A Psychodynamic Inquiry into John Wesley's Relationship with Women

Published in Connecticut Review

By John P. Briggs, Sr., M.D. and John Briggs, Ph.D.

Nineteen ninety marks the two-hundreth anniversary of the death of John Wesley, towering religious figure of eighteenth century England-the founder of Methodism. As is fitting for a character of Wesley's importance, the accumulated scholarly literature on his life and work is enormous. It contains a very noticeable gap, however, in that relatively little has been written about his psychodynamics. Psychological questions about Wesley hover at the outskirts of many of the discussions of his theology and his historical mission, but the biographical literature shows very few attempts at a psychodynamic portrait of the man behind the ideas and events of the Methodist movement. (Moore, 1979; Fowler, 1985)

The following study is an effort to close a small part of that gap by focusing on an especially puzzling facet of Wesley's personality, his relationships to women. Generations of biographers have rehearsed the curious facts of these relationships and responded with varying degrees of scholarly distress and rationalization at the spectacle of Wesley's odd judgment and behavior regarding affairs of the heart. (Lipsky, 1928; Southey, 1820; Tyerman, 1872; Winchester, 1922; Lelièvre, 1900; Schmidt, 1962)

Three of these affairs stand out especially, though there are others:

(1) The Sophy Hopkey episode during Wesley's 1737 mission to Georgia, resulting in his sudden departure from the New World-"The hour has come for me to fly for my life, leaving this place." (Tyerman, 1872) Wesley was enamoured of Hopkey and was brought up on charges before a magistrate for being too severe in his pastoral requirements of her after she had decided to marry someone else.

(2) The Grace Murray affair in 1749 when Wesley betrothed himself to a woman who jilted him for one of his preachers because she believed that Wesley didn't really want her.

(3) Wesley's precipitous and dysfunctional marriage to Mary (Molly) Vazeille, a widow of Threadneedle Street.

Wesley's marriage has been especially vexing to biographers. Many have found it difficult to comprehend how the methodical, cool-headed Wesley could have, as one biographer put it, "made such a stupid choice" for a mate. (Schmidt, 1962). One of Wesley's early nineteenth century hagiographers, the British poet laureate Southey, classified Molly-along with Xantippi, the shrewish spouse of Socrates and the wife of Job-as "one of the three bad wives" of history. (Southey, 1820) Though succeeding biographers have put it less melodramatically, Southey's opinion remains representative of the historical judgment on Mrs. Wesley, who has been a much maligned figure among Methodist scholars. Her alleged unsuitable wifeliness is typified by the often told and quite possibly apocryphal story of what an alleged witness, John Hampson, Sr., called a "terrible scene" in Ireland when Molly reportedly dragged the forbearing Wesley around by his hair until his locks came away in her hand. (Tyerman, 1872) She reportedly also purloined his private letters and handed them over to his Calvinist enemies in hopes of defaming his reputation. (Southey, 1820) The list of her attacks of jealousy, petulance, evil temper and vindictiveness is long and tediously repeated by biographers, most recently Rack. (1989).

What could have induced Wesley to marry such a woman? Was it, as biographers have suggested, merely bad luck or the naivete of a spiritual man faced with an all too worldly decision, or was it because he was on an emotional rebound from the Grace Murray affair. We believe that the real reasons for Wesley's marriage to Molly Vazeille lie at a much deeper level, in the psychodynamics of his lifelong conflictual ambivalence toward women. In this investigation we will try to show how the structure of that ambivalence was tellingly revealed in his 1749 affair with Grace Murray, and we will briefly suggest how it may have operated in Wesley's seemingly impulsive decision three years later to marry the widow Vazeille. Wesley's ambivalence was, we believe, also in operation in the earlier Sophy Hopkey affair in Georgia and the several other less spectacular but significant liaisons he was involved in during his lifetime. We also believe-but will have to leave to another discussion-that Wesley's unconscious conflict about his marital expectations functioned in such a way that it victimized Molly Vazeille, creating an impossible climate for their marriage and casting her as the undeserved villain of their domestic lives. In other words, given Wesley's psychology, we think the historical judgment on his wife may simply be wrong, or at least inaccurate.

In order to elucidate Wesley's conflictual psychodynamics with regard to women, we will focus in the next pages on an analysis of the primary contemporary document which recounts the Grace Murray episode, and in particular we will use as our eventual deep probe into Wesley's unconscious conflictual processes a dream which Wesley himself recorded in this document.

The Unguarded Wesley

No one in the eighteenth century published such detailed journals yet revealed so little about his interior feelings as John Wesley. (Jay, 1987) In all his mass of writing, it is difficult to catch a glimpse of the unguarded Wesley. For the most part, when he wrote he seemed acutely aware of how his words could affect his image as preacher to a world parish.

At least one exception to Wesley's guardedness exists, however,-his 1749 report of a dream about Grace Murray. The dream, often included in biographies, occurred during a highly charged moment in the Grace Murray episode. Wesley's account of the dream appears in the now famous 105-page document he compiled after the affair. Called "An Account of an Amour" by the man to whom it was given by Molly Wesley's oldest child, Noah Vazeille, the document was published in 1848 by C. Hook as "A Narrative of a Remarkable Transaction in the Life of John Wesley." It was later edited into the form familiar to scholars today by Augustin Leger who published it in 1910 under the title John Wesley's Last Love . Though the dream which appears in the manuscript is brief, Wesley reports it in unusually vivid metaphorical detail. Psychoanalytically, we know that dreams are a rich reservoir of psychic material which come from the domain beyond the dreamer's conscious awareness and that they condense the dreamer's conflicts, aspirations, coping mechanisms and feelings of identity as a social and sexual person. This dream of Wesley's is no exception. It is, we believe, a unique window into Wesley's heart, mind and unguarded self. Before directly exploring the dream, however, we need to examine in some detail the material which surrounds it.

The Last Love Manuscript-Background

While it seems reasonable to regard the Grace Murray dream as an unguarded production (in its detail it has the authenticity of reported dreams), the degree of unguardedness of the Last Love document which contains it is more difficult to assess. At the very least, however, this document supplies us with something we usually don't have in the dream accounts of historical persons: the so-called "day residue" from which the dream emerged and drew some of its substance. Few recorded dreams of historical figures such as Wesley contain the kind of dream-sensual detail we come to expect of dreams reported to a psychoanalyst. More rarely are historical dreams surrounded by good information about what specifically was going on at that immediate period in the historical figure's life. In the Last Love material we have a unique opportunity to place a two hundred and forty-year-old dream in its context.

The documentary history of the Last Love manuscript has some relevance to our inquiry into the psychodynamics of John Wesley's dream of marriage. The manuscript was given to the British Library (then Museum) on May 9, 1829, about seventy-five years after it was written. The story goes that Molly's son, Noah Vazeille, kept it in his possession, having first shown it to some of Wesley's doctrinal enemies. Noah and his mother had allegedly stolen the manuscript from a drawer in John Wesley's bedroom several years after her marriage to Wesley had gone sour. The manuscript appears in the handwriting of an amanuensis, but there are several corrections by Wesley. The first 19 stanzas of the poem which forms the coda of the document are also in his hand. No one has disputed that Wesley authored the Last Love manuscript (Leger, 1910). Yet, surrounding the manuscript are a number of questions.

At the time it was taken by Mrs. Wesley, John had already accused her of reading his letters and had rebuked her for her jealousy regarding his communications with other women. Anyone concerned with psychodynamics might feel compelled to ask, how is it that Wesley left an explosive document recording his desolation over a previous love affair where an already suspicious wife would likely find it, unless, unconsciously, he intended for her to find it? It is not clear why Wesley had a manuscript of such a clearly personal nature copied. Perhaps he already viewed it as a public document as he did other documents he authored. It does, indeed, present his side of the events between him and Grace Murray and exculpates him from blame in the collapse of their romance. On the surface the document portrays Wesley as fair-minded, forbearing, and fated by God to be deprived of his great love. Possibly Wesley viewed the manuscript in the same light as he evidently did his letters, as not intentionally but potentially public material-material destined for posterity. *

In any case, the Last Love document must be seen as a primarilyconscious production (unlike the dream which it contains), but one which embodies unconscious motives. Wesley may have meant it as a kind of confession of his deepest conflicts-conflicts he could not reveal in his published journals or in his letters to colleagues, relatives and friends. In fact, even putting aside the dream, the Last Love manuscript silhouettes a John Wesley quite different from the one portrayed in his journals and in the biographies written about him since his death. Could an unconscious compulsion to confess explain the mysterious epigraph Wesley puts at the head of this extraordinary document. "What Thou dost, I know not now / but I shall know hereafter!"? Is this a cry of a tormented unconscious striving to reveal itself.+ Later on Wesley may have left the document to be discovered by his wife as a message to her about how much he loved her predecessor, or to demonstrate to her how he had been wronged by Grace Murray in 1749 as he was now, in 1754, being wronged by Molly.

It is clear from its context that Wesley compiled the Last Love manuscript from material composed at different times during and after the Grace Murray romance. We'll examine each of the different compositions within the manuscript so as to build a picture of the context in which Wesley's dream occurred.

The Last Love MS-First Section

The first section was evidently composed after Wesley's courtship had finally disintegrated and Grace Murray had married John Bennet. It appears to be taken from Wesley's recollection and his journal. This section recalls the first stages of Wesley's engagement to Grace.

Wesley begins by reporting that in June 1748 during the Methodist Conference in London he fell into a debate with colleagues on the subject of marriage. He says he had argued that a true believer shouldn't marry but that his colleagues had convinced him he could marry "without suffering the Loss of his Soul." (Leger, p. 1) Thus, Wesley opens his romantic confession with a clear statement of his doubts about the question of marriage, or, more unconsciously, with a statement showing his ambivalence over the possibility that he could himself sustain an intimate relationship with a woman. Uneasiness over the marriage of preachers, and the underlying theme of his own needs and fears about intimate relationships with women, was a long-standing conflict with Wesley. The conflict was already evident, for example, during his student days at Oxford when, on the one hand, he engaged in romantically tinged correspondence with two women, Sally Kirkham ("Varanese" as she signed herself in letters) and Mrs. Pendarves (whose nom de coquette was "Aspasia", later Mrs. Delany). On the other hand, he helped form the Oxford Holy Club whose members each pledged to remain a "eunuch for God."

Wesley's ambivalence probably had a childhood origin. We know that his mother, Susanna, resolved, as she put it, to be "more particularly careful for the soul of this child, which God had so mercifully provided for." (Ayling, 1979; Maser, 1979) John Wesley came to refer to himself as the "brand plucked from the burning," an allusion to the incident when, as a small child he was "mercifully provided for," in his mother 's words, by being rescued from the fire in his father's rectory. The Last Love document makes clear that Wesley experienced a conflict between his image of himself as an especially destined religious leader, like St. Paul, and as an ordinary man among men.

It seems likely that this conflict between feeling special and feeling ordinary, or even unloved, had an immediate childhood source in the the way of his mother treated him with a measured emotional distance. Frederick Maser, for one, believes that Susanna raised in the Wesley children a desire to be loved because, in fact, the Wesley household lacked real love beyond conventional ties. According to Maser, Susanna withheld affectionate love both from John and his siblings. (Maser, 1988)

John's desire for intimacy with Susanna appears sharply outlined in an exchange of letters between her and Wesley when John was a student at Oxford. In one letter, Susanna, noting that John has signed his previous letter with the phrase "Your affectionate dutiful Son," warns him chillingly: "The conclusion of your letter is very kind. That you were ever dutiful, I very well know. But I know myself enough to rest satisfied with a moderate degree of your affection. It would be unjust in me to desire the love of anyone." The stung Wesley replies :

You say you have but little time to stay in the world, and therefore should not have much affection for anything in it. Most true! not any of those things which perish with the world. But am I one of those? If you think I am 'sick unto death,' love me the more, and you will the more fervently pray for me that I may be healed. If you rather incline to think there is hope of my recovery, then what if you are to leave the world in a little time? Whom God hath joined can Death put asunder? (Baker, 1980)

He signs this letter-reversing the order of terms in deference to his mother's coolness and in defiance against it-"Your dutiful and affectionate Son." (Maser, 1979)

It seems not too much to speculate that Wesley's difficulties in forming intimate relationships with women may have their origin in the double-bind message given by Susanna to her son: that he was an anointed person, but one who needed to be kept at a distance from her affections. As he indicates in his letter to her, this treatment left him feeling puzzled, tainted, perishable in her eyes, "sick unto death." Later on, Susanna's double message would be subtly incorporated into Wesley's conflictual attitudes about whether he should remain steadfastly spiritual or give himself to the marital state of fleshly affection and closeness. Particularly telling in this regard is Wesley's use in his letter to his mother of a phrase from the marriage ceremony, "Whom God hath joined can Death put asunder." The phrase here highlights the conflict in Wesley's mind between spiritual and oedipal longings. Thus it is that by reporting on the debate over marriage at the Methodist Conference, Wesley opens his account of the Grace Murray affair by alerting us to his own long-standing psychic struggle.

In paragraph two of the Last Love manuscript Wesley says that during August 1748 he was "taken ill" at Newcastle and was cared for "continually" by Grace Murray. During this period when he was in bed being ministered to by Murray-in modern psychological parlance, "mothered" by her, that is, dependent on her physical care-he proposed marriage. The proposal constituted a key maneuver in the pattern of Wesley's intimate relationships with women. Earlier, with Sophy Hopkey, and later, with Molly Vazeille, Wesley entertained thoughts of marriage while in a sickbed being nursed by the woman to whom he would propose. The connection of his behavior to his childhood relationship with his mother seems strong. Through illness he gained the woman's nurturing and undivided attention; moreover, her attention was focused on his physical being, his sensorium, as opposed to his soul or mind. Being taken care of in this physical sense because he was ill allowed him to accept mothering, yet, at the same time, masked his need for "unholy desires and inordinate affections," as he called it. (Lipsky, 1928) In bed (passive), he becomes like a child being "nursed" as a child would be nursed-the whole situation orchestrated toward recovering the maternal affection he unconsciously felt he had missed. Wesley's upwelling desire for marriage at moments when he is in bed and cared for by a woman indicates a desire for fusion and return to a long-lost (or never quite achieved) state of being unconditionally loved, nurtured and accepted as a physical being.

In the sickbed, Wesley's overpowering superego was tamed-but it was hardly stilled. In fact, the situation precipitates expression of his powerful ambivalence about the possibility and value for him of a truly intimate relationship. The manner of Wesley's proposal to Grace Murray is suggestive of his conflict and illustrates the unconscious way that his ambivalence affects him. He says that "when I was a little recover'd, I told her (Grace), sliding into it I know not how, 'If ever I marry, I think you will be ye person.'" (Leger, p. 1)

The parallel of this situation with the later situation when he startled the Methodist community by marrying Molly Vazeille is striking. With Grace, the sequence of events is this: 1) he writes against marriage, 2) he is convinced by others at the Methodist Conference that he could marry, 3) he falls ill and is nursed by a woman to whom he proposes marriage.

We consider the sequence of events three years later with Mrs. Vazeille:

1) On February 2, 1751, he writes in his journal that he thinks he should marry because he would be "more useful"-meaning useful to the Methodist movement, though it is not at all clear in what way that would be useful. Perhaps the word had another, more deeply significant meaning for Wesley. Perhaps, for example, he unconsciously felt it would be useful to the Methodist cause for him to marry because it would resolve the conflict that plagued him and made him "sick unto death." Of course the problem was that his desire to marry was itself at the very center of this conflict.

2) On February 4, 1751. he preaches to the unmarried Methodist field preachers that it is a gift to "remain single for the Kingdom of heaven's sake." However, in the Feb. 2, 1751 entry of his journal he states that "a particular case might be an exception to the rule." (Curnock, 1909-1916) Presumably he was referring to himself as the exception.

3) On February 10, 1751 he "slips" on London Bridge coming home from a meeting of the Holy Club at Oxford. Significantly, he has just tendered his resignation from the club of friends who had, as students, pledged not to marry but to be eunuches for God. After the accident he apparently is first taken to his parsonage at The Foundery but is then transported to Molly's house on Threadneedle Street where he slips quickly into a marriage proposal and is married on February 18 or 19. We suggest that Wesley's physical "slip" on London Bridge and the quick slip into marriage that follows bear a connection to his curious mental state of "sliding... I know not how" three years earlier into his marriage proposal to Grace Murray. Mental and physical slipping and sliding in these circumstances seem to be a signal that something has happened against Wesley's conscious will or intention, something has slipped out.

The repetition of details in the pattern of Wesley's behavior in the two situations suggests a form of repetition compulsion or repetitive dream. In most other matters in his life, Wesley is the model of Methodism-a person given to intense rational and moral scrutiny of all matters, conscious of his every thought, methodical. But in these intimate contexts with women, something different happens to him. Wesley seems overwhelmed by a kind of altered state of consciousness in which actions and situations attain a bizarre, "slipping," slippery, disconnected quality. The Last Love manuscript abundantly illustrates this dreamlike state. For example, several times Wesley quotes Grace Murray as saying that what is going on between them is "like a dream." Wesley's attention to this, his reiteration of it, suggests it is how he felt about what was transpiring between them.

In the third paragraph of the Last Love manuscript, Wesley and Grace seem to be blissfully in love. "Rejoicing" at his happiness he leaves her in the care of John Bennet so that he can continue his preaching engagements, but in the next paragraph we learn he has received a letter from Bennet saying that Bennet wants Wesley's consent to marry Grace. Incredibly, Wesley reports in the Last Love manuscript that this sort of on-again, off-again between Grace, Bennet and Wesley happens several times. Reading the manuscript, one is led to the conclusion that either Grace is an overtly unstable and quixotic person-quite different from the pious, capable woman Wesley and others paint her to have been-or that Wesley has totally missed the meaning of Grace's apparently fluctuating emotional attitudes. Richard Green has suggested the latter.

Green thinks that either Grace didn't understand that Wesley wanted to marry her or that, at best, she experienced him as a vacillating and vague suitor. Grace said that on the day Wesley "declared his passion for me which he had conquered too long," she was shocked. "I blame him for concealing his affection for me as a lover. When he mentioned it to me, I was as much surprised as if the moon had dropped out of her orbit, for I never thought he would marry. I was now between two fires, but was gone too far with Mr. Bennet to turn back." (Green, 1903) Her recollection of when Wesley told her of his affection placed the event considerably after the date that Wesley believed he had proposed to her with his statement that "If I ever marry, I think you would be the person." Murray may perhaps be forgiven if she didn't understand that utterance as a commitment. Wesley's conviction that his real intentions could be discerned beneath such vague and ambivalently conditional language is childlike and naive. In a passage in the Last Love document which follows his statement to Grace, Wesley says that "after some time I spoke to her more directly," (Leger, p. 1) and he claims that she acknowledged his proposal. This contradicts Grace's version of their exchange on marriage. Could Wesley have conflated his oblique proposal and her acknowledgement of his avowal to marry her from two different times?

Grace's and Wesley's accounts of his marriage proposal appear irreconcilable. It is one example of a mystification that exists as a pattern in the record of Wesley's intimate affairs with women. Some other examples:

In the Last Love manuscript, Wesley affirms several times, but not at all consistently, that he and Grace were contracted in marriage to each other. Frank Baker has argued that under British common law in force at the time, they must have been in fact married if they made-as Wesley asserts they did-a de praesenti contract, and that Wesley had good reason to know this was the case, yet he never asserted this contract against Bennet's claim. Maser has argued against this theory, however. (Baker, 1967; Maser, 1977) Were they or were they not contracted to marry? Were they or were they not married?

A similar confusion surrounds Wesley's later marriage to Molly Vazeille. Not only is the exact date of their marriage uncertain (It was reported as the 18th or 19th of February by different sources), but despite years of investigation by Wesley scholars, no one has been able to turn up any record of its having in fact taken place (Pollock, 1989 ). The assumption is, of course, that Wesley must have been married somewhere by someone, but where and by whom? One may propose theories and explanations to account for this important missing information about a man who on several occasions admonished his Methodist preachers to be sure to make their marriage plans public. But the fact remains that the question of whether Wesley was really married is raised in two different instances, with two different women, and that mystery seems to mirror his central ambivalence about marriage.

Who is really being referred to when Wesley says "One cannot excuse her {Grace Murray's} Behavior in all this time: Doubtless she shd have renounc'd One for y Other. But those who know Human Nature will pity her much, at least as much as they blame her." (Leger, p. 4) Later, Wesley opines, referring to the contest between himself and Bennet: "If each insist on his Claim, it will be cutting her in sunder. She can never survive it; She will die in ye Contest. So I determin'd to give her up." (Leger, p. 7) Might these statements be Wesley's plea to rationalize and beg mercy for what is taking place in his own unconscious? Is he being psychologically cut asunder by the competing claims of his need to remain aloof from Grace and his desire to become intimately involved with her. By appealing to "human nature," is Wesley asking that he be held blameless for failing to resolve his conflict about marrying Grace?

Throughout the Last Love manuscript, Wesley's interior confusion is intense, almost unbearable. Under the surface of the narrative, Wesley's thwarted longing for emotional acceptance and intimacy with his mother (as was suggested by the Oxford letters) contends with the conceptual aloofness of his superego producing a powerful dreamlike fantasy which envelops his behavior. His conflict seems to be exacerbated by an activated struggle for an envied closeness with his mother.

Wesley was a child of his parents' reconciliation and was perhaps a replacement for his infant brother Benjamin, who died less than eighteen months before Wesley was born. John's desire for his mother's affection pitted him in an impossible contest with this "ghost," in fact several ghosts. John was the third Wesley boy to be christened with his name, although not an uncommon practice in the eighteenth century (Stone, 1979). The first John died shortly after birth in 1699 along with a twin, Benjamin. The second John, a twin with Ann named John Benjamin, died at 7 months of age. (Heitzenrater, 1984) Moreover, a probable sibling rivalry existed between John and his esteemed older brother, Samuel. Samuel was Susanna's first born son and was always thought of as her adviser in time of need. He was highly valued for his cool headedness and thoughtful opinions in all family matters. The eldest son, born thirteen years before John, Samuel's birth was difficult for Susanna. (Harmon, 1968) It seems likely Samuel received the kind of affection John unconsciously yearned for from his mother.

Primal sibling struggle shows up distinctly in the Grace Murray episode and mirrors John's unconscious struggle for possession of his first intimate love object-his mother. Here it is another of John's brothers, Charles, who moves to steal away John's transitional love object, Grace. Charles does this by deceiving Grace into thinking that Wesley actually wants her to marry Bennet. In the Last Love manuscript, John is surprisingly vituperative in describing his brother's interference. He accuses Charles of using guile, spreading vicious lies about him, and acting out of selfishness. At one point, he paints the scene at Newcastle where Charles met with other Methodists to tell them that Grace was betrothed to Bennet. John describes Charles as accusing John of using his "whole Art & Authority to seduce another Man's Wife." John claims that Charles' charges inflamed the gathered sycophants with "anger & confusion" and incited the group to announcements that they would henceforth refuse to preach with John. After describing this scene, John launches into a curious metaphor. He imagines Charles' inflammatory statements have turned the assembly into "dreamers":

Mat Errington dream'd, the House itself was all in flames (& most certainly it was). Another Dreamer went a Step farther, & saw Mr. W{esley} in hell-fire. Jane Keith was preemptory 'Jno W. is a child of ye Devil.' (Leger, p. 95)

In John's construction of the scene, his brother has become his unexpected enemy and has turned reality, including John's fellow preachers, into a dream. The dream he has turned them into speaks in voices of Wesley's unconscious guilt over his desire for Grace Murray. Charles becomes the avenging, spoiling superego, the authority with which he must do battle.

The Last Love MS-Second Section

The large central portion of the Last Love manuscript was composed sometime in September 1748 and later grafted into the material. This portion was written while events were taking place, at the moment when it looked to Wesley as if his match with Grace would go forward. The narrative in his section is purportedly a verbatim transcription made by Wesley of what Grace told him about her life. In this account, Murray describes herself as a woman in continual conflict between an inordinately affectionate attachment to her sailor-husband and a desire to detach herself from those passions and attain spiritual salvation. Why did she tell John Wesley these things and why did he so meticulously record them?

On Grace's part, the story seems a seductive attempt to convince Wesley that as her spiritual mentor he could replace the husband she was so physically attracted to, and perhaps also an attempt to put Wesley on notice about her strong sexual needs. On John's part, re-telling her story seems an effort to convince himself that he is winning in his fantasized competition with her dead husband. Sexuality and spirituality are dramatically intertwined in the narrative as Grace recalls (or so Wesley reports) her feelings in the period after her husband was press-ganged and shipped out to Virginia.

About yt time I was one Night just laid down, when I felt a weight upon my Feet. I thought ye Cat had come upon me, & strove to push her off. Presently I felt it rising higher & higher by my side, till it seem'd to lie by me at ye full length of a Man. I felt an Awe, but no fear, praying continually and knowing I was in ye hands of GOD. After a few Minutes it roll'd off & fell upon ye Ground. I fell asleep, & dream'd I saw my Husband lying in his Coffin. (Leger, p. 34)

Her dream powerfully condenses both her sexual and spiritual longings. The premonition of her husband's death seems to veil an unconscious wish for his death, an unconscious longing for release from her sexual desire, and anger at her husband for leaving her with no way to fulfill those desires. It seems no coincidence that Grace Murray's life story, or at least John Wesley's version of it, repeats the conflict Wesley himself was experiencing over the question of "inordinate affections" in his relationships with women. The difference is that Murray brings the sexual dimension more explicitly to the surface than he does. Since Wesley's portrait of her unwittingly makes her appear emotionally unstable-thus belying Wesley's assurances that she was his perfect "help meet,"-one wonders if his real attraction to her wasn't to the intensity with which she dramatized his own conflict. At least that was the aspect about her he chose to immortalize in his elegy to their love affair.

The Last Love MS-Third Section

The next section of the Last Love manuscript returns to a chronological report of events and was evidently written subsequent to the events. Wesley says that after he and Grace renewed their marriage contract, he informed Bennet of this by letter and sent a copy of the letter to Charles. Charles exploded with anxiety. His stated reasons for his concern had to do with Grace's social status, but he quite probably saw his own home life threatened. John settled into marriage, might be less likely to travel; more of the burden for the itinerant ministry of the Methodist evangelicals would fall on his younger brother. The evidence suggests that Charles never wanted to devote his whole life to the movement as his brother did. Charles centered his activities in Bristol, and largely devoted himself to his children's musical training; he wasn't keen to travel.

Charles' objections caused John to ask himself whether he was being blinded by love. To answer the doubts and objections, John Wesley made one of his characteristic lists. This list-written down at the time and either transcribed for the Last Love manuscript or reconstructed for it-compulsively itemizes the pros and cons of marrying Grace Murray. Though the list is deserving of a separate analysis, here we need consider only a few items.

In item 1, Wesley explicitly alludes to the oedipal nature of his dilemma by reporting that he used to think he would never marry "Because I shd never find such a Woman as my Father had." In item 8 he answers this doubt by allowing that he has, in fact, found a few women who were his mother's equal in "Knowledge & Piety," Grace Murray being one of these. (Leger, p. 66)

Items 9, 12 and 16 repeat in different forms a theme which seems to be at least as important as knowledge and piety: 9. A woman should be "able & willing to keep me" (Wesley's emphasis). This item is elaborated in 12, where Wesley says, "I was next, tho' very unwillingly convinc'd That there might be such a Case as Dr. Koker's: who often declared, He was never so free from Care... as since his Marriage with one, who was both able & willing, to bear that Care for him." In item 16 Wesley desires from a wife that she be "a Nurse," "indefatigably patient, & inexpressibly tender." In these three items Wesley seems to be describing more a mother than a wife, even by eighteenth century standards.

In item 22 Wesley indicates that the one hope he has for a wife is that she will not only "by caring for me... free me from a thousand cares," she will also be a "continual Defence (undr GOD) agst unholy Desires & inordinate Affections: Which I never did entirely conquer." He then writes in Greek, "It is better to marry than to burn." In other words, it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion, lust, inordinate affections,-which is to say, with one's strong and dangerous libidinous impulses unchecked. Wesley is quoting from Paul, I Cor. vii, 9. (Leger, p. 74) The line Wesley writes in Greek is apparently the "Scriptural Reason to marry" he refers to in his summary of his list. All thirty two points of his argument seem to boil down to this "scriptural reason," coupled with the conclusion that Grace Murray is the right person. (Leger, p. 79) Wesley describes himself as a man who was "burning" so much with "Desires & inordinate Affections" that he must marry immediately, an odd solution, equivalent to dashing straight into a fire in order to flee it.

Another, quite ironic, reading is possible for Wesley's notion that marriage would provide him with a "continual Defence" against his unconquered desires. Molly Vazeille's jealousy, which made Wesley so unhappy, had the effect of putting him continually on the defensive about his flirtations with other women. In other words, his marriage externalized his superego. We feel that Wesley unconsciously cast his future wife in the role of the jealous woman so that the constant lash of her jealousy could keep him from going too far with his libidinous desires. If so, then Molly Vazeille was at least as much a victim as she was a victimizer for the thirty years of their dysfunctional marriage.

The morning after he composed the balance sheet for his romance, Wesley rode off to preach at Hindley Hill. (Leger, p. 79) He describes feeling weak with the flux, yet he avers that he is feeling better. He loses his way in a "thick mist. So that I cd see no Road, nor anything else." The mist clears "so I imagin'd all ye Danger was past," but then the fog descends again and "I quickly lost my way."

In his psychoanalytic study of Beethoven, Maynard Solomon suggests that descriptions of physical journeys made during times of great stress may sometimes provide keen insight into psychological journeys. (Solomon, 1980) Wesley's portrait of his ride to Hindley Hill seems reflective of the state of his intrapsychic conflict.

At Hindley Hill, John heard that his brother Charles had taken Grace Murray away, and he lapsed into resignation. For the next two days, however, he was again in turmoil. (Leger, p. 83) Finally, the turmoil overcame the resignation and he set out after her. He describes the journey in what amounts to a metaphor of his internal conflict: "The Storm was full in my face, & exceedingly high, so that I had much difficulty to sit my Horse: Particularly as I was riding over ye broad, bare backs of those enormous Mountains." Wesley doesn't specifically tell his readers that he's talking about a storm of weather. Perhaps because he isn't. The storm and the ride, fraught with conflictual sexual images ("riding over ye broad, bare backs"), is as much about his unconscious activity as it is about his passage across the landscape.

At this point in Wesley's unconscious anxiety over the fate of his love affair (now in the hands of his brother), the emotionality so seemingly uncharacteristic of Wesley but surging throughout the Last Love manuscript, reaches new dimensions. He feels his "Heart sinking in me like a stone. Only so long as I was preaching, I felt ease." (Leger, p. 84) "In ye Evening, my Heaviness return'd, but wth much of ye Spirit of Prayer. It seem'd to me, that I ought not to linger here; & yet I knew not whither to go."(Leger, p. 85) Wesley prays, as he often did, for a vision, and at this juncture he has (that is, awakens remembering) a dream.

Before discussing the dream, it is useful to note that Wesley maintained a long interest in dreams and paranormal occurrences, and developed a relatively sophisticated appreciation of their etiology.*

In Sermon CXXV, Aug. 1789, entitled "Human Life a Dream," Wesley says that dreams may be caused by "the present constitution of the body," or by "passions of the mind," or by good or evil angels. Current dream theories divide into neurophysiological, psychological and extrasensory-transpersonal explanations. Thus, while we have added much detail and shifted some assumptions, contemporary ideas of dreams remain in surprising resonance with Wesley's analysis. However, in the same August 1789 sermon, Wesley goes on to narrow, and in some ways to contradict, that analysis-calling the dream a "fragment of life broken off at both ends; not connected, either with the part that goes before, or with that which follows after... a kind of parenthesis, inserted in life." He forces this narrower definition of dreams in order to make the analogy between the dreamlike nature of life on earth and "awakening out of life" into eternity. Psychoanalytic theory does not agree with Wesley that a dream is ever disconnected from life. In fact, we now believe that dreams have key psychological and neurophysiological roles to play in the organization of the mind. But Wesley's narrowing of his own definition of the dream is like his narrowing of his definition of marriage, which he came to treat as a nagging but irrelevant parenthesis in his life.

The Dream and Its Significance

According to the Last Love manuscript, the dream occurred the same night Wesley prayed for a vision that would foretell the outcome of his relationship with Grace Murray.


I dream'd I saw a Man bring out G.M., who told her, she was condemn'd to die: And that all things were now in readiness, for the Execution of that Sentence. She spoke not one word, or shew'd any Reluctance, but walk'd up with him to ye place. The Sentence was executed, without her stirring either hand or foot. I look'd at her, till I saw her face turn black. Then, I cd not bear it, but went away. But I return'd quickly, & desir'd she might be cut down. She was then laid upon a bed. I sat by mourning over her. She came to herself & began to speak, & I awaked. (Leger, p. 86)

Wesley interpreted this dream as the sign he had prayed for-an indication that his affair with Grace Murray was over. Possibly, at some flickering level of consciousness, he was aware that this dream and the Last Love manuscript itself exposed his "passions of mind" and left an ambivalently public-yet-private testimony to a conflict which had haunted him since childhood. What were those passions of the mind as revealed in the dream?

Two qualities in the dream stand out:

-Anger, and fear of anger. The power of Wesley's anger and his fear of that power appear in the dream as the execution itself and the vivid detail of seeing Grace Murray's "face turn black."

-Passivity. This is present in Grace's apparent willingness to die-"stirring neither hand nor foot-and in the Wesley's not intervening to stop the execution.

There is also a strong quality in the dream of mourning and loss-Wesley's loss of Grace Murray and his grief over the lost opportunity to find the maternal nurturing he wanted.

So anger and resignation pervade the dream. Why is Wesley angry? The immediate target of anger is, of course, Grace Murray. She is jilting him for John Bennet; she has departed with John's brother, Charles, and so has abandoned John. But Wesley's anger goes deeper.

Susanna's tutelage formed the young Jackie Wesley into an intensely superego- dominated adult who, as Fowler has remarked, was "likely to be carrying a considerable fund of unconscious anger." (Fowler, 1985) Susanna wrote that by one year of age, the children "were taught to fear the rod, and to cry softly," and she advised that the first thing to do with children was to "conquer their will." (Harmon, 1968, Stone, 1979) Since dramatic expressions of anger or frustration were not permitted for children in the Wesley household, one of the modalities for coping with anger may have been to unconsciously repress the unacceptable feelings through passivity, particularly with regard to the mother. This is replayed in Wesley's dream of standing helplessly by while Grace Murray is being executed.

The resignation Wesley expresses in the dream may have originated in his unrecognized emotional needs. The rigid structure of the superego which Susanna instilled in him became split off from those more spontaneous emotional longings. As a consequence, the dream is both an expression and concealment of the spontaneous, uncontrollable parts of Wesley's self such as his fear of his uncontrolled or "burning" sexuality. He is unable to consciously accept his own strong sexual impulses. These impulses manifest in the dream as an uncontrollable fate which dominates the situation. In the grip of this uncontrollable fate Grace Murray is executed and taken from him. But, of course, Wesley is the one really being executed: He is himself the central dynamic of the dream. The impulse-driven part of him is what is "turned black."

In its style of denial and dissociation, the dream is curiously similar to Grace Murray's dream about the death of her husband. In her dream Grace sees her husband dead after experiencing images of a sexual/spiritual encounter. Wesley's own sexual/spiritual conflict is expressed in the dream-death of Grace. This similarity (which seems hardly coincidental) suggests that Wesley was drawn to Grace because he unconsciously saw or projected in her a similar way of defending himself against unholy desire and inordinate affections-by killing it off. At another level, the dream is a way of punishing Grace, as he was not able to punish his mother, for having implicitly promised him (as his mother did) an emotional closeness which was never achieved (Maser, 1979).

In his intrapsychic drama, Wesley himself was given to punishing women by seductively promising intimacy and then failing to fulfill that promise except in a sublimated, ethereal or spiritual form. A number of Wesley's relationships with women, particularly with women for whom he was acting as a spiritual adviser, are dominated by this behavior, which is historically how his mother treated him.^ Such a passive-aggressive stance appears, for example, in many of his letters to women. To take one instance often repeated in the biographies, during a three-month period which ended on the day Wesley's wife Molly left him vowing never to return, John wrote Sarah Ryan, the matron of Kingswood School and a Wesley devotee with a notoriously salacious past, letters containing the following passages:

You have refreshed my bowels in the Lord... I not only excuse but love your simplicity; and whatever freedom you use, it will be welcome... ( Nov. 22, 1737) I can hardly avoid trembling for you still... What can I do to help you?...(Dec. 14, 1737) The conversing with you, either by speaking or writing is an unspeakable blessing to me. I cannot think of you without thinking of God.... (Jan. 20, 1758) (Gill, 1956)

The letters are a mixed message, to say the least. They are simultaneously seductive and distancing. They portend a physical connection and then spirit the physical aspect away. But as a psychologically seductive punishment and mirror of the kind of treatment John Wesley himself received as a child, the mixed message is a clear message. Recall that Wesley had allowed letters such as these to be found by his wife; they were the immediate reason given by Molly for her departure (McConnell, 1939). A psychodynamic view of Wesley's motives suggests that, contrary to the historical judgment on her, Molly's jealousy had some justification and was not merely the product of her purportedly deranged mind.

In sum, the tension in Wesley between seduction, intimacy and spontaneous impulse, on the one hand, and his controlling superego, on the other, appears to have been a conflict of great proportions in Wesley's unconscious psychic apparatus. In childhood, Wesley's libidinous impulses were undoubtedly experienced as unacceptable. The dream portrays deadly conflict between conscious thoughts and forbidden libidinous unconscious impulses which are being chilled and "executed." The end of the dream portrays the guilt (anger) and sorrow over the punishment that one part of Wesley's personality is exerting over the other. But the end of the dream still perpetuates the central conflict. In the dream, Wesley "desire'd" that the dream-woman be "cut down." The phrase is a pun which betrays both a longing for surcease and continued hostility (as in the phrase "cut down in battle"). The dream-Wesley guiltily lays the dream-woman on a bed and mourns her, suffering the loss of all that she represents-his childhood contact with Susanna, his intimate, uncertain and spontaneous self, the possibility of a present intimate relationship with a woman which he so desperately needs. He is unconsciously guilt-ridden and angry because the executioner is himself. But he still cannot put his longings to rest, a fact represented by Grace's reviving, coming "to herself." But before she can fully revive, Wesley, in effect, executes her again by awakening from the dream and , as it were, "cutting her off." She had begun to speak, but what she would have told him remains unspoken. Here we also see the importance in the dream of the theme of words and language, and how this theme represents Wesley's difficulty in articulating his hidden conflict: i.e., the dream involves the execution of a "sentence" which never quite gets executed. In Wesley's relationship with Grace, he had not been able to speak clearly to her about his intention to marry. In the dream she speaks "not a word," then he awakens from the dream before she can speak. The struggle goes on.

The paragraph following his reported dream presents an unmistakable, if unconscious, pun which underlines the sexual and oedipal nature of the conflict which the dream and the situation that produced it had for Wesley. He says he prayed and "We had free Access to ye Throne of Grace, & I found my Will more resign'd." (emphasis added) (Leger, p. 86) A paragraph later, he reports that he has learned that Grace has married John Bennet, with Charles's complicity. In the next paragraph he indicates that after a tormented, feverish evening, the tumult of his ambivalence now momentarily resolved, he fell into a "sudden, sound & quiet sleep." He was indeed relieved that it was over and the conflict once again put aside, buried, by the act of dissociation.

The final part of the Last Love document largely consists of John's accusations against Charles for the plot to take Grace from him. The Coda to the manuscript is a poem about the episode which Wesley wrote several days after he left Grace with John Bennet. This versified, formalized lament already shows him getting distance on the affair, disguising it again with spirituality.

Implications of the Grace Murray Affair For Wesley's Marriage to Molly Vazeille

The conflict Wesley exhibited in the Grace Murray episode was far from over. Three years later Wesley married Molly Vazeille under circumstances already referred to. Probably not by accident, he fell at that point into a marital situation which was aptly described by him in his advice to young preachers a little over a month after his marriage: "They who have wives {should} be as though they had none." (March 29, 1751) Given his unresolved earlier conflicts, Wesley could not have had the happy marriage for which he said he longed. It would have required a major resolution of his oedipal struggle. Wesley's marriage succeeded in only dampening the fires of that struggle while leaving the struggle itself intact-a situation with unmistakably important implications for the historical reputation of Wesley's wife.

The evidence is that Molly made her first husband, Anthony Vazeille, a good wife and was a good mother to her children.+ The sad portrait she has made in the frame of her famous second husband's life may well have been the result of Wesley's contradictory needs as much as her psychological frailties. Wesley's biographers frequently remark that it was better for Wesley's work that he didn't get along with Molly; almost everyone agrees that as far as his evangelical mission went, his wife was irrelevant. But she was perhaps not entirely irrelevant. Since she was evidently the participant and to some extent the victim of a very important unresolved conflict in Wesley's complicated psyche.

Wesley saw the dream as a parenthesis in the grammatical sentence of life and he sought to keep this troubled dream of marriage a parenthesis in his work as a religious leader. Possibly, to some vital extent, Wesley's conflicted longing for marital intimacy-and for all that it might repair from his past-contributed to the development of his faith as it matured from the childhood faith he learned under Susanna's tutelage. His theology has been called "revolutionary for his own time, with its daring description of and address to the emotions which he himself never fully achieved" (Rack, 1989). "But it still partakes deeply of the Enlightenment's over trust in words and reason." (Fowler, 1985) In the light of what we have posited in this paper, these descriptions are intriguing. A comparison to Beethoven may once gain prove fruitful.

Solomon has shown that Beethoven's unresolved ambivalence over marrying-which in his case involved an attraction to having a family and an aversion to having one-was rooted in the composer's experience with his parents, and that it fueled the development of his magnificent music. Beethoven saw his successes in marrying himself to his art as a compensation for his failure to marry a woman. Something like this psychodynamic may have been at work in Wesley. But the broader nature of the connection between what we've described in this paper and Wesley's evangelical mission remains to be explored.

We will close with two caveats. First, clearly John Wesley lived with his conflict regarding women and it did not diminish his ability to make an enormous contribution to his century and England's religious life. Thus, Wesley could not be said to have suffered from a disabling psychopathology. He was profoundly troubled about the question of authentic intimacy with women and perhaps in some way this conflict contributed to the compassion and spiritual concern he showed toward others throughout his life.

Second, psychohistory and psychobiography, no less than history and biography, involve speculation upon sources and data which are constantly being expanded, revised and reconstructed (Kohut, 1986, Pois,1990). What we have proposed, therefore, is not intended by any means to be taken as a finished or whole view of Wesley's psychodynamics. We present, rather, a story based upon the data as we currently have them-a story which we hope brings additional perspective and depth to Wesley's life. We take as a premise that many dimensions of our own lives as we live them are opaque to our conscious understanding; how much more so the life of a highly significant historical person. That John Wesley was infinitely more complex than this picture, or any picture, of him should go without saying. Indeed, his complexity and multi-dimensionality make him of continuing interest.



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