Wesley, Charles

Author

b Epworth, Lincolnshire 1707, d London 1788. The youngest of 17 children born to Samuel and Susanna, he scarcely survived birth. Somehow he also survived a hugely talented but chronically poor and often dysfunctional family, taught and held together by his mother through multiple disasters. At Westminster Sch he was nurtured by his gifted elder brother Samuel; at Christ Ch Oxford, supported by John W and others in 1728–29, he founded the ‘Holy Club’ which earned the nickname of ‘Methodists’. A fellow-student John Gambold described him as ‘a man made for friendship’; he certainly befriended and encouraged the younger and poorer student George Whitefield. Under pressure from his brother John, Charles was ordained in 1735 (delighting later to call himself ‘Presbyter of the Church of England’) in order to travel with him on a neardisastrous visit to the young colony of Georgia, which however brought the brothers into contact with Moravian missionaries. While putting a positive public spin on his adventures, but partly driven by the Moravian sense of assurance, he experienced an evangelical conversion on 21 May 1738, shortly before John’s more celebrated ‘heart-warming’. Charles’s journal is shorter, rather more transparent and less contrived than his brother’s; he was never a self-propagandist. But in 1964 the historian F C Gill called him ‘the first Methodist’ (from his Oxford initiatives) and ‘the apostle of the north’ (from his labours around Newcastle).

Like John’s inward transformation, Charles’s suffered many setbacks, but his hymnwriting began immediately (see 751, note) and for the next decade he shared in countrywide itinerant evangelism, often opening the way for his brother and composing much verse while on horseback. ‘His sermons and his hymns informed each other’ – David Chapman. In 1749 he married Sarah (Sally) Gwynne, settled in Bristol and unlike John became less relentlessly mobile and more firmly Anglican. But at least until 1757 he still continued to travel, attract audiences in their tens of thousands and oversee the growing army of lay preachers and (like Whitefield) labour for harmony between the movement’s leaders. In that year, however, his journal-keeping ended, and his lifestyle was redirected by concern for his wife (who had contracted smallpox), by his own health problems, and by the widening gap between John and himself. The differences arose from John’s elusive ‘perfectionism’ (from 1760), his increasing willingness to distance himself from the CofE, and his autocratic leadership-style.

By common consent, CW is the greatest of all English hymnwriters and certainly the most prolific, completing more than 6000 over 50 years; the exact number depends on whether some poems or single-stanza texts are included. Some self-contained 4-line items are very powerful, and we may regret their neglect today; many are found in his 2000 [sic] Short Hymns on Select Passages of the Holy Scriptures (1760), where even among such jewels the original of our no.862 shines with special brilliance. (The numerous OT ‘enemies’ are often transformed here into inbred or indwelling personal sins; sometimes the distinctive doctrines of freewill or perfectionism show up, and CW uses some bold language about circumcision: ‘cut off the foreskin of my heart’, etc.) Among many other collections, the later 1760s produced many hymns rooted in practical needs, from childbirth and school to family problems and retirement. In 1768 he moved from Bristol to Marylebone in London, mainly for the sake of his family; here he became the main preacher at the City Road Chapel; the classic Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People called Methodists was compiled by John for publication in 1780; at least 480 of its 525 hymns were by Charles—even though his elder brother thought that he spent too much time writing them. He also played the flute and organ, but the family’s musical talents were to bear greater fruit in his children and (notably) his grandson; see under S S Wesley in the Composers’ index.

J R Watson calls Charles ‘The William Shakespeare of hymnody’; many have dubbed him the poet of the heart—like ‘love’, a frequent climactic word in his verse. The concluding lines of his hymns are just one of many features which mark out his instinctive sureness of touch from the work of lesser contemporaries. While John’s heart (see below) was famously ‘strangely warmed’ in 1738, Charles’s was characteristically ‘set free’. He used an immense variety of metres, many of them original; some of his verse is anti-Calvinist polemic (the innocent-sounding word ‘all’ often flags up his Arminianism, and a general or universal atonement) and he was a master of comic and satirical rhymes. Like Bunyan in the previous century with ‘Giant Pope’ and ‘Giant Pagan’, Wesley consistently shows almost equal scorn for Romanism and Islam—‘superstition’s papal chain…that papal beast’, ‘Mahomet’s imposture…that Arab-thief’. His communion hymns, totalling 166 and leaning on the high-church theology of Daniel Brevint, are rarely found in the same hymnals as his more famous writing on gospel assurance. He loved and used his BCP (drawing richly on its Litany, for example, in Full of trembling expectation) and was clearly a reader of Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the whole Bible (1700) which he frequently versified. His masterly use and application of Scripture, if highly typological, is unparalleled in English hymnwriting. Perhaps his greatest work is the much-anthologised ‘Wrestling Jacob’ (Come, O thou traveller unknown) but the difficulty of finding a tune able to sustain the developing moods of its long narrative and reflection have kept this out of many hymnals including Praise! Far less known is the equally Christ-centred hymn on ‘Dreaming Jacob’, What doth the ladder mean? More often than not, Wesley is the best-represented author in UK hymn-books, as he is also in The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse (1981) with 11 entries from a total of 269 texts, 5 of which are hymns in general use. Of 980 hymns in the 1904 Methodist Hymn Book, 440 are by CW; its 1933 equivalent gives him 243 out of 984. In c1941, Edward Shillito quoted an anonymous Headmaster who said, ‘I hope you will let me advise all would-be hymn-writers to hold their pens until they have carefully studied Charles Wesley’. Like his brother, C Wesley has generated a large volume of other writing; among minor classics are The Evangelical Doctrines of Charles Wesley’s Hymns (J Ernest Rattenbury, 1941), The Hymns of Wesley and Watts (Bernard L Manning, 1942), recent biographies by Arnold Dallimore and Gary Best (respectively A Heart Set Free, 1988, and Charles Wesley: a biography, 2006), and The Handmaid of Piety by Edward Houghton (1992). It is Best’s book which serves as a corrective to much Wesleyan folklore, and most effectively brings Charles out from John’s shadow by giving credit where it is due. See also Carlton R Young’s 1995 anthology Music of the Heart: John and Charles Wesley on Music and Musicians. Meanwhile facsimile edns have been published of his hymns on the Nativity (1st edn 1745), the Lord’s Supper (with John W, also 1745), the Resurrection (1746), Ascension and Whitsuntide (1746) and the Trinity (1767). And while brother John’s career has been the basis of stage plays and musicals, inevitably involving Charles’s story, it is the younger and greater hymnwriter who uniquely prompted David Wright in 2006 to compose The Hymnical, a 2-part musical drama exploring CW’s life, hymns and contemporary relevance. Nos. 142*, 150, 160, 216, 227, 282, 324, 342, 344, 357, 359, 364, 438, 452, 458, 482, 495, 502, 511*, 523, 527, 529, 542, 555, 571, 583, 593, 595, 606, 625, 649, 682, 714, 718, 734, 742, 751, 776, 800, 808, 809, 812, 813, 822, 827, 828, 830, 837, 851, 862, 878*, 889, 940, 966.

Hymns and songs by Wesley, Charles

Number Hymn Name
142 I seek the Lord in grief, in pain
150 Praise the Lord who reigns above
160 Infinite God, to you we raise
216 Christ, whose glory fills the skies
227 Come, let us with our Lord arise
282 All glory to God in the sky
324 O for a thousand tongues to sing
342 You servants of God
344 Come, O long-expected Jesus
357 Glory be to God on high
359 Hark! The herald angels sing
364 Let earth and heaven combine
438 O love divine! What have you done?
452 Yes, finished! The Messiah dies
458 Christ, the Lord, is risen today
482 God is gone up on high
495 Rejoice, the Lord is King
502 Arise, my soul, arise
511 Lo! He comes with clouds descending
523 Spirit of faith, come down
527 Spirit of God, our hearts inspire
529 Away with our fears
542 See how great a flame aspires
555 Lord God, who breathed your word of old
571 Head of your church triumphant
583 Come, let us join our friends above
593 Christ, from whom all blessings flow
595 Give me the faith which can remove
606 Jesus, O sovereign Lord of all
625 Jesus, the name high over all
649 Come, O everlasting Spirit
682 Jesus, Lover of my soul
714 Love divine, all loves excelling
718 O hidden source of calm repose
734 My heart is full of Christ, and longs
742 You I will love, my strength, my tower
751 Where shall my wondering soul begin
776 And can it be that I should gain
800 My Father divine
808 Jesus, my strength, my hope
809 Jesus, your all-victorious love
812 O for a heart to praise my God
813 O sweetest love, O love divine
822 Depth of mercy! Can there be
827 O come, our all-victorious Lord
828 O Jesus, full of truth and grace
830 Son of God, if your free grace
837 Father, Holy Spirit, Son
851 You that do your master’s will
862 O Lord, who came from realms above
878 Still near me, O my Saviour, stand
889 Soldiers of Christ, arise
940 Forth in your name, O Lord, I go
966 Away with our sorrow and fear