John Wesley’s Adversity Training

Some years ago I was thinking about how adversity can produce character, and particularly “grit.” One example, though couched in a larger passage about judgment, comes from Isaiah 30:20: Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. 

My mind jumps here to John Wesley, 1703-1791, a man of extraordinary strength and persistence I had been reading and writing about at that time.

I began to review what prepared him to lead with such perseverance and conscientiousness in the widespread ministry he was thrust into later in his life.

Consider first his education. There were the five years of excellent home schooling under the watchful eye of his mother, Susannah. Then there were six years at Charterhouse school. Finally there were about five years at Oxford University.

The grim experiences he had at Charterhouse may be one key to Wesley’s future competence and capability. Charterhouse was a well-regarded school for boys in London. One hundred years earlier a man of great wealth had established the school so that select boys could 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 persuade the Duke of Buckingham to nominate John. So, before he was eleven, Wesley left the well-regulated and prayerful environment of the Epworth rectory (parsonage) to enter the tumult of a public boarding school. W. H. Fitchett writes that “the Charterhouse of that day was a school with great traditions and a decent standard of scholarship.”

However, there was one feature of this institution that leaves modern students of its history perplexed: the practice of high-handed student-on-student food theft. When the rations were given out at the cook house, the older and stronger boys took the meaty portions from the smaller boys. It was a daily experience. During those years Wesley practically lived on bread.

Fitchett writes: “A boy trained in the severities of Epworth parsonage, however, could easily survive even the raided meals of the Charterhouse School.” But what were the officials of this great school thinking in not stopping the thefts? It is hinted that such treatment developed humility or self-restraint. More likely, if one responded to it nobly, and without descending into thievery oneself, it developed a toughness of character, the ability to make do with what was available and to fend for oneself without the benefit of warm and nurturing guardians.

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

Many years later, when Wesley was deeply involved as leader of the Methodist movement, he experienced all sorts of adversity. He faced mobs, endured storms, traveled tirelessly mostly by horseback, wrote copiously in defense of the Gospel 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 equal to such a demanding life.

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