'John Wesley's Rival'
Transcription of Sketch in the Primitive Methodist Magazine by Fenton Allen
Mr. John Bennett, the rival of John Wesley, and who married Mrs. Grace Murray, was born at Chinley, on the outskirts of Chapel-en-le-Frith, in the year 1717. His parents were staunch Non-conformists, and worshipped at Chinley Chapel. The minister thereof was the Rev. James Clegg, who eked out his meagre salary by farming and practising as a physician; the University of Aberdeen having given Mr. Clegg, without residence, the degree of M.D. At the time of Bennett’s birth, “all the principal farm-houses and residences in the parish were then built; most of them dating from the Tudor and Stuart periods. There were large stretches of common land still unenclosed, and the roads were mere bridle-tracks winding over moors and wastes. No coaches nor carriages were used. All produce, even coals, was carried on pack-horses, long strings of which were continually passing through the town from Sheffield and Chesterfield to Stockport and Manchester and back again. These pack-horse trains were common in the country down to the time of the Battle of Waterloo.”
Young Bennett had received a classical education and his parents intended that he should join one of the learned professions. Being a great reader of books, and of a serious turn of mind, he made divinity his choice, and studied under Dr. Latham, of Findren, near Derby. Having relinquished all thoughts of entering the ministry, he abandoned his academical studies, and engaged himself to the law, in which he remained until he was twenty-two years of age.
In the year 1739, the Rev. David Taylor, one of the Countess of Huntingdon’s itinerant preachers, was making a tour of Leicestershire, and he extended the circuit of his evangelistic labours to Sheffield. Bennett visited the famous cutlery town to enter a horse for the races, at the time David Taylor was conducting his mission. At the persuasion of a friend he went to hear Taylor, with the intention of ridiculing him. At the close of the service Bennett followed his companion into the vestry, and for mere courtesy’s sake he invited Mr. Taylor to come and see his parents at Chinley. Bennett was somewhat annoyed when Mr. Taylor appeared at his father’s house, in the Peak of Derbyshire. Bennett did not wish to be teased about religion, and he knew full well that, although Dr. Clegg was a sturdy Nonconformist, he had a decided objection to all irregular religious movements. Through Mr. David Taylor’s zealous preaching John Bennett became soundly converted, and in a short time he became “a zealous apostle of Methodism.” He incurred the displeasure of his family by abandoning all secular pursuits, and devoting his extraaordlinary talents to the preaching of “the unsearchable riches of Christ.” His first labours were very successful, and he. raised religious societies in Derbyshire, Yorkshire, Lancashire, and Cheshire before Wesley or Whitefield had reached that part of the Kingdom. In the year 1743 he was introduced by the Countess of Huntingdon to John Wesley, and he became one of his most devoted helpers. He was allowed to remain in what was known as “John Bennett’s round,” which intersected the adjoining counties of Derby, Chester, and Lancaster. In the year 1750, he writes: “Many doors are open for preaching in these parts but cannot be supplied for want of preachers. My circuit is one hundred and fifty miles in two weeks, during which time I preach thirty-four sermons besides meeting the societies and visiting the sick.” John Bennett soon gained a forefront position in Wesleyan Methodism. He was one of the four lay preachers who, along with six clergymen, constituted the first Methodist Conference.
By the preaching of John Bennett the parents of several of the first generation of Methodist preachers were soundly converted, and gave their sons to minister to the societies that were organised by John Wesley. One sermon that Bennett preached in a barn at Chelmorton, in Derbyshire, was far-reaching in its influences. A father and his four sons, along with a man named Lomas, received the truth, and experienced a change of heart. John Marsden, the eldest of the four brothers, became the friend and personal adviser of Wesley, and settled in London that he might be in call of the great evangelist. Wesley said of him: “If there be a Methodist in England it is John Marsden, of London.” Among his descendants, and those of his three brothers, were several clergymen, and the Rev. George Marsden, who was twice president of the Wesleyan Conference. The respective wives of the Rev. Richard Reece, who for sixty-three years was a Methodist preacher and twice president of Conference; and of the Rev. James Townley, D.D., who also was elected president of the Wesleyan Conference – were descendants of the distinguished Marsden family. The Rev. Robert Lomas, the grandson of Mr. Lomas, who heard Bennett preach, was a devoted Wesleyan minister, and his son, the Rev. John Lomas, was the fourth President of Conference who is associated with the famous service at Chelmorton.
Mrs. Grace Murray, whom Wesley intended to make his wife, was a native of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. At the early age of eighteen she removed to London, where she was engaged in domestic service. Two years later she was united in the bonds of matrimony to a young Scotch sailor, whose family had lost their estate during the memorable Rebellion of 1715. Mrs. Murray was greatly troubled when she lost her infant child, and she attended the Methodist preaching services at the Foundry, London. Her husband strenuously opposed his wife’s worshipping with the despised Methodists. She, however, remained firm to her purpose, and in the end she won him over to the teaching of the Methodists. The first sermon that she heard Wesley preach produced a lasting influence upon her troubled mind and heart. In the course of his fervent address John Wesley asked the important question, “Is there any one here who has a true desire to be saved?” Mrs. Murray says, “My heart replied, Yes, I have.” The evangelist continued: “My soul for thine if thou continue lying at the feet of Jesus.” She took hold of the promises, but several months intervened before she found true rest of soul.
During the year 1742, her husband was accidentally drowned at sea. Mrs. Murray returned to her home in Newcastle. She was “young, beautiful, and well educated,” and Wesley appointed her matron of his Orphan House in Newcastle. As a sister of the people she ministered to the sick and the aged. She had a hundred members in her society classes whom she instructed in Divine things. She met a “band” of devoted Methodists on each day of the week, and visited the neighbouring villages to read and pray with the sin-burdened inhabitants. At Wesley’s request she nursed one of the invalided Methodist preachers at the Orphan House; but owing to some slight misunderstanding with another inmate she left the institution. After spending six months in London she returned to the Home, and again she left through some personal grievance. For two years after her second separation she suffered from great spiritual depression. In the autumn of 1745 she returned to her duties at the Home. Besides meeting classes, visiting the sick, and ministering to the needs of the country societies, she was the nurse of Wesley’s itinerants, who were often unwell through their exposure and excessive labours. At one time she had seven preachers as patients, one of whom was John Bennett, who was under her care for six long months.
In August, 1748, Wesley suffered from an attack of bilious headache, and was nursed by Grace Murray. Wesley was forty-five years of age, and Mrs. Murray was thirty-two, when he determined to make her his wife. When he suggested marriage, she replied: “This is too great a blessing for me. I cannot tell how to believe it. This is all I could have wished for under heaven.” Twelve day’s later Wesley expressed his conviction that God intended she should be his wife; and he earnestly hoped that the next time they met they would not be separated. At her request Wesley took her along with him through the counties of York and Derby, where she was unspeakably useful, both to him and the societies. Wesley speaks of her as “being his right hand” in meeting, regulating, and advising the female society classes of the Northern counties. Like the Methodist itinerants of those days she travelled on horseback. An aged man has left on record how he saw her leave the door of a Yorkshire homestead: “Her horse stood waiting; she came out. A glance of her eye told her all was right. No man might touch – even to help her; for she was on God’s errand. She laid her hand upon the conscious beast, and it knelt to receive her. She sprang lightly into the saddle, waved her arm, and, as in a moment, was out of sight, and the old man saw her no more.”
During her Northern tour, Grace Murray remained at Bolton for some time. She wrote to Wesley intimating that she thought it was her duty to marry john Bennett. In April, 1749, she accompanied Wesley on an evangelistic tour in Ireland. “For three months she was his constant companion. She examined all the women in the smaller societies, settled the female bands, visited the sick, and prayed with the penitent. She anticipated all Wesley’s wants, acted as monitor when she thought she saw anything amiss in his behaviour, and graced her position in such a way that Wesley’s esteem and affection daily increased.” In the city of Dublin they entered into a solemn matrimonial engagement. After their return from the Emerald Isle, she travelled with John Wesley to Bristol, London, and Newcastle. For five months they were scarcely separated from each other.
Without a doubt John Bennett was Wesley’s rival. He met Wesley at Epworth and told him that Grace Murray had sent him the whole of the correspondence that Wesley had written her. Under the changed circumstances, Wesley was convinced that he must break off the engagement, and that she ought to marry Bennett. When he wrote her to this effect, she besought him in “an agony of tears, not to talk so unless he designed to kill her.” For some days she vacillated between her two lovers, and her conduct showed “strange weakness and irresolution.” In a later interview she assured Wesley “that I love you a thousand times better than ever I loved John Bennett in my life. But I am afraid if I don’t marry him he’ll run mad.” She also expressed her determination to live and die with Wesley, and urged him to marry her at once. In the light of after events, this probably would have been the best course that Wesley could have adopted.
Before uniting himself in marriage, he wished to pacify Bennett; to secure the approval of his brother Charles, and also to inform the Methodist societies of his intention to contract a matrimonial alliance. John Wesley wrote his brother Charles concerning his intended marriage. The poet of Methodism read the letter with feelings of dismay. He was overwhelmed with the thought that his brother John should marry a widow, who, previous to her first marriage had been a domestic servant. Without delay he started for the North, and the two brothers met at Whitehaven. Charles told him that if he married so mean a woman the preachers would leave them, and the Methodist societies would be scattered to the winds. John Wesley replied: “That he wished to marry her not for her birth, but for her own character and worth. Her neatness, her carefulness, her strong sense, and her sterling piety had won his highest esteem.” He her maintained “that she was indefatigably patient, and inexpressibly tender; quick, cleanly, and skilful, of an engaging behaviour, and of a mild, sprightly, cheerful, and yet serious temper; while lastly, her gifts for usefulness were such as he had not seen equalled.” Charles could not move his brother from his decision, and he proceeded to Newcastle. In the city he met the widow, and after kissing her, said: “Grace Murray, you have broke my heart.” Charles Wesley’s objection to Grace Murray becoming the wife of his brother helped the cause of Bennett. He came to Newcastle. She fell at his feet and begged forgiveness for having treated him so badly. The breach was healed, and within a week John Bennett and Grace Murray became husband and wife.
George Whitefield broke the painful news to Wesley. He wrote the following letter to his friend, Mr. Thomas Bigg, of Newscastle, in which he deals with the greatest trial of his life:-
“Leeds, October 7th, 1749. My dear Brother,— Since I was six years old I never met with such a severe trial as for some days past. For ten years God has been preparing a fellow-labourer for me by a wonderful train of providences. Last year I was convinced of it, therefore I delayed not; but, as I thought, made all sure beyond a danger of disappointment. But we were soon after torn asunder by a whirlwind. In a few months the storm was over; I then used more precaution than before, and fondly told myself that the day of evil would return no more. But it too soon returned. The waves rose again since I came out of London. I fasted and prayed, and strove all I could; but the sons of Zeruiah were too hard for me. The whole world fought against me, but, above all, my own familiar friend. Then was the word fulfilled: ‘Son of man, behold, I take from thee the desire of thine eyes at a stroke; yet shalt thou not lament, neither shall thy tears run down.’ The fatal irrevocable stroke was struck on Tuesday last. Yesterday I saw my friend (that was), and him to whom she is sacrificed. But, “Why should a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins? ’ I am yours affectionately, John Wesley.”
John Wesley expressed the exquisite disappointment he experienced in a poem which he wrote in October, 1749, and entitled, “ Reflections upon Past Providences.” It contains thirty-one stanzas, in Wesley’s favourite poetic metre of six lines. The verses show “the course of Wesley’s love, the history and attractions of the lady, and the cruel blow which had robbed him of his blessing.”
“Borne on the wings of sacred hope.
Long had I soared, and spurned the ground,
When, panting for the mountain top,
My soul a kindred spirit found,
By heaven entrusted to my care,
The daughter of my faith and prayer.
In early dawn of life serene,
Mild, sweet and tender was her mood;
Her pleasing form spoke all within
Soft and compassionately good;
Listening to every wretch’s care,
Mingling with each her friendly tear.
I saw her run with wingéd speed,
In works of faith and labouring love;
I saw her glorious toil succeed,
And showers of blessing from above
Crowning her warm effectual prayer,
And glori?ed my God in her.”
With much tenderness and pathos Wesley further describes the sick chamber at Newcastle:—
“Twas now I bowed my aching head,
While sickness shook the house of clay;
Duteous she ran with humble speed
Love’s tend’rest offices to pay:
To ease my pain, to soothe my care,
T’ uphold my feeble hands in prayer.
Oft (though as yet the nuptial tie
Was net,) clasping her hand in mine,
‘What force,’ she said, ‘beneath the sky,
Can now our well-knit souls disjoin?
With thee I’d go to India’s coast,
To worlds in distant oceans lost I’
Such was the friend, than life more dear,
Whom in one luckless baleful hour,
(For ever mentioned with a tear!)
The tempter’s unresisted power
(Oh! the unutterable smart!)
Tore from my inly-bleeding heart.”
John Wesley saw Mrs. Bennett in Leeds on the third day after her marriage, and did not see her again until the year 1788. In course of time Bennett became estranged from Wesley. In his Journals Wesley states that Bennett publicly charged him with preaching nothing but popery. On April 3rd, 1752, John Bennett separated himself from Wesleyan Methodism. At Bolton he took with him all the one hundred and twenty-seven members who constituted the society with the exception of nineteen. The whole of the Stockport Methodists joined the Secessionists, with the exception of one solitary woman, who remained true to her Wesleyan principles. Bennett became pastor of a Calvinistic Church at Warburton, in Cheshire, where, by his faithful preaching, he turned many to righteousness. He died in the year 1759 at the comparatively early age of forty-five. It is said “that his death was peaceful and glorious.” In his dying hour, to his wife, he said: “I am not afraid, for I am assured past a doubt, or even a scruple, that I shall be with the Lord to behold His glory. The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth me from all sin. I long to be dissolved. Come, Lord Jesus, loose me from the prison of this clay. Oh, sweet, sweet dying! I could die ten thousand times. Too sweet! Too sweet! I can now stake my soul on the doctrines I have preached. Yes, ten thousand souls. It is the everlasting truth, stick to it.”
Mrs. Bennett removed, with her five young boys to Chapel-en-le-Frith, where she lived near to her deceased husband’s relatives. Again she joined the people of her early choice, and for over half-a-century was incessant in good works. She conducted a Methodist class meeting that was held weekly in her own house. One of her sons became the minister of the Pavement Chapel in Moorfields. In the year 1788, when she visited her son in London, Thomas Olivers, one of Wesley’s noted itinerants, was favoured with an interview, and he told Wesley that she would like to see him once again. For thirty years Wesley had never once mentioned her name; and he consented. Henry Moore gives the following account of the interview. He says: “Mr. Wesley, with evident feeling, resolved to visit her, and the next morning he took me with him to Colebrooke Row, where her son then resided. The meeting was affecting, but Mr. Wesley preserved more than his usual self-possession.” Moore, who was WesIey’s friend and biographer, further adds: “It was easy to see, notwithstanding the many years which had intervened, that both in sweetness of spirit and in person and manners, she was a fit subject for the tender regrets expressed in those verses. The interview did not continue long, and I do not remember that I ever heard Mr. Wesley mention her name afterward.”
Throughout her widowhood the life and conversation of Mrs. Bennett did “the greatest honour to her religious principles and profession.” She died in peace on February 23rd, 1803, in the eighty-ninth year of her age. Her death was improved by the Rev. Dr. Jabez Bunting, from Psalm xxvii. 13, 14. Her mortal remains were buried at Chapel-en-le-Frith, where she had resided for over half-a-century.
Telford says: “Her gifts eminently fitted her to become Wesley’s helper, and the societies lost much by her marriage. Had he married Grace Murray, John Wesley would never have committed the fatal mistake of marrying Mrs. Vazeille.”
Primitive Methodist Magazine 1901/355
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