Oxford, Oxfordshire, UK | UM Newswire

A team of scholars steeped in early Methodism, a movement started by the Anglican preacher John Wesley, announced today the discovery of a time capsule dating back to 1791; the year of Wesley’s death. The time capsule, although it is uncertain it was intended as such, did not include anything that would provide a more precise date. The capsule was found amongst a variety of boxes and papers in an old house in Bristol which Wesley frequented on his travels. The house is being restored and converted into a bed and breakfast.

Dr. Carey Nielsen, Prof. emeritus of Wesleyan Studies at the University of Oxford, shared that his team was able to ascertain the year of the time capsule based on its contents and an inscription found on the box. “Strange as it seems, it appears that a common cigar box was refitted for the purpose of this time capsule,” said Nielsen, commenting on how surprised he was at the preservation of the contents despite their relatively humble container. The box had been sealed shut with a wax stamp of no discernible significance.

Brandon Bigheart for the photograph; Parys Mine Company for the token issue, Wikimedia.

Cigar box aside, it’s the contents that have Wesleyan scholars buzzing. The box contained three pieces of British currency, known as provincial tokens, which were used to help ascertain the date, a gold tooth, and three sheets of paper bearing Wesley’s distinctive handwriting. The currency were minted in the years 1788, 1790, and 1791.

Nielsen shared that his team used the date on the currency, and the presence of Wesley’s writing, to lock down a date just prior to his death. Nielsen admitted that it is possible that another party gathered and packaged the items shortly thereafter.

Despite the immediate interest in Wesley’s writings, Nielsen was fascinated with the presence of a gold tooth. While far more common today, gold teeth simply weren’t widespread in Wesley’s day, despite the fanciful presentation of pirates today. Given John Wesley known predilection for humble living, Nielsen’s team reasoned that it was unlikely that it belonged to him. Still, if it isn’t Wesley’s, it begs the question, who did the tooth belong to and why was it included?

Wesley’s notes

Of most enduring interest to Wesleyan scholars is likely to be the three short writings included in the cigar box. In one, he notes his disappointment with the nascent Wesleyan movements obsession with small groups.

“Small groups were supposed to be temporary measure until we were strong enough to sustain corporate worship.” Wesley goes on to relate his shock at people’s willingness to endure the accountability and probing questions he had devised. “Really, how many times can you ask ‘how is it with your soul’ before it gets old?”

Wesley also shared his frustration with the rapid growth and zealous passion of the movement. In revealing words certain to caste their relationship in a new light, John expressed anger toward his brother Charles:

“Why must he continue to write for the hymnody these songs with such contemporary zeal? Would it not be better to sing the great songs of old, rather than this modern feces.”

The final of the three notes, made reference to Wesley’s much maligned cure for baldness from his book, Primitive Physic, Or, An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases. In a rare moment of humility, Wesley writes the following:

“One of the deepest disappointments of my life was my inability to follow all of my interests to their logical conclusion; God dost not give ample time to pursue all that draws one’s attention. Of particular disappointment to me, is the absolute failure of my cure for baldness. I deeply regret the labours of those who took my words to heart and rubbed onion upon their balding foreheads for nought.”

Given adequate time, Professor Nielsen believes that John Wesley may indeed have solved that particular mystery.


    • Who is this John Shaffer. An imposter! Or are there two of us. To make myself perfectly unclear, I did not post the comment about onions.

      Being the biblical scholar that I am not, I refer you to Leviticus 13:40 in which God herself or Moses wrote and I quote: “If anyone loses the hair from his head, he is bald, but he is clean.” Take comfort in that bit of biblical wisdom.

      I am surprised that John Wesley was not aware of that verse.

  1. Wow, wonderful article! I have studied–and I teach Wesley–ever since the 1980s, and I found this fascinating. I’d love to see photocopies of the notes he wrote. –Tom Fuller, International Adventure Ministries, Lubbock, Texas

  2. I think my favorite part was “small groups were supposed to be temporary. ” Be careful, someone may cite this as a reason that putting butts in pews is what matters most.

  3. I just spent an entire afternoon revising my biographical notes for the upcoming observance of Aldersgate. May 24. If someone had not prompted me to look at the date of this correspondence, I should have totally misled the congregation. Well done!

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