The Letters of William Seward

Scope and Content

The book contains copies of fifteen letters sent by William Seward, twenty-seven written to him and seven letters or extracts exchanged between various members of Seward’s circle. Most of the letters date between December 1738 and May 1739, although the extracts tend to be taken from originals that were written in the summer of 1738. All of the letters relate to the evangelical revival at the time that it was emerging as a popular movement.

The letters provide a vivid insight into the activities of a man who was Whitefield’s right-hand man and principal financial support. Among items of particular interest is the eye-witness description of Whitefield’s earliest venture into an open-air preaching in February 1739 (DDSe 14) and Griffith Jones’ account of his Welsh charity schools (DDSe 4-6), the foundation of which led to him being termed 'one of the makers of modern Wales'. It is interesting to note that the Wesley brothers are rarely mentioned in the early letters but that by the spring of 1739 John Wesley’s ministry in Bristol was making a significant impact and that tension was starting to appear between the evangelicals. This reflects what we know from other sources of the stirrings of revival in the years 1738 and 1739.

The style of handwriting is compatible with a date at the end of 1730s and the book itself is a type commonly associated with journals or letter books of the period. The absence of an example of Seward’s handwriting in the archives precludes confirming if the letters in the book were copied down by him personally, but internal evidence indicates that they are either in Seward’s hand or were transcribed on his instructions. The same person copied all the letters regardless of date, although slight variations in the penmanship may indicate that they were written down at different times.

In short, the William Seward letter book represents a significant addition to the Methodist collections held at the Rylands. As a snapshot of events and personalities that contributed to the birth of the Wesleyan and the Calvinistic Methodist Churches it has tremendous research value, especially as it is written from a non-Wesleyan perspective.

Administrative / Biographical History

Seward was born in Badsey, Gloucestershire, the fifth of seven sons of John Seward, the Estate Steward of Lord Windsor and a wealthy man in his own right. Unlike his brothers, William does not appear to have been educated at Westminster School (where Charles Wesley was a contemporary) or at university. As a young man, Seward moved to London and embarked on a career as a stockbroker, having a particular involvement with the South Seas Company. During his time in the capital, he was an enthusiastic promoter of charity schools.

In 1738 Seward was introduced to Charles Wesley and in November of that year, Charles recorded his friend’s conversion in his journal. In January 1739 he attended a conference of Oxford Methodists and came increasingly under the influence of George Whitefield. Seward joined Whitefield on his American tour of August 1739 and was a generous financial sponsor of the mission. Among other gifts, he purchased 5000 acres of land for the establishment of an evangelical refuge and a school for Black people

In April 1740 he returned to England to transact some business on Whitefield’s behalf. Seward was possessed of considerable spiritual and leadership ability and was well regarded in the evangelical movement. He published his journal of the visit to North America and this increased the tension that was developing between the party that looked to Whitefield for leadership and people who were gathering around the Wesleys. Seward travelled to Wales with the preacher Howell Harris and in October 1740 received a fatal injury at the hands of an anti-Methodist mob while attempting to preach at Hay in Breconshire

Access Information

The collection is open to any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

Purchased from an American bookseller.

Other Finding Aids

A catalogue of the Collection was produced by Gareth Lloyd in 2004. The present catalogue has been produced to replace this with an ISAD(G) compliant catalogue.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the archive can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

A number of items within the archive remain within copyright under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; it is the responsibility of users to obtain the copyright holder's permission for reproduction of copyright material for purposes other than research or private study.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the John Rylands Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.

Custodial History

The letter book was acquired by purchase in 2002 from an American bookseller, prior to which its provenance is unknown, although the absence of later annotations or library marks indicates that the book has been in private ownership for much of its history.


Peter Braby in Dictionary of Evangelical Biography 1739-1860, edited by Donald M. Lewis (1995).