Non Conformists in Bradford on Avon
Three conventicles were licensed in the parish of Bradford under the Declaration of Indulgence of 1672. The house of John Holton at Bradford was registered as a Presbyterian meeting-house.The house of John Lydiard and the barn of John Broomejohn were licensed as Baptist conventicles and Henry Shrapnell of Bradford was licensed as a Baptist teacher. In 1711 several rooms in houses belonging to Joseph Smith in South Wraxall were licensed as meeting-places for dissenters, and in 1727 the dwelling-house of John Deverell in Bradford was licensed for the same purpose.
By 1672 there were also a number of Quakers in the neighbourhood, although there do not appear to be any licences to them in that year. According to one account there were regular meetings at Cumberwell as early as 1660." During a meeting in May of that year there was a raid by troopers under a Lieutenant Ayers, who arrested Robert Star and carried him to Salisbury, where he was sent to prison by the Commissioners of the Militia.
Bishop Compton's Census of 1676 gave the number of Nonconformists in the parish of Bradford as 159, and of Conformists as 3,105."
It seems probable that the Society of Friends was the first dissenting sect to have a permanent meetinghouse in Bradford parish. This was at Cumberwell and the building stood on or near the site of the modern Pottick's House. There was also a Quaker burial-ground at Cumberwell. Probably this adjoined or was near the meeting-house. In 1678 the society at Cumberwell formed part of the Lavington Monthly Meeting. In 1694 it was described for the first time as that of Cumberwell and Bradford and from 1698 simply as the Bradford meeting. Not long after this a meeting-house was built in Bradford. This still stands in a court leading out of St. Margaret's Street and the date 1718 is inscribed above the door. Here the Quakers worshipped until the end of the 18th century.. The meeting-house in St. Margaret's Street was for long disused. In or about 1850 it was taken over for use as a British school (see Schools). It is now (1952) used as a builder's store. Of those who seceded from the Grove in 1739 found the Independent chapel at Morgan's Hill, Dr. Josiah Read was spiritual head, but he was an old man and it is likely that the most energetic leadership came from two laymen, Walter Grant of Monkton Farleigh and John Pitman of Bradford; it is natural to suppose that Pitman was a relative of the incendiary of Both Grant and Pitman were related to Dr. Read.The dwelling-house of John Pitman was licensed as a meeting-place for dissenters in 1738. In 1741 a licence was granted to Joshua Read, John Pitman, and two other persons for a house newly erected and intended for a meeting-house. It was said to be near 'a strett called St Margetts Strett joyning to a place Called Morgan Hill'.The building of the new chapel was made possible by a gift of land by Mrs. Mary Grant and by gifts of £100 each by Dr. Read, Grant, and Pitman. By their wills Grant and Pitman subsequently endowed the chapel with property amounting to £2,144." The founders of the chapel 'were but few in number but very respectable in point of character and property'.'Dr. Read remained pastor until his death in 1745 or 1746. It was he who at first encouraged but later disappointed John Wesley in I739.
A Baptist church, later called the Old Baptist Church, existed at Bradford in 1689, when it sent deputies to the Baptist Assembly in London. In the same year a chapel to hold 300 was built near St. Margaret's Street on land granted on a 1,000 year lease at a nominal rent by Zachariah Shrapnel. The premises also included vestry, burial-ground, and an adjoining house. The property then stood in the names of Jacob Silbey, maltster, and Richard Godby, fellmonger. 1797 the church was rebuilt on the same site. To give direct access to the new building the ground floor rooms of one of the houses in St. Margaret's Street were knocked down. The total cost of the work was £900, of which £500 was raised before building took place.
This church was in 1901 endowed with the lease-hold of its building, schoolroom, and burial-ground, the minister's house in St. Margaret's Place, seven other houses (No. 18 St. Margaret's Street, Nos. 2 to 4 St. Margaret's Place, and Nos. 5, 6, and 8 Beaconsfield Terrace, Trowbridge Road) producing £67. "js. annually, and investments amounting to over £1,000 derived from the gifts of Mrs. Elizabeth Reyner (will proved 1765), Richard Haynes (will proved 1768), the Revd. John Hinton (will dated 1815), and James Patch (will dated 1846).
John Wesley visited Bradford early in his career as an evangelist. On 17 July 1739 he rode from Bath and asked leave of the vicar, John Rogers, to preach in his church. Rogers said that it was not usual to preach there on week-days but that Wesley would be welcome to assist at the services on Sunday
Title : Wesley and his Preachers at Bradford-on-Avon
Author : W. Norman Warren
Book Type : Churches
Publisher :
Date : 1938
Journal : The Wiltshire Times, May 1938

Full Text

[Owing to the fact that Wesley sometimes speaks of Bradford and sometimes of Bearfield, which is a part of Bradford, it is not always easy to trace his visits. Several visits which are not mentioned in the text of the Journal are referred to either in the Sermon Register (here indicated by S.R.) or Diary (D) which are incorporated in the notes to the Standard Edition of John Wesley’s Journal.]

1739. July 17, 31; Aug. 14, 28; Oct. 9,23, 28.
1746. Sept. 23.
1747. Jan. 29; Sept. 10; Dec. 14.
1748. Jan. 28; June (S.R.).
1749. Feb. (S.R.); March 12.
1750. Oct. (S.R.).
1751. June 26; July 22.
1753. March 15; July (S.R.); Sept. 22. (S.R.).
1754. March (S.R.).
1755. March (S.R.); Oct. 14.
1757. Oct. 18.
1758. Sept. 16; Oct. 2
1759. Sept. 27.
1760. May 3; Oct. 19 (S.R.).
1761. Oct. 27 (S.R.).
1764. Sept. 18; Oct. 1.
1766. Sept. 28.
1767. Oct. 12.
1768. Oct. 24.
1769. Sept. 19.
1772. Sept. 6.
1774. Sept. 27.
1775. Sept. 15.
1778. Sept. 24.
1779. Sept. 13.
1781. Sept. 13, 27.
1783. Sept. 17 (D.).
1784. March 12, Sept. 14.
1785. Sept. 9.
1787. Sept. 24 (D.).
1788. Sept. 12.
1789. Sept. 18.
1790. Aug. 26 (D).


1739. Sept. 11, 25; Oct. 9, 14, 20-21
1745. April 3 (at Wraxall); Oct. 9.
1746. Jan. 22; April 30; May 28.
1750. Feb. 13.
1751. June 12, 25

One July morning in 1739 a clergyman approached the door of the Bradford Vicarage. It is only ten-thirty, but he has ridden over from Bristol and already has found time to visit Winsley and have prayer and signing at the home of Mr. Cottle. Short of stature, plainly but neatly dressed, thirty six- years of age, John Wesley is worthy of more than a passing glance. Here is nothing of the wild fanatic or popular demagogue. If he had consulted his personal inclinations he would have spent his days in the peace and calm of Oxford University where he was a Fellow and tutor of Lincoln College. Precise, orderly, methodical – so much so that the little company to which he belonged at Oxford had earned for themselves the nickname of Methodists – but with a consuming desire to bring to all that experience of forgiveness and salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, of which he had become conscious fourteen months before. He asks the Vicar’s permission to preach in the Parish Church. Mr. Rogers replies that it was not usual to preach on the week days, but if the would come on a Sunday he would be glad of his assistance.
From the Vicarage Wesley went to call on one who at Bath had shown approval of his work and wished him luck in the name of the Lord. But here again he finds no encouragement but only arguments, and at last is told plainly that an Oxford acquaintance had said that they always took him to be a little crack-brained at Oxford. – The M.S. Diary reveals that this was Mr. Reed. At the time he was minister of The Grove (Presbyterian) Meeting House, but the next year The Grove accepted Unitarian doctrines, and Mr. Reed and his supporters left and founded an Independent Chapel in Morgan’s Hill (1740).
“However,” Wesley says, “some persons who were not of his mind, having pitched on a convenient place (called Bearfield or Buryfield) on the top of the hill under which the town lies, I there offered Christ to about a thousand people, for wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption.” Do not miss the significance of that open-air service. It was not of choice; rather was it in violent antagonism to all his instincts of orderliness; that very spring he had done it for the first time in Bristol where Whitefield had exercised a great open-air ministry, and the agony it caused him is shown by the words in which he records the decision: “I submitted to be more vile.” More than thirty years later he has not lost his distaste for it. “To this day,” he says, “field preaching is a cross to me; but I know my commission and see no other way of preaching the Gospel to every creature.”
The preaching over, he goes to dinner with Mrs. Bailward, preaches again at Bath on his way back to Bristol, and again in the recently opened New Room at Bristol at 9 o’clock. Notice the name of the lady with whom he dined at Bradford. Mrs. Ballard or Bailward. Wesley refers to her more than once. The last time in 1788, when he says “I did not find good Mrs. Bailward there. After long struggling with a deep nervous disorder, which, for a time, depressed the mind, as well as the body, the cloud removed, her load fell off, and her spirit joyfully returned to God.” She left £80 for the support of the Bradford preacher. It is, of course, possible that the lady who entertained Wesley forty-nine years earlier, may have belonged to an earlier generation; but I like to think that the income still received each half-year from the Bailward legacy is a direct link with the first Bradford Methodist.
John Wesley repeated his visits to Bradford every other Tuesday till he went to London, when his place was taken by this brother Charles, the hymn writer, who paid his first visit on September 11th. On his second visit Charles was misunderstood and misinterpreted, and received a letter from Holt telling him not to go to Bearfield again. The weavers of Bradford were to rise against him if he attempted it. Accordingly the next fortnight both brothers came to Bradford and for an hour and a half Charles strongly called all sinners to the Saviour of the world, and no one opened his mouth against them.
The next Sunday Charles came to take advantage of the Vicar’s offer of the pulpit of the Parish Church, but the Vicar’s heart failed him; he feared the Church would be pulled down; he feared the Bishop would be displeased; again Charles Wesley had to preach in the open. The following Saturday he preached in the Town Hall, and twice on the common on the Sunday; and the Sunday after John Wesley was again in Bradford preaching in the rain to a mighty congregation at Bearfield. – His estimates of numbers are notoriously difficult to accept, but when both John Wesley and a correspondent speak of ten thousand we know that it must have been a great crowd.
At this point we come to one of the strangest silences in the history of Bradford Methodism. In fifteen weeks the two brothers had paid eleven visits to Bradford (five of them in the last three weeks). Then for five and a half years neither brother mentions the town. John went to London on the Tuesday and Charles to Oxford a day or two later, but they were often in Bristol and even Bath. What had happened at Bradford that the preachers stayed away? We do not know. But in 1745 Charles Wesley preached at Wraxall and “found the bread I had cast upon the waters after many days.” Several of his old Bradford hearers were there and a Mrs. Taylor and others declared that they had found salvation under his preaching at Bradford five years before. He revisited Bradford in the autumn and the following year John Wesley was again at Bearfield. By this time John Wesley’s “parish” is so enlarged that it is annual rather than fortnightly visits that we may expect; but from 1746 to 1790 there are only thirteen years out of forty-five in which he makes no record of a visit to the town. No less than fifty-two times visits are recorded in his Journal and Diary.
It would be tedious to record all these visits in detail, but some are worthy of more than a passing note. In 1749 he tells of a Sunday which to any other would be impossible full, but which to John Wesley was only normal.
“March 1. Sunday. After preaching at five (at Freshford) I rode to Bearfield, and preached there between eight and nine and about one at Seend. Mrs Andrews, the wife of a neighbouring clerygyman, afterwards invited me in her husband’s name to his house; there I found “ A hoary, reverend, and religious man,” the very sight of whom struck me with awe. He told me his only son, about nine years ago, came to hear me preach at Bearfield. He was then in the flower of his age, but remarkable above his years, both for piety, sense, and learning. He was clearly and deeply convinced of the truth, but returned home with the small-pox. Nevertheless he praised God for having been there, rejoiced in a full sense of His love, and triumphed more and more over sickness, pain, and death, till his soul returned to God. He said he had greatly loved me ever since and greatly desired to see me; and that he blessed God he had seen me before he followed his son into eternity.
At five I preached at Bearfield again. This day I was wet from morning to night with the continued rain: but I found no manner of inconvenience.”
[In Seend Parish Church there is a memorial to Rev. Thomas Andrews of Seend, Rew House, Mary his wife, their son Thomas, and daughter Rachel who married Wadham Locke.]
Two years later, in 1751, both John and Charles Wesley had to pay several visits to Bradford in connection with a certain James Wheatley, whom they had to suspend from his duties as a preacher. In the course of the investigations Wheatley made grave charges against some others of the preachers whom he refused to name. Realising the danger to the work if such charges, however baseless they might be, remained uninvestigated, the brothers at once commenced an enquiry into the character of every preacher in connection with them. The question which is still asked (and answered) concerning each Methodist preacher at every Local Preachers’ Meeting and Synod in Methodism: “Is there any objection to his moral and religious character?” is an echo of that old Bradford trouble; but it has had lasting benefits in helping to keep the ranks of Methodist preachers free from the breath of scandal.
About 1756 a Chapel was opened in Pippett Street, or Market Street (now belonging to the Bradford-on-Avon Club), and on subsequent visits John Wesley often preached there; but he evidently did not get such large crowds indoors as in the open air, for in 1764 (September 19) he says he was “determined to be no longer cooped up in the room at Bradford”so preached in the main street near the bridge, a large part of the crowd followed to a later service in the “room” and he comments “I know not if we have had such a season at Bradford for twice seven years before.” At five o’clock the next morning he had “such a congregation as does not use to meet here at that hour.”
A more exciting open-air service was held in September, 1769. His quiet sense of humour can best be seen if we tell the story in his own words. On Tuesday evening he had preached at White’s Hill and “had designed to preach there again the next evening, but a gentleman of the town desired me to preach at his door. The beasts of the people were tolerably quiet till I had nearly finished my sermon. They then lifted up their voice, especially one, called a gentleman, who had filled his pockets with rotten eggs, but a young man coming unawares, clapped his hands on each side, and mashed them all at once. In an instant he was perfume all over, though it was not so sweet as balsam!”
In 1784, in his eighty-first year, he is still not too old to take an interest in nature and not too old to learn. “Being at Samuel Rayner’s at Bradford I was convinced of two vulgar errors: the one, that nightingales will not live in cages; the other that they only sing a month or two in the year. He has now three nightingales in cages, and they sing almost all day long, from November to August.” One hopes Bradford people have discontinued the habit of keeping nightingales in cages.
Though in early life John Wesley had not been robust, he maintained his faculties to a remarkable old age.. Till he was past eighty-five his vigour abated but little, but during the last eighteen months of his life even he began to show signs of old age, but he did not surrender to it. There is humour as well as pathos and courage in the New Year entry for 1790 (his eighty-seventh year):
“December 31. I preached at the New Chapel, but to avoid the cramp went to bed at ten o’clock. (i.e., he did not stay up for the Watchnight Service). I was well served. I know not that I ever felt so much of it in one night.”
“Friday, January 1, 1790. I am now an old man, decayed from head to foot. My eyes are dim; my right hand shakes much; my mouth is hot and dry every morning. I have a lingering fever almost every day. My motion is weak and slow. However, blessed be God, I do not slack my labour. I can preach and write still.”
It was that brave old man who visited Bradford again on the 26th of the following August. He had travelled from Frome by chaise, preaching at Trowbridge on the way. He arrived at Bradford at three and preached from 1 Kings, xix, 3, at six o’clock, spent the night with Brother Pearce – who for forty years had been one of the pillars of Bradford Methodism. He retired at 9.30, but was up at 4.30 as usual and by seven was on the road to Bristol!
He finished his course and his life together on March 2, 1791.

THE VISITS OF John Wesley to Bradford, a sketch of which has already been given, do not exhaust the associations of that historic old town with the early leaders of Methodism.
Dr. Adam Clarke.
Of the scholars and administrators of Methodism in the years immediately succeeding John Wesley’s death, few names hold a more exalted position than that of Dr. Adam Clarke, who was President of the Conference in 1806, 1814, and 1822. He was the author of a famous commentary on the Bible, and was familiar with the Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Chaldee, Syriac and Samaritan versions of the Scriptures and had, in addition, a wide knowledge of many branches of science and other fields of learning.
Dr. Clarke commenced his ministry in the Bradford Circuit, which then included Trowbridge, Shaftesbury, Shepton Mallet, Wells, Frome, Melksham and Devizes. The first night he spent at the home of Mr. Pearce, of Bradford, but for the most part he appears to have resided at Trowbridge. He was only twenty years of age when Wesley sent him to Bradford, but his commanding voice and eloquence attracted crowds wherever the young Irishman went. In his case at all events no one could complain that scholarship was a hindrance to the work of an evangelist. He won for himself the love of his people as a good pastor, and during the year he spent in the circuit preached no less than five hundred and six sermons! He married Miss Mary Cooke, of Trowbridge.
Thomas Olivers.
Thomas Olivers’ claim to fame rests on the one great hymn he wrote, “The God of Abraham Praise,” though there are grounds for believing that he was also the composer of the well known tune, “Helmsley,” usually sung to the hymn “Lo He comes with clouds descending.” He seems to have had a somewhat erratic temperament, subject to moods of exaltation and of despondency. A successful circuit minister, he proved a most unsuitable editor of Wesley’s “Arminian Magazine,” in which he allowed so many misprints and mistakes that the exact mind of John Wesley was driven almost to distraction. Wesley declared that he was “a rough stick of wood,” but there was good in him.
For four years previous to his becoming one of Wesley’s preachers Thomas Olivers resided in Bradford (1749-1743) where he was a mechanic (whatever that might imply in the Eighteenth Century) and subsequently for a short time in business on his own account. In the account of his life reprinted in “The Lives of the Early Methodist Preaches” (and more recently under the title of “Wesley’s Veterans”) he has left a most interesting account of his experiences at Bradford.
He had been converted under the preaching of George Whitefield, at Bristol, and soon afterwards moved to Bradford, but had not become a member of the Methodist Society. From the first Sunday at Bradford he was regular in attendance, both at Church and at the Methodist preaching services. “When the public preaching was over on a Sunday evening, and I, along with the multitude, was shut out from the Society, I used to go into the field at the back of the preaching-house, and listen while they sang the praises of God. I would then weep bitterly at the thought that God’s people were there, praising His name together, while I, a poor and wretched fugitive, was not permitted to be among them….When they came out I have often followed at a small distance those of them I thought most in earnest, particularly the preacher and his company, that I might hear something further concerning the ways of God. I often followed them near two miles, and then returned praising God for this further instruction I had picked up, as it were by stealth, and meditating thereon all the way home.”
After a while some of the members took notice of him and he was given a note of admittance and became a member of the society. He undertook a number of voluntary duties such as “running over a great part of the town to call them up to the morning service” at five o’clock, which was one of the distinctive features of early Methodism. After a while he felt a call to preach the Gospel and became a local preacher. On Saturday nights he would get all worldly business done and his Sunday clothes ready; this often took him till midnight. “After this I frequently sat up till one or two in the morning, reading, praying and examining myself: and have often rose at four, but never later than five o’clock and gone two miles into the country, through all weathers, to meet a few poor people, from six to seven. By eight I returned to hear the preaching. I have then gone seven miles on foot to preach at one; then three or four miles further to preach at five; and after all, have had five or six miles to walk before I got home. And as in everything I did I put forth al my strength, I have often been so wearied I could scarce get over a stile; or when I got home, go up into my chamber to ask a blessing on the labours of the day.” We sometimes think of the Eighteenth Century as a more leisurely age than ours, but the early Methodists lived strenuously.
Before the days of vaccination small pox was a disease which frequently swept over the country causing terrible mortality. Olivers tells of one such epidemic at Bradford to which he very nearly succumbed.
“When I had been a local preacher about twelve months the small pox made terrible havoc in and about Bradford. So universal was the infection that in all that populous town and the neighbouring villages, scarce a single person escaped who had not had it before. It was also so mortal that six or seven were buried in a night in Bradford alone.” (Why, one wonders, were small pox funerals at night?).
“About a week after Michaelmas (1752) I was taken ill, and in the beginning was very comfortable in my soul. It was soon discovered that I should have a vast quantity, occasioned as was supposed by the illmanagement of an ignorant old woman, who gave me heating things. I had not been ill above a day or two before that pattern of practical Christianity, Mr. Richard Pearce, came to see me. Among other things he asked what money I had, I said but little. He then encouraged me not to fear, telling me that as I was far from my own country, he would take care I had all things necessary. Accordingly he turned away the old woman, and sent me one of the best nurses in the town. He next sent the chief apothecary the place afforded; and lastly Dr. Clark, the most experienced physician in all that country. But notwithstanding all these helps I was soon one of the most deplorable objects ever seen. I was tone blind for five weeks; my head was swelled to such an enormous size that many thought it would drop from my shoulders; my whole body was covered with one scab, a great part of an inch thick; and though the room I lay in was large and airy, the stretch was so great that, though the town was full of the small pox, neither the doctor nor apothecary could come near me without stopping their mouths and noses as close as they were able. Many others who came to see me ran downstairs vomiting, and declared they never smelt a carrion in a ditch which was so offensive….Dr. Clark declared, ‘Though I have been fifty years in practice, I never saw anyone so ill of this disorder before.’ The first time I got up, to have my bed made, was on New Year’s Day; but I was not near recovered at Lady Day.”
Having come into a small inheritance about this time, he bought a horse and toured the country from his home in Montgomery to Liverpool and Bristol paying all his old debts, but he was only able to pay the debts at Bradford by selling his horse and saddle. Mr Pearce refused to accept a single penny for all his kindness and expense.
The following autumn John Wesley asked him to go to Cornwall as a travelling preacher and he gladly accepted the call. “But I was not able to buy another horse; and therefore, with my boots on my legs, my greatcoat on my back, and my saddlebags with my books and linen, across my shoulder, I set out on foot, October 24, 1753.” However at Tiverton a Mr. Bidgood gave him a horse on which he was still travelling twenty-five years later.
It is with regret that we have to admit that a local tradition that his hymn “ The God of Abraham Praise” was written at Conkwell (about three miles from Bradford) is not substantiated. It was written at Westminster in 1770 after hearing Leoni sing a Jewish hymn to an old synagogue melody.
William Hitchens.
One of Wesley’s preachers had the distinction of being locked up for the night in the little prison on Bradford Bridge. This was William Hitchens. He tells of his experience in a letter to John Wesley:
28th February 1757. “Reverend and Dear Sir, “When I was at Freshford on the 30th of January in the morning I scrupled singing these words Ye now afflicted are and hated for His name, And in your bodies bear the tokens of the Lamb.
“I thought I was not afflicted nor hated for the name of Christ. But this scruple was soon removed.
“For at Bradford in the evening I was pressed for a soldier, and carried to an inn where the gentlemen were. Mr Pearse hearing of it, came and offered bail for my appearance the next day. They said they would take his word for ten thousand pounds, but not for me; I must go to the Round House, the little stone room on the side of the Bridge; so thither I was conveyed by five soldiers. There I found nothing to sit on but a stone, and nothing to lie on but a little straw, but soon after a friend sent me a chair on which I sat all night. I had a double guard, 12 soldiers in all, two without, one in the door and the rest within. I passed the night without sleep, but not without rest, for, blessed be God, my peace was not broken a moment. My body was in prison, but I was Christ’s freeman; my soul was at liberty and even there I found some work to do for God; I had a fair opportunity of speaking to them who durst not leave me, and I hope it was not in vain.
“In the morning I had leave to go to a private house with only one soldier to guard me. About three in the afternoon I was carried before the Commisioners, and part of the act was read which empowered them to take such able-bodied men as followed no business and had no lawful or sufficient maintenance.
“Then I said ‘If these are the men you are to take I am not a proper person, for I do follow a lawful calling in partnership with my brother, and have also an estate.’ The Justice said, ‘If you will make oath of that, I think we must let you go!” but the Commisioners said, ‘No man could swear for himself.’ I said ‘Gentlemen give me time and your shall have full proof.’ After a long debate they took a fifty pound bond for my appearance on that day three weeks.
“All the time I could bless God that He counted me worthy to suffer for His name’s sake. The next day I set out for Cornwall. I tarried at home four days, and then setting out with my brother James, came to Bradford last Saturday. On Monday in the afternoon I appeared before the Commissioners, with the writings of my estate. When the Justice had persued them, and my brother had taken his oath, I was set at liberty. So the fierceness of man turns to God’s praise, and all this is for the furtherance of the Gospel. I hope you will return thanks for my deliverance out of the hands of unreasonable and wicked men.” (WILLIAM HITCHENS).
Some Bradford Methodists.
The name of Richard Pearce takes an honoured place among the members of the Methodist Society at Bradford. He was an innkeeper in the town; and evidently a man of some position and respected both among his fellow Methodists and in the town at large. We have seen him paying the expenses of Thomas Olivers’ illnesses, offering bail for William Hitchens, entertaining Adam Clarke on his first night at Bradford and John Wesley on his last visit. We would gladly know more of this kindly man. To Mrs. Ann Bailward, who was John Wesley’s first hostess in the town and who eventually left a legacy for the support of the preacher, we have also made reference.
Several of the leading people of the town were Methodists; among them the Cams of Chantry House the Attwoods of Turleigh, and John Smith, an Attorney and at one time Stewart to the notorious Duchess of Kingston (who in 1776 was impeached before the House of Lords and found guilty of bigamy). Johns’ Smith’s daughter married Dr. Thomas Coke, who was the founder of Methodist Overseas missionary work and took a leading part in the organisation of the Methodist Episcopal Church of the U.S.A.
Once of the early local preachers was a Mr. Hanny, his son William Hanny was a class leader, and his grandson, William Peters Hanny (still remembered by old Bradfordians) was born in 1802 and was a member of the Methodist Society for 76 years (1818-1894). His name appears on the first page of the first register of scholars of the Wesleyan Sunday School opened in 1815, and three years later he became a teacher. All his life he was a great temperance worker and leader of cottage prayer meetings and for a long time superintended a village Sunday School. His descendants are still connected with the Chapel.
Contemporary with this third generation Hanny was Joseph Rawlings who was one of the first Society Stewards of the new Wesleyan Chapel built in 1818. He later became minister of the Countess of Huntingdon’s Chapel at Bearfield (this chapel apparently has no connection with the early services at Bearfield, as it was not founded until 1808) but remained a Trustee of the Wesleyan Chapel. He was a printer by trade and later added the duties of Postmaster of Bradford. His autobiography, published by his son at Bradford, soon after his death in 1866, is with Canon Jones’ History of Bradford-on-Avon the source of much of the information contained in this article.
On May 22nd and 24th special services will be held in Methodist Chapels throughout the world in thanksgiving for the evangelical conversion of John Wesley, of which Methodism is a direct consequence. But the Methodist Church (despite its world wide membership of over eleven millions) is but a part of the consequence of the Evangelical Revival from which it sprang. Its wider effects are seen in a Church of England roused from the lethargy and worldliness into which it had sunk in the Eighteenth Century; in the revitalised Nonconformist Churches; in an awakened national conscience which swept away the Slave Trade; in a national transformation which effected peaceably what the French Revolution attempted to achieve forcibly. All these effects are directly attributable to that experience that transformed the life of John Wesley on May 24, 1738. It is because the event and its consequences are of such far reaching significance that a retelling of the story, and an examination of its meaning is here attempted.
John Wesley was a devout clergyman, who for thirteen years at least had made it his one aim in life to live well pleasing to God. The little group to which he belonged at Oxford had been nicknamed “The Holy Club” and “The Methodists” because of their religious life and methodical planning out of their time in order that they might do all the good they could. Three quarters of his small income was given to the poor. He visited the sick and the prisoners. He missed no opportunity of receiving the Holy Communion. He fasted. He prayed. He studied the Bible. In 1735 he went to the new colony of Georgia in the hope of being able to preach to the Red Indians. He honestly and sincerely tried to lead a good life and he succeeded above most.
But in spite of all his efforts he came to see that he lacked something. On board the “Simmonds” on the voyage to America he had as fellow passengers a party of humble Moravians from Germany. From the commencement of the voyage he was attracted by their lack of pride and anger; but it was in a violent storm in which the English passengers were terrified and Wesley himself was in fear that he saw the simple Moravians calmly continuing their service even when a tremendous wave swept over the ship and tore the mainsail to shreds. They had a peace with God which banished all fear, a peace to which he was a stranger. The day after he landed in Georgia he had a conversation with one of their Pastors named Spangenberg in which the German asked him “Do you know Jesus Christ?” Wesley paused and said “I know he has saved you?” I answered, “I said “I do.” But I fear they were vain words. To a man of Wesley’s sincerity and devotion such a conversation caused not resentment but heart searching, and bore fruit after many months.
The mission to Georgia was a dismal failure. He never got an opportunity of preaching to the heathen. He ministered to the colonists but only succeeded in rousing their animosity. He returned to England two years later a disappointed man. It was not merely that he had failed to please men. (John Wesley knew enough of Christianity to expect that a true Christian might be hated of all men for the sake of his Lord.) He felt that he had utterly failed to fulfil his one ambition of pleasing God in all things. He had still no sense of peace with God.
Soon after arriving in England he met another member of that little Moravian community from whom he had already learned so much. In Peter Bohler he found a guide and teacher who shewed him that the one way to peace with God was by faith. As he studied his Bible and with it the articles and Homilies of the Church of England, he was amazed to realise that Bohler’s doctrine of Justification by Faith was the express teaching of the New Testament and of the Church of which for ten years he had been a clergyman. For three months with increasing clearness he sought the Justification –the Acceptance with God-the Salvation that comes not of works but of faith. On Whit Sunday, May 21, 1738 his younger brother Charles entered into the experience for which both had been seeking. Then on the following Wednesday John himself experienced something which changed the whole basis and course of his life. The record of the events of his life. The record of the events of that day must be given in his own words.
“I think it was about five this morning that I opened my Testament on these words “There are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises, even that we should be partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1 v. 4) Just as I went out I opened it again on these words “Thou art not far from the kingdom of God.” In the afternoon I was asked to go to St. Paul’s. The anthem was “Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord: Lord, hear my voice. O let thine ears consider well the voice of my complaint. If thou Lord will be extreme to mark what is done amiss, O Lord, who may abide it? But there is mercy with thee; therefore thou shalt be feared. O Israel, trust in the Lord: for with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption. And he shall redeem Israel from all his sins.”
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me, that he had taken away MY sins, even MINE, and saved ME from the law of sin and death.
I began to pray with all my might for those who had in a more special manner despitefully used me and persecuted me. I then testified to all there what I now first felt in my heart…
After my return home, I was much buffeted with temptation; but cried out and they fled away. They returned again and again. I as often lifted up my eyes, and he sent me help from his holy place. And herein I found the difference between this and my former state chiefly consisted. I was striving, yea fighting with all my might under the law, as well as under grace; but then I was sometimes, if not often, conquered: now, I was always conqueror.”
It is Charles Wesley who tells us that about ten o’clock that night John and some of his friends came to the house where Charles was staying and John announced his victory in the simple words “I believe!” Together they sang the hymn which Charles Wesley had composed the day before in gratitude for his own conversion. “Where shall my wondering soul begin?”
So simple is John Wesley’s telling of the story that it is hard to realise that this was indeed an epoch making event; an event that changed a sincere and devout but futile man into a prophet of God through whom tens of thousands were led into a like experience of peace and victory; by which multitudes of godless men and women became saints of God; by which hardened sinners became upright and respected people.
It is surely worth asking just what DID happen to John Wesley? Let us look again at his own words. It was “a change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ.” It was “trusting in Christ for salvation.” It was “an assurance that he had taken away MY sins, even MINE, and saved ME from the law of sin and death.” It was a victory over sin. In a word it was the acceptance of salvation as God’s work through faith in Christ. In an illuminating foot note added when the Journal was published he states “I had even then the faith of a SERVANT, though not that of a SON.”
A second question calls insistently for an answer. “If so vital an experience was available, how was it that so godly a man as John Wesley did not find it till he was thirty five years old? The answer surely is that he was seeking it in the wrong way, that he had a completely mistaken idea of what the essential message of Christianity really was. In his Georgia Journal he gives a summary of two conversations he had, one with an Indian chief the other with a negro slave girl. At last the missionary had his long sought opportunity of preaching Christianity to the heathen. In both cases he fails to make any reference at all to Jesus Christ. He sums up his message to the heathen girl in these words “ God made you to live with himself above the sky. And so you will, in a little time- if you are good.” If you are good. There lay the very essence of his religion. Salvation is for the people who are good enough. That was what he preached and that was what he strove for. He was trying to be good enough to be saved. That this was so is expressly stated by Charles Wesley when Peter Bohler visited him in February, 1738. “He asked me, ‘Do you hope to be saved?’ ‘Yes’ ‘For what reason do you hope it?’ “Because I have used my best endeavours to serve God.’ “He shook his head and said no more. I thought him very uncharitable, saying in my heart. ‘What are not my endeavours a sufficient ground of hope? Would he rob me of my endeavours? I have nothing else to trust to.’”
Salvation for those who were good enough. That was Wesley’s idea of Christianity, an idea that is not extinct even yet. But the real name of that religion is not Christianity but Pharisaism. What then is the essence of Christianity? Just this: that in His mercy God gave His Son to come and save those who could not save themselves; that Jesus Christ came to seek and to save that which was lost. It was that truth that John Wesley began to grasp in the spring of 1738. On May 24 that salvation which was made possible by the cross of Jesus Christ became his actual, personal possession. He trusted in Christ alone for salvation. Immediately he received the assurance that his sins were forgiven and that he was accepted of God – not for his own goodness but for the sake of Jesus Christ. In that moment God worked a change in his heart which entirely transformed him.
From that day we may date the beginning of the Evangelical Revival. This was the message that John Wesley preached wherever he went- to the degraded and neglected miners of Kingswood and to the members of Oxford University in St. Mary’s Church, to the weavers of Bradford and the aristocracy in Bath, to the labourers of Wiltshire and the tinners and smugglers of Cornwall- that for all there was in Christ a full and free salvation.
What John preached, Charles sang: and the fullest and most enduring record of their experience and teaching is to be found in Charles Wesley’s hymns.
And can it be that I should gain An interest in the Saviour’s blood? Died He for me, who caused His pain? For me, who Him to death pursued? Amazing love! How can it be That Thou, my God shouldst die for me?
Long my imprisoned spirit lay Fast bound in sin and nature’s night; Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light; My chains fell off, my heart was free I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
No condemnation now I dread; Jesus, and all in Him, is mine! Alive in Him, my living Head, And clothed in righteousness divine, Bold I approach the eternal throne, And claim the crown through Christ my own.
(And remember that only a few months before that same man’s hope of salvation was “Because I have used my best endeavours to serve Go.” What a transformation!)
What we have felt and seen With confidence we tell. And publish to the sons of men The signs infallible.
We who in Christ believe That He for us hath died We all His unknown peace receive And feel His blood applied.
That is the message that transformed John Wesley. That is the message that saved England in the Eighteenth Century. And that is the message that can save England to-day. John Wesley was a man in a million. The work that he did may not fall to more than one man in a century. But the experience that came to John Wesley is the birthright of every man for whom Christ died. All may know, as John Wesley came to know that “He loved ME and gave Himself for ME”; that “He has taken away MY sins even MINE and save ME from the law of sin and death.”
That is the aim of the celebration of the Wesley Bicentenary; that multitudes may enter into that same experience. What God did for John Wesley in 1738 He can do for you in 1938.