John Wesley and Women
Intense, charismatic, indomitable, John Wesley lived according to rules established by the only woman living in his time who may have been his equal—Susanna Wesley, his mother. But women for Wesley were a special class of beings with spiritual sensitivity and with gifts for elevated conversation and correspondence. Throughout his life John Wesley was naturally attracted to women, and he attracted a wide range of women to him. Although he was disappointed in love and more so in his marriage, nevertheless, for spiritual comradeship, Wesley especially cherished contact with faithful women.
With men it was otherwise. From his father Samuel and his brothers, particularly Samuel and Charles, to his mentor William Law, to his Holy Club associates, to the Moravians Peter Boehler and Christian David, the early male influences on John Wesley were vigorous and deep, but he systematically transcended any single male influence and by 1738 was finally freely himself. Wesley had the gift of attracting men with the highest personal powers to himself and of organizing them effectively. He used men, he led men. But among men perhaps only his brother Charles was a real, lifelong friend. All other male relationships seem to have been professional in the highest sense—in doing God’s work.
So profound was the influence of Susanna Wesley upon her son John Wesley that she has been called “The Mother of Methodism.” But the force of her character was also an obstacle to John Wesley’s appreciation of women in general, for what woman could possibly have measured up to her?
Susanna Wesley’s regime at the parsonage was very strict even by eighteenth century standards. She bore many children—John was the fourteenth—but Susanna Wesley knew precisely what to do with them. She broke her children’s wills early so that their young minds could be formed in a wholly Christian fashion. Beatings were administered frequently, and the children learned to cry softly so that they would not be beaten again. Devotions were held before daybreak each day, and study was a normal part of the daily routine for all the family. Harsh cold and a sparse diet also prepared the way ahead for John.
Susanna and Samuel Wesley agreed in their manner of governing the home. The childhood of ministers’ children was a product both of the low salary paid to ministers and of the minister’ desire to maintain a dignity above any class distinction. Ministers were the educated class, and they prepared their children for the hardship of getting through the best schools without a family fortune behind them. John Wesley won scholarships and a fellowship to put himself through. In his journals and letters he never wrote of one regret for his childhood, and indeed again and again prescribed his own upbringing as the ideal Christian childhood.
In the year that Samuel Wesley died, his two sons John and Charles asked their mother whether they should proceed to Georgia to do the ministerial work for which they had been invited. She answered that indeed they should—even if she should never see them again. Her devotion to God called for the joyful sacrifice of all her children for His glory. Can there be any question why John Wesley, brought up with such a model of Christian sacrifice, was impatient with his early congregations for their easygoing ways?
John Wesley’s home was not exclusively dour and serious. He and Charles, being educated and eligible young men, naturally fell in with the upperclass society. In those days children in such circles amused themselves by assuming names and carrying on platonic or abstract philosophical correspondence. John was “Cyrus” and his first love was Sally Kirkham, who was “Varanese.” This relationship was different from that typical of contemporary youth. There was nothing whatsoever physical about it. The record in Wesley’s journal is in code and is sketchy—it is clear, though, that John Wesley was reticent even to tell the young girl that he was fond of her. She was the last person of her social position to whom Wesley was personally attracted except through his ministerial role.
After this nebulous first love, John Wesley continued to circulate in the country-house culture, occasionally taking a glass of wine, dancing with his sister, or reading the fashionable literature of his day. Only when he went to Georgia was he again attracted by a young girl, but now the situation was public, not private.
“Sophy” Hopkey was one of John Wesley’s young parishoners in Georgia. She was, by all accounts, not very , exceptional, but Wesley saw a lot of her. They would go walking or riding or picnicking. The relationship was not physical in the least. In fact, John Wesley waited so long to tell her that he cared for her that “Sophy” pledged I herself to another man. That was betrayal in Wesley’s mind, and he took revenge in a most uncharitable way—he refused to perform the marriage ceremony for the girl on the basis of narrow legalistic grounds. As a result, the whole community was in an uproar, and Wesley literally fled the territory, departed for England, and never went to America again. So by the time of his Aldersgate conversion, Wesley had suffered two defeats in love—one minor, the other somewhat unsettling.
Wesley’s third encounter with romance was with Grace Murray, who had been his nurse during an illness. Grateful for the kindness she had shown him, Wesley employed her as his assistant while he preached around the country. She was devoted to him, and he became very attached to her. They decided on marriage, but unfortunately Charles and John each had agreed to allow the other to approve or disapprove of his choice of a bride. Charles not only disapproved, but upon discovering the plan, he rode immediately to Grace Murray and forced her to break the engagement and to marry one of John’s preachers. No one knows what was said at the interview or why Grace Murray so radically changed her mind, but John Wesley was crushed.
Charles’ preemptive strike had a very bad consequence. The next time John Wesley decided to marry, he did so in secret, and the marriage was consummated before Charles knew anything about it. This marriage—to Mrs. Vazeille—was one of the worst mistakes of his life.
Mrs. Vazeille was the wife of a sailor, who was lost at sea during a voyage made shortly after he and his wife had argued about Mrs. Vazeille’s frequenting Methodist societies. One novelist has postulated that his death was the gallant suicide of a wronged husband, but nothing really is known concerning the circumstances. Mrs. Vazeille, now Mrs. Wesley, became insanely jealous of her husband, reading his mail for incriminating evidence. She embarrassed her husband in public on numerous occasions. At first she tried to keep up with Wesley in his routine, but finally she could not. The two separated, but never divorced. Wesley’s journal entries are significantly cold and detached in their mention of her, even when they record her death.
Clearly, John Wesley never had a satisfactory love relation in the full sense of the term with anyone. “Varanese,” “Sophy” Hopkey, and Grace Murray were all will-o-the-wisps, though Grace Murray may have turned out as more than that if Charles had not interfered. Mrs. Vazeille was like a judgment. But what woman could pass family muster or withstand the hardships imposed by Wesley on himself and his associates? With physical relationships closed to him, Wesley concentrated on platonic, non-physical ones.
Selina, Countess of Huntington, one of those who walked out of the Moravian society with Wesley, remained a friend for life. Even though later she personally favored George Whitefield’s Calvinism to Wesley’s Methodism, she maintained her communications with Wesley and was a voice for him in high places. When Wesley told hostile justices that his power was from the throne, he in part meant that he had powerful friends in court—like the Countess.
Farther down the social chain were women, who, like many women today, had deep, visionary experiences. Whenever Wesley heard of such a woman, he would interview her and minutely record the experience in his journal. Brought up to consider the world as alive with supernatural powers, Wesley often went out of his way to find this kind of informant, whether male or female. But he seems to have considered women more susceptible to such experiences than men. In the same vein, Wesley records every instance of prophecy and of what we now call telepathy in women. He produced no treatise on the subject, but his scientific interest in women was profound and lasting.
For Wesley women had equal stature to men in God’s eves. He used women in his work, and he elaborated on the special service of women who died doing good for the poor and for prisoners. He did not see equality in God’s sight as meaning equality in the world of work or in the world of ordained preachers. But this should not diminish the importance of his elevation of women well above their station in the Anglican Church. Only recently has Wesley’s idea of women’s roles been explored in biographical studies of some of the early Methodist women, done by women whose own advances chronicle an ongoing development of roles for women in the churches that have sprung from his teachings.
Copyright © 1983 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian History.