One way to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Charles Wesley’s birth is to tell the story of his life and work. Gary Best’s biography of the ‘man made for friendship’ highlights Charles’ unique contribution to the emergence of Methodism in the 18th century, and thus helps to bring Charles out from behind the shadow of his brother John. Although the wait for a modern biography of the younger Wesley brother has been far too long, the attention to detail and sensitivity to historical context that Best brings to his subject matter has been worth the wait. This biography has the potential to become the standard bearer of its kind for the foreseeable future.
Best begins by chronicling the key ecclesial and political events in the century prior to Charles’ birth, locating Charles’ forebears within this complex situation. The tension between loyalty and dissent already present in the Wesley family becomes a dominant theme in Charles’ story. This opening chapter would have benefited from greater sensitivity to the subtleties of the English reformation and the Puritan movement, but Best’s overview of the situation into which Charles was born is adequate for his purposes.
The remaining eleven chapters can be roughly divided into three parts: the early years from 1725 to 1741 (chapters 2-5), the turbulent 1740’s (chapters 6-8), and the remaining years from 1750 to Charles’ death in the late 1780’s (chapters 9-12). Adhering to the common pattern of biography in general and Methodist history in particular, Best gives disproportionate attention to Charles’ early years. Of particular interest is Best’s retelling of famous episodes in Wesley history (the Oxford Holy Club, the missionary fiasco in Georgia, the heart-warming conversion experience) from Charles’ perspective. Without denying John’s dominance, Best foregrounds Charles’ oft forgotten initiative and precedence in these and other incidences. Best displays Charles’ impact as a preacher and organizer in addition to his well-known hymn-writing abilities.
Charles’ conciliatory role during the conflicts with the Moravian and Calvinist branches of Methodism during the 1740’s shows that the epigram ‘the man made for friendship’ is more than mere sentimentality. Throughout the rest of Best’s biography, Charles finds himself standing between his brother John and other parties within and without the Methodist movement. In the 1750’s, clear division arises between the brothers concerning their loyalty to the Church of England. Best shows that Charles was more consistently opposed to dissent than John, in some cases almost single-handedly preventing premature separation. When dealing with this recurrent theme, the author at times advocates for Charles’ view, attitude, and approach. Whether or not such advocacy is appropriate for a critical biography, it is important that readers be made aware of Best’s partiality on this matter.
Although focused on the problem of loyalty versus dissent, the remaining chapters are not limited to this issue alone. Best deftly narrates the controversy surrounding the doctrine and experience of Christian perfection, the introduction of John Fletcher into Methodist leadership, the role of the Wesleys during the American War of Independence, and the growth of Charles’ family. Although these later chapters each cover about a decade of Charles’ life, Best’s attention to detail remains so that the reader continues to be exposed to lengthy citations from primary source material.
Best’s biography of Charles Wesley is a delightful exercise in social history. The figure of Charles emerges as an indispensable agent within Methodism and an affable friend and family man. He is carefully placed within the sociopolitical intrigue of his times. The reader comes away with a sense of his character and a grasp of his story. The ample use of primary source quotations brings historical voices alive. There is very little critical engagement with contemporary secondary sources, which is dissatisfying to the scholar but at least makes the book more accessible.
Best’s strengths as a social historian are unfortunately not accompanied by a strong theological interest. The development of Charles’ thought, alongside his life and work, is not analyzed in great detail. This is definitely not an intellectual biography of Charles Wesley. Best does not critically engage Charles’s complex relationship to various influences such as his Puritan roots, Oxford teachers, Moravian pietism, and Lockean empiricism. We learn precious little of how these ideas shaped Charles or how Charles in turn shaped these ideas. Of particular interest is the difference between John and Charles with regard to the doctrine of Christian perfection, which is identified but not explored. So, although Best’s biography of Charles Wesley has been worth the wait, we shall have to keep waiting for the definitive intellectual biography of Charles Wesley.
Within the bounds of his stated aim, Best has provided a solid biography of Charles Wesley that deserves to become the standard introduction to Charles’ life. The book would be appropriate for undergraduate and graduate courses in Methodist history, 18th century studies, and church history. Church groups or book clubs interested in Methodist roots would also find it accessible and enjoyable. Anyone who has been touched by Charles Wesley’s influence can aptly celebrate his contribution by reading this book.
What impression would you have of Best's book if you'd only read this review?
What did you think of Best's book (if you've read it)?
What do you look for in a biography of a religious figure?