John was the fifteenth, and Charles the eighteenth, child of Samuel Wesley, Rector of Epworth, Lincolnshire, and his wife, Susannah. John was born June 17, 1703, and Charles, December 18, 1707. It has been said that the Methodist revival had its foundations in the rectory at Epworth, where the children were under the tutelage and spiritual direction of Susannah and Samuel.
The lives and fortunes of the brothers were closely intertwined. As founders and leaders of the “Methodist” or evangelical revival in eighteenth-century England, their continuing influence redounds throughout the world and is felt in many Churches. Although their theological writings and sermons are still widely appreciated, it is through their hymns – especially those of Charles – that their religious experience, and their Christian faith and life, continue to affect the hearts and minds of many. Both brothers were profoundly attached to the doctrine and worship of the Church of England; and no amount of abuse and opposition to their cause and methods ever shook their confidence in, and love of, the English Church.
Both the brothers were educated at Christ Church, Oxford. It was there that they gathered a few friends to join in strict adherence to the worship and discipline of the Prayer Book, and were thus given the name “Methodists” after their devotional methods. John was ordained to ministry in the Church of England in 1728 and Charles in 1735. The two brothers went together to Georgia in 1735, John as a missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and Charles as secretary to James Oglethorpe, the Governor of the colony.
Shortly after their return to England, they both experienced an inner conversion, Charles on May 21, 1738, and John on May 24, at a meeting in Aldersgate Street with a group of Moravians, during a reading of Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. John recorded,
“I felt my heart strangely warmed. 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.”
And so the Wesleyan revival was born.
Finding the churches closed to them, John and Charles devoted themselves to a ministry of itinerant evangelistic work, and followed the evangelist George Whitefield in preaching in open fields. John began by preaching to the Kingswood colliers in 1739. John established his own organization of Methodist societies with the help of lay preachers and extended his own activity across the whole of the British Isles by 1751, the chief centers of his work being London, Bristol, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. John is said to have traveled over 200,000 miles and to have preached over 40,000 sermons. He also produced a prodigious volume of writing: an extensive journal, thousands of letters, hymn translations, and two editions of the poetry of George Herbert, the seventeenth century English priest and poet (whose commemoration is February 27). Though he attracted large audiences, John also suffered mob violence and clerical (and episcopal) hostility, but eventually he became a tolerated figure of national prominence. Continuing the eucharistic devotion of his earlier Oxford years, John strove to receive communion at least every Sunday, and often would receive communion several times weekly.
From small beginnings in the 1760s the Methodist movement and system also gradually developed in America. The urgent need for ordained ministers for the American Methodist societies, and the refusal of the Bishop of London to ordain any of Wesley’s lay preachers to the presbyterate, led John – against Charles’ strenuous objection – to ordain Thomas Coke as an elder and superintendent of the American societies and to instruct Coke to ordain Francis Asbury in America as his colleague. (John had earlier come to the conclusion that presbyters and bishops were the same office in the early Church, and that presbyters could as validly ordain other presbyters as a bishop could.)
Charles entered itinerant ministry in 1739, married in 1749 and retired from itinerant preaching in 1756, settling in Bristol. He moved to London in 1771, where he ministered at the City Road Chapel. He was the most gifted and indefatigable hymnwriter of the eighteenth century flowering of English hymnody, writing over 5000 hymns in all. Like John, he understood the missionary, devotional, and instructional importance of hymns. His published collections of hymns included “Hark! the herald angels sing”, “Love divine, all loves excelling”, “Jesu, Lover of my soul”, and “Lo! he come with clouds descending”. In modern English language hymnals (whatever the denominational tradition) he is usually the author with the most hymns in the volume credited to his name.
A more emotional, warmer, and more pastoral personality than his brother, Charles opposed all moves that would cause the separation of the Methodist societies from the Church of England. The later schism of the societies from the Church of England occurred after the death of the two brothers – Charles on March 29, 1788, and John on March 2, 1791 – though John’s uncanonical ordinations of elders for the American Methodist societies and later for the Scottish societies doubtless set the basis for it.
adapted from Lesser Feasts and Fasts,
with additions from The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church
Lord God, you inspired your servants John and Charles Wesley with burning zeal for the sanctification of souls, and endowed them with eloquence in speech and song: Kindle in your Church, we entreat you, such fervor, that those whose faith has cooled may be warmed, and those who have not known Christ may turn to him and be saved; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.