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 Issues | Church History | Charles Wesley

 

Great Churchmen (No 8)

Charles Wesley

by Frank Colquhoun

The Poet of the Evangelical Revival

Published by Church Book Room Press

Introduction

In his celebrated Preface to A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists of 1780, John Wesley wrote: “Here are, allow me to say, both the purity, the strength, and the elegance of the English language; and, at the same time, the utmost simplicity and plainness, suited to every capacity. Lastly, I desire men of taste to judge (these are the only competent judges) whether there be not in some of the following hymns the true spirit of poetry, such as cannot be acquired by art and labour, but must be the gift of nature. . . .

“That which is of infinitely more moment than the spirit of poetry is the spirit of piety. And I trust all persons of real judgement will find this breathing through the whole Collection. . . .When Poetry thus keeps its place, as the handmaid of Piety, it shall attain, not a poor perishable wreath, but a crown that fadeth not away.”

Those words may well serve as an introduction to this sketch of Charles Wesley and his hymns. Wesley’s hymns are one of the monuments of the English language, a unique treasury of devotional writing, a spiritual heritage worthy to take its place among the classics of Christian literature. Bernard Manning asserted of the Collection as a whole, that it ranks “with the Psalms, the Book of Common Prayer, the Canon of the Mass. In its own way, it is perfect, unapproachable, elemental in its perfection. You cannot alter it except to mar it; it is a work of supreme devotional art by a religious genius.”(1)

Few will question Wesley’s right to be regarded as “the Prince of English hymn-writers.” Indeed, he has been described as “perhaps the greatest hymn-writer of any age.”(2) From the point of view of their number alone the hymns represent an astonishing achievement. During his lifetime Wesley actually published 4,480 hymns, and left in manuscript not less than 2,840 others. Hence it may be claimed that he was the author of well over 7,000 hymns in all. If it be objected that a large proportion of them are very short, consisting of but four lines each, it is equally true that others are of unusual length, extending to twenty or thirty verses. Some of the hymns which are best known to us today are but a number of verses selected from much longer poems. This is true, for instance, of those two magnificent hymns, “Soldiers of Christ, arise,” and “O for a thousand tongues to sing.”

Naturally not all the hymns are of equal merit, and not all are even worthy of preservation. That is inevitable in the case of a man who wrote so easily and so profusely. Yet the really remarkable thing is not that some of the hymns fall below the highest standards, but that the general level is so uniformly good. As Dr. Luke Wiseman has said, “it is questionable if any hymn writer or poet maintains a higher average of excellence.”(3)

In assessing the value of the hymns two factors should be borne in mind. The first is that a number of them were written for some particular and passing occasion and were not intended for permanent use. Charles Wesley celebrated almost every event with a hymn. It was the medium in which he most readily expressed himself. He turned to verse as naturally as others turn to prose, so that his hymns served him in the office of a journal intime.(4) In the second place, the hymns as a whole were not designed for the public worship of the Church. “The brothers did not contemplate the use of their hymn-books in Church services; they were designed for the preaching-house, the open-air service, and the class-meeting.”(5)

In the time of the Wesleys hymn-singing was unknown in the Church of England. Hence while we make use of Wesley’s hymns in our Church worship to-day, it is well to remember that they were not written with this specific end in view. A large proportion of them are actually of too personal and intimate a character for indiscriminate use in public worship; but such hymns are of inestimable value for private devotional reading. For instance, a hymn like “Wrestling Jacob”—considered by many to be Wesley’s finest work—is hardly suitable for general congregational singing on account of its highly subjective character. Yet to read it upon one’s knees in the quiet hour is an enriching experience and to share the secret of Wesley’s triumphant faith:

                 ’Tis Love! ’tis Love! Thou diedst for me!
                      I hear Thy whisper in my heart;
                 The morning breaks, the shadows flee,
                      Pure universal Love Thou art;
                 To me, to all, Thy mercies move:
                 Thy nature and Thy name is Love.

 

CHARLES WESLEY’S CONVERSION

CHARLES WESLEY was born at Epworth Rectory on December 18, 1707— or possibly 1708. There appears to be some slight confusion as to the exact year, but as Mrs. Wesley had nineteen children (of whom Charles was the eighteenth) this uncertainty is perhaps excusable! At any rate we may take note of the fact that Charles was the junior of his brother John by some four or five years.

We shall not linger over the details of his early life in that remarkable rectory home, but it is worth noting here that his father, Samuel Wesley, was not only a godly and learned priest but also a poet of no mean ability. This poetical gift was inherited by several members of the family; in the case of Charles it blossomed out into genius of the highest order. The mother, Susannah Wesley, was an astonishing woman who, in addition to her domestic duties, supervised the education of her thirteen surviving children, devoting particular attention to the cultivation of their religious lives and exercising over the whole household a firm and unyielding discipline.

At the age of eight Charles left home for Westminster School, where his elder brother Samuel was Usher. He distinguished himself by becoming Captain of the School before, in 1726, proceeding to Oxford as a Student of Christ Church, with a scholarship of £100 a year. At the beginning of his undergraduate days he lived a gay and worldly life, intent largely on having a good time—an attitude by no means uncommon among university students, nor restricted to Wesley’s day. But before long, as the result of some “serious thinking” and due, as he confessed, to “somebody’s prayers” (he suspected his mother’s) he began to change his ways and to lead a strict and methodical religious life. He persuaded two or three other students to join him in his weekly observance of the Sacrament, his fasting, his study of the Greek Testament and his works of charity—including visiting the prisoners in the local gaol—with the result that the so-called “Holy Club” came into existence and its members were dubbed Methodists. It should not be overlooked that Charles Wesley was the originator of this historic movement. It was not until 1729 that John Wesley took over the leadership on his return to Oxford from Epworth, where he had been acting as curate to his father. In spite of the severe discipline imposed, the company grew in numbers, being joined in 1732 by George Whitefield, then a freshman from Gloucester.

After graduating in 1729 Charles Wesley stayed on at Oxford as a college tutor. Then in 1738, at the age of twenty-eight, he decided to take holy orders and to accompany his brother John on his expedition to the newly founded colony of Georgia. He was ordained both deacon and priest within a week and set sail as secretary to General Oglethorpe, the founder and first governor of the colony. His stay in America was not a happy one or long-lived. Its only importance from our present point of view is that it brought both the brothers into touch with the German Moravian Christians, who exhibited in their lives a spiritual radiance and an assurance of faith which the Wesleys conspicuously and consciously lacked. This had an unsettling effect on both men. Charles laboured at Frederica earnestly enough, but he met with little success. He soon wearied of the fruitless toil and after a few months he was back in this country again—a disillusioned and disappointed man, thoroughly dissatisfied with himself and full of religious unrest. Then, as was the case with John Wesley—who followed his brother home shortly afterwards—the light of God suddenly broke upon him and he entered into a personal, living experience of the saving grace of Christ.

This transforming event took place on Whit-Sunday, 1738, just three days before John Wesley’s conversion. At the time Charles was again in touch with the Moravians, this time in London, and through their influence he had begun to study Luther’s commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians. He was particularly impressed with the text, “The Son of God . . . loved me, and gave Himself for me,” (Galatians 2 v20) and with Luther’s emphasis upon the personal pronouns. Following his counsel, Wesley dwelt long “on this little word me.” He began to be deeply impressed with the necessity of a personal faith in Christ; and this impression never left him for the remainder of his life.

On the Whit-Sunday the crisis of faith was reached. Wesley entered into a hitherto unknown experience of new birth and received a veritable baptism of the Spirit of Christ. Though far from well at the time and confined to his bed, he received strength to lay hold of the precious promises of the Word of God. Encouraged by the testimony of his Moravian friends he simply rested his whole trust on his Saviour and—as he himself put it—he “rejoiced in hope of loving Christ.”

This was Charles Wesley’s evangelical conversion, and he celebrated it two days later by writing his fist evangelical hymn—“Where shall my wondering soul begin?” The day following—viz. the Wednesday in that Whitsun week, May 24, 1738—his brother John arrived at the house late in the evening in company with some friends and declared how he, too, had received the assurance of personal salvation while sitting in the Aldersgate-street meeting. “I testified openly to all there,” he wrote in his Journal, “what I now first felt in my heart.” Great was the rejoicing in the little company that night. Charles produced his hymn and proposed that they should sing it together. This they proceeded to do. Perhaps we can picture the scene and imagine something of the joy of these two men into whose hearts God had put a new song.

                   Where shall my wondering soul begin?
                        How shall I all to heaven aspire?
                   A slave redeemed from death and sin,
                        A brand plucked from eternal fire,
                  How shall I equal triumphs raise,
                  Or sing my great Deliverer’s praise?

                  O how shall I the goodness tell,
                       Father, which Thou to me hast showed?
                  That I, a child of wrath and hell,
                       I should be called a child of God,
                  Should know, should feel, my sins forgiven,
                  Blest with this antepast of heaven!

The latter part of the hymn is notable for its prophetic character. After magnifying the grace of God to his own soul, Wesley flung out an invitation to all and sundry to partake of the same grace and share the same experience:

                 Outcasts of men, to you I call,
                      Harlots, and publicans, and thieves!
                 He spreads His arms to embrace you all;
                      Sinners alone His grace receives;
                 No need of Him the righteous have,
                 He came the lost to seek and save.

                 Come, all ye Magdalens in lust,
                      Ye ruffians fell in murders old;
                 Repent, and live: despair, and trust:
                     Jesus for you to death was sold:
                Though hell protest, and earth repine,
                He died for crimes like yours—and mine.

When Wesley thus called upon harlots and thieves, Magdalens and murderers, to obey the Saviour’s call, he was not only declaring his own invincible faith in the transforming power of the Gospel; he was also, all unknowingly, writing history in advance. In the mighty revival which followed, people of the very kind described in these verses fell under the spell of the evangelical message and were gloriously converted.

With his conversion began Charles Wesley’s great outburst of spiritual song. Dr. Rattenbury has commented: “Perhaps the strangest thing about the poetry of Charles is that his genius as a hymn-writer only burst forth two days after his conversion. . . . His conversion seems to have given him a direct inspiration, and he created, no doubt unconsciously, an instrument of the Revival of incalculable value.”(6) This is a fact well worth pondering. At the time Wesley was over thirty years of age and it might have been expected that his poetic genius would have found expression at a much earlier age. Yet in actual fact it was this deeply personal experience of divine grace and salvation that tuned his heart to sing the Redeemer’s praise.

Dr. A. E. Gregory remarks that if Wesley had never passed through this experience he would have been one of our greatest ecclesiastical hymn-writers, worthy to rank with Keble and Heber; but there would have been no distinctive Methodist hymnody, and the Evangelical Revival would have been immeasurably the poorer.(7) Indeed, the whole Church of God from that day to this would have been the poorer and Christian worship would have been deprived of one of its wealthiest sources of inspiration. But with the joy of the Lord in his heart Wesley now began to sing; in fact, he could not help singing; and to the end of his days he continued to sing with a gladness and sweetness unsurpassed by any other singer of the Gospel.

 

Endnotes:

(1) Bernard L. Manning, The Hymns of Wesley and Watts, p. 14.
(2) Handbook to the Church Hymnary, ed. James Moffatt, p. 534.
(3) F. Luke Wiseman, Charles Wesley, Evangelist and Poet, p. 199.
(4) Ibid., p. 199.
(5) A. E. Gregory, The Hymn Book of the Modern Church, p. 173.
(6) J. E. Rattenbury, Wesley’s Legacy to the World, p. 261.
(7) Op.cit., p. 158.

 

 

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