Magazine article History Today

Birth of John Wesley: June 17th, 1703. (Months Past)

Magazine article History Today

Birth of John Wesley: June 17th, 1703. (Months Past)

Article excerpt

THE FOUNDER OF Methodism was brought up as a staunch Anglican, but cherished the dissenting traditions on both sides of his family. His grandfather, John Wesley or Westley, was a Puritan supporter of Parliament who was expelled from his Dorset living after the restoration of Charles II. This John's son, Samuel, was educated as a nonconformist, but when he went up to Oxford, he explored his talent for writing and his misgivings about Dissenters. Surprisingly, he considered them unduly frivolous. He became a Church of England curate in London, where he met and married Susanna Annesley, one of the twenty-five children of a prominent Puritan divine, known as 'the St Paul of Nonconformity'. Spirited and intellectual, she too had moved away from Dissent.

In 1695 Samuel became rector of Epworth, a remote little town in the Isle of Axholme in the flat country of northern Lincolnshire, windswept under a massive sky and so isolated among rivers and marshes that quite often it could be reached only by boat. It was a centre of Dissent and the inhabitants, who have been described by one biographer as 'morose and in-bred', were not all enthusiastic about their rector's Tory politics, High Churchmanship and insistence that moral backslidings on their part required public confession and public acts of atonement.

In twenty years, between 1690 and 1709, Samuel and Susanna Wesley had nineteen (some say eighteen) children, ten of whom survived infancy. With so many mouths to feed, they were constantly worried about money, with which Samuel was hopeless. They also fell out because Samuel accepted William of Orange as the rightful king, but Susanna had Jacobite sympathies. Every evening at household prayers he would pray for 'our sovereign lord, King William' until there came an evening when Susanna refused to say 'amen'. At this he summoned her to his study, where he knelt and called down divine vengeance upon himself and all his posterity if he ever touched her or went to bed with her again. After the rectory caught fire and burned down in July 1702, he changed his mind. Samuel and Susanna were reconciled and their son John was born the following June.

The little boy was called Jackie or Jack in the family. He had an elder brother, another Samuel, who went to Westminster School in London, and five elder sisters. His younger brother Charles and two more sisters were born later. The children were all taught at home, six hours of lessons a day, by their mother, who did not believe in sparing the rod. …

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