Churchman, Spring 2010
The tercentenary of Charles Wesley’s birth in 2007 produced a veritable feast of new studies of his life and influence, such as Gary Best’s Charles Wesley, Gareth Lloyd’s Charles Wesley and the Struggle for Methodist Identity, and Kenneth Newport and Ted Campbell’s Charles Wesley: Life, Literature and Legacy. A critical edition of his manuscript journal, an indispensable source, has also been published through the painstaking editorial labours of Professor Newport and S. T. Kimbrough, Charles Wesley is at last being liberated from older Methodist historiography and has begun to emerge from under the shadow of his brother, John, as a significant theologian and leader in his own right. Professor John Tyson’s biography is a worthy addition to this literature. Invigorating and pacy, it is an excellent introduction to the subject. The lack of footnotes will frustrate hardened Wesley scholars, but the narrative storytelling is engaging.
Tyson offers a sympathetic portrait, theologically astute and emotionally empathetic. He is an adept navigator through the plethora of primary sources journals, sermons, letter and hymns and allows Wesley’s abundant poetry to speak for itself. Tyson is particularly insightful on Wesley’s theology, exploring his understanding of justification, quietism (’the snare of stillness’), Christian perfection, and providence. He also offers a moving account of Wesley’s many friendships, and his role as a husband and father. We feel the pain, for example, of Wesley’s discovery in his twilight years, at the age of 76, that his young son had abandoned the Methodist gospel and converted to Roman Catholicism. Tyson is a sure-footed guide, though there are some charming Americanisms (Lincoln College, Oxford as John Wesley’s ’old school’, p. 86) and occasional slips (the monarch as ’head of the church of Christ on earth’, p. 2, a title never given even to Henry VIII). One typographical error is particularly unfortunate where the Bible is called ’Bile’ (p. 258)!
Tyson’s discussion of Wesley’s strenuous efforts to marry Evangelicalism with Anglicanism is especially rich, with strong contemporary resonance. Wesley’s love for the Church of England was ’one of the fundamental constants of his life’ (p. 229), yet he was willing to break canon law and defy episcopal authority if they hindered the gospel. For example, he threw his support behind open-air preaching and lay preaching, both illegal in the eighteenth century, and publicly rebuked the church’s ’mitred infidels’. Yet he resisted schismatic tendencies amongst Methodist lay preachers, and tried to restrain his brother’s more radical policies.
From 1784 John Wesley began to ordain godly young men for ministry in North America, having been convinced that in the New Testament the office of presbyter is the same as that of bishop, The Anglican hierarchy refused to ordain the workers, so John went ahead and did it himself, Yet Charles viewed these ordinations with dismay as the opening of ’Pandora’s Box’. Until the end of his life he continued to think of Methodism as a renewal movement within Anglicanism, and was distressed to watch its gradual slide into separation. When Charles Wesley died in 1788 he directed that his body be buried in the local Anglican churchyard in Marylebone, not in the crypt John had prepared for him behind the New Chapel on City Road. His coffin was carried to the grave by six Anglican clergymen an acted parable of his lifelong resolve to live and die in the Church of England.