Sarah Ryan: Housekeeper at the New Room and Kingswood School

by G. M. Best

In 1755 John Wesley appointed a working-class woman in her thirties called Sarah Ryan to become the housekeeper at the New Room and Kingswood School. It was a highly contentious decision because Sarah had had a very chequered love life and many society members questioned how Wesley could choose someone who had three living husbands. Though his action led to a major conflict with his own wife, Wesley had the satisfaction of seeing just how well Sarah responded to being given the opportunity to start her life afresh.

Born in 1724, Sarah was brought up in a God-fearing family but her childhood became increasingly unhappy because her father increasingly turned to drink and became an alcoholic and her mother ended up in the poor house. Sarah was sent to bring in money for the family by working as a domestic servant. Her own verdict on her early life was that she ended up as a very bad young woman:

As I grew in years, my ill tempers gathered strength. I was artful, subtle, cunning; often loved and made lies, and had little regard either to justice, mercy, or truth.

At the age of nineteen, she married a cork cutter, not realising that he was already married. After he deserted her, Sarah took up employment in the house of an Italian Jew called Solomon Benreken. He pursued her and eventually it was agreed that they would be engaged. In the eighteenth century formal declarations of intent to marry signaled a de facto marriage. Many couples never bothered to go beyond that and engage in an actual marriage ceremony. It is not clear whether Sarah and Solomon had or had not commenced living together as man and wife when she was suddenly swept off her feet by an Irish seafaring man called Ryan. She was later to write that the moment she first saw Ryan ‘it was as if Satan entered into me…his words stole as oil into my bones’. Ryan seduced her. She says that was because he was ‘bent on her ruin’. She felt she had no choice but to break off her ‘marriage’ to Benreken and marry Ryan. It was a terrible mistake. Ryan lived off her wages and regularly abused her. He also gave her a sexually transmitted infection. She ended up having to receive treatment for this in a hospital for ‘bad women’. Ryan eventually returned to sea and news came that he had drowned. Sarah then found herself once more dependent on working for the Benreken family. However, this proved temporary. It was discovered that Ryan was still alive and living in America.

Sarah was condemned by some Methodists as a wanton woman and some historians have chosen to continue giving her a bad press. Women are still often blamed far more than men over issues of sexual behaviour and it is alleged by some writers that Sarah only later wrote about her affairs with her three husbands so she could cast herself as a victim and gain sympathy. That is grossly unfair. Her first husband was a bigamist and her third husband deliberately seduced and abused her. Only in her treatment of Benreken is Sarah open to criticism and even then we cannot know to what extent she felt compelled to enter into a relationship with her employer. Why should she be viewed so negatively when we know there is evidence pointing to her inherent goodness? We know, for example, that, whilst she was in hospital, she counselled teenage prostitutes and her subsequent positive influence on others was to be very marked.

John Wesley knew Sarah because she had been a member of the Methodist society at the Foundery almost from its foundation. As a seventeen-year old she had first been attracted to Methodism by hearing George Whitefield preach. According to Sarah, she was torn between wanting to be a good person and wanting to live just a life of pleasure:

The thirst of praise and of pleasure swelled my soul and tossed me about as a bubble on the water…I sinned and repented, and sinned again, having great desires to be a Christian, but no power…The Spirit drove me one way, my passions another; so that I was all a troubled sea.

One of the reasons why her husband Ryan mistreated her was because of her desire to worship at the Foundery. By 1754 Wesley had become her spiritual mentor. She says it was his preaching that led her to feel ‘such an hatred of sin as I never felt before’ and to see ‘more clearly the depth of iniquity’ that was in her heart. This enabled her, despite being ‘a wilful sinner’ to be on occasions ‘quite overwhelmed with the power and love of God’. She later provided this vivid account of the moment when she felt she was assured of God’s forgiveness for her past sins:

I felt a cold sweat and a trembling come over me…I felt my strength quite taken away, and fell out of my chair. In a moment I saw (not with my bodily eyes) the Lord Jesus standing before me and saying ‘This day is salvation come to this house’. I saw all my works and attainments laid at his feet, as nothing worth: and I saw my soul, as it were, taken up and plunged into God… [The Lord said] ‘Neither heights, nor depths, nor things present, nor things to come, nor any other creature, shall for one moment separate thy soul from me, in time or eternity.

Sending her to Bristol was Wesley’s way of encouraging her to make an entirely new start. He told her not to go to America to rejoin her abusive husband Ryan but to use her appointment as housekeeper to show she could lead an exemplary life.

On what a pinnacle do you stand! You are placed in the eye of all the world, friends and enemies. You have no experience of these things; no knowledge of the people; no advantages of education; not large natural abilities; and are but a novice, as it were, in the ways of God! It requires all the omnipotent love of God to preserve you in your present station. Stand fast in the Lord, and in the power of his might! Show that nothing is too hard for him. Take to thee the whole armour of God.

Her appointment gives us a particular insight into the way in which the New Room was run because of Wesley’s correspondence with her on her new role, and I have written about that in my history of the New Room. One of Sarah’s duties was to ensure that everyone showed ‘holiness to the Lord’ within a building that was dedicated to God. Wesley told her she was not to allow any ‘unprofitable conversation’ to take place and that she should prevent entry to any ‘impertinent’ visitors. However, her chief role was to look after the welfare of the preachers housed at the New Room and the teachers and boarders at Kingswood School - quite a demanding task, especially given the two buildings were over three miles apart.

Chief among the opponents to Sarah’s appointment was Wesley’s wife, and Molly did not disguise her feelings when she visited the New Room. She openly insulted Sarah in front of the preachers then in residence, describing her as a whore. She warned them to stay away from a woman who had three living husbands. Afterwards John wrote to Sarah apologising as best he could for his wife’s rude behaviour:

I never saw you so much moved as you appeared that evening. Your soul was then greatly troubled; and a variety of conflicting passions, love, sorrow, desire, with a kind of despair, were easy to read in your countenance.

He told her that it was no bad thing ‘to go through both evil and good report’ and the important thing was that she should respond positively and not negatively:

Did you feel no stirring of resentment?...no desire or wish that things should be otherwise?... Had you still the same degree of communion with God?...Was not your heart unhinged at all? Was it not ruffled or discomposed? 

Molly Wesley became highly suspicious of the correspondence passing between her husband and Sarah. She searched John’s pockets and found one of his letters to Sarah. We do not know for certain which one she read, but we have a letter dated 20 January 1758 that shows the kind of thing John was writing:

The conversing with you, either by speaking or writing, is an unspeakable blessing to me. I cannot think of you without thinking of God. Others often lead me to him; but…you bring me straight into his presence.

Molly was livid and she assumed that John and Sarah were having an affair. Most historians have tended to be highly critical of Molly and all have rejected the idea that Wesley was having an affair with Sarah. However, in Molly’s defence it is worth saying that John’s letters to his wife were essentially business-like in their tone so it must have come as a shock to her to read letters to Sarah that were far warmer in their tone. Molly’s first response was to threaten to leave her husband but then, instead, she embarked on deliberately making his life miserable. John wrote to Sarah on 10 February 1758 that he was tired of being ‘continually watched over for evil’ and having every word he spoke and every action he took examined ‘with no friendly eye’. His wife, he said, was constantly uttering ‘a thousand little, tart, unkind reflections’.

John seems to have thought the answer lay in Sarah proving to his wife and the world that she was a very virtuous woman. He wrote to Sarah:

I want your words to be full of grace, poured out as a precious ointment. I want your every work to bear the stamp of God, to be a sacrifice of a sweet-smelling savour.

Sarah responded with great determination. Our best view of this comes from the writing of Mary Bosanquet, the future wife of the Rev. John Fletcher, the so-called ‘saint of Methodism’. Mary was in Bristol undergoing medical help and, although she came from a wealthy and more socially upmarket family, she became very friendly with Sarah:

The more I conversed with Mrs Ryan the more I discovered of the glory of God, breaking forth from within, and felt a strong attraction to consider her as friend of my soul. I told her the past sins, follies, and mercies of my life, and received a similar account from her.

And Sarah returned that friendship:

I long for your perfection. Don’t lose one moment but see you gain spiritual strength every day…As to me, my dear, enjoy me in God, look for me in God, find me in God, love me in God, and live with me in God, then shall you die with me into God and we shall live with God together.

As far as we can tell, Sarah Ryan seems to have worked assiduously with all the preachers assigned to help in the Bristol circuit. Among these were John Furze`, Peter Jaco, and two plain-speaking men who had fought as soldiers in the War of the Austrian Succession, William Hitchins and John Haime. And the evidence we have suggests Sarah did a fine job. For example, Elizabeth Johnson, a highly regarded society member at the New Room, recorded how much she and her friends were inspired by Sarah:

We were enabled to make an entire surrender of will and affection, and to receive the Lord Jesus more fully for our King, than we had ever done before.

However, nothing that Sarah did satisfied Molly. She refused to accompany her husband on his preaching tours, saying his itinerancy was just an excuse to have affairs with other women. Their relationship grew progressively worse over the coming years and Molly left Wesley altogether in 1771 (although by then Sarah had long been dead). She remained a constant thorn in his flesh. After an abortive attempt at a reconciliation in 1778, John wrote Molly a stinging letter of rebuke:

You have laid innumerable stumbling blocks in the way of both the wise and unwise. You have…increased the number of rebels, deists, and atheists; and weakened the hands of those that love and fear God. If you were to live a thousand years twice told, you could not undo the mischief which you have done…I bid you Farewell.

Sarah felt the opportunity to start afresh at the New Room and Kingswood transformed her life. Suddenly she felt ‘full of light, joy, love and holiness’:

I now know where my strength lieth, and my soul is continually sinking more and more into God. I find my whole heart and affections entirely fixed on the Lord Jesus, I have no will but what is conformable to his; no happiness, but in doing his pleasure…To him I entirely consecrate myself: to him be might, majesty, and dominion, now and for evermore!

The attacks on her character made by Molly and doubtless others did not get her down. Why this was so is indicated in advice she gave to a friend:

If unkindly used, remember he [Jesus] was despised and rejected of men, Jesus loves you - love him again - cry for power to do so…tell him you will not let him go…He will make you better…[and] he will receive you and wash you in his blood.

Unfortunately Sarah had been given too much to do in Bristol. Acting as housekeeper at both the New Room and Kingswood School was a huge task. She began increasingly to suffer from serious ill health. In 1761 she took to drinking a foul tasting mixture of pine tar and water as a remedial tonic but this did not help her and it probably made matters worse. By 1762 it was obvious that she could not continue in her demanding role. It was agreed therefore that she should leave and she went to help Mary Bosanquet set up a house in Leytonstone for destitute children and impoverished women. Mary had the money and Sarah the practical know-how. The house was called ‘The Cedars’ and it had the capacity to hold fifteen to twenty residents. Sarah and Mary were given support by two friends, Mary Clarke and Sarah Crosby, but the main burden fell on them. Over the next five years they supported 35 children (mostly girls) and 34 adults. As well as providing a home, food and clothing, the women offered the residents an education. Reading, writing, and basic maths were taught alongside good manners and the practical skills that would help the residents find employment either in nursing or domestic service. Local neighbours objected to ‘the Cedars’ bringing in ‘undesirable’ women into the area and both Sarah and Mary faced regular abuse in the streets.

Thus at Leytonstone Sarah continued to live up to the trust that Wesley had placed in her. Mary Bosanquet, who had come to regard Sarah more like a mother than a friend, said Sarah’s manner of living at ‘the Cedars’ exemplified the eight beatitudes all put into practice. Her huge influence on Mary was to be very important because of Mary’s subsequent role within Methodism. In March 1764 Sarah wrote her last surviving letter to Wesley. In it she thanked him for all the confidence he had shown in her. She said she had received more good through him than any other person in the world.

Unfortunately her health continued to decline and, as her role became inevitably more and more restricted Wesley appears to have cooled towards her. He was never very sympathetic when illness prevented a person from doing all that Wesley wanted and, more importantly, we know from one of his letters that he viewed Sarah as someone who was prepared to tell him more of what he was doing wrong ‘than all the world besides’. Wesley never liked being challenged and he probably took offence at some comment she made.

By 1768 Sarah was very seriously ill. Mary Bosanquet decided to shut ‘the Cedars’ down so that Sarah could recuperate. The two women agreed they would open an orphanage in a healthier place than Leytonstone. However Sarah died in August 1768. Her friends inscribed on her grave the simple epitaph: ‘Sarah Ryan who lived and died a Christian’.

Above - Statue of Sarah Ryan in the Common Room at John Wesley's New Room

Above - Portrait of John Wesley

Above - Portrait of Mary Bosanquet

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