About the Commemoration
In the eighteenth century the Church of England was in serious decline. Worship was dull and formal, church buildings had been allowed to fall into decay, the poor were neglected, bishops were appointed for political reasons, many of the clergy were worldly and cynical. The Wesley brothers attempted the renewal of the English Church by taking seriously the obligations of the Christian life. Their religious movement began within the Church of England, but the Evangelical revival, as it came to be called, was not always welcome in the established Church and eventually moved outside it.
John (born June 17, 1703) was the fifteenth and Charles (born December 18, 1707) the eighteenth child of Susanna Wesley and her husband Samuel, the rector of Epworth in Lincolnshire, who was descended from an old Puritan family. Susanna was a demanding mother and imparted to her sons a sense of holiness and seriousness that remained with them to the end. The two brothers were both educated at Christ Church College, Oxford. John was ordained a priest in 1728, Charles in 1735. At Oxford, John became a member of the “Holy Society” founded by Charles. The group was composed of those who were dissatisfied with contemporary religious life and who sought mutual improvement. They emphasized frequent communion and fasting twice a week, and their service extended to social work as well. Their methodical program earned them the derogatory name “Methodists.” John’s powerful personality soon made him the leader of the group.
In 1735 the brothers went to Georgia, John sent by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and Charles as secretary to the governor, James Oglethorpe. The experience of both brothers was unhappy. John’s purpose was to evangelize the colonists and the Indians, but his preaching against the slave trade and against gin alienated the colonists. He broke with the Calvinists and joined with the Moravians. The brothers returned to London in 1738 and frequented the Moravian chapel in Fetter Lane. Both experienced an inner conversion, Charles on May 21, 1738, and John three days later at a meeting in Aldersgate Street with a Moravian group. The eighteenth-century Evangelical revival was born.
John spent the rest of his long life in evangelistic work. He visited Count von Zinzendorf in Germany. The brothers were increasingly excluded from the established Church, though they continued to respect it, and they turned more and more to preaching in the fields. It is said that John traveled more than a quarter of a million miles on horseback all over England and preached more than forty thousand sermons, often several each day. On June 11, 1739, John wrote in his journal, “I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that, in whatever part of it I am in, I judge it meet, right and my bounden duty, to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation. This is the work which I know God has called me to; and sure I am that his blessing attends it.”
In 1740 the brothers ended their connection with the Moravians and opened a “Methodist” chapel in Bristol. Both brothers wished to remain in the established Church but differed with each other concerning their right to ordain ministers if none were forthcoming from the Church of England.
Charles, the best of the hymn writers of the age, wrote, it is said, over six thousand hymns. He married in 1749, retired from itinerant preaching in 1756, and settled in Bristol. In 1771 he moved to London.
John, the greatest single force in the eighteenth-century revival, incurred hostility and violence at times. A ruthless antagonist, he was an able organizer and produced an enormous quantity of writing: a long journal, a Christian library of wide-ranging devotional works, hymn translations, two editions of George Herbert’s poems. Much of his editing seems to have done while he was traveling on horseback. When there was an urgent and unfulfilled need for ministers, John, against the advice of Charles, in 1784 ordained Thomas Coke as superintendent or bishop and instructed him to ordain Francis Asbury in America as his colleague. John also ordained ministers for Scotland in 1785.
Charles died March 29, 1788, and was buried in the graveyard of Old Marylebone Church. John died on March 2, 1791, and was buried in the cemetery behind his chapel and house on City Road, London.
On the calendar in the Book of Common Prayer and on certain other Anglican calendars, John and Charles Wesley are remembered on March 3 to make room for the commemoration of Chad on March 2. The Methodist calendar in For All the Saints commemorates John Wesley on March 2, Charles Wesley on March 29, their father Samuel Wesley on April 24, and their remarkable mother Susanna Wesley on July 30.
Excerpts from New Book of Festivals & Commemorations: A Proposed Common Calendar of Saints by Philip H. Pfatteicher, copyright, 2008 by Fortress Press, an imprint of Augsburg Fortress.
From the Journal of John Wesley, May 24, 1738
I think it was about five this morning that I opened my Testament on those words, “There are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises, even that ye should be partakers of the divine nature,” Just as I went out, I opened it again on those words, “Thou art not far from the kingdom of God.” In the afternoon I was asked to go to St Paul’s. The anthem was, “Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord. O let thine ears consider well the voice of my complaint. If thou, Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss, O Lord, who may abide it? For there is mercy with thee; therefore shalt thou be feared. O Israel, trust in the Lord; for with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption. And he shall redeem Israel from all his sins.”
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for my 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.
I began to pray with all my might for those who had in a more especial manner despitefully used me and persecuted me. I then testified openly to all there what I now first felt in my heart. But it was not long before the enemy suggested, “This cannot be faith; for where is the joy?” Then was I taught that peace and victory over sin are essential to faith in the Captain of our salvation; but that, as to the transports of joy that usually attend the beginning of it, especially in those who have mourned deeply, God sometimes giveth, sometimes witholdeth them, according to the counsels of His own will.
John Wesley, The Heart of John Wesley’s Journal, ed. Percy Livingston Parker (London: Revell, n.d.), 28-30.
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 forever.
Readings: Isaiah 49:5-6; Psalm 98:1-4 (5-10) or 103:1-4, 13-18; Luke 9:2-6
Hymn of the Day: “O for a thousand tongues to sing” (H82 493, LBW 559, LSB 528, ELW 886)
Prayers: For a heart burning with love for God; For a deepened spiritual life; For a social conscience; For the reconciliation of the Methodist and Anglican Churches.
Preface: Pentecost (BCP), or, if after Ash Wednesday, Lent