Life in eighteenth-century England was not for the faint of heart. Thugs ruled the night streets. Lacking an organized police force, royal authorities substituted harsh penalties ruthlessly carried out in dramatic public ceremonies. More vigilante justice than due process, the system condemned even petty pickpockets to hang.
Economic conditions worsened crime. London streets teemed with 20,000 to 30,000 hungry, disaffected apprentices—some reduced to stealing bread.
In a William Hogarth engraving from 1758, one such "idle 'prentice" prepares to meet his fate. But riding along in the cart, a follower of John Wesley exhorts the man to repent and believe in Christ.
Wesley himself had begun preaching to condemned criminals during his Oxford years, under the influence of his friend William Morgan, a devout and compassionate Irishman.
In a 1745 tract, "A Word to the Condemned Malefactor," Wesley writes as he preached to such men: "WHAT a condition you are in! The sentence is passed; you are condemned to die; and this sentence is to be executed shortly! You have no way to escape … therefore, die you must. But must you die like a beast, without thinking what it is to die? You need not; you will not."
A journal entry from the early 1760s describes one of Wesley's many encounters with a condemned man:
"On Thursday, Patrick Ward, who was to die on that day, sent to request I would administer the sacrament to him. He was one-and-twenty years of age, and had scarce ever had a serious thought, till he shot the man who went to take away his gun. From that instant he felt a turn within, and never swore an oath more. His whole behaviour in prison was serious and composed: He read, prayed, and wept much; especially after one of his fellow-prisoners ...