ON 16th October 1771- “I preached at South Leigh-Wesley

John Wesley by George Romney

ON 16th October 1771, John Wesley noted in his Journal:
“I preached at South Leigh. Here it was that I preached my
first sermon, six-and-forty years ago.”l From this one entry,
several different accounts have developed concerning Wesley’s first
preaching. One particular tradition interprets the account as an anniversary
notice, and places the first preaching by the newly-ordained
Wesley on 16th October 1723.2 More recently, historians have followed
the picturesque account which Nehemiah Curnock gives in
his introduction to the Standard edition of John Wesley’s Journal.
Assuming that Wesley preached on the Sunday following his ordination
as deacon, Curnock presents the following account of 26th
September 1725: – On Sunday morning he rides alone through Oxfordshire lanes towards
Witney, and, halting at the quaint old church at South Lye with frescoed
walls, he presents his authority signed by Bishop Potter, and preaches,
from an exquisitely neat little MS., on .. Seek ye first the kingdom of
God, and His righteousness.”s
This rather romanticized portrayal is admittedly the result of
“historical imagination”, which is often the child of assumptions
and the mother of legends. Curnock himself introduces his remarks
by stating: “Strange to say, no record of the sermon or of its preaching
appears in the Diary.'” The diary to which he refers is the first
in a series of diaries which John Wesley wrote while at Oxford. A
careful examination of this first Oxford diary, however, reveals
references not only to this sermon, but to most of the sermons which
John Wesley wrote between 1725 and 1735. Comparison with the
extant manuscripts of the sermons and other early documents
allows us to make the following observations: John Wesley’s “first
sermon” is really his second; most of Charles Wesley’s published
sermons were written by John; and many of John’s early sermons
are abridgements from other authors. The key which unlocks this
storehouse of confusing data is a listing of sermon texts and titles
found in the first Oxford diary.
The five little volumes known as the “Oxford diaries” are much
more than simple daily accounts of the life of their author. The
daily entries usually start several pages into the volume and stop
before the last page is reached. In the first diary, these daily entries
are made only on the recto of the page, leaving the versos, as well
as the opening and closing pages, free for additional notes. 5 The
1 Journal, v, p. 432. 2 Methodist Recorder, Winter number, 1904, pp. 46-7. 8 Journal, i, p. 60. ‘ibid., i, p. 59. 6 Quite frequently Wesley turned the volume round and began writing
from the back page forward, resulting in a book which can be read starting
from either end. Consequently the volume with the diary for 1st October 1733
to 22nd April 1734 was later numbered twice in the listing of the Colman
Collection, X as a diary and XIV as “Books read during the year 1733 … ”
(the monthly and yearly summaries beginning from the back). Cf. Proceedings,
xxi, pp. 93-7 [but note also the later Colman enumeration, Proceedings, xxxvii,
p.89-EDITOR]. Appreciation is extended to the Methodist Archives, London,
for access to the early Methodist manuscripts in the collection.