The Letters of Charles Wesley: A critical edition,
with introduction and notes: Volume I (1728-1756)
Kenneth G. C. Newport and Gareth Lloyd,
Oxford University Press £140
Church Times Bookshop £126 (Use code
IN THE struggle over whether Methodism should remain within the
Church of England or secede, Charles Wesley led the losing
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sermons, journals, and unpublished poetry.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
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
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
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