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At the Roots of Methodism: Escape from fire shaped Wesley's life

8/27/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

This is a regular feature on Methodist history prepared especially for distribution by United Methodist News Service. Artwork is available of John Wesley and the Epworth rectory.

A UMNS Feature By John Singleton*

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
The Old Rectory, John Wesley's boyhood home at Epworth, England, was destroyed by fire in 1709 and later rebuilt. Six-year-old John's dramatic rescue from the flames convinced his mother, Susannah, that he had been saved for a special purpose. A UMNS photo courtesy John Singleton. Photo number 03-281, Accompanies UMNS #420, 8/27/03
A defining image of John Wesley's life is that of 6-year-old "Jacky," as he was known, being rescued from an upper window of the blazing rectory in Epworth, England. This dramatic event gave rise to the biblical description of him by his mother, Susannah, as "a brand plucked out of the burning" - someone whom God had saved for a special purpose.

This conviction drove the founder of the Methodist movement throughout his life, for he felt the hand of providence upon him.

The story of the Epworth rectory fire traditionally handed down is that, shortly before midnight on Feb. 9, 1709, members of the Wesley household awoke to find the thatched roof of the rectory ablaze and the house filling with smoke. John Wesley's father, Samuel, his wife and servants hurried the children downstairs and out into the garden, but only to find one of them, young Jacky - the second of their three sons at this time - missing. Repeatedly, the rector tried to fight his way back into the house, but the flames drove him back.

Then a small figure appeared against the glow of the flames in an upstairs window. Jacky had awakened to find himself alone in the house with the rafters above his head on fire. He groped his way to the head of the stairs, only to find them impassable. Though trapped, Wesley seemed to know even then how to keep his head in a crisis. Dragging a chest to the bedroom window, he climbed onto it, and someone in the yard below spotted him.

Would-be rescuers had no time to fetch a ladder, and the boy's plight seemed desperate. Then someone had an idea and ran toward the house, calling a companion to follow him. One of them climbed on the shoulders of the other, and though they barely reached the windowsill, the two saved the boy. A moment later, the rectory's roof crashed down.

The Wesley family had lost everything and was homeless until the rectory was rebuilt, but what did it matter, as long as everyone was safe?

Nearly 200 years later, a footnote to the episode of the rectory fire appeared in an edition of the British weekly newspaper, the Methodist Recorder, published in 1903. A letter arrived at the London-based Recorder from a Mrs. Rowson of Taylors' Falls in Chicago, widow of a Methodist Episcopal minister, the Rev. A.E. Rowson. Referring to a previous article in the newspaper about Epworth, she wrote:

"The whole article was interesting to me, but I specially noted the sentence referring to the rescue of John Wesley from the burning rectory, which said: 'The names of those two men should have been handed down to posterity, for who can realize the benefit they conferred upon humanity?'

"I am proud to inform you I am a descendant of the man who stood on the shoulders of another and took the boy from the window of the burning house. My sainted and honored father (the late William Kirk, of Retford, Nottinghamshire) was born at a village in the Isle of Axholme, just a few miles from Epworth, and this man, whose name was 'Clark,' was his great-great-grandfather."

So this was the man who, literally, plucked the brand from the burning.

Wesley's own sense of the importance of that event became evident in November 1753 when, at age 50, he fell ill and believed he would die from consumption. He went so far as to write the inscription that he desired to have placed on his tombstone:

"Here lieth the Body of John Wesley, a brand plucked out of the burning: who died of a consumption in the fifty-first year of his age, not leaving, after his debts are paid, ten pounds behind him: praying, God be mercifully to me, an unprofitable servant!"

Fortunately, Wesley recovered and went on to live for another 37 years, achieving much more as a "brand plucked out of the burning."

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*Singleton is a consultant editor with the weekly Methodist Recorder in London. He can be contacted by e-mail at

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