Wesley’s Ghosts


By Nate Cull

In the 18th century, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, the religious and social movement which transformed Great Britain and America and set the stage for the modern evangelical church, also appears to have experienced these ‘Pentecostal’ phenomena. In fact, some references in his journal suggest that they formed a large part of the whole experience of his preaching and ‘method’.

What would be very interesting to know is exactly what other paranormal phenomena occured to the leader of the Methodists.

Moving right along.

The following brief extract comes from the 1951 Tyndale House condensed edition of the journals by Percy Livingstone Parker, in the public domain at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/journal.txt.

It comes with the following disclaimer by the editor in its introduction.

Rev. John Telford, one of Wesley’s biographers, says that “the earlier parts of the Journal were published in the interest of Methodism, that the calumny and slander then rife might be silenced by a plain narrative of the facts as to its founding, and its purpose. The complete Journals, still preserved in twenty-six bound volumes, have never been printed. Copious extracts were made by Wesley himself, and issued in twenty-one parts, the successive installments being eagerly expected by a host of readers.”
The published Journal makes four volumes, each about the size of the present book. But though I have had to curtail it by three-quarters I have tried to retain the atmosphere of tremendous activity which is one of its most remarkable features.

While it’s the original handwritten journals which would be most valuable (and getting access to those probably requires a triple doctorate and the deed to one’s firstborn), it would be a good first step to see at least the four published volumes in online searchable format. The Wesley Center Online at Northwest Nazarene University appear to have transcribed the fourth volume, but point us back at the CCEL 1951 Parker version for the rest.

But here’s the extract in question: (year not given)

Friday, July 6.—In the afternoon I was with Mr. Whitefield, just come from London, with whom I went to Baptist Mills, where he preached concerning “the Holy Ghost, which all who believe are to receive”; not without a just, though severe, censure of those who preach as if there were no Holy Ghost.
Saturday, 7.—I had an opportunity to talk with him of those outward signs which had so often accompanied the inward work of God. I found his objections were chiefly grounded on gross misrepresentations of matter of fact. But the next day he had an opportunity of informing himself better: for no sooner had he begun (in the application of his sermon) to invite all sinners to believe in Christ, than four persons sank down close to him, almost in the same moment. One of them lay without either sense or motion. A second trembled exceedingly. The third had strong convulsions all over his body, but made no noise unless by groans. The fourth, equally convulsed, called upon God with strong cries and tears. From this time, I trust, we shall all suffer God to carry on His own work in the way that pleaseth Him.
Sunday, 25–In the afternoon God was eminently present with us, though rather to comfort than convince. But I observed a remarkable difference, since I was here (Everton) before, as to the manner of the work. None now were in trances, none cried out, none fell down or were convulsed; only some trembled exceedingly, a low murmur was heard, and many were refreshed with the multitude of peace.
The danger was to regard extraordinary circumstances too much, such as outcries, convulsions, visions, trances; as if these were essential to the inward work, so that it could not go on without them. Perhaps the danger is, to regard them too little; to condemn them altogether; to imagine they had nothing of God in them, and were a hindrance to his work. Whereas the truth is 1) God suddenly and strongly convinced many that they were lost sinners; the natural consequence whereof were sudden outcries and strong bodily convulsions; 2) to strengthen and encourage them that believed, and to make His work more apparent, He favored several of them with divine dreams, others with trances and visions; 3) in some of these instances, after a time, nature mixed with grace; 4) Satan likewise mimicked this work of God in order to discredit the whole work; and yet it is not wise to give up this part any more than to give up the whole. At first, it was, doubtless, wholly from God. It is partly so at this day; and He will enable us to discern how far, in every case, the work is pure and where it mixes or degenerates.

The 19th century Irish historian William Edward Hartpole Lecky’s 1896 magnum opus “England in the Eighteenth Century”, hints (though scathingly, as evidence for Wesley’s ‘insanity’) at more interesting sections of the Journals. For example:

Accompanying this asceticism we find an extraordinary degree of superstition… His journals are full of histories of ghosts, of second-sight, of miracles that had taken place among his disciples. He tells us among other things how a preacher in an inland town in Ireland became suddenly conscious of the fact that at that moment the French were landing at Carrickfergus; how a painful tumour, which had defied the efforts of physicians, disappeared instantaneously at a prayer; how a poor woman, who appeared crippled by a severe fall, heard a voice within her saying ‘Name the name of Christ, and thou shalt stand,’ and, on complying with the command, she was at once cured; how a man at the point of death by a violent rupture, was restored by the prayers of the society, and continued for several years in health and in the love of God, till he relapsed into sin, when his disorder at once returned and soon hurried him to the grave.
A woman named Elizabeth Hobson, in whose accuracy Wesley had the most perfect faith, professed to live in daily and intimate intercourse with ghosts, who appeared to her enveloped sometimes in a celestial, sometimes in a lurid and gloomy light. The account of her many visions and her many conversations with them is extremely curious, but it is too long for quotation. It will be sufficient to say that, being engaged in a lawsuit about the possession of a house, the ghost of her grandfather, to whom it had formerly belonged, warmly espoused her cause, appeared to her to urge her to change her attorney, and gave her much other good advice in the prosecution of her suit.

Fortunately, the Gutenberg Project of Australia has an online copy of the 1917 book ‘The Epworth Phenomena‘ by Dudley Wright, which discusses many of Wesley’s weirder brushes with the paranormal from the viewpoint of early 20th century psychic investigation. It includes extensive quotations from some of these sections of Wesley’s journal which are NOT generally reprinted by Evangelical Christian publishing houses such as Tyndale - including the Elizabeth Hobson story.

I’ve only skimmed the book so far, but from the 21st century, this account of a classic ‘ghost story’ seems to mesh quite well with modern accounts of psychic mediumship, of which there is now an extensive literature, and far from being fanciful it sounds to me like a very believable matter-of-fact recounting.

All this suggests to me (if I didn’t already have the witness of my own eyes and spirit to what I’ve personally seen) that the other phenomena reported by Wesley also, for the most part, really happened, and were a large part of the spiritual force which helped his movement change the face of the Anglican church and the Western world.

And something that actually happened in the 18th century can actually happen again in the 21st, in Brazil or elsewhere.

Combining Pentecostal Christianity and New Age paranormal studies in this way, I’ve probably now offended *all* of my potential readership, and since this is a blog about my trip to Brazil and not about ghosts, I won’t drag out the discussion further here. But I’ll point any interested readers at my friend Michael Cocks’ web journal (for which I intermittently write) ‘The Ground of Faith‘, which investigates these kind of questions at the intersection of science and religion, and often off-limits to both.