|John diary tells the story of an incident which happened when he was thirteen. This would have been around 1777. He was playing in the graveyard of the parish church at Guiseley . He was with a group of friends, who could have been the 18th century stand in for ‘Hoodies’. The story gives a flavour of the times.
"I was one day with others playing at noon about the churchyard and I swore a profane oath. Mr Willoughby the vicar overheard it, and made a sudden appearance, asked who it was, and after some time my companions informed him. He took me by the legs (being set) and dragged me on my back towards the fishpond and roundly declared that he would throw me in. However he stopped at last and asked if I would swear no more. I think this check from the vicar had a good effect on my mind, for it never left me”.
I can only guess at how far he was dragged as no pond exists now, but from knowing the ground it must have been at least fifty to a hundred yards.
John and the vicar could have not come from more different backgrounds. John’s forbears were home textile workers, producing cloth on a handloom for sale at Leeds market. The Rev. James Willoughby (1731- 1816) who was Rector at Guiseley was the son of Thomas Willoughby, 1st Baron of Middleton and a member of parliament for Cambridge University. It’s tempting to wonder what he had done so wrong to end up in Guiseley. He was a fifth son so running out of patronage could have been a factor. Three of his four sisters married into the church so a strong session of mission might have been a feature of the family. Either way Guiseley must have been a posting to another world
Those parts of the diary written before Johns mid twenties were completed retrospectively. Most entries relate events which he casts as shaping his character and religious mindset. He is firmly of the belief that God had a purpose for him and that these incidents illustrate what he calls ‘Providence.
John does not believe that he is singled out exclusively. His belief was that God intervenes in the life of many people and that this was an ever present influence. This sounds odd in a more secular world, but it was the belief of most people, at least some of the time. John was only slightly different in that it seems to have been part of his internal dialogue much or all of the time. What was God’s plan for him?
The following incident occurred in about 1780 three miles from his home in a place called Apperley Bridge.
"When in my 16th year of my age a great revolution took place ........and much for the worse. I broke through all restraints, gave up attendance at church, nor did I go to any place of worship. This must have been a grief of heart to my parent and guardian. I was unrighteous and wicked”.
"I was however greatly checked in this my evil course by the following circumstances. One day about this time Mr Claytons tenants that live in Yeadon were ordered to carry boon coals to the landlords at Carveley it being the rent day. I was one of these cart lads (i.e. who was to transport the coal) and Samuel Yeadon and William Yeadon was another, and several others. This Samuel Yeadon was a little older than me, as was Will. I think he took too much liquor at Carveley when we left the coals. Let this be as it may. We set off through Carveley Wood with our empty cart and came down to the Navy Wood Bridge near Mrs Leavensies. Samuel sat on the cart side and was the first, about twenty yards below the bridge to fall off. His skull was broken to shivers and blood came through his nostrils as from a cock. We carried him to Mary Castilles, a public house at Apperley Bridge. He never spook, he only breathed a short time and went into eternity”.
I often drive past the spot. All the essential features are still there. I have some difficulty placing the exact location but this is probably due to a realignment of the main road at this point. The pub is now called the; George and Dragon’. On a wet and melancholy Boxing Day in 2012 I walked the road through the woodland between Calverley and Apperley Bridge. It is now a footpath but the remains of a cobbled road can be seen. The hill is steep and it is easy to imagine a young man losing his grip as the cart gained speed, spilling off and striking his head.
When he was 18 years old John saw a meteor pass over his home town of Yeadon. True to form John interpreted this as a personal sign that he was in some way remiss.
"On Monday August 18th being Yeadon Feast Monday in this year 1783 at night I saw that remarkable large meteor pass over Yeadon. It took its rise in the North West and went in a direct line to the south east. It shone only less than the meridian sun. I had heard a report from it some ten minutes or more after it had passed, like the report of a long distance battery”.
"I was a poor uninformed boy, granted but I was terrified with a witness and I knew that I was a sinner very unwilling to die in that situation. From then on I went to more of the prayer meetings as well as preaching than I had done”.
He was not the only one to describe the event-
The ‘Mechanics Magazine and Annals of Philosophy (Vol. 5, 1826) described the 1783 Meteor as follows-
"A particularly remarkable one, August 18th 1783, whose distance from the earth could not be less than 90 miles, and its diameter not less than the former (observed by Dr Haley in the month of March 1719, i.e. diameter 2,800 yards), and at the same time its velocity was certainly not less than 1000 miles a minute...(it was) succeeded by explosions and according to the testimony of several people a hissing noise was heard when it passed”.
The Gentleman's Magazine for September 1783 mentions it, and quotes... "it was seen at Bath, as appears by the following extract of an authentic letter from a person of honour there to his friend at Bromley, in Kent, dated Bath, Aug. 19... A Curious phenomenon, or meteor, appeared in the atmosphere about nine last night. Its direction was from East to West and its movement very rapid. It gave a light equal to that of half dozen rockets, which it resembled in appearance. In passing through some clouds the noise was like that of hot iron put into water. Its explosion was very loud; and it seemed, when scattered, to descend like a shower of fire.
I don’t know if these events (and others) really were the driving force for John to immerse himself in Methodism which he subsequently did or simply pegs to hang his justification on after the event. I am dubious. People rarely have such ‘Road to Damascus’ moments. What is clear is that such things were personally significant in his world view. Reminders of mortality were sent to prompt action!
In the same year, William Penny, who was associated with the fledgling Methodist Church in the town, approached John-
"He (God) brought in my way a Christian Wm Penny, clothier who did in private conversation described to me days of trouble, while under conviction he then proceeded and enlarged on the place, the time, nature and circumstances of his first finding pardon. I felt under it, and afterwards, a far stronger resolution to seek in good earnest this real heart change”.
This conversation occurred on a Saturday night towards the end of 1783.
From parish records we know William Penny was baptised on the 6th December 1729. The diary gives his occupation as Clothier or home textile worker.. He must have been a prosperous one because in 1794 a he paid tithes of 7 shillings and ‘Modaces’ (?) to the value of 1 shilling and two and a half pence. He was about 54 years when he spoke with John.
During the night following the encounter, John describes a dramatic religious experience-
"Entering my bedroom about 10pm I fell down before God. I prayed, wrestled, groaned pleaded, agonized and waited before the Lord. Near 12 I began to plead for it (the blessing of pardon). Now I had no candle and something persuaded me that Satan or an evil spirit was standing behind me, but not much intimidated I cried on. My belief increased my expectation was raised and with power this sentence passed my mind "open thy mouth wide and I will fill it”. I believed this report".
The instruction, to open his mouth comes from Psalm 81:10. The full verse is "I am the Lord thy God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt: open thy mouth and I will fill it”. John goes on then to describe the intense feeling’s that "The blessing of pardon” that he believed had just been experienced produced in him. After a night of prayer John opened the bible at random, and describes reading "This day is Salvation come to this house (Luke 19.9)”. He saw this as confirmation of his experience.
As a mildly agnostic early twenty first century man reading this my first thought is that John must have been having a psychotic episode. It all sounds bizarrely delusional and maybe it was. My second thought is that he is a man of his time seeing the world through the cultural lens of the period and place. I remind myself that he is describing the event many years later when he had become a local preacher. The Man of the Time explanation seems the more likely option..
Within a few years he had been through a form of apprenticeship in the Methodist Church and had become what was known as a local preacher. That is someone who was not an ordained minister but who preached, conducted some services and mentored a group of church members. Every weekend saw him preaching at one, possibly two or three of maybe twenty churches and chapels on his allotted ‘circuit’ Aside from possibly two years of part time schooling in a local dame school the Methodist church and the autodidact habit where his education
I think John was a certain type of person and an exceptional man. His achievements were out of all proportion to his initial opportunities. The shorter version of his story is heroic. The longer version is messier.
"I beheld then, that they all went on till they came to the foot of the hill Difficulty”.
Pilgrim’s Progress. (1678)
I have often wondered why John chose to keep a diary. What was its
purpose and did he expect it to be read by others. On the latter point
I suppose it would come down to a judgement on whether he ultimately
intended to destroy it before his death. The last entry is in October
1842 and he died in March 1843.If It’s assumed that these last few
months were a period of declining health. The death certificate gives
the cause of death as ‘Old Age’. Maybe a slow process of incremental
debility took away his choice to destroy the document.
My preferred theory is that he wanted a bit of immortality; and
the possibility of that stayed his hand. Throwing the whole thing on the
fire would have required a strong incentive after all the hundreds of
hours that had been spent producing it. John says that the diary was
written up periodically from much more detailed daily notes. His days
were long and busy so these note makings must have been a firmly
entrenched habit. Something that formed part of everyday no matter how
tired or hassled he was. A friend has said that she imagines him sat
with the mean light of a candle carefully forming the same wonderfully
precise script for these notes, which fills part of the page of his
Besides achieving earthly immortality what else might have been
his motivation for all the effort. I think the clue comes from when he
began to write it. He is using the present tense in his diary from July
1788 to report the birth of his second child James. He was then twenty
four. That’s my bet for when it became contemporaneous.
John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism preached in the
neighbouring villages and towns but John’s diary does not actually make
mention of this. He must have been influenced though by the stir that it
produced. It was not until the end of the following year he became more
formally involved in the local Methodist Society. This entry marks his
affiliation with Methodism.
On December 6th 1789 Johns wife-
"...joined Jonathan White class and I, the next day David Long’s class for the first time in our lives”
Class members were provided with renewable class membership
tickets. John kept the tickets for his wife Mary and himself for the
rest of his life. These objects have somehow survived the two and a
quarter centuries since.
John Wesley preach on four occasions locally during the following
year. The first being at Bingley on April 27th. John Wesley wrote in
-At Bingley on April 27th on 1 John 3,8. "I preached at Haworth
Church in the morning, crowded sufficiently as was Bingley Church in the
afternoon. But as very many could not get in Mr Wrigley preached to
them in the street so that they did not come in vain. In the evening we
went to Halifax”.
Our John gives this account-
"In April this year 8 or 10 of us Methodists walked from Yeadon to
Howarth 14 miles to hear Mr Wesley preach in the Parish Church there. It
was on a Lords Day morning in spring and very pleasant. He preached
from Numb 23, 10”.
Wesley was nothing if not busy. During the same year John saw him
preach at Leeds, Otley and Yeadon from 1John 1.4, Math 7 24, 25 and 1
Corin 6, 19, 20 and 2 Cor. 4.18 respectively. He was impressed-
"I don’t know whether I love him or admire him most”.
So beginning with the birth of his second son James in July 1788,
becoming part of the core congregation of the Methodist Society in
December 1789, and taking in the firsthand experience of John Wesley’s
preaching the period must have been a significant one for John.
Methodism was an important social and religious movement. It was having a
transformative effect as we shall see in Yeadon but also in hundreds
of communities across the country where thousands of men and women like
our John formed enduring relationships with the movement which often
greatly influenced their lives and that of their decedents over the next
hundred and fifty years. Many will have seen and heard John Wesley from
close quarters and been inspired by that experience.
There were also distressing events. Mary had a still born child
towards the end of 1789. The event is recorded in one short dignified
sentence "We had a boy still born”. That does not tell how it was for
the couple, but it can be imagined. These shocks can work their way
through and become attached to a task or a personal commitment and maybe
that’s what happened here. David Kitchen