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John Wesley Trial: 1737

John Wesley Trial: 1737

Defendant: John Wesley
Plaintiff's Claim: Defamation of Character
Defense Lawyer: No Record
Lawyer for Plaintiff: No Record
Judge: Thomas Causton
Place: Savannah, Georgia
Date of Trial: August 27-September 1, 1737
Verdict: Indicted on 10 charges, 2 relating to the original charge of defamation and 8 relating to alleged ecclesiastical errors
Sentence: Never formally sentenced

SIGNIFICANCE: Because these proceedings took place in a then isolated and obscure colony, they had no effect on the legal system, but this incident does confirm how intolerant of deviant religious beliefs the early colonies were. Also, the fact that John Wesley fled from and never returned to America may well have influenced the development of Methodism: Had Wesley stayed in the colonies, Methodism might have become both a more radical and more regional sect.

In 1729, two brothers, John and Charles Wesley, were at Oxford University in England, John as a teacher and Charles as a student. Sons of a clergyman in the Church of England, John was already an ordained priest and Charles was on his way to becoming one, but during the next few years, both began to express serious doubts about the teachings and activities of Britain's established church. In particular, they felt that the Church of England was too remote and passive in its rituals and teachings. They advocated a Christianity that was both more responsive to and demanding of the religious impulses of the common folk. They gathered around them a small circle of like-minded young tutors and students, and sometime during the early 1730s, these devout young men became known around Oxford as "Methodists," in reference to the more disciplined and demanding way they practiced Christianity.

A Fateful Move

In 1735 John and Charles were in London, where they were introduced to James Edward Oglethorpe, who in 1733 had started a colony in America named Georgia. Oglethorpe encouraged the brothers to go to Georgia to preach to the many Christians as well as to the "heathen" Indians, and in December 1735 the brothers set sail with Oglethorpe himself. When their group arrived in Savannah in February 1736, they brought the total colonists to about 650, spread among six settlements. Charles Wesley did not find conditions to his liking and returned to England in July, but John stayed on and tried to impart his more robust form of Christianity to the colonists.

One of the first he seems to have tried to convert was a young woman, Sophia Christina Hopkey. Very soon the two seemed to have moved beyond the roles of priest and parishioner; he began to tutor her in French and she tended him when he became ill at one point. As rumors of their relationship spread, one of Wesley's friends asked him if he was intending to marry Sophia. It was reported that, for some reason, he then consulted a group of German Protestants who had their own settlement in Georgia and theyagain, for an unknown reasonadvised him not to marry her.

Whatever the full story, in March 1737, Sophia married another young colonist, William Williamson. Eight days later, Williamson forbade Sophia to attend the services of Wesley and even to speak with him, but by July at least she did attend a service. Wesley chose to rebuke her in public for several things wrong in her behavior and then early in August actually refused to let her take Communion.

The very next day, Wesley was brought before a bailiff in Savannah to answer to a complaint by William Williamson that his wife Sophia had been defamed. The hearing was set for August 22. The presiding judge was the chief magistrate of the colony, Thomas Causton, but not only was Causton known as an illtempered, virtually despotic man, his wife was an aunt of Sophia Williamson. During these days, Causton openly sided with his niece, at one point even calling on Wesley and demanding that he explain in writing why he had refused Sophia the right to take Communion. Moreover, Causton was alleged to have tried to influence at least some of the members of the grand jury by offering them extra food and provisions.

The Case Against Wesley

The proceedings were much like a formal trial, although it was technically a grand jury hearing, with 44 people sitting to consider the charge against Wesley. Allegedly many of them were known to have personal quarrels with Wesley or at least to disapprove of his form of Christianity. Causton opened with a long speech warning the jury "to oppose the new, illegal authority which was usurped over their consciences." He then had read aloud an affidavit by Sophia Williamson in which she claimed that not only had Wesley once proposed to her, he had tried to get her to say she was marrying Williamson under pressure from her family.

At this point, the proceedings against Wesley took a dramatic new turn, for in addition to facing a claim of defamation of one person's character, Wesley found himself facing a whole series of charges accusing him virtually of heretical behavior. Magistrate Causton, hardly a disinterested judge up to this point, now read out to the jury "A List of Grievances" that he himself had drawn up to show that Wesley "deviates from the principles and regulations of the Established Church." They included such charges as: changing the liturgy; altering passages of the psalms; introducing hymns "not inspected or authorized;" baptizing infants by total immersion, denying Communion, confessions, and other sacraments to those "who will not conform to a grievous set of penances, confessions, [and] mortifications;" administering the sacraments to "boys ignorant and unqualified;" "venting sundry uncharitable expressions of all who differ from him;" "teaching wives and servants that they ought absolutely to follow the course of mortifications, fastings, and diets;" "refusing the Office of the Dead" to certain individuals; "searching into and meddling with the affairs of private families."

Sophia Williamson was then called and testified that, in fact, she had no objection to Wesley's behavior before her marriage. Thomas Causton and his wife testified that, in fact, they would not have objected to Wesley marrying Sophia. Ten other witnesses gave testimony, some supporting the charges, others contradicting them. Finally several of Wesley's letters to Sophia were read, convincing some of the propriety of his dealings with her and others of his inappropriate behavior.

The jury spent several days considering the evidence and then, on September 1, presented their findings. A majority of 32 found Wesley guilty of 10 charges, including "forcing his conversation to Sophia Williamson" and refusing Communion to her "much to the great disgrace and hurt of her character." The 12 dissenters also reported their findings; for the most part, they agreed on the facts but they found reasonable justification for Wesley's actions. Most importantly, they stated that "they were thoroughly persuaded that the charges against Mr. Wesley were an artifice of Mr. Causton's, designed rather to blacken the character of Mr. Wesley than to free the colony from religious tyranny, as he had alleged."

Wesley then spoke before the court and argued that 9 of the 10 indictments were "matters of an ecclesiastical nature" and so the court had no jurisdiction. On the "secular" charge that he behaved improperly with Sophia Williamson, he agreed to proceed to a regular trial. Magistrate Causton said that such a trial would have to wait for the next regular session.

Threats, Flight, and a New Church

In the weeks that followed, Wesley showed up at seven different court sessions, but no one moved for his trial. Meanwhile, Wesley was removed from the church in Savannah and assigned to a smaller settlement, but this did not stop his evangelical preaching and praying. Then on November 22, Magistrate Causton sent for him and produced an affidavit in which he, Causton, accused Wesley of "calling him a liar, villain, and so forth."

He continued to preach but he also let it be known that he was considering returning to England. At that, William Williamson issued a notice that he had brought an action asking for £1,000 damages and that anyone assisting in Wesley's escape from the colony would be prosecuted. On December 2, the court sent for Wesley and warned him not to leave; when the bailiff insisted on his posting a bond, Wesley refused and left the premises. The court immediately published an order requiring all officers and guards in the colony to prevent Wesley from leaving.

That evening, Wesley and four other men left under cover of darkness and made their way by boat some 20 miles along the river from Savannah. From there they walked overland to Port Royal, South Carolina, which they reached on December 7. There he took a ship to Charles Town, and on December 22, 1737, he sailed for England. Wesley's "crimes" went largely unknown until an English merchant, Robert Williams, returned from Georgia in 1739 and published an attack on Wesley's behavior there; this prompted Wesley to publish (in 1740) the first volume of his journals in which he gave his own version of events. The episode soon faded from the public's awareness in both Britain and America, and although Wesley would never return to North America, the Methodist Church he founded in England would eventually flourish in the United States.

John S. Bowman

Suggestions for Further Reading

Stephens, William. A Journal of the Proceedings in Georgia. 1742 Reprint, Atlanta, Ga.: Franklin, 1906.

Tyerman, L. The Life and Times of the Rev. John Wesley, M.A., Founder of the Methodists. Vol. 1. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1872.

Wesley, John. The Works of John Wesley. Vol. 18. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984.

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