The Anointed Wesley Brothers
Note to Bishop’s Week Readers, 2010:
This paper is a revision of “Why John Wesley?” from Restoring Methodism, pp. xi-xiv. It is front matter in our coming book The Sacrament of Jesus. Jim Scott, Molly Davis Scott
John and Charles Wesley changed the world. How did it happen?
It all started in Suzanna Wesley’s nursery. Suzanna was married to Samuel Wesley, an Anglican priest, and became the mother of John and Charles. She was a devoted Christian and a disciplined mother who raised the surviving eleven of her nineteen children in the Christian faith. She awoke the boys and their siblings at four o’clock every morning to begin their studies, which consisted of Greek, Latin, the method of the Bible, and several other subjects. Suzanna said that her principle task was the salvation of her children’s souls. No one could have ever anticipated what lay ahead for John and Charles. It was a faith-beginning that would change England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the Americas, and the world.
Charles, the older brother, enrolled at Oxford to become an Anglican priest. John followed later. It was Charles who in 1729 started a small group, which John joined, seeking “holiness of heart and life.” The group took the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper on a highly regular basis and were thus called sacramentarians. The group believed Hebrews 12:14, that “without holiness no one will see the Lord.” The students at Oxford called it the Holy Club. Holiness, sanctification, perfect love: this was to be the defining doctrine of the movement. Wesley was determined to return to that “primitive church” that had given power and life to the first-century Christians. The quest was on.
Though the Reverend John Wesley is credited with being the founder of the Methodist movement, due credit needs to be given to the Reverend Charles Wesley. Charles was a gifted preacher who worked side by side with his brother. Charles also wrote, often with John’s assistance, almost eight thousand hymns, many of which are still sung today by congregations and denominations around the world. Their well-known hymns include “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” and “For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” The Wesleys, together with their band of lay preachers and class leaders, not only altered the Anglican Church in England but also worked for the abolition of slavery, prevented a repeat of the French Revolution in England, established educational systems for children, and reformed and changed child-labor laws. In addition, the Wesleys and the early Methodists started the first pharmacy in England and built orphanages, hospitals, and schools. They were instrumental in putting orthodox evangelical Anglican theology into practice, combining a personal relationship and love for Jesus Christ with social justice.
The Wesleys began not only Methodism but an evangelical movement that spawned many other movements and denominations. In America alone, there are more than thirty-five Wesleyan denominations, including The United Methodist Church, the Church of the Nazarene, and The Salvation Army. The World Methodist Council represents approximately 50 million people. The Methodists and their Wesleyan brothers and sisters in the United States have built hundreds of universities, hospitals, orphanages, schools, and multiple seminaries. They have fought for the issues of justice and freedom, and they personally give billions of dollars each year for the relief of the poor and those in need. There are many millions of people in heaven today who would not be there except for Methodism and those with Wesleyan roots who have followed in the footsteps of John and Charles Wesley and the people called Methodists.
How did John Wesley and his lay preachers and class leaders influence so many people to such profound good and commitment to God? How did they change the world they lived in?
Fifteen years into his ministry, John Wesley wrote that he did not have a full feeling of assurance of the salvation that he preached to others. After searching for another three years, several elements came together to lead him into this assurance, which he kept and preached the rest of his long life. This most poignant moment, called his Aldersgate experience, came in a gentle, unusual way. On May 24, 1738, at the age of thirty-five, Wesley happened into a small chapel at Aldersgate Street, London, where someone was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. Wesley later said, “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 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.”1
The Anglican Church—and England, America, and the world—would be changed forever.
After his Aldersgate experience, Wesley began preaching repentance, faith, and holiness with new intensity and conviction. Wesley’s Anglican theology had not changed; what had changed was his desire to make doctrine and life congruent. Almost immediately Wesley was banned from preaching in Anglican churches throughout Britain, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. Why? First, because of his preaching in the open fields and his use of extemporaneous prayers. But far and away the most controversial reason was his commitment to the use of lay preachers, who attracted crowds but angered the established Church, particularly the clergy.
During his lifetime, Wesley traveled over 250,000 miles on horseback, was attacked incessantly by mobs, and suffered every kind of humiliation. At times he preached to crowds as large as twenty thousand. Through his tracts and writings, he earned what today would be millions of dollars, yet throughout his entire life, he lived on the same amount of money he had subsisted on in college, giving the rest away.
Wesley’s last words before dying were, “The best of all, God is with us.” Then he sat up and sang some lines from Isaac Watts’s hymn:
I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath:
And when my voice is lost in death,
Praise shall employ my nobler powers,
My days of praise shall ne’er be passed.2
And one of the greatest saints of history was gone to his reward.
John Wesley can continue to change our lives for the better.
It is not that Wesley himself changes us; it is that he continually points away from himself to the Trinity—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit; to basic Christianity; to the early Church. Wesley is not the answer, but he takes us to the answers. Those answers—eternal truths—have not changed for centuries and will never change.
The Wesleyan doctrine (what we believe and teach) and discipline (rules and forms of ministry) create the vehicle to take us, individually and corporately, to the life and power that is promised in the faith. They provide the way for us to acquire righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, to advance the Kingdom of God, and to secure all that we truly need and desire in this life and the life to come.3
Finally, we offer two important thoughts. One is that Mr. Wesley should be viewed not only in light of his greatness but also of his limitations. He is not to be worshiped, but he is to be respected for who he was, what he believed and taught, and especially how he lived his life in Christ. Secondly, what he did for his world—and what he can do for us today—is take us back to the faith and the fire of the primitive Church. The Methodist movement was one of the purest representations of the faith and heart of the primitive Church. That judgment has been voiced by many historians outside Methodist circles. Father Louis Bouyer, one of the most esteemed historian and theologians in the twentieth-century Roman Catholic Church, wrote:
Wesley was perfectly well aware that what he wanted corresponded with the highest aspirations of the Catholics—and Catholics not only of the ancient Church but of the Church of his time. Anxious to provide his disciples with solid spiritual reading, he thus became, within Protestantism, one of the great popularizers of his beloved Imitation, as well as Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola, Frances de Sales, and Fenelon…no one did so much to rebuild bridges on a spiritual plane between Catholicism (old and new) and a renewed Protestantism.
All this, then, marked a return to Catholic doctrine in its deepest and most traditional form, but powerfully revived by the most positive Protestant intuitions and expressed in a simple popular language with great vigor and communicative conviction. From this point of view and without exaggeration Wesley can be viewed as a reformer of the Reformation itself who should be put on the same plane as its greatest initiators. If he lacked Luther’s intellectual power and original religious genius, he proved himself an incomparably more efficient apostle and pastor than anyone else when it came to producing a real spiritual revival in his disciples. We can say that never, since the beginning of the Christian mission in England, had there been such an efficient movement of religious and moral revival.4
1 John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley,. 3rd ed. Vol. 2. Journal. May 24, 1938. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), p. 103.
2 Isaac Watts, “I’ll Praise My Maker While I’ve Breath,” The Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The Methodist Publishing House, 1966), p. 9, altered by John Wesley.
3 To know the Wesleys better, we suggest reading the following resources:
John Wesley’s Standard Sermons and Journals
The Eucharistic Hymns of John and Charles Wesley by Ernest Rattenbury Christian Perfectionism in American Methodism by John Peters John Wesley by Albert Outler The Idea of Perfection in Christian Theology by R. H. Flew The Path to Perfection by W. E. Sangster Wesley for Armchair Theologians by William J. Abraham Wesley and Sanctification by Harold Lindstrom
Wesley himself was deeply moved by the following three figures, and we recommend their works as well:
William Law, Treatise on Christian Perfection and A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy
Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ
Jeremy Taylor, Rule and Exercises of Holy Living and Dying
4 Louis Bouyer, A History of Christian Spirituality, New York: Seabury Press, 1969,Volume 3, pages 192–93.