Local minister portrays founder of Methodism
Singing a hearty hymn, he comes driving up in a cart pulled by a pony. His long, white hair curls over the collar of his black robe, and a pair of oval, wire spectacles sits perched on his nose.
He climbs out of the cart, turns the reins over to a nearby man and greets the small crowd of parishioners waiting on the steps of the little Methodist country church.
This is a special occasion - the 144th anniversary of Blackwater Chapel. And a special occasion requires a special guest preacher - the Rev. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.
After arriving at the chapel, Wesley takes a few minutes to freshen up a bit while the service begins with a couple of hymns and prayers. His busy schedule began at 5 a.m. to give him time - as is his custom for these 50-odd years - to preach six to eight times on Sunday. The rest of the week he preaches only about three times daily.
He writes his sermons, pamphlets and books while he's on the road. Traveling about 250,000 miles throughout his life to preach and carry out his administrative duties, Wesley wears out many horses.
Nevertheless, he joins the service in time for the sermon. "I want to talk about an hour and a half about the color and character of a Methodist," he jokingly warns. "I hope there are some Presbyterians in the audience because they're used to long sermons, and it won't bother them at all."
Before the sermon, Wesley reflects on his life - how he was born in 1703 and died at the age of 88 in 1791.
Died in 1791? Wait a minute; either Wesley has returned from the dead, or this is Hollywood. Well, it's not quite Hollywood, but it is acting.
"It's hard to be John Wesley 200 years ago," says the Rev. Charles Caldwell, who has portrayed Wesley since 1966, "but I read all the time on John, and I try to be as true to him as I can."
In this bicentennial year of Methodism, Caldwell has about 50 engagements to portray Wesley as a guest preacher in churches in Missouri and surrounding states. His schedule is so busy - sometimes requiring him to travel hundreds of miles in a weekend and giving more than one performance a day - Wesley himself surely would be proud.
But Caldwell is reluctant to spend too much time away from his local responsibility - the Northwest Pettis Parish in the Central District. After "retiring" from the active ministry in 1976, he is in his second year as the pastor of three United Methodist churches: Houstonia, Bethel and Blackwater Chapel.
For that reason, he declines to make morning appearances at other churches more than once a month.
Estimating he has portrayed Wesley to more than 100,000 people since 1966, Caldwell says seeing Wesley "in person" helps Methodists understand their church's founder and appreciate their religion.
"I really think it's a special ministry I have," he says.
Caldwell draws from his extensive library of books about and by Wesley to make his portrayal as authentic as possible in both appearance and content. The long, white curls that adorn his otherwise balding head are courtesy of a white wig. His vestments, a black robe with a white front, also closely parallel Wesley's.
During his church visits, Caldwell not only tries to preach like Wesley, but also uses an adaptation of an actual Wesley sermon.
The sermon preached this day in the quiet country church is timeless. "Wesley" talks about the Methodist who lets the love of God guide his life. This person is simple in his appearance and demeanor, Wesley says, and loves all people. He does not turn his back on some because of politics, race or income.
"If we can't practice what we believe," he says, "then we can't believe it."
The congregation of about 30 listens intently to Wesley's sermon in the small, country church. A simple wooden cross stands on the altar. Light coming through the stained-glass windows casts a glare on the picture of Jesus on the back wall. Flags of the United States and the Methodist Church hang in the corners.
Wesley tells the few young people in the congregation to carry on the Methodist tradition.
Although his is a voice from the past, the message the latter-day Wesley preaches is for the future.
"We pray You won't let us glory in the past," he prays after finishing the sermon," but be challenged by the future."
The Sedalia (Mo.) Democrat, Aug. 12, 1984