During John Wesley’s life England experienced some of the most severe winters on record. In fact, the period is often spoken of as the Little Ice Age. It began in the Fifteenth Century and continued into the Early Nineteenth Century. During this era, the River Thames often froze over. One story (legend) from the early 1600s purports that William Shakespeare’s acting company, along with a small band of helpers and roughnecks, carted the various parts of their timber-framed theater away from its original location in Shoreditch and stealthily made their way across the ice of the frozen Thames to its new location in Southwark, where it would later become famous as the Globe Theater. In doing so they avoided the taxman on London Bridge.
With the River Thames frozen, not only could things be moved across the river, but people could enjoy skating, food booths, drinking booths, games of chance, rides, and performance artists.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to see a newspaper from 1788. The paper was owned by a good friend, Rev. Frederick Maser. Dr. Maser was not only an exceptional Methodist preacher; he was also a recognized Methodist historian. Related to his interest in Methodist history, he had become a collector of things related to John Wesley: books, letters, and ephemera. The newspaper was in this last category.
He pointed out the front page article about the Frost Fair being held on the Thames. It spoke of the fair as a fairyland all lit up with lanterns at night. The article extolled the great joy that people of all ages had on the ice. After showing me this account, however, Fred directed me to another, shorter article on one of the inner pages of the paper. The headline to that article was, “Mr. Wesley’s Societies Collect for the Poor”. What was most interesting was that the poor in question were the very people who were out of work due to the prolonged freeze of the river: longshoremen, sailors, fish mongers, and so on.
The paper caught for me the spirit of Methodism, which is to be aware of the joys in life and to participate fully, but to not let those joys blind us to the needs of others.