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In the footsteps of John Wesley, 300 Years On

by Bob Barton

The thought of trekking 250,000 miles around Britain on horseback is something likely to deter even the most enthusiastic traveller. Add to this task the preaching of 40,000 sermons – mostly in the open-air – often confronting angry protesters as you go, and it’s not a job for the faint-hearted.

The man who did just this was John Wesley (1703-1791) whose work and that of his brother Charles led directly to the foundation of the Methodist Church. Today there are an estimated 70 million Methodists world-wide (the American Methodist Church, established by Francis Asbury, has grown into one of the largest Protestant churches in the USA). All are invited to Britain in 2003, the 300th anniversary of Wesley’s birth.

Many of the events planned to mark the anniversary will take place around his June birth date, including an international conference at the University of Manchester (Jun. 15-18) and an ecumenical celebration in historic Lincoln Cathedral (June 17). But the wide-ranging programme, which features special services, lectures, celebrations, walks, a choral festival and exhibitions, will span much of the year, from March to October.

Many of the important places in this charismatic evangelist’s life can be visited: from Wesley’s birthplace in a lovely Lincolnshire village to the world’s oldest Methodist Chapel, as well as dozens of his open-air preaching sites – often in scenic locations. Thanks to Wesley’s wanderlust, a tour of key Methodist sites could take you from the south-western tip of England, north into Scotland, via the Black Country, the Potteries in Central England and through Yorkshire, to the Scottish Highlands.

A terrifying incident during John Wesley’s childhood was when, aged five, he had a miraculous escape from a fire at the family home. Rescued just as the thatched roof was about to collapse, he was described by his mother, Susanna, as “a brand plucked from the burning”. A handsome Queen Anne period house, the Old Rectory, was built on the site and served as home for the remainder of his childhood. Now open to visitors and containing portraits, period furniture and memorabilia, it is situated at Epworth, a village in the Lincolnshire fens, 160 miles north of London.

John returned to Epworth many times – his father had been rector at St. Andrews Church – and he was once famously denied access to the church by the parish priest. Defiantly, he conducted his sermon outside, atop his father’s tomb.

At the age of 17, John went to university at Oxford, becoming an undergraduate at Christ Church. By 1725 he and his brother were meeting with other religious students in a Holy Club: the group was also nick-named the Methodists and this label stuck. In June 2003 there are plans to unveil a Wesley monument at Oxford’s Lincoln College, to which he was elected a Fellow in 1726.

There was an adventure overseas when the two brothers crossed the Atlantic to the new colony of Georgia as missionaries. The experience was a less than happy one, and John returned home in 1737.

The following year, Wesley experienced a kind of conversion. While staying in a room in London’s Aldersgate Street he said he “felt my heart strangely warmed”. A flame memorial in the street commemorates the event and is one of several important sites in London. Wesley’s Chapel in City Road – the so-called Cathedral of Methodism – and his house, incorporates the Museum of Methodism. His tomb, and the simple room in which he died, can also be seen. In Westminster, Methodist Central Hall, built to mark Wesley’s centenary, hosted the inaugural United Nations meeting in 1946.

Wesley began his career as a wandering preacher, giving his sermons in the open-air as most churches forbade him to preach inside. The Methodists needed some meeting places of their own. The ‘New Room’ in the city and port of Bristol dates from 1739 and is the oldest Methodist building in the world.

It is still a place of worship and Wesley also used it as a schoolroom and a free medicine dispensary for the poor. He maintained a lifelong interest in medicine, though some of his remedies seem questionable: a cure for ear ache – “put in a roasted fig as hot as may be”.
Upstairs are the preachers’ rooms, now serving as a small museum whose artefacts include John’s prayer book, letter-opener and seal and his riding crop. Outside is a small stable: this was one of three bases from which Methodist preachers toured the country using a system of ‘circuits’ and schedules.

For the next 50 years, Wesley travelled tirelessly the length and breadth of Britain, often preaching in the face of violent opposition.

All over the country places are marked out with plaques as his preaching locations: often a village green, market place or on the steps of a stone cross. Some are remarkable in their own right, such as Gwennap Pit near Redruth in Cornwall, a natural amphitheatre from which hundreds could see and hear him. He returned there 18 times. He was friends with lexicographer Samuel Johnson and industrialist Josiah Wedgwood.

The Potteries – now the city of Stoke-on-Trent, 150 miles north-west of London -- is still home to Wedgwood’s pottery, one of several porcelain factories with fascinating visitor centres. Just to the north is a rocky hill called Mow Cop, with its stunning views and mock castle. This is the birthplace of Primitive Methodism – born at an open-air meeting which lasted 14 hours. A ceremony marking the tercentenary is planned for June 8.

Wesley visited Scotland 22 times and preached often in Edinburgh and Aberdeen as well as venturing deep into the Highlands on a route from Perth to Inverness. Scotland’s oldest Methodist church, at Dunbar on the East Coast, was among his favourites and still holds weekly services.

Thanks to its wide variety of hotels and bed and breakfasts – not to mention the road and rail networks – it is now a lot easier and more comfortable to travel around Britain than in Wesley’s day. And preaching sermons as you go is not compulsory!