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The Wesleys

Spiritual Writing

Oh, for a heart to praise my God,
A heart from sin set free!
A heart that always feels thy blood,
So freely spilt for me!

Thy tender heart is still the same,
And melts at human woe;
Jesu, for thee distressed I am -
I want thy love to know.

Thy nature, gracious Lord, impart;
Come quickly from above;
Write thy new name upon my heart,
Thy new, best name of love!

- Charles Wesley, Hymns, 1742

John Wesley, 1703-1791A little less than 300 years ago, two brothers wandered the green fields of England, struggling to understand the meaning and purpose of life, affected by a feeling of emptiness. They experienced what they called a "re-birth" that enabled them to see life in a new way, and this, in turn, became their life's vocation. When they tried to comprehend how they and others had found this restoration of vision and understanding, they generated an extraordinary body of spiritual writing and hymns that are read and sung to this day throughout the English-speaking world. 

Born in 1703, John Wesley would become the founder of the Methodist movement. His spiritual inclinations began early, and while at school at Charterhouse and Christ Church, Oxford, he formed a group that became known as the Holy Club. They read many of the writings of the early church and were influenced by the spiritual writer William Law,  particularly his books On Christian Perfection  and A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.

Continuing on this path, in 1738, upon return to England following an unsuccessful mission to Wesley Preaching the American Colonies, the despondent John Wesley  experienced a breakthrough. Reading the powerful words of the reformer Martin Luther, he felt his "heart became strangely warmed" by God's love. His sense of despair lifted and from that moment on he said the object of his life was "to promote as far as I am able vital practical religion and by the grace of God to beget, preserve, and increase the life of God in the souls of men." He had found his ultimate purpose and devoted the remainder of his life to evangelistic work.

His devotion, however, was not welcome in the Church of England, Consequently, by 1751, he had gathered lay preachers and extended his work throughout the British Isles. Tradition holds that he travelled 200,000 miles and preached 40,000 sermons, in addition to writing thousands of letters. 

The movement, Methodism, soon took hold in America and increasingly assumed an institutional shape, despite Wesley's wish that it remain within the Church of England. At the time of his death, there were 294 preachers and 71,668 members in Great Britain, 19 missionaries and 5,300 members on mission stations, and 198 preachers and 43,265 members in America.

Charles Wesley (1707-88), like his older brother John, was a member of the Holy Club and, consequently, fell under the same influences. He was a member of the Oxford Methodists and was ordained in 1735, after which he accompanied his brother to America-he returned to England owing to poor health. Charles, like John, experienced a religious awakening. He subsequently became closely associated with the Methodist movement and became an exceptionally gifted hymn writer, composing over 5,000 hymns, many of which remain today in the repertoire of virtually all Protestant churches. After 1756 he carried on his work in England, travelling extensively as an evangelical preacher.

Further Reading
Wesley, John and Charles Wesley. Edited by Frank Whaling. Selected Prayers, Hymns, Journal Notes, Sermons, Letters and Treatises. New York: Paulist Press, 1981.

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