WHAT’S OLD IS NEW AGAIN
Only a few days after arriving in Savannah in 1736, John Wesley met Sophia Christiana Hopkey, the 18-year-old niece of Mrs. Thomas Causton. Wesley, being determined “to have no intimacy with any woman in America,” understood the temptation Sophia presented and worked diligently to only meet with her in public spaces or when other people were present. However, in early summer, he arranged to tutor Sophia and another young woman in the parsonage after early morning prayers, thereby courting the exact temptation he had hoped to avoid. As if written in a script, by midsummer, Wesley found himself alone with Sophia and “took her by the hand, and before we parted I kissed her. And from this time, I fear there was a mixture in my intention, though I was not soon sensible of it.”
Despite all of Wesley’s writing regarding theology and grace, his strong opinions on predestination and justification by faith alone, his ecclesiastical arguments with Whitefield and the Moravians, it is this simple story of an unmarried minister and a young, beautiful girl that so often captures people’s imaginations and hearts. Why is that? Could it be that most of us have had a midsummer’s day when we were young and romance was in the air?
Here was a man who longed to serve God and God alone, every single minute of every single day. He could read, write, pray, speak with others, and minister to those in need in the most methodical of ways to serve this end, but he couldn’t change one thing. He couldn’t stop being human and, as a human, he had feelings and needs, he had fears and doubts, and he had hopes and dreams, and no amount of praying could change this.
After struggling with his feelings for Sophia for many months and consulting friends hoping for sound advice, Wesley did the incomprehensible: he drew lots. He wrote on three pieces of paper, put those pieces into a hat, and had his friend Charles Delamotte draw one out. What were the choices Wesley gave himself? Marry. Think not of it this year. Think of it no more.
Delamotte, who had been against Wesley’s courtship of Sophia, drew out the piece that read, “Think of it no more.” Wesley was dismayed but obedient. Eventually Sophia agreed to marry another and when Wesley refused to read the banns for the marriage, she traveled to South Carolina and married there. Wesley, being hurt and rejected, used the pretense of religious law to deny Sophia Williamson communion on August 7, 1737, which resulted in a warrant being attained for his arrest. After months of legal wrangling and division of public opinion both for and against his actions, John Wesley left Georgia, never to return.
As the Methodist movement struggles with truly difficult theological concerns and conversations, may we remember to read, write, pray, speak with others, and minister to those in need. May we also remember that we are humans with feelings, fears, doubts, hopes, and dreams and that no amount of methodical living can change that. May we also remember what Wesley did not: that kindness to ourselves and each other is even more important than religious law.
Anne Packard serves as Conference Historian and director of the Arthur J. Moore Methodist Museum on St. Simons Island. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.