Ghosts, supernaturalism and the Wesley poltergeist

October 28th, 2015

Ghosts are popular these days. If you don’t believe me, take a look at your cable television programming lineup. Haunted this. Ghost that. Paranormal whatever.

Now, I believe in maintaining a healthy skepticism when it comes to anything I see on TV, whether it’s the evening news or a reality show. And frankly, I suspect that much of the alleged paranormal activity on these shows is either exaggerated or outright fabricated.

But that doesn’t mean I discount the supernatural.

In 2012 I wrote a blog series about supernatural topics on Ministry Matters during the four weeks leading up to Halloween. I received all kinds of interesting emails, many sharing personal experiences of paranormal encounters. Some of these were from clergy — including mainline clergy!

Looking back, It’s somewhat remarkable that I received this kind of response, because in some religious circles, if someone says they believe ghosts and demons are real, they’ll get “the look.” Mainline Christianity in particular is notorious for its anti-supernaturalism.

However, mainliners aren’t alone. I’ve run into plenty of garden-variety evangelicals who don’t seem very receptive to things they can’t see or explain either.

But it wasn’t always this way.

Take my own tradition. I’m a Methodist evangelical whose theology has been heavily influenced by the teachings of John Wesley, an 18th century Anglican priest. Wesley was an Oxford-educated clergyman who came along during the Enlightenment — not exactly the golden age of supernaturalism in the Western church.

John Wesley

Nevertheless, Wesley believed in angels, demons and other supernatural beings, and he was quite open-minded regarding the existence of witchcraft, ghosts, apparitions and the like. And based on entries in his journals, he wasn’t quick to dismiss others’ stories about their encounters with the supernatural, especially if he knew them as persons of integrity.

Perhaps John Wesley found it easier to see the world through a supernatural lens as an adult partly because of one of his childhood experiences — the alleged poltergeist that haunted the Old Rectory in Epworth where he grew up. (A poltergeist is a ghost or other supernatural being supposedly responsible for physical disturbances such as loud noises and objects thrown around.)

The spirit, referred to as “Old Jeffrey” by the Wesleys, was active for about eight weeks during December 1716 and January 1717, and most members of the family wrote at some point about their experiences with the entity.

Two servants were the first to hear Jeffrey’s groanings and knockings in the dining room. Then the Wesley children began hearing those noises as well as sounds of footsteps, rattling chains, horns being blown and wood being sawed. There were also accounts of moving furniture, including a levitating bed that was occupied at the time by John’s older sister Nancy.

Before long, everyone in the house except John’s father Samuel was experiencing the phenomena. Rev. Wesley even rebuked the family and the servants for perpetuating such tales.

Then Samuel Wesley began having his own encounters with Old Jeffrey. One night, after being awakened by knocking, Rev. Wesley, after trying to figure out where the noises were coming from, issued the spirit a challenge: “Thou deaf and dumb devil,” he shouted, “why dost thou frighten these children!? Come to me, come to my study... I am a man!”

Old Jeffrey responded that evening with knocking, and the following evening by slamming the door of Samuel’s study forcefully just as the reverend was opening it. Samuel also claimed to feel someone pressing on his chest later while he was lying in bed.

So the Wesleys bought a large dog — a mastiff — hoping to scare Jeffrey away. The dog, however, was terrified. It whimpered and hid under the table whenever Jeffrey manifested.

Susanna Wesley

John’s mother Susanna was so concerned that the poltergeist was going to disturb her evening prayer time that she told Old Jeffrey she didn’t want to be interrupted between 5 and 6 p.m. — and she never was!

If you search online, you’ll find many other stories about this series of paranormal events. Today the haunting of the Old Rectory at Epworth is considered one of the most famous poltergeist cases in British history.

Is it possible that some of the claims were exaggerated? Perhaps. But I suspect there’s more truth to the stories than fiction. As far as I can tell, every Wesley family member who wrote about what they experienced, including John Wesley himself, defended the veracity of the accounts, even years later.

I share this story because I believe it illustrates that we live in a world where the things we experience don’t always have a natural or logical explanation. Everything that happens to us isn’t necessarily going to fit into our favorite theological paradigm. In fact, when we try to force our experiences to make them fit — or deny them altogether — we risk damaging our faith, because what we’re essentially doing is painting ourselves into a corner.

When we go down that road, sooner or later we’re going to have a crisis of belief, likely because we expected a world that we can’t see to play by the rules of the world we can see.

One thing I really appreciate about my Catholic brothers and sisters is their embrace of mystery. The Roman Catholic Church doesn’t typically feel the need to downplay difficult teachings or dismiss extraordinary experiences that defy explanation. Protestants, on the other hand, save charismatics and a few others, seem almost embarrassed by belief in supernatural phenomena in the modern church. And this attitude isn’t unique to our century. Read what John Wesley wrote in his journal in 1768:

It is true likewise, that the English in general, and indeed most of the men of learning in Europe, have given up all accounts of witches and apparitions as mere old wives' fables. I am sorry for it, and I willingly take this opportunity of entering my solemn protest against this violent compliment which so many that believe the Bible pay to those who do not believe it. I owe them no such service. I take knowledge that these are at the bottom of the outcry which has been raised, and with such insolence spread through the land, in direct opposition, not only to the Bible, but to the suffrage of the wisest and the best of men in all ages and nations. They well know (whether Christians know it or not) that the giving up of witchcraft is in effect giving up the Bible. With my latest breath I will bear testimony against giving up to infidels one great proof of the invisible world; I mean that of witchcraft and apparitions, confirmed by the testimony of all ages.

Wesley saw supernatural phenomena, both good and evil, as proof of the existence of a spiritual realm.

We should look at it the same way. Consider this:

The kingdom of God is supernatural. Jesus Christ — God in the flesh — was born to a virgin. He performed miracles, healed the sick, walked on water, raised the dead, was himself resurrected after being crucified and is alive right now.

As incredible as all that is, we believe it. We also believe in a spiritual dimension, even though we can’t see it with our physical eyes.

Why should it be such a leap to believe that spiritual beings from that dimension, both good and evil, can interact with this one?

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