Patrick and I went to Williamsburg for our anniversary over the weekend. We’ve been to Williamsburg on several occasions, but this time I booked tickets to something that we’d never done before: The Official Colonial Williamsburg Ghost Walk. We bundled up and met up with our guide and group at the old weaver’s house. We walked in the chilly dark by lantern light through yard and garden, in between houses and in backyards around Colonial Williamsburg listening to tales of spooky happenings, moving candles, creepy shadows, and the like.
I’m not really “into” ghosts or spooky things, but I have pastor friends who have experienced supernatural things while in old church buildings – unexplained pipe tobacco smells and objects gone missing. Our rational minds usually try to find explanations for these strange occurrences – a slightly open window, pranksters, or a squirrel loose in the attic – but at this time of the year, the ghostly and ghoulish is often on our minds.
John Wesley believed in ghosts – and not only the Holy Ghost! Wesley lived in the 18th century at a time when the Enlightenment thinkers told us that our minds could comprehend most things – that the supernatural was explainable. The rational minds of the 18th century ascribed ghosts and the like to religious “enthusiasts.” John Wesley – an Oxford-educated and enlightened man himself – believed in the supernatural wholeheartedly. He found his evidence in Scripture and in his own life.
There is something enticing about belief in the spiritual and supernatural for Christians – something foundational to Christianity about embracing the mysterious and believing in things we can’t explain.
When Wesley was a boy living in his father’s parsonage – the Old Rectory at Epworth – there was an eight-week period of time between Christmas of 1716 and the beginning of 1717 where the large family was haunted by a poltergeist. A poltergeist is a ghostly spirit that causes objects to move unexpectedly, plays tricks, and makes loud noises. The family nicknamed this poltergeist “Old Jeffrey.” This may seem ridiculous, but the Wesleys were not a “silly” or particularly impractical family. Old Jeffrey was accused by the family of levitating a bed, of making a racket running around the house, trudging up and down the stairs, slamming doors, groaning and making other loud noises, blowing horns, sawing wood, and moving the furniture. At first, the Rev. Samuel Wesley (John’s father) didn’t believe the accounts. Then one night, after hearing strange knocking noises, the Rev. Wesley challenged Old Jeffrey saying, “Thou deaf and dumb devil, why dost thou frighten these children? Come to me, come to my study…I am a man!” Rev. Wesley then noted loud slamming of his study door and could feel someone pressing on his chest while lying in bed.
Old Jeffrey was becoming a nuisance. The family bought a mastiff thinking that the large dog would scare away the ghost. Yet, the large dog proved to be timid and would hide under the table or bed when Old Jeffrey was up to his tricks. Susanna Wesley (John’s mother) became upset that Old Jeffrey would disturb the family’s evening prayers. She reportedly announced to the spirit that she would like silence between 5 and 6 in the evening for the family’s prayer time. And, Old Jeffrey never bothered the family during their prayers. Old Jeffrey went away and never returned, but the Wesley family never denied its existence when people would ask questions about the haunting of the Old Rectory at Epworth.
People of faith have varied interpretations of ghosts and hauntings. There is something enticing about belief in the spiritual and supernatural for Christians – something foundational to Christianity about embracing the mysterious and believing in things we can’t explain. As Halloween creeps upon us, approach the mysterious, the unexplained, even the haunting, with the curiosity of a child. Talk and listen with Christian friends about their own beliefs and experiences of the spiritual and mysterious.