Saint of the Week: Charles Wesley

This week’s saint is Charles Wesley (1707-1788), given that the day for his and John’s commemoration was two days ago (John Wesley was saint of the week here and here). Charles is the less famous of the two famous Wesley brothers, and I think this is a bit of a shame.

Charles Wesley was as much a man of action as his elder brother. He, too, was a founding member of the “Holy Club” at Oxford, meeting with friends to read the Greek New Testament and to transform their lives. He, too, lived a disciplined life — a discipline with method, thus Methodist and Methodism.* He, too, was an ordained priest of the Church of England. He, too, was involved in the evangelical revival and preaching the Gospel amongst the poor of England. He, too, went to preach the Gospel in Georgia. He, too, sought Christian Perfection.

Charles, however, was not merely a man of action like unto his brother. He was also a man of action in opposition to his brother. An example of such opposition was when he burst in on John’s first wedding and dragged his brother out, explaining to the elder Wesley that he wasn’t exactly suited to marriage. My understanding is that John’s second attempt at getting married succeeded but without happy product — proving Charles right.

Unlike John, Charles was happily married, to Sarah Gwynne. Sarah Gwynne, like their mother Susannah Wesley, probably counts as one of the many intrepid women of the Faith, for she accompanied her husband on his evangelistic journeys.

Charles eventually ended his itinerant lifestyle, which probably helped keep his marriage a happy one. He looked after the Methodists of Bristol from 1756-1771, then relocated to London, where his ministry included Newgate prison.

Charles also differs from John in virulent opposition to any schismatic activity on the part of the Methodists. He wished to keep Methodism a movement within the Church of England, and thus he wrote a hymn against the event of John ordaining Coke rather than celebrating it.

Hymn-writing, of course, is what we best remember Charles Wesley for. He wrote over 5500 hymns in his lifetime, so, although his prose works are few (are there any?) compared to John’s, his own literary output is not inconsiderable. Amongst this enormous corpus are such favourites as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “And Can It Be?” and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”

Despite confusing moments such as when he writes in “And Can It Be?” that Christ “emptied Himself of all but love,” these hymns demonstrate Wesley as one of the great devotional minds of the English language. Indeed, the nearness of the Divine in these hymns their clarity of the Gospel and its impact on the Christian life make them among the works of wondrous, clear theology. They are praise of God worth singing, the sort we encounter far less often in the newer songs of today.

Charles Wesley was also a clever man in his hymnography, for his words could be set to the tunes of drinking songs. This made them very memorable for the poor, drunken souls for whom the hearts of the Wesleys burned. And so Gospel truths could be sung and remembered as cast in the simple poetry of Charles Wesley. This is a very great gift to the English people, and one not to be underestimated.

So, to close, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” by Charles Wesley:

Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down;
Fix in us thy humble dwelling;
All thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesus, Thou art all compassion,
Pure unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation;
Enter every trembling heart.

Breathe, O breathe Thy loving Spirit,
Into every troubled breast!
Let us all in Thee inherit;
Let us find that second rest.
Take away our bent to sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its Beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.

Come, Almighty to deliver,
Let us all Thy life receive;
Suddenly return and never,
Never more Thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve Thee as Thy hosts above,
Pray and praise Thee without ceasing,
Glory in Thy perfect love.

Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

*I’ve heard it said that the terms actually come from how John organised the movement; yet I have also heard that it was a nickname applied to the Holy Club back in their Oxford days, so I think that it’s probably both — certainly the latter is more likely to be what people think when they hear, “Methodist.”

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Saint of the Week: Thomas Cranmer

Cranmer was to be last week’s saint, since his memorial was on Wednesday, March 24. But I kept doing other things in the evening and reading systematic theology during my spare time at work.

Thomas Cranmer was born July 2, 1489, and was burned at the stake on March 21, 1556. He studied at Jesus College, Cambridge, receiving a Master of Arts in 1515 having received a classical education in his Bachelor’s degree but focussing on Continental humanists, including Erasmus, in his Master’s degree. He was also a lifelong collector of books by the mediaeval Scholastics. In 1526 he received his Doctorate of Divinity.

Throughout the 1520s, he was involved in the intellectual discussion and dispersion of Lutheran ideals and ideas amongst the scholars of Cambridge.  In 1526, he entered the King’s service on an embassy to Spain, and in 1527 put his able hand to the task of annulling Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

In 1531, while Cranmer was still working on the annulment with some other scholars who were instrumental in finalising the ideas involved in 1534’s Act of Supremacy, he met Simon Grynaeus, a Swiss humanist and Zwinglian.  Grynaeus and Cranmer were to become friends, thus strengthening Cranmer’s later relationship with the Swiss and Strasbourg reformers.

1532 marked Thomas Cranmer’s presence in the Holy Roman Empire as ambassador.  In Germany he saw firsthand the Protestant Reformation in action.  During his time in the German court of Charles V, Thomas Cranmer moved further into the Lutheran camp.  In October of this same year, Thomas Cranmer received a letter appointing him Archbishop of Canterbury, due no doubt to his work on the King’s annulment, given how few ecclesiastical positions he had yet held.

Nevertheless, despite opposition from various parties in England, Cranmer sought to spread Reformation ideals in the English church, especially after 1534.  In the following years of Henry’s reign, the work of Reform moved slowly in England, although Cranmer appointed reformers such as Hugh Latimer to important positions, and the King commissioned the Great Bible.

The spread of worship in English, however, was not moving apace until Edward VI’s reign when the people would receive the sacrament in an English service.  Nonetheless, at this time Cranmer produced an English translation of the Litany in 1544.  This Litany includes prayers for God to deliver His people from “the tyranny of the bisshop of Rome and all his detestable enormyties”.

In 1547, Henry VIII died and was succeeded by his nine-year-old son Edward VI.  Now worship in the vernacular was able to take off.  The first liturgical text produced by Thomas Cranmer was the Litany,  with the publishing of the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549.  This was followed by a second Prayer Book of 1552.

Thomas Cranmer also worked to produce a Book of Homilies (the present form also has homilies of John Jewel [15222-1571]) in accord with Reformation teaching for use in churches to instruct the people on various subjects such as reading the Bible, how to gain salvation, against whoredom, and the like.  This Book of Homilies was not approved by the Bishops until 1547.

The Reformation was able to spread during Edward’s reign through the media of the Book of Homilies, the Book of Common Prayer, and the English Bible.

And then in 1553, Edward VI, a sickly teenager, died.  His older sister Mary succeeded him.  Mary was a Roman Catholic.  Under her reign, the Reforms of Edward were suppressed and the Church of England returned to communion with the Church of Rome.  The tables were turned, as any reader of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs knows — no more Carthusian abbots were drawn and quartered in London’s streets.  Instead, the Protestants were to feel the flames of the stake.

Thomas Cranmer had, during Henry’s reign, come to the belief that the monarch was the rightful head of the church, and that it was contrary to his role as a bishop to counter the monarch’s headship — hence the lack of a BCP under Henry, who was not in the Reformation for religious but economic, political, and legal reasons.  Finding himself under a Catholic monarch, Thomas Cranmer was in a bit of a sticky position.

On March 20, 1556, Thomas Cranmer watched in Oxford as Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were burned at the stake for heresy.  He proceeded to sign fourteen copies of his recantation of the heresies of Martin Luther with some Spanish friars standing by.

On March 21, Cranmer was escorted to St. Mary’s Church where his public recantation was to take place.  And there, Thomas Cranmer, like Latimer and Ridley before him, played the man, declaring, “And as for the Pope, I refuse him as Christ’s enemy and anti-Christ, with all his false doctrine.  And as for the sacrament–”  Here Cranmer was interrupted and taken away to be burned.

As Cranmer burned, he thrust his right hand into the flames, holding there and saying, “This hand hath offended,” for that hand had signed his recantations.  And so Thomas Cranmer, crafter of the Book of Common Prayer passed from this life to the next.

His greatest contribution of all time was no doubt the BCP.  Tune in sometime after Easter for some thoughts on its awesomeness.

Saint of the Week: John Wesley (Pt. 1)

Today is the feast day of John and Charles Wesley  in the Anglican calendar.  John Wesley (1703-1791) is the more famous of the two famous Wesley children.  He is quite famous these days for being an “Arminian”, and thus figures in the endless theological debates you will find out in the internet.  Nevertheless, just as Calvin was more than predestination, so Wesley was more than freewill.  So if you are a Calvinist, read on.

John Wesley studied at the University of Oxford and was ordained to holy orders within the Church of England in the year 1728.  He spent a brief time helping out his father, also an Anglican priest, before returning to Oxford.  At Oxford, he discovered that his brother Charles had begun a “Holy Club.”  It is my understanding that this club consisted of young men who met together to read the Greek New Testament and to life lives of holiness.  Their standard of holy living was set so high and their lifestyle so reflected a holy method of living that they were called “Methodists.”*

John Wesley’s “method” of life ran thus:

  1. Begin and end every day with God; and sleep not immoderately.
  2. Be diligent in your calling.
  3. Employ all spare hours in religion as able.
  4. All hollidays [should be devoted to religion].
  5. Avoid drunkards and busybodies.
  6. Avoid curiosity, and all useless employments and knowledge.
  7. Examine yourself every night.
  8. Never on any account pass a day without setting aside at least an hour for devotion.
  9. Avoid all manner of passion.

At Oxford, the Wesleys also encountered the Church Fathers, classical literature, Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Holy Dying, and the recent bestseller A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life by William Law (see my post here).

In the Fathers, Kempis, Taylor, and Law, the Wesleys will have found a high call, a call to live holy lives centred upon Christ and his love for us, lives of faith that produces good works.  In his sermon on fasting, we see that John Wesley strove to steer a course between the extremes of those who believe that good works are nothing and those who believe they are everything.  He believed that they were the result of faith but that faith is what saves us.

After graduation, he went to Georgia where he met with little success.  In 1738, after his return to Britain, he started hanging out with the Moravians, and at a Moravian Love Feast on May 24, his “heart was strangely warmed.”

Wesley now knew that none of his holy living, no amount of partaking of communion, none of his prayers, none of his theology, no success as a missionary would or could save him.  All that could save John Wesley was Jesus Christ and his gift of grace freely given.**  He was truly converted to Christ.

And so, from 1739 to the end of his long life in 1791, John Wesley was committed to evangelism, to bringing this Good News of Jesus Christ to the people of England, and to waking up the Church of England.

More on John Wesley to come . . .

*I have also heard people say that Wesley was called a “Methodist” because of his method of organising the movement he started.  Somehow that is less convincing.

**To people who want to argue against Arminianism with some Augustinian arguments about grace being inescapable and therefore freewill illusory — not here.  Not now.  Embrace Wesley as a brother, see how much like you he is.