simmonds . John concentrated his efforts on Mrs. Hawkins and Mrs. Welch. Lively, daring, young Mrs. Hawkins was the wife of the doctor being sent to the colony; she had such a shady reputation that the lenient Georgia trustees had almost rejected the couple as colonists, finally accepting them only because of the need for a doctor. Mrs. Welch, a friend of Dr. and Mrs. Hawkins, was crude in speech and manner; she was pregnant, sick, and quarrelsome.

The two women eased the boredom of the voyage by pretending John Wesley was leading them from their sinful paths. His diary, page after page, tells of his progress in saving their souls. Mrs. Hawkins in particular put on a good show: she wept aloud and proclaimed that she knew, from her “close conversations” with John Wesley, that God had sent him to her.


Ingham and Delamotte recognized that the women were playing an ugly game; they knew from experience that Mrs. Hawkins was actually flirting with John Wesley. Charles, too, soon caught on, but none of them could convince John that his two penitents were actually amusing themselves at his expense. He was surprised when the women, resentful because he had remained blind to their charms, became hostile toward the end of the voyage. They had several times fought over the preacher during the journey; now they resolved together to have revenge upon the “holy Wesleys” once Georgia was reached.

On February 6, 1736, the travelers arrived at Savannah, a village of some two hundred houses and over five hundred inhabitants. Oglethorpe, the Wesleys, and the Moravians, on going ashore, gave thanks to God for a safe voyage, but not many of the other newcomers bothered. The Wesleys were very conscious of being strangers in a strange land, but they got busy with their job. When John Wesley returned to the Simmonds on an errand, he found that some of the crew and passengers who were on board waiting for temporary camps to be prepared were celebrating the end of the voyage by getting drunk—illegally so, as the statutes of the colony forbade the consumption of alcoholic beverages. He promptly staved in the casks of rum—which may have been the first incidence of the enforcement of prohibition in America.

In spite of the animosity shown him by Mrs. Hawkins and Mrs. Welch on the voyage, the gullible preacher did not give up. Soon after arriving in Savannah, he read to Mrs. Hawkins from The Life of God in the Soul of Man . He was disappointed because the “serious effect” it had on her “quickly vanished in light company.” The Moravian minister with whom he lodged until his parsonage was prepared counseled him to let Mrs. Hawkins alone and quietly “commend her to God,” advice that he did not heed. Charles Wesley decided to apply himself to the salvation of Mrs. Welch, whose ribald manner he attributed largely to the evil influence of Mrs. Hawkins. Mrs. Welch remained “all storm and tempest.”

After a week, Oglethorpe, Charles Wesley, Ingham, and the majority of the new colonists—four small boatfuls—including the Hawkinses and the Welches, went to Frederica, a new settlement on St. Simons Island, about one hundred miles south of Savannah. John Wesley and Delamotte remained at Savannah.

JOHN BEGAN his ministry to the town with a sermon on charity delivered to a noisy crowd in the courthouse, which served as church. He soon had his schedule for “regular and proper living” worked out—Sunday, for instance, was divided into morning service at five, sermon and Holy Communion at eleven, children’s catechism session at two, another service at three, and then a meeting for “reading, prayer, and praise.” He attended the Moravian service at six and then studied.

John even studied Spanish so he could converse with a few Spanish Jews. He later worked special services for the Italian and French into the schedule, and from the beginning he conducted prayer services in two neighboring settlements on Saturdays in French and German. He and Delamotte also established day schools. When some of the boys who wore shoes and stockings laughed at the ones who had to go barefoot, John went barefoot himself until he had “cured the lads of their vanity.”

In Frederica, Charles “held constant services, calling his tired, sweating parishioners to assembly by beat of drum.”

John Wesley expected all in his parish—saints and sinners—to adjust to his schedule. He had either forgotten or he ignored the advice Dr. Burton had given him before he left Oxford: to “consider the settlers as babes in their progress, and feed them with milk.” Instead, as one of his contemporaries put it, he “drenched his parishioners with the physic of an intolerant discipline.” He refused Church burial to those who had not received Anglican baptism; and he refused communion to all who had not been baptized by an ordained Episcopalian minister—and that included a pastor, J. M. Bolzius, who was the leader of an industrious community of Salzburg Lutherans, and one of the most devout and respected Christians in Georgia. “Can anyone carry High Church zeal higher than that?” John asked ruefully years later. “And how well have I been beaten with mine own staff!”

Pat Tailfer, one of the colonial malcontents at Savannah, wrote of Wesley’s “new kind of religious Tyranny,” saying that “Mr. John Wesley, receiv’d by us as a Clergyman of the Church of England soon discovered that his Aim was to enslave our Minds, as a necessary Preparative for enslaving our Bodies. The Attendances upon Prayers, Meetings, and Sermons inculcated by him, so frequently, and at improper Hours, inconsistent with necessary Labour, especially in an infant Colony… tended to propagate a Spirit of Indolence and of Hypocrisy … it being easier by an effected Shew of Religion and Adherence to Mr. Wesley’s Novelties, to be provided by his Procurement from the publick Stores. … Nor could the Reverend Gentleman conceal the Design he was so full of, Having frequently declar’d, That he never desired to see Georgia a Rich, but a Religious, Colony.”

Charles Wesley faced even more resentment in Frederica than his brother did in Savannah. He “held constant services, calling his tired, sweating parishioners to assembly by beat of drum.” The settlers complained that he meddled in everyone’s business and kept the village “in a state of confusion.” He got so involved in petty jealousies among the female colonists that they finally banded together in hatred of him.

Oglethorpe had ordered that there be no shooting on Sundays, but the first Sunday he was away from Frederica, Dr. Hawkins, who regarded himself “above petty regulations,” fired off a gun in the middle of Charles’s best sermon. The constable put the doctor in jail for the rest of the day—at the preacher’s urging, the constable said later. That afternoon a woman miscarried, which, everyone agreed, would not have happened if the doctor had been available. The furious colonists threatened Charles’s life, scaring him “into a frenzy.” Oglethorpe, already displeased by Charles’s poor performance as a secretary, heard about the prison episode on his return to Frederica, and “flailed the little priest with harsh words for his blind zeal. ” Charles wrote in his diary after a funeral service that he “envied the corpse his quiet grave.”

But it was Mrs. Hawkins and Mrs. Welch who finally brought about Charles Wesley’s downfall. They “confessed” to him that they both had committed adultery with Oglethorpe, then told the governor that the “gossipy reverend” had made up the tale and was spreading it. They further confided to Oglethrope that Mrs. Welch had been intimate with the priest—at his insistence, of course. That was not hard for Oglethorpe to believe: Charles was known to have stayed frequently until midnight with Mrs. Welch. He said that the time was spent simply praying, reading, and talking—which undoubtedly was true—but many colonists preferred to believe that his attentions had gone beyond pastoral duties. Frederica seethed with confusion and malice.

Charles found himself suddenly out of favor with Oglethorpe, with whom he resided. The governor gave orders that his secretary was not to have use of anything in his house, leaving Charles without even a bed to sleep on. The servant who had washed his linen now sent it back dirty. When he asked to borrow one of Oglethorpe’s teakettles, he was told there would be “no issue” for him. He wrote in his diary, “I was enabled to pray earnestly for my enemies, particularly Mr. Oglethorpe, whom I now look upon as the chief of them.” Bewildered, crushed, sick in body as well as mind, he lay on the dirt floor in the corner of a shack belonging to one of very few friendly colonists, rising only to hold Anglican services for a congregation numbering three. Fearing he was going to die, either from sickness or violence—a bullet had barely missed him—he wrote a long letter to John detailing the whole situation and induced Ingham to take it to Savannah.


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.

By August 22, when the court acted upon the complaint, nine other articles had been added to the indictment. These complaints had to do with autocratic procedures in Wesley’s church ritual—procedures that, as Wesley proclaimed, were “none of the court’s business.” After hearing an address by the chief magistrate, Causton, the forty-four-man grand jury found a true bill against the preacher on all charges.

Wesley demanded, but did not get, a quick trial on the complaints. Toward the end of November, with the trial date still not named, but with animosity against Wesley flaring up, he posted a notice in the public square telling the community he intended to leave. The court promptly warned him not to quit the province until the charges had been resolved, and another notice went up in the square, this one forbidding any man to help him get away.

“I now saw clearly,” wrote Wesley, “the hour was come for me to fly for my life, leaving this place, and as soon as evening prayers were over, about eight o’clock, the tide then serving, I shook off the dust of my feet, and left Georgia, having preached the Gospel there with much weakness indeed and many infirmities, not as I ought but as I was able.”

In getting away he had little help except from the faithful Delamotte, who wanted to accompany him but lacked the passage money. (Ingham had returned to England earlier.) Wesley set out in a small boat with a threeman crew—”a barber, a constable and a tithing-man, all fugitives from their creditors or their families”—and after a difficult and dangerous trip, arrived cold and hungry in Charles Town, South Carolina, on December 13, 1737. He sailed for England on Christmas Eve.

On shipboard John Wesley immediately resumed his sermons, prayer meetings, and reading and instruction sessions. But his diary entries reveal that he was profoundly troubled. “I went to America,” he wrote, “to convert the Indians, but oh! who shall convert me? This have I learned in the ends of the earth, that I am fallen short of the glory of God, that my whole heart is altogether corrupt and abominable, and consequently my whole life. Alienated as I am from the life of God, I am a child of wrath, an heir of hell.”

On the way home the troubled Wesley wrote, “I went to America to convert the Indians, but oh! who shall convert me?”

The thirty-four-year-old priest struggled out of his despair after he reached England. By 1739 he had drawn together several religious groups into the United Society of Methodists. (In America the Methodist Church was formally organized in 1784.) In addition to launching Methodism, John Wesley revitalized Christianity in England. During more than half a century of itinerant preaching, he delivered forty thousand sermons, the last only a week before he died in March 1791 as he neared his eighty-seventh birthday.

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