John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, which became the Methodist Church, came to Savannah in 1736. His brother, Charles, poet and hymnist, came also. They came at the request of General James Oglethorpe who had founded the Georgia colony three years earlier. John, an ordained minister of the Church of England, was the colony’s third minister, Charles was an assistant to Oglethorpe. Things did not work out well and they both returned to England after short stays – Charles just six months after arriving while John returned after just less than two years.
John had become a spiritual advisor to Sophy Hopkey on the voyage over and that developed into a romance, but not to marriage. John didn’t want to marry for fear that it would keep him from his planned mission to the Indians. That didn’t go well either, however, and John’s faith was shaken. He wrote in his journal, "I came to convert the Indians, but, oh, who will convert me?" (John had come to know the Moravians (religious group) on the voyage and admired them and felt he did not have their sure faith.)
Miss Hopkey felt betrayed and embarrassed by Wesley and soon became engaged, then married, four days later, to someone who Wesley deemed unsuitable. Wesley was distraught. From his diary:
"Miss Sophy to be married. Quite distressed. Confounded! Could not pray. Tried to pray, lost, sunk! No such day since I first saw the sun! O deal tenderly with Thy Servant! Let me not see such another!"
Sophy married four days after her engagement. Wesley subsequently refused to serve communion to her. He said she had missed too many services! That led to a lawsuit of defamation brought by Sophy’s husband against Wesley. The chief magistrate was a corrupt man who Wesley had publicly criticized, and also Sophy’s uncle, and he hand-picked a grand jury of Wesley critics. Wesley was indicted, but not convicted. He was replaced as Savnnah’s minister. He had lost face and credibility in Savannah and soon snuck out of Dodge and back to England.
Back in England Wesley attended a Moravian service one night and later famously wrote that he “felt my heart strangely warmed.” On fire for God now, his preaching attracted a large following and thus was the Methodist church born. Wesley’s time in America was not successful, but it was a “dark night” that shaped him for later success.
I quote from a web source: One of his biographers, Robert Wearmouth, concluded: "If, perchance the High Church missionary to Georgia had succumbed to the attractions of Sophia Hopkey, married her as his natural impulses prompted, made a home of her uncle's estate in accordance with that gentleman's wish, there can be no doubt that Methodism, an acorn planted at Oxford, would never have grown into a tree of marvelous stature."
As our guide on our Savannah Experience tour told us, Wesley's time in Savannah can be summarized in two words: "Woman trouble."
There are several Wesley commemorative sites in Savannah. On Cockspur Island near the mouth of the Savannah River is this memorial to the arrival of Wesley in America, Feb. 6, 1736.
The inscription, from his journal, says in part: “Mr. Oglethorpe led us through the moorish ground on the shore to a rising ground. … We chose an open place surrounded with myrtles, bays, and cedars, which sheltered us both from the sun and wind, and called our little flock together to prayers.”
Reynolds Square has this statue of Wesley.
This church, built in the late 1800s, is the Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church. It was built, as the name indicates, to be a monument to John Wesley and his ministry.
We plan to attend a service there this Sunday.
We were vaguely aware of Wesley’s experience in Georgia, but hadn’t planned to explore these Methodist beginnings here in Savannah, or even thought of them, and weren’t aware of how prominently he is recognized here. We’re glad we stumbled upon it -- serendipitous planning is better than no planning at all. It added to the significance of our visit.
Rob and Susie