Most accounts of Wesley I’ve heard in Methodist churches set him up as the sanctified, theologian who worked harder than anyone you’ve ever heard to spread the Good news of Jesus and call people to scriptural holiness. He is put on a pedestal as an example. The problem is that the pedestal tends to be too high to see any of his flaws. But, there is power in flaws. The power for us to not only see an example, but identify our struggles with someone who has gone before. It is often through this sort of identification that we open ourselves up to be taught by those who are placed on pillars.
As it turns out, John Wesley was not perfect. What’s more he was human. In his younger years, he set out on a great adventure to go to the Colonies (Georgia in particular) and do his best to get back to the roots of Christianity and do ministry like he saw in the book of Acts. When he arrived, a new friend introduced him to a beautiful young woman named Sophy Hopkey who was related to a powerful local magistrate.
They hit it off immediately, but she left to go visit a relative in another town. After a while, John went to visit her and found that her spirituality had slipped. Then, he made a gamble that showed how much he cared for Ms. Hopkey: he told her. He pointed out exactly how she had slipped and implored her to move back to the city that encouraged her spirituality: the city in which John lived. She did.
Once there she even consulted a friend as to what a woman should wear to attract a minister who disliked “all gaudy attire.” She wore white from that point forward.
Over the next several months they spent hours together doing the sorts of things people did who were falling in love, and she even sat with John during a five-day long fever nursing him back to health.
John was ready. He wanted to pop the question, but decided to consult a board of church elders to make sure he wasn’t getting ahead of himself. After some deliberation, the board told John that he was not to marry Miss Sophy. As far as I can tell, modern Americans would say that he was crushed, but he obeyed. Sophy was equally hurt.
John was caught by surprise about a month later when Sophy Married a Mr Williamson whom John described in is journal as “not remarkable for handsomeness, neither for greatness, neither for wit, or knowledge, or sense, and least of all for religion.” I know exactly how he feels.
Poor John did not get over it easily. Under what seems like an excuse to get back at Sophie, John refused to serve her communion. Because she was not just your average colonist, John ended up being brought up on charges and eventually skipped town for England shortly after the local officials told all the officers of the colony to prevent his departure.
What a tragic story, yet it is not for from the stories youthpastors, teachers and parents hear week after week from teens and young adults navigating the waters of dating or courting or whatever your church calls it.
Why tell this story? Because John did amazing things. He had brilliant ideas, and made a huge impact in the world. He did all of that despite a heart that was broken. He made it through and came out whole on the other side. There it light at the end of the tunnel.
I say, we take the words of Corinthians (11:30) one step further. We boast not only in our weakness but in the weaknesses of our founders and theologians. And who knows, maybe that boasting will help us take those people off their pillars and re-direct our focus to the God who changed the world through those broken people.
If you want to read an EXTREMELY detailed account from people who really love Wesley, it is here.
Jeremy Steele has been working in youth ministry for the past sixteen years and now serves as the Next Generation Minister at Christ United Methodist Church in Mobile, AL. He writes for Group Magazine, RETHINK Church and various publications and organizations. You can find a link to all the places he contributes on his website at JeremyWords.com.