God, Man, Woman, And The Wesleys

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THE SUCCESS OF John and Charles Wesley in founding Methodism is well documented, but what is seldom mentioned is that they started their ecclesiastical careers with a period of unrelieved bungling. It all took place in colonial Georgia in the early eighteenth century when the Wesley brothers, as the colony’s founder, Gen. James Oglethorpe, said, attempted to “unroll their rolled-up rules for England” in this struggling young settlement. John and Charles’s adventure, Oglethorpe concluded disgustedly, should be made “a play or tale of.”

Yet it was with Oglethorpe and at his insistence that the Wesleys went to Georgia. On December 10, 1735, the general’s flagship, Simmonds , and a second ship, London Merchant , escorted by the sloop of war HMS Hawk , left the shores of England with settlers bound for Georgia, a colony that had been chartered in 1732. Oglethorpe had established a settlement there to provide a home for persecuted religious sects, imprisoned debtors, and other unfortunates. Aboard the Simmonds were thirty-two-year-old John Wesley and his brother Charles, four years younger. At the time Oglethorpe thought the two clergymen were the most important passengers. On his return to England from Georgia the year before, he had told his fellow colonial trustees that the settlement’s most urgent needs were spiritual guidance for its inhabitants and missionary service for the Indians.

Oglethorpe was an old friend of the Wesley family: Samuel Wesley, rector of Epworth, and the rector’s eldest son, another Reverend Samuel, had helped to promote his original colonization plan and to select candidates for emigration—but neither had suggested that the younger sons, John and Charles, go along. Indeed, the younger Samuel, who had paid for Charles’s education, bitterly opposed his brother’s agreeing to go on Oglethorpe’s second trip. The father had died in April 1735, before Oglethorpe had approached John and Charles about the mission. Their mother, Susanna, did not side with her son Samuel in the family argument. When John, her fifteenth and favorite child, hesitated, she told him, “Had I twenty sons, I should rejoice that they were all so employed, though I should never see them more.” Charles, her eighteenth and last child, got the same maternal prod, but it was John’s persuasion that most influenced Charles’s decision.

Oglethorpe’s selection of John and Charles Wesley, “progeny of a Race of Preachers,” was widely approved in England. Four months before his sixth birthday John had been miraculously saved from a fire that destroyed the family rectory—”a brand plucked out of the burning. ” His father saw the rescue as God’s sign that John was “intended for a Great Purpose,” and the boy was educated to fulfill whatever the purpose might be. At Christ Church College at Oxford a friend described him as “a very sensible, active collegian, baffling every man by the subtleties of his logic … a young fellow of the finest classical tastes, of the most liberal and manly sentiments, gay and sprightly, with a turn to wit and humor.” John was ordained a deacon of the Church of England in September 1725 and began preaching; a few months later he was elected a fellow of Lincoln College, and in September 1728 he was ordained a priest.

Charles Wesley, “a bright, rollicking young fellow with more genius than grace,” had entered Christ Church College in 1726. At first he had preferred writing poetry and attending the theater to religion: he “objected to becoming a saint all at once.” But many years later, looking back on his undergraduate days, he declared that his “diversions” had kept him “dead to God, and asleep in the arms of Satan.” John dismissed such statements by Charles as “unpardonable exaggerations.”

When, in 1729, John was recalled to Oxford to teach, he found his brother had lost his eagerness for Satanic diversion. Now a bachelor of arts and a college tutor, Charles had gathered around him a small circle of students so serious-minded that local wits referred to the group as the “Holy Club.” When Garrett Wesley, a wealthy, childless relative in Ireland, offered to adopt Charles so that the young man could inherit his estates, Charles refused. This didn’t much surprise anybody: as a friend remarked, “All the Wesley men are eccentric—devout, learned, superior, but eccentric.”

 

Charles immediately and eagerly turned leadership of the Holy Club over to John, who promptly organized the members into a “Society” and drew up rules and regulations for their living “in a manner more regular and systematic” as they “promoted each other’s intellectual, moral and spiritual improvement.” The new movement stressed intense Bible study. Charles Wesley recorded that the “harmless nickname of Methodists” was bestowed upon the society by the university community “because of the members’ strict conformity to a prescribed method of study. ” The term had been used before to denigrate dissension, but John Wesley liked it; he defined a Methodist as “one that lives according to the method laid down in the Bible.”