Wesley Center Online

The Life of John Wesley by John Telford - Chapter 13



WE have already referred to Wesley’s life in Georgia and his visit to Germany in 1738. His range was afterwards more limited, but he knew the United Kingdom better than any man of his time. In the summer of 1731 he walked from Oxford to Epworth. On his return to the University he learned that four or five-and-twenty miles was an easy and safe day’s journey, in hot weather as well as cold. Then also he made another discovery, that it was easy to read as he walked for ten or twelve miles. It beguiled the journey,’ and caused no additional fatigue. Wesley was no mean pedestrian. The year before he sailed to Georgia he walked a thousand and fifty miles t to preach in the churches round Oxford. A large part of his travelling on the Continent in 1738 was done on foot. Wesley never lost his zest for walking. In Ireland in 1758, when a horse was brought for him without saddle or bridle, he set out on foot4 A saddle was then found, and some one galloped after him at full speed with the horse. Ten years later he walked on seven or eight miles before his servant overtook him with his carriage. At Bristol, in September, 1788, he says that his friends, more kind than wise, would scarce suffer him to walk. “It seemed so sad a thing to walk five or six miles ! I am ashamed that a Methodist preacher, in tolerable health, should make any difficulty of this.” The old man of eighty-five had not lost his enjoyment of a good walk. Most of Wesley’s journeys were made on horseback. There were no turnpikes in the north of England, and the London stage-coach went no further than York.’ In many parts of the northern counties neither coach nor chaise had ever been seen. It was not till 1773 that Wesley began regularly to use a carriage. He travelled between four and five thousand miles a year. Mr. Hampson says,t “He was a hard but unskilful rider; and his seat was as ungraceful as it appeared uneasy, with a book in his hand and his hands up to his head.” Notwithstanding Mr. Hampson’s criticism, Wesley was no mean horseman, though his habit of reading may have made him appear ungraceful. In June, 1750, he mentions ninety miles. as his longest day’s journey on horseback. He started at four o’clock that morning, and was not in bed till twelve. He had been nearly twenty hours in the saddle. His own horse grew tired, so that he left it behind and borrowed that of his companion.

Wesley was familiar with all the discomforts of the road. His horses fell lame or were maimed by incompetent smiths. Sometimes there were more serious accidents. In July 1743, he and John Downes rode from Newcastle to Darlington. They had young horses, which were quite vigorous the day before, but now both seemed unwell. The ostler went in haste for a farrier, but both animals died before they could discover what was the matter with them. In June, 1752, a young strong mare which Wesley borrowed at Manchester fell lame before he reached Grimsby. Another was procured, but he was “dismounted” again between Newcastle and Berwick. When he returned to Manchester, he found that his own mare had lamed herself whilst at grass. He intended to ride her four or five miles, but some one took her out of the ground. Another which he had lately bought ought to have been forthcoming, but she had been taken to Chester. In one journey his horse became so exceeding lame that it could scarcely set its foot to the ground. Wesley could not discover what was amiss. He rode thus seven miles till he was thoroughly tired, and his head ached more than it had done for months. He says, “What I here aver is the naked fact. Let every man account for it as he sees good. I then thought, ‘Cannot God heal either man or beast by any means, or without any’ Immediately my weariness and headache ceased, and my horse’s lameness in the same instant. Nor did he halt any more that day or the next. A very odd accident this also!”

Wesley had some remarkable escapes during his long itinerancy. At Bristol, in June, 1739, his horse suddenly pitched upon its head, and rolled over and over.’ He only received a little bruise on the side, and preached without pain to six or seven thousand people. A few months later some one riding sharply came full against him, and overthrew both Wesley and his horse, but they received no hurt.t Once the fall of his horse upon him brought one or two women out of a neighbouring house, who kindly helped him in to rest. Here he found three people who had gone astray, and was the means of restoring them all. An accident in 1747 was more dangerous. Wesley was riding through St. Nicholas’ Gate, Bristol, when a cart came swiftly down the hill. There was just room fox it to pass, but the carman was walking beside his waggon, and filled up all the space. Wesley called to him to go back, but the man took no heed, so that Wesley was obliged to hold in his own horse. The shaft of the cart came against his horse’s shoulder with such violence as to force it to the ground. Wesley was shot over its head like an arrow out of a bow, and lay with arms and legs stretched out against the wall, he knew not how. The wheel ran by close to his side, but only dirtied his clothes. A man took Wesley into his shop, where he cleaned himself a little, and set out again for Wick. He returned to Bristol in time to preach. A report that he was killed had spread far and wide, so that his friends received him with great rejoicing. His shoulders, hands, sides, and legs were a little bruised; his knees and his right thigh were more painful. Some warm treacle, he says, took away all the pain in an hour, and the lameness in a day or two. A restive horse once ran backward and tumbled head over heels with Wesley in the saddle. He rose unhurt and went on his journey on the same animal, which was sobered at last.* At Canterbury his mare was struck on the leg with such violence by a stone that sprang out of the pavement that she dropped down at once. Wesley kept his seat, but his horse, in struggling to rise, fell again and rolled over him. His right leg seemed powerless, and he was very sick, but an honest barber came out, lifted him up, and helped him into his shop. Wesley felt very sick, but took a glass of water, and was soon able to proceed. On the way to Shoreham, in December, 1765, his horse fell in the Borough, Southwark, with Wesley’s leg under it. He managed to go on in the coach, but for many months he suffered from the effects of this accident.

Wesley was out in some terrible storms. His northern journey in February, f was the roughest he had ever had up to that time. There were, as we have seen, no turnpike-roads then in the north, and the causeways were like glass. The horses often fell down while Wesley and his companion were leading them. Gateshead Fell was a pathless waste of snow. No roads could be seen, but a Newcastle man overtook the travellers and guided them safely into the town. “Many a rough journey have I had before,” says Wesley, “but one like this I never had, between wind, and hail, and rain, and ice, and snow, and driving sleet, and piercing cold.” Next February, on his way from Birmingham to Stafford, the driving snow crusted him and his companion over from head to foot in less than an hour. A man who lived at the edge of the moors said, “Sir, ‘tis a thousand pound to a penny that you do not come there to-day.” He told them that it was four miles across, and even in a clear day he himself could not always go straight over. Wesley nevertheless pushed on, and, though all the roads were covered with snow, did not go ten yards out of the way till he reached Stafford. The same month in 1747 found him in similar circumstances. Snow covered everything, and the wind seemed as if it would overturn both man and beast. A violent storm of rain and hail which they met whilst passing across an open field drove through their coats and boots, freezing as it fell even upon their eyebrows. They had scarce strength or motion left when they reached their inn at Stilton. On Stamford Heath the snowdrifts almost swallowed them up. Next morning the servant reported that there would be no travelling that day, as the roads were quite filled up by a fresh fall of snow. “At least, we can walk twenty miles a day, with our horses in our hands,” said Wesley.

Such particulars will show what a bold and untiring traveller Wesley was. In April, 1770, when he was in the Highlands, he pushed on to Inverness, though three young women who attempted to cross the mountain which he had to climb had been swallowed up in the snow. He was brought to a stand at the top by the snow-drifts, but dismounted, and striking warily out of the way, sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left, reached his destination safely, after many a stumble. In his eighty-third year he was the same fearless traveller as at the beginning of the Great Revival. An old inhabitant of Heiston used to tell with great pride a story about Wesley. This man was then ostler at the London Inn, and drove the traveller on to St. Ives, as his own coachman did not know the road. When they reached Hayle, they found the sands between that town and St. Ives covered by the rising tide. A sea-captain earnestly begged Wesley not to venture across, but he had arranged to preach at a certain hour. Looking out of the carriage window, Wesley shouted, “Take the sea, take the sea.” Before long the horses were swimming. Wesley put his head out of the window to encourage the driver, who feared every moment that they would be drowned. His long white hair was dripping with the sea-water. “What is your name, driver” he asked. The man told him it was Peter. “Peter,” was the answer, “fear not: thou shalt not sink.” When they were safely in St. Ives, Wesley first saw that his driver had warm clothing, refreshment, and fire; then he himself went on to the chapel to preach to the people.

Wesley’s stages were carefully arranged, so that he might hold as many services as possible on the way. Notice was given of his coming, and sometimes whole villages and towns flocked to hear him. It was necessary for him to adhere carefully to his plan. Sometimes he did break through it, as at Epworth, when he held his eight days’ mission in the churchyard. But this was a striking exception to his rule. At Bedford, in March, 1758, after his sermon on “The Great Assize,” the judge sent Wesley an invitation to dine. He had promised to be at Epworth on Saturday, and as it was now Friday, he was compelled to send an excuse. Wesley had already been detained for twenty-four hours by a change in the day appointed for his sermon. Between one and two in the afternoon he set off in haste. Thirty miles of rough travelling lamed the horse , but he took a post-chaise early next morning. He might have spared himself the expense, for driving on the frosty road was so tedious, that Wesley’s companion reached Stamford with the lame horses as quickly as the post-chaise. He made the next stage on horseback, then hired another post-chaise. The waters were out in the Isle of Axholme. Fortunately, Wesley had heard of a man in the neighbourhood who knew the roads. Under his guidance, he reached Epworth between nine and ten on Saturday night. “After travelling more than ninety miles, I was little more tired than when I rose in the morning.” This characteristic incident illustrates Wesley’s determination to keep his engagements at all costs.

Wesley read his history, poetry, and philosophy on horseback. He says in 770 that thirty years before he had wondered how it was that no horse stumbled while he was reading. He could find no other reason than that at such times he threw the reins upon his horse’s neck. After more than a hundred thousand miles of such travelling, he scarcely remembered any horse, except two “that were always falling head over heels,” that fell or made any serious stumble while he rode with a slack rein. He was convinced that a slack rein would prevent stumbling if anything could do so.’

In March, 1772, Wesley says, “I met several of my friends, who had begun a subscription to prevent my riding on horseback, which I cannot do quite so well since a hurt which I got some months ago. If they continue it, well; if not, I shall have strength according to my need.” When he set up his carriage, the itinerancy of Wesley’s later life became more easy than the long rides of former years. He spent ten hours a day as much alone as if he had been in a wilderness, and always had a store of books with him. In 1786 he travelled seventy-six miles in one day, and preached three times. “Still I was no more tired than when I rose in the morning.” Three years later he refers to two other days’ travelling of eighty and seventy-eight miles.t Riding on horseback became difficult from want of practice. Whilst in the Dales, in June, 1784, he was forced to ride “Being but a poor horseman, and having a rough horse, I had just strength for my journey, and none to spare; but after resting a while, I preached without any weariness.” In 1773 he took chaise from Salisbury at two in the morning, and in the evening came to London. Six months later, whilst at Congleton, he received a letter which called him in haste to Bristol. He spent two hours in that city, and was back at Congleton on the Friday afternoon. He left on the Wednesday at one in the afternoon, so that he had travelled two hundred and eighty miles, no more tired (blessed be God) than when I left.” In August, 1768, he made a similar journey between Bristol and London. He reached the metropolis at one in the morning, found that his wife was out of danger, and after staying an hour came the same afternoon—” not at all tired “—to Bristol. In October, 1782, he took chaise from Portsmouth at two in the morning, and reached London in the afternoon. Such were some of Wesley’s feats in travelling.

His chaise sometimes stuck fast, so that he had to borrow a horse and ride on,’ or the axle-tree broke and overturned the carriage; t his chaise-springs suddenly snapped, but the horses instantly stopped, and he stepped out without the least inconvenience. On the way to Sligo in 1778 his carriage got well through two sloughs.~ By the help of seven or eight countrymen, one of whom carried Wesley over on his shoulders, they struggled through the third. The fourth was more difficult. Wesley was helped out, and walked forward. His friends with the stronger horse managed to get the chaise through, but with great difficulty. In December, 1784, a snowstorm upset all Wesley’s plans. His carriage could scarcely get on. He walked great part of the way from Tunbridge Wells to Robertsbridge, which he reached after the time appointed for his service. An hour after nightfall he came to Rye, but the preaching-place was filled with serious hearers, so that he did not repent of his labour. Next day, even with two pairs of good horses, it was hard work to do fifteen miles in five hours. This record was outdone in his journey to Wrestlingworth thirteen days later. “Having a skilful guide, who rode before the chaise, and picked out the best way, we drove four miles in only three hours.” In October, 1785, Wesley was told that he could not get over the Ely roads. They ran between two banks, and had many bridges, where the coachman must “drive to an inch.” Wesley was anxious to reach London, and pushed forward at once. A further glimpse of the Fen-country is given in his journal for November, 1774. A gentleman met him with a chaise when he went to Ely. “Oh, what want of common-sense! Water covered the high-road for a mile and a half. I asked, ‘How must foot-people come to the town’ ‘Why, they must wade through,’” was the answer. Two days later a friend led the horse in a place where water and mud reached up to his mid-leg. “We fenmen do not mind a little dirt,” he said. Wesley had by-and-bye to take to horseback, as the chaise could not go on. Then a boat, twice as large as a kneading-trough, was called into requisition. In his later years Wesley sometimes took the whole coach for himself and his friends. In August, 1787, he thus engaged the coach from Bolton to Birmingham. They had six inside and eight outside, so that the conveyance broke down. It was patched up, and went on to Congleton, where another was obtained. This also broke down, and one of the horses was so tired that it could scarcely set one foot before the other. Wesley was two hours late, and stepped from the coach into the pulpit. A large congregation was awaiting him. Once, when he had taken the coach from Bristol, the clerk “faced him down” that he had secured it for another day. But Wesley’s friends spoke so strongly that another coach was soon provided. Sometimes the coach was already full, so that he had to take a post-chaise,’ or make the best arrangement he could.

All Wesley’s plans were exactly mapped out. He once sent to take two places in the coach for Lynn, where he was to preach “in their new house.” The messenger, “mending my orders,” took them in the diligence, which only reached the place between nine and ten at night, so that Wesley was robbed of one of the three evenings which he intended to give the people. We have one pleasant picture of a night journey. Two years before his death, Wesley took the night mail-coach for Bristol. “Having three of our brethren, we spent a comfortable night, partly in sound sleep and partly in singing praise to God.” Some journeys were trying. One diligence • in which Wesley travelled let in air on all sides, so that he and his friends could scarcely preserve life.

He never lost an opportunity of doing good in these journeys. On the way to Coichester in the stage-coach, in November, 1771, he “met with two agreeable companions, whose hearts were quite open to instruction.” A counterpart to this is found in the journal for February, 1779. “I went to Norwich in the stage-coach, with two very disagreeable companions called a gentleman and gentlewoman, but equally ignorant, insolent, lewd, and profane.” A young officer with whom he once travelled swore incessantly. Wesley quietly asked if he had read the Book of Common Prayer, for if he had, he might remember the collect which began, “Almighty and everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than we to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve.” The young fellow was effectually cured for that journey at least by this neat reproof.

It will easily be understood that Wesley never had a moment to lose. Once, when he was kept waiting for his chaise, he was heard to say, “I have lost ten minutes for ever.” He always expected his coachman to be ready at the precise moment fixed. “Have the carriage at the door at four,” he said to him at Hull in 1788. “I do not mean a quarter or five minutes past, but four.” In the later years of his life Wesley’s visits to all parts of England were gala-days. Friends often trooped out to meet the venerable patriarch and escort him to the place in triumph. When he returned to London, they sometimes came out to meet him as far as Cobham or Hatfield.’ Dublin welcomed him in like manner, and Cork sent out thirty horsemen to escort him to the city.t In the June before his death he had preached at Beverley in the afternoon, and was to be at Hull the same evening. About forty friends from Hull met and dined with him at Beverley. The pleasant conversation made them quite forget the time. Wesley suddenly pulled out his watch, bade his friends good-bye, and was gone before they had recovered from their surprise. They just managed to overtake the punctual traveller before he reached Hull.

Wesley’s most perilous ride was in the neighbourhood of Newcastle in 1774. Mr. Hopper, one of his preachers, and Mr. Smith, who had married Wesley’s stepdaughter, were on horseback; Mrs. Smith and her two little girls were with Wesley in the chaise. On the brow of a hill both the horses suddenly started off without visible cause, and flew down like an arrow out of a bow. In a minute Wesley’s man fell off the box. “The horses went on full speed, sometimes to the edge of the ditch on the right, sometimes on the left.” They avoided a cart, dashed over a narrow bridge, and rushed through an open gate more skilfully than if the man had been holding the reins. A gate on the far side of the farmer’s yard into which they rushed was shut. Wesley thought this would certainly stop them, but the end of the chariot-pole struck the centre of the gate, and the horses dashed through as if it had been a cobweb. They were now galloping over a cornfield. The little girls cried out, “Grandpapa, save us!” Wesley replied, “Nothing will hurt you; do not be afraid.” He felt as calm as if he had been sitting in his study. The horses were fast approaching the edge of a precipice. Just then Mr. Smith, who had been in full pursuit, managed to overtake them. He rode in between the runaway horses and the precipice. The horses stopped in a moment. Had they gone on ever so little, all must have been dashed over the brink together. The coachman received no hurt by his fall, so that the marvellous deliverance was complete.

No account of Wesley’s travel would be complete without some reference to his experience at sea. He crossed the Atlantic twice, paid three visits to the Continent, and sailed forty-two times across the Irish Channel. His voyages across the Atlantic prepared him for many a rough passage between England and Ireland, or across the Solent and to the Isle of Man. Wesley was a good sailor. A strong gale and rolling sea made most of the passengers sick enough near Holyhead in 1773, but did not affect him at all. He was not so fortunate in July, 1778. A strong north-easter made the sea so lumpy, that it affected him as much as a storm. He lay down at four in the afternoon and slept most of the time till four in the morning. Like all passengers in those days, he had some weary waiting for change of wind. In 1748, when he reached Holyhead, all the ships were on the other side. He was detained twelve days. The time was not wasted. He preached several times, and read prayers at his inn. He also wrote “A Word to a Methodist,” at the request of a clergyman, who said be would take it as a favour if Wesley would write some tract advising his members not to leave the Church and not to rail against the clergy. The delay, however, tried his patience. He says, “I never knew men make such poor, lame excuses as these captains did for not sailing. It put me in mind of the epigram,

'There are, if rightly I methInk,

Five causes why a man should drink,’

which, with a little alteration, would just suit them —‘There are, unless my memory fail,

Five causes why we should not sail:

The fog is thick; the wind is high;

It rains, or may do by-and-bye;

Or—any other reason why.’”

After a week of waiting he made a little tour into the country. There was no more probability of a passage than when they reached Holyhead. This was on Wednesday. On the following Monday Wesley found all the packet-boats still there. He took lodgings in a private house, as he was determined not to stay any longer at the ‘fln. At midnight, however, the wind changed, and he was soon on his way to Dublin. Two years later he was delayed quite as long.t Their little vessel was twice driven back by the storm, and they had to wait several days for better weather. Wesley found it useful to be in suspensed so that he might learn to “lean absolutely on His disposal who knoweth and ruleth all things well.” After his plans had been thus deranged in 1760, he says, “Oh, how good it is to have no choice of our own, but to leave all things to the will of God.” t Wesley’s passages were made in all kinds of vessels. Some were little and uncomfortable. But signs of improvement appear in his later years. He speaks of the Kildare in 1771 as “abundantly the best and cleanest ship which I have sailed in for many years.” She was eclipsed by the Hawk.~ “So fine a ship I never sailed in before. She never shipped one sea, and went more steady than I thought was possible.”

His services on board ship are pleasant features of Wesley’s busy life. His fellow-passengers generally treated him with signal respect. One exception must be made. In March, 1750, “the famous Mr. Gr—., of Carnarvonshire, a clumsy, overgrown, hard-faced man,” was on board the vessel in which he sailed for Dublin. When Wesley was about to lie down, this man tumbled in, pouring out a volley of ribaldry, obscenity, and blasphemy. Wesley retired to his own cabin, and some of Mr. G—--.--’s companions took him away. When the vessel was driven back to Holyhead, this man came with a rabble of gentle.. men to disturb Wesley’s service. He burst open the doors, struck the old landlord several times, “kicked his wife, and with twenty full-mouthed oaths and curses, demanded, ‘Where is the parson “ The landlord put Wesley into another room. Mr. G— climbed on a chair to look if Wesley were on the top of a bed, but fell full length on the floor. The bully now retired for a time. About nine he came again with his friends. The landlord’s daughter, who was standing in the passage with a pail of water when he burst open the door, covered him with it, either intentionally or in her fright, from head to foot. This cooled his courage, so that when the landlord slipped past him and locked the door, he was very glad to pledge his word of honour that if he was allowed to go out, none of his friends should come in. Such an incident is a marked exception to the usual civility and seriousness of passengers and crew when Wesley was on board. Sometimes he was asked to pray with the passengers. In July, 1762, the captain of the vessel in which Wesley crossed over from Dublin asked him if he would not read prayers to them on the Sunday morning. “All who were able to creep out were willingly present” at prayers and sermon. One week-day in July, 1771, many gentlemen were on board, and begged for a sermon. All listened with deep attention.* On his way to Holland in 1786 he received the same request, and found his congregation “all attention.”

The most interesting of these services on board ship was in March, 1758. Wesley embarked at Liverpool for Dublin. In addition to his own party, consisting of himself and four friends, there were seven other cabin passengers and “many common ones.” “So good-natured a company,” he says, “I never met with in a ship before. The sea was as smooth as glass, the sun shone without a cloud, and the wind was small and quite fair.” About nine Wesley prayed with the passengers, and then lay quietly down. Next day they were becalmed off Holyhead. Wesley and his party seized the opportunity to speak to their fellow-passengers. From that time no oath, no immodest or passionate word, was heard while they were on board. Next day the calm continued. Wesley and his companions assembled on the quarter-deck, where they no sooner began to sing a hymn than both passengers Rnd sailors gladly assembled. Such is Wesley’s account. Francis Okeley, who had been a Moravian, was travelling with him. A letter sent by this friend to Dr. Byrom,* whom he visited in Manchester shortly before, gives another description. “I think I may say we had one of the most agreeable voyages from Liverpool to Dublin that could be wished, ship, captain, passengers, as agreeable as could be expected, and a smooth, calm sea and clear, serene sky throughout. Mr. Wesley preached on the quarterdeck to all in the ship between Penmenmawr hills, on the Welsh coast, and Holyhead. They were attentive, serious, and satisfied. In a word, we did and said what we pleased, which was, I believe, usefully improved.” This beautiful record may close this sketch of Wesley’s half-century of travel. Wherever he went, on foot or on horseback, in coach or in sailing vessel, he was a pleasant companion, who generally won all hearts, and never lost an opportunity of doing good.