Eliza Ritchie, Wesley's Nurse

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Eliza Ritchie, Wesley's Nurse' page
Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Eliza Ritchie, Wesley's Nurse' page

From a series entitled 'Saintly Women of Methodism' published in the Christian Messenger, 1902. Includes an account of John Wesley's last days.

By Geoff Dickinson

Transcription of Sketch in the Christian Messenger Albert A. Birchenough

Mis Elizabeth Ritchie, who in her later womanhood became Mrs. Mortimer, has been described as “one of the saintliest of the many saintly women of early Methodism.” John Wesley had the highest opinion of Miss Ritchie’s graces and talents. In a letter addressed to one of his itinerants, who had been extolling the Methodist ministering women of the Emerald Isle, he writes: “There are many amiable and gracious souls in Cork and in Dublin. But there are few in the whole Kingdom of Ireland to be named, either for depth of sense or of grace, with many, very many persons in Yorkshire; particularly in Ye West Riding. Go to Betsy Ritchie at Oxley, and then point me out such a young woman as her in Ireland.”

The chief interest in Miss Ritchie centres around her description of the death-bed scene and the last utterances of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. At the Conference of 1790, James Rogers was appointed the Superintendent of the famous City Road Wesleyan Circuit. His devoted wife, the saintly Hester Ann Rogers, was entrusted with the charge of the preachers’ house at City Road. Unfortunately, Mrs. Rogers was too feeble in body to attend to the multifarious domestic demands of such a large establishment, which for five months of the year included Wesley himself. Some two months before his decease, the great evangelist arranged with Mrs. Rogers that Miss Ritchie, who was then in her fortieth year, and was widely known and deeply respected throughout the Methodist Societies for her deep-toned piety, should assist her in the management of the household affairs of the preachers house. The wish of her dear father in Christ, as she affectionately termed Mr. Wesley, was imperative upon Elizabeth Ritchie. She accordingly took up her abode with the City Road circle; and she never left Mr. Wesley until, with her own hands, she had closed his eyes in the sleep of death.

In describing the two months she spent at City Road as the nurse and attendant of Wesley, Miss Ritchie says: “I derived much pleasure from his conversation. His spirit seemed all love; he breathed the air of paradise, adverting often to the state of separate spirits. ‘Can we suppose,’ he would observe, ‘that this active mind, which animates and moves the dull matter with which it is clogged, will be less active when set free? Surely, no; it will be all activity. But what will be its employments? Who can tell?’ I was greatly profited during this season. My hands were full; but I felt the light of Divine approbation shining on my path, which rendered easy many painful things I met with. Indeed, I felt it quite a duty to let Mr. Wesley want no attention I could possibly pay him. I loved him with a grateful and affectionate regard as given by God to be my guide, my spiritual father, and my dearest friend; and was truly thankful to be assured that those attentions were made comforts to him. With concern I saw in February, 1791, that his strength declined much. He could not bear to continue meeting the classes, but desired me to read to him; for, notwithstanding his bodily weakness, his great mind could not be unemployed.”

She further says: “The preacher who had usually read to Mr. Wesley being absent, he said to me, ‘Betsy, you must be eyes to the blind.’ I therefore rose about half-past five o’clock, and generally read to him from six till breakfast-time. Sometimes he would converse freely and say, ‘How good is the Lord to bring you to me when I want you most; I should wish you to be with me in my dying moments; I would have you to close my eyes.’ ”

Miss Ritchie wielded the pen of a ready writer. All the biographers of John Wesley are greatly indebted to her pathetic description of the passing of Wesley. With all the graphic detail of a twentieth century journalist, she describes the last fortnight that Wesley spent on earth. Her written account of the death-bed scene of the great evangelist was regarded by the London preachers as official. They signed and printed it, and forwarded a copy thereof to every itinerant preacher in Wesleyan Methodism. Wesley’s funeral sermon was preached at the City Road Chapel by Dr. John Whitehead, who had attended the distinguished divine during his last illness. At the close of his prolonged sermon, which dealt with Wesley’s personal experience, doctrinal teaching, intellectual achievements, and ministerial success, he read the account of Wesley’s closing scene, as prepared by Miss Ritchie.

Within a fortnight before his death, Miss Wesley and Miss Ritchie accompanied Wesley to Twickenham. During the journey he called upon and prayed with Lady Mary Fitzgerald. On the following Friday the venerable Wesley was seized with illness, and lay for several hours “with a quick pulse, burning fever, and extremely sleepy." In the evening, while Miss Ritchie was pouring out her soul in fervent prayer for a covenant-keeping Jehovah to prolong his life, that Scriptural truth, “Father, I will that they whom Thou hast given Me be with Me where I am, that they may behold My Glory,” was so divinely impressed upon her mind, that she felt as did Mrs. Fletcher, of Madeley, on a similar occasion, that “From that time my prayer for his life had lost its wings.”  

During the afternoon of his last Sabbath, Wesley was unable to speak, much. Miss Wesley, his neice; and Miss Ritchie having engaged in prayer by his bedside, he said:
“I the chief of sinners am,
But Jesus died for me."

Miss Ritchie asked him whether that was really the language of his heart, to which he replied in the affirmative. She then repeated the well-known couplet:
“Bold I approach th’ eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.”

She further added, “ ’Tis enough. He our precious Emanuel has purchased and has promised all.” To which the dying saint replied, “He is all, He is all. I will go! ” to which Miss Ritchie said, “To joys above.”

On the Tuesday he said to Miss Ritchie, “I want to write.” She brought him pen and ink, and having placed the pen in his hand, she held the paper before him. After attempting to write he said, “I cannot.” Miss Ritchie said, “Let me write for you, sir, tell me what you would say.” “Nothing,” he replied, “but that God is with us! ” Later in the day he said, “ Betsy, you and Mr. Bradford pray and praise.” Wesley knew that his death was rapidly approaching, and he said to her, “I would have all things ready for my executors - Mr. Wolff, Mr. Horton, and Mr. Marriott. Let me be buried in nothing but what is woollen, and let my corpse be carried in my coffin into the chapel.” Having settled all the incidental matters respecting his funeral, he again asked them to pray and praise. Upon their rising from supplication Mr. Wesley said: “The best of all is, God is with us! ” He further added, “He causeth His servants to lie down in peace,” to which Miss Ritchie replied, “They lie down in peace indeed who rest in our Redeemer’s bosom. Lord help us to rest in Him, and then rest with you in glory,” to which Wesley fervently replied “ Amen and further repeated “The Lord is with us. The God of Jacob is our refuge! ”

On Wednesday morning, March 2nd, 1791, as Miss Ritchie and his friends were kneeling around his bed, he quietly said, “Farewell.” She says: “According to his often-expressed desire, without a lingering groan this man of God gathered up his feet in the presence of his brethren! We felt what is inexpressible; the ineffable sweetness that filled our hearts as our beloved Pastor, Father, and Friend entered His Majesty’s joy, for a few moments blunted the edge of our painful feelings on this truly glorious, melancholy occasion. As our dear aged Father breathed his last Mr. Rogers gave out:
“Waiting to receive thy spirit,
Lo! the Saviour stands above,
Shows the purchase of His merit,
Reaches out the crown of love.’’

The little group standing around Wesley’s death-bed having sung in subdued strains, and with tearful eyes, the appropriate verse, Miss Ritchie earnestly desired them all to kneel and “to pray for the mantle of our Elijah” to fall upon them. At the throne of heavenly grace, Mr. Rogers fervently prayed for the Holy Ghost, the Comforter, to rest upon all the members of the Wesleyan Church that should mourn by the translation of the Great Evangelist to his eternal reward.

Telford says: “ John Wesley’s' death-bed is one of the grandest triumphs of Methodist history.” At the time of his death “he was the most popular man in England. Even those who had lost sympathy with his work could not but admire his steadfastness, his unselfishness, his notable services as an evangelist and philanthropist. He went down to the grave loved and revered by multitudes who owed to him their very souls.” His death-bed fulfilled his wish:
“Oh that, without a lingering groan
I may the welcome word receive,
My body with my charge lay down
And cease at once to work and live.”

After Wesley’s death Miss Ritchie’s deep sense of “orphaned desolation” was light-by the loving sympathy of Lady Maxwell and Lady Mary Fitzgerald, who were included among Wesley’s faithful female fellow-workers. Miss Ritchie lived to the advanced age of eighty-one, and, like the early Methodists, “died well’’ It is said of her, “The dignity, strength and sweetness of her character, the firm, well-considered decision with which, when only eighteen, she renounced flattering earthly prospects to give herself to Christ, the energy of goodness she had displayed in acting as visitor to Wesley’s various societies, and in sharing his own missionary journeys and toils, all constituted her a Christian after his own heart. Over her spiritual education, he had watched with a father’s care; and the high, serene excellence of his life, not only in these her maiden days, but in her later married years as Mrs. Mortimer, and in the mild bright evening of her widowed old age, showed that his paternal interest and anxiety were not wasted.”

References

Christian Messenger 1902/134

This page was added by Geoff Dickinson on 15/08/2016.

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