Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Hymn writer in sex scandal

Charles Wesley, one of Britain’s greatest hymn writers and a founder of Methodism, was plagued by a sex scandal while staying in the new American colony of Georgia. This information has, apparently, just come to light because a professor at Liverpool Hope University has deciphered coded passages in Wesley’s diaries. (However, the story may not be as new as the professor or some British newspapers are suggesting.) Both Charles and his equally famous reverend brother, John, were committed diarists, and their diaries (not including coded passages!) are all freely available online.

Charles and his older brother John were born at Epworth, Lincolnshire, and educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford. According to the website of the Methodist Church of the UK, Charles was ‘a bit of a lad’ in his early Oxford days, but then formed the Holy Club for prayer and bible study. Subsequently, John joined and became its leading light. Other students nicknamed the members of the group as ‘Methodists’. Charles was ordained in the Church of England in 1735, and that same year went to the British colony of Georgia, with John. There, he held the post of secretary to the colonial governor, James Edward Oglethorpe, but - apparently because of ill health - returned to the UK more than a year earlier than his brother.

According to a news story just published in The Daily Mail, however, it now seems Charles ‘fled home amid allegations that he had sex with a colonist after trapping her husband under a tree’. This scandal - from 270 years ago - was uncovered, says The Daily Mail, by Reverend Professor Kenneth Newport, of Liverpool Hope University, who finally managed to decipher passages of Wesley’s diaries written in code. He did this by realising that Wesley had used the same code to transcribe parts of the King James Bible.

The coded paragraphs, explains The Daily Mail, show that Wesley was accused of sexual misconduct by a woman named Mrs Anne Welch, wife to the colonists’ doctor. And they also reveal that he was concerned because, while walking with a maid, a pair of colonists had shouted at him: ‘There goes the parson with his whore. I saw her and him were under the bushes.’ According to The Daily Mail and The Times (which shuns any mention of the sex scandal), the newly decoded passages also reveal significant tensions between the two brothers, particularly about each other’s marriages.

But Jeff Campbell, from Wharton, New Jersey, says these ‘new’ facts are not so new. In a comment submitted to The Daily Mail’s website, he says he found out about Charles Wesley’s difficulties in Georgia ‘over four years ago’ at a seminary class with someone called Dr. Charles Yirgoyen! Campbell thus claims Wesley fell in love with the daughter of the head of the colony, and when she did not return his affections and asked to be married to another man, he refused to marry them and was locked up. Campbell adds ‘it is said that someone broke him out of jail and he ran back to England’. He also says that the strained relations between John and Charles over the years has been well documented.

The Diary Junction provides a brief biography for both John and Charles Wesley, both of whom went on to develop Britain’s first widely successful evangelical movement, and gives links to websites where the text of their diaries can be found. John kept a diary for most of his life until his death in 1791, but Charles, who died three years earlier, stopped in the 1750s (perhaps because he was too busy writing hymns, such as Hark, the Herald Angels Sing).

Here are two extracts from Charles’ diary from 1736. The first is taken from a published edition of his diary online (thanks to A Vision of Britain Through Time), and the second, a day later, is one of the decoded passages provided by today’s story in The Times online (there is no entry for 22 March 1736 in the published edition).

21 March
‘Mr Oglethorpe had ordered, more often than once, that no man should shoot on a Sunday. Germain had been committed to the guard-room for it in the morning, but was, upon his submission, released. In the midst of the sermon a gun was fired. Davison, the constable, ran out, and found it was the Doctor; told him it was contrary to orders, and he was obliged to desire him to come to the officer. Upon this the Doctor flew into a great passion, and said, ‘What, do you not know that I am not to be looked upon as a common fellow?’ Not knowing what to do, the constable went, and returned, after consulting with Hermsdorf, with two centinels, and brought him to the guard-room. Hereupon M. H. charged and fired a gun; and then ran thither, like a mad woman, crying she had shot, and would be confined too. The constable and Hermsdorf persuaded her to go away. She cursed and swore in the utmost transport of passion, threatening to kill the first man that should come near her. Alas, my brother! what has become of thy hopeful convert?

In the afternoon, while I was talking in the street with poor Catherine, her mistress came up to us, and fell upon me with the utmost bitterness and scurrility; saying she would blow me up, and my brother, whom she once thought honest, but was now undeceived: that I was the cause of her husband's confinement; but she would be revenged, and expose my hypocrisy, my prayers four times a day, by beat of drum, and abundance more, which I cannot write, and thought no woman, though taken from Drurylane, could have spoken. I only said, I pitied her, but defied all she or the devil could do; for she could not hurt me. I was strangely preserved from passion, and at parting told her that, I hoped she would soon come to a better mind. . . .

. . . At night I was forced to exchange my usual bed, the ground, for a chest, being almost speechless through a violent cold.’

22 March
‘While I was persuading Mr Welch not to concern himself in this disturbance, I heard Mrs Hawkins cry out: ‘Murder!’ and walked away. Returning out of the woods, I was informed by Mr Welch that poor blockhead Mrs Welch had joined with Mrs Hawkins and the Devil in their slanders of me. I would not believe it till half the town told me the same, and exclaimed against her ingratitude.’

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