John Wesley and Savannah

By Kathy W. Ross and Rosemary Stacy

John Wesley was one of the most influential Christian leaders in history. He began his teachings in London, England and at the request of General Oglethorpe brought his beliefs and doctrines to the new colony of Savannah, Georgia. Along with his brother Charles and George Whitefield, he originated the Methodist movement in response to the general apathy that characterized the Anglican Church of the early eighteenth century. His story is one of perseverance and personal fortitude with a belief in his Savior. His influence continues today as seen with a large number of Methodist churches in the area, the first orphanage in Georgia founded by one of his constituents, and the world-wide Methodist Church organization.

The story of John Wesley originated before his birth with the faith of his mother and continued until his death on March 2, 1791. In 1703, Susanna Wesley gave birth to her fifteenth child, John Wesley. Susanna educated all of her children at home. It was through her convictions that John Wesley became acquainted with daily prayer, a reliance on the Lord, and a giving of one’s self to the service of others. John’s father, the Reverend Samuel Wesley, was the Anglican Rector, whose beliefs followed the church doctrine of the time.

When John was five, their home caught fire. John’s bed was in the attic and no one was able to reach him. John leaned out of the window and was able to be rescued. From that time until his death, he believed that he had been saved for a special task in life and that he should work diligently to fulfill this promise to God. He called himself a brand plucked from the fire referring to Zechariah 3:2.

In 1726, John went to Oxford University and in 1728, he was ordained as an Anglican Priest. While at Oxford, he and a few friends including Charles Wesley, his brother, and George Whitefield, formed a club to debate the scriptures and encourage each other to seek the truth in their religious convictions. Each member was responsible to visit the sick and to conduct a service in the jail for the prisoners which at the time was considered extremely unusual by these young collegiate men. Theirs’ was a "holy club" and they were chided by their fellow college mates for being overly pious and methodical in their daily practices. Hence, they became known as "Methodists".

From the beginning, the new colony of Georgia was to be a haven for persecuted religious sects and impecunious debtors. The Salzburgers and the Scotch Highlanders because of their religious oppression were offered refuge in Georgia. John Wesley was approached by Oglethorpe to be a minister for the new parish of Savannah. It was Wesley’s belief that he would preach to the Indians and lead them to Christ. Wesley and his brother, Charles, sailed for Georgia on October 14, 1735.

On the four month long trip, a storm came up suddenly and broke the main mast. While the Englishmen were crying, a group of Moravians calmly sang hymns and prayed. John Wesley was impressed by their personal faith in the face of a dangerous, life-threatening storm. He became convinced of his inner weakness while the Moravians seemed to possess an inner strength he did not. It was through his friendship with Moravians that Wesley discovered what seemed to be missing in his faith. The Moravians practiced the doctrine of free justification by faith and of the Holy Spirit’s witness.

Upon reaching Savannah on February 8,1736, Wesley began his unique ministry. The colony was populated from the humbler classes of Englishmen, with a few Portuguese Jews, and the German colony of Salzburgers only twenty miles away at Ebenezer. There was also a colony of Scotch Highlanders at the mouth of the Altamaha River and the settlement at Fort Frederica. Oglethorpe positioned his headquarters at Frederica to protect the colony from the Spanish in Florida. Reverend Charles Wesley was officially titled the secretary for Indian affairs, his duties were to be secretary and chaplain at Frederica. John Wesley was appointed missionary at Savannah.

The missionary field in Savannah was quite different from the streets and constraints of London, England. John Wesley was a man of High Church notions and strict methods of living that had little practical value to the native Indians and the collection of colonists struggling to provide a new way of life for themselves. The geographical diversity of his parish was too much for one man, even one of his convictions. The parish was two hundred miles in length and the depth was immeasurable. There was also the diversity in the linguistics and the cultures. John Wesley was a man of strong convictions and he was determined to minister and convert all who would listen.

In a solution to the problems of language differences, Wesley began to teach himself Spanish in order to converse with the Jewish parishioners. He would travel to the outlying villages of Highgate and Hempstead that were five miles southwest of the town and also to Vernonburgh and Acton that were ten miles to the south. Upon arriving at these rather remote hamlets, Wesley would read public prayers and counsel the French, German, and Swiss settlers living there. A typical Sunday as rector of the Church of Savannah went as:

5:00-6:30 English Prayers

9:00-10:00 Italian Prayers

10:30-12:30 English Communion and Service

1:00-2:00 French Prayers

2:00-3:00 Catechism of children

3:00-4:00 English Prayers

After a full day of reading the public prayers, Wesley would join the Moravians for relief to become a student not a teacher. The Moravians, at the settlement at Ebenezer, were a great solace to Wesley. He wrote in his journal very highly of their achievements in spiritual and agricultural matters. Only after a year of colonization, Wesley visited the settlement and wrote of his amazement of their accomplishments with their huts and plantations laid out in an orderly fashion. Their crop of Indian corn was planted and flourishing in the main street.

Comparing their achievements with those at Frederica, it was a disappointment. Charles Wesley suffered from entanglements and quarrels which John more often than not had to pacify. One of the quarrels arose from two brawling women who had lost their virtue in the old country. These two women competed for sympathy with Charles by their pretense of repentance. Ogelthorpe mistrusted the women and Charles fell into disfavor with the General. Charles felt as if he had been treated unfairly. He was stripped to the bare necessities and forced to sleep on the ground. Ogelthorpe eventually relented to have an interview with Charles giving him a chance to explain himself. In May, 1736, just four months after landing in the new colony, Charles went to Savannah on official business as secretary of Indian Affairs. While there, he sent his resignation to Oglethorpe providing the reason of his duties conflicted with his clerical functions. Oglethorpe persuaded him to stay a little while longer, but in July 1736, Charles was commissioned to England as the bearer of dispatches to the trustees of the colony. On August 16, he sailed from Charleston never to return to the Georgia colony again.

Savannah was at the time a small colony full of gossips and tattlers. Thomas Causton was the local political boss and chief magistrate for Savannah. Being the first magistrate of Savannah, he possessed a small amount of education and business sense. As he prospered in his position, he jeopardized Ogelthorpe’s authority as governor. Causton had a trouble-brewing nature and tended to cause strife among his appointed officers. The news of the discord reached London that Oglethorpe was to be court-martialed. Ogelthorpe had appointed Wesley as his private secretary who would report to him of any misdoings in the colony. John Wesley being an honorable man remained loyal to Oglethorpe instead of Causton and that was Wesley’s downfall.

Thomas Causton was corrupt in his dealings with the Moravians. The Moravians provided work in Savannah in trade for their supplies. Causton applied the credit of the work to his plantation and did not credit their account with the Trustees. Wesley being the secretary to Ogelthorpe caught wind of Causton’s dishonesty and reported the misappropriation of credit to the wrong account. Wesley and the Moravians were extremely good friends and he did not want them to be forced to leave the colony under false pretenses. Causton made the argument that the Moravians would not bear arms to fight against the Spanish and that gave him the right to do what he did.

The evidence against Causton was unmistakable in proving his misuse of the Trustees’ and the colony’s money. He was removed from the office of chief magistrate. Wesley was seen in Causton’s eyes’ as the instigator of his troubles. Causton was full of petty hatred for John Wesley and would soon be in a position to extract his revenge.

John Wesley proceeded in his own difficulties with the friendship of Sophia Hopkey. They had met on the four month long passage to Georgia. While traveling on the ship, Wesley was employed by Sophia’s mother to teach her the French language. An affection arose out of the relationship engulfing Wesley. After arriving in Savannah, their fondness for one another continued. Sophia was confident that Wesley’s intentions were honorable leading to matrimony. Wesley sought the advice of his trusted friend, Bishop Spangenberg of the Moravians, and was advised to avoid contact with female admirers. Wesley took his advice and without any explanation to Sophia, he abruptly stopped seeing her. To worsen the matter, Sophia was Thomas Causton’s niece.

On March 12,1737, Sophia Hopkey married William Williamson, a clerk in her uncle’s store. The two of them ran away to South Carolina and were married in Spurysburg, which was twenty-two miles up the river away from the admonishments of John Wesley. The colony of Savannah was small in size and small-minded. The local gossips tore at the reputation of John Wesley. It was believed that Wesley had secured a promise from Sophia to never marry another, but that he had not asked for her hand in marriage. John Wesley must have felt quite a disappointment at losing such an ardent admirer. After the marriage, he seemed to be inconsolable, for he had always avowed his utmost love for her.

Wesley’s worries increased on August 7, 1737, when he refused to give Sophia Williamson the sacrament of holy communion in the church. The following day, a warrant was issued against Wesley by Williamson and his wife, Sophia. The complaint was for defaming Sophia by refusing to administer her the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, in a public congregation without due cause. Williamson sued for one thousand pounds of sterling in damages for the defamation of his wife’s character. Wesley was brought before the bailiff and the recorder, but he did not acknowledge the power of the civil courts over him because it was an ecclesiastical matter. He was requested to appear before the next court held in Savannah.

Causton responded to the confusing circumstances with a reaction of gossip. He began to declare that the reason Wesley had repelled his niece was out of revenge because she had declined his proposal of marriage. Mrs. Sophia Williamson signed an affidavit that Wesley had proposed numerous times and that she had always refused him. Causton became impatient and required an ultimatum with the sword. Wesley refused to fight Causton and instead wrote a letter to Mrs. Williamson explaining his actions.

The letter Wesley wrote as an explanation went into detail of the reasons why he felt it necessary to refuse her communion. Stating that partakers of Holy Communion shall signify their names to the Curate at least the day before. Mrs. Williamson had not done this. Also Wesley advised her that to offer yourself at the Lord’s table when one has done wrong, one must openly declare to be truly repented. It is at that time Wesley could with a clear conscience administer Holy Communion to Mrs. Williamson. Another point to be taken into consideration was since her marriage in March, she had not attended church and this incident took place in August.

On August 22, 1737, the trial of John Wesley began before a jury packed and secured by Causton. This was not the first time Causton had secured a jury, other citizens complained that he would even order a jury to return a certain type of verdict. The jury consisted of a Frenchman who did not understand English, one papist, one infidel, three Baptist, and seventeen Dissenters. The trial ended with a mistrial. Twelve of the jurors refused to sign the bill of indictment, their reasons were that the counts were false or conflicting with the law. Wesley appeared in court several days in September, but to no avail because Mr. Williamson was always conveniently out of town.

At the close of the incident, Wesley never was able to regain his good relations with the good people of Savannah. The people began to regard Wesley as a Roman Catholic, because of his resistance to dissenters and his refusing them communion. Being associated with Roman Catholicism was against the charter of the Trustees’. Very few of the colonists attended church on a regular basis at this time.

On November 3, 1737, Wesley appeared in court again. Now Causton proved to be a formidable opponent and it seemed wise for Wesley to make preparations to leave the colony. It became clear to him there was indeed a ruckus of opposition building up against him within the colony.

The Trustees’ sent William Stephens as a representative to uncloud the issues surrounding this sordid affair. Mr. Stephens conferred with both parties and concluded the town stood divided on the controversy. Wesley continued to preach on such subjects as regulating one’s passions and mutual forgiveness. Mr. Stephens was impressed with the ardor and sincerity of Wesley’s preaching.

On November 24, Wesley publicly advertised his intentions of returning to England. It was two days later that Mr. Williamson published a warning that he had a cause of a thousand pounds against Wesley. The warning stated if anyone tried to assist the departure of Wesley, he would prosecute them as well.

Wesley left Georgia a defeated man on December 22,1737. His goals of preaching to the masses and teaching the Indians of Christ was in his eyes a failure. He had been uncompromising in his beliefs and standards, a man that could not be persuaded to change his ideals through coercion. Although Wesley left in disappointment, he did accomplish much more than he realized at the time.

George Whitefield, one of Wesley’s friends, continued his work throughout the area as deacon of Savannah and Frederica. Whitefield was the founder of Bethseda, an orphanage for boys, established in 1740 which thrives today in Savannah. Reverend William Norris arrived in October 1738, to replace Whitefield who spent a great deal of his time soliciting funds to support Bethseda. On July 7, 1750, the first church building in Georgia was dedicated as the Espiscopal Church of England. The population of the colony was now hovering around three thousand with 613 Savannahians of which 388 were vocal dissenters. In 1796, the church was burned destroying the silver chalice and paten which were gifts of John Wesley.

Cornelius Winter arrived in Savannah in 1769 after he heard the inspirational preaching of Wesley in England. It was his goal to preach to the blacks, but his efforts were were met with little favor as was Wesley’s efforts with the Indians.

John Wesley sent Francis Asbury to perform the Methodist liturgy all over America, thus, the circuit rider was born. The circuit rider was a traveling preacher to anyone that would listen. The sight can be conjured up of a weathered-beaten man on horseback traveling the backroads of this new nation spreading the gospel. The circuit rider inspired the erection of log churches from Maine to Georgia housing what was called "societies" or Methodists "bands". John Wesley beginning in 1766, sent out appointments from England to the "societies". In December 1784, Francis Asbury was named bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church of America.

John Wesley’s legacy lives on in the establishment of Christ Church, the first Anglican in Savannah. His humble beginnings are the roots of the Methodist faith that are evident in Savannah today with the numerous Methodist churches in the area. John Wesley left behind a rich heritage. The legacy left behind of these devoutly spiritual giants of their time, is still today of great importance. The establishment of Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church, Trinity United Methodist Church, and Wesley Oak United Methodist Church are just a few of the many Methodist churches in the Savannah area.

The United Methodist Church throughout the world can boast of an organization which is tolerant of other religions, open communion, and a history that is rich in song. Charles Wesley wrote hundreds of hymns which are still sung in churches today. John Wesley was a driven man in his beliefs and through his convictions was able to have a lasting effect on the colony of Savannah that has spread throughout the world.