Tuesday, May 14, 2013

John Wesley and Methodism in Athy

Last week I had occasion to reflect on the writers I have enjoyed over the years and the persons who for one reason or another I have admired.  It’s an exercise which had not previously enjoyed my attention and so I had to trawl through a reading life of several decades to come to any conclusions.  I’m not going to bore you with the results of my writer/book search other than to say it was an exercise which called for the brutal disposal of several writers whom I have always highly regarded.  Not that they were any less worthy after the remove of several years, indeed several decades in some cases, but rather I had to choose only those I could deal with in the limited time available to me.

It was when it came to decide on the people whom I admired from the past that I got some surprising results.  As someone who writes of Irish history as it unfolds at a local level, I thought that the great heroes of Irish history would figure large in my panel of heroes.  Not so I’m afraid for the list was comprised, except for one or two Irish exceptions, of persons who are closely associated with Britain. 

One of those was John Wesley, who although ordained, as was his brother Charles, within the folds of the Church of England, nevertheless spent his long life on evangelising work throughout England, Wales and Ireland and extended into America.  His open air preaching amongst the miners and the agricultural workers of England and Wales helped form the strong alliance which after Wesley’s death existed between Methodism and the emerging Trade Union movement of 19th century Britain.

John Wesley did not preach in Athy during any of his 20 visits to Ireland, but is believed to have passed through the town on 25th April 1789 while travelling to Rosanna near Ashford in County Wicklow.  There he was the guest of Mrs. Sarah Tighe, whose daughter Elizabeth would later marry the founder of the Kellyites, Rev. Thomas Kelly of Kellyville.

The first Methodist Minister was appointed in Athy a year before John Wesley died, but bear in mind that the early so called Methodists were still part of the Church of England.  It was only after John Wesley’s death in 1791 that the Methodists withdrew from the parent church and formed themselves into the ‘Society of the People called Methodists’.  Athy was visited by several important Methodist figures over the years including Adam Averall and Gidgeon Ouseley, Methodist pioneers of historical importance in that Church’s history.  The following is an account of a noteworthy conversion to Methodism in 1817 by Charles Graham which is taken from Crookshank’s ‘History of Methodism’. 

            ‘Another triumph of Divine grace was a young tutor, named Feely, an excellent Irish scholar.  He was a zealous Romanist, much given to controversy, having studied carefully the standard works of his Church, and succeeded in prevailing on some weak-minded Protestants to abandon the faith of their fathers.  When in search of a situation, he was directed to apply to a Mr. Large, a Methodist who resided at Ballintubbert, near Athy, by whom he was engaged.  Mrs. Large had several religious discussions with the tutor, during one of which she expressed a desire that he would meet the preacher of the circuit, Mr. Graham, who was so well fitted to speak on such subjects.  Feely, satisfied in himself that he would have no difficulty in silencing the itinerant, said he would like very much to have an opportunity of conversing with him, and in his heart longed for the fray.’               

What followed was the discussion between Minister Graham and the young children and we take up the narrative again.

‘As soon as possible he procured a Bible, which he searched with the earnest but vain hope of finding his religion there; and as he continued to study its sacred pages the darkness in which he had been enveloped gradually disappeared.  He began to attend the Methodist services, and after a painful and protracted struggle, cast his weary sin-burdened spirit on the merits of Christ alone, and thus obtained the rest and satisfaction he had so earnestly desired.  He was not, however, permitted to follow the dictates of his conscience without molestation.  One day, returning from Athy, he was assaulted by a Popish mob in a most savage manner, and although he escaped with life, the beating received so affected his head as to lay the foundation of a complaint which eventually terminated his useful labours.  The rejoicing convert soon began to employ his talents in Christian work, more especially as a local preacher, labouring throughout the counties of Carlow and Wexford, where his ministrations were owned of the Lord and gratefully appreciated by the people.’

The Methodist Church at Woodstock Street opened in 1872 after the members of the Church vacated the former Quaker Meeting House in Meeting Lane which they had used since the early 1800s. 

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