[From Mannin #9,1917]
THE great evangelist was twice in Mann, and his visits, brief as they were, furnish a particularly full view of his characteristics, even of his weaknesses.
We say 'weaknesses' advisedly. After all, those who influence their fellows most profoundly are those who join the spark of genius with a due supply of harmless human foibles. Our own poet has hit off neatly-
That prim and that puffeck the divil dar'n
Come nigh them, it's lek.
And they never done wrong. And they never done right.
St. Paul's ex cathedra pronouncements are probably more impressive because he considered it necessary to prelude others with the frank admission that there spoke Paul the human thinker, and in the same way the British St. Paul's wholehearted objections to Dissent, and his ultra-Saxon strictures on the Manx tongue are the harmless and wholesome bits of shade that accentuate the candescence of his genius.
On both occasions Wesley came to the Island round about the start of June. It may be premised that the great campaign that awakened the slumbering British conscience was in Mann regarded as much askance by the powers in authority as it was in the rest of the Kingdom, and more heartily seconded by the laity in general than almost anywhere else, according to Wesley's own testimony. In the year before the Evangelist's first visit, an Episcopal condemnation of the new movement was issued and posted in Manx and English in all the churches of the Island, but by 1789 the accredited followers of the revivified faith numbered nearly 2,600, out of an alleged population of 30,000.
At the end of May, 1777, Wesley landed at Douglas. He was much struck with the look of the place, comparing it to Newlyn. He was much ahead of his contemporaries in his appreciation of natural beauties. Indeed, it is remarkable that, speeding as he did on his business at a rate that no hustling Yankee could better, he found strength of brain to note and pigeon-hole the places he visited so clearly. He is, in the journal, for ever drawing comparisons--Castletown, to which he proceeded from Douglas, put him in mind of Galway-another graceful compliment all round.
He expresses surprise in the journal at finding the land between the two towns cultivated, and with good houses and gardens. This is rather curious. Why should he be surprised ? It looks as though the two-and-twenty preachers who were working the Island by that time could not have sent a very distinct account of it to headquarters. Did Wesley come over possessed of an idea that Mann had only reached a Wild and Woolly Western stage of civilisation ?
At Castletown, he preached near the Castle, and was delighted with the effect on his hearers, the women in particular he found most attentive and easily affected. On June 1st he reached Peel. Here the vicar would willingly have allowed him the use of the church, but, in accordance with the Bishop's ban of the previous year he was unable to do so. The weather was showery, the morning's preaching was therefore conducted in a malt house. In the afternoon the rain stopped long enough for a meeting in the churchyard (1). The demeanour of the congregation brought forth an encomium so delightfully characteristic, that it must be given in the original words :
'A more loving, simple-hearted people I never saw,' Wesley confides to the journal 'And no wonder, for they have but six Papists and no Dissenters in the Island.'
'The population numbers thirty thousand,' he likewise records, 'all seemingly courteous and humane.'
From Peel he returned to Douglas, accompanied by Mr. and Mrs. Smythe, two Irish followers of the revival, who had come to Mann to meet him. The Rev. Mr. Smythe, nephew of an archbishop, and a man likely to rise high in the Church, shattered his prospects at the call of the new Evangel, and spoke so plainly about iniquity in high places, that he was compelled to shelter in a thatched cabin with his young bride. It was on this journey to Douglas that Wesley furbished up a certain ancient skill with the ribbons, and insisted on driving a chaise and two, with Mrs. Smythe as passenger.
The result was disastrous. The journal shyly records the climax-engineered between restive horses and a stone that got in the way, at a mercifully nice soft spot. Mrs. Smythe's own account has survived, and the becoming gratitude it sets forth is much to her credit.
'He, (Wesley) told me he could drive a chaise forty years ago,' she records, but, poor, dear man, his hand seemed out of practice. At last we were both pitched out on a green plain, as the Lord in mercy ordered it, for had we been overset in some parts of the road, it is more than probable we should have been killed on the spot. Next morning I was scarce able to stir, and thought it likely I should leave my bones in a Douglas churchyard.'
It is a delightfully human little episode-the ancient Apostle, in his seventy-fourth year at the time, airing his rusted skill to the probable astonishment of the Peel Douglas road. We can also surmise pleasantly, that the sprightly Mrs, Smythe enjoyed the whole affair, in spite of the fearsome morning-after effects. Anyway, a stay on courteous and humane Mann must have formed an agreeable change from life in a tumble-down cabin and an atmosphere of persecution.
The first visit was now wound up by a final preaching at Douglas, to an assembly which Wesley describes as nearly as large as that at Peel, but not nearly so attentive. Peel seems to have established itself already as his favourite in Mann, as we will see later. So ends his first pastoral round.
Four years later, in 1781, a more extensive tour was made. Again, immediately after his arrival, the Douglas Castletown road affords the Evangelist matter for surprised comment. This time it is the hard-working disposition of Manx wild birds. In England, he observes, the birds only sing in the morning and evening, in favoured Mann the thrushes and others warble all day long, even in the heat of noon.
On Whit Sunday, June 4th, he preached again in the market-square of Castletown; afternoon saw a great meeting at Barrule, while evening found the indefatigable patriarch, only two years short of four score now, preaching on the shore of his well-beloved Peel. Again he had the warmest praise for his favourite Manx town:
'Hardly in all England (unless, perhaps, at Bolton) have I found so plain, so earnest, and so simple a people,' is his tribute.
At his next important meeting place, Kirk Andreas, the rain, which appears to have fallen during most of his visit, obligingly suspended while he preached. Even the weather seems to have been bent on giving him a good opinion of Mann, for the same phenomenon attended at Ramsey, where all the town turned out to hear him. At the time Ramsey had got itself, a bad name with the twenty-two resident preachers. They forewarned the leader that they saw little hope of good there, but Wesley, following his usual tendency to trust all signs of better nature, was disposed to disagree with them.
Returning to Peel, he was introduced to a band of Manx singers. He has left on record that he had never heard better singing. 'Who would have expected this in the Isle of Mann ?' he supplements naively.
Really, one would like to know what he had been led to expect of the Isle altogether? To be surprised at good music in any land with a prominent Celtic element in it is rather irrational. The fact that the Wesley family were Anglo-Saxon of the Anglo-Saxons may perhaps explain it.
On this visit Wesley went out of the way to see Bishopscourt, and at Kirk Michael he sought out the grave of Bishop Wilson, to whom he pays a warm tribute in the journal. It was at Peel, before his final departure for Douglas and England, that he summed up the conclusions of his Manx experiences.
'Having visited the Isle, north, south, east and west, I conclude we have no such circuit in England or Ireland.' He declares,
'Here is no opposition-from the Governor, a mild, humane man; from the Bishop, a good man; or the bulk of the clergy. The natives are plain, artless, simple people, few rich or genteel, the most moderately poor.'
Wesley seems to have shared the opinion expressed later by a lady visitor to Mann : that there were no gentry in the Isle, but all the common folk were ladies and gentlemen. 'Artless' makes one pause, though. As he records offhandedly, at another time, 'smuggling has been put down,' one fears some of the Manx were not quite so artless as he supposed.
So ended his personal connection with Ellan Vannin, but always he cherished a warm interest in the Isle.
And this brings us to the saddest shade in the picture. It shall be set forth in the actual wording of letter to George Holder, Chief Assistant in Mann, written in 1789.
'Dear George,-. I exceedingly disapprove of publishing anything in the Manx language. On the contrary, we should do everything in our power to abolish it from the earth - . . This would be much hindered by providing them (Manx Wesleyans) with hymns in their own tongue. Therefore, gently and quietly, let the proposal drop.' . . .
When the Bishop of a later date referred to our language as 'an unmitigated portion of the curse of Babel,' we could afford to smile. Humour blunts the sting it also points, but this cold matter-of-fact condemnation -short-sighted as most matter-of-fact things are-is rather staggering. Ethnology may explain it, it may be, by the inability of the Saxon mind to understand the passionate love for the sheer music of the ancient Celtic tongues that is implanted in every Celtic brain. But granting that, why this militant opposition to the fact on the part of one who was broad-minded beyond his generation? This must probably go on the list of historical mysteries, in company with the 'Masque de Fer', 'Kirk o' Fields,' and the 'Marie Celeste.'
In any case, time brings all things into proper perspective, foibles and weaknesses that loom so large in their actual day, are swallowed in oblivion-as a lighted match burns out to nothing, though when held near the eyes it out-glared the moon-and the real and worth are established for ever.
So it is likely the Manx tongue will endure as long as the everlasting fame of John Wesley does, and the the fame of John Wesley will last as long as the imperishable Celtic tongues endure.
Jessie D. KERRUISH
(1) When an oaken chair, presented by Mr, J. Cooper to the Manx Museum, was used by him as a pulpit. An interesting relic of this or a subsequent visit is the venerable pear tree at which he preached, still standing on the lawn at Kentraugh, which accommodated his congregation.-Ed.
FPC - Extracts from Wesley's Journal are available