A Fire in an Old Parsonage: Who Saved John’s Life?

In 1709, at age six, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, came precariously close to losing his life in a raging parsonage fire.

That parsonage, Epworth rectory, was an old house. It appears that it was at least 200 years old when the Wesley family first occupied it near the beginning of the 1700s.

It was a three-story house constructed of ancient timbers, lath, and plaster, with a thatched roof. It was dusty and dry and 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. Only her hands and face were scorched. Samuel then raced to the nursery where the younger children were in the care of a maid and hurried all of them out through the back part of the house. But once he was outside 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. Samuel, sure his son would die, 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 close 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 his room. John was saved — but just in time.

The cause of the fire was never established. Someone blamed it on Samuel’s carelessness. There were also hints of arson. Ruffians in the town of Epworth had often threatened the rector and his family. Samuel’s cows had been stabbed, his dog lost a leg, and the children, while at play in the yard, had been menaced 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 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 endeavours to instill into his mind the disciplines of thy true religion and virtue.”

In his adulthood, John Wesley himself saw his 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 on his ministry.

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

We all have had such providences. For some, they are obvious — a reprieve from cancer or financial ruin — for others, they are not as dramatic but equally real.  After all, our very lives and the breath we breathe day after day are the result of God’s provide-ence. And therefore should we not, as did John Wesley, reflect on them as evidence of God’s immeasurable mercies toward us to serve His purpose?

In the light of God’s daily mercies, dare we take lightly His call to salvation in Christ Jesus, and then to lives of committed service?

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Photo credit: Ada Be (via flickr.com)

One thought on “A Fire in an Old Parsonage: Who Saved John’s Life?

  1. My favourite biography of John Wesley is titled ‘ A Brand From the Burning: The Life of John Wesley’ 2002 by Roy Hattersley former British cabinet member and deputy leader of the Labour Party.That’s how I first read of John’s providential escape from the Epworth Rectory fire of 1705.

    I believe “A brand plucked from the burning”was the epitaph John Wesley wanted on his gravestone.But his followers wanted something grander so it wasn’t to be.

    I thank goodness for God’s providence in saving John Wesley, for he was key in England’s and the world’s great 18th century awakening of faith which can fairly be called a second Reformation .

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