The Forgotten Wesley
IMAGINE THE CAMERAS ARE ROLLING for a new motion picture.
Scene 1–1736. A young man is taking an early morning bath in a Georgia swamp, when an alligator swims toward him.
Scene 2–1709. Flashback. A toddler is being rescued from an English house engulfed in flames.
Scene 3–1738. A man in his early thirties is speaking to an august audience at the University of Oxford.
Scene 4–1744. Angry townspeople are hurling stones at the man, now nearing middle age.
Shall we cast Richard Chamberlain or Michael York to play this fascinating character who will speak on more than one occasion to crowds exceeding ten thousand people?
Who is this Englishman who, according to Frank Baker, averaged writing ten poetic lines a day for fifty years? Who wrote 8,989 hymns, ten times the volume composed by the only other candidate (Isaac Watts) who could conceivably claim to be the world’s greatest hymnwriter?
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! he Lord Is King!”?
It is “forgotten” Charles Wesley.
Premature and Precocious
Charles Wesley was the eighteenth of Samuel and Susannah Wesley’s nineteen children (only ten 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 Susannah, 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 thirteen 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. It was said that he could reel off the Latin poet Virgil by the half hour.
While at Oxford, Charles 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.)
Conversion of a Missionary
Unconverted missionaries to America—that’s what John and Charles Wesley were! In 1735, John had met General James Oglethorpe, who founded the colony of Georgia, and John agreed to sail to the rough outpost as chaplain. Charles, also ordained in the Church of England, was pressed into service as secretary to Governor Oglethorpe.
Shot at, slandered, sick, shunned even by Oglethorpe, Charles had his own portable hell (“I carry my hell about me”). He could have echoed brother John’s sentiments, as they dejectedly returned to England the following year: “I went to America to convert the Indians, but, oh, who will convert me?”
After returning to England, Charles taught English to the Moravian Peter Böhler, who in turn (like Apollos in Acts) taught Charles the way of God more perfectly. Much talk was in the air about the “new birth” and instantaneous conversion. Böhler asked Charles why he hoped to be saved. Charles answered, “Because I have used my best endeavors to serve God.” When Böhler shook his head, Charles thought him most uncharitable.
During May of 1738 Charles was sick and rooming at the house of John Bray, a poor brazier. On May 17 Charles began reading Martin Luther’s volume on Galatians. He diaried: “I laboured, waited, and prayed to feel ‘who loved me, and gave himself for me’ [Galatians 2:20].” On Whitsunday, May 21, he heard Mr. Bray’s sister say, “In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, arise, and believe, and thou shalt be healed of all thy infirmities.” He shortly found himself convinced, and journaled: “I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoice in hope of loving Christ.”
Two days later he began a hymn celebrating his conversion. On May 24, John arrived late in the evening and announced, “I believe,” after his heartwarming conversion experience in Aldersgate Street. Appropriately, the group of friends in Charles’s room “sang the [conversion] hymn” together.
A “Vile” Evangelist
May 21 to 24, 1738, was surely a hinge of human history. The next few years in Charles’s Journal read like the most astounding evangelistic fiction. Over fifty evangelistic conversions appear during the summer months of 1738.
At George Whitefield’s instigation, John and Charles eventually submitted to “be more vile” and do the unthinkable: preach outside of church buildings. In his Journal entries covering 1739 to 1743, Charles computes numbers of those to whom he has preached. Of (only!) those crowds for whom he states a figure, the total during these five years comes to 149,400!
From June 24 through July 8, 1738, Charles reported preaching twice to crowds of ten thousand at Moorfields, “that Coney Island of the eighteenth century” (as Luccock, Hutchinson, and Goodlove call it in The Story of Methodism). He preached to twenty thousand at Kennington Common, plus gave a “sermon on justification before the University” of Oxford. If anyone conceives of Charles Wesley as a recluse in some retired garden (as Isaac Watts was), writing hymns as a devotional dilettante, let him or her read Volume I of The Journal of Charles Wesley. He was an evangelist and pastor extraordinaire.
Marriage, Meddling, Mellowing
On a trip to Wales in 1747, the adventurous evangelist, now 40 years old, met 20-year-old Sally Gwynne. Their correspondence ripened into love, and the following year Charles wrote this verse:
Two are better far than one
For counsel or for fight
How can one be warm alone
Or serve his God aright ?
Charles and John had made an agreement that neither would marry without consulting the other brother. John agreed to Sally, and he officiated at Charles and Sally’s wedding in August 1749. After two weeks of preaching near their home, Charles left for another round of itinerant evangelism. By all accounts, their marriage remained happy.
Meanwhile John became interested in Grace Murray, who had nursed him to health following a long illness. When Charles learned that John and Grace had decided to marry, he was aghast. He (incorrectly) believed she had been promised to a friend and fellow minister, and he immediately rode to Grace and forced her to break the engagement. John was crushed. The next time he decided to marry, he did not tell his brother.
Charles continued to travel and preach, sometimes creating tension with John, who complained that “I do not even know when and where you intend to go.” His last nationwide trip was in 1756. After that, his health (and possibly, disapproval of some other Methodist preachers) led him to gradually withdraw from itinerant ministry.
He spent the remainder of his life in Bristol and London, preaching at Methodist chapels.
Throughout his adult life, Charles continued to write verse, predominantly hymns for use in Methodist meetings. He produced fifty-six volumes of hymns in fifty-three years, producing in his lyrics what brother John called a “distinct and full account of scriptural Christianity.”
The Methodists became known (and were sometimes mocked) for their exuberant singing of Charles’s hymns. A contemporary observer recorded, “The song of the Methodists is the most beautiful I 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. It added not a little to the harmonious charm of the song that some lines were sung by only the women, and afterwards the whole congregation joined in the chorus.”
From his own day on, Charles Wesley earned admiration for his ability to capture universal Christian experience in memorable verse. Isaac Watts said of Charles’s poem “Wrestling Jacob” that it was worth all that he had ever written. In the following century, Henry Ward Beecher declared: “I would rather have written that hymn of Wesley’s, ‘Jesus, Lover of My Soul,’ than to have the fame of all the kings that ever sat on the earth.” Finally, 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 hymnwriter of all ages.”
Perhaps Charles Wesley would have shunned such admiration. Today in Bristol, England, you can view the bronze statue of Charles Wesley with arms outstretched. Emblazoned at the base are words from one of his hymns, epitomizing the magnificent obsession of Charles Wesley’s life: “O let me commend my Savior to you.”
By James Townsend
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #31 in 1991]Dr. James Townsend is Bible editor at David C. Cook Publishing Co. and author of eight volumes in The Bible Mastery Series (Cook).
Radicals in Times of Revolution
Radical evangelists in a radical age.James Townsend
Why Wesley Still Dominates Our Hymnbook
Two centuries later, what’s the secret of Charles Wesley’s undiminished popularity?Timothy Dudley-Smith
Where Did We Get The Doxology?
The story behind what may be the world’s best-known hymn.James D. Smith III
The Golden Age of Hymns: A Gallery of the Hymn Writers’ Hall of Fame
The poets who put words in our mouths.Vinita Hampton Wright