This summer, Mell and I decided to visit “Epworth by the Sea” a United Methodist retreat center in St. Simons, Georgia; named in honor of the boyhood home of John and Charles Wesley, founders of the United Methodist Church. The vision of “Epworth by the Sea” is to provide a Christian place where one might come and feel the same “reviving of the spirit” felt by the Wesleys so long ago. Mell and I were looking for our own “reviving of the spirit” as well as an opportunity to rest and reflect on where God is leading us.
We could not ask for a better setting. While staying in a comfortable hotel-like atmosphere, we had the opportunity to take long walks along the Frederica River and visit “Lovely Lane Chapel” the oldest standing church building on the island. We strolled through gardens and spent time in the Prayer Tower. There were several trips to the lighthouse, the beaches and restaurants of St. Simons followed by quiet moments of reflection.
In addition to “Epworth by the Sea” Mell and I discovered a beautiful garden and several roadside plaques throughout St. Simons Island recognizing the contributions of John and Charles Wesley. Curious to know more, I visited a book store to see what local historians had to say about the founders of United Methodism and their only visit to America.
In 1736, John and Charles Wesley, accompanied General James Oglethorpe from England to St. Simons Island, Georgia. General Oglethorpe provided governance and built a fort to provide protection for the settlers. John and Charles Wesley came to oversee religious affairs and hoped to fulfill their dream of preaching to the Native Americans.
According to Jingle Davis, a local historian and author of “Island Time: an illustrated history of St. Simons, Georgia,” the trip was a disappointment. She writes: “Although a number of historic illustrations show the Wesleys preaching to the Indians, they never actually did. After two months, filled with problems, disagreements and fights, Charles Wesley abandoned hope of ever reaching the colonists and soldiers.” Less than a year later, discouraged, Charles returned to England. Shortly afterward, John too would return with a parting comment: “It was not any apprehension of my own danger but with an utter despair of doing good there.”
So, by all accounts the Wesley brothers trip to Georgia was a failure. So why would St. Simons Island, give so much recognition to John and Charles Wesley? Why name “Epworth by the Sea” after their boyhood home?
On May 24, 1738, shortly after returning to England, John and later Charles had a significant religious experience that John would later describe, as feeling his “heart strangely warmed.” Resuming his ministry, by preaching in open area settings throughout England, John formed small groups or societies based on personal accountability, discipleship and teaching. These societies led by itinerant lay preachers would become the foundation for Methodist churches all over the world. Charles often provided the music and wrote lyrics for more than six thousand hymns, including, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”
The Wesley Brothers so-called failed trip to Georgia ended up being a catalyst that led them to form the Methodist movement which has become one of the larger denominations within Christianity. Georgia Methodists understandably take pride in being the only area in America ever visited by the Wesleys. A trip that on the surface could only be described as a failure, yet this failure led to founding a movement that impacted and deepened the lives of millions of Christians and became a significant part of my spiritual development.
“Rejoice and exult in hope; be steadfast and patient in suffering and tribulation; be constant in prayer.” – Romans 12:12
What appeared to be a failure in Georgia led to something greater. “Epworth by the Sea” stands as a place where I can remember, worship, pray and reflect on what it means to serve a God who continually turns failure into ministry and promises – Rejoice in hope, be steadfast in suffering and be constant in prayer.”