The Boy John Wesley at Charterhouse

While studying the pastoral letters, I & II Timothy for a series of lectures, I made what struck me as a rich discovery. I saw that all the requirements considered in these scriptures for effective pastoral ministry fit under two heads – godliness and competence.

My mind jumps here to John Wesley, of whom I’ve been reading and writing in recent weeks. I began to review what prepared him to lead with such competence in the widespread ministry into which he was thrust later in his life.

Consider first his education. It can be divided into three phases. There was the five years of excellent tutelage he got under the watchful eye of his mother. Then there were six years at Charterhouse. Finally there were about five years at Oxford University. The least pleasant of the three sources of his education may be one key to his future competence and capability.

At 10 years of age Wesley was enrolled at Charterhouse, a well-regarded school for boys in London. One hundred years earlier, a man of great wealth established the school with the intent that select boys enrolled should get the best possible education there in preparation for university.

There was no money in the Wesley household to pay the tuition for such instruction but Samuel Wesley, John’s father, managed to win the agreement of the Duke of Buckingham to nominate his son as a select choice. So, before he was 11, he left the well-regulated and prayerful environment of the Epworth rectory to enter the tumult of a well-recognized public school. W. H. Fitchett writes that “The Charterhouse of that day was a school with great traditions and a decent standard of scholarship.” But it did not cater to the upper levels of society so the names of the famous do not appear among its graduates.

At Charterhouse the boy, John, was quick to learn and tireless in his pursuits. The details are not full but he was regarded as a strong student.

However there was one feature of this institution which leaves modern students of its history perplexed. The practice of “fagging,” a fancy name for high-handed robbing, was in full force. That is, when the rations were given out at the cook house, the older and stronger boys would be on hand to take the meaty portions from the smaller boys. It was a daily experience and for those years JohnWesley practically lived on bread.

Fitchette writes: “A boy trained in the severities of Epworth parsonage, however, could asily survive even the raided meals of the Charterhouse School.” But what were the officials of this great school thinking in letting this robbery go on? It is hinted that such treatment developed humility or self-restraint. More likely it developed a toughness of character, where one was left to make do with what was available and to fend for himself without guardians hovering around.

Wesley himself mentions another potential benefit with which we might at least in part disagree: When his father sent him to Charterhouse he gave him instructions to run around the school’s large playing field or garden three times each morning. In other words, stay strong and active. Wesley obeyed and later wrote that together this exercise and limited diet contributed to his sturdy constitution as an adult.

Many years later, when John Wesley was deeply involved as leader of the Methodist movement he experienced all sorts of adversity. He faced mobs, endured storms, travelled tirelessly, wrote copiously in defense of his message and for the instruction of new converts, and often preached as many as three times a day. His own opinion was that the ruggedness and deprivations of his early years — including Charterhouse — had made him competent for such a demanding life.

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