Methodist preaching in the North

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On June 28, 1774, his 71st birthday, the Rev John Wesley reflected on the reasons for his continued health and strength.

They were:

“1. My constantly rising at four for about 50 years.

"2. My generally preaching at five in the morning, one of the most healthy exercises in the world.

"3. My never travelling less, by sea or land, than 4,500 miles in a year.”

He began his open-air ministry at Bristol in 1739, and his mission on Tyneside in 1742, but did not come to Morpeth until 1748.

John Wesley could preach at the drop of a hat, and frequently did.

After that, however, he quickly moved on to Alnwick, Berwick and much of Scotland.

So, standing as it did in those days, firmly on the Great North Road, Morpeth was a place he could hardly avoid on his northern journeys. He consequently visited this town at least 24 times during the 42 years from 1748 to 1789.

The following is the entry in his Journal for that first visit. It took place on Monday, July 18,1748. As was often the case, it began with a threat of physical assault.

“I began my journey northward, having appointed to preach in Morpeth at noon.

"As soon as I had sung a few verses at the Cross, a young man appeared at the head of his troop, and told me, very plainly and roughly, ‘You shall not preach there’.

"I went on; upon which he gave the signal to his companions, who prepared to force me into better manners; but they quickly fell out among themselves. Meantime I began my sermon, and went on without any considerable interruption, the congregation softening more and more, till, toward the close, the far greater part appeared exceeding serious and attentive.

“In the afternoon we rode to Widdrington, which belonged to the Lord Widdrington till the Rebellion in 1715.

"The people flocked in from all parts, so that the congregation here was larger than at Morpeth.

"It was a delightful evening, and a delightful place, under the shade of tall trees. And every man hung upon the word; none stirred his head or hand, or looked to the right or left, while I declared, in strong terms, ‘the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’.

“Tues. 19.— We rode to Alnmouth, a small seaport town, famous for all kinds of wickedness. The people here are sinners convict; they have nothing to pay, but plead guilty before God.

"There, I preached to them without delay, Jesus Christ, for ‘wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption’. After dinner we rode to Alnwick.”

On Monday, August 8, 1748, starting at Newcastle: “I set out once more for the north. At noon I preached at the Cross, in Morpeth; in the evening at Alnwick where many now began to fear God and tremble at his word.”

He preached at Tuggal and Berwick the same day, and stayed at Berwick till Thursday, August 11. From there he went on to Alnmouth.

“We took horse as soon as we could after preaching, and before 12 reached Alnmouth, where all the publicans and sinners drew near to hear; nay and all the gentry; the chief of whom invited us to dinner, where we spent two hours in agreeable and useful conversation.

“In the evening I preached to the earnest congregation at Widdrington. There is always a blessing among this people.”

He had no difficulty in setting up Methodist societies at Morpeth and Widdrington, but after four years of effort, despaired of ever succeeding at Alnmouth.

The best known edition of Wesley’s journal is the Extracts that he published, and which have been reprinted many times since.

They were, however, not actually extracts, but fully formed paragraphs based on the original journal entries. The entries themselves were mere aide-memoires.

To take an example, the extracts for May 28 and 29, 1784, read as follows:

“Fri. 28.— I entered into England once more, and in the evening preached in the town-hall at Alnwick.

“Sat. 29.— I should have preached in the town-hall at Morpeth, but it was pre-engaged by a company of strolling players. So we retired into our own preaching-house. In the afternoon I went on to Newcastle.”

The entry for May 29 actually reads: “Saturday 29. 4 Prayed, Luke ix 62! tea, conversed, prayer; 7 chaise; 11 Morp, within; 12 Isa. lxvi. 8, 9! dinner; 2 chaise; 4.30 Newc, tea, on business, letter, prayed; 7 2 Cor. iv. 18! supper, conversed, prayer, on business; 10.”

This means that he spent the night at Alnwick, and got up as usual at 4am.

After taking tea and conversing (with his host, one assumes) he got into his chaise at 7am, and arrived at Morpeth at 11am.

“Within” must mean that he preached indoors, but he relied on some other source, such as memory, to say that it was in the Methodist ‘preaching house’, not the Town Hall.

He had dinner in Morpeth, took chaise again at 2pm, arrived at Newcastle at 4.30pm, and was busy until 10pm, when he went to bed.

Every day was punctuated with tea, prayers, and short passages of scripture. These always end with an exclamation mark.

“Tea” means that he literally drank tea. It was not a meal. It is not clear if “prayed” and “prayer” mean private prayer in every case, or if some of them were family or group prayers.

The scripture references are particularly interesting. I don’t think it means that he read a passage of the Bible.

John Wesley could preach at the drop of a hat, and frequently did.

He many times in the Extracts says that he preached at 5am, and often to a large congregation.

It came easily to him, partly from long practice, but also because of his extraordinary management of time and careful record keeping.

Travelling constantly as he did, he preached more or less the same sermon on any particular text many times over.

He kept a sermon register, with towns and villages listed in rough alphabetical order, followed by the texts he preached on. He knew, therefore, if and when he had given any particular sermon before.

The Register only survives for 1747-1761 inclusive. But even for that limited period, the editor of the Standard Edition of the Journal, Nehemiah Curnock, found that it “includes nearly 400 visits not recorded in the Journal”.

In it, Wesley used an exclamation mark to mark a particularly successful occasion. But in the journal entries it looks as if it simply means that he preached.

The next day’s entry is: “Whit Sunday 30. 4 Prayed, letters, tea; 8.30 Acts ii. 4! letters; 12.30 dinner; 1, coach; 2 Jo. xiv. 21! coach; 4 tea, prayed; 5 1 Thess. iv 8! lovefeast; 8 supper, conversed, prayer; 9.30.”

The Extracts show that the trip by coach was to preach at Gateshead Fell. A “lovefeast” was a social meal combined with worship and presided over by a Methodist preacher.

Acknowledgement: My thanks to the Rev Keith Harbour for advice on early Methodist practice.