from the Believing Thomas archives

From March 2000

musings on the church calendar from one who seldom doubts

Saint Valentine Kneeling, Public Domain Wikipedia

When you hear the names John and Charles Wesley, you immediately think of the Methodist Church, do you not? Would you be surprised to learn that both John and Charles died still priests of the Anglican Church? It's true, two of the most effective evangelical revivalists of the eighteenth century did not completely abandon their mother church.

These two brilliant men were born in 1703 and 1707 respectively in Epworth, England to the rector of a Church of England parish and his wife. We remember them in March because John died March 2, 1791. Charles had predeceased him on March 29, 1788. After attending Oxford, each was ordained an Anglican priest. While at Oxford, the Wesleys were instrumental in organizing a group of believers who strictly adhered to the worship and discipline of the English Book of Common Prayer. Indeed, their observance was so strict that they became known by some other students derisively as "Methodists" due to the precise method by which they observed the rituals of the predecessor of our Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

In 1735, John and Charles sailed for the American colonies, John as a missionary and Charles as secretary to Governor Oglethorpe. They became disheartened and returned to England after a few years. Within a period of a few days after their return, each experienced a strong spiritual experience. John was particularly moved by the ardent faith of a group of Moravians who were reading Martin Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, becoming more acutely aware of the forgiveness of his sins and the granting of eternal life to him by Jesus.

The rest, as it is said, is history. John and Charles set out to inflame others with the saving grace and love of God. John is primarily known for his powerful preaching, traveling 5,000 miles or more a year primarily on horseback. He is said to have written and preached 15 sermons a week quoting liberally from Horace, Virgil and other Greek writers. Charles is best remembered for having authored more than 4,500 hymns (one source attributes 6,000 hymns to him)! There are still 23 of his greatest hymns in our 1982 Hymnal including such "tub-thumpers" as "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," the fourth stanza of "Jesus Christ is Risen Today," "Love Divine All Loves Excelling," "Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending" and "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing." John also contributed hymns, one of which is in our Hymnal. Though some viewed John's open-air preaching to thousands as a virtual break with the Church of England, it appears that he himself did not.

John was particularly criticized for allowing relatively unschooled people to preach at some of his services. One story I enjoyed reading was about the night that one of these uneducated, but earnest believers had used as his text the translation of Luke 19:21 which read, "Lord, I feared thee because thou art an austere man" thinking that it referred to an "oyster man." After an impassioned sermon referring to the courage of those who dive down into the sea apart from their natural surroundings bringing up the oysters from the bone-chilling depths with bloody hands. He compared this to Christ's descent from Heaven into the squalor of earth and the depths of human depravity to rescue us and bring us to the glorious safety of Heaven. When twelve of his listeners came forward to be converted, John told a fussy critic who objected to the clear errors of interpretation, "Never mind, the Lord got a dozen oysters tonight." My thought was, what pearls the Wesleys were! +

(c) 2000, 2017 Thomas H. Peterson

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