May 24 – John and Charles Wesley

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

John & Charles Wesley, Reformers of the Church

The Wesley brothers, John (1703–91) and Charles (1707–88), founders of Methodism, were the fifteenth and eighteenth children of Samuel Wesley and his wife Susannah (nee Annesley). Both their grandfathers were nonconformist ministers. Samuel was rector of Epworth parish in the fenlands of Lincolnshire.

Susannah, a highly intelligent and capable woman, was responsible for the early education of her children, and remained an influential confidante and advisor to both John and Charles. Both brothers were ordained Church of England ministers, and remained so until their death.

At Oxford University Charles founded and John became leader of a small group of scholars resolved to live ordered and committed Christian lives, in contrast to what they saw as the indolence and laxity of many of their colleagues. This group, variously called “The Holy Club”, “Bible moths” and “Methodists” by their detractors, pledged to be regular in private devotions and in receiving Holy Communion, to be careful about their ethical conduct, to meet daily for prayer and Bible study, and to visit the prison once or twice a week.

Although the term “Methodist” Wesley was happy to retain, the dynamic of this Oxford Group was very different from the great Movement that later developed. Put bluntly, at this time its members were mainly concerned to achieve their own personal holiness, and thus to make themselves worthy before God, by acts of devotion, piety and charity. This too, it seems, was the main motivation that led John (who had become a Fellow of Lincoln College) and Charles away from Oxford to missionary work in the American colony of Georgia. This venture, however, proved a great disappointment to both. They returned to London in 1738, not only downcast at their failure in mission to others (they had hardly any contact with Indians they had hoped to convert; Charles was Chaplain to the Colony’s Governor, John the minister to the expatriate British congregation in Savannah), but also in despair at how far they were themselves from achieving personal holiness. John summed up their despondency: “I know that every thought, every movement of my heart should bear God’s image. But how far I am from God’s glory. I feel that I am sold under sin.”

It was Peter Boehler, a Moravian living in London, who guided both John and Charles through this crisis. He convinced them that it was precisely their sense of unworthiness that made them ready to receive the free forgiveness and saving grace of God. Good works and holiness would then be the result of, not the precondition for receiving the grace of God through the Holy Spirit. Giving intellectual assent to this doctrine of salvation by grace through faith, John was soon to be assured of its reality in his own experience. On May 24, 1738, at a religious society meeting (after attending Cathedral evensong and hearing Luther’s preface to Paul’s Letter to the Romans), John “felt his heart strangely warmed.”  He goes on to record “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” Charles had the same experience three days earlier, and wrote “I am now at peace with God” and in anticipation of his great contribution to come, “He has put a new song in my mouth.”

The rest of their lives were spent in spreading this good news of God’s free grace far and wide, to all who would listen. It was evident that this would involve preaching outside church buildings, in fields, halls and street corners, because most “common folk” were alienated from, or did not find a welcome in parish churches. Initially reluctant to follow former Oxford colleague George Whitefield in this irregular behaviour for Anglican clergy, he was persuaded by his mother that “this may well be the work of the Holy Spirit.”  So from 1739 until his death John rode an average of 8,000 miles a year on horseback, through the length and breadth of England, Scotland and Ireland, preaching the Gospel to all who would come and hear. And they did come in their hundreds and thousands, and turning to Christ, were gathered into local Societies and smaller class meetings for spiritual nurture. These Societies were grouped together into a Conference, with John as its overall Superintendent. It was his intention that they should remain within the Church of England, not become a separate denomination.

However, John’s ordaining preachers for the work in America, (when the Bishop of London, after the War of Independence, refused) made the break inevitable, as Charles foretold with great regret, but it did not occur in the lifetime of the Wesley brothers.

Charles, whose domestic life was much more congenial than John’s, settled in Bristol to oversee the work in that area, centred as it was on the first purpose-built Methodist Chapel, the New Room, which is still in use, having escaped the incendiary bombing of World War II. His great contribution to Methodism, and to Christian life more generally, is his legacy of hymns, over 5,000 of them, enabling people to sing their faith in words that convey profound truth in poetic simplicity.

Norman Young