John Wesley received Oglethorpe’s order with an emotion in which astonishment mingled with a wild and heart-shaking joy… The flood of his happiness almost succeeded in drowning his uneasy clericalism. For a brief, enchanted interlude, a sunlit pause, John Wesley was become like other men, a very human lover, quivering with the joy of being alone with his beloved.
When he had threshed and winnowed his conscience, he yet had a good hope that he would be delivered out of this sweet danger, this perilous joy, since it had not been his own choice that had brought it upon him; and he coddled the notion that he still perceived in himself his old desire and intention to live celibate. Further, he tried to believe he believed Sophy’s statement, which all young girls make to all men at the beginning of their more intimate acquaintance, that he resolve was to live unmarried. He wished to believe that this resolution of hers would hold fast even though his own wavered. So much he understood a girl’s heart; so much he understood his own!
The thought of Sophy invaded him even at his prayers. She appeared, a tender and seductive vision, with sweet, persuasive lips and ardent eyes; and this occasioned him so profound a pleasure that he was terrified. He knew it for a snare of the devil, and redoubled his prayers. But as if the heavens were deaf, he was unable to quell the passion that shook and tormented him. He forgot that he was at high noon and high tide, son of a cleric who begot nineteen children, grandson of another who begot twenty-five. And he was afraid. He was dreadfully afraid.
We know from the very first sentence of Marie Conway Oemler’s 1927 novel, The Holy Lover, that we’re about to be confronted with a very different kind of book from the religiously-themed novels previously examined at this blog:
“Sukey!” his father once shrieked to his mother in a fit of exasperation, “I profess, Sweetheart, I don’t believe our Jack would attend to the most pressing necessities of nature, even, if he couldn’t give a reason for it!”
This up-front reference to its central character’s bodily functions serves two purposes, although only one of them is immediately apparent: to wit, to alert the reader to the possibility that this biographical novel might not contain an altogether flattering portrait of its subject. The other, evident only in retrospect, is to foreshadow the fact that The Holy Lover is, to a significant degree, about the bodily functions of John Wesley—or rather, the lack thereof.
All of which immediately begs the question of what audience this novel was intended for?—certainly not for the admirers and followers of Wesley, who would likely be angered and offended by it; though those opposed, for whatever reason, to Methodism might get an unkind kick out of its merciless exposure of Wesley’s early-life feet-of-clay. Ultimately this is a book perhaps best read from an historical point of view, for its description of the early days of Georgia, and of the challenges faced by those who ventured into what was, even in its more “civilised” regions, a wilderness.
Briefly, in 1733 James Oglethorpe founded a British colony in Georgia, which was intended to provide a military buffer between the English settlements in the Carolinas and the Spanish settlements in Florida. Oglethorpe’s plan was create an agrarian society on a principle of equality, and to populate the region with “the worthy poor”, in particular basically honest people who had fallen foul of England’s harsh laws against debtors. Oglethorpe carried cotton seeds to the region, and played an important role in the establishment of the South’s cotton-based economy, even while declaring slavery illegal in the colony (a decision which would finally bring about his downfall, when “the worthy poor” wiped their feet on the principles of equality and demanded slaves to work their land grants). And finally, Oglethorpe wanted the civilising influence of religion—and thus invited four members of Oxford’s “Holy Club” to Georgia, to undertake ministries and work at the conversion of the local Native Americans. These men were John Wesley; his brother, Charles; Benjamin Ingham; and Charles Delamotte.
History has generally condemned John Wesley’s mission to Georgia as an almost total failure; Methodist writers have tended to interpret this period as a time of chastening, preparing Wesley for the great “revelation” that would precede his founding of the Methodist Church. However, there has been some revisionism in this area in recent times, a suggestion that the perception of failure was based mostly on Wesley’s harsh judgement of his own performance.
The Holy Lover, however, goes to the other extreme, highlighting the lack of proportion, the thin skin and the ignorance of the world that, the novel contends, made Wesley’s failure almost an inevitability. It also takes a distinctly female view of the behaviour of John Wesley—arguing tacitly that believing you have a hotline to God is no excuse for wrecking a young woman’s life.
Much of this novel rests upon Wesley’s own words, supporting its contentions with quotes from his journal and letters, and those of others—but the material is used in a self-evidently highly selective way. Whether Marie Conway Oemler’s own Catholicism influenced this choice (the Oglethorpe colony explicitly welcomed people of all religions but Catholic), or whether Wesley’s treatment of Sophia Hopkey earned her ire, is difficult to judge. At the very least, however, this novel goes some way towards restoring the reputation of the unfortunate Sophia, who has been roughly treated by a number of Methodist historians, and viewed indeed as a “catch” and a “snare” for the holy Wesley.
The Holy Lover opens with a sketch of life at the Epworth parsonage in Lincolnshire, placing “Jacky” amongst his bustling family and emphasising the lifelong influence of Susannah Wesley upon her youngest and favourite surviving son—but emphasising too a legacy from his mother that would cause John and those around him considerable grief at a later date: the lack of a sense of humour. These early scenes highlight both the positive and negative qualities that would shape Wesley’s life: his profound faith, tireless labours and self-sacrifice on one hand; on the other, his convenient ability to see “God’s will” in whatever it suited him to do.
The same mingling of positive and negative is seen in John’s conduct at Oxford, where he draws followers with his faith and dedication, building a group that achieves much good, particularly amongst the prison population; but ultimately alienates the majority through his assumption of superiority, his demands for a damaging personal austerity, and his unshakeable conviction of his own essential rightness.
It is at this point that John Wesley is introduced to James Oglethorpe, on the lookout for young men willing to undertake missionary work in Georgia, and offered a position. After much heart-burning, Wesley accepts and sets out on the long and dangerous sea-voyage to Oglethorpe’s colony with his three companions, all surviving members of his Holy Club.
Overtly the most important consequence of this trip was that it served to introduce John Wesley to some brethren of the Moravian Church, travelling to Georgia to become part of an established settlement. The Moravians were, historically, the first Protestant missionaries, and in America the first to gain a converted congregation of Native Americans (although their success in interacting with the Mohicans drew accusations that the Moravians were, sigh, secretly Jesuits recruiting for the French, and got them expelled from New York). The narrative of The Holy Lover reproduces the famous shipboard incident wherein, confronted by a violent storm and the apparently inevitable foundering of their ship, the English passengers (clerical and lay) gave way to panic and the terror of death, while the Moravian congregation stayed calm, singing hymns together in the teeth of the gale:
“But were you not afraid?” Wesley asked one of the Moravians.
“I thank God, no.”
“But were not your women and children afraid?”
“Brother, no.” And the German added, with a gentle smile: “Our women and children are not afraid to die.”
Women and children…not afraid to die! Wesley had no answer to that. These humble folk had something which he, with all his intellect, his logic, his learning, his fastings, prayers, formulas, rituals, had not attained. They had some emotion of the spirit, some instinct of the heart which he had missed… He was afraid: afraid of life, of death, of God, of circumstances, of men, of women, of himself…
Subsequently, the Moravians’ quiet practicality and common sense form an amusing contrast to the extreme emotionalism of everything connected with Wesley. They also, alone of the Georgia settlers, manage to keep patience with Wesley, even as he uses them as an ongoing sounding-board for his increasing woes, constantly pouring out his troubles to them and begging for advice which (since it doesn’t happen to coincide with his own wants) he never takes.
(But it was after John Wesley’s return to England that the Moravians exerted their most significant influence upon him. He and his brother Charles were accepted by a Moravian congregation, and were counselled by Peter Boehler, a young Moravian missionary about to depart for Georgia himself, whose ideas about faith and grace had a profound effect upon Wesley’s own thinking. [A future bishop, Boehler was instrumental in founding the Pennsylvanian towns of Bethlehem and Nazareth.] It was while attending a Moravian meeting in London that Wesley underwent his great “revelation”, which altered and crystallised his views on personal salvation, and which planted the seed for the creation of the Methodist Church. But all of this is beyond the scope of this novel.)
Wesley’s interaction with the Moravians highlights what is, at this point in his life, his most significant failing as a minister of God: a total lack of love for humanity. Looking around, Wesley sees only sinners, damned by their failure to practice religion as he practices it. Of course, a deeper failing lies beyond this: Wesley has no love of God, either, just a deep and abiding fear. Much of his behaviour at this time resembles that of someone he would no doubt designate a “heathen”, trying to placate an angry spirit by sacrifice.
Throughout the journey to Georgia, Wesley and his companions pursue their fellow-passengers: not merely conducting services but attempting to bring the others to their own way of thinking and believing and acting, and doing so with unrelenting energy. There is nowhere for the passengers to run:
Their zeal kept the passengers in a chronic state of exasperation. For John wouldn’t feed them as babes with the milk of the Word; already he was cramming them with great raw collops of theology, and drenching their unwilling stomachs with the sour wine of High Church formalism… That he honestly practiced what he preached made him all the more infuriating, since it left no saving doubt to soften his rigid righteousness. There was no love in him; only the horrid zest of sacerdotal selfishness which urged him, for the saving of his own soul, to save other souls willy-nilly. Quite as though there were a bounty on souls, redeemable by Deity. The wonder is that some exasperated sinner didn’t quietly heave Mr Wesley overboard some dark night.
One of the exasperated sinners—though less so than the rest, since he alone has the option of withdrawing himself—is James Oglethorpe, who early on sees signs that his future work with Wesley will be no easy collaboration. Though the soldier views the priest with amused tolerance, the priest is constitutionally incapable of returning the favour, instead taking advantage of his calling to lecture Oglethorpe on various aspects of his conduct, particularly the nature of his interactions with the female sex.
But ironically, it is not Oglethorpe but Wesley who gets into trouble with the female passengers. Susceptible to female beauty, though wary of it, Wesley is drawn to Beata Hawkins, the wife of a surgeon, who, seeking some new form of amusement on the dreary sea-voyage, expresses a great desire to be instructed in religion. The minister is no more than a new sort of toy for her, something to test her theory that men are just men. Wesley, in turn, becomes obsessed with “saving the soul” of the pretty young wife, stubbornly ignoring the warnings of his companions, who see only too clearly that she is playing with him, and who have heard the shipboard gossip about her conduct—gossip that is now encompassing him. Over his friends’ strenuous objections, Wesley takes his infatuation to the extreme of administering Holy Communion to Beata Hawkins: an act which will have bitterly ironic echoes in his future life…
Did he really believe he had converted Beata Hawkins? Or was the wish father to the thought? Or was it that she attracted him more than he himself knew? To a temperament like his, sex-attraction was dangerously troublesome. He must repress it, stamp it out, become a celibate, a eunuch of the spirit. Sex to him stood for sin, so that when a woman intrigued his imagination and threatened the control which he wished to achieve and maintain over his natural impulses of a man, his immediate reaction was to desire to save her soul, shift his sex-emotion to the religious plane, and thus placate and enlist God, whom he was convinced his natural passions offended, and of whom he was afraid.
After a long, tedious and often dangerous journey, the Simmonds arrives safely in Georgia. John Wesley assumes his ministry in Savannah, with Charles Delamotte to assist him, while Charles Wesley and Bejamin Ingham travel on with James Oglethorpe to the island township of Frederica, a much rougher and less civilised settlement of Oglethorpe’s own making, and vital to his plans for the area. For a few brief, glorious weeks all seems well, the future bright:
Everything promised plenty. The people who greeted him so cordially seemed to him good and happy. And of the Indians he had not seen enough to dampen his ardour and dispel his illusions. He shared the curious notions of his age as to the Indians, picturing them as childlike souls panting for conversion, and with no preconceived errors of doctrine to keep them from ardently embracing the faith once delivered to the saints—his faith. They were clean, empty vessels into which should foam the pure milk of the Word. So he came to Georgia with his heart singing hymns in his breast.
But the narrative that follows is one of good intentions appallingly executed, for reasons jointly accounted for by the peculiar nature of the settlement and the ingrained nature of John Wesley.
Despite the clash of their personalities and morals, James Oglethorpe had high hopes for John Wesley’s contribution to his colony, recognising his honesty, his capacity for hard work and – where his own emotions and beliefs weren’t involved – his judgement. The austerity of his religious practice and his inflexibility did give the soldier some considerable concern, yet Oglethorpe’s hope was that the realities of life in Georgia would bring the minister to a more reasonable state of mind.
But in this respect, Oglethorpe was too optimistic. Much good John Wesley certainly tried to do—he was active in fighting the growing demand for slaves in the new colony, for instance, and he did sterling work in the founding and operation of schools—but his capacity for rubbing people the wrong way made him enemies at almost every turn, many of whom opposed his efforts out of personal dislike:
Oglethorpe wanted a colony for England, as against Spain. The colonists wanted everything they could get, including ease and pleasure. The Holy Club wanted a theocratic State, with God as Governor, John Wesley as Grand Vizier, and Charles, Ingham and Delamotte as Chief Deputies. These diverging aims brought them all one thing in common: Trouble.
Wesley’s fantasy with regard to the conversion of the local tribe is the first casualty. Whatever illusions the new minister may have cherished about them, the natives have met white men before and are under none whatsoever:
This was the Holy Club’s first contact with the red men they had come out to convert—and didn’t. Wesley never had any closer contact with them. When Tomochichi was urged to become a Christian, the fine old Mico said vehemently:
“Why, those Christians at Savannah! Those are Christians at Frederica! Christians lie! Christians steal! Christians beat men! Me no Christian!”
The new minister’s good opinion of his own parishioners soon undergoes revision too, with his initial positive outlook suffering from the contrast he cannot help drawing between the godly Moravians and his secular parishioners. Many and varied are the clashes between John Wesley and his congregation over the next two years, some provoked by his conduct, some by theirs, but all playing their part in the minister’s eventual downfall.
Meanwhile, Charles Wesley, too, is busy making enemies in Frederica, where his solemn condemnation of of anything secular is particularly offensive to the settlement’s female contingent. Charles Wesley, it is concluded, has to go…
On shipboard, even as John tried to “save” Beata Hawkins, Charles backed his own judgement about women by similarly adopting a Mrs Welch. At that time the women were bored enough to welcome even male attentions that came in the form of religious instruction and lectures about the state of their souls; but now in Frederica, Charles has become an intolerable nuisance. Both women, with unsatisfactory husbands and too much time on their hands, are pursuing James Oglethorpe: an amusement which the persistence of the Wesleys is making impossible. Well aware of the ministers’ credulity and their willingness to believe the worst of everyone, the two women put their heads together and come up with a daring plan: one which involves a public falling out and Mrs Welch’s assertion – made to Charles in the strictest confidence – that Beata Hawkins is in fact James Oglethorpe’s mistress; this on the back of the women complaining to Oglethorpe that the Wesleys’ pursuit of them isn’t entirely about religion.
The escalating trouble caused by the women and their circulating rumours and gossip finally drives Charles Wesley away: the Holy Club needs someone to return to England and report on conditions, and he is only too glad to go—and James Oglethorpe to see the back of him.
John takes over Charles’ duties in Frederica, and finds a hornet’s nest of resentment and criticism waiting for him. Even as the Wesleys believe the worst of others, Frederica is only too willing to believe the worst of them; and John veers between being shunned and being abused. Matters reach a climax when he feels himself bound in duty to call upon Beata Hawkins, who has been busy painting herself publicly as a victim of the Wesleys’ slander—by which she means, of course, that she she didn’t count on her invented adultery being made public; but in this, she and Mrs Welch bargained without the Wesleys’ habitual indiscretion:
“You have wronged me!” she exclaimed suddenly and violently. “I am going to shoot you through the head this minute with a brace of balls!” and bringing her hands from behind her with a jerk, she showed him in one a large pistol, in the other a pair of shears.
The startled man caught hold of the hand clutching the pistol, then of the other armed with the shears. With a piercing shriek, she hurled herself upon him, forcing him backward on the bed.
“Villain! Let go my hands!” she roared at the top of a pair of lungs that carried half a mile. “You dirty dog, let me go!” And she began to swear like the mate of a troop-ship, pouring into his outraged ears a torrent of personal abuse, mingled with frightful imprecations. All the while she struggled to free herself.
“I’ll have your hair, you lousy beast, or I’ll have your heart’s blood, damn you!” howled Mrs Potiphar, straddling the meagre stomach of the unlucky Joseph and making furious thrusts of the shears at his head. Weakened by fever, almost swooning with horror, John Wesley used all his enfeebled strength to keep the shears at bay.
He feared to cry aloud, for very shame, unwilling to make public that which for her sake as well as his own, he wished to keep private. He dared not attempt to rise, since that would have made her ride him like a nag. Indeed, she rode him all too strenuously now, gripping his flanks with her knees, and using her heels to spur his shins black and blue…
Her two men servants now rushing in: “Hold his hands!” she yelled at them. “Come here and hold his hands for me!”
“Take her off me!” cried Wesley. “Take me off her, and hold her!”
But they dared do neither. And in a burst of sudden, furious strength, the woman broke Wesley’s hold upon her wrists, and seizing his hair, sheared one side of his head…
This incident, a humiliating nadir in John Wesley’s time in Georgia (because of course it cannot be kept a secret) occurs in a period of unusual happiness for the minister—for he has been introduced to Sophia Hopkey, the young niece of Mr Thomas Causton, a magistrate of Savannah, and his bustlingly social wife, to whom the quiet, gentle and deeply religious girl is an annoyance and a burden:
You thought her pretty when you met her. You thought her beautiful when you knew her. She was in the the first flower of her youth, a tall and very slender girl topping John Wesley by the head, a girl whose quiet loveliness embodied as it were the freshness of an April morning softly shadowed by clouds. Her light brown hair was full of gold, her eyes a clear hazel, her lips a pink, sweet curve, soft lips at once innocent and provocative, the lips of a woman born to be loved… There was intellect in the clear brow, and when the veiled lifted, the hazel eyes were full of light. She wore her plain dress with a simple elegance that impressed the fastidious Wesley…
James Oglethorpe has already decided that what Wesley needs to settle him down and soften his hard edges is marriage, and he is quick to sound Mr Causton on the girl’s situation. One declared lover there is, the wild, violent Tom Mellichamp, who has frightened Sophy into a promise not to marry anyone else, if she will not marry him; while another, the cautious, long-sighted and rather cold-blooded William Williamson, a man of no birth but strong ambition, has also turned his eyes in her direction. Oglethorpe soon makes his feelings on the subject known to Mr Causton, who is willing enough for the connection. There’s just one problem…
“You would wish me to encourage this?”
“I should regard it as helping the welfare of the colony, Mr Causton.”
“But I must tell you that I have heard from others, and once from himself, that he has a notion to remain celibate,” said Mr Causton. And he added: “As an aid to holiness.”
“We must trust Miss Sophy to wean him from so deluded a notion, then,” said Oglethorpe, with what in a less superior person might have been called a grin.
And it is the battle between John Wesley’s austere and self-sacrificial religious beliefs, which include a determination never to marry, and his natural passions as a man that comprise the rest of The Holy Lover.
Through the giving of French lessons, Wesley soon has the opportunity to know Sophy better; while her desire for religious instruction sees her offering him the sweet incense of submission and obedience, as she joins his pre-dawn prayer sessions, attends his services, and in every way shows herself a willing follower and a devout believer. Her intelligence, her seriousness and her faith, combined with her physical attractions, are enough – almost enough – to overcome the minister’s long-held resolutions. When Wesley falls ill, as he does at intervals due to overwork and a near-starvation regime, Sophy insists upon nursing him—much to the silent anger of one particular observer…
One of the most peculiar details in The Holy Lover—a novel consisting almost entirely of peculiar details—is its sketch of the relationship between John Wesley and his Holy Club companion and assistant, Charles Delamotte. Though inevitably expressed in terms of the “snare” represented by women, and his fears for John Wesley’s soul in the face of such a temptation, Delamotte’s resentment of Sophy and his seething anger in the face of Wesley’s growing passion for her is impossible to read as other than a jealousy sexual in nature.
The long-suffering Moravians have become accustomed to John Wesley pouring out his troubles to them, albeit without ever taking their gentle, understanding, common-sense advice. Now Charles Delamotte likewise turns to them, and gets as little joy:
“If the maiden is as pious as she seems, and loves our brother with a holy love, she might make him the godly and modest wife that he, and all men, need,” said David Nitschman, mildly.
“Marry him? Ye would have her marry him?” croaked Delamotte, aghast.
“We believe in holy matrimony, my brother,” said the Moravian. “It is a help to holiness. It trains and disciplines and restrains. If the maiden be what she seems, let us sing for joy!”
“And if she is what I think she is—?” asked Delamotte.
“Then must ye fast and pray,” said the Moravian.
Delamotte fasted and prayed…
It is around this time that matters reach a crisis for Charles Wesley, with his departure for England requiring John to take over his duties in Frederica. Delamotte is overwhelmingly relieved, but the conspirators are before him: Mr Causton dispatches Sophy to visit friends in Frederica, and the relationship between herself and John Wesley continues and deepens—all under the watchful eyes of a community that has learned to view everything the Wesleys do with suspicion.
Despite their growing closeness, Wesley makes no definite sign to Sophy, apparently content instead to keep their relationship wholly in terms of their religious interchange. It is not until James Oglethorpe takes a hand, arranging for Wesley to escort Sophy back to Savannah by boat that circumstances begin to overwhelm the minister’s self-command. Days and nights spent in each other’s company bring the couple’s mutual but unspoken passion to a fever pitch. Finally a declaration of passionate love escapes John Wesley—but even then, he goes so far and no further; his demand for a life together does not include a proposal of marriage. Instead, he imagines a lifelong – and wholly celibate – companionship between himself and Sophy, with (although he does no express it like this, of course) all of their sexual passion channelled into religious devotion:
Presently, as if to lay the turbulent spirit which moved him, he entered upon the topic of Holiness, which seems to obsess the Christian mind. And as the ascetic in him feared he was in instant danger of losing this fine Holiness by becoming a natural human being, he held Holiness up to the young girl as a peculiar hope and grace, using all his powers of persuasion.
To this point in The Holy Lover, Marie Conway Oemler has shown sympathy as well as understanding in her portrait of John Wesley, albeit that criticism and a certain mockery sometimes creep in too, in the face of his blindness and self-absorption. But from here there is a distinct shift in tone, in response to the selfishness of Wesley’s treatment of Sophy: a selfishness dangerously blended with ignorance of, even contempt for, the ordinary usages of the world. A note of overt anger enters the text as Oemler describes the egoism which is the foundation of John Wesley’s conviction that he has been singled out by God, and the consequent crushing of Sophy Hopkey under the wheels of his relentless chariot of self:
Had he loved the girl less passionately, or had she been older, he would not have feared her so much; for he would not have been afraid to take an older woman in marriage, as an act of expediency, somewhat as one might have put on a flannel shirt in a chill. Had there been no passion, no glamour, there would have been no terror of sin…only two stodgy Christians ambling heavenward in a sort of second-hand celibacy.
But as it was now, Sophy with the dew of her youth sparkling on her bright hair, threatened his God-ordained mission—whatever it might prove to be—and so endangered his freedom, and his pride of supremacy, that his colossal selfishness saw in her the Great Temptation.
He might talk of sacrifice; but to any artist, any priest, any professional man, nothing can be a sacrifice that does not call upon him to give up his work. There is no sacrifice in letting go anything that might interrupt or endanger the work… From the day he stepped out of his cradle, John Wesley had been at work moulding and fashioning and shaping his life in his own image and likeness, in his own way, to his own ends. Against that enormous egoism, what chance had any mortal woman?
As for Wesley’s obsession with physical chastity, his belief that only so can God’s work be done:
Celibacy, virginity, a state of physical being too overrated among sentimental unthinking Christians, is an excellent restrictive regulation, good enough when not overemphasised and unduly enforced; but it is not, per se, virtue. Nature respects continence; she is apt to fill the unploughed, unsowed, and barren field with briars.
Steeped in clericalism, with the bones of the ancients hung around the neck of his soul, John Wesley made a fetish of celibacy. It was, he thought, the most potent means to the end he sought—the saving of his own soul. It never seemed to dawn upon him that he might be involving a young girl’s happiness; nor did his own great selfishness occur to him. Men who seek heavenly riches are too often quite as ruthless and rapacious as they who are determined to gain the more obvious wealth of the world.
Sophy herself is understandably hurt and bewildered by John Wesley’s behaviour towards her—making passionate declarations and demanding eternal fidelity one minute, the next coolly suggesting that if she is unhappy at home she might go and stay with the Moravians; but being a modest young woman there is little she can do to help herself. Mr and Mrs Causton, looking on, grow increasingly frustrated, wondering how they might bring matters to a crisis. Already there is gossip about Sophy and the long hours spent at the parsonage—hours spent in prayer and religious discourse, as we know, but who outside could believe that their interaction has gone no further? – particularly in light of the lingering doubts in the colony about the probity of the Wesleys. The Caustons begin to fear that the talk will damage Sophy’s reputation to a point where no other man will marry her, should John Wesley disappoint them all.
The hot-tempered Tom Mellichamp, having gotten into trouble with the law, is more ineligible than he ever was, though still determined to prevent Sophy’s marriage to any other if he can. Eager to get the girl off her hands, Mrs Causton has always encouraged Tom, and continues to do so—until a more viable prospect emerges in the form of William Williamson who, with an eye on Sophy’s position as the Caustons’ heiress, has watched the non-progress of her romance with John Wesley with great interest.
Mrs Causton dislikes John Wesley intensely, but is willing enough that Sophy should marry him—partly to curry favour with James Oglethorpe, partly to rid herself of responsibility for the tiresome girl. But failing Wesley, another will do. In the spirit of getting Sophy married to—whoever—Mrs Causton undertakes the amiable task of making the girl’s home-life miserable. Having always encouraged Mellichamp herself, she now turns on Sophy for receiving from him the letters she is too soft-hearted to refuse, abusing the girl for encouraging a worthless young man and threatening to turn her out of the house. She makes sure that John Wesley is a witness to this last threat:
“If your uncle and me did what we ought to do he’d give you a whipping for the hussy you are! Nothing but trouble with you! I am heart-scalded. Get out of my house!” she was yelling, as Wesley entered the room. “Get out of my house! I won’t be plagued with you any longer!”…
For some minutes she continued to pour out a torrent of abuse and reproaches, mingled with threats. Then, as if becoming aware of Wesley’s presence, she turned to him:
“Mr Wesley, I wish you would take her. Take her away with ye this minute, Mr Wesley! Take her out of my house!”
Sophy raised her desperate eyes… She was driven to such a pitch of misery as to be careless of who saw her shame and anguish. Those uplifted, weeping eyes were full of an almost unbearable appeal. Oh, why didn’t he do something, say something, that might save her?
If you love me, said her eyes, save me now or never! You must see how I am beset, how driven, how tormented; you must see, now, what they do to me; you must see that I am come to the end, that I can bear it no more!
He said nothing at all. Had he allowed his heart to speak for him, he would have snatched the forlorn young creature in his arms, and rushed forth with her out of that wretched house, away from that virago. He said nothing at all…
John Wesley leaves the Causton house; and when the following day dawns, after a night of bullying, abuse and threats, Sophia has agreed to listen to Mr Williamson. She stands on a conditional agreement, however: insisting that she must have her minister’s advice and approval…
But Wesley chooses to misinterpret this:
Mrs Causton was worrying about these stipulations now, as she looked at the clergyman. She said hurriedly as if against her will: “Mr Wesley, if you have any objection, pray speak. She is at the Lot. Go to her there. She will be glad to hear anything Mr John Wesley has to say.”
After a moment’s reflection, he said, in a grave voice: “No, madam. If Miss Sophy is engaged, I have nothing to say. It will not signify for me to see her any more.”
And he walks away, wholly conscious of what he is doing:
She loved him, John Wesley, and because she loved John Wesley, she must know that William Williamson had no power to make her happy. He turned that thought over and over; but yet, with the obstinate man’s cruel struggle with himself, he could not make up his mind to save her by marrying her himself.
Sophy Hopkey is not the only young woman to whom John Wesley has expressed his conviction that a state of celibate devotion is the ideal one: her friend, Miss Bovey, likewise a young woman of faith, has also had the dubious benefit of his tenets—and has offended him by engaging herself to a worthy young man, a Mr Burnside. Wesley’s response is to counsel both of them to give up their plans of marriage, hectoring Miss Bovey until she loses all patience with him. The lovers agree that being married by John Wesley after this would be too absurd; they make plans to travel to Purysburg, to be married there by the town’s Swiss Protestant minister.
But there is more to this journey than immediately meets the eye. After consultation with Mrs Causton, Miss Bovey and Mr Burnside persuade Sophy to go with them, as bridesmaid; while Mr Williamson is invited to be the one to escort her home, after they have departed on their wedding-trip. But by the time they do return, thanks to a judicious but unrelenting course of pleading and pressure, Sophy has become Mrs Williamson…
The blow is almost more than John Wesley can stand:
Sophy a wife. Sophy, in another man’s arms. Sophy, who belonged to him. He had never desired her as he desired her now… He experienced an agony so frightful that it all but deprived him of reason. He experienced a sense of desolation so immense it seemed to him he was lost, in time and in eternity.
His imagination dragged him by the hair of his head into that bridal chamber, and though he winced, and cringed, and would have fled, it held him fast…
But when the first pain recedes, its place is taken by overwhelming anger. Here we see the very worst of John Wesley, the monstrous egoism that allows him to believe that in offending him, Sophy has offended God; by rejecting him—that’s how he sees it, she rejected him—she has rejected God. It is incredible to him that she continues to attend church, his church, as if she had done nothing wrong; without a sign of her sin upon her. He soon sees that her religious practice—that is, his religious practice, including pre-dawn prayers and regular fasting—has fallen away since her marriage, and he is glad of a concrete transgression to charge her with. The truth never crosses his mind: that she has been forbidden such extremes of behaviour by her husband, because she is pregnant. Nor would he – nor does he – consider obedience to her husband an excuse for anything, greatly as he always valued her obedience when it was at his own disposal. All it means now is that she has put another man before
Sophy no longer came to him; no longer sought his advice. He doubted that she adhered to the strict rules he had laid down for her guidance. She was disobeying God and John Wesley, choosing rather to obey—her husband. Brooding on this terrible fall from grace into carnality, he began to doubt whether he would admit her to the Communion until she had, in some manner or other to be determined by himself, admitted her fault and declared her repentance…
Sophy’s faults have, by this time, achieved immeasurable proportions in his warped imagination. Her sins against him prove her guilty of countless other sins—falsehoods innumerable, misconduct with Tom Mellichamp, deliberate deception of himself right from the beginning of their acquaintance, a falling away of her duty to God… A scene conducted in the middle of the street, which ends when Sophy turns her back upon him in righteous anger, drives him to new heights of rage and jealousy.
And John Wesley’s mind begins to turn on what he does not recognise for what it is—revenge:
If angels, principalities, powers, thrones, dominions, seraphim and cherubim had said or seen or hinted otherwise, John Wesley, in the state he was then, would have rejected them all as lying spirits, false voices, evil cousellors trying to turn him aside from his plain duty: which was to punish Sophy. He had to punish Sophy. God Almighty meant him to punish Sophy. John Wesley meant John Wesley to punish Sophy.
And when Sophy next presents herself for Holy Communion, John Wesley—the same John Wesley who administered Holy Communion to Beata Hawkins onboard the Simmonds—publicly repulses her:
His conscience licked its paws before the fire of content. He felt exalted—his punishment of Sophy had fulfilled the law… Confusing the will of God with his own will, he couldn’t see himself in the role of self-appointed harsh judge, the disappointed lover. Rather he saw himself as the Christian pastor doing his duty, nobly, unselfishly, refusing her even whom he had loved the Bread of Life, because she was unworthy to partake of it.
The home-made robe of martyrdom is by no means uncomfortable in rough weather. Wesley wrapped it around his shoulders now and it kept him snug; it kept warm his sense of righteous superiority.
He had, like many another, set the seal of duty to the Lord upon an act of self-will. He had been as autocratic, ungenerous, and unjust as only the godly can be in such crises. He had done exactly what he wished to do—punished and humiliated a woman who had married another man; and he did it in the name of duty and God.
Fittingly, it is this act of ungodly spite, recognised by Savannah for exactly what it is, that seals John Wesley’s fate in Georgia:
Admitting the most notorious sinner on earth to the Lord’s Table—as Jesus himself had admitted the Magdalene—would not have offended any congregation as much as John Wesley’s repelling of the girl whose only sin was that she had married someone else offended the people of Christ Church Parish.
—though the surrounding circumstances degenerate from tragedy to farce soon enough, when William Williamson brings an action for defamation of character against John Wesley, on behalf of his wife, which sees the minister summoned before the magistrates, and bound over to appear during the next session. Upon hearing the news, much of Savannah laughs in anticipation of rare entertainment—particularly when Williamson responds to Wesley being granted bail by setting up a public advertisement:
…forbidding any person or persons to take John Wesley out of the Province of Georgia, under penalty of one thousand pounds sterling, Mr Wesley being “guilty of divers notorious offences”.
All Savannah thronged to look at it and read it, those who couldn’t read hearing it from the lips of those who could. “Di-vers no-to-ri-ous of-fen-ces!” repeated the populous, and smacked its lips. “Eh, sirs!”
By the time the proceedings open the list of grievances lodged against Wesley is “divers and notorious” indeed, although most of them have to do with the way he does things rather than what he does. An undignified air of public brawling surrounds the entire affair, with opinions being aired on every street corner, Wesley arguing that most of the charges made lie within the purview of an ecclesiastical, rather than a civil, court, and the magistrates uncertain of their own authority and the public will—particularly with James Oglethorpe away in England. The case brings to flashpoint many of the religious and cultural dissensions with which the fledgling colony is rife, and pits faction against faction; John Wesley’s guilt or innocence soon ceases to be the issue.
Finally, the only thing left for John Wesley to do is leave—to return to England—and this he does in spite of William Williamson’s continued threats of action should be break bail, or anybody help him do so. By this time Georgia is aching to see the last of “the Holy Club”; the magistrates’ attempts to detain the errant minister are an empty gesture indeed:
If he elected now to return to his own stamping ground, should they say him nay? But…there was the Majesty of the Law. They had to make the gesture of upholding the Majesty of the Law! Hence the Notice in the Great Square.
It is quite possible that if any citizen of Savannah had taken that Notice seriously enough to try to prevent Mr Wesley’s departure, the magistrates would have mobbed him and then kept him in jail for the term of his natural life.
It is only at the very last that Marie Conway Oemler removes her foot from the throat of John Wesley, alluding obliquely to great deeds that would sweep away the memory of the bitter disappointment and failures of his time in America. But though the final paragraphs of The Holy Lover hint at this future, they do so without losing sight of what – and who – John Wesley sacrificed to achieve it:
Never, no matter what great hour might lie ahead; never, no matter what high destiny, what great and holy mission God might have in store for him; never, never more to know such joy, such love, such ecstasy, such high tide of ardour, and emotion, and despair…