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John & Charles Wesley

On 24th May 1738 a dispirited 35 year old had an inner experience that transformed his life and was perhaps the well-spring that eventually gave rise to a worldwide Christian movement and denomination: that known generally as Methodism. John, the son of a Lincolnshire rector, was born 3 months after the death of Robert Hooke, his younger brother Charles was born 4 years later. Both were ordained into Anglican orders, but had contrasting careers and personalities. John was a troubled soul in some respects, driven as much by a variety of theological influences, as what we would nowadays call his psychological make-up. Charles’ life was literally and figuratively much more lyrical. Unlike John, he was more prepared to stay well within the bounds of the CofE, and made it known that he wished to die as much Anglican as he had lived. Yet, like much true spirituality, his hymnody crosses denominational barriers and feeds the devotion of all who enjoy English hymn-singing. The words of many favourites were penned by Charles: And Can It Be?; Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus; Hark! the Herald Angels Sing; Love Divine, All Loves Excelling to name but a few.

John the Radical
Because he was denied access to parish churches, John pioneered open air preaching. He travelled generally on horseback and was particularly concerned to reach those who did not darken the doors of churches. Methodism took strong hold in socially deprived areas of the country such as the far south west and the north east where the Industrial Revolution had its adverse effects on the lives of ordinary working people like miners. Part of John’s radicalism was a genuine and practical concern for those who were socially deprived. Stephen Tomkins writes that he "rode 250,000 miles, gave away 30,000 pounds, .and preached more than 40,000 sermons.” John never intended to found a new denomination, but felt he was forced into it, and into ordaining ministers by the reluctance of the Anglican church to co-operate with him. At that time the CofE was characterised by a certain sense of privilege which tended towards complacency. Three of the great legacies of Methodism are social concern, lay preaching and warm-hearted spirituality. These are things that all Christians should take seriously. Although John was suspicious of open air preaching at first, he realised that it was an effective way of reaching what we would nowadays call the “unchurched”. It is still a challenge of mission today – how to bring the light of the gospel to those in our society who are not normally exposed to the regular life of the Church.

It has been said that "when John Wesley was carried to his grave, he left behind him a good library of books, a well-worn clergyman's gown," and the Methodist Church.

Charles the Lyrical
John was a radical, a pioneer who left a great legacy of a certain kind. Charles’ legacy, though very different, is just as valuable. We need lyricism as much as radicalism. Charles’ lyrical heritage was literally carried forward in his musical progeny. Whilst he shared Anglican orders with John and supported his older brother in the Methodist movement, Charles and his brother did not always agree on questions relating to their beliefs. He was strongly opposed to the idea of a breach with the CofE. Charles’ path through life was more settled and family orientated. He was married for 39 years and had 7 children, although only 3 survived infancy. He lived in Bristol and London, was father of Samuel Wesley, and grandfather of Samuel Sebastian Wesley both notable musicians. It has been said in the past that whilst Anglican’s took their Prayer Books to church, Methodists would carry their hymn books to chapel. These books symbolised different approaches to Christian belief: Anglicans believe what they pray, whilst the Methodist tradition is to express your belief through song. For Anglicans their creed is articulated through the phrases and implicit doctrines of the Book of Common Prayer. Charles Wesley packed a great deal of theology into his rich and sometimes complex hymnody. For instance, every phrase of And can it be is a direct lift from Christian scripture.

Filled with the Spirit
From early in its life, perhaps originating in 4th century there was a religious movement known as Enthusiasm. It referred to a sense of being fervent, a direct feeling of closeness to God. I quote from Wikipedia. “Several Protestant sects of the 16th and 17th centuries were called enthusiastic. During the years that immediately followed the Glorious Revolution, "enthusiasm" was a British pejorative term for advocacy of any political or religious cause in public. Such "enthusiasm" was seen in the time around 1700 as the cause of the previous century's English Civil War and its attendant atrocities, and thus it was an absolute social sin to remind others of the war by engaging in enthusiasm. The Wesleys were accused of blind enthusiasm (i.e. fanaticism), a charge against which they defended themselves by distinguishing fanaticism from "religion of the heart."

The apostle urges followers of Christ not to get drunk with wine...but to be filled with the Spirit, and to make that manifest in warm-hearted spiritual singing. The Pentecostal movement is in some ways, an expression of this, and an antidote to dry, mechanical Christian worship. Early Methodists may well have discovered this same source of refreshment in their spiritual lives. Music and melody fill the spirit and sometimes reach the parts that mere words cannot. When words and music combine, as they do in operatic drama, or when music enhances movie action, we experience its power. Jesus and his disciples, seeking rest and refreshment could not even find a place to break from their ceaseless response to the needy crowds. Both of these scriptural truths are reflected in the inspiration and the legacy of Methodism. John preached, like Christ, as a shepherd amongst directionless flocks. Charles composed hymns that expressed the fervour of deep devotion to Christ. Like faith and works, that must go together, social action and lyrical inspiration belong one to the other. They are born of a common source and complement each other as did the two brothers whose memories we commemorate today.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith