Wednesday, August 01, 2018

The haunting of old Epworth rectory

Apparitional evidence is a neglected line of evidence in contemporary Christian apologetics. Although it doesn't necessarily prove the Christian faith directly, it debunks naturalism. Moreover, some kinds of apparitions intersect with Christian theology. 

A striking example involves the Wesley clan, made retroactively famous by John and Charles Wesley. When their father pastored a church in Epworth, the parsonage was assailed by poltergeist activity. This is recorded in Adam Clarke's, Memoirs of the Wesley Family. Clarke quotes primary source documents from the parents and siblings of John and Charles. So we have multiple independent attestation. 

In theory, some of the auditory phenomena might be naturally explicable if attributed to malicious neighbors pranking the Wesleys. However, there's also physical (visual, tactile) phenomena inside the parsonage, witnessed by members of the household. These are firsthand reports, by multiple observers: 

I know not whether it was in the morning after Sunday the 23d, when about seven my daughter Emily called her mother into the nursery, and told her she might now hear the noises there. She went in, and heard it at the bedstead, then under the bed, then at the head of it. She knocked, and it answered her. She looked under the bed, and thought something ran from thence, but could not well tell of what shape, but thought it most like a badger.

Several nights the latch of our lodging-chamber would be lifted up very often, when all were in bed. One night, when the noise was great in the kitchen, and on a deal partition, and the door in the yard, the latch whereof was often lifted up, my daughter Emilia went and held it fast on the inside : but it was still lifted up, and the door pushed violently against her, though nothing was to be seen on the outside. 

After nine, Robert Brown sitting alone by the fire in the back kitchen, something came out of the copper hole like a rabbit, but less, and turned round five times very swiftly. Its ears lay flat upon its neck, and its little scut stood straight up. He ran after it with the tongs in his hands; but when he could find nothing, he was frighted, and went to the maid in the parlour. 

The next evening between five and six o'clock my sister Molly, then about twenty years of age, sitting' in the dining room, reading, heard as if it were the door that led into the hall open, and a person walking in, that seemed to have on a silk night-gown, rustling and trailing along. It seemed to walk round her, then to the door, then round again: but she could see nothing. She thought," it signifies nothing to run away; for whatever it is, it can run faster than me." So she rose, put her book under her arm, and walked slowly away.

In the morning she told this to my eldest sister, who told her, "You know, I believe none of these things. Pray let me take away the candle tonight, and I will find out the trick." She accordingly took my sister Hetty's place; and had no sooner taken away the candle, than she heard a noise below. She hastened down stairs to the hall, where the noise was. But it was then in the kitchen. She ran into the kitchen, where it was drumming on the inside of the screen. When she went round it was drumming on the outside, and so always on the side opposite to her. Then she heard a knocking at the back kitchen door. She ran to it; unlocked it softly; and when the knocking was repeated, suddenly opened it: but nothing was to be seen. As soon as she had shut it, the knocking began again. She opened it again, but could see nothing: when she went to shut the door, it was violently thrust against her; she let it fly open, but nothing appeared. She went again to shut it, and it was again thrust against her.

Till this time, my father had never heard the least disturbances in his study. But the next evening, as he attempted to go into his study, (of which none had any key but himself,) when he opened the door, it was thrust back with such violence, as had like to have thrown him down.

But my sister Hetty, who sits always to wait on my father going to bed, was still sitting on the lowest step on the garret stairs, the door being shut at her back, when soon after there came down the stairs behind her something like a man, in a loose nightgown trailing after him, which made her fly rather than run to me in the nursery. 

If you would know my opinion of the reason of this, I shall briefly tell you. I believe it to be witchcraft, for these reasons : About a year since, there was a disturbance at a town near us, that was undoubtedly witches ; and if so near, why may they not reach us ? Then my father had for several Sundays before its coming preached warmly against consulting those that are called cunning men, which our people are given to ; and it had a particular spite at my father. 

Beside, something was thrice seen. The first time by my mother, under my sister's bed, like a badger, only without any head that was discernible. The same creature was sat by the dining room fire one evening; when our man went into the room, it run by him, through the hall under the stairs. He followed with a candle, and searched, but it was departed. The last time he saw it in the kitchen, like a white rabbit, which seems likely to be some witch...

One thing I believe you do not know, that is, last Sunday, to my father's no small amazement, his trencher [wooden plate] danced upon the table a pretty while, without any body's stirring the table. 

When I was there, the windows and doors began to jar, and ring exceedingly…Before I was out of the room, the latch of the back kitchen door was lifted up many times. I opened the door and looked out, but could see nobody. I tried to shut the door, but it was thrust against me, and I could feel the latch, which I held in my hand, moving upward at the same time. I looked out again: but finding it was labour lost, clapped the door to, and locked it. Immediately the latch was moved strongly up and down: but I left it, and went up.

The bed on which my sister Nancy sat was lifted up with her on it. She leapt down and said, "for surely old Jeffrey would not run away with her." However, they persuaded her to sit down again, which she had scarce done, when it was again lifted up several times successively a considerable height, upon which she left her seat, and would not be prevailed upon to sit there any more. 


  1. Hi Steve,

    I've been reading your blog a long time, but I can't remember - do you have a personal view on what a poltergeist *is* (or what they are, if you believe there are multiple explanations).

    FWIW, I don't think I'm personally well-informed enough to have a view (other than a non-natural phenomena).


    1. Depends on the specific circumstances. In some cases it might be demonic. In other cases it might be an angry ghost. An earthbound spirit/damned soul. A decedent who's punishment prior to the day of judgment is to be a wandering spirit or else to haunt their old stomping grounds.

  2. John Wesley recounts seeming poltergeist activity in his family's house when young (starting at the bottom of page 474)

    But in a letter he refers to it as a Cock Lane story. Which, if I understand it correctly, was a famous ghost story that was eventually determined to be a hoax.
    [do a "CTRL + S" search for the phrase "Cock Lane story"

    So, apparently in his latter years he dismissed them as being genuine paranormal activity.

    1. I think Wesley was mistaken and that the paranormal activity was likely real.