John and Charles Wesley
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Charles and John Wesley

(Charles Wesley died 29 March 1788. John Wesley died 2 March 1791. Because Chad is remembered on 2 March, the Wesleys are remembered on 3 March.)

The Wesley brothers, born in 1703 and 1707, were leaders of the evangelical revival in the Church of England in the eighteenth century. They both attended Oxford University , and there they gathered a few friends with whom they undertook a strict adherence to the worship and discipline of the Book of Common Prayer, from which strict observance they received the nickname, "Methodists." Having been ordained, they went to the American colony of Georgia in 1735, John as a missionary and Charles as secretary to Governor Oglethorpe. They found the experience disheartening, and returned home in a few years. There, three days apart, they underwent a conversion experience. John, present with a group of Moravians who were reading Martin Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, received a strong emotional awareness of the love of Christ displayed in freely forgiving his sins and granting him eternal life. Following this experience, John and Charles, with others, set about to stir up in others a like awareness of and response to the saving love of God. Of the two, John was the more powerful preacher, and averaged 8000 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.

(Albert C. Outler, John Wesley's Sermons: An Introduction, p 79f)

Wesley's biblical world was, however, no enclave. Sola Scriptura was never a displacement of, or substitute for, classical learning: and this was natural enough in view of the fact that he had mastered the baseline curriculum of his Oxford education and had come to cherish the classical tradition as the font of Western civilization. In the sermons (and elsewhere, too) Wesley's favourite classical source was Horace; there are twenty-seven quotations from him in the sermons alone, some repeated in different contexts. One sense that he read Virgil with more personal pleasure, but he quotes from him only twenty-one times. Ovid follows with ten, Cicero with nine, Juvenal with seven. Thirteen others are quoted at least once: Aristophanes, Hadrian, Homer, Lucan, Hadrian, Lucretius, Persius, Pindar, Sophocles, Suetonius, Symmachus, Terence, Velleius Paterculus. This display was more than mere ornamentation; (My comment: this would have violated Wesley's doctrine of 'plain preaching'.) within these borrowings we find the germs of some of Wesley's most distinctive general ideas (e.g., his participation theme, his mind-body dualism, and his ideas about psycho-physical parallelism). These are major sources for his ideas about human nature, human volition, and the human passions. Out of this heritage had come his predilection for form over raw feelings, his concept of conscience as a universal moral sense. Plato had bolstered his convictions about the ontological primacy of good over evil. The whole of the Greco-Roman tradition had stressed coherence as a criterion of rationality. Besides, these ancient authors were shrewd critics of human folly; thus Wesley found in them discerning witnesses to the flaws in contemporary proposals about 'natural' theology and ethics. It was in this sense that his long dialogue with the ancients was a genuine preparatio evangelica; one might even suppose that he might still commend it as such.

But, although Wesley found it natural to approach the Gospel with habits of thought formed by a classical education, he was quick to recognize the value of other approaches. The early Methodist meetings were often led by lay preachers with very limited education. On one occasion, such a preacher took as his text Luke 19:21, "Lord, I feared thee, because thou art an austere man." Not knowing the word "austere," he thought that the text spoke of "an oyster man." He spoke about the work of those who retrieve oysters from the sea-bed. 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. Afterwards, someone complained to Wesley about the inappropriateness of allowing preachers who were too ignorant to know the meaning of the texts they were preaching on. Wesley, simply said, "Never mind, the Lord got a dozen oysters tonight."

Charles was the better hymn-writer of the two. He wrote over 6000 hymns, including about 600 for the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper. Some of the better known are the following:

It was the intention of the Wesleys and their colleagues that their "Methodist Societies" should be a group within the existing structure of the Anglican Church, but after their deaths the Societies in America, and to a lesser extent in England, developed a separate status.


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 fervor, 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.