The Fire in the Parsonage

At six years of age, John Wesley came precariously near to losing his life in a raging parsonage fire.

Epworth rectory was an old house — how old nobody knows. One record dated 1607 shows that it had already existed nearly a century before the Wesley family occupied it near the beginning of the Eighteenth Century. The 1607 record describes it as a three story house constructed of ancient timbers, lath and plaster, plus a thatched roof. It was dusty and dry and seven years earlier, in 1702 (the year before John Wesley’s birth) that same parsonage had been damaged by a mysterious fire, but had been saved and repaired.

Then came the raging fire of August 24, 1709. It could well have wiped out the whole family. It began near midnight. Susanna was ill and she and Samuel were sleeping in separate rooms. She had two boys with her. Samuel hearing the cry of “fire” in the streets, ran to Susanna’s room but the door was locked and he could not break in. Fortunately all the commotion awakened her and she and the two boys hurriedly walked through the flames on the front stairs. She received only scorched hand and face. Samuel then raced to the nursery where the younger children were in the care of a maid and hurried them out through the back part of the house. But, once he was out he realized that “Jackie” (son John) was missing.

Just then John’s face appeared at the upstairs window of the room where he had been sleeping. He had been awakened by the fire that was already playing along the ceiling of his room. There was no time for the crowd to get a ladder, and Samuel was sure his son would die, so he knelt and commended him to God.

But a strong man in the crowd stood against the wall beneath the window and another man was hoisted onto his shoulders, bringing him near enough to the height of the upstairs window to reach John.

The appearance of the man frightened John and he disappeared from the window to try the door of his room. It was already in flames. He returned to the window and fell into the arms of the man. At that very moment, the roof collapsed and the burning thatch dropped into the room. John was saved — but just in time.

The cause of the fire was never established but there were suspicions. Someone blamed it on Samuel’s carelessness. There were hints of arson. The ruffians of the town of Epworth had often threatened destructive actions against the rector and his family. And these were more than mere threats. Samuel’s cows had been stabbed, his dog lost a leg, and the children, while at play in the yard, had been threatened menacingly by men who came by.

John’s amazing rescue registered deeply with the parents. All the children had been saved, but Susanna was particularly grateful for the mercy shown to son John. Two years later, May 17, 1711, she wrote a prayer saying she intended “to be more particularly careful of the soul of this child that thou hast so mercifully provided for, than ever I have been, that I may do my endeavors to instill into his mind the disciplines of thy true religion and virtue.”

In his adulthood, John Wesley himself saw the great deliverance as an expression of God’s providence — his governance of the affairs of all mankind — and was convinced that he had been spared for a special reason. This event had a profound effect upon
the shaping of his ministry.

In 1737, at 34 years of age, he began to ascribe to the event the biblical expression, “a brand plucked from the burning” (Zech. 3:2). A modern version says: “Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire? (NIV) In other words, he was saved from a fiery death by the Divine Hand so that he could carry out a special ministry at God’s behest.

We all have had such providences — perhaps not so dramatic but equally real and lifeshaping. And we should reflect on them as evidences of God’s immeasurable mercies toward us to some purpose!

In the light of these mercies, dare we take lightly the call of Christ to personal salvation and then to lives of committed service?

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