The Wesleys in Wight
By Walter Fancutt
WHEN GENERAL JAMES OGLETHORPE turned from his military activities to found a colony in America where released debtors could start a new life, he looked around for a group of men who could emigrate with him as leaders of the philanthropic plan. Young Charles Wesley was appointed the general's secretary in 1732 and his enthusiasm in turn infected his brother John who had been ordained deacon in 1725, and who had become curate to his father in 1727. The father, the Rev Samuel Wesley died in 1735, two years after the first of Oglethorpe's settlements had been founded, so the Wesleys felt able to give full-time service to the new colony, Georgia, so-called after George the Second. With the general and a group of twenty-six Moravians from Europe who were also anxious to find a new home in Georgia, they embarked at Gravesend on the frigate `Simmonds'. The vessel set sail on Tuesday, 14th October, 1735, after a frustraing week lying off the port, but more delay was to follow. They were due to rendezvous with a man-of-war escort at Cowes in preparation for the Atlantic voyage but contrary winds and sudden storms held them to the coast of the Isle of Wight until the 10th December. From Yarmouth and St Helens where the boat sheltered, John and Charles Wesley made their way to Cowes, Newport and other places, seeking fellowship with their fellow-Christians. 'The poor people flocked together in great numbers', wrote John in his Journal, continuing 'we distributed a few little books among the more serious of them, which they received with all possible expressions of thankfulness.'
During one abortive effort at continuing the journey, the convoy got as far as the Needles and had to turn back but John was particularly impressed by the sight of the great rocks as they were lashed by the heavy seas, and he wrote: 'Here the ragged rocks, with the waves dashing and foaming at the foot of them, and the white side of the Island rising to such a height, gave a strong idea of 'Him that spanneth the heavens, and holdeth the waters in the hollow of His hand!"
Eventually, on the 6th February, 1736, the Simmonds arrived in Georgia, and the two brothers took up their appointed work, Charles in administration (though he too had now been ordained), and John as chaplain to the settlers and the national Indians of Savannah. In the colony, the Wesleys must often have met one notable Isle of Wight emigrant, William Stephens, for he later became President of the new colony. Unfortunately, John Wesley became involved in a lawsuit brought by the husband of a church member, and the unhappy cleric decided to return to England, where he arrived just two years and four months after sailing from Gravesend with such high hopes. 'I left my native country,' he wrote, 'in order to teach the Georgian Indians the nature of Christianity; but what have I teamed myself in the meantime? Why, (what I the least of all suspected), that I who went to America to convert others, was never myself converted to God', though, in a later hand, written before the Journal was published, he wrote, 'I am not sure of this.' What did bring him assurance was his experience during the evening of 24th May, 1738, at a Moravian meeting in Aldersgate Street, in the City of London. Here, while listening to a passange from the writings of Martin Luther, he was stirred, as never before, as we can see from his own words: 'About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation, and an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.'
It was this 'changed John Wesley' who later visited the Isle of Wight on a number of occasions, to minister to the groups of `Methodists' who followed his teaching and his experience of grace. When the first such societies were formed on the Island is not known, but by 1753 there were enough followers to warrant a visit from their leader. On Tuesday, 10th July 1753, John Wesley boarded a boy at Southampton for the three-hour journey to Cowes, and on landing he walked to Newport where he 'found a little Society in tolerable order.' He also preached in the market place though he was troubled because 'many children made much noise, and many grown persons were talking aloud almost all the time I was preaching', though he adds brightly, 'it was quite otherwise at five in the morning!' Between his services in Newport, the preacher was able to visit Carisbrooke Castle, where he was impressed by the well from whose depths a donkey — said to be sixty years old — was patiently drawing up the water. In October, 1753, John Wesley came again to Newport, preaching to a congregation which was 'large and deeply attentive.' The next day, he went to Shorwell where, he declared, 'I never saw a more fruitful, or more pleasant country, than the inland part of the island.' Returning to Newport, the evangelist was soon in the market place, preaching 'to most of the town, and many who came from the neighbouring villages', so that he longed to give them regular oversight, saying, 'if there were any here to preach the word of God with power, a multitude would soon be obedient in the faith.'
Planning a later visit (in 1758), Wesley complained of the high cost of transport, confiding in his journal, 'I designed to go in a wherry to the Isle of Wight, but the watermen were so extravagant in their demands, that I changed my mind and went in the hoy; and it was well I did, for the sea was so high, it would not have been easy for a small boat to keep above the water.' On arrival, the evangelist and his party walked the five miles into Newport but were horritifed to find the town, 'filled ... with soldiers, the most abandoned wretches who I ever yet saw. Their whole glory was in cursing, swearing, drunkenness and lewdness.' Nevertheless, he had a good hearing both that afternoon and at six the following morning, even being encouraged by the presence of some of the soldiers, one of whom, Benjamin Lawrence, walked with the preacher as far as Wootton Bridge, telling him of the way in which the French marauders were plaguing the Island at that time.
When a new preaching-house was opened in Newport on 10th October, 1781, John Wesley came over to preach the sermon, explaining to the congregation.'the nature of a Methodist Society, of which few had before the least conception.' Though there was some opposition to the local Methodists, he was able to note a year later, 'This place seems now ripe for the Gospel; opposition is at an end. Only let our preachers be men of faith and love, and they will see the fruit of their labours.'
The Newport Methodists came in for a good deal of praise when their leader met them in 1783, 1785 and 1790, and he was quick to point out their more encouraging features, noting, 'We had a comfortable time at Newport, where is a very teachable, though uncommonly elegant, congregation.' Even at Newtown where, on a previous visit, he had seen 'but the ruins of a church and scarce six houses remaining,' he is later able to say that 'most of the gentry of Newport, attended the preaching' at the waterside spot.
He calls Newport, 'one of the pleasantest, neatest, and most elegant towns of the King's dominions' and this is high praise when we consider the great number of towns in the British Isles which received visits from the evangelist between 1738 and 1790. One is glad to notice that it was not only the town which came in for his praise. He wrote, 'Both the night I preached here, the preaching-house could by no means contain the congregation. I was likewise well-pleased with the poor, plain, artless Society. Here, at least, we have not lost our labour.'
Wesley ended his famous Journal in 1776, though he lived on until 1791, so we shall never know whether and under what circumstances the great preacher again visited the Island.