It's hard to overstate John Wesley's impact on the history of Christianity. Wesley's quest for real, authentic, Christianity furthered an awakening and ignited the Methodist denomination. Wesley's preaching was powerful, his writing prolific and his theology widespread. His influence is so significant that it has been stated "Since Wesley, we are all Arminians." He is a giant among giants.
Wesley the preacher heralded the Gospel. Wesley the theologian emanated passionate brilliance. Wesley the leader super humanly organized Methodism . Wesley the lover, however, did not rise above the rest of us mortals. From tragic relationships to his disastrous marriage, John Wesley the lover was painfully human.
Forbidden Love: Sally Kirkham
John Wesley was a ladies' man. He was in tune with his heart, compassionate, and tender. Wesley would visit Sally at the Stanton rectory. They played games together, danced and discussed literature, theology and spirituality. It is likely that Sally played a significant role in Wesley's spiritual development in pursuing holiness. Wesley was fond of Sally. Their relationship was flirtatious, but it never reached anything more than that
Wesley never asked Sally to marry him and in 1725 she married John Chapone. Wesley continued to write to her even after she was married. Kenneth J. Collins recounts an evening meeting between John Wesley and the married Sally Chapone:
[Wesley] took the liberty to hold her hand while she laid his head gently on her breast. Moved with affection, Sally expressed her ongoing care for John: "If my husband should ever resent our freedom, which I am satisfied he never will; such an accident as this would make it necessary in some measure to restrain the appeareance of the esteem I have to you, but the esteem as it is founded on reason and virtue and entirely agreeble to us both, no circumstance will ever make alter." Again, Sally professed that she loved Wesley "more than all mankind except her father and her busband."1Their ongoing writing to each other troubled Wesley's mother Susanna. Collins, again, records that:
Sally Chapone, in considering the appropriateness of her ongoing relationship with Wesley exclaimed, "I can't think it expedient, nor indeed lawful, to break off that acquaintance which is one of the strongest incentives I have to virtue."Nevertheless, Susanna Wesley was not impressed with such professions of high-mindedness, and she feared that Sally--or her son--might soon desire things other than virtue. In fact, the correspondence between Wesley and this married woman outright alarmed Susanna: "The more I think of it, the less I approve it."2In Sally Kirkham, Wesley missed an opportunity. In Sally Chapone, Wesley faced forbidden love. Sally presented with him two different types of relationship woe, both terribly sad. But, for John Wesley, the heartbreak love brought was just beginning.
Georgia Tragedy: Sophia Hopkey
John Wesley's missed opportunity with Sally could not compare with the explosive drama that was his relationship with Sophia Hopkey. Early on in Wesley's brief ministry in Georgia, he met Sophia Hopkey.Wesley had come from England to Georgia to minister to the natives but, instead found himself ministering as a pastor. In 1736, Sophia was Wesley's nurse when he became ill. She cared for him and sat by his bed reading prayers to him. Wesley was smitten, completely charmed by this young woman. His pursuit of her would play a hand in the downfall of his short lived ministry to the natives.
Sophia Hopkey was the niece of the Chief Magistrate of Savannah, Thomas Causton. James Oglethrope, governor of Georgia, thought that Wesley should have a wife. In October of 1736, Oglethrope arranged for Wesley and Sophia to travel together on a boat from Frederica to Savannah. This trip sent Wesley into a turmoil as he was confronted with his own resolution to remain single so that he could minister to the natives, and his own heart's desire for Sophia. He also presumed that celibacy was Sophia's desire as well. It was on this voyage, that Wesley discovered Sophia was engaged to Tom Mellichamp. Mellichamp was a cruel and violent man. Kenneth Collins records Wesley's inquiry of her relationship with Mellichamp:
"I have promised either to marry him or marry no one at all," Miss Hopkey immediately burst into tears and whimpered, "I am every way unhappy, I wont have Tommy for he is a bad man. And I can't have none else." She then cautioned Wesley not to speak any longer on this subject, for he did not realize the danger he was in, and the two ended their conversation with a Psalm.3The trip with Sophia and the revelation of her sad engagement to Mellichamp did not deter Wesley from spending time with her. He spent private time counseling her and tutoring her in French. Wesley's resolve to remain single was crumbling as he expressed his affections to her, wrapping his arm around her waist and kissing her. As his relationship with Sophia grew, so did his inward struggle. He sought the advice of a Moravian pastor who, to Wesley's surprise encouraged him to marry Sophia.
Eventually, Wesley revealed to Sophia his conflict of wanting her but also wanting to minister. She responded by telling him she would not longer would go to breakfast with him, or spend time alone with him at his home. The next day she informed him that she no longer desired to be tutored in French by him. A heartbroken Wesley then decided to return to England.
When she learned about a week later that he was planning on returning to England soon, she "changed color several times" and exclaimed "What! Are you going to England? Then I have no tie to America left." When Wesley asked her about these words later, she responded in tears, "You are the best friend I ever had in this world."4Like thousands of other men have experienced, John Wesley had been friend-zoned by Sophia. She cared enough for him that she did not want want him to leave, but she didn't express a romantic love to him. She had both expressed a desire for and against a relationship with him, as he had done with her. The two of them continued to spend time together, not at Wesley's home but hers. Wesley loved Sophia and was completely taken by her beauty. He would take her hand, kiss her, and longed to spend time with her. They were two young lovers, lovers that could never be.
On March 9th, 1737 everything changed. Sophia revealed to Wesley that she had given permission to a man named Williamson to marry her. Williamson was not known for his godliness. She told Wesley that she would marry Williamson unless Wesley had an objection. Wesley took her engagement to Williamson as a slight and was completely devastated. On March 12th, 1737 Sophia Hopkey married Williamson.
Wesley's perspective of Sophia immediately changed. No longer was she the sweet beauty in whom he could see no wrong. For Wesley, Sophia's shortcomings became stunningly clear. He even began look for them. He noticed she had missed the Lord's Supper and he believed her to be a liar. He confronted her and was attempting to build a case against her.
On August 7, 1737 John Wesley barred her from receiving the Lord's Supper. It this public humiliation that upset her uncle, Savannah's Chief Magistrate, Thomas Causton. Causton demanded to know why Wesley would subject his niece to such embarrassment. Wesley responded by saying Sophia had wrongs to correct. Causton then started a rumor that Wesley barred Sophia from the Lord's Supper because he had been rejected of her so she could marry Williamson. Wesley, indeed, had begun his campaign against Sophia after she married Williamson.
Wesley very quickly lost favor with the public and on December 2, 1737 he began on a journey back to England. Wesley came to America to minister to the natives but instead served as a pastor. He fell wildly in love only to be ultimately rejected. Sophia had Wesley's heart and that troubled him immensely. He had not cared for a girl like he cared for Sophia. He was in love and love's course dragged him down into the depths of bitter heart ache. Who knows what would have happened had Wesley objected to her marriage to Williamson. Perhaps she was giving him an ultimatum of sorts. What is known for sure, however, is that John Wesley's ministry and love life in Georgia were both complete failures.
Betrayal: Grace Murray
Wesley once again found himself sick and being nursed back to health by a woman he would fall for. In 1748, he was under the care of Grace Murray, a Methodist class leader and orphan housekeeper. Wesley was impressed with her and proposed to her not long after meeting her. She went with him as he journeyed south, and he left her in Chinley with fellow minister and friend John Bennet. This would prove to be a disastrous mistake.
In the Summer of 1749 while the two ministered together in Ireland, Wesley and Grace entered into a betrothal contract. It was during the return journey back to England that Wesley discovered a startling truth about John Bennet. Grace had developed feelings for him when Wesley had left her in his care at Chinley. She still had feelings for him even after she had entered engagement with Wesley. Wesley was distraught. She said she had feelings for Bennet but still pronounced her love to Wesley. He asked her who she would choose. She responded that she loved him and wanted him to marry her immediately. Wesley would not accept her request until he could clear the air with Bennet and revive some advice. Charles, Wesley's brother, heard the gossip about the Wesley/Murray/Bennet love triangle and saw a potential scandal in the making. He traveled to Newcastle and urged Grace to marry Bennet. And she did.
Wesley felt betrayed on several fronts. The woman he loved and wanted still had feelings for his friend and fellow minister, Bennet. Bennet had betrayed his trust and confidence by moving in on Grace. Charles, meaning well, had hurt him deeply by encouraging Bennet and Grace to marry. Wesley's relationship with his brother was strained. His friendship with Bennet imploded, with Wesley publicly attacking Bennet. His attacks were veiled in theological disagreement much like he had done years earlier when denying Sophia Hopkey the Lord's Supper.
Wesley had failed dramatically so far in his love life. Understandably, his views on loving women and marriage were very negative. Soon, though, Wesley again found himself in another mess of a relationship.
Marriage Misery: Mary Vazielle
In Mary Vazielle, Wesley saw an opportunity for a marriage. Mary was a wealthy widow past the age of child bearing. Wesley saw the potential for a family without children as freeing him for the work of the ministry. In February 1751, Wesley and Mary married. Wesley was often gone but wrote his wife regularly. At the beginning of their marriage, they seemed to be a happy couple. But, things would soon change.
Wesley gave his wife permission to open his mail and she was shocked to find that he was writing to several women. One of the women Wesley wrote was Sarah Ryan. Sarah had gone through three failed marriages and under Wesley's ministry was converted. Mary grew jealous of Sarah and the attention her husband gave her. One evening at a conference dinner where Ryan was serving, Mary Wesley stormed in, making a public scene, and called Sarah a whore.
As if this outburst of rage wasn't enough to further their tempest of a marriage, Mary found a letter inside of Wesley's pocket from Sarah where she expressed deep affection to him. After finding the letter, Mary Wesley left her husband. Though she returned a few days letter, her leaving him would be a sad pattern of their married life. Mary was married to a husband who so busied himself with the work of the ministry that he neglected her. He didn't have time for her, but he somehow found time to write Sarah Ryan. She was understandably and rightly upset.
After 23 years of a miserable marriage with an inattentive husband, Mary left Wesley for the final time in 1774. Though they did communicate through letters, their marriage relationship was far past repair. On October 8, 1781, Mary Wesley died. John Wesley wasn't notified of her death right away and did not attend her funeral.
Of God and Women
For Wesley, love of God and love of a woman were competing affections. The young Wesley was torn with their competition. He loved God and loved women. But he would not allow any love with a woman, no matter how pure, compete with his love for his God. His heart was for God alone. Kenneth J. Collins observes that:
This was a pattern that Wesley not only continued through his life, but one that also caused him considerable difficulty. It emerged in the wake of his understanding of entire dedication to God not in an inclusive, embracing way, but in a nearly exclusive way, that God must not only be highest love, but also, in a real sense his only love.5The older Wesley married out of necessity and it was miserable disaster. He neglected his wife, who should have been his first true ministry. Instead of showing her affection, Wesley gave affection to several other women. He failed her in dramatic fashion. John Wesley may have succeeded as a preacher, theologian, and Methodist founder, but he failed as a husband. Wesley's love life is a stain on his otherwise exceptionally, exemplary life.
1 Kenneth J. Collins, A Real Christian: The Life of John Wesley (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 34.
2 Ibid., 34.
3 Ibid., 45.
4 Ibid., 57.
5 Ibid., 35.