Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Charles Wesley and the Church of England: A Commemorative Essay

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Charles Wesley and the Church of England: A Commemorative Essay

Article excerpt

Charles Wesley (1707-1788) would have been three hundred years old on 18 December 2007. As we pause to commemorate his birth and illustrious life, many positive contributions come to mind, most notably, his amazing ability at composing religious verse. Frank Baker, among the most important of all Methodist historians, estimated that the youngest Wesley brother composed nearly nine thousand hymns and sacred poems over the course of his busy life and ministry.1 It is a body of work of gigantic proportions! Perhaps, the greater marvel, however, is not that Charles's pen was so ready to write, but that he wrote so many hymns of lasting value. More than four hundred of Charles Wesley's hymns continue in the hymnbooks of modern Christian churches. Who can imagine celebrating Christmas without "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing," or Easter without "Christ the Lord is Risen Today"?

The "Notices Concerning Deceased Preachers," published by the Methodist Conference for the year 1788, reported his death by stating (in part): "His least praise was, his talent for poetry,"2 a reminder that Charles Wesley possessed many remarkable talents. He was, as co-founder of the Methodist movement, an effective preacher and evangelist. Charles, however, was also more than a faint copy of his more famous brother. In several remarkable instances and aspects of their shared Methodist ministry, Charles Wesley was willing and able to strike out in his own direction and establish his own religious principles. One of the most notable of the characteristics that distinguished Charles Wesley from many of the other Methodists and even from his own brother, was his loyalty to the Church of England. In this respect, John Newton rightly remarked of the younger Wesley: "Charles, then, was much more the stiff high Churchman than John. In this regard, as in others, he resembled his father Samuel, the [Anglican] rector of Epworth. John, though a loyal Churchman, proved in practice much more flexible with regard to Anglican order."3 The early Methodist preacher, Adam Clark, knew both Wesley brothers well and recalled: "Mr. J. Wesley mildly recommended the people to go to the Church and sacrament. Mr. C. Wesley threatened them with damnation if they did not."4

Charles's early association with Methodism may seem contrary to his love for the Church of England, but he did not view the situation in those terms. The younger Wesley saw the Methodist movement as a renewal group, located within the church, to revive, evangelize, and "leaven the whole lump."5 Even before trials and tumult over separation from the church came to the Methodist movement, as early as 19 April 1739, Charles "spoke strongly at the Savoy Society in behalf of the Church of England."6 He was also very cautious towards the various innovations developed by the Methodists which seemed to run counter to the practices and ethos of the Church of England. His early hesitancy towards laypreaching provides a compelling example. In his journal entry for 16 May 1739, Charles reported that he and George Whitefield (another evangelical Anglican) had argued against it at the Fetter Lane Society:7 "At Fetter-lane a dispute arose about lay-preaching. Many, particularly Bray and Fish,8 were very zealous for it. Mr. Whitefield and I declared against it."9 Lay preaching would become a mainstay of the Methodist movement, and Charles Wesley eventually reconciled himself to the innovation. In a remarkable letter to Samuel Walker, the Anglican rector of Truro, written in 1756, Charles Wesley intimated that he recognized that laypreaching symbolized a partial separation between the Methodists and the Church of England and that he was staying with the Methodists precisely to prevent further steps in the direction of separation. He wrote: "Lay-preaching, it must be allowed is a partial separation, and may but need not end in a total one. The probability of it has made me tremble for years past, and kept me from leaving the Methodists. …

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