The story of the Methodists cannot be told without John and Charles Wesley. Sermon and hymn, poetry and prose have permanently marked the story of Methodism. Methodism was indelibly formed, not only by the preached and published sermons of John, but also by the poetry and hymnody of Charles. John Wesley was the 15th child and second surviving son of Samuel and Susanna Wesley. John was born at the Epworth Rectory on June 17, 1703; he died on March 2, 1791, and was buried at the City Road Chapel in London.
When John was six years old, he and Charles were rescued from the burning rectory. This made a stronger impression on John than it did on Charles, as he came to see himself as a child of Providence, a “brand plucked from the burning.”
Charles Wesley was the youngest of three surviving sons and the 18th child born of Samuel and Susanna Wesley. Charles was born in the Epworth Rectory, about 23 miles northwest of Lincoln, England, on December 18, 1707. He died in London, on March 29, 1788, three years prior to John’s death.
In 1713 John entered Charterhouse School in London, and in 1720 he entered Christ Church College, Oxford, where he earned his M.A. in 1727. As early as 1725, John was ordained deacon and later in 1728 he was ordained a priest. After graduation, John returned home to help his father as a curate for two years before returning to Oxford to carry out his assignments as an elected fellow of Lincoln College.
In 1716 Charles was sent to Westminster School, where his older brother Samuel, an usher at the school, provided a home and board for him. In 1721 he was elected King’s Scholar and began to receive free board and tuition. In June 1726 Charles entered Christ Church, Oxford, where he completed his degree in 1729 and became a college tutor.
Earlier in life, Charles Wesley had objected to becoming “a saint all at once,” but later at Oxford he became restless over the absence of assurance in salvation and, thus, started the Holy Club in 1729. Initially, the Holy Club began with the intent of following the prescribed method of study set by the university, but soon became more uniquely defined.
The original four men who made up the Holy Club (William Morgan, John Clayton, John and Charles Wesley) were jeered with names like Bible Moths, Bible Bigots, Supererogation Men, Sacramentarians, and Methodists. Finally, the name Methodist stuck because of their methodical study of Scripture, fervent daily prayers, ministering to those in need, and weekly attendance in the Eucharist.
Upon John’s return to Oxford in 1729 he would join the Holy Club started by Charles. During those early formative years, the young and impressionable John struggled with two questions: “How do I become a Christian? How do I remain a Christian?”
Later in life, Wesley would reflect in his journal that he was struggling over the nature of justification and sanctification and that the struggle was in effect placing the cart before the horse. In other words, he was struggling to understand salvation and was confusing the two.
A few years later, in 1735, after much anguish over the decision to enter Holy Orders, Charles yielded and was ordained a deacon by Reverend Dr. John Potter, Bishop of Oxford. On the following Sunday, he was ordained a priest by Reverend Dr. Edmund Gibson, bishop of London. Still searching for that assurance of faith, Charles decided to accompany his brother John to the new colony of Georgia to serve as secretary to General Oglethorpe. This Georgia interlude has been referred to as the second rise of Methodism.
After a short six-month stay in Frederica, Georgia, Charles would return to England in 1736 still seeking rest for his soul. In 1737 Charles found considerable help in his spiritual formation; through the influence of the Moravians, and most notably, Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, Peter Bohler and Mr. Bray, he was finally able to stop trusting in his own self-righteousness.
On John’s return to England in 1738—often referred to as the third rise of Methodism—John was painfully aware of his failure as a missionary in Georgia and was sorely depressed over the state of his own soul. As providence would have it, John would find similar help and counsel from Peter Bohler as his brother Charles.
Three days after Charles’s assurance of salvation, John would have his own assurance of faith. John went reluctantly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where he heard Martin Luther’s preface to Romans. Wesley would later say, “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.”
After years of ministry with his brother John, as an itinerant and field preacher, Charles was married to Sarah Gwynne on April 8, 1749, with his brother officiating at the wedding. Sarah was 23 and Charles was 40 when they married.
Unlike John’s marriage to Mary Vazeille that would end up in separation and without children, Charles’s marriage was happy. Eight children were born to the couple; only three of the youngest survived infancy: Charles, Sarah, and Samuel. While every member of this family was musical, the two sons were considered musical prodigies.
Charles Wesley, the poet of Methodism, was undoubtedly one of the greatest poets the church has ever known. The Poetical Works of John and Charles Wesley fills 13 volumes of approximately 9,000 poems that would eventually be set to music for the hymns that not only shaped Methodism but continue to be sung today.
Some of the more well-known songs include “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” “Oh for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” “And Can It Be That I Should Gain,” “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending,” “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” and “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.”
Increasingly, John Wesley found that he was no longer welcome in his own Church of England; he established the Methodist Society in England. As the Methodists in close-knit groups of fellowship and mutual accountability would “watch over one another in love,” in prayer, singing of hymns, Scripture reading, exhortation, encouragement, and confession, they were able to zealously “give out” God’s love in “works of mercy” and “works of piety.” Both brothers have left a rich legacy of “faith filled with the energy of love,” not only in their poetry and hymns, preaching and leadership, but by their own lives of faith.