03 March 2013

With the Saints in Lent (19), John and Charles Wesley, 3 March, and the Third Sunday in Lent

John and Charles Wesley, the founding figures in Methodism, are commemorated in some Anglican calendars on 3 March

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Third Sunday in Lent. The readings in Revised Common Lectionary provided for this Sunday in Year C are: Isaiah 55: 1-9; Psalm 63: 1-9; I Corinthians 10: 1-13; Luke 13: 1-9. On this day [3 March], the brothers Charles and John Wesley are commemorated in the calendars of the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Church in the US.

Charles Wesley died on 29 March 1788, and John Wesley died on 2 March 1791, so both the SEC and TEC moved their commemoration to 3 March because Saint Chad is remembered on 2 March, although they are commemorated in the calendar in Common Worship of the Church of England on 24 May, the day on which John Wesley was converted, or when he felt his heart “strangely warmed.”

John Wesley was the fifteenth child, and Charles Wesley the eighteenth child, of the Revd Samuel Wesley, Rector of Epworth, Lincolnshire; John was born on 17 June 1703, and Charles on 18 December 1707.

The lives and fortunes of the Wesley brothers were closely intertwined. As the founders and the leaders of the Methodist revival in the 18th century, their influence continues around the world and in many Churches.

Although their theological writings and sermons are still widely appreciated, and through their hymns – especially those by Charles, who wrote over 6,000 hymns –their religious experiences and their Christian faith and life continue to affect the hearts of many. I am conscious that this morning’s Psalm says:

I will bless you as long as I live •
and lift up my hands in your name.
My soul shall be satisfied, as with marrow and fatness, •
and my mouth shall praise you with joyful lips
(Psalm 63: 5-6).

Throughout their lives, these two brothers remained loyal to the doctrine and worship of the Church of England; and no amount of abuse and opposition to their cause and methods ever shook their confidence in the Church of England and their and love of Anglicanism.

John and Charles Wesley were educated at Charterhouse and Christ Church, Oxford, where they first gathered a small group of friends to practice a strict adherence to the worship and discipline of The Book of Common Prayer. These were the first people to be called Methodists.

The Revd John Wesley was ordained in 1728; the Revd Charles Wesley was ordained in 1735. Together they went to Georgia in 1735, John as a missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG, later USPG and now Us), Charles as secretary to James Oglethorpe, the Governor of Georgia. But the Wesley brothers found their experiences in Georgia disheartening, and returned to England after a few years.

Shortly after their return to England, they both experienced inner conversions, just three days apart – Charles on 21 May 1738, and John on 24 May – at a meeting in Aldersgate Street, London, with a group of Moravians, during a reading of Martin Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans.

John Wesley received a strong emotional awareness of the love of Christ displayed in freely forgiving his sins and granting him eternal life. He later recalled: “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.”

Following these experiences, John and Charles Wesley, with others, set about to stir up in others a like awareness of and response to the saving love of God. And so the Methodist revival was born.

John Wesley toured all of England, much of Wales and some of Scotland. Initially Charles shared these travels, but his less robust health prevented his doing as much travel.

On a visit to Dublin in 1747, one of John Wesley’s preachers, Thomas Williams, a Welshman, formed what became the first permanent Methodist Society in Ireland. Later that year, John Wesley came to Ireland on his first visit in August to meet this society. The early meetings in Dublin were held in rented premises in Marlborough Street and Cork Street.

During that first visit, he preached in Saint Mary’s Church in the city centre, and dined with Archbishop Charles Cobbe of Dublin in Newbridge House, Donabate, in north Co Dublin.

John Wesley went on to pay 21 visits to Ireland, his visits lengthening in time and extent until he had visited almost all the island.

The first Methodist building in Ireland was a chapel at Whitefriar Street, Dublin, built in 1752. The site was later expanded to contain a dayschool for boys, a school for orphan girls, a widows’ almshouse, a bookroom and houses for two ministers. The Whitefriar Street congregation moved to Saint Stephen’s Green in 1845, and now worships in Leeson Park.

In his sermons and elsewhere, John Wesley’s favourite classical source was Horace. There are 27 quotations from Horace in the sermons alone, some repeated in different contexts, compared with 21 quotations from Virgil; Ovid follows with 10, then Cicero (9) and Juvenal (7). There is also one quote each from Aristophanes, Hadrian, Homer, Lucan, Lucretius, Persius, Pindar, Sophocles, Suetonius, Symmachus, Terence and Velleius Paterculus. These are classical sources helped him to develop his ideas about human nature, human volition, and the human passions.

But, while John Wesley found it natural to approach the Gospel with a mind shaped by his classical education, he was quick to recognise the value of other approaches, and the early Methodist meetings were often led by lay preachers with very limited education.

The story is told that on one occasion, an uneducated lay preacher took as his text: “Lord, I feared thee, because thou art an austere man” (Luke 19: 21).

Not knowing the word “austere,” the preacher interpreted the text as speaking of “an oyster man.” So, he spoke about the work of those who retrieve oysters from the seabed. The diver plunges down from the surface, cut off from his natural environment, into bone-chilling water. He gropes in the dark, cutting his hands on the sharp edges of the shells. Now he has the oyster, and kicks back up to the surface, up to the warmth and light and air, clutching in his torn and bleeding hands the object of his search. So Christ descended from the glory of heaven into the squalor of earth, into sinful human society, in order to retrieve humans and bring them back up with him to the glory of heaven, his torn and bleeding hands a sign of the value he has placed on the object of his quest.

Twelve men were converted that evening.

However, one person present complained to John Wesley that it was inappropriate to allow preachers who were too ignorant to know the meaning of the texts they were preaching on. Wesley replied simply: “Never mind, the Lord got a dozen oysters tonight.”

Of the two brothers, John was the more powerful preacher, and averaged 8,000 miles of travel a year, mostly on horseback. At the time of his death he was probably the best known and best loved man in England.

Charles Wesley died on 29 March 1788; John Wesley died on 2 March 1791.

The Wesley brothers wanted to keep their Methodist Societies within existing Anglican structures. The later rift between Methodists and Anglicans occurred after they died, when the Methodist Societies in America, and to a lesser extent those in England, developed separate organisations. However, John Wesley’s uncanonical ordinations of “elders” for America, which was bitterly opposed by Charles Wesley, laid the foundation for this division.


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 entreat you, such fervour, 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 for ever. Amen.


Isaiah 49: 5-6; Psalm 103: 1-4, 13-18; Romans 12: 11-17; Luke 9: 2-6.

Collect (Lent 3):

Merciful Lord,
Grant your people grace to withstand the temptations
of the world, the flesh and the devil
and with pure hearts and minds to follow you, the only God;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer (Lent 3):

Lord our God,
you feed us in this life with bread from heaven,
the pledge and foreshadowing of future glory.
Grant that the working of this sacrament within us
may bear fruit in our daily lives;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Tomorrow (4 March): Saint Owini of Lichfield, hermit.

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