English hymn writer, poet, and preacher
The Reverend Charles Wesley, M A., 'sweet singer of
Methodism' and arguably the greatest hymn writer ever, died on March 29th 1788.
As a hymn writer he needs no introduction. His hymns show little sign of losing
their appeal after more than 200 years. However, little else is commonly known
about the life of one who was seemingly lost in his brother's shadow. When
studies and biographies of John Wesley are never in short supply, the new
biography of Charles Wesley by Arnold Dallimore 'A Heart Set free' is welcome
indeed! Although the Methodist Church has every reason to remember Charles
Wesley on what is also the 250th anniversary of the brother's conversion (May,
1738), evangelical people of all denominations have cause to thank God for hymns
which are in a sense the property of us all.
"If ever there was a human being who disliked
power, avoided prominence, and shrank from praise, it was Charles Wesley."
So wrote someone who knew him well. Even if he tended to be hidden by his
brother's exploits, Charles Wesley's life was far from a shadowy existence. He
was born on December 18th 1707, the third surviving son and eighteenth child of
Samuel and Susanna Wesley. He was not fifteen months old when the old Rectory at
Epworth was totally destroyed by fire. Charles, like John, had to be rescued
from the inferno. He was hastily carried by a maid and placed safely in his
Samuel Wesley's ambition was to make scholars and
clergymen of his three sons - the daughters, alas, had lesser prospects and
little happiness. John was educated at Charterhouse, but Charles like his older
brother Samuel - was sent to Westminster school. As well as proving an excellent
scholar, Charles showed his mettle by defending others from the school bullies.
In June 1726, he entered Christ Church, Oxford. By then, John had been ordained
and elected a Fellow of Lincoln College. When he tried to restrain the rather
careless and fun loving ways of his young brother, Charles resisted with
"Would you have me to become a saint all at once?" If Charles was no
less a scholar than John, he was less calm and collected than his brother, and
subject to emotional ups and downs. When he graduated in 1730, father Samuel
wrote from Epworth, "You are now fairly launched. Hold up your head and
swim like a man." After John returned for a while to Epworth to assist his
father, Charles became deeply exercised about spiritual things. He gathered
together some others who shared his new religious seriousness. Thus began the
'Holy Club' in 1729, its members soon to receive the nickname 'Methodists'.
While John later became leader of the little group, it was started by Charles.
Thus he was properly the 'first Methodist'. In 1732, George Whitefield of
Pembroke College joined the group, and a close bond of friendship developed
between himself and Charles Wesley who was now a College tutor .
There is no doubt that the Holy Spirit was at work in
the lives of these young men. Even before they were delivered from the legalism
of their sincere but lifeless religion - Whitefield was the first to find
assurance of salvation in May 1735 - there were signs of life. On his death-bed
in April 1735, old Samuel said to John, "The inward witness, son, the
inward witness, this is the proof, the strongest proof of Christianity."
Laying his hand on Charles' head, Samuel said "Be steady. The Christian
faith will surely revive in this kingdom. You shall see it; though I shall
Georgia and failure
Charles accompanied John on the mission to the new
colony of Georgia in 1735. He actually served as the secretary of the Governor,
General James Oglethorpe. The entire episode was to prove a failure. The two
brothers, having led hitherto a relatively sheltered and privileged life, were
no match for the conditions and characters they were to meet. Life was hard in
every sense. Misrepresentations and accusations of scandal at the hands of
unprincipled people quite broke Charles' spirit. "Life is bitterness to
me," he wrote at this time. Feeling somewhat shattered Charles left
Georgia, landing in England on December 3rd, 1736. John was to remain in Georgia
for another year.
Having recovered a measure of strength and self
respect, Charles was soon meeting important people. Having been deeply impressed
by the godly Moravians in America, he was similarly affected on meeting their
leader Count Zinzendorf in London. He was selected to appear before King George
II on behalf of the University of Oxford at Hampton Court on August 26th 1737.
But despite the dignified circles he was now moving in - he was something of a
celebrity having returned from Georgia - Charles was full of unrest and
uncertainty. In his distress, he sought help from the mystic William Law, but to
no avail. An old friend from the Holy Club, Benjamin Ingham wrote to John,
"Charles is so reserved, he neither writes to me nor comes too see me..."
Charles was cheered by his brother's return from
Georgia in February, 1738. He still hoped to return to Georgia as a missionary,
but all expectations ended with a severe attack of pleurisy. Resuming academic
life at Oxford seemed the only way ahead, but God had other plans for the Wesley
brothers. They traveled to Oxford in April with the young Moravian Peter Bohler.
From him they first learned the nature of true evangelical Christianity.
Bohler's portrait of the brothers in a letter to Count Zinzendorf is very
revealing: "The elder, John, is a good-natured man; he knew he did not
properly believe in our Saviour, and was willing to be taught. His brother is at
present very much distressed in his mind, but does not know how he shall begin
to be acquainted with the Saviour."
The Day of deliverance
In the month of May 1738, the Wesley's were in London.
Charles was recovering from a recurrence of illness in the home of some Moravians
in Little Britain, not far from St, Paul's Cathedral. Through the humble concern
and sincere Christian testimonies of his hosts and others, Charles was deeply
affected. God was truly dealing with him. Opening his Bible at Isaiah 40:1, the
light of salvation shone upon him! His Journal entry for May 21st reads:
"I now found myself at peace with God, and
rejoiced in hope of loving Christ..... I saw that by faith I stood, by the
continual support of faith.......I went to bed still sensible of my own
weakness....yet confident of Christ's protection."
On the following day, Charles strength began to return.
He also commenced what proved to be the first of some 6,000 hymns! The day after
- May 24th - John himself found assurance of salvation during a meeting in
nearby Aldersgate Street. Let Charles tell us what happened that evening:
"Towards ten, my brother was brought in triumph by
a troop of our friends, and declared, "I believe." We sang the hymn
with great joy, and parted with prayer.........."
The joyful account is not complete without the hymn:
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?
Exactly a year later, Charles wrote the more famous
hymn, "0 for a thousand tongues to sing", which he recommended for
singing "on the anniversary of one's conversion."
The Great Awakening
None can doubt the impact of Charles Wesley's
conversion experience in May 1738. As D. M. Jones wrote, "After this
experience Charles Wesley was for a time at least lifted quite above all timid intropection and anxious care about his own spiritual state. It seemed as if
this release was all that was needed to make him a channel for immense spiritual
Charles Wesley's new spiritual life was seen in his
deep compassion for lost men and women. His preaching was quite transformed. He
preached extempore for the first time at St, Antholin's Church in Bristol in
October 1738. Unusual blessing was accompanying his powerful ministry.
By this time, George Whitefield's ministry was having
an astonishing impact and he was severely criticized in London and Bristol.
Charles Wesley stood at Whitefield's side when he preached to an enormous crowd
at Blackheath, and asked, "What has Satan gained by turning him out of the
churches?" In May, Charles Wesley joined his brother in following
Whitefield's example when he preached to large crowds in the Essex villages.
It has been said with some truth that if George
Whitefield was Methodism's orator, and John Wesley its organizer, then Charles
Wesley was its poet. However, this interesting view of the famous trio fails to
acknowledge the impact of the Wesley's preaching. But if John Wesley was a
greatly used preacher and evangelist, Charles himself was a preacher second only
to Whitefield himself! "His preaching at his best was thunder and
lightning," says one of the early Methodists. Joseph Williams of
Kidderminster once heard Charles Wesley preaching at Bristol to a crowd of 1,000
"He preached about an hour.....in such a manner as I have seldom,
if ever heard any minister preach; that is, though I have heard many a finer
sermon according to the common taste, yet I have scarcely ever heard any
minister discover such evident signs of a vehement desire or labour so earnestly
to convince his hearers."
There was, of course, that other dimension; the
singing. A selection of Charles Wesley's hymns was first published in 1739, and
these became instantly popular, judging by Joseph William's account:
"Never did I hear such praying or such singing.
Their singing was not only the most harmonious and delightful I ever heard, but
they sang 'lustily and with a good courage'.........If there be such a thing as
heavenly music upon earth I heard it there."
Subsequent hymn hooks for "The People called
Methodists" (1779, 1877 (with Supplement), 1904, 1933 and 1983) and
selections of Wesley's hymns in numerous other hymn books enable us to be
familiar with the hymn-writer's unique gift. His fame and usefulness are
guaranteed. However, we should not allow ourselves to forget his courageous
evangelistic labors in which, for twenty years, he lifted up his voice for
At Kingswood near Bristol, where Whitefield had seen
the tears of the colliers making white channels down their coal-blackened faces.
Charles Wesley witnessed the power of the Holy Spirit. In May, 1741 he recorded:
"At Kingswood, as soon as I named my text, "'It is finished', the love
of Christ crucified so constrained me that I burst into tears and felt strong
sympathy with Him in His sufferings. In like manner the whole congregation
looked on Him Whom they had pierced and mourned."
The previous year his
public appeals and preaching subdued a riot amongst the colliers occasioned by
the high price of corn. This kind of incident - one of many in those turbulent
days - illustrates the fact that the evangelical revival had a profound effect
on stemming a revolutionary tide in the country. Conditions were improved by
changing the hearts of the people; the wealthy became more caring and the lower
classes more respectful and civilized.
However, gospel victories were hard won. During a visit
to Cardiff in 1740, certain of Charles Wesley's hearers - doctors, magistrates
and others - were annoyed at his directness in preaching. Some of them told them
that in the church he recognized no superior but God, and should not ask anyone
permission to expose his sins. During the night a mob consisting of theatrical
people surrounded the house, incensed that Methodist preaching was proving too
much of a counter-attraction! However, although a man approached Wesley with a
sword, God was so wonderfully present - "Great was our rejoicing
within" - that he was able to pass through the crowd to safety to catch the
boat for Bristol. As far a field as Sheffield and Devises, such deliverances were
experienced. Sometimes there were minor injuries, a small price to pay when
souls were being saved in great numbers. These heroic times are often reflected
in Charles Wesley's hymns. When tougher men might shake for fear, Wesley and his
fellow- laborers had the strong sense of being upheld by an invisible Hand!
During the early 1750s, Methodism was becoming a
nationwide phenomenon. The intense persecution was beginning to subside. In days
when many people traveled on horseback, you could tell a Methodist was coming
by his singing. "We overtook a lad whistling one of our tunes," wrote
Charles Wesley. It became increasingly clear that his labors were often taxing
his strength. In addition, his highly emotional preaching was often followed by
severe depression as well as nervous exhaustion. Charles sometimes lamented that
God seemed to work through him but not in him. He evidently could not sustain
the kind of ministry exercised by his brother and George Whitefield
indefinitely. Many who knew Charles Wesley well realized that he needed a wife
and a home. His temperament needed less arduous patterns of service. It was
during a visit to Wales when Wesley met Sarah Gwynne. Her father was Marmaduke
Gwynne, the Squire of Garth near Builth Wells in modern Powys. If brother John
made an unsuccessful marriage, the union between Charles and Sarah must rate as
one of the happiest Christian marriages of all time. They were married on April
8th 1749, with brother John officiating. The happy couple settled for a while in
Bristol. Until family duties prevailed, Sarah accompanied Charles on his last
preaching excursions. His itinerant ministry effectively drew to a close with
his last visit to the north of England in the autumn of 1756. His journal ceases
with an entry for November 5th of that year.
London and the latter years
The Wesleys moved to Chesterfield Street, Marylebone in
London in 1771. Here Charles had effective oversight of the London Methodists.
His ministry therefore continued but on a more local scale. His growing family
also took up considerable time. His two sons Charles and Samuel were musical
prodigies, inviting the attention of such eminent musicians as William Boyce.
The boys were allowed to hold concerts to which many famous people were invited.
Young Samuel was such a gifted composer that he was compared with Mozart!
Charles Wesley was a hymn writer to the end. When
traveling he would take out a piece of carol and write down a line or two. When
he lay dying in March, 1788 - quite worn out with toil in his Master's service,
he dictated these lines to his beloved Sarah:
In age and feebleness extreme,
Who shall a helpless worm redeem?
Jesus. my only hope Thou art,
Strength of my failing flesh and heart,
0, could I catch a smile from Thee
And drop into eternity!
(Reproduced by kind permission of Rev., Dr. Alan C.
Clifford. - Minister of Great Ellingham Baptist Church, Norfolk.)
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