John Wesley declared “I am a Church of England man…I live and die a member of the Church of England”. It’s a claim that is hard to take seriously, coming from the man who led the movement that became the Methodist Church, and got himself banned from numerous Anglican pulpits in the process. But the story of John Wesley and his brother Charles is one of constant tension – between the Church of England and new expressions of church, between Arminianism and Calvinism, between Christian perfection and besetting sin, and between the brothers themselves.
Who were they?
John and Charles Wesley were the second and third sons in a family of ten (surviving) children born to the Reverend Samuel Wesley and his wife, Susanna, in the early 18th century. Both the boys’ parents had come to the Church of England from other churches. Susanna was a Puritan until she was a teenager, and Samuel came from a line of Dissenting ministers. Susanna applied strict Puritan principles to child-rearing, teaching them to “fear the rod and to cry softly”. She presided over a regime of homeschooling that ensured the children were progressing spiritually as well as educationally. Despite their shared upbringing, there were big differences between the brothers. Charles was artistic, messy and physically fragile, while John was organised, driven and robust. Charles was also more cautious, and showed greater foresight about the consequences of actions – something that would lead to regular disagreements with his more visionary, but less prudent older brother when their religious movement started to expand.
It was when they were at the University of Oxford together that the young men’s future life started to take shape. In 1729 John, now ordained, returned to Lincoln College to take up a Fellowship. He found that while he had been at home, his little brother and some friends had formed a ‘Holy Club’. This tiny society was intended to spur its members on towards personal holiness and good works. John, who was already concerned about how to become a ‘whole Christian’, embraced it enthusiastically. Under his leadership the club grew beyond the college, and expanded its good works to visiting prisoners and the sick. One of the early members was the future revival preacher, George Whitefield. Other students were not so keen on the Holy Club. The prevailing idea was that religion should be practised quietly and in moderation. The Holy Club attracted various derogatory nicknames, such as the Bible Moths and the Sacramentarians, but the one that stuck was the Methodists.
A One-Man Hymn Factory
Charles Wesley wrote 6,000 hymns during his lifetime (though he never wrote music for them), to teach and equip the members of the Methodist movement. Some of them weighed in on topical disputes such as Arminianism or Christian perfection, but others are timeless classics that are still sung in churches every week. Who hasn’t heard at least one of these?
‘Hark! The herald angels sing’
‘And can it be that I should gain?’
‘O for a thousand tongues to sing’
‘Love divine, all loves excelling’
‘’Tis finished! The Messiah dies’
In need of assurance
In 1735, the death of Samuel Wesley presented John with a choice – to take up his father’s old parish, or to travel as a missionary to the brandnew state of Georgia. He chose the Americas, and persuaded Charles to come along. Charles was reluctant, but agreed to a rushed ordination so that he could serve at his brother’s side. It’s fair to say that the whole episode was a disaster.
The founder of the colony, James Oglethorpe, immediately took against Charles on the basis of some malicious rumours, and made his life a misery. Charles’ health was never very strong; he could not stand the illtreatment, and left after six months.
John stayed for another 16 months. He became romantically involved with a young parishioner called Sophy Hopkey, but could not bring himself to propose marriage. When Sophy eventually married another man, John refused to give her Holy Communion on a flimsy pretext. He was charged with clerical misconduct but fled back to England before a verdict could be reached. John didn’t learn his lesson from this episode; ambiguous relationships with young women continued to be a feature of his life, even after his eventual, unhappy marriage.
However, the American mission did have a profound effect on the Wesleys in another way. On the ship from England, John was hugely impressed by the stoicism of a group of German Christians during a fierce storm. While he was terrified, this group of Moravians (a Lutheran sect) continued singing hymns and praying. John wanted that kind of assurance.
Back in England, Charles and other former members of the Holy Club continued their activities in the various locations they had now moved to. They set up little societies on the model of the Holy Club, and the movement grew; it was a genuine revival. John was unsure whether he should continue to preach now that his American experience had shown him how little real faith he had, but a Moravian pastor in London advised him to “Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith”. John followed his advice, but still felt that he was not really a Christian yet.
A few months later, while suffering from pleurisy, Charles received an inward assurance that he was really saved. He called this his “Day of Pentecost”. Only five days later, John also felt his heart “strangely warmed” and became assured that his sins were forgiven and that he had faith in Christ. From then on, both brothers threw themselves into trying to bring the same assurance of salvation to others. They travelled and preached, wrote hymns and published pamphlets, set up schools and hospitals, and spread their message to thousands.
A Church within a Church?
The Methodist movement certainly didn’t start as an attempt to break away from the established Church. At first it was just a loose network of Holy Club clones. The Anglican Church was failing the urban poor, whose numbers were increasing at the start of the Industrial Revolution, and John Wesley saw his mission as reaching “the lost sheep of the Church of England”. He and Charles insisted that all Methodist members should attend the local Anglican church regularly; their societies for charitable works and personal holiness were an addition to the mother church, not a replacement.
But as the movement grew, all the measures that John took to provide for the societies (often against Charles’ advice) led them steadily further from the mother church. John’s organisation of the societies into smaller groups and larger circuits was efficient, but looked disturbingly like a separate church structure. Despite the gradual way the division happened, there were some clear watersheds. The first was outdoor preaching. George Whitefield pioneered this for the Methodists after being banned from several Anglican churches because of his excessive enthusiasm. John Wesley, and eventually Charles, were brought round to it when they saw how effective it was, but although it was not strictly forbidden by the Church of England, it was certainly irregular.
Then there was the issue of lay preachers. There simply weren’t enough ordained priests among the Methodists to meet the needs of all the societies throughout England, so unordained men filled the gap. Again, it wasn’t forbidden, but it smacked of Dissenting. Soon, some of the lay preachers wanted to administer the Eucharist, which was only given rarely in the Church of England. John fudged the issue by allowing Methodists to administer communion in registered Dissenting chapels, but Charles could see the danger of a break with the Church of England. Now married, Charles gradually started to withdraw from the work. The last straw came when John appointed ‘overseers’ to lead the church in newly independent America. They were soon calling themselves bishops. John, as a priest, had no right to appoint bishops, of course.
They travelled and preached, wrote hymns and published pamphlets, set up schools and hospitals
Because the unofficial bishops were outside of England, it was not strictly a crime against the Church, but it was too much for Charles. “Our partnership is finished,” he wrote to John, “though not our friendship.”
That wasn’t the only relationship breakdown John faced, though perhaps it was the most painful. He also split from George Whitefield over the issue of free will and predestination. Whitefield was a Calvinist who believed that only certain people were elected for salvation, and all others would be damned. John and Charles were Arminians, who believed that Christ’s death provided salvation for everyone, if they accepted it. The Methodists split from the Moravians over the importance of sacraments and the need for Christians to obey the law, while the issue of Christian perfection brought yet more opposition from former supporters and from Charles.
But despite all these disputes, and even public protests, by the time John Wesley died in 1791 (three years after Charles), his energy and powers of organisation had seen the Methodist movement, soon to be the Methodist Church, develop into an international phenomenon. John and Charles Wesley’s efforts had brought a message of holiness and repentance to tens of thousands whose lives were untouched by the traditional Church.
Karen Murdarasi is a freelance journalist