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At the Roots of Methodism: Artifacts offer links to Wesley

6/7/2000 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: This is a regular feature on Methodist history by John Singleton prepared especially for distribution by United Methodist News Service.

A UMNS Feature By John Singleton*

Methodism has never gone in for the worship of relics or artifacts related to its founder -- John Wesley himself would have been horrified at the thought of that - but we can still learn something valuable about the lives of Wesley and his brother, Charles, from the objects that have been handed down to us for safe keeping.

The collection of items at John Wesley's house in London's City Road, for instance, provide such an insight into his life and mission. This is the house adjoining Wesley's Chapel, where he lived from 1779 until his death in 1791.

Here you can step back in time and discover something about the day-to-day running of a small Georgian townhouse. The rooms contain many of John Wesley's belongings, including his electrical machine and his study chair. His small prayer room is considered by Methodists all over the world to be the "power house" of Methodism. And in what was probably Wesley's sitting room and study, visitors can still see his bureau, library chair, long-case clock and other furniture.

A wide range of artifacts from Wesley's life and the early days of Methodism can be found in church centers and museums across Britain. I particularly appreciate the piece of bark from the original tree under which Wesley preached his last open-air sermon in Sussex, and the lethal lump of iron thrown at him, along with many other objects, during the Wednesbury riots. These can be viewed among the fascinating items at the Wednesbury Central Methodist church.

Other objects are not so easily accessible. There's the pair of shoe buckles, for instance, in private ownership and said to have been used by Wesley to pay for a night's lodging at an inn when he had run out of money. Then there is the Freedom of the City of Perth (Scotland), an honor granted to Wesley in 1772. The Methodist church in Perth still has the original seal, but the scroll that went with it is missing and might be in the United States. The church and the Perth Museum are naturally keen to see the scroll and the seal reunited if possible.

Bath and Bristol are among other key places for stepping back into Wesley's life and work.

Kingswood School, founded in Bath by Wesley in 1748, features displays of Wesleyana and memorabilia that can be viewed by arrangement.

The oldest Methodist building in the world is John Wesley's Chapel at Bristol, known as the New Room and built in 1739 (enlarged in 1748). It includes the Francis Asbury Memorial Room, where both John and Charles Wesley stayed, and a Methodist museum. The chapel premises contain a library of 3,500 volumes available for research.

Not far away is Charles Wesley's house, recently restored, where Charles lived with his wife and children. It includes the study where he wrote some of his 7,000 hymns.

The household artifacts that have come to us from Kingswood School include the portable bed that John Wesley slept on when he made his regular visits to the school. An article in an 1894 edition of the Methodist Recorder brings this item to life. The author, George C. Curnock, describes how the bed was rediscovered after languishing half-forgotten in the school premises for many years. If you want to hear about a real Wesley relic, he says ...

"What do you say to the very bedstead on which the great founder of Methodism laid on many a night, a head weary with well doing; that self-same bed, doubtless, of which Wesley, replying to George Whitefield's complaint that unnecessary expense had been incurred in the adornment of the rooms at Bristol and Kingswood, said: 'There is a little room by the school where I speak to the persons who come to me, and a garret in which a bed is placed for me. And do you grudge me this?'

"For many a long year there has stood in a tall cupboard in one of the topmost rooms in the tower at Kingswood School a collection of poles and a piece of sacking called by generation after generation of clock-winders, 'John Wesley's bed.' The dust of years has fallen upon these ancient pieces of wood and ineffectually attacked that stout piece of sacking, and still the bed remains -- though a trifle worm-eaten in parts -- practically as stout, plain and useful a piece of furniture as in the days when Wesley made his periodical visits to Kingswood House.

"Not many months ago, the governor of Kingswood and the writer toiled up those narrow stairs and disentombed the bed. One by one, the round poles which stood at the foot, the square timbers which supported the head, the iron rods above and stout wooden joists below, and the piece of sacking which stretched between, were discovered, dragged forth, and temporarily held in position.

"Then with something akin to veneration we gazed upon that little bed, whereof the sides were but 12 inches removed from the floor. Surely it was a bed upon which a toiling, working man might find rest after a long day in the saddle, or a rough journey in one of those 'machines' in which the founder traveled many a toilsome mile. Here was something at last that seemed to typify the man! It was short, and he was not a man of great stature; it was simple, almost austere, a lesson -- as was his whole life -- to those who lay upon fine linen in luxurious chambers.

"It was, or had been, clean and sweet, a bed that might be taken to pieces and scrubbed and scoured; altogether a bed far more suited for the 'garret' than a richly carpeted room, a bed whose wooden castors would make music over a wooden floor, and find themselves sadly out of place upon thick pile."

The tangible sense of excitement and discovery in that description of more than 100 years ago is not an exercise in glorification or idolatry. It is simply another example of what we can learn from everyday historical items about the life of a very remarkable man. These are discoveries that anyone can make for themselves.

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*Singleton is assistant editor of the Methodist Recorder newspaper in London. He can be contacted by e-mail at: editorial@methodistrecorder.co.uk. The Recorder's Web site is at www.methodistrecorder.co.uk.

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