Martha Thompson was born of humble means in Preston in 1731. Unlike many young girls of that time she was educated with the skills of reading, writing and being trained as an apprentice seamstress to a tailor. At the age of nineteen, when her mother had died and her father had remarried, life at home became unpleasant and It was then when Martha made the decision to leave home and with that in mind she wrote a letter to a former Prestonian, a wealthy lady living in London. Martha was successful in obtaining a position on the domestic staff of the lady’s household and undertook the long arduous 209 mile journey to London.Advertisement
Although Martha was not very keen on London her time there passed very quickly and approximately two years from arriving she was sent on an errand by her mistress to Moorlands. It was on this errand that she had her first encounter with the preacher John Wesley. She came across a crowd of people of all walks of life, rich/poor, merchants/tradesman and outcasts/thieves, all being spellbound to the message “Ye must be born again”. Martha at first was curious but very soon became riveted by this man of small stature in a clergyman’s gown and bands standing on a pedestal with an air of authority.
The preacher concluded his sermon and the crowds dispersed; Martha, realising that she was very late, rushed home. On explaining to her mistress the reason, she was immediately admonished and told never to go near the preacher again for he would fill her head with outrageous thoughts. On several occasions Martha did return to Moorlands to listen to John Wesley; she would join in the hymns and listen intently to Wesley’s invitation to repent and become a new person in Jesus Christ and it was on one of her frequent visits that she was converted. However, events took a turn for the worse when she informed her mistress and the other servants of her encounter with John Wesley and her conversion. Martha would continually sing hymns while she worked which greatly annoyed the servants who said that she must be going mad. This was reported to the mistress and she quickly sent for a doctor who, after speaking to Martha, stated that she was suffering from ‘religious mania’ and must be removed to Bedlam (The Mad House).
We can only imagine what a place like Bedlam was like to endure, but endure it she did by filling her time with small tasks. One time, when working in the kitchens, she found some paper and pencil and decided to write a letter to John Wesley telling him of her plight. It transpired that a gentleman visitor who was a Methodist follower came to talk to Martha and gave her the confidence to let her see that she could trust him to pass on her note to John Wesley, who was in London at the time. The next day two doctors were sent to Bedlam to assess Martha and she was declared to be of sound mind and so was released.
Martha’s wish now was to return to her hometown of Preston and John Wesley helped her on her journey. After travelling some of the way over several days with John, he put Martha on a stagecoach to Manchester where she then boarded a carrier cart on to Preston. A few days following her return, Martha learned of a William Livesey who had started a small Methodist society, six miles outside Preston and therefore every Sunday she would make the twelve mile round journey to Hoghton to William’s residence to engage in the meetings.
By 1759, Martha, who was friendly with the landlady of the Dog Inn on Church Street in Preston, had gathered a small class of five Methodists and with the landlady’s permission, she set up her own society in an upper room of the inn. Many travelling preachers visited the inn to speak; John Wesley was also invited to come and preach. As well as running the Methodists society, Martha set up in business as a dressmaker and became very prosperous. This enabled her to use her influence to promote Methodism. In 1766 Martha married Joseph Whitehead, a brass founder and button maker; they went on to have two sons. It wasn’t until 1780 that John Wesley made his first visit to the Dog Inn. Over the following decade he made three other visits and on one of those occasions, stayed as a guest at Martha’s home. Martha spent her days visiting the sick and ministering to the poor and was known as ‘Angel of light’ among her people. It is said that when she came to die her children and grandchildren gathered around her bed and said, “Let us sing dear old granny home”, what did they sing? It could only be one song and that was the hymn which was sung during Martha’s conversion to Methodism many years ago in her early life.
Martha died in 1820, twenty years following the death of John Wesley, the man who changed her life.