The Matchmakers

IN 1738, John and Charles Wesley vowed that neither would wed without first receiving the other’s approval. For one brother the agreement confirmed a lifelong love, but for the other it probably ruined any chance for happiness.

Back in 1736 John had found his first love, Sophia Hopkey, in Georgia. A good-natured girl of 18, “Miss Sophy,” as John always called her, was one of his first friends in America. John, then 33, felt his heart drawn to her but resolved to watch himself carefully.

Although he enjoyed spending time with Sophy, he feared that a serious relationship would end his career as a missionary to the Indians. After much prayer, he painfully resolved not to marry until he had begun his work.

Following this announcement, Sophy, who usually took breakfast and lessons with Wesley, told him she would no longer meet with him alone. He was, however, permitted to visit her at her home.

After one such visit, John wrote in his journal: “This was indeed an hour of trial. Her words, her air, her eyes, her every motion and gesture, were full of such softness and sweetness. I know not what might have been the consequence had I then but touched her hand! And how I avoided it I know not. Surely God is over all.”

Soon after this visit John received the shocking news that Sophy had agreed to wed Mr. William Williamson—"if Mr. Wesley had no objection.” John wondered at first if she was testing him, but he concluded that if she had given her consent to be married, his chance must have passed. Though distraught, he offered no objection.

For a while, John’s emphasis on itinerant ministry led him to renounce marriage altogether. In the pamphlet Thoughts on Marriage and Celibacy, he recommended celibacy to all those who could devote themselves to it “for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.”

Further, he declared that “those who have the power to abstain from marriage are free from a thousand nameless domestic trials,” and that “[t]hese highly favored celibates ought to prize the advantages they enjoy, and be careful to keep them.”

He later revised his view. He began seeking a partner for life, confident that his brother would help him make a good choice.

A second chance

John met Mrs. Grace Murray when she was 23. The widow of a sailor drowned at sea, she was attractive and had both an engaging personality and an enchanting singing voice.

In the spring of 1740, Charles admitted her into a Methodist society. She later assumed several responsibilities, including oversight of an orphan house at Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

At one point John became sick, and Grace cared for him. As she nursed him, their affections for each other grew. John said to her, “If ever I marry, I think you will be the person.” As soon as he was better, he invited her to ride with him as he visited several societies in Yorkshire and Derbyshire.

As agreed, John informed Charles that he wanted to marry Grace. Charles balked. Grace came from a poor family and had at one time worked as a domestic servant. Charles was sure this marriage would ruin John’s ministry—the preachers would leave him, jealous women would disrupt the Methodist societies, and Grace would not be accepted as the wife of their great leader.

John argued that Grace’s lowly origin meant nothing, as it did not affect her spirit or her gifts. But Charles was determined to prevent what he thought would be a tragedy. He rode quickly to meet John and declare his opposition. Then he rode on to where Grace was staying and convinced her to marry John Bennet, one of John’s preachers, whom she had also nursed.

Persuaded it was for the best, she reluctantly followed Charles to Newcastle, where Bennet was. The following morning they were wed.

John was heartbroken. Charles thought he had prevented “undesirable circumstances,” but his impetuous actions probably caused more harm than good.

Strike three

Charles’s interference with the marriage to Grace Murray may have spurred John to an even more hurried courtship of Mrs. Mary Vazeille.

A friend introduced John to Mary, a widow, and persuaded him that she would make a fitting partner. John quickly agreed and asked the lady’s hand.

Once again, Charles strongly disapproved, but John did not listen. Charles had prevented him from marrying the woman he loved, and he was determined not to let him interfere this time.

John’s haste surprised everyone. He mentioned his intention to his brother on Saturday, February 2, 1751. On Sunday, February 10, he fell on ice and sprained his leg. He had himself taken to Mary’s house to heal. He stayed there through the week, and the following Monday or Tuesday they were married.

Though John had once feared that marriage would end his ministry, by this point he was too involved in his work to give it up. In the premarital arrangements, he refused control over his wife’s fortunes, and he stipulated that he should not have to limit his preaching or travel. “If I thought it would be otherwise,” he told her, “much as I love you, I would see your face no more.”

By the time four months had passed, it was obvious John had made a regrettable choice. His wife attempted to travel with him, but she couldn’t keep up the pace and frequently complained. John said her gripes were “like tearing the flesh off my bones.”

Though his wife had many good qualities, these were overshadowed by her jealousy, especially after she decided to stay home while John traveled. Unable to grasp the uprightness of her husband’s intentions, she began spying on him. She opened letters, searched private papers, and sometimes handed them over to his enemies, hoping to attach some stigma to his character.

She left John more than once, returning only when he begged her. After 20 years, though, she left intending “never to return.” John wrote in his journal: “January 23d, 1771.—For what cause I know not to this day,—set out for Newcastle, purposing ‘never to return.’ Non eam reliqui : non dimissi : non revocabo. [I did not desert her, I did not send her away, I will not recall her.]”

One happy ending

Unlike his brother, Charles had relatively little trouble keeping his focus on ministry and off marriage. Then came Sarah Gwynne.

In 1747 he met Miss Gwynne, called Sally, on a trip to Wales. She was 21; he was approaching 40. She came from a wealthy and staunchly Anglican family; he was a poor Methodist itinerant. Nonetheless, as Charles later told her, it was “love at first sight.”

Charles set out for a mission trip to Ireland almost a year after he met Sally. Their correspondence while he was away soon ripened into love. The following year, Charles wrote this verse: “Two are better far than one,/ For counsel or for fight / How can one be warm alone / Or serve his God aright?”

On October 8, 1748, Charles sailed from Dublin and reached Sally’s home. He proposed, and she accepted. But he had another person to consult.

Charles met John in Bristol to discuss the marriage. Although John had feared that marriage would divert his brother from seeking happiness primarily from God, John agreed to the match. Charles recorded, “We consulted together about every particular, and were of one heart and mind in all things.” John even agreed to conduct the ceremony.

Charles wrote of his wedding day, “Not a cloud was to be seen from morning till night. I rose at four, spent three hours and a half in prayer, or singing, with my brother, with Sally, with Beck. At eight I led my Sally to church. Mr. Gwynne gave her to me (under God): my brother joined our hands. It was a most solemn season of love! Never had I more of the divine presence at the sacrament. We were cheerful without mirth, serious without sadness. My brother seemed the happiest person among us.” CH

By Janine Petry

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #69 in 2001]

Janine Petry is the editorial coordinator for Christian History.
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