Tea with the Devil


Beware my dear friend of the Reasoning Devil, whose way is first to tempt, and then accuse.
John Wesley, Letters, To Peggy Dale

I read this story somewhere long ago
But cannot trace it now. Scholars who know
Most about Wesley cannot track it down.
No matter! As a fable of my own
It may pass muster. As I recall the case
John Wesley, the great clarion of God’s grace,
In one of those rare moments when he could
Relax from bringing England back to God,
Alone and seated in his study, sunk
In holy meditation and, having drunk
As he recalled much later candidly,
Some twenty cups or more of strong green tea,
Suddenly the Devil appeared to him.
The great evangelist was in good trim
To quell him but discovered to his grief,
Satan, in whom he had implicit belief,
Forewarned by Satan’s certain knowledge of him,
Had taken precaution to bind him limb by limb,
Constrained his tongue especially to be still,
So that perforce, while Satan worked his will
He must endure the fiend’s soliloquy
Without relief of even a brief reply.
He, who had oft driven Satan to his lair
Reduced to silence now, and inward prayer,
Struggled against his bonds and did his best,
Which was, merely to glower against his guest.
We have it on such high authority
That I should hesitate to disagree:
‘The Prince of Darkness is a gentleman!’
So with a graceful bow the fiend began:

“My reverend friend, John Wesley is it not?
You will forgive, I trust, the subtle knot
With which I have bound your members and your tongue.
Given your eloquence and strength of lung
Without such gentle measures to restrain
Your zeal, my visit must have been in vain.
God, as once with Job, for half-an-hour
To test your faith, has put you in my power.
But times in which we live are too genteel
For boils and dunghills, so I simply seal
Those lips of fire. Be easy, as you may
And hear with patience what I have to say!
Permit me to be seated too; I see
That my intrusion finds you drinking tea.
May I presume to pour myself a cup?
There is a saying, of course, that those who sup
With me, sir, are in need of a long spoon.
But I’m quite affable this afternoon
And, while I sip this most delicious brew,
I’ve a proposal, sir, to make to you.

It concerns Christianity—your concern—
But very much the Devil’s in his turn.
That may surprise you. But you must agree
That a Church Militant needs an enemy.
As you believe in God, that faith implies
Belief in spirits who are God’s enemies.
We are foes indeed and must remain at odds,
But my existence too depends on God’s:
Those who deny his Being as well deny
My own—a point I’ll come to bye-and-bye.
But on a practical level, don’t you see,
The battle for souls, you still have need of me?
The essential drama lies in what you style
‘Separation of the precious and the vile.’
When your poor converts wrestle, writhe and shout,
A personal devil for you, sir, to cast out
As witness to the evil spirit within
Is worth much more than their renouncing sin.
It’s a stage property you need, in fact,
And an essential element in your act.
(Saints are but actors on a holier stage.)
What’s more, unless I tear them in my rage
When they fall senseless, riven by despair
Or weep in ‘strong, effectual, fervent prayer’
‘Piercing of hearts’ and ‘falling down as dead’,
Without my saving presence your foes instead
Will call it, ‘mere enthusiasm’ and claim
That this is mysticism in all but name,
Aspersions you may well in vain deny
Without a living Satan such as I.

I see by your expression, though held mute,
This is a matter that you would dispute.
Do you want instances? For if you do,
From all our recent clashes here are two:
Since—this will be no news—where you appear,
Intent to baffle you, I too am there,
To baffle, yes, but every time we meet
To balance victory against defeat,
For that’s the basic strategy I use
To make my powers apparent, win or lose;
And with this end in view, at times I lean
Towards your support, although I work unseen.
You doubt my words? False dealing from the Pit?
Here’s my first instance which you must admit.
That hostile bench of bishops who would ban
Your way of preaching, almost to a man,
Who hardened all their hearts? Not God, for sure;
It is his church: He wills to keep her pure.
They are not wicked men; their faith is real,
But what they lack and what they hate is zeal.
No, it was I contrived to bring about
Their disapproving fears which lock you out
From nearly every pulpit in the land;
‘Twas I who lent your cause a helping hand
When you still wrestled with yourself in prayer:
Was it right or no, to preach in open air?
‘Twas all through me, your enemy, I repeat,
You were driven to the fields and to the street.
I knew not even your fervour could unlock
The smug content of the church-going flock.
And what was the result? You know full well
Your mission triumphed. Souls were snatched from Hell
By thousands, till the harvest grew and grew
Even to scandal at the crowds you drew.
—I did not mind a few souls lost today;
Fresh fodder for Hell is always on its way—
But scandal led to violence and riot
In which—though possibly you will deny it—
There lies the second case I mean to cite,
Of how Hell backs your cause in Hell’s despite.
You must recall that day in Wednesbury
October twenty, seventeen forty three,
When mobs from Walsall and from Darlaston
Having seized your person just as night came on,
Five mortal hours, raging from town to town,
Bullied and beat and haled you up and down
And when you tried to speak they one and all
Yelled, ‘Knock his brains out! Kill him!’ while a tall
And lusty brute behind you with a club
Continued all the while to baste and drub.
From one such knock, my friend, you must have died
But every time the blows were turned aside.
Who turned them, do you think? Why, I was there
Beside you and preserved you unaware.
Who was that woman from Darlaston who swore
That none should touch you and who, when she saw
Her friends before the other mob give way,
Knocked down four men in turn? Who was she, pray?
Four hulking men! You saw with your own eyes
A slight girl do it. She was my disguise;
And it was I who brought you off that night
And shut the lions’ mouths. I am not quite
As much your adversary as you suppose,
Nor is the Devil ungenerous to his foes.
And yet in candour, it must be confessed
There was some tincture of self-interest;
For there are reasons of more weight and force
Why you and I should make a common cause.

When I reflect upon the general drift
Of men’s ideas today, like Dr Swift,
I see with much alarm a tendency
To think they can control their destiny,
To banish both God and Satan from the scene
And treat, like Hobbes, the world as their machine,
A self-regarding Whiggish cast of mind.
(The Devil is a Tory, you will find.)
They hold that whatsoever is, is best,
And man, by simply taking thought, is blest.
Such views as these spread fast, I am afraid,
And that is why I need and seek your aid.

But please, before I take that matter up,
Allow me, may I pour another cup?
I find it most refreshing, even so
Talking’s dry work as you yourself must know.
That much we share and more indeed, for we
Have more in common than a taste for tea:
Belief in demons and original sin,
Unfailing zeal and confidence to win;
Lack of a sense of humour, too, we share,
Assurance of grace and efficacy of prayer
—Though these I deprecate, where you rejoice,
Having learned that in such matters I have no choice.

Well, to our muttons! or those mutton-heads
The Deists and Socinians; I have read
All you have written against them and can state
The Devil is on your side in that debate.
What! Revelation and miracles denied!
Satan and all his works quite set aside;
Scripture untrustworthy and God, we find
Reduced to a pale figment of the mind,
The Judge of all the Earth, confined to be
A feeble, logic-chopping deity,
Some Supreme Being, benevolent and inane
And Hell abolished as causing too much pain,
The God of Battles and the Lord of Hosts
Mere superstition like witches, sprites and ghosts!
Forgive me, sir, if I grow passionate,
But you, I know, have taken a stand of late
With equal passion. You alone speak out
With like alarm and with belief as stout,
Affirming that evil spirits exist and when
They act are just as rational as men.
Our foes maintain, with likelihood enough
The heart has reasons, Reason knows not of;
Thinking those reasons must be good, they make
A foolish, elementary mistake.
A person’s heart, caught in the snares of sin,
Has reasons dictated by the fiend within.
Thus more and more the notion that the wage
Of sin is death, is flouted by our Age.
This is the essence of my deep concern,
This is the reason why I rage and burn.
Natural Religion in our century
Prevailing, what the devil becomes of me?

I ask your pardon: I did not mean to swear.
Of your dislike sir, I am well aware
But if I’m carried away, you must admit
This Age of Reason gives me cause for it.
Since you, and you alone, its views oppose,
The blasphemous errors of Religion’s foes
All, all their arguments we too reject,
And may I say, good sir, with great respect,
But that my rôle is God’s Antagonist,
I could subscribe myself a Methodist.
I see you near recovered from my spell
And I must take my leave, sir, so farewell!”

He faded, but John Wesley from his chair
Burst into an ejaculatory prayer:
“Be not deceived, God is not mocked!” he cried.
“Galatians six, verse seven!” the shade replied.
The Devil can quote Scripture too, you see.
“Farewell! and may I thank you for the tea?”

The Prince of Darkness fled. Though thunderstruck,
The preacher soon attributed his luck
To divine intervention and timely prayer.
As for the apparition, he did not dare
Doubt for a moment all he saw and heard
That afternoon had literally occurred,
Not mere hallucination by green tea.
All his biographers in this agree,
That Wesley’s constant evangelical bent,
When given a natural cause for an event
Against a supernatural, was to choose
The one that favoured most the Lord’s Good News.
Besides, it must be said in his defence,
Though he imputed his change to common sense,
He said, in seventeen forty six when he
After this visitation gave up tea
His head ached for three days, his mind went blank
For which, although he had the Devil to thank,
Perhaps the visitation itself and all
Its circumstances were lost beyond recall.

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