Room for all people

Explore Wesley and the equal treatment of women

There were very little opportunities and freedoms for women in the 18th century compared with life today. Social convention and class largely determined a woman’s prospects in life. When a woman married all that she owned became the property of her husband and any children she bore to him were legally his. Marriage was the only respectable outcome for women, as a life of singleness often brought destitution without the financial support of male family members.

John Wesley thought very highly of women and encouraged them to bear an equal part in sharing the gospel. Wesley objected to men describing women as ‘agreeable playthings’, to be seen and not heard. He called this the ‘deepest unkindness’ and ‘horrid cruelty’. John Wesley spoke out against the oppression of women and this ‘vile bondage’. He celebrated women as image bearers of God, equal candidate for immortality. These Christian values and the experience of his upbringing in Epworth with his mother Susanna made a significant impression on him. However his marriage to Mary (Molly) Vazeille was an unhappy one and the pair eventually separated. 

John Wesley acted on his beliefs by employing a housekeeper at his ‘new room’. A housekeeper in the 18th century was a well respected role; a keeper of the keys, the housekeeper would be trusted with managing the affairs of the household. In 1743 John Wesley asked Sarah Perrin to become the housekeeper because he wanted someone who could also lead class groups and encourage good behaviour. He asked her to ensure that people behaved appropriately in the chapel and put her in charge of selling the books that he and Charles wrote.

We can assume that the thoughts, beliefs and actions of Wesley and other Methodist preachers would have had an impact on the way women were treated in Methodist circles. Sadly, much of the written material we have access to today has been penned by men. However, there is one story which stands out amongst others and that is the story of Sarah Ryan, another housekeeper at the New Room. John Wesley saw in her a potential that no one else did and she proved an excellent housekeeper. She rejoiced in a new lifestyle that was, in her words, ‘full of light, joy, love and holiness’. Discover her full story within the museum.

Sarah Crosby (1729-1804), Sarah Ryan (1724-1768), and Selina Countess of Huntingdon (1707-1791), among others all became prominent figures in the Methodist movement. There have since been countless women through the centuries of different cultures, ethnicities, and languages from around the world who have made their mark on Methodism. As society has developed and changed over the years, so to have the opportunities and freedoms for women. There still remain topics for question and debate and there are certainly many more stories which remain unseen or unheard.

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