It’s not uncommon to hear American voices in the small North Lincolnshire market town of Epworth.
Indeed, when I visited Epworth Old Rectory with a British friend one summer afternoon, the other visitors, a coach-party of around twenty and a couple on a pilgrimage, were without exception Americans.
Epworth is seen, quite literally, as the birthplace of Methodism, because the rector in the early eighteenth century was the Rev Samuel Wesley (1662-1735) of whose nineteen children three boys and seven girls survived. The three boys were Samuel the Younger (1690 or 1691-1739), a minor poet, John (1703-1791), cleric and theologian and founder of the Methodist Church, and Charles (1707-1788), the hymn-writer.
Rev Samuel Wesley was not popular in his Epworth living: he was a high Tory and a high churchman, and didn’t get on with his parishioners.
The existing parsonage was burnt down in 1709, a particularly alarming incident in which his son John, known within the family as Jacky, was trapped in a second-floor bedroom and rescued only with difficulty.
Had he perished, there would have been no Methodist church as such.
The Wesley children’s upbringing was meticulous. Their mother Susanna educated the boys and girls to the same level, and found time to teach each of the ten individually on a weekly basis.
This methodical approach to mundane as well as intellectual tasks was distinctive of John Wesley’s university life, and led him and his friends to be scornfully labelled “methodists”, an epithet which they joyfully accepted.
Throughout his long life of preaching, John Wesley encountered furious opposition from clergy of the Established Church, not least in Epworth where, on return visits to his birthplace, he was denied access to the parish church and took to standing on his father’s grave to preach.
“Consumed by the thought of the shortness of time, the great work to be done, and the need for haste in doing it, on he marched, preaching, pleading, warning and guiding…” until, by the time of his death, he had unwittingly created an alternative Protestant church to Anglicanism.
And that is why visitors come from all over the world to an elegant Georgian parsonage in North Lincolnshire: http://www.epwortholdrectory.org.uk.