Radicals in Times of Revolution

CHARLES AND JOHN WESLEY in some ways presaged the later romantic movement, with its emphases on the lower classes, upheaval, and above all, imagination and strong feelings.

Lower classes: Contemporary with the Wesleys was Jean Jacques Rousseau and his romanticized “noble savage.” (John Wesley found himself disabused of this notion in America; he reported, “All except perhaps the Choctaws are gluttons, thieves, dissemblers, liars.”) Yet the clientele of the Wesleys were usually commoners. Charles Wesley penned: “Outcasts of men, to you I call, / Harlots and publicans and thieves.”

Upheaval: The spirit of the French revolutions of 1789 and 1830 is captured in Delacroix’s painting Liberty Guiding the People (a bare-breasted French woman with Phrygian cap and musket, leading the onslaught). England was spared such revolutionary political upheaval; many church historians have argued that it was because of the spiritual revolution, linked to the Wesleys, that swept the country. Drunkards, wife beaters, and rabble-rousers found their lives revolutionized by the Wesleys’ message.

Emotion: Eighteenth-century poetry had been “held in the Arctic grip of [Alexander Pope’s] heroic couplet,” according to Ernest Rattenbury. Yet the second stanza of Charles’s conversion hymn captures the distinctive Wesleyan trademark of feeling: “O how shall I the goodness tell, / Father, which Thou to me hast showed, / That I, a child of wrath and hell, / I should be called a child of God! /Should know, should feel my sins forgiven / Blest with this antepast of heaven!” Similarly, in one stanza omitted from “And Can It Be,” a couplet asserts: “I feel the life His wounds impart; I feel the Saviour in my heart.”


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).
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