John Wesley, United Methodists, and Me on Love

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Valentine’s Day may be almost a week past but love’s importance is forever. I have been reading a lot in preparation for my weekly lectures at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. I’m in my 4th week of teaching “UMC History.” It has been a great refresher and good experience. This week I have been especially taken with all the dalliances that John Wesley had with women. This was a guy who said as a young man he probably wouldn’t marry because he wouldn’t be able to find someone like his mother. Ah, “Mother” issues. Well, we all know the story of Sophy Hopkey in Georgia and how that got Wesley in trouble with a grand jury and on a boat back to England.
Interesting, too, how all of the people in his society/class meeting in Georgia were female teenagers at least 10-15 years his junior – sounds like a “safe sanctuary” problem to me. Then shortly after Charles gets married in the early 1740’s, Wesley is nursed back to health after an illness by Grace Murray, a serving girl 15 years his younger. Brother Charles is so upset at the differences in stations in life that he hijacks the woman and marries off to one of Wesley’s preachers. By all accounts she would have been a great partner in both family and faith! Wesley was very close to lots of women in the Wesleyan Revival. Some of his contemporaries even suggested that this was because women had the spiritual disposition to grasp his “practical divinity” and “holiness of heart and life” better than men. This assessment must have been pretty true. Wesley wrote pseudo-love letters about God to lots of women, many, no doubt, who became enamored with God and/or Wesley.
But then, 15 months after the famous Grace Murray incident, Wesley fell on some ice on London Bridge and was nursed back to health in the home of a wealthy widow, Mary “Molly” Vazeille. In two week’s time, in 1751 at age 48, John Wesley is married and Charles is too late to stop it. Like Grace Murray, Charles thinks this marriage will derail the revival. It almost does. There seemed to be maybe 6 good years of marriage then the toll of Wesley’s travels and the issue of female soul-mates and the letters to prove it became the undoing of their marriage. They separate off-and-on for the rest of their marriage. They exchanged heated words, letters, and plenty of triangulation with other people about “She said-he said” evidence surrounding John’s relationships with women leaders in the revival. Molly Wesley, some would say, actually helped the revival and kept Wesley on the preaching circuit so he wouldn’t have to go home. When he was away she compulsively tore into his desk looking for evidence in his letters or journals of his moral failings. Nevertheless, he finally told her he would come home if she would, “Suspect me no more; asperse me no more; provoke me no more. Do not any longer contend for mastery, for power, money, or praise…” After 30 years of fitful marriage she dies October 8, 1781. Wesley was away from London, returning the day of her burial, but was not informed of it until 2 days later. Wow, and how sad.
Some of Mary Wesley’s actions remind me of a speaker at a woman’s club who was lecturing on marriage and asked the audience how many of them wanted to “mother” their husbands. One member in the back row raised her hand. “You mean you really want to mother your husband?” the speaker asked. “Mother?” the woman said. “I thought you said ‘smother.’”
In a true marriage smothering doesn’t take place, by either person. There is a free mutuality of purpose and a partnership of respect. Unfortunately John Wesley never experienced married bliss. I’m not saying it was Molly’s fault. Wesley had plenty of issues and would have been a therapist’s nightmare concerning intimacy and love. On loving God and others he was great! Unfortunately, like many of us in the church today, we can love everybody and not be intimate with anybody. We can more easily bless people from a distance by a donation or a check than by our close involvement, especially if they’re different from us. We’re good on paper like Wesley, and, like him, we’re good with friends and strangers. It’s the people we live with that know the truth about us. They have seen the pretense disintegrate and fall to the floor. A man asked his children one day why people thought he was a Christian. Their hasty response was, “Maybe because they don’t know you!” I pray that people will know us and our true personal love. I hope that we United Methodists will love people, really love people – not by giving a donation but by giving ourselves.
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