Methodists have always lived with an uneasy sense that something went seriously wrong between John Wesley and his wife, Mary Vazeille (née Goldhawk). Married in 1751, John and Mary stopped living together from around 1758. They were reconciled for a short period in the 1770s, and then again separated from each other. What happened?
Traditionally Methodists have blamed Mary. The Encyclopedia of World Methodism (1974) has an article on Mary Wesley that blamed the breakup on “his wife’s perverseness, which was probably worsened by a streak of mental unsoundness …” and went on to say, “it remained for [John] only to show what infinite stores of fortitude and forbearance he possessed.”
In “John Wesley’s Intimate Disconnections, 1755-1764,” Ted A. Campbell offers a new and complex account of the unraveling of this relationship based on careful study of correspondence in the period. He points out that this period very nearly coincides with the Seven Years War (1754-1763) and that John Wesley’s earlier and conversationally intimate relationship with his brother Charles had gone through a serious hiatus early in this period, including a period of three and a half years’ cessation of communications between the brothers. Campbell points out that Wesley typically wrote to his wife in a business-like fashion, but wrote to younger, married women such as Sarah Ryan, with great spiritual intimacy. When Wesley Mary intercepted one of John’s letters to Sarah Ryan, she could see that her husband did not confide in her as he did with the younger women.
The story that Campbell unravels in this article is thus a complicated, grown-up tragedy of misplaced intimacy that signals one of the key problems associated with Methodist “heart religion” in the eighteenth century. The article examines not only the text of Wesley’s letters, but also examines how Wesley sometimes marked through words to convey meanings, and how his brother Charles wrote “endorsements” (summaries) of his letters that read as clever asides revealing his sometimes scathing reactions to his brother’s letters. The article was published in the April, 2013, issue of Methodist History and can be accessed at this address:
Ted A. Campbell serves as Associate Professor of Church History, Perkins School of Theology Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, Texas.