Monday, October 01, 2018

Mrs. John Wesley Says, "Me Too!"

Even though John Wesley wasn't a sixteenth century Reformer, I thought I would seize the current zeitgeist and discuss the difficult life of Mrs. John Wesley.

John Wesley married Mary (Molly) Vazeille in 1751. Mary was 41 years old at the time. She was "originally a domestic servant," and also a widow. She brought four children with her to her new marriage. John Wesley was seven years older than Mary.

There are a number of disparaging comments about this woman that all stem from her marriage to John Wesley. This link refers to her as a "veritable vixen." Note how The Encyclopedia of World Methodism describes her:

Remaining at the Foundery, she served as a kind of secretary for John Wesley, but soon became very jealous as she read the many letters from women Methodists to him, especially those from Sarah Ryan. In 1758 she left him, vowing to see him no more, yet continued to dog his footsteps. From time to time she returned, and he did not turn her away, although for thirty years (to use his own words) she had "torn the flesh off my bones by her fretting and murmuring."

Granted that he could give no woman that all-absorbing attention that had already been given to God, the springs of his genuine affection were dried up by his wife's perverseness, which was probably worsened by a streak of mental unsoundness, and it remained for him only to show what infinite stores of fortitude and forbearance he possessed. She died on Oct. 8, 1781, aged seventy-one, but Wesley was not informed of the event until after his return to London from a preaching journey on the day of her burial.

Mary was quite the woman according to this Methodist source: she was jealous, a murmurer capable of metaphorically tearing the flesh of a man's bones, perverse, and mentally unsound. John Wesley (of course!) can be excused for his part of their relationship because his "all-absorbing attention... had already been given to God..."  Further, whatever affection John may have had for her was "dried up" because of Mary's negative personal attributes. With the former excuse, a false either / or argument is put forth (either God or marriage). In the later, one find a clear example of blaming the victim (if Mary wasn't this or that, John would love her).

How did John end up with Mary? As the story goes, Wesley fell on some ice and was taken to Mary's house to recuperate. About a week later they decided to get married. Of the accounts I read, their relationship fell apart in 1758 when Mary intercepted John's personal mail. She became enraged towards her husband when she came across a letter from another woman. One account says Mary "dragged her husband by the hair." Things then went quickly downhill. They separated a few times, and Wesley didn't attend her funeral.

I suspect that previous to this event things weren't going well. As I've been able to navigate this tale, it appears to me that John Wesley traveled extensively without his wife. Sure, she tried to accompany him for a time, but it was too hard on her. She eventually stayed home becoming something like Wesley's secretary, reading letters from his fans, including his female fans. In terms of healthy relationships, prolonged absence usually does more harm than good. Reading fan mail from women to your absent husband simply fueled the fire.

Rather than reinvent the wheel,  I came across a sympathetic treatment of Mrs. Wesley entitled, John Wesley's Intimate Disconnections 1755-1764.  The author notes that Wesley's typical letters addressed to his wife were somewhat impersonal.  On the other hand, "John Wesley’s private letters show that he had in fact become very intimate in conversation and in correspondence with a few younger married women associated with Methodist societies." Enter Sarah Ryan, a woman who may have had somewhat of a sordid past, at least that's what Mary believed. Wesley's letters to Sarah "reveal a depth of spiritual intimacy that is simply unmatched by anything in John Wesley’s correspondence with his wife." Wesley wrote to Sarah:
The conversing with you, either by speaking or writing, is an unspeakable blessing to me. I cannot think of you without thinking of God. Others often lead me to Him; but it is, as it were, going round about: you bring me straight into His presence. Therefore, whoever warns me against trusting you, I cannot refrain, as I am clearly convinced He calls me to it.
This was the letter that Mary came across. John said he left the letter in his pocket, and while snooping through his clothes she found it. Wesley wrote Sarah to tell her of the fight with his wife, "While she read it, God broke her heart; and I afterwards found her in such a temper as I have not seen her in for several years. She has continued in the same ever since." The author of the article rightly asks,
Was it God who broke Mary’s heart, or was it John Wesley himself? Mary Wesley could not have failed to recognize the difference in tone from the way in which her husband typically wrote to her, that is, she must have recognized that he expressed a conversational intimacy with Sarah Ryan that he did not share with Mary. 
The article goes on to describe the further difficulties between Mr. and Mrs. Wesley, and is well worth reading. Whatever faults Mary Vazeille may have had, be it anger,  jealousy, or even rage towards her husband, I can't help but feel saddened for this woman, particularly the way she's been portrayed throughout history. I'm not the only one to sympathize with Mary. There are a number of articles and books on-line also sympathetic. 

There's a Bible verse that comes  to mind...  loving your wife like... Christ loved the church... While I'm sympathetic to those who have spiritual callings, I'm unsympathetic to those who think those callings give one permission to love their wives less than striving for the ideal of Ephesians 5:25.  Wesley commented on Ephesians 5:25 , "Even as Christ loved the church - Here is the true model of conjugal affection. With this kind of affection, with this degree of it, and to this end, should husbands love their wives." True, there are two sides to every story. Perhaps a Wesley apologist can stop by and defend John's actions in his marriage. 

No comments: