On February 28, 1784, an elderly John Wesley (1703–1791) officially chartered the 1st Methodist Church in the United States. Despite the fact that he was an ardent Tory & still an Anglican, Wesley saw the need to provide church structure for his followers, after the Anglican Church abandoned its American believers during the American Revolution. (See note below)
Young John Wesley (1703–1791) Preaching by British artist John Russell 1745-1806
A 32-year-old John Wesley 1st brought his evangelical brand of methodical Anglicanism to James Oglethorpe's (1696-1785) colonial Georgia from 1735 to 1737 with his brother, Charles Wesley (1707–1788). Charles & John traveled to Georgia with Oglethorpe on his 2nd voyage to the colony. John Wesley's 1st venture onto American soil was not a great success. Young John Wesley became embroiled a failed love affair & was unable to win adherents to his religious practices.
Searching for his own religious experience John Wesley found a complicated romantic experience instead. He fell in love with Sophia Hopkey, the niece of Savannah's chief magistrate Thomas Causton. Wesley met Miss Hopkey on the 4-month-long sail to Georgia. While traveling on the ship, Sophia’s mother employed Wesley to teach her daughter French. After arriving in Savannah, their passion grew. Sophia was confident, that Wesley’s intentions were honorable & would lead to matrimony.
However, upon arriving in Georgia, Wesley also became acquainted with the German Moravians, who hoped to establish a settlement in the colony. (The alliance later led Wesley to a London Moravian gathering, where Wesley felt he finally personally experienced God’s grace, which he described as an "infilling of the Holy Spirit.") And so, Wesley sought the advice of Moravian Bishop Spangenberg & who advised the young lover to avoid contact with female admirers. Wesley took his mentor's admonishment & without any explanation to Sophia, he abruptly stopped seeing her. She soon met someone else. This caused Wesley great pain, & he lashed out at her, publicly rebuking her for various sins.
On March 12, 1737, Sophia Hopkey married William Williamson, a clerk in her uncle’s Thomas Causton's store. The couple ran away to South Carolina & were married in Spurysburg, which was 22 miles up river away from the admonishments of John Wesley. Her new husband took Wesley to court for his attacks on his new bride. Local gossips shredded the reputation of John Wesley. Many believed that Wesley had secured a promise from Sophia Hopkey Williamson to never marry another, but that he had not asked for her hand in marriage. After her marriage, Wesley seemed to be inconsolable & vindictive.
Wesley acerbated the situation on August 7, 1737, when he refused to give Sophia Hopkey Williamson the sacrament of holy communion in the church. The following day, a warrant was issued against Wesley by Williamson & his bride, Sophia. The complaint was for defaming Sophia by refusing to administer to her the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, in a public congregation without due cause. Williamson sued for 1,000 pounds of sterling in damages for the public defamation of his wife’s character. Wesley was brought before the bailiff & the recorder, but he refused to acknowledge the power of the civil courts over him, because he claimed his actions were an ecclesiastical matter. Nonetheless, he was requested to appear before the next court held in Savannah.
Causton was the local political boss & chief magistrate for Savannah. Being the 1st magistrate of Savannah, he prospered in his position jeopardizing Ogelthorpe’s long-distance authority as governor. Ogelthorpe had appointed Wesley as his private secretary (and spy) who would report to him of any misdoings in the colony. John Wesley remained loyal to London's Oglethorpe instead of the local Causton.
However, Causton did prove corrupt in his dealings with the Moravians. The Moravians provided work in Savannah in trade for their supplies. Causton applied the credit for their work to his personal plantation & did not credit their account with the Savannah Trustees. Wesley reported the misappropriation of credit to the wrong account to Ogelthorpe. Wesley & the Moravians were friends & he did not want them to be forced to leave the colony. Causton declared that the Moravians would not bear arms to fight against the Spanish & that gave him the right to do what he did. The evidence against Causton was unmistakable in proving his misuse of the colony’s money. He was removed from the office of chief magistrate. Causton was convinced that Wesley was the instigator of his troubles.
Causton began to declare, that the reason Wesley had repelled his niece was out of revenge, because she had declined his proposal of marriage. Sophia Hopkey Williamson signed an affidavit that Wesley had proposed numerous times & that she had always refused him. Causton demanded a duel. Wesley refused to fight Causton & instead wrote a letter to Sophia Hopkey Williamson explaining his actions.
In his defensive letter, Wesley noted that those intending to take Holy Communion needed to inform the Curate at least the day before. Sophia Hopkey Williamson had not done this. Also Wesley advised her that in order to partake at the Lord’s table when one has done wrong, one must openly repent. Wesley also noted that since her marriage in March, she had not attended church & his refusal to let her take communion took place months later in August. The letter was not enough for the Williamsons or for Causton.
On August 22, 1737, the trial of John Wesley began before a jury secured by Causton. The trial ended with a mistrial. Twelve of the jurors refused to sign the bill of indictment, their reasons were that the counts were false or conflicting with the law. Wesley appeared in court several days in September, but Mr. Williamson was out of town.
1789 John Wesley (1703–1791), by British artist George Romney 1734-1802
Wesley never was able to establish good relations with the people of Savannah who reflected the diversity of Georgia’s early settlers including Anglicans, Dissenters, Highland Scots, French Hugenots, Spanish (Italian) Jews & French Swiss. In addition to his duties as a minister at Savannah, John had hoped to perform missionary work among the Creek & Cherokee of the region. He never was an effective missionary & wrote in his journal, “I came to convert the Indians, but, oh, who will convert me?”
On November 3, 1737, Wesley appeared in court again to defend his vindictive administrative assault on his former love. On November 24, Wesley publicly advertised his intentions of returning to England. Two days later Williamson published a warning, that he had a cause of 1,000 pounds against Wesley. The warning stated if anyone tried to assist the departure of Wesley, he would prosecute them as well. Convinced that he would not receive a fair trial, John left the colony of Georgia on December 2, 1737, noting in his journal, “about eight o’clock, the tide then serving, I shook off the dust of my feet and left Georgia, after having preached the gospel there (not as I ought, but as I was able).”
Note: Organized Methodism in America actually grew as a lay movement. Early non-clergy leaders included Robert Strawbridge, a farmer c 1760 in Maryland & Virginia; Philip Embury & his cousin, Barbara Heck, in New York in 1766: plus Captain Thomas Webb, in Philadelphia in 1767. To strengthen the Methodist work in the colonies, John Wesley sent 2 of his lay preachers, Richard Boardman & Joseph Pilmore, to America in 1769.
See John Wesley and Savannah by Kathy W. Ross and Rosemary Stacy here