The Wesleys were one of the most remarkable families of 18th-century England, producing the two brothers, John and Charles, who founded the Methodist movement.
John Wesley (1703-1791) was born on 17 June 1703 in the remote Lincolnshire market town of Epworth, the son of the Anglican parish priest Samuel Wesley and his wife Susanna. The main responsibility for raising and educating the couple's ten children fell to Susanna, a formidable woman who exercised a particular influence over John.
Aged eleven, John was sent to Charterhouse School in London. He displayed academic promise and in June 1720 went up to Christ Church, Oxford. The fifteen years that he was to spend at the university as a student and then as a Fellow of Lincoln College were extremely influential in his spiritual and personal development. In 1729 Wesley took on the leading role in the 'Holy Club', a group of students who met for prayer, religious conversation and prison visiting. The Club aroused considerable attention at a time when the university was not known for its religious devotion. The members were mockingly referred to as 'Methodists' because of their methodical ways.
By 1735, John was disillusioned with life in Oxford and was troubled by his spiritual state. He therefore accepted an appointment as a missionary in the newly founded colony of Georgia and sailed for the New World in December 1735, accompanied by his younger brother Charles.The two years he spent overseas were deeply troubled. The colonists regarded him as eccentric and his confused courtship of the niece of a prominent official led to his fleeing the colony in the face of court action for defamation. His return to England in February 1738 brought his spiritual crisis to a head.During his stay overseas, John had become acquainted with the Moravians, members of a German religious community. Impressed by the depth of their faith and emphasis on salvation by faith alone, John experienced conversion at Aldersgate in London on May 24th 1738. In the aftermath of this event, he embarked on a ministry that was to change the course of church history.
John and his brother Charles, who had experienced conversion few days before his brother, began to preach in the open air in the spring of 1739 to crowds of many thousands.In addition to their preaching ability, the brothers were gifted and tireless organisers and they quickly established a national network of evangelical groups.The first 'preaching houses' or chapels were erected within twelve months of the commencement of the open-air ministry and by 1750, Wesleyan Methodism was a well-established and vibrant part of the religious scene.
The new revival movement was opposed by many within the parent Church of England.The Wesleys were regarded as extremists, inciting impressionable people to hysterical outbursts, while the crowds that gathered to hear the preachers were seen as a threat to public order.The evangelicals did however enjoy support from people who regarded them as a force for renewal at a time when British religious life appeared stagnant.
In the aftermath of his conversion of 1738, John Wesley placed emphasis on religion of the heart rather than the mind.He taught that the goal of the Christian life was "sanctification … even to the point of perfection" and this quest underpinned Methodist spirituality. John also taught that God offers salvation to all.This placed him in opposition to most other Anglican evangelicals, who tended to be supporters of the doctrine that people are predestined to salvation or damnation.In most other respects, Wesley followed mainstream Christian doctrine but was unusually eclectic in his approach. While an avowed Anglican, he was not afraid to seek inspiration from other traditions.
Wesley was of slim build and barely five feet six inches tall. He possessed exceptional physical fitness and his faculties remained undiminished until a short time before his death at the age of 87. He was a fastidious man and retained in many ways the image of a refined Oxford Don.Wesley's personality contained contradictions. Unusually sensitive in some respects such as his concern for the poor, he was nevertheless distant in his personal relationships.His single-minded determination to build Methodism as a monument to God's glory helped to destroy his marriage and isolated him in a leadership role. He became in the words of one historian 'granite in aspic'.
John Wesley was a natural leader, blessed with determination and an appearance of good-humoured self-control. This was allied with personal magnetism and supreme self-confidence.There was, however, a less praiseworthy side to this remarkable man. He loved power and always retained the final word in policy matters.His political instincts were refined and he was ruthless in dealing with internal opposition.It may be significant that Wesley only ever indicated as potential successors men who were unwilling or unable to assume that role.In the end, he nominated the annual conference of preachers as the body that would exercise collective leadership after his death. For Methodists, there would never be another 'King in Israel' and John Wesley probably always intended it to be that way.By the 1780s John Wesley was a national institution. His extensive and visible ministry, which had once aroused violent opposition, was now the subject of much respect among non-Methodists, even if they disagreed with his theology. The fact that he was still travelling thousands of miles a year, despite his great age, added to the public fascination.
Wesley died in London on 2 March 1791 after a short illness.Within the Methodist movement there was grief at the death of their 'Father in God', as well as anxiety as to what the future held.Outside Methodism, it was acknowledged that he had been one of the great men of his time and immediately his life and ministry began to assume a legendary status.
Wesley's death did not bring an end to Methodism. Instead, it heralded a golden age of rising membership and increased self-confidence. Between 1791 and 1850 the number of Methodists in the British Isles increased from 72,500 to over 500,000, with millions more overseas.Although membership in Britain has declined since that high-water mark, Methodism remains one of the largest growing Protestant denominations in the world. For example, between 1956 and 1996 the number of Methodists in Africa rose from one million to nearly six million and in Asia from 1,230,000 to nearly 10,000,000.
John Wesley's reputation kept pace with this expansion. He was seen as the man whose genius and faith had laid the foundations for one of the great success stories of the post-Reformation Church. Despite cultural differences and the passing of more than 200 years, Methodists continued to look to their founder as the model evangelical and a focus for unity.
Charles Wesley (1707-1788) was born at Epworth in Lincolnshire, the son of a poverty-stricken clergyman. He was educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford, where he was one of the founder members of the Holy Club or Oxford Methodists, a small Christian group which included the Wesley brothers, and their fellow Evangelists George Whitefield and Benjamin Ingham. After his ordination and a brief period spent as a missionary in Georgia, Charles Wesley underwent a conversion experience in London in May 1738, a few days before John Wesley's famous Aldersgate experience. For seventeen years after his conversion Charles Wesley was one of the central figures in the great Evangelical revival which saw the birth of the Methodist Church. He travelled constantly in England, Wales and Ireland, suffering frequent harassment, which was often instigated by fellow clergymen. While his brother John was without doubt the leader of the Methodist movement, Charles was his most trusted colleague, and often exercised a restraining influence on those Methodists who wished to break away from the Church of England. Charles Wesley's greatest legacy to Methodism is his hymns which are regarded as among the finest ever written. The Methodists gave hymn-singing a central place in worship, contrary to contemporary Anglican practice. Wesley's hymns formed the basis of the Methodist hymn-books of the 18th and 19th centuries, and are still sung all over the world by Christians of every denomination.
Samuel Wesley (1662-1735) was the son of the Revd John Westley (1635/6-1671) a minister ejected following the Act of Uniformity in 1662. Despite his dissenting background and his preparation for Independent ministry, he was educated at Oxford University (a privilege denied to dissenters at the time) and ordained as an Anglican deacon in 1688 and as a priest in 1689. Following a brief spell as a naval chaplain, and a period at South Ormsby, where he had the curacy of a local parish, he became rector of Epworth, Lincolnshire in 1695. His support for a Tory candidate in county elections engendered the antagonism of local residents and at various points in his curacy, he was the victim of attacks on his property. His unpopularity coupled with poor financial management led to a brief period of imprisonment for debt. Despite his debts and misfortunes however, Samuel is generally regarded as a committed and enthusiastic parish priest, and as a traditionalist who advocated regular communion. Samuel published poetry and articles on religious subjects, as well as involving himself in polemical debates with dissenters. In later life, he produced voluminous writings on the Old Testament book of Job, which were published posthumously. He married Susanna Annesley (1669-1742) in 1688. Samuel is best remembered as the father of John and Charles Wesley. He died in 1835, following a long-term illness resulting from a an accident in 1731.
Susanna Wesley (née Annesley) (1669-1742) was born on 20 January 1669 in London. Her father, the Rev. Samuel Annesley (1620-1696) was a dissenting minister. Despite this, Susanna joined the Anglican church at the age of twelve. She married Samuel Wesley on 12 November 1688. Susanna did not share her husband's politics, and this gave rise to family discord in the early years of the eighteenth century. During Samuel’s absence during 1710-12, she controversially held meetings for prayers and religious readings. Despite their disagreements and separations, together they produced a large family. Three sons and seven daughters survived to adulthood. She is often given credit for the strict and methodical upbringing of John and Charles Wesley, instilling into them a strict discipline, and in later life corresponding with them on a range of theological issues. She died at the Foundery, London on 30th July 1742.
Samuel Wesley (1690/91-1739), born in Spitalfields, London, was the eldest child of Samuel and Susanna Wesley. He was educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford. He mixed in literary and Jacobite circles, and eventually became the headmaster of Tiverton grammar school in Devon. He took a watchful interest in the education of his younger brothers John and Charles, and took care of the family finances following the death of his father. He married Ursula Berry around 1715, and they had six children, four of whom died in infancy. Samuel was a minor poet, publishing a variety of poems, many on political and religious themes. He disapproved of the beliefs and activities of his brothers following their conversion. He died in Tiverton on 6 November 1739.
Mehetabel Wright (1697-1750) was sister to John and Charles Wesley and one of the most talented and tragic members of her family. She inherited a considerable talent for writing poetry from her father and several of her works were printed in the Gentleman's Magazine and other publications. After giving birth to an illegitimate child in 1726, she was pressured by her family into marrying a plumber named William Wright. The marriage was not a happy one. She died in London after a long period of ill health.
Sarah Wesley (1726-1822) was born at Garth in Brecknockshire, one of nine children of the wealthy landowner Marmaduke Gwynne. She appears to have been educated at home in accordance with the upper-class custom of the time. Surviving in the Methodist Archives is a small annotated collection of books that were owned by her as a young woman. These indicate that she was well versed in history, philosophy and theology. Sarah's father was a friend and supporter of the Wesley brothers. Charles Wesley stayed at Garth for five days in August 1747 and despite an age difference of nineteen years, it would appear from subsequent events that the mutual attraction between him and Sarah was at first sight. He proposed during his next visit to Garth in April 1748 and they were married twelve months later. The couple lived in Charles Street, Bristol from 1749 to 1771 in which year they moved to Chesterfield Street in London with their three children who survived to adulthood. Their marriage was exceptionally happy and was a principal reason why Charles retired from the itinerancy in 1756. Sarah survived her husband by thirty-four years and appears to have remained in reasonable mental and physical health until a short time before her death at the age of 96. She was supported in her widowhood by the Methodist Conference and a subscription raised by wealthy evangelicals including William Wilberforce. Sarah appears to have been of Calvinist leanings as a young woman and continued to attend worship at Whitefield's Tabernacle Chapel for several years after her marriage.
Samuel Wesley (1766-1837), the youngest son of Charles Wesley (1707-1788), was born in Bristol on 24 February 1766. Gifted musically, he was something of a child prodigy. Initially attracted to Roman Catholic services for their musical grandeur, he converted to Catholicism in 1784. Despite family disapproval, he formed a close relationship with Charlotte Louisa Martin (1761-1845) in the 1780s, who he married in 1793. He separated from Charlotte in 1810 to live with Sarah Suter, with whom he lived until his death. Together the had nine children, seven of whom survived into adulthood. He suffered mental health problems following the death of one of their children in 1816, after which he experienced recurring bouts of mental illness in later years. In the 1780s and 1790s he made his living giving music lessons, which he regarded as drudgery, but he is best known as a composer and organist. In this capacity, he composed and performed his own works, and was an enthusiastic advocate and performer of the work of Johann Sebastian Bach. He died at Pentonville on 11 October 1837.
Charles Wesley (1793-1859) was the eldest son of Samuel Wesley (1766-1837) and his wife Charlotte. He was educated at home until the age of ten and was then sent away to school, first at Maidstone in Kent and then St Paul's in London. In the aftermath of the breakdown in his parents' marriage, a large part of the responsibility for Charles' upbringing was assumed by his Uncle Charles Wesley (1757-1834) and Aunt Sarah Wesley (1759-1826). Charles went up to Christ Church Cambridge in 1818 and displayed considerable academic ability, especially in the field of logic.
Charles was ordained into the Anglican ministry in 1821 and served in several London parishes until 1833 when he was appointed chaplain to the Royal household and later sub-dean of the Chapels Royal. In 1847 he became chaplain in ordinary to Queen Victoria. Charles married Eliza Skelton in 1824. There were four children, two of whom survived infancy.
Samuel Sebastian Wesley
Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-1876) was born on 14 August 1810, the son of Samuel Wesley (1766-1837) and his housekeeper Sarah Suter (1893/4-1863). Brought up in financially straightened circumstances he became a child chorister of the Chapel Royal, St James Palace in 1817. This proved to be an escape from family poverty and a valuable opportunity to obtain a formal musical education. On leaving the choir in 1826, he made his mark as an organist, and a composer. He became one of the most prominent cathedral organists of his generation, and a significant composer of church music. He was granted a civil list pension of £100 per annum in 1873. He died of Bright’s disease on 19 April 1876.