Tuesday marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of one of Britain's most influential religious figures, but you don't need to be remotely religious to have been influenced by John Wesley. His Methodism played a major role in the origins of trade unionism and the evolution of the United States of America. The Labour Party, the old saying goes, owes more to Methodism than Marxism, and George W Bush is just the latest of several Methodists to become US president.
Today, 70 million people around the world call themselves Methodists, but the roots of Wesley's radical Christianity are in Lincolnshire. A tour of its Methodist landmarks adds up to an intriguing introduction to this striking yet frequently forgotten county.
Wesley was born on 17 June, 1703, in the market town of Epworth, on the county's northern edge. His father, Samuel, was the rector here, but his strident views made him a controversial figure; the fire that destroyed the old rectory where John was born was probably arson. John was plucked from an attic window just before the blazing roof fell in, convincing his devout mother that God had saved him for great things.
Undeterred, Samuel built a new rectory on the same site. John Wesley was raised in this regal Queen Anne house, eventually becoming his father's curate. The rectory is intensely atmospheric, and reputedly haunted. Even coach parties can't dispel its powerful sense of the past.
By the time Wesley returned to Epworth, in 1742, his Methodism had become a religious revolution. In the centre of town is the rugged Market Cross, where he preached. Overlooking the town is St Andrews, Samuel Wesley's church, where John and his prolific hymn-writing brother Charles (author of more than 6,000 hymns) were baptised.
By now, John's charismatic leadership and social conscience were such a challenge to the Church of England that he was barred from preaching here and refused communion.
"At the time, the Church of England was more for the aristocracy and the wealthier people, which John thought was wrong," says Andrew Milson, the curator of Epworth's Old Rectory Museum. Defiant, like his father, John was to preach in the graveyard, using his father's tomb as a pulpit.
When Samuel died in 1735, John's mother moved to Gainsborough ("one of the handsomest towns in Lincolnshire," said John) and John preached here in the magnificent half-timbered Tudor hall. Yet the oldest Methodist chapel in Lincolnshire is in the tiny hamlet of Raithby, hidden away amid rolling green hills between Lincoln and Skegness.
Robert Carr Brackenbury, owner of Raithby Hall, was one of Wesley's best friends, and in 1779 he built the preacher a compact but graceful chapel in the grounds of his imposing stately home. It is one of the few Methodist chapels actually opened by Wesley, and is still a place of worship today. Wesley called it "a palace in the midst of paradise". Although its appeal is intimate rather than palatial (it's built above a stable) its tranquil setting has hardly changed. "You can imagine him being here in the village and in this chapel and he wouldn't seem out of place today," says the local Methodist minister, Brian Dobby. "Preaching here in this chapel is something very special."
Wesley's tercentenary will be celebrated on Tuesday in a service at Lincoln Cathedral. This vast medieval masterpiece - perched on a steep hill, surrounded by a warren of winding lanes - is one of England's holy treasures.
Tuesday's ecumenical tribute would surely have pleased Wesley, who remained an Anglican priest throughout his life; Methodism became a separate church only in 1795, four years after his death. However, for most of his life, Wesley's relationship with Lincoln was remote. His father was imprisoned for debt in its Norman castle, whose robust battlements still contain a working courthouse. His sister also spent an unhappy time here as a browbeaten, impoverished teacher. Maybe that's why Wesley didn't set foot in this ancient citadel for more than 50 years. In between, he criss-crossed the country on horseback.
Wesley finally returned to Lincoln at the grand old age of 76. Tellingly, perhaps, he preached his first sermon here in the Castle Yard, whose walls had held his father. Yet on his last visit, in 1790, just a year before his death, it seems his attitude had mellowed. Lincoln Cathedral, he declared, was "more elegant than that at York". And it sounds as though he liked its people better, too. "They had not so much fire and vigour of spirit," he wrote, "but far more mildness and gentleness." It is a remarkably good metaphor for the mild and gentle charm of Lincolnshire, whose subtle beauty and discreet treasures make it one of England's undiscovered treats.
Lincoln tourist information; 01522 873 213. Details of tercentenary events on www.wesley2003.org.uk
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