Wesleyan Wisdom: Tracing John Wesley’s journey: His final years

Editor’s note: This is the last in a series of columns tracing the footsteps of John Wesley.

I noted previously that John Wesley’s itinerant ministry covered a geographic triangle: from London west to Bristol on the Wales border, then northeast to Newcastle upon Tyne, and south back to London. He also went southwest into Cornwall, over into Wales and 60 times across the Irish Sea to Dublin and its environs, leaving a substantial following. Many of the Irish and Welsh later migrated to America, and along with the Palatinates from Germany made up a large percentage of the earliest Methodists in the U.S.

Donald Haynes

Donald W. Haynes

If you visit Bristol, be sure not to leave without seeing Charles Wesley’s home. Charles was never in the itinerant ministry—he lived in Bristol and near Marylebone in London. His Bristol house was only recently purchased by the Methodists and contains period furniture. The tour guide provides a wealth of information, including the fact that Charles did not compose music; he wrote hymn texts to be sung to existing tunes.

Charles’ son Samuel (1766-1837) was an excellent organist. Thomas Jackson, in a 19th-century biography of Charles, told the story that Samuel once applied for the organist position at St. Paul’s Cathedral but was turned down and told, “We want no Wesleys here.” When King George III heard of this, he called the young man to Windsor. The king, who by then was blind from cataracts, asked Samuel if anyone else was in the room. Hearing they were alone, he reportedly said, “It is my judgment that your father and your uncle and George Whitefield have done more to promote true religion in England than all the dignified clergy put together.” Historian Frederick Gill repeated that account in 1962, though it sounds much like Methodist lore!

Wesley’s Chapel

In 1776, the year the American colonies declared their independence, Wesley bought land on City Road in London, and in April 1777 he laid the cornerstone for the only chapel he would ever build. Seating 1,500 people, it was completed in 1778. According to Wesley scholar Richard Heitzenrater, though the chapel became “a center for preaching, fellowship and social service as well as sacramental worship, it remained unconsecrated [by the Anglican Church]” and therefore was technically not a church, by English law and language. However, it did function like a parish church, and while Methodist lay preachers were in the pulpit during the week, Wesley decreed that only ordained Anglican clergy would preach there on Sunday. That meant that Charles Wesley was the preacher until attendance declined so sharply that the trustees changed the charter and invited lay preachers on Sundays. Charles, the great hymn writer, was not a great preacher! His sermons, according to Dr. Heitzenrater’s research, were labeled “dry and lifeless.”

For the columns that supported the balcony until the 1890s, Wesley used old Royal Navy ship masts from Deptford Dockyard, a gift from King George III. The pink marble ones that you see today were installed when the originals were discovered to be dangerously rotted. The chapel did not originally have stained-glass windows as it does today and the chancel was different. However, it was designed by a prominent architect in the basilica tradition and was more grand than any of the Methodist meetinghouses or octagonal chapels of the day. Early Methodist preacher John Pawson (1737-1806) noted that Wesley sought “to build an elegant church such as even the Lord Mayor might attend without any diminishing of his official dignity.” Wesley’s Chapel, as it came to be known, is still home to a vibrant congregation. You can kneel at the same communion rail where the first Methodists were served the Lord’s Supper.

Alongside the chapel Wesley built a new house—one room wide, three rooms deep, and three stories high—to serve as both his private quarters and lodging for itinerant preachers when they were in London. On the ground floor there is a parlor and a formal dining room. Above that you will find Wesley’s prayer room, the bedroom where he died, and his study. A former minister of the chapel told the first group I ever brought there, “From his little room, Mr. Wesley stayed in touch with the universe.” The study is street side, and from the window Wesley could look out over the Dissenters graveyard where his mother was buried.

Wesley preached his last sermon, “On Faith,” in mid-January 1791. On Feb. 24 he dictated his final letter, a message of encouragement to abolitionist William Wilberforce. On March 1 the dying Wesley astonished those present by singing Isaac Watts’ hymn, “I’ll Praise My Maker While I’ve Breath.” The next day, surrounded by lay preachers, he rallied enough to say, “Best of all, God is with us.” He then whispered, “Farewell,” and was gone.

Charles, who had died three years earlier, was buried in an Anglican cemetery. John, like his mother, was buried on City Road. One account says that thousands gathered when his coffin was brought out the front door of the chapel, some calling out, “Why is Mr. Wesley not to be buried in holy ground?” Reportedly, one of the lay preachers carrying the coffin called back, “Wherever Mr. Wesley is buried, it will become holy ground.”

I long ago copied the inscription on his tomb:

“This great light arose by the singular providence of God, to enlighten these nations, and to revive, enforce and defend the pure apostolic doctrines and practices of the primitive Church, which he continued to do, both by his writings and his labours, for more than half a century; and to his inexpressible joy not only beheld their influence extending, and their efficacy witnessed, in the hearts and lives of many thousands, as well in the Western world as in these kingdoms; but also, far above all human power and expectation, lived to see provision made, by the singular grace of God, for their continuance and establishment, to the joy of future generations. Reader, if thou art constrained to bless the instrument, give God the glory.”

Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference. He is the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: dhaynes11@triad.rr.com.

Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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This is a wonderful article. Thank you for it. My youngest daughter was baptized at Wesley Chapel in 2002 while my family attended the church. Often, I did the museum tour and would stand by the large statue of John Wesley. He has always inspired me. I wish more Methodists would take time to get to know the old man. In my recent book, American Methodism, Past and Future Growth (Lexington: KY: Emeth Press, 2013), I detail how he established American Methodism and how/why he was "excommunicated" from it. It is a fascinating story.

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