[John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was thirty-three when he first met Sophia Christina Hopkey. She was the niece of Mrs. Causton, the wife of Thomas Causton who was the Magistrate of the Colony. The Colony, near modern day Savannah in Georgia, was founded in 1732 by soldier and philanthropist James Edward Oglethorpe. Originally intended to provide land opportunities for debtors recently released from abusive English prisons—in the event, few of the debtors ended up in Georgia—it became a refuge for persecuted Protestants, especially the Protestants expelled from Salzburg. On his return to England Oglethorpe recruited John Wesley as chaplain to the English settlers and missionary to the Indians. Wesley and his brother Charles set sail on The Simmonds in late 1735. Miss Hopkey was also on that ship. Knowing that Spain had a better title than England to Georgia, Oglethorpe had built a series of defensive forts, one of which, Fort Frederica, was England’s southernmost outpost in North America. With Causton and Oglethorpe playing matchmakers, it was during a return trip by river boat from Frederica to Savannah that romance ought to have blossomed between John and Sophy, they being the only passengers. But, as the excerpt below from Arnold Lunn’s 1929 biography, John Wesley, vividly narrates, it was not to be. Wesley wasn’t to marry until the age of 48. The marriage was unhappy and his wife eventually left him.]
Sophy was young and beautiful, and had already been ardently wooed by a handsome young man called Tom Mellichamp. Mellichamp belonged to a good family, but he had a reputation of being a dangerous young man, violent when roused and likely to get into trouble before long.
He had threatened her. “I mean to have you,” he said, “and if by chance somebody else blunders in between us, there will be a funeral instead of a wedding.”
And then Sophy met Wesley. What a contrast. She was overawed by his holiness. At first, there was no room for any emotion other than a profound respect for this grave, distinguished scholar and saint.
To Wesley, Sophy was both a parishioner and a pupil. He gave her spiritual advice and taught her French every day.
Causton, knowing well the high esteem in which Wesley was held by Oglethorpe, watched the affair develop complacently. His niece, so long as she remained unmarried, was an encumbrance, but his position in the Colony would be strengthened if only his niece could be induced to marry Wesley.
Weeks passed. [Wesley’s brother] Charles left for England, and Oglethorpe was quite relieved to see the last of this well-meaning but blundering saint. John came to Frederica to take Charles’s place, and acted as Oglethorpe’s Secretary and as his second-in-command. Oglethorpe was more and more impressed by his judgment and by his sagacity. It would never do to lose John. He must be securely anchored to the Colony by a wife.
Oglethorpe sounded Causton. As a result Causton suddenly discovered that Sophy really ought to pay a visit to a friend of hers in Frederica. She went south, and resumed her lessons in French with John Wesley, and the friendship ripened slowly, until Wesley was recalled to Savannah, where he remained for three months. Then once again, he returned to Frederica. Before setting forth, he called on Causton to ask “what commands he had to Miss Sophy.” Wesley’s Journal records the conversation which followed.
“The girl will never be easy till she is married.” I answered, “Sir, she is too much afflicted to have a thought of it . . .” He said, “I give her up to you. Do what you will with her. Take her into your own hands. Promise her what you will. I will make it good.”
On his return to Frederica, he learnt with dismay that Morning and Evening prayers had been discontinued, and that most of his parishioners had “thrown off the form as well as the power of godliness.” Even Sophy had lapsed from grace. “Most of her good resolutions were vanished away” and she startled Wesley by announcing that she intended to return to England.
“I am resolved,” said Miss Sophy, “to leave America with the first ship that sails.”
One glance at Wesley, and her heart leaped. He minded! Undoubtedly he minded.
Wesley reasoned with her and argued but with no success. He then dropped the argument and fell back on his favourite remedy for distressed ladies. “I read her some of the most affecting parts of the ‘Serious Call’ and of Ephrem Syrus.” Very affecting, no doubt, but the “affecting parts” seemed to have lost their magic. Miss Sophy seemed distracted. “I was at first a little surprised and discouraged; but I soon re-collected my spirits, and remembered my calling.”
A few days later Oglethorpe returned. He greeted Horton effusively, but he ignored Wesley. It is not clear why. Probably Wesley read an accidental slight as a deliberate insult. He mentioned the incident to Miss Sophy, and added, “Now Miss Sophy, you may go to England, for I can assist you no longer; my interest is gone.”
“No,” replied Miss Sophy softly, “now I will not stir a foot.”
Wesley was on the point of returning to Savannah, and next day he had an interview with Oglethorpe. Oglethorpe suggested that perhaps it might be best if Miss Sophy also returned to her home.
Wesley went back to Sophy and told her what had been said. She burst into tears and said that she could not bear the thought of returning home.
“Do not be distressed,” said Wesley, “your uncle Mr. Causton engaged himself to make good whatever I should promise you. You have only to make your own terms.”
Sophy glanced up sharply. She tried to read his face. No, he was not paving the way for a proposal. The dear, na´ve, innocent man was repeating Mr. Causton’s words without the least sense of their true significance.
Next morning Wesley went to Oglethorpe, and asked him in what boat Miss Sophy was to travel. Oglethorpe replied with assumed casualness, “She can go in none but yours, and indeed there is none so proper.”
Wesley flushed. A sudden tumult of happiness possessed him. And yet . . . He dreaded Sophy. “I saw the danger to myself, but yet had a good hope I should be delivered out of it, (1) because it was not my choice which brought me into it; (2) because I still felt in myself the same desire and design to live a single life; and (3) because I was persuaded should my desire and design be changed, yet her resolution to live single would continue.”
For Sophy had informed Wesley at an early stage of their friendship that the married state had no attraction for her, and that she proposed to die an old maid. Wesley did not realise that this sort of remark is common form when friendship begins to ripen into love. To the end of his life he persisted in accepting the remarks of his lady friends at their literal face value.
They set out at noon. There was the usual boat’s crew, but Wesley and Sophy were the only passengers. Oglethorpe had arranged it so. It was clear that Miss Sophy’s “resolution to live singly” was to be subjected to a severe test.
It was October. The wooded shores past which they drifted were golden with autumnal glories. Sophy’s eyes wandered from the shore to the river, and then her glance stole across to the grave, earnest face of her companion, who was busily engaged in reading aloud to her. What was he reading? She neither knew nor cared. The words passed over her.
(“The afternoon we spent reading the first volume of Fleury’s ‘History of the Church,’ a book I chose for her sake chiefly as setting before her such glorious examples of truth and patience in the sufferings of those ancient worthies, ‘who resisted unto blood, striving against sin.’ ”)
In the evening they landed and spread a sail over four stakes driven into the ground, to keep off the night dews. Wesley lay between Miss Sophy and the servant. The east wind was piercingly cold, but Miss Sophy “complained of nothing, appearing as satisfied as if she had been warm upon a bed of down.”
And so the days passed, and the more Wesley observed her, the more he was “amazed.” “Nothing was ever improper or ill-timed. All she said and did was equally tinctured with seriousness and sweetness.”
Poor Sophy! She was doing her best. She concealed her weariness during “a close conversation on Christian holiness.” Nay more. “The openness with which she owned her ignorance of it and the earnest desire she showed for fresh instruction, much endeared her to me, so it made me hope she would one day prove an eminent pattern of it.”
Wesley seldom found it difficult to sleep, but one night he lay awake till the small hours. The fire was still burning brightly, and as he turned over on his side, the light from the flickering flames lit up Sophy’s dear face. She too was wide awake. Suddenly he turned to her and said: “I should think myself very happy if I was to spend my life with you.”
He says in his Journal that “this was the expression of a sudden wish, not of any formed design.”
His sudden wishes were often sound where the other sex were concerned, but his “formed designs” were incredibly inept.
Sophy burst into tears and said, “I am in every way unhappy. I won’t have Tommy for he is a bad man. And I can have none else.”
She was thinking of Tom’s threat, and of the vengeance he vowed on any man who might supplant him. “Sir” she added, “you don’t know the danger you are in. I beg you would speak no word more on this subject.”
Wesley remained silent. She had asked him not to continue the conversation. Clearly she did not want the conversation continued. Sophy looked up, and after a pause added: “When others have spoken to me on the subject, I felt an aversion to them. But I don’t feel any to you. We may converse on other subjects as freely as ever.”
The gods who watch over our wooing had done their best. The dark woods, the silent stars, the river’s ancient song, the camp beneath the stars, was there ever such a setting for love?
“Both my judgment and will acquiesced in what she said,” writes Wesley, “and we ended our conversation with a psalm.”
Pan put up his flute with disgust, for his flute was never meant to accompany psalm tunes. The gods abandoned Wesley in despair.
They were nearing home, and Sophy was feeling depressed. This enchanted interlude was coming to an end, and Sophy was suffering by anticipation all the torments of that form of homesickness which attacks its victims—at home. Suddenly she could bear it no longer, and expressed the strongest uneasiness and an utter aversion to living with Mr. Causton, saying with many tears, “I can’t live in that house: I can’t bear the shocks I meet with there.”
Wesley turned to her and said, “Don’t be uneasy, Miss Sophy, on that account. If you don’t care to be at Mr. Causton’s, you are welcome to a room in our house.”
Sophy flushed. At last, at last. But no. Merely another instance of the incredible monumental gaucherie of that strange beloved simpleton . . . The parsonage was often used as a guest house, and Wesley was offering her not a home, but an asylum.
“Or perhaps,” Wesley continued, in the same maddeningly prosaic voice, “it would be best of all, and your aunt once proposed it, if you went to live in the house with the Germans.”
With the Germans! And so that was to be the end. A procession of memories passed before Sophy. . . . Long days on the tidal river, and the longer nights. The camp fire edged by the great trees on which the flames spun a flickering web of light and shadow, the haunting scent of burning cedarwood, the boat sail spread over four sharpened stakes, the sail which rose and sank with the wind, the semi-tones of the water splashing against the bank. . . . and the dim shape of her queer inarticulate lover lying beside her.
But above all, the haunting, all-pervading sense of ancient urge and desire, no less potent because unavowed, tamed but not extinguished by daily doses of Law’s “Serious Call.”
Those days and those nights were over, and the tears came into her eyes, as the lover who had lain beside her beneath the stars, offered her, not the shelter of his arm, but the alluring prospect of living with the saintly Moravians, as indeed her aunt had at one time proposed.
Such was the offer, and Wesley in his Journal has recorded the interesting fact that “to this offer she made no reply.”
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