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John Wesley Trial: 1737

The Case Against Wesley

The proceedings were much like a formal trial, although it was technically a grand jury hearing, with 44 people sitting to consider the charge against Wesley. Allegedly many of them were known to have personal quarrels with Wesley or at least to disapprove of his form of Christianity. Causton opened with a long speech warning the jury "to oppose the new, illegal authority which was usurped over their consciences." He then had read aloud an affidavit by Sophia Williamson in which she claimed that not only had Wesley once proposed to her, he had tried to get her to say she was marrying Williamson under pressure from her family.

At this point, the proceedings against Wesley took a dramatic new turn, for in addition to facing a claim of defamation of one person's character, Wesley found himself facing a whole series of charges accusing him virtually of heretical behavior. Magistrate Causton, hardly a disinterested judge up to this point, now read out to the jury "A List of Grievances" that he himself had drawn up to show that Wesley "deviates from the principles and regulations of the Established Church." They included such charges as: changing the liturgy; altering passages of the psalms; introducing hymns "not inspected or authorized;" baptizing infants by total immersion, denying Communion, confessions, and other sacraments to those "who will not conform to a grievous set of penances, confessions, [and] mortifications;" administering the sacraments to "boys ignorant and unqualified;" "venting sundry uncharitable expressions of all who differ from him;" "teaching wives and servants that they ought absolutely to follow the course of mortifications, fastings, and diets;" "refusing the Office of the Dead" to certain individuals; "searching into and meddling with the affairs of private families."

Sophia Williamson was then called and testified that, in fact, she had no objection to Wesley's behavior before her marriage. Thomas Causton and his wife testified that, in fact, they would not have objected to Wesley marrying Sophia. Ten other witnesses gave testimony, some supporting the charges, others contradicting them. Finally several of Wesley's letters to Sophia were read, convincing some of the propriety of his dealings with her and others of his inappropriate behavior.

The jury spent several days considering the evidence and then, on September 1, presented their findings. A majority of 32 found Wesley guilty of 10 charges, including "forcing his conversation to Sophia Williamson" and refusing Communion to her "much to the great disgrace and hurt of her character." The 12 dissenters also reported their findings; for the most part, they agreed on the facts but they found reasonable justification for Wesley's actions. Most importantly, they stated that "they were thoroughly persuaded that the charges against Mr. Wesley were an artifice of Mr. Causton's, designed rather to blacken the character of Mr. Wesley than to free the colony from religious tyranny, as he had alleged."

Wesley then spoke before the court and argued that 9 of the 10 indictments were "matters of an ecclesiastical nature" and so the court had no jurisdiction. On the "secular" charge that he behaved improperly with Sophia Williamson, he agreed to proceed to a regular trial. Magistrate Causton said that such a trial would have to wait for the next regular session.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1637 to 1832John Wesley Trial: 1737 - A Fateful Move, The Case Against Wesley, Threats, Flight, And A New Church