Thursday, 31 March 2011

Endeavouring to wind my bottom around the year - Thinking about John Wesley

John Wesley, who inspired, founded and led the people called Methodists, preached a very practical word and lived a very practical Gospel.  In one of his sermons he goes in detail into his own experiments in maximising the time available to him for the work of God by decreasing his allotment of sleep to the least he could bear and still function – “redeeming the time,” as he said.  John Wesley took his responsibilities as steward of life's blessing with absolute seriousness.  During one patch of his life he tried a mono-diet (I think he went for bread) to decrease the amount of time, thought and expense he spent on food.  Samuel… er… was it Johnson or Pepys… Johnson, I think – it was the one who did the dictionary, the accurist who, when his wife came in and found him doing that which he ought not with the maid and exclaimed in reproach “Sir!  I am surprised at you!” replied in the interests of clear definition: “No, madam.  I am surprised – you are astonished.”  Anyway, him – one of you will know which one I mean – must have been Samuel Johnson: he complained that John Wesley was no fun as a dinner guest because he would never stay to relax and chat – it was just eat the food, bid a courteous goodnight; then boot, saddle, to horse and away on the good works of the Lord.  He had work to do indeed.  Beau Brummel didn’t have much time for him as you can imagine (it was mutual), but historians looking back on the social impact of the preaching of John Wesley and the movement he founded are of the opinion that what he did in the power of the Gospel saved England from civil war as bloody as the revolution they lived through in France.  He showed a better way to take command of one’s own life and rise out of poverty, and God bless him for it.

John Wesley wrote pamphlets about the kingdom of God and the power of the Gospel, and these pamphlets sold very well – so well in fact that without really meaning to he accumulated quite a stash.

He preached on more than one occasion about money.  Wesley’s oft-quoted phrase, “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can,” comes from one of his sermons, and has been hi-jacked in error by more than one economically focused individual who doesn’t understand eighteen-century English.  They take it as the hallowing of the principle of hoarding, but it ain’t.  When Wesley said “save all you can”, he didn’t mean “store up as much as you can”, he meant “do without all you can”.  “Save” in this context is an injunction to restraint, frugality, thrift.  In an age when the fashion was for a man to keep his hair cropped and wear a wig, John Wesley grew his own hair and encouraged his friends to do the same.  Wigs were an extravagance he frowned upon; so were ribbons and bows and lace and abundant ruffles, and all such unseemly feminine frippery in the women of his congregation – as he let them know from the pulpit in no uncertain terms!

As a young man bounding down the stairs from his lodgings one frosty morning, Wesley encountered the chamber maid starving (as they say in Yorkshire where “starving” means not hungry but cold) and shivering in a thin cotton dress, and he urged her to add a warm coat, or at least wear a warmer dress.  Though he was himself one of a large family where they were put to it to make the money go round and his father spent some portion of his life in the debtors’ prison, Wesley was nonetheless both shocked and upset to learn that the girl was wearing the only dress she had.  Wesley’s mother, Susanna Wesley, would have seen to it that her own offspring were warmly clad, I think; this practical man came of a practical mother.  Anyway, his automatic response was to reach into his pocket to give her some money for a shawl, only to find it empty and realise with a pang of shame that he’d spent the last of what he had on books for himself, and was consequently without the means of charity for another’s need – and of this he was deeply ashamed.  And he preached about it: “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can” – earn the money, refrain from spending it, give it away – that was John Wesley.

But because he wrote these excellent pamphlets that sold so well, his critics thought they had something to fasten onto – Mr Wesley, advising frugality in others while raking in the dosh very nicely himself.  So in one of his sermons on the use of money he feels moved to give account of his own management of earnings.  This makes very interesting reading, but when I first came across it some twenty years ago I stopped at his phrase in defense of his financial habits: “I endeavour to wind my bottom round the year.”  What?
I asked here and there among clergy friends what this might mean, and nobody seemed to know.  Oddly it was my second husband Bernard – wild woodsman who hated the church but loved Jesus and His Gospel, and refused to let the Methodist clergy meet in his cottage – who solved the mystery for me one day when he was ruminating about the etymology of the words “dignity” and “gravity”.  I wish I could remember what he said now – probably something he had dug up in the writings of Patrick O’Brien or Robert Louis Stevenson or Rudyard Kipling or other well-travelled and informative mind.  But the connection suddenly clicked into place for me between gravitas, dignitas, substance and bottom.  These were all terms expressive of wealth or influence.  Actually dignitas in its Roman origins was descriptive of non-material substance: I come across it in a modern context when I hear Quakers describe a venerable and venerated member of the Society as “a seasoned and weighty Friend” – a soul of dignitas, gravitas, substance. 
So the word “bottom” implies substance – what you’ve got at the back of you, what you’ve got behind or underneath you (hence its migration to the slang usage of “what you’re sitting on”).

When Wesley said “I endeavour to wind my bottom round the year”, he meant that he did his best to eke out his financial means so that he didn’t incur any kind of debt.  It also (I think) can carry an implication of fundamental provision (hence “fundament”, like “bottom”, expressing “lowest place” then “posterior/sit-upon”) rather than abundance.  So it’s a well-chose word for a sermon on money, heard by the poor and the wealthy alike.  The wealthy man might be considered a man of considerable bottom (substance, got a lot behind him), but the poor man might be down to his bottom dollar – his having reduced to very little.  To both alike the example of “endeavouring to wind my bottom round the year” will speak: to the wealthy man it recommends prudence and thrift, to the poor man it recommends avoidance of debt where at all possible.  Wesley had a keen personal awareness of what it meant to struggle financially, and his advice is heartfelt as well as shrewd.

It's a good pointer to a sensible way of financial simplicity, because it's provident in the widest sense.  The Buddhists say all people are selfish but there are two kinds of selfishness: there are foolish selfish people who only look out for themselves and there are wise selfish people who look out for others as well - because we all belong to one another, so if the umbrella of provision shelters everyone it inevitable shelters thee too.

Wesley's way, with its huge impact on the whole of society, created a framework of stability and responsibility that served his country well in offering a good political base in a time of considerable unrest and inequality, and served his Lord well in the effective communication of an honest and practical preaching of the Gospel and the faithful example of a converted and sanctified daily life

That’s all; just happened to be thinking about it and thought thee might be interested.


Ganeida said...

Thy comments on etemology were fascinating. ;D

The Wesleys were an interesting family all round.Toplady denounced John as a common crook & suggested he should be shipped off to the States. And though I'm an early riser a 5am meeting start is a bit rich! I must read up on him some more. He was quite a character.

Pen Wilcock said...

Yes, I've read about the feud with Augustus Toplady and I can't say I think their exchanges did either of them credit, but if Toplady described John Wesley as a common crook he was either an idiot or a liar.

Ganeida said...

Or perhaps a bit hot under the collar at the time?
lol I always think of Wesley's mother praying with her apron over her head. If I'd had that many kids underfoot I think I might have spent time under my apron too!
I'm not sure that's considered normal behaviour though. They were all a little ~ peculiar? Different?

Pen Wilcock said...

Yeah. They were what in our family counts as blessedly normal. Got that ASD glint in the eye... ;)

Linda said...

Thank you, it was lovely.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Linda :0) Lovely to hear from thee x