Charles and John Wesley
Renewers of the Church
3 March 1791
From the Satucket Lectionary
(Charles Wesley died 29 March 1788. John Wesley died 2 March 1791. Because Chad is remembered on 2 March, the Wesleys are remembered on 3 March.)
The Wesley brothers, John born in 1703 and Charles in 1707, were leaders of the evangelical revival in the Church of England in the eighteenth century. They both attended Oxford University, and there they gathered a few friends with whom they undertook a strict adherence to the worship and discipline of the Book of Common Prayer, from which strict observance they received the nickname, “Methodists.” Having been ordained, they went to the American colony of Georgia in 1735, John as a missionary and Charles as secretary to Governor Oglethorpe. They found the experience disheartening, and returned home in a few years. There, three days apart, they underwent a conversion experience. John, present with a group of Moravians who were reading Martin Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, received a strong emotional awareness of the love of Christ displayed in freely forgiving his sins and granting him eternal life.
Following this experience, John and Charles, with others, set about to stir up in others a like awareness of and response to the saving love of God. Of the two, John was the more powerful preacher, and averaged 8000 miles of travel a year, mostly on horseback. At the time of his death he was probably the best known and best loved man in England.
(Albert C. Outler, John Wesley’s Sermons: An Introduction, p 79f)
Wesley’s biblical world was, however, no enclave. Sola Scriptura was never a displacement of, or substitute for, classical learning: and this was natural enough in view of the fact that he had mastered the baseline curriculum of his Oxford education and had come to cherish the classical tradition as the font of Western civilization. In the sermons (and elsewhere, too) Wesley’s favourite classical source was Horace; there are twenty-seven quotations from him in the sermons alone, some repeated in different contexts. One senses that he read Virgil with more personal pleasure, but he quotes from him only twenty-one times. Ovid follows with ten, Circero with nine, Juvenal with seven. Thirteen others are quoted at least once: Aristophanes, Hadrian, Homer, Lucan, Lucretius, Persius, Pindar, Sophocles, Suetonius, Symmachus, Terence, Velleius Paterculus.
This display was more than mere ornamentation; (My comment: this would have violated Wesley’s doctrine of ‘plain preaching’.) within these borrowings we find the germs of some of Wesley’s most distinctive general ideas (e.g. his participation theme, his mind-body dualism, and his ideas about psycho-physical parallelism). These are major sources for his ideas about human nature, human volition, and the human passions. Out of this heritage had come his predilection for form over raw feelings, his concept of conscience as a universal moral sense. Plato had bolstered his convictions about the ontological primacy of good over evil. The whole of the Greco-Roman tradition had stressed coherence as a criterion of rationality. Besides, these ancient authors were shrewd critics of human folly; thus Wesley found in them discerning witnesses to the flaws in contemporary proposals about ‘natural’ theology and ethics. It was in this sense that his long dialogue with the ancients was a genuine preparatio evangelica; one might even suppose that he might still commend it as such.
But, although Wesley found it natural to approach the Gospel with habits of thought formed by a classical education, he was quick to recognize the value of other approaches. The early Methodist meetings were often led by lay preachers with very limited education. On one occasion, such a preacher took as his text Luke 19:21, “Lord, I feared thee, because thou art an austere man.” Not knowing the word “austere,” he thought that the text spoke of “an oyster man.” He spoke about the work of those who retrieve oysters from the sea-bed. The diver plunges down from the surface, cut off from his natural environment, into bone-chilling water. He gropes in the dark, cutting his hands on the sharp edges of the shells. Now he has the oyster, and kicks back up to the surface, up to the warmth and light and air, clutching in his torn and bleeding hands the object of his search. So Christ descended from the glory of heaven into the squalor of earth, into sinful human society, in order to retrieve humans and bring them back up with Him to the glory of heaven, His torn and bleeding hands a sign of the value He has placed on the object of His quest. Twelve men were converted that evening. Afterwards, someone complained to Wesley about the inappropriateness of allowing preachers who were too ignorant to know the meaning of the texts they were preaching on. Wesley, simply said, “Never mind, the Lord got a dozen oysters tonight.” Charles was the better hymn-writer of the two. He wrote over 6000 hymns, including about 600 for the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Some of the better known are the following:
A charge to keep I have
And can it be that I should gain
Author of life divine
Christ the Lord is risen today
Christ, whose glory fills the skies
Come, Holy Ghost, our hearts inspire
Come, O Thou Traveller unknown
Come, thou long expected Jesus
Forth in Thy name, O Lord, I go
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild
Hail the day that sees Him rise
Hark, the herald angels sing,
Jesus, Lover of my soul
Let saints on earth in concert sing
Lo, He comes with clouds descending
Love Divine, all loves excelling
O Jesus, full of pardoning grace
O Love Divine, how sweet Thou art!
O Thou who camest from above.
Oh for a heart to praise my God
Oh for a thousand tongues to sing
Our Lord is risen from the dead
Rejoice! the Lord is King
Soldiers of Christ, arise!
Ye servants of God, your Master proclaim
Here are two of his hymns printed out at length:
Oh for a thousand tongues to sing
my great Redeemer’s praise,
the glories of my God and King,
the triumphs of his grace!
My gracious Master and my God,
assist me to proclaim,
to spread through all the earth abroad
the honors of thy name.
Jesus! the name that charms our fears,
that bids our sorrows cease;
’tis music in the sinner’s ears,
’tis life, and health, and peace.
He breaks the power of canceled sin,
he sets the prisoner free;
his blood can make the foulest clean;
his blood availed for me.
He speaks, and listening to his voice,
new life the dead receive;
the mournful, broken hearts rejoice,
the humble poor believe.
In Christ, your head, you then shall know,
shall feel your sins forgiven,
anticipate your heaven below,
and own that love in heaven.
[Note that in the second line of this next hymn, the word “interest” is used in the older sense of “benefit” or “advantage.” (Thus, in some contest, an uninterested person is one who is bored by the proceedings, but adisinterested person is one who has nothing to gain or lose personally by the outcome. We want a referee or judge to be disinterested, but not to be uninterested. The word “interested” is ambiguous, being the opposite of both.) Instead of “an interest in” in the second line, an editor seeking to modernize the language of this hymn might write “my healing from” or “redemption from” or “salvation from” or “a cleansing from” or the like.]
And can it be that I should gain
an interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain–
for me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! how can it be
that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
‘Tis mystery all! Th’ Immortal dies:
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the first-born seraph tries
to sound the depths of love divine.
‘Tis mercy all! let earth adore,
let angel minds inquire no more.
He left His Father’s throne above,–
so free, so infinite His grace–
emptied Himself of all but love,
and bled for Adam’s helpless race:
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free;
for, O my God, it found out me!
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,–
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
my chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine!
Alive in Him, my living Head,
and clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
and claim the crown, thorugh Christ my own.
It was the intention of the Wesleys and their colleagues that their “Methodist Societies” should be a group within the existing structure of the Anglican Church, but after their deaths the Societies in America, and to a lesser extent in England, developed a separate status.
by James Kiefer
More information, and many links concerning the Wesleys may be found on the United Methodist Church website.
Web author’s note: I have a strong connection to Charles: I was indirectly named for him through my great-grandfather, Charles Wesley Swisher; and Charles was the first rector of the church where my grandparents are buried, Christ Church Frederica, St. Simons Island, Ga.