John Wesley is considered to be the father of Methodism. His brother, Charles, became one of the most prolific English-speaking poets, composing more than 6,500 hymns. With no intention of separating from the Anglican Church,* the brothers were founding members of a small Oxford University reform group that eventually spawned the second-largest Protestant denomination in America.
John and Charles were born in 1703 and 1707, respectively, in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England. Their parents were Anglican rector, Samuel Wesley, and his wife, Susanna, who had strong Pietist leanings, but was an Anglican. Born the 15th child, John gained his devout faith from his mother. In addition to that, a brush with death in a house fire at age five caused him to believe he had been saved for a special mission, and that he ought to diligently work to fulfill his obligation to God.
While attending Oxford University in 1728, John and Charles were ordained as priests of the Church of England, and they faithfully kept their holy orders throughout their lives. Although they were unable to preach from most Anglican pulpits because of their evangelical style, they held services in barns, private homes, and other locations.
While at Oxford, the brothers and a friend, George Whitefield, formed a group called the “Holy Club,” in which they held regular Bible study, prayer and self-examination. Each member also was responsible for visiting the sick and conducting worship services to jail inmates, which was highly unusual for college-age men. The club became known by their classmates as “the Methodists,” owing to their conspicuously pious ways, methodical approach to Bible study, and daily prayer.
Mission work in America
The Wesleys' mission to America began in 1735, when John was approached by General James Oglethorpe to serve as a minister for a new parish in Savannah, Georgia. Assuming he would preach to Indians and convert them, John set sail to the haven for persecuted religious sects and penniless debtors in Georgia. Charles went along to serve as secretary of Indian Affairs, with duties as secretary and chaplain at the nearby settlement of Frederica.
During a life-threatening storm on the voyage, John was impressed by the calm Moravian passengers' strong inner faith, while he was convinced of his own inner weakness. He maintained a relationship with them while in Georgia, which was later used against him. Visiting and studying with the Moravians in the New World was of great comfort to John while in Georgia, and later served as a starting point for his later ministry following his return to England.
John’s strict and unyielding methods of living proved to be of little value to the Native Americans and colonists. A man of great conviction, he was unable to adequately deal with his new parish's diverse geography, cultures, and languages. Holding himself to high standards of performance, John taught himself Spanish to bridge the linguistic barrier with his Jewish parishioners. At times he traveled 10 miles to visit members of his parish in Vernonburgh and Acton in the southern reaches, and five miles southwest to Highgate and Hempstead. Maintaining a strict schedule, John’s typical Sunday practices began at 5 a.m. with English prayers, then Italian and French prayers, catechism for children and finishing up with more English prayers at 3 p.m.
Unfortunately, the brothers Wesley became entangled in rumor-filled, intra-colony disputes that involved female colonists, and their days became numbered. Feeling ill-used, Charles left Georgia in July 1736. When John left Georgia in December 1737, never to return, it was in failure and despair. Left behind was his legacy of the establishment of Christ Church, the first Anglican Church in Savannah.
The seeds of Methodism were sown by the man's humble beginnings in Savannah, as evidenced by the many Methodist churches in that area today. Because of his unwillingness to compromise his standards and beliefs, John was unable to adjust to the specific needs of his parish and the Indians. John’s college friend, George Whitefield, continued to work as a deacon in Savannah and Frederica, and later founded Bethseda, an orphanage for boys that continues to this day.
Early Methodism in the colonies
While the Wesleys continued to preach for reform of the Anglican Church in England, nonordained Methodists arrived in the Mid-Atlantic colonies in the 1730s and ‘40s, and formed “societies.” Seeking a new life, those Methodists included Philip Embury and Barbara Heck, who went to New York; Robert Strawbridge, who began a congregation in Maryland; and a society was formed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, under the leadership of Captain Thomas Webb. After their ranks began to swell sufficiently, members from the John Street Church in New York City, New York, sent a formal request to John Wesley in April 1768. for a trained preacher who was “a man of wisdom, of sound faith, and a good disciplinarian.”
The following year, Wesley sent two missionaries to the colonies. Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmore arrived in Philadelphia in late October 1769, to begin the task of organizing Methodism in America. Trained by Wesley, those men organized societies with members from the Christian denominations present by seeking the commonality of those who, according to Pilmore, “earnestly desire to flee from the wrath to come” and who desired to “walk according to the oracles of God.”
Methodism spread throughout the colonies, and so did the need for additional preachers. Wesley sent several preachers who shared the same principle as Pilmore, including Francis Asbury, so that by 1773, there were 1,160 Methodists who were served by 10 preachers in Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Attracting mostly poor farmers in areas neglected by the Anglican Church, Asbury promoted circuit riding as a way of reaching them, and by so doing, increased American Methodism to 214,000 at the time of his death in 1816.
Wesley admonished adherents to continue to receive the sacraments from the Anglican Church, which was difficult, owing to the scarcity of priests in the colonies. The scarcity worsened during the American Revolution, when Anglican priests were seen as anti-patriotic and loyal to Britain.
All but Asbury fled to either Canada or back to England, after the Church of England in America lost its legal status. To avoid being enlisted to fight in the War of Independence, Asbury went into hiding until the fighting was over.
Opposed to the colonists’ bid for independence, John Wesley stated during the signing of the Declaration of Independence period, that it was a time of unjustified rebellion by a “bunch of hypocrites,” and that “wherever these brawlers for liberty govern, there is the vilest slavery.”
Owing to a lack of strong leadership, and the scarcity of regular sacramental worship, Methodism in America splintered from the Anglican Church and began the Methodist Episcopal Church of America, at the Baltimore Christmas Conference in 1784. After Wesley issued a Deed of Declaration that granted legal status to the yearly Methodist conference, Asbury and Thomas Coke were elected its first two superintendents (or bishops). The English Methodists formally separated from the Church of England in 1791, after Wesley’s death, then formed the Wesleyan Methodist Church.
Practices and beliefs
Such stringent requirements were expected of Wesley’s followers that it is no wonder they were called Methodists. While attending worship services and receiving the sacraments of the Church of England, Wesley also expected followers to participate in Methodist services and Bible study in small groups. He admonished them to avoid all evil, including profanity, profaning the day of the Lord, drunkenness, buying and selling slaves, fighting, and smuggling.
They also were expected to feed and clothe the disadvantaged, visit the sick and prison inmates, and to preach to others the ways of goodness. And finally, they were expected to attend public worship, including the “Supper of the Lord” Eucharist service, participate in family and private prayers, and fast.
Methodists interpret passages in the Bible to understand the will of God and their personal relationship with him, using a careful application of reason. As part of each adherent's "personal journey," they also believe that "the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in the Bible, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience."
In keeping with the Anglican tradition, they practice two sacraments: Baptism and the Supper of the Lord. Not only did Wesley expect personal piety of his adherents, he also required Christian mission work for their salvation. Their love of God is linked directly to their love of neighbor, and a passion for justice and renewal in the life of the world.
Back in England in 1738, John and Charles adhered to the pietist type of personal faith. In 1749, Charles married Sarah Gwynne, the young daughter of a Welsh gentleman who had been converted to Methodism by Howell Harris. Sarah traveled with Charles and John on their evangelical missions throughout Britain, until Charles ceased traveling in 1765.
Charles more strongly opposed a split from the Church of England than his brother, and disagreed with other beliefs that John held. Even so, the brothers remained close, until Charles died on March 29, 1788. Charles left a legacy of some 6,500 hymns. Many of them continue to be sung, including “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” and “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.”
An avid journal writer, John wrote of a personal transformative experience on May 24, 1738 when he felt his “heart strangely warmed,” during a small religious meeting of the Moravians on Aldergate Street in London. In his diary, he also wrote that “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.”
Upon that spiritual awakening, John began to preach to others about his enlightenment experience, which led to forgiveness of their sins, personal discipline, and steadiness in the face of death. Converts came together for Bible study, prayer and self examination that led to some becoming ordained preachers. Those preachers were brought together to discuss reforms within the Church of England, and for mission work. Some of the adherents traveled to the colonies to spread the news of scriptural holiness.
John's direct experience with slavery in Georgia led to his passionate campaign against it in England. So adamantly opposed to slavery was Wesley, that he wrote a pamphlet in 1776, entitled Thoughts Upon Slavery, which was reprinted four times in two years. Wesley's pamphlet followed similar subjects as were printed in Some Historical Account of Guinea, by the Philadelphia Quaker, Anthony Benezet.
Wesley explored the slave trade in detail and the brutality of plantation life, as well as the moral and legal arguments against it. At the end of one passage, Wesley directly condemned not only the slave trade, but traders as well, asking God to deal with them. Advancing the cause against slavery, Wesley wrote to the Abolition Committee, stating his support in August 1787. He mentioned reprinting Thoughts in a large format, but that never occurred.
Wesley preached against slavery at a considerable personal risk. In Bristol in 1788, he attempted to assist the abolition campaign. Such was Wesley's interest against slavery that in a letter written to the great abolitionist, William Wilberforce, he mentioned reading the Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African (1789), a strongly abolitionist autobiography of a Nigerian sold into slavery as a child.
Although John Wesley earned some 20,000 pounds for his publications, he used little of it on himself and died a poor man in March 1791, following a short illness. At the age of 48, John had married a widow, Mary Vazeille, who left him 15 years later. They did not have children. His life’s work resulted in 135,000 members and 541 itinerant Methodist ministers.
Men of great faith and conviction, John and Charles Wesley led a revival within the Church of England that resulted in the spawning of the second-largest Christian denomination in America. Although stringent practices were demanded of John’s adherents, by his death there were 135,000 members and 541 itinerant Methodist ministers.
Although they were denied access to the Church’s pulpits, those men preached their unconventional message of personal salvation by faith to religious societies all over England and Germany.
*The terms, Church of England and the Anglican Church, are synonymous.
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Biography: John and Charles Wesley, renewers of the Church (3 Mar 1791)
Prayer (contemporary language) Lord God, who 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 entreJohn 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 ...
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Biography: Charles Wesley Wilder
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