Christian History Home > Issue 69 > A Tale of Two Brothers
A Tale of Two Brothers
Like many siblings, John and Charles Wesley often clashed— and the Methodist movement profited.
In 1785, at age 82, John Wesley wrote a wrenching letter to his 77-year-old brother Charles, who had for several years been openly critical of John's leadership in the Methodist movement.
"Do not hinder me if you will not help," the older brother scolded. "Perhaps, if you had kept close to me, I might have done better. However, with or without help, I creep on."
The story of early Methodism is, of course, more than the tale of these two brothers. But the development of the movement cannot be fully comprehended without them—both of them.
John was 4 years old when Charles was born (eight weeks premature) in 1707. Charles was only 6 when John went off to Charterhouse School in London. The childhood years in Epworth did not allow much time for the two boys to be brothers.
Although Charles also went to school at Westminster, near London, three years after John, they probably did not see much of each other. They got their first opportunity to grow closer when both attended Oxford University in the late 1720s.
As a young student at Christ Church College, Charles had a personal "reformation" in 1728. His older brother, who preceded him (again by about four years) in the quest for a meaningful faith, provided practical suggestions for pursuing the holy life. Within a matter of months, they shared many of the methods of thinking and acting that soon became characteristic of the people called "Methodists."
John Gambold, a friend of both at Oxford, described Charles as being "deeply sensible" of John's seniority: "I never observed any person have a more real deference for another than he constantly had for his brother." Gambold felt that Charles imitated his older brother so much that, as he said, "could I describe one of them, I should describe both."
Among their similarities: Both brothers were published poets, as were their father, Samuel, Sr., their older brother Samuel, Jr., and one of their sisters, Kezzy. Although neither brother composed music, both were musicians—John played the flute and Charles played the organ.
Both were ordained in the Church of England, as was their father. Both attended Christ Church at Oxford. Both had a transforming spiritual experience. Both married. In some cases, older brother John preceded his younger brother. In other matters, however, Charles took the lead, such as in his spiritual awakening and his marriage.
When John decided to become a missionary to Georgia in 1735, he convinced Charles to go along. Charles noted in his journal that his older brother always had the "ascendancy" over him and, even though Charles dreaded taking holy orders, John talked him into it so that Charles could assist with the parish work in the new colony.
Although he was hastily certified (ordained as both deacon and elder within two weeks instead of the usual interval of two years), Charles took his clerical position seriously. And although John would consistently say from then on that he would live and die a "Church of England man," Charles was actually the one who held closest to the Established Church as the century wore on. In that arena, he became his older brother's conscience.
The brothers' relationship was prickly at times. But they had a trusting respect for each other that allowed personal tensions to produce positive results when larger issues were at stake.
When the brothers set sail for Georgia, John had been preaching for a decade, but his younger brother was fresh from under the bishop's ordaining hand. Charles spent part of his time on the ship copying several of John's sermons so he could use them in Georgia.
Browse More ChristianHistory.net
Home | Browse by Topic | Browse by Period | The Past in the Present | Books & Resources