John and Charles Wesley

John and Charles Wesley were born in Epworth, Lincolnshire, into the large family of Samuel and Susanna Wesley (of about nineteen children, three sons and seven daughters survived). Both parents were devout and strongminded people.

Samuel had been raised in a Dissenting academy, but became a high church Anglican and was Rector of the parish at Epworth. He was a man of faith and spoke of 'the inward witness' as 'the strongest proof of Christianity.'

Susanna Wesley, who seems to have had a considerable influence over John, raised and educated her enormous family with great competence and discipline - the children had 6 hours of home schooling a day. She also found time, during one of Samuel's absences, to set up a Sunday afternoon house group in the rectory kitchen, which eventually attracted 200 people.

Samuel had a turbulent relationship with his flock and when in 1709 the rectory was destroyed by fire, some speculated that disgruntled parishioners might have been responsible.

John Wesley, who was six at the time of the fire, was caught in the house but was rescued from an upstairs window. This gave rise to a belief in his family that he had been spared for some special purpose, and later John used to refer to himself as 'a brand plucked from the burning'. This literal event was a powerful image of having been saved 'from the wrath to come'.

The Holy Club

Charles and John both became students at Oxford (Christ Church), and in 1726 John was elected as Fellow of Lincoln College.

Charles, who had been a bit of a lad at the start of his university career, became more serious about his faith, and started a small group nicknamed 'the Holy Club', which met for prayer and Bible study. Later, John became a leading light in the group and in particular stressed the need for combining a deep inward faith with practical service to those in need.

The scholars used to go into the town and the local prison to do charitable work and visit the sick. Other students had a variety of mocking nicknames for the group, including 'Bible Moths', 'Enthusiasts' and 'Supererogationists' (because they did more than most people thought was necessary to be a good Christian), but the one that stuck was 'Methodists.'

It was in the Holy Club that the Wesley brothers met George Whitefield, who became an important part of the Methodist movement.

A Storm at Sea

John and Charles Wesley set out for America in 1735, enthused at the idea of of preaching the Gospel to Native American people.

During the voyage the ship was struck by a terrifying storm. John was afraid. He prayed with the English passengers, one of whom brought him a baby to baptise in case they were all about to die.

Shortly afterwards he was at another service with a group of German Moravians when a huge wave engulfed the ship and water poured down into the cabins.

While the English passengers screamed in terror, the Moravians continued singing - men, women and children seemingly untroubled.

"This was the most glorious day that I have yet seen"  Journal entry of John Wesley, 25th January 1736

Later he asked one of the Moravians if they hadn't been afraid. He replied that not even the women and children had been afraid. None of them were afraid to die.

John knew that they had something he didn't, an absolute trust in God. They were prepared to lose their lives because they knew that God was never going to let them go.

John was deeply impressed. His time in America was unsuccessful in many ways, and he and Charles returned home after two years.

All the time John was nagged by the thought that he did not have full faith in God. But this was about to change. 

 

The Conversions

Both John and Charles Wesley returned to England deeply dissatisfied with their spiritual state.

Still heavily influenced by the Moravians they met with in London, the Wesleys joined in a 'Religious Society', and in May 1738 both underwent a profound spiritual experience. John famously described this in his Journal for 24 May 1738

"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 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."

Three days earlier, following his own 'conversion', Charles had written a hymn:

"Where shall my wondering soul begin
How shall I all to heaven aspire?
A slave redeemed from death and sin,
A brand plucked from eternal fire,
How shall I equal triumphs raise,
Or sing my great Deliverer's praise?"

Flowing from the complete assurance they felt in God's love and forgiveness, their faith was lived out in lives that went on to influence millions.

Charles went on to write over 6,000 hymns, while John used his organising genius to turn a spontaneous movement into structured body which became the origin of today's world-wide Methodist Church. 

Preaching

John Wesley knew George Whitefield from the days of the Holy Club. Whitefield had had a similar conversion experience to the Wesleys a few years earlier, and had gone on to preach in large open-air meetings.

Wesley preached the first of his open-air sermons at Whitefield's invitation in Bristol in 1739. As an Oxford don and an ordained Church of England minister, Wesley had a reverence for the 'proper' places of worship and was uneasy about preaching in the open air.

But since many working class people often felt excluded from the churches, 'field preaching' became a key feature of the Methodist Revival. More and more preachers were trained, and either travelled around like Wesley, or remained 'local preachers'.

Wesley went on to spend his life travelling the country, preaching to crowds on village greens, at pitheads, wherever he could find people to listen. During his lifetime he travelled an estimated 250,000 miles and preached 40,000 times.

His sermons appealed to people's hearts and minds, and were experienced as deeply personal messages by those who listened. They reached many who felt alienated from the Church because of their emphasis on God's freely-given forgiveness and love for all.

Wesley's published Sermons became and remain the doctrinal standard of the Methodist Church.

Social Justice

For the Wesleys, 'works' as well as faith were essential to the whole of Christian living, and caring for the poor, for prisoners, for widows and orphans mattered a great deal.

Methodists were not only interested in welfare, they were concerned to remedy social injustice, and John Wesley's last known letter urged the abolition of 'that execrable villainy' slavery.

The Wesleys were an influence in prison reform and, inspired by Susanna Wesley, they earned a reputation as pioneers in education.

John Wesley himself wrote, edited or abridged some 400 publications. As well as theology he wrote about politics, music, marriage and slavery and medicine.

Methodists were encouraged to work to their utmost to improve the lives of others. John Wesley exhorted them to "Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can."

Wesleyan Theology

The assurance of the free grace of God was the experience of the early Methodists, which the Wesleys set in the Christian tradition of 'arminianism', emphasising within human freewill the need for holy living as an outcome of faith leading towards 'Christian perfection'.

The Calvinists (such as George Whitefield) by contrast stressed the absolute sovereignty of God and believed in predestination.

This implied that some people could never reach God, no matter what they did, as 'the elect' had already been chosen.

But Wesley and the Methodists preached that all can be saved. No-one is beyond the reach of God's love.

Societies and Classes

Wesley formed converts into local societies, originally modelled upon the 'Religious Societies' and his Oxford group. They were also subdivided into 'classes' which met weekly.

Every year, by horse or carriage, John Wesley travelled the country to visit, encourage and admonish the societies, as well as preaching.

Through the societies, members supported one another spiritually and pastorally, and working people and women often found a status otherwise denied to them.

Wesley insisted that Methodists regularly attend their local parish church as well as Methodist meetings. He did not want Methodism to become a 'break away' movement.

Small groups are still important in Methodism today, for nurturing Christian growth in mutual trust and openness.

The Birth of the Conference

As the Methodist societies grew at a fast rate, some way of keeping in touch and organising them was needed. John Wesley had held what became an annual conference of Methodist preachers.

In 1784 he made provision for the continuance as a corporate body after his death of the 'Yearly Conference of the People called Methodists'.

He nominated 100 people and declared them to be its members and laid down the method by which their successors were to be appointed.

After his death the leadership passed to the Methodist Conference, and instead of one person exercising leadership for a length of time, the president of the Conference was appointed for one year only. This is a tradition that continues.

Today the Methodist Church has a connexional structure rather than a congregational one. This is where the whole church acts and decides together. It is where the local church is never independent of the rest of the Connexion. Everyone who becomes a member through confirmation is a member of the Methodist Church as a whole, not just their local church.

The Methodist Church is part of the whole Church of Christ. It claims no superiority or inferiority to any other part of the Church. All those who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and accept the obligations to serve him in the life of the Church and the world are welcome as full members of the Methodist Church.

Separation from the Church of England

Although Wesley declared,

"I live and die a member of the Church of England"

the strength and impact of the movement made a separate Methodist body virtually inevitable.

In 1784 Wesley gave legal status to his Conference, which moved towards the legal separation of Methodism from the Anglican Church.

He also ordained ministers for America, where there was a drastic shortage of clergy to administer the sacraments following the War of Independance. The Bishop of London had refused to ordain ministers for this purpose, and Wesley felt he was forced to act.

Disputes about the status of the travelling preachers and the administration of the sacraments were resolved by the Plan of Pacification (1795) which was a decisive break with the Church of England.

Primitive Methodism

The Primitive Methodists were a major offshoot of the principal stream of Methodism - the Wesleyan Methodists - in 19th Century Britain. 

In the early decades of the 19th century there was a growing body of opinion among the Wesleyans that their Connexion was moving in directions which were a distortion of, not to say a betrayal of, what John Wesley had brought to birth in the 18th century.

Eventually a Methodist preacher called Hugh Bourne became the catalyst for a breakaway, to form the Primitive Methodists. Probably 'primitive' was used to clarify their self-understanding that they were the true guardians of the original, or primitive, form of Methodism.

The sorts of issues which divided the Primitives and the Wesleyans were these:The Primitives focused attention on the role of lay people.

  • The Wesleyans developed a high doctrine of the Pastoral Office to justify leadership being in the hands of the ministers.
  • The Primitives stressed simplicity in their chapels and their worship. The Wesleyans were open to cultural enrichment from the Anglican tradition and more ornate buildings.
  • The Primitives concentrated their mission on the rural poor. The Wesleyans on the more affluent and influential urban classes.
  • The Primitives stressed the political implications of their Christian discipleship. The Wesleyans were nervous of direct political engagement.

By the end of the 19th century these two streams of Methodism realised they had more in common than they might have supposed. So conversations began which led to their being the two principal partners in the union to form the present-day Methodist Church in 1932. 

Temperance

In the 19th century Methodism identified itself with the 'total abstinence' temperance movement. This was at a time when social evils such as poverty and domestic violence were greatly exacerbated by drunkenness.

Strong drink was cheap, and many suffered. By encouraging and helping people to abstain, many lives were improved.

Methodism has retained a reputation for temperance, but today, alcohol consumption for Methodists is a matter of personal choice. See the view of the Church on alcohol.

However the Church is still concerned to help those who might put themselves in danger. 

All Information courtesy of The Methodist Uk Website