Concise Lexicon of Christianity

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Teachings, worship, rites, sermons, and terminology

John and Charles Wesley

John Wesley and his brother Charles were the founders of modern Methodism, which started in England and spread like wildfire through Colonial America.



John and Charles Wesley were preacher’s kids, Their father, Samuel Wesley, was a parish priest in the Church of England. Their mother, Susanna Annesley Wesley, had converted from Puritanism to the Church of England because of the convictions she formed from her own personal research and study. Because there were no public schools at the time, Susanna home-schooled all of her children. She was very well educated in theology. She continued to influence John and Charles in their adulthood through her long letters, which contained religious exhortations and sophisticated theological treatises. Imagine getting a letter from your mother expounding on the Apostles Creed in detail!

John and Charles became priests in the Church of England like their father, and they remained priests to their deaths. They were buried in the Church of England with priestly honors. John and Charles Wesley are listed on the saints calendar of the Episcopal Church of the USA. If you open your 1979 Book of Common Prayer to page 21, you’ll see that 3 March is the day that the Episcopal Church has set aside to commemorate them. They have no equivalent honor among Methodists! John and Charles applied to be consecrated as bishops, they wanted America west of the Mississippi as their diocese, and they wanted their Methodist elders to be ordained as priests in the Church of England. Church officials refused, because they underestimated Wesley’s converts, and so the Methodist movement became a separate church out of logistical necessity. There are talks in England right now that might mend this gap between Methodists and Anglicans.

Their original ministry was to the working class, the down-and-out, and the poor; people they felt that the church had overlooked. They extended this ministry to the American colonies, which was a very rowdy place with very low church attendance.

Normally, a priest works under a bishop and is only allowed to serve within that bishop’s territory. However, John Wesley preached anywhere he liked, without getting permission first. When he got in trouble for it, he pointed out that he was a graduate of Lincoln College. Under a dusty old church rule that was set up during the time of the Lollards, graduates of Lincoln College had the right to preach anywhere they liked. So Wesley was never punished for conducting his evangelistic crusades without getting permission from the local bishops.

John Wesley said that the Book of Common Prayer was his favorite book, after the Bible. One of the driving principles behind the Book of Common Prayer was to consolidate the cumbersome liturgical books that had previously been in use into one simple, easy-to-use volume—but if you have read the preface to the 1548 edition, you already know that. As liturgical books go, the Book of Common Prayer is still a model of simplicity, beauty, and ease of use. John Wesley even adapted it for use by American Methodists, but his version was never used because he made it so complicated it was unusable. So if anything, Wesley would have made worship more complex, not simpler. One of John Wesley’s aims was to bring the full benefit and beauty of the church’s liturgy to common people.

John Wesley required early Methodists to take Communion every Sunday. However, as the movement grew, there was a clergy shortage that persisted for several of generations. To cope with that situation, Methodist clergy rode circuits. If, for example, four congregations shared a pastor, the pastor would only be present one Sunday out of the month, and that was when they could have Communion. By the time there were enough clergy to go around, lay Methodists thought that monthly Communion was some sort of sacred tradition. This is a real problem for Methodist clergy today who are trying to restore weekly Communion.