by Sheryl Anderson.
In May this year, as part of my sabbatical I travelled to Savannah in Georgia, USA. I wanted to find out what happened to John Wesley when he was there 284 years ago, and especially the curious matter of his relationship with Sophia Hopkey. What follows is a little of what I discovered.
On 14th October 1735, John Wesley sailed for Savannah in the Province of Georgia in the American colonies. He went, with his brother Charles, at the request of James Oglethorpe, who had founded the colony in 1733. Oglethorpe wanted Wesley to be the minister of the newly formed Savannah parish.
The sea voyage took four months. Among his fellow passengers was one Sophia Hopkey, whose mother employed John to teach her daughter French. A friendship arose between the couple and, after arriving in Savannah, their affection for one another grew. It appears that Sophia believed Wesley’s intentions were honourable and would lead marriage.
The brothers reached Savannah on February 8th 1736. Charles was appointed ‘Secretary for Indian Affairs’ and his duties included being chaplain at Fort Frederica, which was a small settlement full of gossips and people contending for position and power. Charles became caught up in various quarrels and disputes and lost the trust of Oglethorpe. After less than four months in the colony, Charles sent his resignation to Oglethorpe stating that his duties conflicted with his clerical functions. Oglethorpe persuaded him to stay a little longer, but in July 1736, Charles was sent to England to deliver dispatches to the Trustees of the Colony, and never returned.
Meanwhile, John and Sophia’s relationship continued, although Wesley was ambivalent about matrimony and, in the absence of Charles, sought guidance from a trusted friend, Bishop Spangenberg of the Moravians. Spangenberg counselled him that female admirers should be avoided, as they would interfere with his calling. Wesley took this advice and, without any explanation to Sophia, stopped seeing her.
The local Chief Magistrate for Savannah was Thomas Causton. He was smart, had a little education, and a keen eye for business. As he prospered in his position, he gained political power and threatened Oglethorpe’s authority as governor. The Moravians, who had befriended Wesley on the voyage from England, provided work in Savannah in exchange for their supplies. As chief magistrate, Causton oversaw these arrangements, but applied the credit of the Moravian’s work to his plantation and did not credit their account with the Trustees. Wesley discovered Causton’s dishonesty and reported it. He was subsequently removed from office. Causton was Sophia’s uncle.
In March,1737, Sophia Hopkey, tired of waiting for John, married William Williamson, a clerk in her uncle’s store. Williamson subsequently forbade his wife to have anything to do with Mr Wesley, including attending church. When she did eventually return Wesley refused to give her holy communion. The following day, a warrant was issued against Wesley by Williamson alleging that he had defamed Sophia by refusing to administer her the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, in a public congregation, without due cause.
According to the “Court of Savannah, Grand Jury Record”, on August 22, 1737, a Grand Jury was called in the Court of Savannah by Thomas Causton, Recorder and Magistrate, to investigate charges against John Wesley. The allegations intended to show that Wesley “deviated from the principles and regulations of the Established Church.” They included such charges as: changing the liturgy; altering passages of the psalms; introducing hymns “not inspected or authorized;” baptizing infants by total immersion, denying communion, confessions, and other sacraments to those “who will not conform to a grievous set of penances, confessions, [and] mortifications;” administering the sacraments to “boys ignorant and unqualified;” “venting sundry uncharitable expressions of all who differ from him;” “teaching wives and servants that they ought absolutely to follow the course of mortifications, fastings, and diets; […] searching into and meddling with the affairs of private families.” Wesley asserted that these were ecclesial matters and outside the jurisdiction of the secular court. The outcome was recorded as a mis-trial.
Nevertheless, Wesley’s reputation was ruined and he could no longer exercise ministry in the colony. On December 22, 1737, he escaped in secret and fled back to England. Wesley was 34 years old and this was his first experience as a parish priest. He lasted less than two years. The good news is that Wesley did get better at it. Although his relationships with women were always complicated, he did learn from the experience and became significantly less highhanded, interfering and judgemental in his dealings with others.
In the preface to the report ‘God in Love Unites Us’ we read the words, ‘Relationships, sex and marriage are important issues for everyone. This is both a challenge and an opportunity. As part of its calling and mission the Methodist Church must engage with the reality of how people are living today.’ If we are to benefit from the experience of Mr Wesley, we too must learn to do this with humility, sensitivity and thoughtfulness.