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Charles Wesley’s Life, Ministry, Letters and Hymns

23rd May 2014

Charles Wesley was born in 1707 and died at 80 in 1788, being the 18th child of the 19 children of Susannah Wesley. Only 10 survived to adulthood - and no Government Child Allowance then! Susannah had a passion for learning and especially for languages, being fluent in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. When only 19 in 1688 she married Samuel Wesley, the Vicar of Epworth in Lincolnshire. She was brilliant and could debate issues of theology with theological students. Though such a busy wife and the mother of 13 growing children, she worked tirelessly for the poor and needy, and still set herself 2 hours daily for prayer and Bible study and in her 70s stood beside her son John as he preached to thousands. 

Charles' brother John Wesley, born in 1703 was 4½ years younger than Charles. I don't advocate large families to bring about revival, but without that large family and without the rescue from their father's burning Rectory set on fire by aggressive parishioners, there would have been no Spiritual Revival bringing thousands into the Kingdom. Methodism was a vibrant movement within the Anglican Church, before becoming a separate denomination, and according to expert historians, the Methodist revival saved England from the equivalent of a French Revolution.

At 8 years old, Charles went to the Westminster Abbey School later becoming School Captain, then to Oxford University in 1726. The following year he started the "Holy Club" for mutual study, the devotional disciplines of prayer and fasting, and for social caring, being dubbed as "Methodists", a nickname for their disciplined lives. John later became the leader and like John earlier, Charles was ordained as an Anglican clergyman to be a missionary in American Georgia, which proved a failure. John said "I came to convert the natives, but O who will convert me?" Charles returned to England with ill health and John followed later. That led in 1738 to Charles' true conversion and to John's three days later on May 24th 1738. It was still celebrated in British Methodism as "Wesley Day" as I grew up there.

Some hymns of Charles were short with only 4 verses but others had 20 or 30 verses, some being composed on horseback as he travelled to preach. I could easily spend much longer on hymns, but we must first consider his conversion, his marriage, his powerful and fruitful Gospel preaching, his tender pastoral caring called "counselling" nowadays, and his amazing hymns.

On returning from failed missionary service in Georgia, the brothers were influenced by the Moravian Christians who emphasised their radiant assurance through personal faith in Christ, and were so calm in their faith during severe storms at sea on the returning voyage, which really impressed the Wesleys. They were further challenged by Martin Luther's commentary on Galatians, which emphasised the personal pronouns as in Galatians 2:20 "Faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me". Charles' conversion was on Pentecost Sunday 1738, just before John's conversion on Wednesday,
and his poetic gift burst forth. Two days afterwards he wrote his hymn "Where shall my wondering soul begin?" (1933 Edition of MHB, No. 361) which Charles and his brother John, sang together.
That began his preaching of the Gospel in song! His later hymn "And can it be" (MHB 371 and TiS 209) clearly celebrates his conversion, stressing the personal pronouns "Died He for me who caused His pain - for me who Him to death pursued? Amazing love! How can it be that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?... my chains fell off, my heart was free". "Jesus and all in Him is mine" is possibly his boldest hymn line ever, in that final verse which ends, "Bold I approach the eternal throne, and claim the crown, through Christ my own". His familiar hymn "O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer's praise" (MHB 1 and TiS 210) was his constant attitude of gratitude in celebrating his Saviour, aspiring to a thousand tongues rather than just one! His partnership with John in passionate evangelism was amazing, preaching to thousands in the open air - with no p.a. system then. 

They both faced strong physical opposition from angry mobs and even hostile clergy. He had a tender, pastoral heart, not only leading people to Christ, but building them up in their faith, helping them through problems, troubles, backsliding and restoration. He ministered to people in many needs, even sharing the Gospel on their death-beds to be sure of heaven. He visited Newgate Prison to share the Gospel with prisoners, some being sentenced to death, and led many to Christ who then calmly moved to their execution.

His letters often included poetry and hymns suited to his readers, though he was not as systematic as his brother John. My most treasured books have been 14 volumes of "Wesley's Works" containing John Wesley's Short Grammars of English, French, Latin, Hebrew and Greek languages, masses of his sermons, letters and articles on many themes. Charles' letters are very revealing, though not all are preserved or fully understood, because he used a kind of shorthand, abbreviations, strange endings, only part-signatures or initials and often no date.

His romantic courtship and marriage to Sally Gwynne was in 1749 when he was 46 and she was 27, and his brother John married them. It was love at first sight! He wrote before marriage "You have heard me acknowledge that at first sight my soul seemed pleased to take acquaintance with thee, and never have I found such a nearness to any fellow-creature as to you. O may it bring us nearer and nearer to God, till we are both swallowed up in the immensity of His love!" He continued his love letters and often included poetry for special occasions.

As their marriage approached he wrote one evening, "It is late, but I know not how to leave off, my heart so overflows with love toward you. All my words and thoughts and life are, under God, devoted to your service. I pray Him to bless you above all that I can ask or think. To His everlasting arms I commit you this night". The very next day he wrote, "There is no end of my letter, or of my love which dictates it." He concluded it with a ten verse poem, starting, "Lord, we long to know Thy pleasure, Lift our eyes to the skies, Humbly wait Thy leisure". He wrote to a friend after marriage, "My Dear Friend, pray for me. I want your prayers rather than your congratulations. Yet I believe God has lent me a great blessing this day and that I ought to be thankful and employ every moment to His glory".
He quoted to a friend a Wedding Hymn that he wrote to sing at the altar. I also found a 1st Wedding Anniversary Hymn, verse 2 declaring "My grateful heart to Him I lift, who did the guardian angel send,
enriched me with a heavenly gift, and blessed me with a bosom friend". A beautiful Family Hymn for their 11th Anniversary included a verse for his wife, "Her, my dearest earthly friend, to Thy guardian love commend, day and night her Keeper be, knit her simple heart to Thee", and one for his family: "Make the little ones Thy care, bear them, in Thy bosom bear, marked with the Good Shepherd's sign, keep my lambs for ever Thine."

Charles had a wonderful marriage, losing some children with smallpox, but they had surviving sons and just one surviving daughter, Like his mother Susannah Wesley, he gave evening time when possible to share with each of his children, especially his daughter. His discipline was rather strong, but with a tender bond. At the end of his life after caring for him, they held hands as he died and went to heaven.

His poetic gifts were evident in his father Samuel and in his sons Charlie and Samuel. There were good poetic genes there, but they did not know that word then! In his 6,000 hymns note the varied metres and sometimes quaint rhyming of his day (like join and divine etc). He used some strange words of his time now changed in meaning, and unusual accents of words to fit the cadence of the lines.

Joy certainly breaks through in many hymns like "My God I am Thine; what a comfort divine, what a blessing to know that my Jesus is mine!... ‘Tis life everlasting, ‘tis heaven below", heaven being anticipated before heaven above (MHB 406). The tunes sometimes match the emotions as in that hymn, often being similar to the merry, secular music of the day, prompting a dance. Notice the line "My heart it doth dance at the sound of His Name!" Whilst I appreciate that in today's language "dost, wast, Thou, Thine" need revising, sadly many Biblical allusions may not be recognised, and we have a flow of modern hymns now called songs; some are good, but they do need careful selection for congregational singing. I must confess that I miss the nourishing, Scriptural teaching of Wesley's hymns. My search has just revealed that the old MHB has 263 hymns by Charles Wesley, but our current "Together in Song" only has 41.

Charles was certainly "a man of one book", a phrase by which his brother John was recognised. His hymns are steeped in Bible allusions, like the old King James translation being versified. Some hymns seem like a sermon outlined as MHB 77 and TiS 122 based on Ephesians 3:18-19 "What shall I do my God to love?" There is an introductory verse, then a breaking up of the text point by point in verse by verse, and a concluding verse of challenge and response. Grasp his amazing scope of his hymns in Scriptural, theological, experimental and personal themes, revealing his own personal faith as in MHB 270/TiS 214, "My heart is full of Christ and longs its glorious matter to declare". He constantly spreads the Gospel challenge to others as in MHB 92 and Tis 218, "Jesus, the Name high over all... O for a trumpet voice... O that the world might taste and see the riches of His grace", and in MHB 173 ending "That every fallen soul of man may taste the grace that found out me; that all mankind with me may prove Thy sovereign everlasting love".

There's no nominal Christianity there! His brother John warned people against nominal Christianity, saying "May the Lord God of my fathers save me from such a poor, starved religion as that!" Note also Charles' range of subjects, covering the general love of God and our Christian seasons: Advent - "Come Thou long expected Jesus"; Incarnation - "Hark! The herald angels sing"; Atoning Death of Jesus - "For ever here my rest shall be...This all my hope and all my plea, for me the Saviour died; Resurrection - "Christ the Lord is risen today, Hallelujah! Ascension - "Hail the day that sees Him rise";
Heavenly Priesthood - "Entered the holy place above"; and the Second Coming - "Lo He comes, with clouds descending". Also note his emphasis on the Holy Spirit as in MHB 78, "Away with our fears... The Spirit is come, the witness of Jesus returned to His home"; and the Trinity as in MHB 39, verse by verse, "Father, in whom we live... Incarnate Deity... Spirit of Holiness... Eternal, Triune Lord".

The full Christian Life is covered in so many aspects: faith and regeneration, the new birth, discipleship, growth, fellowship, holiness (rarely heard and preached today), comfort, encouragement, and even daily work seen as Christian service through God's call as in MHB 590 and TiS 571, "Forth in Thy Name, O Lord, I go, my daily labour to pursue, Thee, only Thee, resolved to know in all I think, or speak, or do". We see his emphasis on Holy Communion as in MHB 761 and TiS 508, "Jesus we thus obey Thy last and kindest word" and the Church in its various aspects, militant and triumphant. There are even hymns for backsliders (a word not heard today). In my 1779 Edition they are headed: "For Persons Convinced of Backsliding" and "For Backsliders Recovered". Finally death, judgement and eternal life are covered, with heaven assured to born again, believing Christians. 

Charles was a fine preacher and is said to have composed 6,000 hymns, but he was also constantly involved in all aspects of what was called "The Cure of Souls", an unusual term today, ranging from conversion and consecration through to heaven and eternity in God's forever family! Someone commented that so many of his hymns end up in heaven, like MHB 606 ending "Our all in all is He... and then in heaven our journey ends". I end with his comment that with all his travelling Gospel preaching, he sometimes longed for a quiet country parish to read, study and really care for his people, especially when his health at times was a concern and burden. Finally, unafraid and confident, he slipped away to heaven, His earthly journey and amazing ministry ended.

Rev Perry Smith continues to serve the wider church in the Hunter region of NSW.


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