A Tribute to the Wesley Family
On my old blog, I wrote a tribute to the Niebuhr family. Now, as a Christian pacifist heavily influenced by some strands of the Anabaptist tradition, I have tensions and disagreements with Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr, as would be expected. But I am still impressed with the way God used the incredibly talented Niebuhr family for the sake of the church. In this blog, I decided that I would pay tribute to other families that have made incredible contributions to the life and faith of the Church, not just as individuals, but precisely as extended families. I will probably reprint that tribute to the Niebuhrs from my former blog, but I want to begin with this tribute to the Wesley family in Anglican and Methodist history. I do this as someone who is neither Anglican nor Methodist. I WAS raised in the United Methodist Church, and some of those influences remain, but I could not be considered Wesleyan for many years. So, this is a tribute from an appreciative outsider.
The preeminent Wesleys, of course, were brothers John and Charles, founders of the 18th C. evangelical renewal movement known as “Methodism,” which became a separate Christian denomination. But there were non-conformist (i.e., non-Anglican) ministers on both sides of the family, although John and Charles’ parents were strongly Anglican. We begin with those non-conformist ancestors.
Bartholomew Westley (c. 1596-1680). Son of Sir Herbert Westley of Westleigh, Devon. His mother was Elizabeth Wellesley of Dangan. We know little of his early life, but he studied both medicine and theology at Oxford University. At some point, Bartholomew was ordained a priest in the Church of England and became rector of Allington, a suburb of Bridgport. He also preached at Catherston. At some point, he became influenced by Puritanism and when Charles II ejected Puritans from the Anglican ministry after the Restoration of 1660, Bartholomew lost his parish. He continued to preach as a Nonconformist minister. He lived in Charmouth for some time, supporting himself by practicing medicine while preaching in Nonconformist chapels in the West Dorset area. In 1665, Parliament enacted the Five Mile Act whereby no clergyman could live within 5 milies (8 km.) of a parish from which they had been ejected unless they swore an oath never to resist the king, nor to attempt to alter the government of Church or State. Bartholomew fell afoul of this act and had to leave Charmouth. His plain speech in sermons and lack of tact led him to be known as a fanatic. Because of his short stature, he was also nicknamed the “puny parson.” His last years were spent in seclusion at Lime Regis, where he was buried in 1680 at about age 85.
John Westley (c. 1636-1770). Bartholomew had married Ann Colley, daughter of Sir Henry Colley of Carbery Castle, Kildare. They had one son, John. John was a very pious schoolboy who kept a diary or spiritual journal–all trace of which has disappeared so it is not possible to compare it to the journals of his famous grandson of the same name. As a student at New Inn Hall, Oxford, John was a serious and devout student–much like his illustrious grandson. He did exceptionally well in Oriental Languages and came to the views of Dr. Owen, the Vice-Chancellor, concerning Church Government. (Thus, though Puritanism is far more associated with Cambridge, it was apparently not unknown at Oxford, despite the Anglo-Catholicism of the later “Oxford Movement.”) Instead of seeking ordination as an Anglican priest, he left Oxford at the end of 1657 or beginning of 1658 and sought a “gathered church” at Weymouth where he first exercised his gifts as a preacher. He ministered to fishermen and his preaching found favor among “judicious Christians and able ministers” and led to many conversions. When the Vicar of Winterborn-Whitchurch died, the people of that parish chose John Westley as their pastor. Since this was now the period of the Interregnum, John went before the Triers, Cromwell’s Board of Commissioners, who examined every candidate for holy orders, and he was at once approved. Though he was pastor to a community of about 500 people, his annual salary was only £30 and though an increase of £100 was promised, shifting politics prevented that promise from being fulfilled. He married a “Miss White,” daughter of the patriarch of Dorchester, in 1659. After the Restoration, he was ejected from his church and forced to wander from place to place ministering to Dissenters, sometimes in secret. This led to constant poverty and his early death at the age of 42.
Samuel Annesley (c. 1620-1696) was the maternal grandfather of the famed generation of Wesleys. Related to the first Earl of Anglesey. Born at Kenningworth near Warwick. He earned both a B.A. and M.A. from Queen’s College, Oxford. He was ordained an Anglican priest, but on 18 Dec. 1844 he was one of 7 Anglican priests who recommended the Westminster Standards and he resigned his Anglican ordination and was re-ordained as a Presbyterian minister. He became chaplain to Robert Rich, 2nd Earl of Warwick, admiral of the Parliamentary fleet. On 26 July 1648 he preached a sermon before Parliament and was then awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity. In 1657, Oliver Cromwell nominated Dr. Annesley to be lecturer at St. Paul’s Cathedral. In 1658, he became Vicar of St. Giles, Cripplegate where he served until 1662. Unable to sign the Act of Uniformity in 1662 after the Restoration, he was ejected from St. Giles. After this, Annesley was forced to preach semi-privately, but his goods were confiscated for keeping a “conventicle” (underground, illegal church) in Little St. Helen’s. He was an author of several biographical works and his sermons were published in various collections as “Morning Exercises.” He was the father of 25 children (!), including Susannah Wesley, the “Mother of Methodism.”
Samuel Wesley (1662-1735), the son and grandson of dissenting ministers became an orthodox Anglican priest and a famous poet. Born the year of the Act of Uniformity, Samuel (after grammar school) was sent away to a series of Dissenting/Nonconformist academies to prepare for the ministry, since non-Anglicans were barred from the great English universities until the 19th C. At the last of these, Newington Gate, Samuel’s fellow student was Daniel Defoe, later author of Robinson Crusoe, and Moll Flanders. Around 1680, Samuel converted to the Church of England, resigned his annual Dissenting scholarship, and walked to Oxford where he enrolled at Exeter College as a “poor scholar,” meaning that he paid his way by being a “servitor” to more wealthy students. During his time at Oxford, he dropped the “t” in his family name of “Westley,” claiming that “Wesley” was the original spelling. In truth, the alteration was probably to keep his Nonconformist roots from drawing too much attention.
In 1688, he married Susannah Anneseley, and together they had 19 children, 9 of which died in infancy. Three boys and 7 girls survived to adulthood. Because 2 of those three boys were John and Charles Wesley, from the perspective of the church historian, Samuel’s roles as husband and father are the most important things he did.
In 1693, Samuel published a poem known as “Life of Christ,” which he dedicated to Queen Mary, leading her to appoint him as Vicar of Epworth, the parsonage where the founders of Methodism were raised. But Samuel’s high church liturgies, academic and poetic proclivities, and loyalist Tory politics were a complete mismatch for his illiterate parishioners. As they said then, “Mr. Wesley was not well received,” an expression that would also have been understood in the Old (U.S.) South only a generation or so before me. Despite numerous volumes of published poetry and the Queen’s support, the Wesley household was soon in debt and Samuel Wesley spent the rest of his life trying to make ends meet. In 1709, his parsonage was destroyed by fire, and his son John was barely rescued in time.
Susannah Annesley Wesley (1669-1742). The “Mother of Methodism” was the daughter of a Dissenting or Nonconformist minister and on both sides the granddaughter of same. She was the youngest of 25 children born to Dr. Samuel Annesley and Mary White. Susannah apparently had a mind of her own in matters of religion for at age 13, she stopped attending her father’s church and was received into the official Church of England. At 19, she met Samuel Wesley and they were married on 11 November 1688. Together, they had 19 children, of whom 9 survived infancy and 8 of whom were still living at the time of Susannah’s death.
Susannah’s life was one of hardship. Formal education was not available to girls and women in 17th C. England, but her father was a scholar and he taught her to read and think for herself and she systematically studied her father’s library, which prepared her well for her future as the “Mother of Methodism,” but also led to her conversion to the Church of England. She and her husband were separate for over a year because of a dispute and twice he spent time in debtor’s prison, leaving the full burden of the family upon her. Twice the parsonage was burned down in fire and once her son John had to be rescued from a second story window. After the second fire, Susannah was forced temporarily to split up her children and have them stay in several different homes–and was horrified to find that they played more and studied less in these fostering contexts.
She was the primary source of her children’s education. Unable to afford to send them to grammar school, Susannah led in what, today, in the States would be called “homeschooling.” Classes began for each child the day after their fifth birthdays. All but three (whom she judged “slow”) memorized the English alphabet the first day of class. Each child, girls as well as boys, were instructed in both Latin and Greek. They were well tutored in the classics. The family schedule was rigid and began at 5 a.m., explaining the orderly “methodical” habits of sons John and Charles. Susannah devoted one night each day of the week to conversation with each child as a way of helping them to grow spiritually. John preferred that she write him letters. She wrote numerous letters to every child on spiritual and biblical subjects, including what were, in effect, biblical commentaries. She also wrote extended commentaries on The Lord’s Prayer, the 10 Commandments, and the Apostle’s Creed. All these were intended only for her own use and that of her children, and many were destroyed in one of the rectory fires, but many survived. Many of the surviving letters and manuscripts were published after her death by her son, Charles.
She also emphasized music in her children’s education, an influence that was especially strong on Charles, composer of thousands of hymns.
Susannah’s education of her daughters was so thorough that, had they been living in a later age, all would certainly have been admitted to university and, at least one, Mehetabel (“Hetty”), would probably have become a scholar in her own right;–she did become a published poet. (Hetty also fell in love with a suitor who was not approved by her parents. She ran away and lived out of wedlock with him–far more scandalous then than now–and returned still unwed and pregnant. The child died early. Her father, Samuel, never forgave her, not even on his deathbed.) All 7 daughters, Emilia, Susannah, Mary, Mehetabel, Anne, Martha, and Kezia had lives that were marked by loneliness and unhappiness.
Susannah’s educational preparation of her sons was strong enough that all 3 earned both B.A. and M.A. degrees at Oxford University. The oldest of the boys, Samuel Jr., would today probably be diagnosed as bi-polar. After teaching in London’s Westminster School and being appointed Headmaster of Blundell’s School in Tiverton, he converted to Catholicism and married a minor daughter of the gentry. He then had an affair with his housekeeper which ended that marriage and he was forced to marry the pregnant housekeeper. His life finished in poverty and disgrace. The other two boys turned out rather better.
For more on Susannah and the Wesley household that produced John and Charles, see:
Edwards, Maldwyn Loyd, Family Circle: A Study of the Epworth Household in Relation to John and Charles Wesley. London, 1949.
Maser, Frederick E., The Story of John Wesley’s Sisters; or, Seven Sisters in Search of Love. Rutland, VT, 1988.
Newton, John A., Susannah Wesley and the Puritan Tradition in Methodism. London, 2002.
Wallace, Jr., Charles, ed., Susannah Wesley: The Complete Writings. New York, 1997.
John Wesley (1703-1791), Anglican priest & Christian theologian and reformer. Primary mover of the 18th C. transatlantic revival known in the UK as the “Evangelical Revival” and in North America as “The Great Awakening.” Primary founder of the renewal movement known as “Methodism,” which, first in the U.S. and then in the UK, became a separate denominational tradition from the Church of England, though Wesley himself never left the Anglican priesthood.
Born in Epworth as the 15th child and 2nd son of Samuel and Susannah Wesley, at the age of 5 he had to be rescued from a second story window as the rectory burned to the ground. This strongly influenced the developing spirituality of the precocious child as he began to consider himself saved from death by God for the purposes of God’s Kingdom, a “branch plucked from the burning” in his own words.
Young John had other deep personal religious experiences as a young boy and, combined with the strict and pious education by his mother, early led him to live a strict and regimented life of piety. However, at age 11, he was sent to Charterhouse School in London. At this boarding school, he began as a pious and studious boy, but soon began backsliding into sinful habits–at least such as would be considered so by the pious of the day. He was a victim of unmerciful hazing by other students–in ways that traumatized him forever after.
In 1720, John matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, earning his M.A. in 1927. During this time he was influenced by several devotional classics, including Thomas a Kempis’ Practice of the Presence of Christ and William Law’s Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. He was ordained a deacon in the Church of England in 1725 and elected a Fellow of Lincoln College (Oxon.) in 1726. He served his father’s parish as curate for two years before returning to take up his duties at Oxford.
Many people date the beginnings of Methodism to John’s return to Oxford in 1729, but I am with those who still consider this part of the prehistory. The real beginnings of Methodism come later. However, it is true that in 1729, John and Charles founded a “Holy Club” at Oxford, composed of students and faculty who strove to live devout lives dedicated to prayer, study of the Scriptures and devotional literature, abstention from alcohol and other stimulants and abstention from “worldly amusements and frivolities,” such as dancing, card-playing, gambling, cockfighting, dogfighting, horseracing, foxhunts, etc. They were also to lead honest lives without gossip or cruelty to others. The members of this “Holy Club,” were mocked as “methodists,” because of their highly organized and methodical approach to devotional practices–the roots of which undoubtedly lie in the organized home life that their mother, Susannah (a de facto single parent for much of the time), used to manage her large household.
In 1735, Governor Oglethorpe, governor of the Crown Colony of Georgia in North America, asked for a clergyman as a missionary to the Native Americans of Georgia. He wanted no pampered court clergyman, but someone “inured to the contempt of the ornaments and conveniences of life, [given] to bodily austerities, and to serious thoughts.” John Wesley responded to this “want ad” that seemed to be written with him directly in mind as a personal call from God. He remained in the Georgia Colony two years, returning to England in 1738, deeming himself a complete failure and greatly depressed over it. At least two factors enter into this sense of personal failure: (a) Wesley completely failed to convert a single Native American. This was deemed a failure not only by himself, but by the colonists and Gov. Oglethorpe. (b) On board ship to America, Wesley met one Sophia Hopkey, and they became romantically involved–though it is unclear whether this romance involved any sexual relationship. On the advice of a Moravian minister with whom Wesley confided, he broke off the relationship with Miss Hopkey. The spurned Sophia publicly denounced him, claiming that he had promised to marry her and broken his sworn word. She proceeded to marry another, one William Williamson, and when the feud led Wesley to refuse to serve her the Eucharist (Holy Communion), the Williamsons sued Wesley in court. The proceedings ended in mistrial, but John Wesley’s reputation was in tatters, and he returned to England out of realization that there was nothing he could do further for God in Georgia. (Though the 18th C. testimony is circumspect in description, the strengthn of Hopkey’s anger at her rejection, and the speed with which she married another, leads me to believe that the romance with John Wesley HAD been sexual. That would also explain the Moravian minister’s advice to break off the affair and Hopkey’s loud complaints about Wesley’s broken word over a promise to marry. A “deflowered and rejected” young woman of the time would have felt greatly wronged–and had justice on her side. The evidence is inconclusive, but very suggestive.)
On John’s trip to Georgia, he encountered members of the Herrnhuter Brudergemeine, the “Unity of Brethren,” a pre-Luther Protestant Church known in English-speaking lands as The Moravian Church. Moravians are Pietists, emphasizing “warm-hearted” spirituality and underlying Christian unity, as well as upright living. At their origins in the 14th C., they were a peace church with pacifist convictions, though this is downplayed today and several branches of the Moravians/Unity of Brethren commission military chaplains. (It is unclear whether the Moravians whom Wesley encountered would have been pacifists or not.) When the ship encountered a terrible storm that threatened to capsize it, Wesley was terrified, but the Moravians remained calm and this convinced Wesley that they had a strength and maturity in spiritual matters that he lacked. Upon returning to England in 1738, completely depressed by the disaster of his mission to Georgia, he turned to the Moravians for guidance. On 24 May 1738, he went to a Moravian meeting at Aldersgate, London and heard a reading of the preface of Martin Luther’s Epistle to the Romans. At that reading, Wesley felt his heart “strangely warmed,” became convinced that Christ’s atoning death was for him, personally, trusted in it’s salvific power, and dated his personal new birth in Christ to this experience. He briefly joined the Moravians (though never surrendering his Anglican priesthood), even traveling to Herrnhut, Germany (then the Moravian headquarters) to study for two years.
Upon his return to London we can date the real beginnings of Methodism. Wesley began organizing laypeople into “bands,” and “circles” of disciplined study and prayer. He wrote hymns for them. He stressed the need for personal faith for salvation, but, in contrast to Luther, he stressed that justification was to be followed by a transformed life of sanctification–which could even lead to a form of Christian perfection, a “perfection of love.”
Wesley preached with new power and empowered the laity, including lay preachers. The Church of England reacted negatively to this lay preaching and in 1739 closed pulpits to Wesley. So, following the example of the more Calvinistic Methodist, George Whitefield, Wesley declared “the world is my parish!” and began open air preaching. Wesley did not clash with Anglicanism over doctrine, but over what he perceived as the failure to call sinners to repentance and personal faith. He traveled thousands of miles on horseback preaching all over Britain and his Methodist movement grew. He soon ordained Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke to take the Methodist movement to the American colonies. They did and Methodism grew even faster on this side of the Atlantic.
Unlike George Whitefield, the other superstar evangelist of the Great Awakening, John Wesley was not a Calvinist. His soteriology was Arminian. That is, like the Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius, Wesley claimed that Christ’s atonement was (potentially) for everyone–no one was elected to damnation. Because of God’s prevenient grace, humans could respond to the offer of saving grace freely–and even though given assurance of salvation, they could just as freely later commit apostasy and reject their former salvation. The Church of England contained both Calvinist and Arminian strands, but Wesley opted strongly for the Arminian, drawing past the Reformation to the early church, even Eastern Orthodox sources. (The similarities between Wesley’s “entire sanctification,” and the “salvation as divination” view of the Eastern Fathers has been noted by many.)
Like Martin Luther, his theology, though having a logical structure, was not systematic, but pastoral, contained in thousands of published sermons, letters, tracts, and journals. He was one of the earliest English theologians to speak out against slavery. He also championed the poor and called war the chief example of original sin. Wesley was not QUITE a pacifist, but his reservation seems less because of a theological endorsement of Just War Theory and more because of his Royalist politics. He never wanted Methodists to become a separate church or denomination. Yet, the American Revolution sparked this development in North America and, at his death, British Methodism also separated formally from the Church of England–though earlier this year it agreed to reunion. (Other Methodist branches have not made that agreement.)
The Works of John Wesley come in several editions. The number of volumes and publishers varies, along with how much editing and commentary. They range from 7 volumes to 24 volumes.
John Wesley, The Sermons of John Wesley: An Anthology, ed. Albert Outler (Abingdon Press, 1991).
Selected secondary works:
Stephen Tompkins, John Wesley: A Biography. (Eerdmans, 2003).
Richard P. Heizenratter, Wesley and the People Called Methodists (Abingdon Press, 1995).
Kenneth J. Collins, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace. (Abingdon Press, 2007).
Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology. (Kingswood Books, 1994).
Charles Wesley (1707-1788) , 18th child and 3rd son of Samuel and Susannah Wesley. Susannah’s education gave Charles an independent spirit. When the parsonage burned down, Charles was sent to live with his much older brother, Samuel, and there became a somewhat rebellious spirit. When he matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford in 1726, he initially wasted much energy looking for a good time. However, he had settled down and decided to take his spiritual life seriously by the time his brother John returned to Oxford as a Fellow of Lincoln College. Together they formed the Oxford “Holy Club” for the purpose of Bible study, serious devotions, and daily reception of the Eucharist (Holy Communion). The regimented structure of the “Holy Club” soon led others to mock its members as “Methodists.”
In 1733, Charles earned an M.A.(Classical Languages and Literature) from Oxford, having become especially scholarly in Latin. In 1735, he was ordained a priest in the Church of England. Charles accompanied John to the Georgia Colony, becoming secretary to Gov. James Oglethorpe. However, he failed to adjust to the climate and returned to England a year later.
In the Spring of 1738 Charles experienced his own profound religious awakening. He became more convinced than ever of the New Testament message of salvation by faith alone and of the power of faith in Jesus Christ to dramatically transform lives. For the next 50 years he joined John’s work in spreading this message to as many as possible, working especially in the poor slums of London.
Charles was an excellent preacher and theologian, but he had neither the raw preaching power of George Whitefield, nor the logical clarity and organizational genius of his brother, John. Charles’ great strength was as a hymn writer. He spread the Methodist message through song, often taking well-known tunes (even drinking songs) and changing their lyrics. He wrote literally thousands of hymns during his lifetime. Many of his better known hymns (e.g., Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!; O! For a Thousand Tongues to Sing!) are sung in churches around the world to this day–and as much outside as inside Methodist circles.
An independent mind, Charles did not always agree with his more famous brother, John. He, too, was an Arminian, but he rejected John’s doctrine that one could be “entirely sanctified” in an abrupt, even instantaneous process. For Charles, sanctification was a gradual and progressive process, the work of the Spirit over a lifetime. Further, he did not think that sanctification could result in any form of perfection (not even a “perfection in love”) this side of death. Perfection awaits the after-death experience of glorification. (My friend, Jonathan Marlow, UMC minister, thinks I overplay their differences over sanctification, but says that the differences over the Church of England’s claim to “Apostolic succession” in ordination was larger than I have said.)
Charles was also more adamant than John in retaining his loyalty to the Church of England. He did not join in the open-air preaching, but remained in his London parish. He refused to go along with the ordination of Methodist ministers. And, at the time of his death, he reminded Anglican leaders of his loyalty to the Church of England and demanded to be buried in the Anglican graveyard. Both Charles’ son and grandson were also famous hymn writers and church musicians.
Charles Wesley, Charles Wesley: A Reader , ed. John R. Tyson (Oxford University Press, 2000).
John R. Tyson, Assist Me to Proclaim: The Life and Hymns of Charles Wesley. (Eerdmans, 2008).
Gareth Lloyd, Charles Wesley and the Struggle for Methodist Identity. (Oxford University Press, 2007).
Charles Yrigoyen, Jr. Praising the God of Grace: The Theology of Charles Wesley’s Hymns. (Abingdon Press, 2005).
Truly an amazing family. A multigenerational gift of God to the Church universal.