Rev John Bee Wright


The Rev. John Bee Wright served the church for half a century, both in England and in the US, his adopted country. He was perhaps a somewhat controversial figure in Victorian London which as the stories go led to his fleeing for his life to New York State …

John Bee Wright (JBW) was born on 10 April 1828 at Aldeby a small village south of Norwich near the border of Norfolk and Suffolk counties. At the time, Norwich was a centre of shoemaking in England and in his early life he adopted this profession, at one time employing 15 men. However it seems that he was called to God very early on and preached from an early age.

In the UK census of 1861, JBW is listed as living in Navenby in Lincolnshire as a Wesleyan Reform Minister. In the 1871 census he was listed as an Independent Minister of the Iron Chapel on Kensal Road near Paddington. This suburb of London – north of Notting Hill built up in a pocket near the railway was not a fashionable or salubrious address at the time.

JBW’s obituary in the Genesee Conference Methodist Episcopal Church Annual Minutes. Ref : Official Minutes and Journal of the … session of the Genesee Conference 1894, tell his story:

Rev. John Bee Wright was born Alderby, Norfolk, England April 10, 1828 and entered eternal rest from Hamburgh New York on June 16, 1894. In early life, he was left without parental guidance. His earliest friend was a Miss Becket who took him two miles to Sunday School with dinner in her basket for both. She knew not that by the humble act she was giving the first propulsion toward a life of successful ministerial work. Under her influence he very early gave his heart to God. At 10 years of age, he began to speak and pray in public, and at 17 to call sinners to repentance.

Henceforth soul-saving became his ruling passion.  Few were the facilities for his intellectual culture, and he spent but 5 months in school. Yet he possessed a keen hunger for knowledge. Being appointed school librarian he seemed to devour every book he handled. In later years he visited the book stalls of London gathering a rare collection of books, many of which he gave to the Syracuse University. 

After travelling the Alford circuit for several years, he was invited to London and became Secretary of the Lord’s Day Observance Association. Into this dangerous work he threw all his energies. His duties required him to be conspicuous in the prosecution of whiskey sellers and other Sabbath-breakers. A conclave of these men swore never to rest until he should be forever silenced. Day and night they tracked him, and after barely escaping their vengeance he fled to America in July 1871, his family soon following.

He was received into the Genesee Conference on his credentials and appointed to Clarence. Soon after the parsonage took fire and with the church was reduced to ashes, little being saved except his books. At once he set about the work of rebuilding, lecturing and soliciting funds amid great deprivations. The present beautiful Clarence church stands a monument to his prayerful and persistent toil. 

His appointments were – 1871 Clarence; 1873 Williamsville; 1875 Hamburgh; 1878 Elma; 1880 Yorkshire; 1882 Port Allegany; 1885 Woodside, Buffalo; 1887 to ’92 Pekin. Near the close of his fifth year at Pekin, he was smitten with paralysis and removed to his home in Hamburgh, where after lingering in helplessness, but with marvellous patience for several months, he passed away in great peace.

He was an industrious worker. His few vacations taken at Silver Lake, were filled with study and work. His sermons preached at camp meetings and other places were replete with original thought, presented in that unique and quaint dress in which he clothed his discourses. They will long be remembered by thousands who listened to them. Bible study and Methodist theology were his favourite exercise. The poor loved him, for he was their friend. His benevolence was systematic and uniform, a tenth being the minimum of his giving.

His humility was such that the lowest place was never too mean if only he might serve his Lord and his loved church therein. His faith was beautiful in its simplicity. When asked in reference to certain painful experiences what he would do, he quietly replied “I have taken it to the Lord.” Because of this childlike trust he was always self-possessed and unruffled in mind and spirit. “He being dead yet speaketh” and his memory is embalmed in the hearts of his bereaved wife and children who walk in communion with the church he loved so well. 

As can be seen JBW’s zest for preserving the Sabbath was not viewed well by all. The scathing newspaper articles of the time did not spare him mockery. Here is just a sample: 

Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper Sun Nov 28, 1869 issue 1410 PROSECUTIONS FOR SUNDAY TRADING Yesterday Emilius Hollis was summoned to Marlebone police-court, for exercising his calling as a crossing sweeper on the Lord’s-day, in contravention of the act of Charles II., passed in the year 1676, then known as “the act for the better observance of the Lord’s day, commonly called Sunday.” The preamble of the act was read. It provides that any tradesman, workman, or other persons following their ordinary calling on the Sunday, shall be liable to a fine of 5s. for each offence. In the event of a conviction, if there are not sufficient goods for a distress to be levied upon, the offenders are to be put in the stocks for two hours.The case was then gone into- John Bee Wright, who appeared in full clerical style, with white neckerchief and spectacles, said he was a dissenting minister, residing at 18, Appleford-road, Westbourne-park, and was secretary to a society now forming, called the Association for Enforcing the Better Observance of the Lord’s-day. These proceedings were instituted by him. John Julian Jackson, 46, Tavistock-crescent, said he saw him sweeping a crossing at the end of Ledbury-road on Sunday morning, the 14th. He told him if he did not leave sweeping during church hours he would summons him. He did not desist, and he summonsed him. In reply to defendant, witness said he had gone over the crossing in preference to the mud. The magistrate fined him 1s. and costs. Anas Oppenheim, a tobacconist in a large way of business in Westbourne-grove, appeared to a summons. Julian Jackson said on the 14 th (Sunday) he saw defendant’s shop open, and saw customers being served. Defendant said he had never been complained of, neither did he know that he was doing wrong. He had two shops, and stood at £1000 rent and taxes. Fined 3s, and costs. 
And the response: The Examiner (London)Saturday 4 December 1869 A KNIGHT IN HOLY ORDERS It is a great pity that journalism is not allowed the license of hexameters; for how otherwise are we to sing the exploits and triumph of John Bee Wright, Dissenting minister? Nothing short of the sonorous grandeur of the Homeric line may fitly celebrate the deeds of this modern hero, whose address- fancy a hero with an address:- is Appleford Road, Westbourne Park. Plain prose refuses such an office; and can only suggest that the proper method to keep in remembrance Mr Wright and his achievements would be to devote to them and him a series of frescoes in a corridor of the Houses of Parliament. They might be arranged as the Nibelungen frescoes in Munich are arranged- each group representing an episode in the history of his adventures. The first group may represent the reverend knight’s encounter with his enemy. The scene is Ledbury Road; and the time is “the Lord’s Day, commonly called Sunday”. The villainous figure of the picture appears in the shape of a crossing-sweeper. Ledbury Road is muddy; and the enemy of mankind, having entered into the heart of the wretched crossing-sweeper, has prompted him to sweep a path clean, so that pedestrians may step over with comfort and decency. This atrocious wickedness fills the soul of John Bee Wright with horror. He perceives in it the subtle work of the devil; for does it not pamper the vanity of many a young man and maiden in allowing them to save the polish of their Sunday boots? He does not immediately seize the offender and castigate him; for prudence is one of the virtues of a brave knight; and if the crossing-sweeper should be provoked into retaliating with his muddy broom, the result might be disastrous to the waistcoat of the reverend gentleman. For the time being John Bee Wright leaves the crossing sweeper in the slough of sin, and goes home to think over means of bringing him to punishment and repentance. As the lofty tale progresses, we find ourselves introduced to a third personage, by name John Julian Jackson. The title is a proud one; although there would seem to be some doubt about the correctness of the last syllable. We presume that John Bee Wright engaged the friendly assistance of John Julian Jackson; and we learn that the latter proceeded to encounter the dangerous foe of the human race, Emilius Hollis Hollis, who swept the crossing at Ledbury Road. Again, it was “the Lord’s Day commonly called Sunday”. Was John Bee Wright hovering in the background, to watch the actions of his friend; or was he in his chapel, praying that success might attend his valorous efforts? We hope that the latter was the case; so that Mr E. M. Ward, or some other artist, may be able to represent the “Knight in Church.” However that may be, John Julian Jackson boldly approached Emilius Hollis Hollis and summoned him to desist from his wickedness in sweeping the mud from the crossing. He may have presented a crucifix, and exclaimed, “Aroint thee, fiend!”; but of that we are not informed. In any case, the summons was ineffectual. The enemy of mankind hardened the heart of Hollis Hollise. He insisted on continuing to sweep away the mud; and young people and old took advantage of his sin, and went over dry-shod. Nay, it is even recorded that John Julian Jackson himself made use of the cleaned path. Here we find an admirable illustration of the Jesuitical maxim that it is permitted to the saints to take advantage of the deeds of sinners. If the Church can benefit by the wrong-doing of a wicked man, it does good to the Church, and does little harm to the wicked man, who is devoted to perdition already. So Mr John Julian Jackson thought it right to keep his boots clean by going over the path that had been prepared by the evil one for the ensnaring of the vain and the frivolous; and probably turned and looked back upon Emilius Hollis Hollis with a glance of love and pity. The next scene represents Marleybone Police-court, all the actors in the drama being present. The crossing-sweeper is arraigned before the majesty of the law for having committed a grievous offence on the Lord’s-Day, commonly called Sunday. Let Emilius Hollis Hollis tremble, for he is not acquainted with statute-books; and he is not aware that the two heroes who confront him have unearthed an instrument which was buried in 1676, wherewith to crush him. This deplorable crossing-sweeper, it appears, has set at nought an Act which was passed in the reign of Charles II, thereby displaying his utter lack of legal and historical knowledge. Some profound person, in that highly moral and exemplary reign, found it necessary for the humbling of pride that thoroughfares should be muddy on Sundays, and that various little articles of food, procurable on other days, should not be procurable on the Lord’s-Day, so as to impress the people with a notion of religious duties. There are some, it is to be feared, whose heart you cannot reach by any appeal; but if you cut off their Sunday beer or their Sunday chop, you touch them to the quick. In like manner, you can impress upon the careless heart of a gay and thoughtless maid-servant the difference between Sunday and a weekday, by compelling her to put her shiny slippers or shoes into the street mud on the former day. For the offence, therefore, of keeping a portion of our thoroughfares clean on Sunday, Emilius Hollis Hollis was fined one shilling and costs; and, doubtless, Mr John Bee Wright and Mr John Julian Jackson (we hope there is no mistake about the last three letters of this gentleman’s name) went home triumphant and rejoicing. Now, if this be the law, we propose that an association be formed for the purpose of enabling people to break the law. On wet days, the streets of London get into a filthy condition; and as the municipal authorities make no effort to render them passable, that duty is left to a corps of small volunteers, who contrive to exist on chance halfpence. Because some stupendous ass of the reign of Charles II formulated a ridiculous law, it is surely hard that we should be compelled to walk through mud on Sunday. We beg to assure reverend gentlemen that wet boots have not the least beneficial effect on the religious emotions. The English Church does not recognise the doctrine of penance, and it is, consequently, useless to lay an embargo on church-going by saying that the pilgrim shall have to undergo privations on the way. Indeed, it is impossible to say what feeling of hostility to the Church may be engendered in the bosom of a submissive “slavery”, or good-humoured apprentice, by his or her having to wade through canals of liquid mud when going out of a Sunday. We cannot all drive about in cabs or carriages; and as the authorities take no heed of the condition into which a few showers of rain precipitate out thoroughfares, there is all the more reason why the voluntary corps of crossing-sweepers should be protected and encouraged. We propose, therefore, that a movement should be started to provide a sum for the payment of such fines as magistrates may be compelled, against their own judgement, to inflict. Fortunately, we can break the law cheaply; and it is better to have a few crossing-sweepers fined a shilling every week, than to have the principal thoroughfares of London rendered impassable.

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