A Tale of Two Brothers
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.
Neither John nor Charles, however, had a positive experience in Georgia. Both of them lost favor with the political powers they were supposed to assist. Charles, ill and depressed, left for home within half a year. John lasted a year longer, then decided it was better to return to England than face the grand jury indictments his enemies had concocted (see "Wesleys in America," page 14).
Though the brothers' missionary efforts bore little fruit, their interaction with some German Pietist settlers they met while crossing the Atlantic had important consequences.
The settlers, a band of Moravians, had remained calm during a potentially deadly sea squall, which greatly impressed the Wesleys. Seeking to have the same depth of spiritual assurance, the brothers sought out Peter Boehler, who became their spiritual tutor.
Boehler's message was simple: a proper faith will result in a clear sense of assurance of salvation. One cannot have one without the other. And such a faith will be accompanied by love, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. At the same time, one will become free from fear, doubt, and sin. Such a heart-centered experience was necessary for one to become a true Christian.
Charles was the first to have this "Moravian" experience of assurance. On May 21, 1738, he powerfully sensed Christ's forgiving presence. "I felt a strange palpitation of heart" was his own unpoetic description.
John joined the friends who came to Charles's lodgings that evening to rejoice with him, pray, and sing a hymn. John was thrilled for his brother, but his heart must have churned as he went back out into the darkness to face his own doubts and questionings.
Three days later, John experienced assurance himself. The setting was a small religious society meeting in Aldersgate Street. The catalyst was a Pietist classic: Martin Luther's preface to the Book of Romans. Also in the Pietist tradition, the experience included an intense sensation. As John described it, "I felt my heart strangely warmed."
It is no surprise that these two Moravian-inspired experiences would be expressed in terms of heart imagery. Especially noteworthy, however, is the fact that both brothers found the sensation "strange." Nevertheless, John's account of his Alders-gate experience, as reported in his published journal, became the normative pattern for many of his followers.
Just as the brothers' spiritual journeys were not identical, their theology and ecclesiology diverged at a few points.
Regarding the process of salvation, Charles seems to have had an earlier sense that the "almost Christian," the one who is struggling with the faith, should be reckoned as having the "faith of a servant." John persisted longer in believing that the "almost Christian" was no Christian at all, because he had not yet experienced spiritual assurance.
John struggled with this question for many years, eventually modifying his opinion to allow "exempt cases"—persons who had not experienced assurance but who were surely real Christians. In his later years, he even allowed that one should take Scripture seriously when it says that a person who simply "fears God and works righteousness" is accepted by him.
In general, where the brothers disagreed on theology, John felt it was best if each proceeded with his own strengths. Thus he encouraged Charles to continue emphasizing sanctification as the gift of God's grace in a moment (instantaneous) while he continued to stress the importance of growing in holiness through nurture and grace (process). Since both approaches would meet the same goal—to spread scriptural holiness across the land—both were beneficial.
Overall, the brothers differed less on theology than on the proper organization for their movement. Both were concerned about the relationship between Methodism and the Church of England. Neither wanted Methodism to become a dissenting religious sect.
Had the Wesleys not taken this issue seriously, Anglican prejudices against enthusiasm and government policies under the Act of Toleration might have radically restricted the Methodist movement. But the question of how distinct the Methodists could be while remaining within the Church of England was often a point of contention. Three flashpoints in this conflict highlight the differences between the brothers.
Once George Whitefield had convinced the Wesleys that outdoor preaching, though unusual, had good precedent in the Sermon on the Mount, the next major issue for them was whether or not laity would be allowed to preach. This practice also had precedents within the Church of England, but it was even more irregular than open-air sermons.
Charles was only lukewarm toward outdoor preaching, and he questioned the large numbers that George and John reported at their gatherings. Charles viewed lay preaching even more skeptically. John, however, was convinced (by his mother and his own observations) that lay preachers, such as Thomas Maxfield, could be channels of God's redeeming grace.
As the movement grew and the need for preachers far exceeded the number of Anglican clergy who were associated with Methodism, John appointed more lay preachers to serve the societies. None were set apart for such service, however, until they had been examined for "gifts, grace, and fruits."
Charles began to question not only some of the particular people John was appointing but also the practice itself. John responded in the 1750s by putting Charles in charge of examining the preachers. Though clever, this move did not solve the problem.
Charles insisted that lay preachers have the "gifts" for the work, so he subjected candidates to rigorous examination. He even sent some back to their day jobs. John was less exacting, because, as he said, "Of the two, I prefer grace before gifts."
The brothers' views collided, for instance, in the case of a tailor whom John had made into a preacher. Charles noted proudly to a friend, "I, with God's help, shall make him a tailor again."
John feared that his brother's high standard was causing a dearth of preachers. He asked Charles to ease up a bit so that there would be enough leaders to meet the growing needs. As long as he had the power, though, Charles was relentless in his attempt "to purge the Church, beginning with the laborers."
Charles engaged several clergy friends to help lobby his older brother against the use of lay preachers. Such efforts simply increased ill-feeling between the brothers, which spread to a number of related issues.
John's conviction that lay preachers should work full-time, combined with his hesitance to pay them a sufficient allowance, rankled Charles. Charles thought that such an arrangement gave John unconscionable control over the preachers' lives. John "ruled with a rod of iron," to use Charles's phrase.
In a bold letter to a friend, Charles argued that preachers must be allowed to earn money on their own. With such support, they would not have to depend entirely upon John "for bread," and this would help "break his power … and reduce his authority within due bounds."
Charles also felt that such a change would serve "to guard against the rashness and credulity of [John's] that has kept me in continual awe and bondage for many years."
Unfortunately, this letter made its way into John's hands. John quickly scratched off a nasty note to Charles, accusing him of dipping into the funds of the society for his expenses when John was already providing him an allowance of 50 pounds, plus a healthy annuity of 100 pounds from the book funds. Although the sum was more than double what John allowed himself, John failed to consider that Charles was married with three children.
In these conflicts over lay preachers, the brothers mediated each other's extreme views. John kept Charles from being too harsh on preachers' abilities, and Charles reminded John of the preachers' legitimate financial needs.
When the lay preachers and their flocks pushed for ordination, so that sacraments could be distributed within the societies, John at times appeared close to giving in. Charles mounted a frontal attack, certain that such a step was not only totally inappropriate but also would result in a separation from the Church.
In one resulting attempt to cement the preachers in a common covenant, John and Charles produced separate documents for them to sign—John's stressing the need for common loyalty, while Charles's also stated a commitment "never to leave the communion of the Church of England."
As Charles once said, John's first object was the Methodists, and then the Church; Charles's first concern was the Church, and then the Methodists.
John crossed the Rubicon on this matter when the American colonies signed the Peace of Paris in 1783, severing political and ecclesiastical ties with England. Under those circumstances, John saw the need for American Methodists to have ordained clergy to administer the sacraments.
His ordination of two preachers as deacon and elder for that task, and his setting apart of Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury as general superintendents (they assumed the title "bishop" later), was done in private—against the advice of, and without the knowledge of, his senior preachers, including Charles.
Such actions were exclusively reserved, under canon law, for bishops. Charles's reaction was predictable in its substance, but not in its form. The poem he wrote attacking John was merciless in its rhetoric:
So easily are Bishops made
By man's or woman's whim?
Wesley his hands on Coke hath laid,
But who laid hands on him?
John argued that in such a "case of necessity," where the Church either had no jurisdiction or refused to act, he had simply responded as a New Testament bishop, providing for the needs of the body of Christ. John recognized his difference of opinion with Charles on this matter: "You say I separate from the Church. I say I do not. Then let it stand."
If John had ignored Charles's anxiety in this matter, the Methodists might have found themselves out of the Church before their time. On the other hand, if John had acquiesced to Charles, the American Methodists would never have received ordained preachers. They likely would have been forced to remain a subset of the Anglicans who weathered the Revolution and eventually became the Protestant Episcopal Church. Instead, by the nineteenth century, the Methodists were the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
The Methodists were known as a singing people, largely through the poetic work of the Wesleys. And though the brothers sometimes disagreed in this area, their collaboration produced better results than either one could have achieved alone. As John described the relationship to Charles, "I may be in some sense the head and you the heart of the work."
Although Charles is better known as a hymnwriter, John had published poetry more than a decade before Charles. John even published a hymnal alone in America. When Charles's poetry began appearing in 1738 and beyond, it was generally in collections published under the name of both brothers.
In most instances, John had the final editorial say in what was included and how it was worded. His selection and editing of Charles's work included both literary and theological criticisms. John would publish, as he wrote in the preface to the 1780 hymnal, "no doggerel; no botches; nothing put in to patch up the rhyme; no feeble expletives. … no cant expressions; no words without meaning."
The more or less definitive Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists included 525 hymns. Most were written by Charles, though John contributed some, including translations from German. All of the hymns passed under John's editorial pen—a vital step.
John examined adjectives theologically. Occasionally he found Charles's hymns too effusive, too Moravian. John amended some of his brother's amatory phrases: "When, dearest Lord" became "When, gracious Lord." John excluded "Jesus, Lover of My Soul" from the 1780 collection entirely.
Besides needing literary and theological revision, many of Charles's poems had as many as 20 verses. John picked the best verses and occasionally divided a long poem into more than one hymn.
Charles did not always accept his brother's limits. Shortly after John worked out an agreement with Whitefield and the Calvinist Methodists to avoid contentious terminology, including any reference to "sinless perfection," Charles worked that particular phrase into one of his new hymns. Also, on more than one occasion, Charles slipped small collections of hymns to publishers without his brother's knowledge.
The 1780 hymnal truly reflected the brothers' symbiotic relationship. This "little body of experimental and practical divinity" provided the most popular and lasting channel for spreading the Wesleyan theology.
Though the impact of the brothers' hymns, and especially Charles's, should not be underestimated, the hymns' success has in some ways obscured Charles's larger contributions. As John said late in life, "His least fame was in his hymns."
"My company is gone"
In the later years, Charles spent more and more time with his family, especially his musician sons Charles and Samuel. He still preached in the London societies, but he rarely attended the annual Methodist preachers' conferences after 1765.
John perceived that his brother was removed from the mainstream leadership of the movement. Nevertheless, he maintained some hope that Charles would stand by his side, sometimes fancying his brother as his potential successor.
When Charles contracted what would become his final illness in 1788, John still assumed that his brother would outlast, if not succeed, him. As he rode out on his itinerant rounds, John sent his brother advice to get out of bed and exercise on horseback, a regimen that had saved his own life in similar circumstances.
The shocking news of Charles's death caught up with John in the north country. The depth of his feeling for Charles could not be contained, even in public. At the first service he was leading after receiving the news, John broke down crying during a hymn when he came to Charles's words, "My company before is gone."
Like a good Anglican, Charles was buried in the graveyard of the parish church he attended in Marylebone Street. John, on the other hand, had for some time doubted the necessity of being buried in consecrated ground. "How deep is it consecrated?" was his skeptical question. Consequently, John's burial in 1791 took place behind the Methodist New Chapel in City Road.
That building itself embodied the ambiguity of the Methodists' ecclesiastical situation. More than just a preaching house, it was built on a sacrament plan—the first Methodist building to include an altar and communion rail. Never mind that the structure was set back from the street in accord with the legal requirements for a dissenting meeting house.
In the end, John was one of the few still convinced that the Methodists had not separated from the Church of England, since they had neither exited by dissent nor been expelled by excommunication.
Although John may have protested that he lived and died "a Church of England man," his epitaph makes no mention of the established Church. Instead, it reflects more of Charles's view on the matter.
The inscription points out that John's life intention was "to revive, enforce, and defend, the pure apostolical doctrine and practice of the Primitive Church." These words bear testimony to the fact that Charles ultimately was unable to keep his brother within the fold of the Church.
Richard P. Heitzenrater is William Kellon Quick professor of church history and Wesley studies at Duke Divinity School.
Copyright © by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian History.
Support Our Work
Subscribe to CT for less than $4.25/month