Wesley, Charles and John

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Wesley, Charles (1707-1788) and John (1703-1791): English Theologians.

The founders of Methodism, John (born 17 June 1703) and Charles (born 18 December 1707) were the fifteenth and eighteenth children (second and third surviving sons) of Samuel Wesley, rector of Epworth, Lincolnshire, and his wife Susannah, daughter of Samuel Annesley, a Nonconformist London pastor. Both parents had Nonconformist forebears but were High Church Anglicans. Susannah began educating her children at age five. John was rescued at age six from a fire that burned the rectory; his mother called him “a brand plucked from the burning,” and he regarded his deliverance as divine providence. In 1714 he entered the London Charterhouse School and in 1720 Christ Church, Oxford, taking his B.A. in 1724. Ordained deacon in 1725, he became a Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford in 1726, lecturing on Greek, philosophy, and logic, and received his M.A. in 1727. He became curate for his father at Wroot, Lincolnshire in 1727, was ordained priest in 1728, and returned to Lincoln College in 1729. Charles began studying at Westminster School in 1716 and in 1726 entered Christ Church, taking the B.A. in 1730 and the M.A. in 1733. In 1729 he formed the Oxford “Holy Club,” whose members became known as “methodists” (both names originated as insults). John soon became its leader; George Whitefield joined in 1735. Members met for daily study, assisted schoolchildren, dispensed charity, and visited prisoners. John’s first publication, a book of prayers, appeared in 1733.

In 1735 the brothers traveled to Georgia with Colonel James Edward Oglethorpe to assist in evangelizing colonists and Native Americans. Charles, Oglethorpe’s secretary, was ordained deacon and priest shortly before departure. On the outward voyage both fell under the influence of German Moravians onboard, including David Nitschmann and August Gottlieb Spangenberg, acquiring a new emphasis on personal salvation. Their mission was unsuccessful: the natives proved unsusceptible, and the colonists found the Wesleys too imperious and their preaching too personal. Charles returned to England at the end of 1736. John proposed to Sophia Christiana Hopkey, but she married William Williamson, Wesley banned her from communion, and her husband sought his arrest and £1,000 damages, forcing him to return home at the end of 1737.

In 1737 the brothers began corresponding with the Moravian Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf, and in 1738 both met Peter Böhler, whose theology stressed saving faith. On 21 May Charles experienced an evangelical conversion in London, as did John on 24 May (the “Aldersgate experience” in which he felt “strangely warmed”). Both soon took up itinerant preaching. Charles was unlicensed curate at Islington in 1738-39 before making Bristol his base and itinerating from 1739 to 1756, including two trips to Ireland in 1747-48. John overcame his initial objection to Whitefield’s style of field preaching after meeting resistance in churches; he traveled over 250,000 miles throughout the British Isles and delivered over 40,000 sermons, many to downtrodden audiences like the miners around Bristol, where he established the first Methodist chapel in 1739. At first he went on horseback, reading on the way; later he traveled in a carriage equipped with a book cabinet.

John also preached in 1739 at the Foundry in London, which he subsequently purchased, making it the Methodist headquarters until 1778. The brothers published books of hymns, many written by Charles or translated from German by John. Having earlier abandoned William Law’s teachings in 1738, John broke with the Moravians and Calvinist methodists in 1740. He assembled a group of lay preachers, though he stressed that they were to be Anglican and that their sermons were not to replace church services. He instituted class meetings at Bristol in 1742, founded new chapels at West Street, London and Bermondsey in 1743, and dominated the first Methodist conference at the Foundry in 1744. Though he acknowledged the Anglican bishops’ authority, by the second conference in 1745 he was assuming more control.

In 1749 Charles married a Welsh woman named Sarah Gwynne (1726-1822), daughter of Marmaduke Gwynne of Breconshire and a gifted singer. She bore him eight children, five of whom died in infancy. His sons Charles and Samuel were composers and musicians like their father (the latter became a Catholic); his daughter Sarah was known in late Hanoverian literary circles. Despite teaching that celibacy was preferable to marriage, John proposed in 1748 to Grace Murray, who initially accepted before marrying John Bennett. In 1751 he married Mary Vazeille, a widow with four children, but their marriage was troubled. Among other things, she was jealous of his relationship with female followers, and the two separated in 1776 (she died in 1781). John resigned his Lincoln fellowship upon marrying, but by this time he was receiving such a large income from his publications that it mattered little.

The Methodists gradually became more independent. John’s lay preachers began celebrating communion in 1760, and in 1764 he had some ordained by a Greek “bishop,” Erasmus of Arcadia. In 1764 he proposed a union of all Methodists, but the Calvinists refused to go along. Charles was increasingly uncomfortable with some of John’s ideas. He disagreed when John began teaching in 1762 (among his followers) that believers could achieve perfection, i.e., freedom from sin. He also was alarmed in 1784 when John began ordaining lay preachers. However, Charles remained personally quite loyal to John. He continued preaching, returning in 1771 to London, where he preached at the Foundry until John opened the new headquarters at City Road Chapel in 1778, and then preached there.

Meanwhile, John maintained strict authority over his Methodist organization, even if not all followers strictly adhered to his teachings. In 1784, with the help of Thomas Coke, he and Charles prepared a Deed of Declaration, enrolled in the Court of Chancery, vesting control of the organization’s 359 chapels in the Legal Hundred, i.e., 100 handpicked preachers who were to be the Conference of the People called Methodists and to meet annually. This alienated some of the ninety-one preachers excluded from the list, and John’s ordinations created further controversy. He was outraged himself when Coke and Francis Asbury began using the title of “bishop” in America and was unpleasantly surprised when Methodists there established their own separate Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1787 he began licensing chapels and preachers.

Charles died on 29 March 1788 and was buried on 5 April in St. Marylebone churchyard. John died on 2 March 1791 and was buried at City Road Chapel on 9 March. By this time there were some 588 chapels and over 72,000 followers (estimates vary). There are many portraits of and monuments to both men. Their greatest legacy is the Methodist Church, which became a separate denomination after their deaths, and their own voluminous publications. Charles is best known for his hymns, numbering over 7,000, many of which are still used and available in numerous volumes, including Methodist hymnals. Among many familiar examples are “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” John’s best-known works are his journal and sermons. However, he wrote on a variety of subjects, including history and medicine, which he practiced upon his followers. His publications may have earned him £2,000 a year, much of which he invested in the Methodist movement or gave to charity. The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley is now the standard collection. One of his few unsuccessful ventures was the 50-volume Christian Library, in which he included (and often modified) various Christian classics.

John’s relationship to the Anglican Church was ambivalent, though he maintained that he was loyal. His own ideas about doctrine and discipline evolved, so that at times he contradicted himself. He is associated with three innovations—chapels (or preaching houses), lay preaching, and class meetings—and yet initially had doubts about the first two and believed that there were too many chapels. While his theology of salvation gave primacy to faith, he rejected Calvinistic predestination, insisting that good works are essential. His view of human depravity (the fruit of original sin) changed over time, leading to controversial views about perfection, but he rejected antinomianism. He emphasized early rising, daily prayer, love, abstinence, obedience, and cleanliness. His organization was based nationally on the annual conference and locally on the class meeting, usually about a dozen people. His domineering personality earned him the derisive nickname of “Pope John” and led to strife with others, including—late in life—the Countess of Huntingdon’s circle. Though his appeal to the lower classes had potentially revolutionary implications, he was politically conservative in most respects. He opposed the American and French Revolutions, though he was among the first in Britain to oppose slavery (both he and Charles were acquainted with future architect of abolition William Wilberforce). He clung to belief in witches despite the Enlightenment. Though he opposed toleration for Catholics, he was critical of the Gordon Riots in 1780 and of harsh Irish penal laws. More staid Anglicans frowned on the enthusiasm and personal approach of the Wesleys, Whitefield, and other preachers of the Great Awakening, but they reached many souls whom the Church of England left untouched and significantly improved the lot of the poor.

Further Reading:

Henry Abelove, The Evangelist of Desire: John Wesley and the Methodists, 1990.

Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists, 1995.

Samuel J. Rogal, John and Charles Wesley, 1983.

William B. Robison

Southeastern Louisiana University