Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Maxfield, Thomas (d.1784)

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MAXFIELD, THOMAS (d. 1784), Wesleyan, a native of Bristol, of humble origin, was converted by John Wesley during his first visit to the city in 1739. The 'conversion' took place on 1 May. In March 1740 he was travelling with Charles Wesley, and remained with him 'for a year or two.' At the conference of 1766 Wesley spoke of Maxfield as the first layman who 'desired to help him as a son in the gospel,' but in his last journal Joseph Humphreys is said to have been 'the first lay preacher that assisted me in England in the year 1738' (Southey, Life of Wesley, i. 511; cf. Tyerman, Life and Times of John Wesley, i. 276 n., and New, Life of Lady Huntingdon, i. 32).

Maxfield seems early to have gained the confidence ot Charles's brother John, who on 21 April 1741 wrote: 'I am not clear that brother Maxfield should not expound at Greyhound Lane; nor can I as yet do without him' (Wesley, Works, xii. 102; Tyerman, i. 369-70). In 1742, when Wesley left London, he gave Maxfield the charge of the Foundery Society, directing him to pray with the members and give them suitable advice. Maxfield soon passed from praying to preaching, and Lady Huntingdon, who was a constant attendant at the chapel, was impressed by his talents, and 'exhorted him to expound the scriptures.' Many shared Lady Huntingdon's admiration, but others complained to Wesley that Maxfield had usurped the sacred office without being called to it. Wesley hastened back to London, deeply displeased. His mother deprecated his anger, and asserted that Maxfield was 'surely called of God to preach.' After Wesley heard Maxfield he decided the dispute in his favour, and became a convert to lay preaching.

In June 1745 Maxfield, while preaching in Cornwall, was pressed for the navy, but the captain to whom he was taken refused to have him on board, and he was thrown into prison at Penzance. When about to be released he was handed over to the military authorities through the intervention of the Rev. William Borlase of Ludgvan, who was very hostile to the methodists. Wesley, who was preaching in the neighbourhood, rode over on the 19th to Crowan Church-town, where Maxfield was confined, and examined the warrant; and on the 21st attended the meeting of the justices at Marazion, by whom Maxfield was given over to the military (Wesley, Journal, 1745). He served in the army for several years. After his discharge he was at Wesley's request ordained at Bath by Dr. Barnard, .bishop of Derry. From this time he was one of Wesley's chief assistants, as well as an assistant chaplain to the Countess of Huntingdon.

Maxfield, however, was ambitious, and soon created dissatisfaction in the minds of the more sober methodists. As early as 1760 he encouraged 'the select band in London … who professed to be entirely sanctified,' who saw visions and 'began to have a contempt for those who had not.' At the conference of 1761 Maxfield silenced his accusers (Wesley, Works, iii. 120), but Wesley wrote to him subsequently respecting the complaints made of his views, and Maxfield defended his position.

At the beginning of 1762 Wesley wrote to his brother Charles: 'If Thos. Maxfield continue as he is, it is impossible he should long continue with us.' About the same time Fletcher of Madeley, who was well acquainted with Maxfield, asserted that 'spiritual pride, stubbornness, party spirit, uncharitableness, prophetic mistakes — in short, every sinew of enthusiasm is now at work among them [i.e. Maxfield and his friends].' In the course of the year the crisis became more acute. Maxfield had adopted a prediction made by George Bell, a fellow-minister, sharing his mystical opinions that the world would end on 28 Feb. 1763. Wesley openly preached against him on 23 Jan., but with little effect. 'All this time,' he writes, Maxfield 'was continually spiriting up all with whom I was intimate against me; he told them I was not capable of teaching them, and insinuated that none was but himself' (Wesley, Journal, 7 Jan. 1763). Whether Maxfield was or was not one of the 'two or three' of Bell's friends whom Wesley met and tried to convince of the falsity of the prophecy does not appear. He subsequently denied his own belief in it, and charged Wesley himself with sharing in it.

Maxfield's conduct rendered a schism in the society inevitable. In February 1763 he practically told Wesley 'You take too much upon you.' He was deaf to all Wesley's arguments respecting the danger of separation (Wesley, Works, xii. 116-17), and on 28 April he fully and finally separated himself from Wesley, taking Bell and about two hundred others with him. He was now chosen preacher by a society in Snow's Fields, whence he removed two or three years later to Ropemakers' Alley, Moorfields. There he had a large congregation. He finally set up in Princes Street, Moorfields, where he preached till about 1767. From the time of his secession Maxfield became Wesley's worst enemy. 'He spake all manner of evil of me, his father, his friend, his greatest earthly benefactor.'

In February 1770 he met Wesley once more at the Countess of Huntingdon's house in Portland Row, where he preached against the doctrine of Christian perfection, of which he had formerly been a zealous upholder. Two years later he professed to desire a reunion. Wesley saw him, but his confidence in him was not restored (Tyerman, iii. 115).

In 1778 Maxfield published a pamphlet charging the Wesleys with turning the hearts of the people from Whitefield during his absence in America, and John Wesley replied with 'A Letter to the Rev. Thomas Maxfield, occasioned by a late Publication.' In 1779 there was more talk of reunion. Charles Wesley insisted that an acknowledgment on Maxfield's part of his 'fault' was a needful preliminary. Wesley still expressed much personal affection for him (ib. p. 296, from Methodist Magazine, 1826 and 1789), but nothing came of the negotiations. Wesley, nevertheless, visited Maxfield in his last illness, and preached in his chapel (Wesley, Works, iv. 132). Maxfield died at his house in Moorfields on 18 March 1784.

He married Elizabeth Branford, a lady of means, who was one of Whitefield's earliest followers. She died on 23 Nov. 1777, and left a family.

Maxfield was a man of some ability, and an eloquent preacher. Fletcher of Madeley wrote to Charles Wesley, a few months after his secession: 'I believe him sincere; and though obstinate and suspicious. I am persuaded he has a true desire to know the will and live the life of God' (Tyerman, ii. 464).

A portrait of Maxfield 'preaching' was twice painted by T. Beach, and engraved in one case by P. Dawe, and in the other by Houston. A third portrait of him 'with his wife and family' was executed in 1772 (Bromley, Catalogue of Portraits, p. 365).

Maxfield published: 1. 'A Short Account of Mr. Murgetroyd during the Last Month of his Life,' &c., Bath, 1771. 2. 'A Short Account of the Particular Circumstances of the Life and Death of William Davies, who was Executed 11 Dec. 1776, with his Speech at Tyburn,' &c., London, 1776. 3. 'A Short Account of God's Dealings with Mrs. Elizabeth Maxfield' (his wife), 1778, 8vo. This contains three letters to her from Whitefield, dated 16 Jan. 1738, 16 Nov. 1738 (from Kilrush), and 3 Nov. 1739 (Philadelphia). 4. 'A Short Account of the Circumstances that Happened the Last Seven Days before the Death of T. Sherwood,' 1778. Also 'A Collection of Psalms and Hymns extracted from various Authors,' 1778, 12mo; and a sermon, 'Christ the Great Gift of God and the Nature of Faith in Him,' 1769.

[Tyerman's Life of Wesley, 3 vols. passim; Larrabee's Wesley and his Coadjutors, ed. Tefft, i. 217-19, 264; Jackson's Life of Charles Wesley, ii. 207, 218; New's Memorials of the Countess of Huntingdon, pp. 32-4, 226; Overton's John Wesley, pp. 163-4; Bogue and Bennett's Hist. Prot. Dissenters, 2nd edit. ii. 35; Wilson's Dissenting Churches, iv. 283; Gent. Mag. 1784, i. 239; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

G. Le G. N.