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John Wesley as a Dream Reader

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John Wesley is known for his preoccupation with providential omens, miracles, apparitions, instances of demonic possession and witchcraft – in a word, everything that seemed to be a manifestation of the supernatural in everyday life. Naturally, this
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  [page 11]   Paweł Rutkowski University of Warsaw John Wesley as a Dream Reader John Wesley is known for his preoccupation with providential omens, miracles, apparitions, instances of demonic possession and witchcraft – in a word, everything that seemed to be a manifestation of the supernatural in everyday life. Naturally, this category of  phenomena could not do without dreams and visions, which for the founder of Methodism were always an object of extraordinary interest. In his writings – sermons, letters and, especially, the  Journal   – Wesley meticulously recorded, or at least mentioned in passing, dozens of dreams that occurred to himself, his friends and relatives as well as people he encountered during his innumerable preaching trips in Britain and America. It is noteworthy that many of the dreams he collected were largely culture-specific, falling into a few categories characteristic of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which in a natural way suited the Methodist project that aimed at recreating the Primitive Christianity as well as proving consistency of the Wesleyan Methodists’ thoughts and actions with the Biblical praxis. Dreams most frequently registered in the  Journal   were those that presaged near future events. The most common prophetic visions warned about imminent death of a dreamer or an acquaintance of his/hers. In the entry for the 28 th  of March, 1736 Wesley wrote about his  private conversation with a seriously ill young man who a few days earlier, at night, had heard a voice calling aloud his name, “Peter! Peter Wright!”. The room then was “as light as day”, and the patient “saw a man in very bright clothes stand, by the bed, who said, ‘Prepare yourself, for your end is nigh’; and then immediately all was dark as before”. Wesley’s opinion about the dream was that “[t]he advice was good, whencesoever it came”, which the young man accepted. Although he recovered within a few days, “his whole temper was changed as well as his life”. For that reason, when he relapsed and did [page 12]   pass away a couple of weeks later, he “died in peace”. (JJW 1: 187) 1  Here we have a classic story about God trying to contact a human in “a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falleth upon men, in slumberings upon the bed” (  Authorized Version , Job 33.15), to use a Biblical quotation about which Wesley always remembered in his writings. To a certain extent, the  Journal   story resembled the narrative about young Samuel woken at night by a mysterious voice calling his name, the voice he was unable to recognize until his mentor Eli did it for him (1 Sam. 3.1-10). If Peter Wright acted as Samuel, Wesley assumed the role of the old priest who could recognize significance of the message. For Wesley, however, the most important thing in the dream the young man confided to him was magnanimity of God who mercifully let a man whose this-worldly life was coming to an end take his last chance and, just in time, secure salvation of his soul. Wright’s  behaviour was also praise-worthy, since he correctly responded to God’s warning, unlike “a 1  JJW - The Journal of the Rev. John Wesley .  gentleman of large fortune in Kent [that] dreamed   that he was walking through the churchyard, and saw a new monument with the following inscription: There lies the Body of SAMUEL SAVAGE ESQ., WHO DEPARTED THIS LIFE ON SEPTEMBER –, 1772”. Although in the morning the man was “much affected” by the dream, “the impression soon wore off”. Wesley did not explicitly state that that the Kentish gentleman was condemned, but his “remarkable story… worthy to be remembered” clearly demonstrated that Samuel Savage made a serious mistake and, by ignoring the supernatural message, might not have managed to prepare himself for the day of his death, which, by the way, did fall on the date predicted two years before in his dream. (Nov. 17 th , 1772) 2  (JJW 5: 488-489) The narrative’s moral was that some people un-Christianly fail to take heed of what God in his mercy wanted to warn them about. They were so preoccupied with, and blinded  by, this world that they were neither able nor willing to respond properly to a night call that  befell them. These were those to whom another relevant verse – “For God speaketh once, yea twice, yet man perceiveth it not” (Job 33.14) – was perfectly applicable. The hardly accidental mention of Mr. Savage’s considerable wealth suggested that for Wesley he was not unlike a stereotypical rich man from the Gospel for whom it was more difficult to enter the kingdom of God than “for a camel to go through the eye of a needle” (Matt. 19.24). The story of Samuel Savage seemed to confirm the truth of this verse showing that possessions may affect their owners to such an extent that they stop thinking about salvation [page 13]  as each man’s primary goal and, in consequence, disregard the potentially redeeming value of dreams if they happen to them. This was particularly manifest when men like Samuel Savage were juxtaposed with those like Peter Wright, who, being a mere humble servant, did know very well that a vision of the night may actually open a gate to the kingdom of God. Wesley himself was supposed to dream about his own death towards the end of his life. On the 29 th  of March, 1790, in the sermon preached to the congregation at Congleton, he related his recent dream in which “he thought he was walking down one of the streets of Bristol when he saw a man he knew well, and went across to accost him; but, on making the attempt to shake hands, found his own were gone.” Such an extraordinary vision of the dreamer’s sudden and astonishing immateriality required an interpretation, which according to the preacher was “that his work on earth was nearly done, and his intercourse with mortals was about to cease”. (Dyson 106) The role of Wesley’s calm, unemotional account was not so much to make himself ready for death through talking about it, but rather to prepare the congregation for their eighty-seven-year-old leader’s passing, which indeed took place a year later. At the same time, he wanted to show standards of “good dying” consisting in Christian  peaceful acceptance of the inevitable, which incidentally made his oneiric relation a kind of  pastoral figure of speech. Dreaming was related to death and dying in yet another sense. In the letter to Lady Maxwell (March 3 rd , 1769) Wesley mentioned a possibility of contacting the living with the dead. As he remembered, his mother had often felt his father’s presence and he himself confessed: “I have many times found on a sudden so lively an apprehension of a deceased friend, that I have sometimes turned about to look; at the same time I have felt an uncommon affection for them”. Wesley insisted that such sensations occurred only in the case of “those 2  Throughout my paper the date references to appropriate entries in Wesley’s  Journal  , if they are not specified otherwise, will be given parenthetically before the appropriate in-text citation.  that died in faith”, with whom a more direct contact was also possible but only in a sleep. “In dreams – he claimed – I have had exceeding lively conversations with them; and I doubt not  but they were then very near.” (WJW 7: 22) 3  The founder of Methodism seems to have recreated, in a peculiar manner, the Catholic “communion of saints” that could be exercised already here on earth but only through dreams that were obviously capable of providing a glimpse into everlasting bliss of the afterlife. In the  Journal   the examples of the oneiric communion and communication with the  blessed dead stood side by side with tales that closely followed the pattern found in popular stories about ghosts and spectres. Such was the recollection of a certain gentlewoman, “a  person of piety and veracity”, who thirty years before, being asleep in her bed, had [page 14]   been “awakened by the sudden opening of the side-curtain” to see her fiancé, Richard Mercier showing her “the left side of his head, all bloody and covered with his brains” and then, to her horror, embracing her. When her family alarmed by the woman’s terrified cries rushed into the bedroom, the apparition “gently withdrew his arms, and ascended as it were through the ceiling”. As it turned out later, Mr. Mercier had been killed in an accident in the belfry where one of the swinging bells smashed his head. (June 3 rd , 1756) (JJW 4: 166) Apparently, the young man visited his fiancée to say farewell to her and inform her about the way he had died. It was also possible, however, that the girl’s dream was in fact a mere premonition of her fiancé’s death, similar to that experienced by Wesley himself, who in November of 1738 at Oxford was “greatly troubled in dreams; and about eleven o'clock waked in an unaccountable consternation, without being able to sleep again”. The morning brought sad news that Wesley’s would-be disciple, an emotionally unstable man, had shot himself dead this night. (Nov. 19 th , 1738) (JJW 2: 101-102) Whether Wesley was really visited by the suicide’s ghost or whether he “only” sensed in a mysterious way the man’s violent death, in  both cases the dream seemed to create a liminal space where one could meet the recently dead or those who were about to die. 4  Genuinely bewildered at, and fascinated by, the possibilities given by dreams, Wesley readily collected accounts of individuals that reputedly experienced such ghostly encounters and, if the occasion occurred, he either met such people to hear them in person, or at least learnt from others the minutest details of the visions. For some years, for instance, he tried to contact a young woman Ann who in her childhood and adolescence had been able to see the dead. After he finally met her at Colne, Lancashire, Wesley dutifully copied her narrative into his diary. [F]rom the time I was about four years old – recollected Ann – after I was in bed I used to see several  persons walking up and down the room. They all used to come very near the bed, and look upon me, but say nothing. Some of them looked very sad, and some looked very cheerful; some seemed pleased, others very angry; and these frayed me sore… The visions were to cease when the girl, fed up with increasing fear the nightly meetings evoked in her as well as with her neighbours’ opinions accusing her of witchcraft, asked God 3  WJW – The Works of the Reverend John Wesley . 4  However, Wesley was also aware that such dreams could be deceptive. In 1784, when Thomas Coke, his close collaborator and the first Methodist bishop for America, was on his way over the Atlantic to the New World, Wesley dreamt “at two o’clock  this morning that he [Coke] came to me with a calm and placid countenance, but exceeding pale and his hair all wet…” (JJW 7: 24) The vision suggested a shipwreck or drowning but no such a thing really happened.  to take his gift away from her. (July 29 th , 1766) (JJW 5: 178) Wesley’s visit at the coal mining town of Broseley, West Midlands on the 31 st  of August, 1774 also enabled him to “learn the [page 15]   particulars of a remarkable story”, which he had heard “imperfectly” before. The particulars of the narrative concerned “one of the colliers here, coming home at night, [who] dropped into a coal-pit, twenty-four yards deep”. Unable to get out, he spent there two days until on “the second night,    being weak and faint, he fell asleep, and dreamed that his wife, who had  been some time dead, came to him, and greatly comforted him”. Her appearance apparently  presaged a rescue that came in the morning when hunters that fortunately appeared around the  pit at last heard the trapped man’s cries. (JJW 6: 33-34) Apart from testifying to the ability and willingness of the dead to visit the living, the collier’s dream was also a manifestation of God’s concern and care for individual members of His flock. This providential quality was revealed in a significant number of other dreams that usually provided knowledge of some serious and imminent threat. The stories gathered in various quarters – they were sent by Wesley’s correspondents, related by his acquaintances, or heard in a casual conversation from fellow-travellers met during his innumerable journeys  – treated mostly about nightly warnings against common hazards of everyday life such as accidental drowning, someone’s physical assault or even unwanted conscription into the army (JJW 3: 199-200; 4: 229, 230; 5: 490). In spite of their sensational, gossip-like nature, Wesley considered all of them “surprising” and definitely worthy of his attention. Some of them, however, due to their complexity and mysteriousness, seemed more interesting than others, like “a very uncommon incident” from Rochester, in which a lady had had a dream that a lad serving in the household intended to cut her throat. Later it turned out that exactly the same dream, at exactly the same time, came to her twin sister living in “another part of the kingdom” as well as her father living nearby. Facing such evidence the family members started keeping an eye on the boy and finally caught him red-handed when he was sneaking into the lady’s apartment with a knife in his hand. Cross-examined, he eventually confessed that through murdering the lady he wanted to avenge himself for severity suffered earlier from his master. (WJW 6: 566) What Wesley found particularly fascinating about the case was that there was “so strange a sympathy” between the twin sisters (and their father), and that the identical vision could appear at the same moment in the heads of three people despite the great distance separating them. Most probably, the divine providence was at work here, the  providence that chose to send “the threefold dream” to effectively prevent the murder: if it had not been multiplied, the would-be victim’s single dream might have been dismissed as an illusion of feminine fear and imagination. Dreams about the future were not only merely predictions: they sometimes contained  promises of deliverance from a troublesome situation and were followed by what could be construed as a supernatural [page 16]  intervention. On the 18 th  of April, 1784 Wesley recorded “a very remarkable relation” of a gentlewoman of Ambleside, who told him what her mother had heard from “an intimate acquaintance” of hers. The woman’s husband was tried and condemned to death for taking  part in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745.  The evening before he was to die, sitting and musing in her chair, she [his wife] fell fast asleep. She dreamed, one came to her and said, ‘Go to such a part of the wall, and among the loose stones you will find a key, which you must carry to your husband.’ She waked, but thinking it a common dream, paid no attention to it. Presently she fell asleep again, dreamed the very same dream. She started up, put on her cloak and hat, and went to that part of the wall, and among the loose stones found a key. The wife immediately brought her husband the key, which, quite miraculously, “opened the door of his cell, as well as the lock of the prison door”, thus enabling the man flee “at midnight”. (JJW 6: 497) The dramatic escape story was certainly to the taste of John Wesley, as it could quite easily be related to dreams and events found in the Scriptures. The Biblical visions often contained orders and instructions, sometimes saving, if obeyed, the dreamer’s life, as in the Nativity story, in which Joseph was told in his sleep to escape to Egypt and the Magi not to visit Herod on the way back home (Matt. 2.12-13). Furthermore, God, through his angels, could and did release men from prison, as in the case of Peter for whom the divine messenger in the dead of night opened one by one all chains and gates (Acts 12.4-11). God also patiently called humans many times until they realized that they did not have “a common dream”, as happened, for example, in the above-mentioned story of Samuel or in the narrative of God talking to Balaam for two nights in a row (Num. 22.9-20). Incidentally, the very repetition of a dream, in the popular notion, seemed to confirm its likely supernatural srcin. That is why the woman dreaming about the rescue for her husband, although she disregarded the first dream, immediately, and in such a hurry, obeyed the second one. We may suspect that Wesley’s preoccupation with the Bible may have also influenced his view of a dream related by a Chicasaw Indian on the 20 th  of July, 1736, in Savannah. The account was part of the conversation with five natives (and their interpreter), the purpose of which was to examine their religion. Wesley, while taking down the Indians’ answers, emphasized what he considered common for their religious views and Christianity. Especially, belief in “One that lives in the clear sky” – the Being who created first people and never stopped sustaining his creatures’ lives – seemed very much like the gist of Christian theology. The Indian version of divine providence manifested itself not only in protecting the Chicasaws against [page 17]   bullets on the battlefield, of which they themselves assured their European interlocutors, but also in dreams. The night before [our last battle with the French] – recollected one of the Indians – I dreamed I heard many drums up there; and many trumpets there, and much stamping of feet and shouting. Till then I thought we should all die. But then I thought the beloved ones [i.e. ancestors’ spirits] were come to help us. And the next day I heard above a hundred guns go off before the fight began; and I said, ‘When the sun is there, the beloved ones will help us, and we shall conquer our enemies.’ And we did so. (JJW 1: 248-249) An oracular dream of that sort dreamt before a decisive battle by a warrior unsure of its outcome certainly rang a bell with the Christians, who knew parallel stories from their studies of the Old Testament. For instance, King Saul waited, in vain, for such a comforting pledge of victory before the battle with the Philistines (1 Sam. 28.4-6), and Gideon, unlike Saul, was given a chance to know a certain man’s dream predicting the triumph of Israel, which immediately made him go into action against the Midianites superior in numbers (Judg. 7.13-15). The 18 th -century New World Indian’s dream, so similar to its Biblical precedents, must have confirmed, according to Wesley, that the divine providence was universal – due to God’s
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