OFTEN overshadowed by his famous older brother, Charles Wesley has emerged as perhaps “the greatest hymn writer of all ages”.
Who is this Englishman who, according to Frank Baker, averaged writing 10 poetic lines a day for 50 years? Who wrote 8,989 hymns, 10 times the volume composed by the only other candidate (Isaac Watts) who could conceivably claim to be the world’s greatest hymn writer?
Who is this poetic genius who produced “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “And Can It Be,” “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” “Soldiers of Christ, Arise,” and “Rejoice! the Lord Is King!”?
It is “forgotten” Charles Wesley.
Charles Wesley has sometimes been considered the first Methodist. He founded the Holy Club at Oxford, whose members were first derisively called “Methodists”. In addition, he was converted three days before his older brother John, who came to lead the movement. It has been said that “the early Methodists were taught and led as much through [Charles’s] hymns as through sermons and [John] Wesley’s pamphlets”.
Greatest contribution to 18th-century Christian song made by Charles and John Wesley
Premature and precocious
Charles Wesley was the 18th of Samuel and Susanna Wesley’s 19 children (only 10 lived to maturity). He was born prematurely, and appeared dead, in December 1707. He lay silent, wrapped in wool, for weeks. When older, Charles joined his siblings as each day his mother Susanna, who knew Greek, Latin, and French, methodically taught them for six hours.
Samuel Wesley, Charles’s father and Epworth minister, demonstrated some ability at poetry, for Alexander Pope commended his Dissertation on the Book of Job (though Charles was far less lavish in his praise). A gift for verse seemed to run in the family. In History of the English Hymn, Benjamin Brawley noted that at least five of the Wesley children “had talent for the making of verse”.
Charles spent 13 years at Westminster School, where the only language allowed in public was Latin. He added nine years at Oxford, where he received his M.A. While at Oxford, he broke school rules to invite a poorer Oxford man to breakfast with him. That guest, George Whitefield, called Charles “my never-to-be-forgotten friend”. Charles played a Barnabas role in the life of Whitefield, who initiated the practice of preaching in the open air to thousands of non-churchgoers.
To counteract the spiritual tepidity of those times, Charles formed the Holy Club. He penned: “I went to the weekly sacrament and persuaded two or three young students to accompany me to observe the method of study prescribed by the university, that gained me the harmless name of Methodist.” Because of the group’s rigid religious regimen, which later included early rising, Bible study, and prison ministry, members were called Methodists or Precisianists. (It is a quirk of history that today we do not have the First Precisianist Church instead of the Methodist one.)
Fire engulfed the childhood home of Charles Wesley in Epworth, England. Charles, who was only 17 months old, was rescued from the fire by a maid. His father, Samuel, was a scholarly, impoverished Anglican minister, who also wrote poetry. His mother, Susanna, taught her numerous children to love God and to endure hardship.
From June 24 through July 8, 1738, Charles reported preaching twice to crowds of 10,000 at Moorfields. He preached to 20,000 at Kennington Common, and gave a “sermon on justification before the University” of Oxford.
Throughout his adult life, Charles continued to write verse, predominantly hymns for use in Methodist meetings. He produced 56 volumes of hymns in 53 years, producing in his lyrics what brother John called a “distinct and full account of scriptural Christianity”.
The Methodists became known for their exuberant singing of Charles’ hymns. A contemporary observer recorded, “The song of the Methodists is the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. Their fine psalms have exceedingly beautiful melodies composed by great masters. They sing in a proper way, with devotion, serene mind and charm … ”
From his own day on, Charles earned admiration for his ability to capture universal Christian experience in memorable verse. The compiler of the massive Dictionary of Hymnology, Dr John Julian, concluded that “perhaps, taking quantity and quality into consideration, [Charles Wesley was] the greatest hymn-writer of all ages”.
Pressed for money – even imprisoned for debt – Charles’ father yet determined to have for his sons the best education money could buy. Charles entered Westminster, a prestigious school. Its boys sang in Westminster Abbey, as they do today. Charles went on to become captain of the school. Here he gained a thorough grounding not only in Greek and Latin literature, but also in the structure of language itself.
Charles had written hymns – indeed, verse of almost every kind – before his conversion in 1738. But the “new song” began from the conversion experience of 250 years ago. John and Charles had returned from their brief and disastrous mission to Georgia. They had been brought into close touch with a new vitality of personal religion through meeting Moravian Christians. As the ship bringing them home neared the English coast, John found himself saying, “I went to Georgia to convert the Indians – Oh, who will convert me?”
Steeped in Scripture
Frank Baker likens his verse to “an enormous sponge, filled to saturation with Bible words, Bible similes, Bible metaphors, Bible stories, Bible themes”.
The Index of Scriptural Allusions in the latest critical edition of John Wesley’s 1780 Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (over 90 per cent the work of Charles) contains 2,500 entries, including every book of the Bible, except Nahum and Philemon.
Sister Benedicta of the Fairacres Community, Oxford, concludes that the Wesleys’ hymns “are not emotional and sentimental instances of enthusiasm connected with a moment of personal experience: they are the controlled and redirected use of emotion combined with a very strong doctrinal understanding, which is instinctively within the main lines of Christian tradition. The Wesleys were concerned with the exact and literal meaning of the words of scripture … ”
Scripture remains – and ever will remain – the foundation on which our faith is built. Hymns that are biblical are therefore on the way to being timeless. They are not like those that marry the spirit of the age, to become a widow within a generation.
The greatest contribution to 18th-century Christian song was made by the Wesley brothers. John was the methodical leader, administrator, and editor of the Wesleyan movement; Charles, the gifted poet. Charles wrote the hymns, and John compiled the collections, frequently editing and altering his brother’s hymns. – Compiled from Methodist websites.
SCRIPTURE THE FOUNDATION
‘Scripture remains – and ever will remain – the foundation on which our faith is built. Hymns that are biblical are therefore on the way to being timeless. They are not like those that marry the spirit of the age, to become a widow within a generation.’