'Wesley' May be Coming to a Theater Near You
March 04, 2010
By the Rev. J. Richard Peck*
A Moravian preacher is bringing the film "Wesley" to a movie theater near you.
The two-hour movie that is slowly building a platform in theaters across the United States not only brings to life John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, but also his mother, brother, Georgia girlfriend and an assorted group of uptight religious leaders and hired thugs.
The Rev. John Jackman, 53, pastor of Trinity Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., says he got into the movie business as a way of telling stories of redemption, and Wesley's story has enough action for several films.
"I wish I could have made this into a mini-series," Jackman says. "There is enough great material here to make an eight-hour film."
How did a Moravian preacher get tangled up with Wesley?
Jackman says Ken Curtis, founder of the Christian History Institute, was after him for six months to look at the script titled 'The Burning," an adaptation from "A Brand from the Burning," a 1980s play by British actor and writer John Wells. Wells and BBC director Norman Stone had planned to produce it as a BBC movie, but the project never got beyond the script.
The title comes from 5-year-old Wesley's rescue from his attic bedroom. The escape from a fire made a deep impression on Wesley, and he regarded himself providentially set apart as a "brand plucked from the burning." The movie begins with Wesley's terrifying memory of the burning rectory in Epworth, England.
"I liked portions of 'The Burning' script and I licensed those parts, but I used the Wesley's journals and diaries for the rest," says Jackman. He expressed appreciation to Richard Heitzenrater, a professor at Duke Divinity School, for discovering secret ciphers that enabled the Wesley scholar to publish his personal diaries.
"There is a more human side in his private diaries," Jackman says. "The diaries were especially helpful in understanding Wesley's ill-fated love relationship with 18-year-old Sophy Hopkey." Hopkey is portrayed as trying to prod Wesley into marriage.
The film was a disappointment to Jackman's congregation. There was just not enough Moravian screen time for their tastes, despite the fact that the film portrays the inspiring faith and confidence of Moravians in the middle of a storm at sea and the important role Peter Boehler, a Moravian missionary, played in Wesley's life.
"I had to tell them the film is about John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, not the Moravians," Jackman says.
There was plenty of United Methodist participation.
There are 76 speaking parts in the movie, and the film has more than 160 extras. Scores of United Methodists and other Winston-Salem residents were involved in on-screen and off-screen efforts.
The Methodist Children's Home in Winston-Salem also played an important role in the production of the film.
"I actually went to the Winston-Salem campus to ask if we could shoot some outdoor scenes on their campus," Jackman says. "I told George Byrun, the president of the home, that we were looking for a place to put a blue screen to film ship scenes. He said the home had an unused gym that was available, but it was in bad shape. He was right. Other staff members thought it was crazy, but the gym held the 50-foot blue screen, and we brought in extra power to film the crossing of the Atlantic."
Jackman also put together an impressive cast, including June Lockhart, best known for her roles as the mother in "Lassie" and "Lost in Space," to play Susannah Wesley, John's mother.
Burgess Jenkins, a veteran actor who had major roles in the movies "Remember the Titans" and "The Reaping," plays John Wesley.
Jenkins says his experience portraying the legendary church leader was "profound." He describes Wesley as an academic who was a bit naïve in heart and lost in soul, but ultimately earnest.
"At the core of all of that was a desire to glorify God in everything he did," the actor says.
Jackman says he hopes the film will appeal to United Methodist and non-Methodists alike, but is urging United Methodists to encourage theater owners in their community to show the film. He plans to release a DVD later in the year. Further information, including scheduled theater dates, is available at www.wesleythemovie.com.
*Peck is a retired clergy member of New York Annual (regional) Conference and a freelance editor.