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At Home with the Wesleys

By Dana Huntley 
Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: November 18, 2011 
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Rev. Samuel Wesley was rector of St. Andrews Church for almost 40 years. After his death in 1735, Wesley was buried in a tomb near the south porch.
Rev. Samuel Wesley was rector of St. Andrews Church for almost 40 years. After his death in 1735, Wesley was buried in a tomb near the south porch.

Sometimes the tides of history swell from quiet waters

Story and Photos By Dana Huntley

Often it feels as if history is the monopoly of politicians, monarchs and military men. Understandably enough, they do seem to get the headlines. In truth, we know that the larger tides that change social and intellectual history sometimes swell from quieter waters. One of those tides swept through 18th-century England and around the world, and began in the small Lincolnshire market town of Epworth with two brothers, John and Charles Wesley. Today, visitors from across the globe make their way to Epworth to follow the Wesley Trail about the quiet town.

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The brothers' father, Rev. Samuel Wesley, came to Epworth in 1695 as the Rector of St. Andrews Church with his wife Susanna and the first four of their 19 children (only 10 of whom survived infancy).  Both children of prominent Dissenting families, Samuel and Susanna had each made their choice to live and minister in the established Church of England. Samuel was to remain at St. Andrews until his death in 1735; he was buried in a table tomb near the south door of the church.

Despite his High Church principles, Samuel was a controversial activist in his own way. Following the religious turmoil that had gripped England from the time of Henry VIII until the restoration of the monarchy in the 1660s, the English church was very content to be a nominal presence in society and in the lives of its formal adherents. Samuel Wesley and his wife, however, were a bit too fervent in their faith and in their devotion to personal piety for the taste of their times.

As Samuel and Susanna's young family grew, with (among others) the birth of John in 1703 and his brother Charles in 1707, several acts of vandalism and violence marked the displeasure of some in the St. Andrews' parish. In 1709, persons unknown or unnamed set fire to the thatched-roof Rectory. Famously, 5-year-old John was rescued at the last moment from an upper-story window. He never forgot the incident, and attributed his preservation to God' purpose for his life.

A new rectory, long known as The Old Rectory, was built—a lovely, brick Queen Anne manse, suitable for Rev. Wesley's growing family, and for his prominence in the community. The Old Rectory remained home to the rectors of Epworth until 1954, when, in a state of serious disrepair, it was purchased by the World Methodist Council. Following its complete restoration, the Old Rectory was opened to the public in 1957. Today, it makes an appropriate starting point for visitors following the Wesley Trail through the small town. Informed and enthusiastic guides tell the story of the Wesley household and the Rectory's collection of Wesleyan memorabilia (including Charles Wesley's music stand).

After a solid education at the hands of their mother Susanna (a woman renowned for her own learning and moral discipline), John and then Charles made their way to school in London and subsequently to Oxford. There, in the middle of the worldly and often profane university city, they gathered around themselves a group of friends to seriously practice the spiritual disciplines with which they had been imbued by their parents. So regular was this group in their study and devotion that they were given the mocking nickname "Methodists." 

The rest, as they say, is history. No, of course, it's not that simple. Ultimately, however, John and Charles Wesley went on to lead the most influential religious and social movement of the English 1700s. Though both men took orders in the Church of England, neither followed their father as a church vicar. John Wesley famously declared more than once: "The world is my parish." He may not have covered the world, but he is said to have ridden some 250,000 miles on horseback and to have preached more than 40,000 sermons.     

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