Why Wesley Still Dominates Our Hymnbook

Charles Wesley has been called “the most gifted and indefatigable hymnwriter that England has ever known.” He wrote more hymns, probably, than anyone before or since (save perhaps the blind Fanny Crosby).

Frank Baker has calculated that Charles wrote, on the average, ten lines of verse a day for over fifty years. He must have written nearly ten thousand hymns or religious poems. The Collected Poems of John and Charles Wesley—by far the greater part by Charles—fill thirteen volumes, and much is only now being published.

In the English-speaking world, we probably sing hymns by Charles Wesley more often than we sing the work of any other hymn writer. But more than quantity is usefulness. In so many ways his hymns are indispensable to our worship. Where would we be at Christmas without “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”? At Easter without “Love’s Redeeming Work Is Done” or “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today”? At Pentecost without “Come, Holy Ghost, Thine Influence Shed”?

Or think of his great hymns of universal praise and of Christian discipleship: “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”; “Come, Thou Almighty King”; “Jesus, Lover of My Soul”; “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”

These hymns are two hundred years old. Why are they still sung today?

I hope to suggest ten attributes possessed by Charles Wesley that go some way to explaining why he is a writer not just for his day, but also for ours.

Natural Gift for Verse

Charles’s natural gift ran in the family, as it sometimes does. His father, Samuel, wrote hymns. All three sons wrote hymns for worship and, according to hymnologist John Julian, one of the daughters, Mehetabel, wrote the best poetry of the family (with the possible exception of Charles). John Wesley was an incomparable translator of hymns—from German, French and Spanish—and wrote originals as well.

Charles was not, however, a musician’s musician. Erik Routley said he was probably no more a musician than his brother John. Yet Charles’s musical sons acknowledged that he had a musician’s as well as a poet’s ear.

Once Charles’s open-air preaching service (perhaps in Plymouth, England, in June 1746) was rudely disturbed by some half—drunken sailors (some accounts say soldiers) striking up a lewd song called “Nancy Dawson.” Charles, even while conducting his own meeting, memorized both meter and words, and wrote seven 8-line verses, probably ovenight, to the same tune. The next time the drunks struck up “Nancy Dawson,” the Methodists could drown their lyrics with Charles’s words:

Listed into the cause of sin, 
Why should a good be evil? 
Music, alas! too long has been 
Pressed to obey the devil: 
Drunken, or lewd, or light the lay 
Flowed to the soul’s undoing, 
Widened, and strewed with flowers the way 
Down to eternal ruin.

Classical Training

Pressed for money—even imprisoned for debt—Charles’s father yet determined to have for his sons the best education money could buy. Charles entered Westminster, a prestigious school. Its boys sang in Westminster Abbey, as they do today. Charles went on to become captain of the school.

Here he gained a thorough grounding not only in Greek and Latin literature, but also in the structure of language itself. One example of his classical training comes in the hymn “Soldiers of Christ, Arise.” The hymn has these lines: “And take, to arm you for the fight / The panoply of God.” The word panoply is not in our English versions. From where did Charles derive it?

He took it from Ephesians 6 in the Greek New Testament: panoplivan, “the whole armour.” Either Charles had his Greek New Testament open before him, or more probably, the whole passage was stored in his remarkable biblical memory—in Greek.

Literary Bent

The reason there are so many hymns of Charles Wesley is that verse was his ordinary form of self-expression. He wrote verses on every occasion: seven Odes on the Victory at Culloden, October 1746; two whole collections on the earthquake of 1750. He wrote for the King’s birthday, on worldly bishops, nursery rhymes for his children, on Handel’s birthday, to the voters of Middlesex, on witches, for the Prime Minister, on space travel—that is, “On Mr. Lunardi’s ascent in a ball-an air for 3 voices.”

Verse came as naturally to him as breathing. Robert Bridges would have done well to remember this before appending his insulting footnote to his Practical Discourse on Some Principles of Hymn Singing: “[T]he two Wesleys between them wrote thirteen octavo volumes, of some 400 pages each, full of closely printed hymns. One must wish that Charles Wesley at least (who showed in a few instances how well he could do) had, instead of reeling off all this stuff, concentrated his efforts to produce only what should be worthy of his talents and useful to posterity.”

Henry Bett, Frank Baker, and J. E. Rattenbury have shown how, sometimes in his most familiar lines, Wesley is drawing on a mind stocked with Milton (“With thee conversing, I forget” or the phrase “adamant and gold”); Pope (“Thine eye diffused a quickening ray”; Pope has “reconciling ray”); Prior (“While the nearer waters roll”); Dryden (“Love divine, all loves excelling” from the “Fairest Isle, all Isles excelling”); and Herbert (“Our God contracted to a span”). Bett would add Shakespeare, some ancient fathers of the church, and other poets, too. If the reading of poetry is one road to acquiring skill in the art, we can be grateful for Charles’s literary bent.

Experience of Forgiveness

Charles had written hymns—indeed, verse of almost every kind—before his conversion in 1738. In Georgia in 1736, General Oglethorpe’s wife referred to Charles Wesley’s “many sweet hymns.” But the “new song” began from the conversion experience of 250 years ago.

John and Charles had returned from their brief and disastrous mission to Georgia. They had been brought into close touch with a new vitality of personal religion through meeting with Moravian Christians. (John had translated some of their hymns. ) As the ship bringing them home neared the English coast, John found himself saying, “I went to Georgia to convert the Indians—Oh, who will convert me?”

Everyone knows the entry in John’s journal describing his Aldersgate experience—how he felt his heart “strangely warmed.” What is less well-known is that Charles had undergone a similar experience just three days before.

He was unwell, staying in London, “in the home of a ‘poor ignorant mechanic’ called Bray. Unwell, and much in prayer, he heard a voice saying ‘In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, arise, and believe, and thou shalt be healed of all thy infirmities.’ It was in fact the voice of Mr. Bray’s sister, who had felt herself commanded in a dream to say these words. Charles got out of bed and, opening his Bible, read from the Psalms: ‘He hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God,’ followed by the first verse of Isaiah 40, ‘ “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people,” saith your God.’ He wrote in his journal, ‘I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in the hope of loving Christ.’ ”

Two days later he began a hymn upon his conversion, but broke off for fear of pride. He was encouraged to continue, finished the hymn, and sang it next day in company with his brother who had been brought from Aldersgate Street “by a troop of our friends” declaring “I believe.” The hymn, almost certainly, was “Where Shall My Wondering Soul Begin?”:

Where shall my wondering soul begin? 
How shall I all to heaven aspire? 
A slave redeemed from death and sin, 
A brand plucked from eternal fire, 
How shall I equal triumphs raise, 
And sing my great Deliverer’s praise!

And note especially stanza five of this text:

Outcasts of men, to you I call, 
Harlots, and publicans, and thieves! 
He spreads His arms t’embrace you all; 
Sinners alone His grace receives: 
No need of Him the righteous have, 
He came the lost to seek and save.

J. E. Rattenbury, the Methodist scholar, describes vividly the scene of its first singing, in his critical study, The Conversion of the Wesleys:

“No more strangely prophetic verses were ever written. How should this little sick man imagine, as he seems to have done, the men and women to whom he and his brother will in the future appeal? What likelihood that the voices of these High Anglicans should ever reach such people? No one yet had even imagined field preaching. That sick room must have been crowded with ghosts of the future as Charles Wesley penned the prelude to the great revival. Nothing in Methodist history is more appealing than the vision of those two little men, with streaming but joyous faces, singing in a sick room their evangelical duet. . . . ”

There is the essential secret, as I see it, of Charles’s timeless quality. He sings of that most fundamental Christian experience, forgiveness of sins.

Mind Steeped in Scripture

That was the highest praise John Wesley could give to his brother’s hymns: they were scriptural. Frank Baker likens his verse to “an enormous sponge, filled to saturation with Bible words, Bible similes, Bible metaphors, Bible stories, Bible themes.” The Index of Scriptural Allusions in the latest critical edition of John Wesley’s 1780 Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (over 90 percent the work of Charles) contains 2,500 entries, including every book of the Bible, save Nahum and Philemon.

Sister Benedicta of the Fairacres Community, Oxford, concludes that the Wesleys’ hymns “are not emotional and sentimental instances of enthusiasm connected with a moment of personal experience: they are the controlled and redirected use of emotion combined with a very strong doctrinal understanding, which is instinctively within the main lines of Christian tradition. The Wesleys were concerned with the exact and literal meaning of the words of scripture. . . . ”

Scripture remains—and ever will remain—the foundation on which our faith is built. Hymns that are biblical are therefore on the way to being timeless. They are not like those that marry the spirit of the age, to become a widow within a generation.

Pastoral Heart

Charles had his full measure of empathy. We find him ministering in the condemned cells of Newgate, one of London’s barbaric prisons, within weeks of his conversion. Here is an abbreviated version of Charles’s journal from 1738:

“Wed., July 12th. I preached at Newgate to the condemned felons, and visited one of them in his cell, sick of a fever, a poor black that had robbed his master. I told him of one who came down from heaven to save lost sinners, and him in particular; described the sufferings of the Son of God, his sorrows, agony, and death. He listened with all the signs of eager astonishment . . . while he cried, ‘What! was it for me? Did God suffer all this for so poor a creature as me?’ I left him waiting for the salvation of God.”

All that week his ministry continued: that man became, surely, the first black Methodist convert. On Tuesday night Charles, with his friend Bray, was locked in one of the cells with the men to die next day.

Charles went with them in the cart to Tyburn. Ropes would be fixed around their necks, and the cart driven off, to leave them swinging as the noose tightened. Charles wrote: “They were all cheerful; full of comfort, peace, and triumph; assuredly persuaded Christ had died for them, and waited to receive them into paradise. . . . The Black . . . saluted me with his looks. As often as his eyes met mine, he smiled with the most composed, delightful countenance I ever saw.

“We left them 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. Exactly at twelve they were turned off. 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.”

It was surely the kind of experience that would leave its mark on any young minister with a pastoral heart.

For twenty years or so Charles took his share of field preaching and the care of the Methodist fellowship. Charles wrote and sang his hymns among the congregations. He understood the folk for whom his hymns were written.

Creative Originality

Henry Bett’s verdict is: “Fifty years before the Lyrical Revival, a new quality of simplicity and sincerity of lyrical passion and imaginative daring is found in these hymns.” That Lyrical Revival is generally dated from the publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798 (though poets like Gray, Burns, Blake, Thompson, and Cowper had heralded it for some time past). But the Wesleys, fifty years before, were recovering a simplicity of style, an imaginative verve, a sense of wonder and passion that was totally new.

To drive home his point, Bett takes Charles Wesley’s hymn “I Cannot See Thy Face, and Live” and rewrites it in the accepted style of the period—as Pope might have written it. Here is Wesley:

I cannot see Thy face, and live, 
Then let me see Thy face, and die! 
Now, Lord, my gasping spirit receive, 
Give me on eagles’ wings to fly, 
With eagles’ eyes on Thee to gaze, 
And plunge into the glorious blaze!

Here is Bett’s parody of what this would sound like in the style of Pope:

Th’Eternal none may see and still survive, 
Howe’er devotion search and wisdom strive; 
Then let the vision blest my spirit slay, 
And bear to better, brighter world away! 
Thus, borne on mighty pinions through the skies, 
Those azure fields to see with dazzled eyes, 
The soul, once past the realms of upper air, 
Immerse within the bright effulgence there.

Standard of Craftsmanship

But for any work of art to succeed, there must be not only inspiration but perspiration, not only vision but skill, not only creativity but craftsmanship. Craftsmanship may seem a strange word for a writer both spontaneous and prolific. How can we claim a standard of craftsmanship for nine or ten thousand hymns and poems, many written within the day, if not within the hour, perhaps on horseback or for a forthcoming meeting?

Certain scholars would take this point of view. There is some truth in it.

On the other hand, consider Wesley’s use of rhyme. W. F. Lofthouse, in the official History of Methodism, says, “He was as free as any of his contemporaries with his rhymes: but if in all his thousands of lines there is a single one, however short, which does not rhyme with its fellow, it has escaped me.” That is not the mark of slapdash work.

Or take meter. Isaac Watts rarely ventures outside iambics in all his thousand poems—and those largely in three basic meters: common, long, and short. Charles used forty-five different iambic meters, but he also used a number of others, many of them experimentally. Frank Baker, in his Representative Verse of Charles Wesley, lists about 100 different meters—iambic, trochaic, dactylic, anapests, and couplets; and variations of almost all these. This extensive variation of patterns is not the work of a man jotting down ephemeral verse to order.

Or consider Bernard Manning’s useful phrase “smoothness,” which he applied to Charles Wesley’s hymns. They flow; they are singable; they have that quality of effortlessness that speaks of care and craftsmanship not far below the surface. John Wesley in his famous preface was generally right to claim for the hymns of the 1780 book: “There is no doggerel, no botches, nothing put in to patch up the rhyme, no feeble expletives, nothing turgid or bombast, no cant expressions, no words without meaning.”

Of course, it is not the whole story. In such an output, how could it be? But remember that Charles Wesley tells us himself that his 3,500 poems on the Gospels and Acts—five volumes—were worked through eight times, a revision over a period of nearly a quarter of a century. His extant manuscripts abound in crossings out, tentative corrections, alterations, and possible alternatives. He had, together with his amazing flow and fertility, that part of genius that consists in taking pains.

Editorial Humility

A supreme example of Charles Wesley’s humility is the publication of many collections without any indication whether a given Wesley text was by John or Charles. Had they each written about half the book, this would be more natural, but Charles had written 93 percent of the hymns.

Equally striking is the submission of Charles the creator to John the editor. Sometimes, with hindsight, we feel John’s editorial judgment was mistaken. Was he right to withhold “Jesu, Lover of My Soul” from the Book of 1780, so that it did not appear in a Methodist hymnal until thirty-five years after the author died? Sometimes John imposed changes that were actually mistaken—as in his destruction of the original symmetry Charles gave to the hymn, “Sinners, Turn; Why Will You Die.”

But we have John to thank for the singable form of “Soldiers of Christ, Arise”—unless you wish to sing eighteen stanzas; or “Jesus—the Name High Over All,” which Charles wrote as verse nine of a twenty-two-stanza poem; or “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” which is verse seven of a poem of eighteen stanzas.

This is Dr. Bett’s verdict on the reward Charles reaped from the editorial control he allowed to John: “It is only when you go through the original volumes of Charles Wesley’s verse, and note the way in which his brother chose the best of the hymns, and then omitted from these the weaker stanzas, until out of a long string of verses of very varied quality there often emerges a hymn of sustained excellence, which is a complete lyric in itself-it is only after such a study that one realizes the excellence of John Wesley’s editorial work.”

By Timothy Dudley-Smith

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #31 in 1991]

The Right Reverend Timothy Dudley-Smith is Anglican Bishop of Thetford, Great Britain, and author of A Flame of Love: A Personal Choice of Charles Wesley’s Verse (Triangle, 1987).
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