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Chapter 39

Samuel Wesley to the Lord Chancellor.

Westminster, January 14th, 1733-4.

My Lord,

The small rectory of Wroote, in the diocese and county of Lincoln, adjoining to the Isle of Axholme, is in the gift of the Lord Chancellor, and more then seven years since it was conferred on Samuel Wesley, Rector of Epworth. It lies in our low levels, and is often overflowed--four or five years since I have had it; and the people have lost most or all the fruits of the earth to that degree that it has hardly brought me in fifty pounds per annum, omnibus annis, and some years not enough to pay my curate there his salary of 30 pounds a year.

This living, by your lordship's permission and favour, I would gladly resign to one Mr. John Whitelamb, born in the neighbourhood of Wroote, as his father and grandfather lived in it, when I took him from among the scholars of a charity school, founded by one Mr. Travers, an attorney, brought him to my house, and educated him there, where he was my amanuensis for four years in transcribing my Dissertations on the Book of Job, now well advanced in the press; and drawing my maps and figures for it, as well as we could by the light of nature. After this I sent him to Oxford, to my son John Wesley, Fellow of Lincoln College, under whom he made such proficiency that he was the last summer admitted by the Bishop of Oxford into Deacon's Orders, and placed my curate in Epworth, while I came up to town to expedite the printing my book.

Since I was here I gave consent to his marrying one of my seven daughters, and they are married accordingly; and though I can spare little more with her, yet I would gladly give them a little glebe land at Wroote, where I am sure they will not want springs of water. But they love the place, though I can get nobody else to reside on it. If I do not flatter myself, he is indeed a valuable person, of uncommon brightness, learning, piety and indefatigable industry; always loyal to the King, zealous for the Church, and friendly to our Dissenting Brethren; and for the truth of this character I will be answerable to God and man. If therefore your lordship will grant me the favour to let me resign the living unto him, and please to confer it on him, I shall always remain your lordship's most bounden, most grateful, and most obedient servant,

Samuel Wesley, Sen.

The Lord Chancellor complied: and so, in February, with an income of but fifty pounds a year, increased to seventy by Mr. Wesley's kindness, but in good heart and hope and such love as can only be between two simple hearts that have proved each other, John Whitelamb and Molly took possession of the small parsonage.

They were happy: and of their happiness there is no more to be said, save that it was brief. In the last days of October Molly's child was born, and died: and a few hours later while the poor man held her close, refusing to believe, with a sigh Molly's spirit slipped between his arms and went to God.

To God? It tore the man up by the roots, and the root-soil of his faith crumbled and fell with the moulds upon her coffin. He went from her graveside back to the house and closed the door. Mrs. Wesley had urged him to return with the family to Epworth, and John, who had ridden from Oxford to preach the funeral sermon, shook him by the hand and added his persuasions. But the broken husband thanked him shortly, and strode away. He had sat through the sermon without listening to a word: and now he went back to a house lonely even of God.

He and Molly had been too poor to keep a servant: but on the eve of her illness a labourer's wife had been hired to do the housework and cook the meals. And seeing his lethargy, this sensible woman, without asking questions, continued to arrive at seven in the morning and depart at seven in the evening. He ate the food she set before him. On Sunday he heard the bell ringing from his church hard by. But he had prepared no sermon: and after the bell had ceased he sat in his study before an open book, oblivious.

Yet prayer was read, and a sermon preached, in Wroote Church that day. John Wesley had walked over from Epworth; and when the bell ceased ringing, and the minutes passed, and still no rector appeared, had stepped quietly to the reading-desk.

After service he walked across to the parsonage, knocked gently at the study door and entered.

"Brother Whitelamb," he said, "you have need of us, I think, and I know that my father has need of you. To-morrow I return to Oxford, and I leave a letter with him that he will wish to answer. Death has shaken him by the hand and it cannot guide a pen: he will be glad to employ his old amanuensis. What is more, his answer to my letter will contain much worth your pondering, as well as mine, for it will be concerned with even such a spiritual charge as you have this day been neglecting."

"Brother Wesley," answered the widower, looking up, "you have done a kind deed this morning. But what was your text?"

"My text was, 'Son of man, behold I take from thee the desire of thine eyes with a stroke: yet shalt thou not mourn or weep, neither shall thy tears run down.'"

"I love you, brother: you have ever been kind indeed to me. Yet you put it in my mind at times, that the poor servant with one talent had some excuse, if a poor defence, who said 'I know thee, that thou art a hard man.'"

"Do I reap then where I have not sown, and gather where I have not strewn?"

"I will not say that. But I see that others prepare the way for you and will do so, as Charles prepared it at Oxford: and finding it prepared, you take command and march onward. You were born to take command: the hand of God is evident upon you. But some grow faint by the way and drop behind, and you have no bowels for these."

Silence fell between them. John Whitelamb broke it. "I can guess what your father's letter will be--a last appeal to you to succeed him in Epworth parish. Do you mean to consent?"

"I think not. My reasons--"

"Nay, it is certain you will not. And as for your reasons, they do not matter: they may be good, but God has better, who decides for you. Yet deal gently with the old man, for you are denying the dearest wish of his heart."

"May I tell him that you will come?"

"I will come when he sends for me."

Mr. Wesley's message did not arrive until a good fortnight later, during which time John Whitelamb had fallen back upon his own sorrow. He resumed his duties, but with no heart. From the hour of his wife's death he sank gradually into the rut of a listless parish priest--a solitary man, careless of his dress as of his duties, loved by his parishioners for the kindness of his heart. They said that sorrow had broken him; but the case was worse than this. He had lost assurance of God's goodness.

He could not, with such a doubt in his heart, go to his wife's family for comfort. He loved them as ever; but he could not trust their love to deal tenderly with his infidelity. No Wesley would ever have let a human sorrow interfere with faith: no Wesley (it seemed to him) would understand such a disaster. It was upon this thought that he had called John a hard man. He recognised the truth and that he was but brittle earthenware beside these hammered vessels of service.

Nevertheless, when in obedience to Mr. Wesley's message he presented himself at Epworth, he was surprised by the calm everyday air with which the old man received him. He had expected at least some word of his grief, some fatherly pressure of the hand. There was none. He knew, to be sure, that old age deadened sensibility. But, after all, his dear Molly had been this man's child, if not the best-beloved.

"Son Whitelamb, my hand is weary, and there is much to write. Help me to my dearest wish on earth--the only wish now left to me: help me that Jack may inherit Epworth cure when I am gone. Hear what he objects: 'The question is not whether I could do more good there or here in Oxford, but whether I could do more good to myself; seeing wherever I can be most holy myself, there I can most promote holiness in others. But I can improve myself more at Oxford than at any other place.' The lad must think I forget my logic. See you, he juggles me with identical propositions! First it is no question of doing good to others, but to himself; and anon when he does most good to himself he will do most good to others. Am I a dead dog, to be pelted with such sophisms? Son Whitelamb, is your pen ready?"

"Of what avail is it?" John Whitelamb asked himself. "These men, father and son, decide first, and, having decided, find no lack of arguments. It is but pride of the mind in which they clothe their will. Moreover, if there be a God, what a vain conflict am I aiding! seeing that time with Him is not, and all has been decided from the beginning."

Yet he took down the answer with his habitual care, glancing up in the pauses at the old face, gray and intense beneath the dark skull-cap. The letter ended:

"If you are not indifferent whether the labours of an aged father for above forty years in God's vineyard be lost, and the fences of it trodden down and destroyed; if you have any care for our family, which must be dismally shattered as soon as I am dropped; if you reflect on the dear love and longing which this dear people has for you, whereby you will be enabled to do God the more service; and the plenteousness of the harvest, consisting of near two thousand souls, whereas you have not many more scholars in the University; you may perhaps alter your mind, and bend your will to His, who has promised, if in all our ways we acknowledge Him, He will direct our paths."

Arthur Quiller-Couch