by Ellen Castelow
John and his brother Charles were the founders of the Methodist Movement. There are now almost 20 million members throughout the world, and the Methodist Church in America is the second largest Protestant community, with over 11 million members.
John Wesley was born on the 17th June 1703 ( in the ‘old style’ calendar – or 28th June in the ‘new style’ calendar after 1752) in Epworth Rectory, the 15th of 19 children born to his father, the Reverend Samuel Wesley and his mother Susanna. Susanna was a clever woman, who earned quite a reputation for debating with her husband over theology and politics. Indeed she held Sunday evening meetings in her kitchen when her husband was away, preaching and counselling the local congregation.
In 1714 John Wesley was admitted to Charterhouse School, London, and was away at school when in December 1715 and January 1716, Epworth Rectory was subject to an explicable haunting.
At that time the Reverend Samuel Wesley and the rest of the family witnessed some very mysterious happenings.
Inside the Rectory, a ghost known as ‘Old Jeffrey’ wrought havoc, and much of the knocking and banging that accompanied the ‘haunting’ seemed to come from the attic. There were sounds of bottles being smashed, mournful groans, and strange howls. One of Wesley’s daughters called Hetty said that she had seen ‘Old Jeffrey’ and reported that the ghost looked like someone in a long white gown, but her mother Susanna considered it to look more like a ‘headless badger’.
The haunting ceased but the cause was never established. Some local people believed that disgruntled parishioners may have been behind the strange happenings. Local enemies had already attacked some of the Wesleys’ animals, and they may have caused the rectory fires in 1702 and 1709.
John Wesley left Charterhouse School and went to Christ Church, Oxford as an undergraduate. After leaving Oxford in 1725, John took holy orders and became curate for his father at Wroot near Epworth in 1727. He was a great traveller; he and his brother Charles were sent as missionaries to Georgia in 1735, returning to England in 1737. His brother Charles wrote over 6,000 hymns, including the well known ‘Love Divine all Love Excelling’ and ‘Jesu, Lover of My Soul’.
In 1739 John started open-air preaching at Bristol, in Yorkshire and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. During his lifetime he is said to have delivered over 40,000 sermons.
From the 1730s until his death in London on 3rd March 1791, John Wesley travelled some many thousands of miles around Britain, on horseback and by carriage; he preached several times each day and wrote or edited around 400 publications. He left behind a movement of about 70,000 members.
The Old Rectory, John and Charles’ birthplace, was restored by the World Methodist Council in 1956, and is open to the public. The building dates from 1709 when Samuel Wesley had the Rectory rebuilt after a fire destroyed the earlier building. In Epworth you can also see the Market Cross where John preached on many occasions and the Red Lion Inn where he stayed on his later visits to Epworth. The Wesley Memorial Church was built as a memorial to both John and Charles Wesley in 1888-9.
Epworth is on the A161 between Goole and Gainsborough. From the M180 take Junction 2 and follow the signs – Epworth is 3 miles. Try our Travel Guide to the UK for more information on how to get there.
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