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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
John (1703–1791) and Charles (1707–1788) Wesley
Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Potts
 
WITH a jocose reapplication in a literal sense of a metaphorical phrase, John Wesley was used to speak of himself as “a brand plucked from the burning.” He had been forgotten when a child, through the excitement caused by a conflagration in his father’s house due to incendiarism, and only rescued at the last possible moment. There were other experiences in that house, and in the one which succeeded it, which were not wholly conventional. Susannah Wesley, the mother of John and Charles, was a woman of fine education and of strong character, and a pious and devoted mother. She usually bent herself to her husband’s will, though with discretion; but they were not politically agreed, and he at one time withdrew for a considerable period from association with her because he was offended on this account. It is said that his salary was never greater than £200 per annum, and he was frequently called upon to aid impecunious relatives; but Malthus had not yet come, and neither he nor his wife perhaps realized any incongruity between his income and their family of nineteen children. Mrs. Wesley had her own theory as to how the early education of children should be conducted. She did not begin with them until they were five years old, “and then she made them learn the alphabet perfectly in one day; on the next day they were put to spell and to read one line, and then a verse, never leaving it until they were perfect in the lesson.” Of the nineteen, only a limited selection of three boys and three girls lived to grow up: the three boys all attained prominence, the girls all great unhappiness. Unseen powers appear to have taken part in the political schism between the Rev. Samuel Wesley and his wife: their home at Epworth parsonage, during a long period while John was a schoolboy, being the scene of the most unaccountable noises and other disturbances, which attained their maximum of obtrusivenes during the Reverend Samuel’s prayers for the royal family. So customary did these noises become, that for convenience, their unknown author was given the name of “Old Jeffery,” by which appellation “he” was long familiarly called in the family.  1
  John Wesley was born at Epworth, Lincolnshire, June 17th (O. S.), 1703. His brother Charles, with whom he was closely associated throughout their lives, was born at the same place five years later (December 18th, 1808, O. S.). In studying their biographies, one cannot well avoid the conclusion that though Charles was less aggressive than his brother, and though his fame, in part on this account, has been wholly overshadowed by that of the latter, his was the steadier and better rounded character of the two; and that to him their common success as religious leaders is largely due. Charles was the forerunner in the movement at Oxford, and again, though only by a few days, in his “conversion”; and above all, Charles was the hymn-writer of Methodism, and the influence of the service of song upon the Methodist movement it is almost impossible to exaggerate. Charles Wesley, it is said, wrote more than six thousand hymns; and though in this vast flux of words he sometimes—nay, often—“ran to emptins,” there are among his sacred songs some which appeal to people of every faith, and promise to live as long as Divine service is continued. The strong musical bias in his blood is shown in the fact that his son Samuel played on the organ at three, and composed an oratorio at eight.  2
  John was educated at Charterhouse School, and at Christ Church College, Oxford. He easily won a reputation as a fine scholar. He was ordained a deacon in 1725, was elected a Fellow of Lincoln College in 1726, was in the same year appointed Greek lecturer and moderator of the classes, became curate for his father at Wroote in 1727, and was ordained a priest in 1728. Charles was educated at Westminster School, at St. Peter’s College, Westminster, and at Christ Church College; but was not ordained until 1735. At Oxford, about 1728, he with a dozen others organized an association, which in derision was known variously as the Holy Club, the Godly Club, the Bible Moths, the Bible Bigots, the Sacramentarians, and the Methodists. The latter term, referring to the formal system introduced by them in their services, was destined to become the title of the most important religious organization of the century; although this organization, founded by the same men, took a wholly different direction from the club from which it inherited its title. Among the members of the club, besides the Wesleys, the most important were George Whitefield, and James Hervey the author of the ‘Meditations.’  3
  Returning to Oxford in 1729, John joined this club, and was immediately recognized as its leader. In the austerities practiced by the members, and in many other ways, it is clear that they permitted themselves to be led into great excesses, which later they more or less frankly acknowledged.  4
  In 1735 the brothers went to Georgia in General Oglethorpe’s company; the elder to take spiritual charge of his colony, the younger as his secretary. Upon the same vessel were a number of Moravians from Herrnhut, by whom John was greatly impressed; and under the influence of that body he remained for a number of years. This Georgia episode was characterized by a variety of disagreeable incidents. The responsibility for the troubles which occurred, it is now impossible to place with exactness; but it is safe to say that they resulted in part at least from some lack of tact or of fitness in the brothers for the tasks which they undertook. Charles returned to England in 1736, but John remained abroad until 1738.  5
  Through their intercourse with the Moravians, the brothers had become convinced that although they had undertaken to teach others, they had themselves not yet become true Christians. Remaining under the same influence, it was in the natural order of events that John, a little later, recorded his awakening into the new life “at a religious meeting at a quarter before nine o’clock on the evening of May 24th, 1738”; Charles having gone through the same experience three days earlier. From this time forward the work of evangelism occupied his life, until its close fifty-three years later. He died March 2d, 1791, having traveled during the period of his active ministry, it is estimated, 225,000 miles, and preached more than 40,500 sermons, not including miscellaneous addresses. After he was seventy years of age he gave this explanation of his continued cheerfulness and good health: “The chief reasons are, my constant rising at four for about fifty years; my generally preaching at five in the morning,—one of the most healthy exercises in the world; my never traveling less by sea or land than four thousand five hundred miles in a year.” Until his later years he usually traveled on horseback; and he often read the while, until consequent mishaps warned him of the risks to which he was exposing himself. His home life was not inspiring. He had spoken much of the advantages of celibacy, but in 1750 married a widow with four children. The marriage was not a blessed one. Mrs. Wesley seems to have been “good” but not wholly agreeable. Their intercourse was not harmonious; and after some tentative absences, it is said that she finally left him not to return, although in his journal there appears some indication that this is not a strictly correct statement.  6
  Neither of the brothers withdrew from the established Church, and Charles appears never to have reconciled himself to the prospective establishment of a new denomination, to which course John seems to have been fully committed many years before his death. Both engaged actively in the ministry from the date of their conversion or soon after, until 1740 in connection with the Moravians, and afterward independently; and when in London, their meetings were usually held in a room in Fetter Lane. In 1739 an old building in Moorfields called “The Foundery” was converted into a meetinghouse; but this soon became inadequate for the crowds which were drawn together, and open-air preaching followed in the natural order of evolution. Whitefield was soon drawn into the work; but he and Wesley subsequently parted upon theological grounds, Wesley having fully assimilated the doctrines of Free Grace and Salvation by Faith, while Whitefield held firmly to Predestination. The impossibility of attending with frequency congregations gathered in various parts of the kingdom, led before long to the employment of lay speakers; and these in turn gradually gave place to an established order of itinerant preachers; and later these again to ministers settled for a limited period, with superintending bishops.  7
  The ministrations of the two brothers and of Whitefield, but especially of John Wesley, were characterized by an impassioned earnestness which worked powerfully upon the susceptibilities of their hearers. The meetings were soon the scene of violent demonstrations of nervous emotion and physical contortions, such as have in a measure survived to this day; though in late years they have not been so frequent or so pronounced, nor do they appear to be usually encouraged by the exhorters. These hysterical demonstrations, though familiar to every student of history, were then not so well known and understood as now; and perhaps it was quite natural that John Wesley accepted them as valuable testimony to the virtue of his teaching, without scrutinizing them too closely. It is true that he was at times on his guard, and disposed to “try the spirits”: to which course he was prompted by the extravagances of the Camisards,—the “French Prophets,” then numerous in England, the counterparts of which had been seen in New England during the so-called witchcraft excitement of fifty years earlier. But his occasional success in restoring calm in some cases, which were clearly not intended as imposture, might have led him to a greater caution in other cases. Charles never looked with a kindly eye upon these paroxysms of “enthusiasm.” He was more conservative in several ways than his brother; and though he was engaged for many years in itinerant preaching, he was disposed to a quieter and more contemplative life. His literary work is comprised in his innumerable hymns and verses, and in a journal and sermons published subsequent to his death. He was not quite so self-assertive as his brother, who perhaps would not have written—
  “How ready is the man to go
    Whom God hath never sent!
How timorous, diffident, and slow,
    His chosen instrument!
Lord, if from thee this mark I have
    Of a true messenger,
By whom thou wilt thy people save,
    And let me always fear.”
  8
  Charles Wesley died March 29th, 1788, three years earlier than his elder brother.  9
  John Wesley was an eager reader and a voluminous writer. It seems almost impossible that even in his long life he could have found time for all that he accomplished. Sermons, letters, and controversial works; works on Divinity, on Ecclesiastical History, on Medicine; a short ‘History of Rome,’ a ‘History of England,’—what did he not indite! He even published an abbreviation of Brooke’s ‘Fool of Quality.’ He was a good linguist and an extremely forcible writer, and his works have been republished in many forms and editions.  10
  The value to the Church and to society of the work initiated by the Wesleys cannot be overestimated. The times in which they lived were sadly out of joint, and few would hesitate to say with Thackeray:—
          “No wonder that Whitefield cried out in the wilderness,—that Wesley quitted the insulted temple to pray on the hillside. I look with reverence on those men at that time. Which is the sublimer spectacle,—the good John Wesley surrounded by his congregation of miners at the pit’s mouth, or the Queen’s chaplains mumbling through their morning office in their anteroom under the picture of the great Venus, with the door opening into the adjoining chamber, where the Queen is dressing, talking scandal to Lord Hervey, or uttering sneers at Lady Suffolk, who is kneeling with a basin at her mistress’s feet?”
  11
 
 
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