From 2 December 1716 onwards for several weeks, Rev. Samuel and Susanna Wesley, their seven daughters and household servants — their three sons were in London — experienced a series of unusual phenomena at the rectory home in Epworth, Lincolnshire.
Today such happenings would readily be associated with ‘poltergeist’ activity. They included inexplicable groans, knockings, door-bangings, latch-liftings, turkey-gobbling noises, bed-levitations, and much more besides.
Samuel was initially reluctant to accept a supernatural explanation. It was put down to pranks by the servants, or the children (Hetty was suspected), or ill-disposed parishioners. But eventually the whole family was convinced that it was a haunting. John’s sisters nicknamed their noisy visitor ‘Old Jeffery’.
Over the weeks the Wesleys’ relationship with Old Jeffery moved from trepidation, through speculation, to bored resignation at the antics of their ‘guest’. Then, at the end of January 1717, Old Jeffery left, as suddenly as he came.
Thirteen-year-old John Wesley was at Charterhouse School at the time, but learned all about it from his father’s correspondence with elder brother Samuel.
Later, in 1726, John interviewed those who had been caught up in the manifestations. He was convinced it was a supernatural occurrence. His narrative about the visitation, along with related family correspondence, leaves readers today hard put to think of convincing alternative explanations (see appendix to Robert Southey’s Life of Wesley).
As John Wesley’s journals make clear, he would throughout his life remain convinced of the reality of the preternatural world and its ability to dramatically manifest itself.
Nearly 300 years later, explorer, author and journalist John Geiger published an international best-seller called The third man factor — surviving the impossible (2009, Canongate Books).
In this spine-tingling book, Geiger weaves together many personal accounts from high-profile explorers describing paranormal experiences they had, as they faced life-threatening situations; for example, in the death zones of high mountains, in huge sea-storms and on nightmare polar treks.
In their acute danger, deprivation and loneliness, they sensed when things were at their worst that they had been joined by a ‘presence’. The presence was rarely visible, yet always intangibly there. Some of the travellers were professed Christians who readily believed this was direct help from God. But the non-Christians had had the same experience too.
In each case, the ‘third man’ joined them just after a gathering crisis ratcheted from severe to deeply life-threatening. ‘He’ brought a vital and comforting sense that the person in danger was being watched over and guided as they made life-or-death decisions.
For example, in 1916, Sir Ernest Shackleton described how such a being had joined the small group in its long trek to safety, how during the ‘long and racking march of 36 hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia, it seemed to me often that we were four, not three’. At least two of the others, it turned out, had felt the same.
Or, on 1 June 1933, Frank Smythe, during his final ascent of Mount Everest, found himself alone and ‘weak as a kitten’. He took a slab of Kendal mint cake from his pocket, but, instead of eating it all divided it in two, turned round and held out the other piece to his ‘companion’. At that moment, ‘so near and so strong’ did this presence seem, that it was ‘almost a shock to find no one to whom to give it’.
John Geiger discusses possible explanations. He suggests that there is an emergency switch in the brain that can produce a ‘last ditch’ survival strategy in the psyche, which brings the sensations that belong to ‘the third man’.
Of course, such an explanation does not necessarily rule out a spiritual influence, which might precipitate and work co-ordinately with a physiological mechanism (Professor Donald M. MacKay helpfully suggests this, in another context, in Christianity in a mechanistic universe; IVF, 1965).
And to be fair to Geiger, he does not seem intent on reducing the ‘third man factor’ to what is purely mechanistic. He ends his fascinating book with a tentative (and completely unconvincing) explanation that there might possibly be a universal human consciousness out there somewhere, which those in extremity can tap into and draw help from.
However, in his search for explanations, he overlooks a vital piece of data that he has made a point of describing for his subjects. They each recall how the mysterious ‘presence’ left them just before any perceived human help finally arrived.
But how could the subjects have known in advance just when help would come? That was outside their sensory and mental experience!
As with the Epworth haunting, it is hard to exclude the influence of the supernatural in at least some of this. We know that prayer is constantly ascending from Christians to God on behalf of all the needy in the world, and Psalm 107:24-30 shows that the Lord does reach out to unbelievers in their deep distress (cf. Matthew 5:45). ‘At their wit’s end’, they cry to the Lord and ‘he brings them out of their distresses’.
How should Christians react to tales like these? Is it all autosuggestion, or, maybe, superstitious nonsense only good for selling books? We can find some help in looking for an answer from an unlikely quarter: the deliberations of the eighteenth-century Eclectic Society.
This evangelical fraternal, formed in 1783, comprised Anglican ministers, mainly, who met fortnightly in London for fellowship and discussion. It included John Newton, Richard Cecil, John Venn, Thomas Scott, William Goode, Charles Simeon and Josiah Pratt. There are many published notes of its meetings in The thought of the Evangelical leaders — notes of the discussions of the Eclectic Society during the years 1798-1814 (Banner of Truth, 1978).
On 16 November 1807, the Society addressed the topic: ‘What instruction may be derived from the supposed sensible interpositions of spiritual agents?’
In the ensuing discussion, reference was made to some well-known paranormal experiences of the day, namely ‘Lord Teignmouth’s dream of his daughter; Lord Littleton’s story; Blomberg, prebendary of Bristol; General Wynward’s brother laying down his sword’, and ‘Doddridge’s story of Colonel Gardiner’ (information on each of these can be found online today).
What did the evangelical ministers think? Rev. H. Foster, Rector of Clerkenwell, said: ‘There can be no doubt of the reality of spiritual agents. There may be false relations [stories]; but they are grounded on true appearances. Their end is to silence and alarm. We are in the midst of a world of good and bad spirits — perhaps ten times the number of mankind’.
As we would expect, the clerics agreed that ‘too great incredulity’ should be shunned, and that there were ‘ridiculous stories’ circulating. But also — and perhaps surprisingly — they agreed that too great a scepticism should be avoided.
Rev. John Venn (son of Henry Venn) put it this way: ‘Though twenty stories prove false, if the twenty-first story cannot be so proved, it should have more weight with me than all the rest … So far as they tend to confirm the existence of an invisible world, they are just and useful; but when they go on to reveal new doctrines, they are not to be received’.
In a nutshell, the Society concluded that God permits extraordinary occurrences like these to convince a sceptical age of the reality of the invisible, spiritual world.
And isn’t this insight still needed today? As evangelicals, we may be rightly wary of crediting every claimed ‘supernatural’ or ‘paranormal’ experience we hear about. But we may also be in danger of the opposite extreme — of a ‘practical deism’ that denies God cares enough to (or even can?) intervene supernaturally in his world, if he chooses.
Is this why some professedly Reformed ministers balk at a literal, seven-day creation week, even though it is clearly taught in the Bible? Whatever his theological shortcomings, a lack of belief in the supernatural was not one of C. S. Lewis’s faults.
In Miracles Lewis made clear his conviction that God occasionally intervenes in the natural world; in the Narnia stories the invisible world interacts with the visible world with startling effects. On this matter C. S. Lewis outstrips some Reformed Christians.
Consider too what Paul emphasises to Timothy about Jesus Christ: ‘God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up in glory’ (1 Timothy 3:16).
These six phrases are not just a list of true statements about Christ, but they together comprehend the entire ‘mystery’ of his person and work. They have, as their central theme, the fact that God has repeatedly supernaturally intersected with this world in the work of redemption.
This startling message is the ‘truth’ Paul tells Timothy the church must bear witness to (1 Timothy 3:15). But are we, as evangelicals, able to cope with all that supernaturalism?
Roger Fay is a director and editor of Evangelical Times, a director of Evangelical Press Missionary Trust, and pastor of Zion Evangelical Baptist Church, Ripon