Guardian of the old ship

Image from wesleybros.com web site header

Charlie Baber’s excellent, perceptive webcomic “Wesley Bros.” envisions the founders of the Methodist movement as young men in the modern day. In the header image on the web page, John Wesley is identified as “Founder of the Movement” while Charles Wesley, wearing headphones, is called the “Movement’s Soundtrack.” And that’s the stereotype most Methodists have; John Wesley was the founder of United Methodism, while Charles was his brother who wrote “O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing” and a lot of other hymns.

But that title of “soundtrack” (which I suspect Baber is using with tongue in cheek) is a gross oversimplification of the roles these two men, and others in their circle, played in the founding of the movement.

A couple of years ago, right around my birthday (which means I was probably using an Amazon gift card), I bought and read Richard Heizenrater’s “Wesley and the People Called Methodists,” a definitive history of the origins of the movement which had been recommended during one of my lay speaking classes.

Even in this book, which is so much about John Wesley that it doesn’t feel the need to differentiate him by first name in the title, Charles’ role is shown to go far beyond that of “soundtrack.” Charles Wesley played a key role in founding the “Holy Clubs” at Oxford. Charles Wesley served alongside his brother as a traveling preacher spreading the Methodist movement within the Church of England.

Last week, I again got an Amazon card for my birthday and used it, in part, to download two Kindle books. I’ve already blogged about the book on the Four Immortal Chaplains. The other book I got was “Assist Me To Proclaim: The Life and Hymns of Charles Wesley,” by John R. Tyson.

Obviously, it covers a lot of the same ground as the Heizenrater book, but from the point of view of Charles Wesley. A lot of it has to do with the hymns, of course. This includes not just familiar, enduring hymns like “A Thousand Tongues,” but hymns written, seemingly on the spur of the moment, to react to developments in Charles Wesley’s own life or in the life of the Methodist movement.

Tyson points out that Wesley’s lyrics were often quite sophisticated and nuanced forms of theological expression, every bit as worthy of analysis as one of John’s (or Charles’) sermons.

But the book also explores how the relationship between the two brothers shaped the Methodist movement. John and Charles both lived and died as members of the Church of England, and both considered, and wanted, Methodism to be a reform movement within the Anglican church they loved so dearly. But many within the official, state-sponsored church considered the Methodists to be dangerous fanatics and refused to believe that they were loyal to, or good for, the mother church.

As Methodism grew, more and more reliance had to be placed on lay preachers — the 18th Century equivalent of what I do as a certified lay speaker. These speakers, like me, were not ordained ministers, but they traveled from town to town helping to organize and preach to Methodist societies.

The lay preachers, however, were passionate, and in some cases that passion led them to strain at the limitations of the Wesleys’ theology and practice. John enthusiastically recruited lay preachers; Charles, much more skeptical, was often the one to dismiss or reprimand preachers his brother had brought into the fold. Many of the preachers had separatist ideas. They wanted to be ordained so that they could administer the Lord’s Supper and other rituals, and the official church, which was still suspicious of the movement, was unlikely to ordain large numbers of Methodists.

Some of the lay preachers, in defiance of Methodist policy, even registered as “dissenters.” (British law required any clergy or congregations other than the official Church of England to be registered.)

Charles was John’s conscience on this issue, constantly trying to stress Methodism’s status as a movement within the Church of England, or “the Old Ship,” as Charles Wesley sometimes referred to it. He sometimes clashed with his brother when he suspected that John was being too lenient on the lay preachers or on some issue that Charles feared might lead to separation from the Anglicans.

The American revolution ended up indirectly bringing this conflict to a head. American independence meant that the Church of England (which, after all, was affiliated with the British government) withdrew its official support from its churches in the former colonies. Methodists who were living in America, and who now had no church with which to affiliate, appealed to John Wesley for help, and John Wesley — using a Biblical interpretation counter to that of the official church — felt that he was entitled to ordain several preachers and commission them to start a new, independent Methodist church in the former colonies. Charles believed that John had no authority to do this and feared it was an irreversible step towards separation from the Church of England.

John and Charles got through this most severe disagreement, and both men died as Anglicans. Charles made a point of being buried on Anglican church grounds, even though John had reserved a place of honor for him at the Methodist movement’s headquarters. It was only after both Wesleys were dead that British Methodism eventually became a separate church.

Charles Wesley, unlike his brother, had a long and happy marriage, and his two sons who survived to adulthood were both musical prodigies, one of them even performing annually for King George III. But neither the sons nor his daughter had the religious fervor that Charles and John shared, and this was a source of disappointment. (Preachers’ kids — what are you gonna do?)

Tyson’s book is readable and copiously-researched, and it’s a wonderful introduction to an often-overlooked pillar of the Methodist movement. Midway through reading it, I sent my Kindle back to Amazon as part of a trade-in program, but I didn’t want to set the book aside, so I kept reading it on my phone, and finished it up that way — not as comfortable or convenient as reading a Kindle or a traditional book, but Charles Wesley’s story kept me so engaged I didn’t want to wait until my new Kindle arrives.