The Life and Hymns of Charles Wesley

A Program of Readings


Length: Together with the suggested hymns, the seven readings take perhaps 35-40 minutes.

Content: The readings span the whole life of Wesley, the first describing the childhood settings that shaped his mind and heart, the last recounting the special sorrows of his later life and explaining his final retrospective poem.

First reading

Born in 1707, Charles Wesley was the youngest of nineteen children, of whom only nine survived to adulthood. His father, Samuel, was a poor but well-educated country parson who spent much of his life writing poetry. He hoped through this to supplement the meager income of his family, but his efforts fell so far short of success that his creditors, who were also his parishioners, forced him to stay awhile in debtor's prison. Although he was a failure in the eyes of the world, Samuel was a devoted father and husband, as well as a committed Christian—in sharp contrast to the typical parson of his day, who squandered life on hunting and heavy drinking.

His wife, Susanna, was an efficient manager of a large household despite her poor health, which often kept her confined to couch or bed. Her children were subject to very strict discipline, enforced by the rod. No crying was allowed; nor was eating or drinking between meals. Bedtime was eight o'clock. Rising was early, followed by prayers. Other devotional periods punctuated a daily routine of work and schooling. At the age of five, each child was given exactly one day to learn the alphabet before admission to regular instruction, conducted by Susanna herself.

At about the age of eight, the boys were sent off to school. With aid from scholarships, all three—Samuel, the eldest, John, and Charles, the youngest— went to Westminster, a boy's school under the shadow of Westminster Abbey, and there both John and Charles earned recognition as top scholars.

Education in the eighteenth century focused on Latin and Greek. Twice daily the students at Westminster went to services at the Abbey, and the interim was spent by the older boys in translating their recollections of the sermon into Latin poetry. Younger boys, in deference to their lesser skill, were allowed to translate the sermon into Latin prose. It is this kind of education that produces a great poet. Wesley's poetical achievement is exemplified by such hymns as "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing."

Second reading

All three Wesley brothers went to Oxford as scholarship students and there continued to excel academically. But, to tell the truth, higher education in those days was at a very low ebb and most undergraduates spent their time in dissipation. The younger Wesleys—Charles and John, who was the elder by four years—were an exception. Indeed, they went to the opposite extreme and formed what their jeering contemporaries called the Holy Club, a small group comprising themselves and a few friends who were interested in the rigorous observance of pious duties. Eventually, under the influence of a book entitled, Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, written ironically by a man named Law, they bound themselves to a very strict timetable of religious and charitable exercises and took the name Methodists—a label that the Wesleys unfortunately retained throughout their lives.

For six years, while the Wesleys stayed on at Oxford and worked as tutors, the small band of Methodists slowly added new members. Among them was George Whitefield, later a great evangelist. But the fasting, the early rising, the exclusion of recreation, and the dutiful routine began to take their toll. At the age of thirty, Charles confessed that he looked with envy on a corpse. His soul was unsatisfied and full of questions, like the question that opens one of his greatest hymns, written not long after this time—the hymn, "And Can It Be," the question, "And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior's blood?"

Third reading

In 1737, at the age of thirty, Charles joined his brother in a voyage to the newly settled colony of Georgia. There, having received ordination in England, they were pressed into service as Anglican ministers, but soon each met bitter failure. In consequence of his hypocritical piety, John was sued for defamation of character, and he had to slip away from Georgia secretly, at night, literally as a wanted man. His brother Charles fared no better. When he tried to impose Methodist principles on parishioners who were mainly ex-convicts, he produced more than a little discontent. Bullets whizzed by his ear as he walked in the woods, and ladies of doubtful character persuaded the governor that Charles was disloyal. It was not long before he was sent home in disgrace.

God used failure to show the Wesleys that despite all their moral exertions, they were still sinful men outside God's favor. Back in England, Charles lay in bed for many months with serious illness and depression, the symptoms of spiritual turmoil. At this time his brother Providentially made the acquaintance of some Moravians, recently arrived from Germany. The Moravians were a German group of Evangelicals from whom the Brethren churches have descended. One of their group, Peter Bohler, became fast friends with John and Charles and expounded to them at length the doctrine of justification by faith.

At first he met resistance. In his diary, Charles says: "[Peter] asked me: Do you hope to be saved? Yes. For what reason do you hope it? Because I have used my best endeavors to serve God. He shook his head and said no more. I thought him very uncharitable, saying in my heart: Would he rob me of my endeavors? I have nothing else to trust in."

Now it so happened that strained relations between the ailing Charles and his hosts in London forced him to seek hospitality elsewhere. This was extended by one of Bohler's friends, a Mr. Bray, described by Charles as a "poor ignorant mechanic, who knows nothing but Christ." For ten days Charles lay in Bray's house, surrounded by Christians praying for his salvation. Then it happened. In Charles's words, "I saw that by faith I stood." It was only three days later when a troop of friends escorted John to the house with news that he too had accepted God's free offer of salvation. We do not have the hymn sung on this occasion, but we have another that Charles wrote later to celebrate his conversion: "Jesus, Lover of My Soul."

Fourth reading

Within a year of their conversions, the Wesley brothers were caught up in the evangelistic work of George Whitefield. Although he drew huge crowds wherever he went, he ran into increasing opposition from the established church. In the city of Bristol, in western England, he was forced to preach in the open fields and to organize converts into societies which did not have church sanction. Anxious to move on, he asked his old Oxford friend, John Wesley, to oversee and consolidate the Bristol societies. It was not only before John, as evangelist and organizer, had established new societies throughout England. The rest of his life was spent as an itinerant preacher, going from town to town on horseback, developing a network of churches that became the Methodist denomination.

During the 1740s, Charles also traveled through the country as a Methodist evangelist and organizer, and during this period wrote most of his hymns that we sing today. His lifetime output was prodigious, over 7000 hymns, in addition to some secular poetry.

The best hymns were probably written as he rode on horseback from one meeting to another, where they were used essentially as a form of preaching. It is perhaps disappointing that most did not emerge from special circumstances or moments of inspiration. But, after all, poetry like preaching is a craft that improves with constant practice. A good example of the results of Wesley's craft is the hymn, "Arise, My Soul, Arise." Written in 1742, it is typical of those taught to the new Christians gathered in Methodist societies. The emphasis, as in the revival hymns of our own day, is on the doctrines of salvation.

Fifth reading

In the year 1747, while Charles was staying with a wealthy family in Wales, he made the acquaintance of daughter Sally, a little bit of a girl only half his age, but with a powerful and lovely singing voice. The combination must have been exactly to Charles's liking, for when he resumed his travels, after only a week in her presence, he began sending her letters marked by a great deal of personal warmth. Within six months of meeting each other, the two were married.

Charles's diary describes the wedding. "I rose at 4; spent three hours and a half in prayer, or singing, with my brother, with Sally, with [her sister] Beck. At 8, I led my Sally to church. [Besides us there were only eight] persons present. Mr. Gwynne gave her to me, under God; my brother joined our hands. It was a most solemn season of love. . . . We walked back to the house; and joined again in prayer. Prayer and thanksgiving was our whole employment. We were cheerful without mirth, serious without sadness."

In Wesley's mind at this time there was some concern that human love might diminish or hinder his love of God, and it is this concern which probably gave rise to the hymn, "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling," written in 1747.

Sixth reading

Throughout his life Charles had a special ministry to prisoners and men condemned to die. Justice in his day was cruel. Children could be sent to the gallows for stealing a loaf of bread. Prisons were places of indescribable foulness. Yet Charles took the gospel to the most wretched men in the deepest holes and won many for Christ.

The following is his description of an execution. "At half-past nine their irons were knocked off, and their hands tied. I went in a coach to Tyburn, waited: then were brought the children appointed to die. I got upon the cart [under the gallows]. The Black [a black child to whom Wesley had ministered] had spied me coming out of the coach and saluted me with his looks. As often as his eyes met mine, he smiled with the most composed delightful countenance I ever saw. . . . None showed any natural terror of death; no fear, or crying or tears. All expressed their desire of our following them to Paradise. I never saw such calm triumph, such incredible indifference to dying. We sang several hymns. [I kissed them and] took leave of each in particular. Mr. Broughton bade them not be surprised when the cart should draw away. They cheerfully replied they should not: expressed some concern how we should get back to our coach. We left going to meet their Lord, ready for the bridegroom. When the cart drew off, not one stirred, or struggled for life, but meekly gave up their spirits. . . . I spoke a few suitable words to the crowd; and returned, full of peace and confidence in our friends' happiness. That hour under the gallows was the most blessed hour of my life."

Perhaps one of the hymns they sang was, "Depth of Mercy."

Seventh reading

After his marriage, Charles increasingly withdrew from the life of an itinerant preacher and gave attention to his family, where in 1752, he was stricken by two great tragedies. In the same outbreak of smallpox, his oldest son died and his wife was left with scars which all but erased the apparent difference in their ages. Despite these trials, Charles remained steady in the faith. He continued to be an active figure in the Methodist movement, although, as a loyal Anglican, he personally regretted the independent course that it was taking.

In his own lifetime he became a famous man, loved by many. Yet, on his deathbed, at the age of 81, he was able to write the following poem, an expression of deep humility:

When young and full of sanguine hope,

And warm in my first love,

My spirit's loins I girded up,

And sought the things above.

Swift on the wings of active zeal

With Jesus' message flew,

O'erjoyed with all my heart and will

My master's work to do.

But now, enervated by age,

I feel my fierceness gone.

And nature's powers no more engage

To prop the Savior's throne.

My total impotence I see:

For help on Jesus call:

And stretch my feeble hands to Thee

Who workest all in all.

Wesley's hymns are still sung by Christians everywhere because they succeed in capturing and expressing this youthful zeal. Yet, the greatest, like, "Ye Servants of God, Your Master Proclaim," also contain the insight of the aged poet, who understood that all strength comes from God.


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