Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris-in-Ossory on Wednesday, 23rd November 2011
Sometimes there is a view of church history that suggests that the Wesleys arrived at just the right time; that Methodism breathed new life into the dry bones of the Church of England. Perhaps it is right, but it is also possible that they arrived at just the wrong time, that the dry bones of the Established Church were so rigid that instead of allowing Methodism to become a powerful influence in the life of the nation, it forced it outside, it forced it to become another denomination amongst all the other denominations. Whatever the perspective on the emergence of Methodism, the influence and legacy of Charles Wesley is worldwide.
Charles Wesley was born at Epworth Rectory in Lincolnshire, where his father was Rector of the parish on 18th December 1707. He was the eighteenth of Samuel and Susannah Wesley’s nineteen children, nine of whom died during childhood. Young Charles was born prematurely and was not expected to live.
Life in the Wesley household was rigorous. Once old enough, Charles joined his older brothers and sisters for classes taught to them by their mother, who was educated in Greek, Latin and French and would teach her young pupils for six hours a day. His education at Epworth laid the foundation for his years at Westminster School, where tuition was through Latin, and for his classics degree from Christ Church College, Oxford.
The discipline of their upbringing shaped the Wesleys not only in their academic studies, but also in their spiritual lives. Feeling the spiritual life of their college to be inadequate, they formed what became called the ’holy Club’; they developed their own rule of life, including daily prayer and Bible study in the early morning, week Holy Communion, and prison visiting. The methodical way in which they ordered their lives earned them the nickname ‘methodists’; it was not intended as a compliment and no-one could have foreseen that it would become the name of a worldwide denomination.
Like his older brother John, Charles was ordained deacon and then priest in the Church of England and in October 1735 they sailed across the Atlantic to work in the colony of Georgia. John was to work at a mission while Charles was to work as a chaplain. Charles found his ministry rebuffed. It was a time that was neither happy nor successful; both felt they lacked the inner conviction necessary for such ministry; that they were looking for an experience in others that they had never found themselves. It must have been after much heart searching and with a great sense of disappointment that the Wesley brothers sailed from South Carolina in August 1736 to return to England.
Charles Wesley’s return to London was to bring him into contact with the Moravians, an evangelical group with their roots in central Europe, Charles was particularly impressed by Peter Böhler, to whom he was teaching English. Böhler urged Wesley to reflect upon his spiritual state and in May 1738, Charles Wesley was reading Martin Luther’s commentary on Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. He was struck by Martin Luther’s emphasis on the personal pronouns in Galatians 2:20 which speaks of the Son of God ‘who loved me and gave himself for me’. On Whitsunday 1738, days before the conversion of his brother John, Charles Wesley wrote, ’I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoice in hope of loving Christ’.
Charles was appointed curate of Islington, but his ministry there was blocked by the church warden and Charles and John were forced to accept the suggestion of their friend George Whitefield that they ‘be more vile’ and preach outside of church buildings. It was a move that brought extraordinary results—crowds of listeners were numbered not in hundreds but in thousands. In the summer of 1738, he preached twice to crowds of 10,000 at Moorfields. On another occasion, he preached to 20,000 at Kennington Common. Charles Wesley who could communicate with massive crowds of London poor, could equally communicate with the leading people of his time, preaching on justification at Oxford University
On a visit to Wales in 1747, Charles Wesley, now forty years old met the twenty year old Sarah Gwynne, whose father had been a convert to the Methodist cause. They were married in April 1749 and moved into a house in Bristol in September 1749. Sarah accompanied Charles and John on their preaching tours throughout Britain, until at least 1753. Charles preaching journeys, did not always endear him to his John, who complained that. ’I do not even know when and where you intend to go’.
Charles Wesley’s last nationwide tour was in 1756. A decline in his health is led him gradually to withdraw from the itinerant ministry that had been the mark of the early days of Methodism. He was to spend the thirty years that followed in Bristol and London, preaching at Methodist chapels.
Throughout his adult years, Charles wrote verse, mainly hymns for use in Methodist meetings. His work was prolific, 56 volumes of hymns in 53 years; hymns that according to his brother John provided a ‘distinct and full account of scriptural Christianity’.
In 1771 Charles obtained another house, in London, and moved into it that year with his elder son. By 1778 the whole family had transferred from Bristol to the London house, at 1 Chesterfield Street, Marylebone, where they remained until Charles’ death.
The Wesley family lived in the Church of England Parish of Saint Marylebone. During his final illness Charles Wesley sent for John Harley, the rector of the parish. He was anxious to dispel the impression that he was estranged from the church. ‘Sir’, he said to John Horley, ‘whatever the world may say of me, I have lived, and I die, a member of the Church of England. I pray you to bury me in your churchyard’. When he died, his pall bearers were six Church of England clergy.
Recalling the life of Charles Wesley brings both joy and sadness.
His hymns are still with us, still enriching our worship. Hymns rooted in Scripture and with great theological substance—he is said to have written some 6,000 altogether, many of which have stood the test of time and will still be sung for generations to come. While his ministry touched hundreds of thousands of lives, his hymns have reached hundreds of millions.
The ministry of the Wesleys might have renewed the Church of England, but the opposition to their preaching was deep. Typical of their critics was Theophilus Evans, who wrote that it was ‘the natural tendency of their behaviour, in voice and gesture and horrid expressions, to make people mad’. The artist William Hogarth attacked Methodists as being full of ‘credulity, superstition and fanaticism’. Perhaps at another period in the history of the church, the Wesley brothers would have been embraced as evangelists who would have an impact amongst those communities that the Church of England simply was not reaching. Perhaps the tendency to hold onto standing and influence and power is such that the Established Church could never have accommodated a renewal as radical as that the Wesleys sought.
For us, what matters is not history, but what we make of Charles Wesley’s example and writing in our own times. If our church is to find renewal, we need to recover discipline, we need to find our own ways of being methodical. If we are to find ways of expressing our faith to people in our own times, we need to look at how Charles Wesley conveyed Scriptural truths to people in his time and ask how we might convey those same truths to the people we meet in the 21st Century.
Charles Wesley riding his horse to speak at open air gatherings would probably have wondered at our lack of imagination!