Charles Wesley’s 250-year-old journals reveal fears that Church of England could split

Posted by Kendall Harmon

Rev Prof Kenneth Newport, pro vice-chancellor of Liverpool Hope University, has deciphered more than 1,000 pages written 250 years ago between 1736 and 1756.

He has uncovered details of Wesley's anxieties over the possibilities of a split from the Church of England, his younger brother's plans to marry and even over the growing influence of Islam.

He used a handwritten transcription of the four gospels made by Wesley as a guide to deciphering the journals themselves.

Wesley's concerns over the prospect of the newly founded Methodist Societies splitting from the Church of England echo the Anglican Church's current debate over the consecration of gay clergy and the threat of schism.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Anglican - EpiscopalAnglican ProvincesChurch of England (CoE)* Christian Life / Church LifeChurch History

Posted August 27, 2008 at 5:47 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. WilliamS wrote:

Let us not forget that brother John was also against splitting from the Church of England. “I live and die in the Church of England.” And he did. He wrote against the American Revolution (“A Calm Address to Our American Colonies”—1775). When the Americans won the Revolution, “By a very uncommon train of providences…wherewith GOD has so strangely made them free,” (written in 1784) brother John had some decisions to make (which brother Charles did not agree with). Interestingly, he was never formally censured for allowing American Methodism to set up a new church by his consecrating superintendents (when Coke and Asbury decided to call themselves bishops, John was furious).

But how apparent are the similarities with today’s situation? First, there was no “Anglican Communion” as there is today to recognize rival jurisdictions, for instance. Also, one can only wonder if there had been a “Communion” like there is today, and the Mother Church back then continued to support (or at least tolerate) the African Slave Trade (which Wesley strongly condemned), in spite of reasonably-assured Communion objections, what would’ve been the outcome? Of course, it’s impossible to say, but worth pondering.

William Shontz

August 27, 6:26 pm | [comment link]
2. Baruch wrote:

It reminds me of when my future wife and I were meeting with her Methodist minister he said that such a mixed marriage was unlikely to work out. As that was 57 years ago and we still love each other the concept of an Anglo-Catholic and a Methodist organist proves love can win out, no split.

August 27, 6:47 pm | [comment link]
3. Jason Miller wrote:

Wow!  Charles Wesley, a discerning man, was three-for-three: the Methodists split from the CofE, his brother John’s marriage was a disaster (though John was older, not younger, as the article states), and Islam has spread through British and Western Society.

All that, and he could write extraordinary hymns!

August 27, 7:52 pm | [comment link]
4. WilliamS wrote:


His bother John could be a bit prophetic himself: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out” (1786).

William Shontz

August 27, 9:26 pm | [comment link]
5. Bob Maxwell+ wrote:

Much that surrounds these quotes is the ill-informed and or deliberately false editorial slant of the reporter. What is new is the retranslated journals.

“He was very much opposed to separation, he saw the Methodist Societies as within the established church and anything that smacked of separation was something he took a very strong view of,” Rev Prof Newport said.

“At one point in the journal he is talking to the society at Grimsby and goes into block capitals and says ‘I told them I would remain with them as long as they remained with the Church of England but should they ever turn their back on the Church they turn their back on me’.”

All true and long known by all. Forty years ago I was studying again the pertinent sections in John Wesley’s Complete Works [Erdman’s] and paid close attention to all this correspondence. The Wesley’s never set up a church and had the Bishop of London not refused to ordain priests for the colonies John would not have had to appeal to an ancient canon allowing ordinations of presbyters in extremis by presbyters only.

August 27, 10:06 pm | [comment link]
6. Dr. William Tighe wrote:

What “ancient canon” is that, #5?  The only ones that I know (such as that of Elvira) condemn such ordinations, even when undertaken in times of persecution, and decree deposition and excommunication for any presbyters who do so in the future.

August 27, 10:48 pm | [comment link]
7. David Hein wrote:

The reporter’s analogy is such a stretch that it’s hard to grasp it in a useful way. But here’s what we might take away from it: Charles Wesley saw the Church of England (// the Anglican Tradition) as too valuable to be cast aside. And that is how TEC should view things—what TEC should consider—if it fails (continues to fail) to act deliberately and in concert with the rest of the AC.

BUT: there are key differences. One might be tempted to read this article and say, It’s a bad idea—which neither Wesley would approve of—for today’s evangelicals (or traditionalists or reasserters) to leave (or split) the AC. The problem for an ordinary, undecided, traditionalist Episcopalian, though, is that the Church that he or she might be thinking about leaving (i.e., TEC)—perhaps to join the Methodist Church—is quite different from the Church of England that the Wesleys knew. One or both Wesley brothers (Charles was more adamant about staying in the C of E) might well leave it today for the Methodist Church, when they weighed which denomination is closer to the Christian heritage they strongly valued.

Second, related to that, the important thing to remember about Methodism is that it was a spiritual renewal movement within the Church of England. That seems to be the key parallel to today’s situation: the AC, many would say, does indeed need something like that: spiritual renewal. And if individual Episcopalians must leave TEC to find it—to have their lives of faith revitalized—then somehow I think that Charles or John Wesley, looking at how matters stand today, would understand.

August 27, 11:51 pm | [comment link]
8. stjohnsrector wrote:

“The Wesley’s never set up a church and had the Bishop of London not refused to ordain priests for the colonies…”

Bob - I think you mean that he (and others) refused to allow a bishop to be consecrated for the colonies.  There certainly were priests ordained for the American Church, but they had to do so in England.

August 28, 12:33 am | [comment link]
9. Paula wrote:

The Church of England in the Wesleys’ own time was worldly and tried their faith constantly.  At Oxford, the theology students openly mocked and jibed at them for their religious ardor.  Even Rowan Williams has acknowledged how poorly John was treated by the church, precisely because of his superior faith:  “Thank God for a saint who had to live his life so embarrassingly beyond the conventions that had marked our sanctity in Christendom!  Thank God even for the eighteenth-century Church of England, so clueless about how to handle a man irresponsibly devoted to God that it forced him into . . . unshakable witness to free and full grace” (sermon “John Wesley”).  The Archbishop also called Wesley “arguably, the greatest saint, the greatest witness to Jesus Christ, produced by the eighteenth-century Church of England—the last place you’d expect to find fools for Christ’s sake.” He added, “He has rightly been compared to the great monastic reformers, Bernard, Francis, Ignatius . . . .” If only ++Williams had retained this kind of insight into present-day reasserters!  He was once capable of understanding the greatness of this quality they have in common with the Wesleys.  (I realize he has turned his face away from our present great spiritual heroes.)  Really, there were many similarities between the Methodists and the present situations.  Both have involved great and irrepressible upswellings of faith from the grassroots, and both have been forced to challenge the church’s brittle structures of authority.

Here is a poem about Wesley by Earl Bowman Marlatt (1892-1976).  It too acknowledges the persecution Wesley endured at Oxford and in the Church generally, as its pride of place and prominence clashed with his deep awareness of mission:

The shades of Oxford—
The gallant More
And princely Addison—
Beckoned him to primrose paths of glory:
A peer, a premier, or a laureate.

He chose the Wyclif-way
That led to Calvary;
“A mere ecstatic!
A Methodist!”
He took the world for his parish . . . .

And finally, of course, Wesley died still in the Church of England, wondering how the Wesleyans would fare, saying, “The best of all is, God is with us.”

August 28, 7:02 am | [comment link]
10. Jimmy DuPre wrote:

No discussion of the Wesley’s impact on the Church is complete without mentioning John Wesley’s views on justification, and the disagreement with George Whitefield. John Wesley at some point left the beliefs as stated in the 39 articles. George Whitefield, a friend, opposed John Wesley’s new beliefs. George Whitefield’s letter to John Wesley is at the link below. The case can be made that this compromise or weakening on a core doctrine was a significant milepost in the Anglican loss of identity , which is at the root of Anglicanism’s problem today.

August 28, 9:19 am | [comment link]
11. Choir Stall wrote:

Remember that John Wesley believed in “practical divinity”, wherein the practice of holiness in the ordinary places of life was required. It also led to “practical ecclesiology”. Taken that the CofE was woefully inadequate to supervise America, Mr. Wesley saw that the throne of heaven meant more than the throne of Augustine. Ordaining priests as superintendents for the work in America didn’t need a single nod from those who had neglected America.
...sounding a little familiar 250 years later.

August 28, 9:39 am | [comment link]
12. archangelica wrote:

I have hope that our new more friendly relations with the Methodists and the endorsement of a shared eucharistic ministry (with boundaries), if pursued at the local level, has the potential for much fruitfulness. The Methodists, generally more doctrinally sound than so much of TEC, could be a fount of many blessings. Sometimes it is “easier” to hear someone who is safely “other” than those voices (who may share the same message!) in our own home.
Imagine the Methodists, cast off by their Mother, coming home to nurse her back to health. May it be so…

August 28, 10:32 am | [comment link]
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