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Wesleyan brotherly love

27 September 2013

Charles Wesley could be sharp about John, Colin Podmore finds

Resisting lay presidency and schism: Charles Wesley, from an engraving

Resisting lay presidency and schism: Charles Wesley, from an engraving

The Letters of Charles Wesley: A critical edition, with introduction and notes: Volume I (1728-1756)
Kenneth G. C. Newport and Gareth Lloyd, editors
Oxford University Press £140
Church Times Bookshop £126  (Use code CT195 )

IN THE struggle over whether Methodism should remain within the Church of England or secede, Charles Wesley led the losing side.

The victors wrote the history, andedited much of his prose as they published, leaving his image distorted and diminished.

Recently, renewed interest hasspawned a society, a journal, scholarly studies, and critical editions of Charles Wesley's sermons, journals, and unpublished poetry. This edition of his letters will complete the basis for the comprehensive modern biography that he still lacks.

Survival of his letters is patchy. Few, if any, were written for posterity; many are, frankly, of limited significance.

But in the first decade (23 letters) we gain interesting glimpses of the life of an Oxford undergraduate and tutor, his family, and his less than happy American adventure.

The second decade (75 letters) begins exuberantly. In January 1738, "the whole nation is in an uproar", the preaching of George Whitefield and others having stirred "an amazing ferment" - before the events that sparked the Evangelical Revival.

Itinerancy brings dramatic experiences. In one storm, Charles is blown off his horse's back, and the horse is repeatedly blown over. In another, his ship's captain is lost overboard moments after they have conversed.

Frequent references to deaths - of young adults as well as children - remind us that Methodists proclaimed the gospel in a very different context. Deathbed celebrations of "the blessed Sacrament" often feature.

This volume's remaining 234 letters come from its last nine years (1748-56). Three-quarters are addressed to Sarah Gwynne, whom Wesley married in 1749. The disparity of age (he was 41, she 22) and circumstances (her parentswere wealthy landowners) seems to have drawn surprisingly little comment. Their marriage was especially happy.

John's marriage in 1749 placedthe brothers' extraordinary relationship under strain. Charles could be remarkably cutting; when his daughter died in 1755, he did not inform John and his wife, "becauseI would not give them pleasure". But, though clear-sighted about John's faults ("my brother . . . does not love plain dealing"), Charles remained loyal.

Policy differences exacerbated tensions. Burgeoning growth necessitated more preachers, but Charles thought quality more important, and sifted out the dross: John "made a preacher of a Taylor. I with God's help shall make a Taylor of him again."

Charles clearly understood the distinction between irregularity (e.g. disregarding parish boundaries), which could be tolerated in a higher cause, and invalidity (lay presidency, presbyteral ordination), which could not. In the 1750s, resisting lay presidency and the schism it must involve is this volume's most important theme.

In 1756, Charles ceased his itinerancy; he remained in Methodism "not so much to do good, as to prevent evil. I stand in the way of my brother's violent counsellors, the object both of their fear & hate." The reader's appetite for Volume II is whetted.

Combative in the cause of Catholicity, Charles was also notably eirenic, repeatedly reaching out with "obstinacy of love" to those who had separated from Wesleyan Methodism.

Since the other side of this correspondence is necessarily omitted, more consistent indication of its location and publication would have been helpful. For non-specialist readers, a sentence of context before each letter, with more generous annotation, would have increased accessibility.

None the less, this clearly presented definitive text, with remarkably few mistakes and omissions, is a great achievement, which scholars will welcome.

Dr Colin Podmore is the Director of Forward in Faith.

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