Charles Wesley

  • Diane Severance, Ph.D.
  • 2010 28 Apr
Charles Wesley

The last of the thirteen English colonies to be established in what is now the United States was Georgia. The colony was in part a philanthropic enterprise organized by James Oglethorpe, to give those who had fallen on hard times a new start in a new land. Among those who helped in establishing the early colony were John and Charles Wesley, sent out in 1735 as missionaries by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. Charles Wesley was also to serve as secretary to Governor Oglethorpe.

On Board the Wesley brothers' ship to America were also twenty-six German Moravians. Both John and Charles were impressed by the hymn singing of these evangelistic Christians and realized for the first time that hymn singing could be a spiritual experience. Charles became ill and only stayed in Georgia four months; John stayed another year. In 1737 in Savannah, John printed a Collection of Psalms and Hymns for use in his congregations. Half of the songs were by Isaac Watts. The community was not pleased and a grand jury charged Charles Wesley (among other things) with "introducing into the church . . . hymns not authorized." John hastily fled the colony before his case came to trial.

The way of self-discipline
John and Charles Wesley came from a Christian family; both their father Samuel, who was an Anglican minister, and their mother Susannah had a strong, godly influence on the boys. Charles was educated at Westminster School and entered Christ Church at Oxford at the time when his older brother John was leaving to help in his father's church. At Oxford Charles organized a Holy Club, where members met each evening to read the Bible and pray. Charles Wesley and his friends sought a disciplined method of spiritual improvement; some ridiculed the group and called them methodists for their methodical ways. John later returned to Oxford and became the leader of the Holy Club Charles had organized.

The way of faith
Back at Oxford, after his brief stay in Georgia, Charles came face to face with the claims of Christ; he recognized his previous religious commitments lacked the simple faith in Christ which marked true Christianity. May 21, 1738 marks the date of Charles' conversion, and on that date, he opened his Bible to Psalm 40:3, "He hath put a new song in my mouth; many will see and fear and will trust in the Lord." Charles had indeed received a new song, and the next day he started his first hymn, probably "And Can It Be?" It is a powerful, wondrous rejoicing in the freedom to be found in Christ:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature's night;
Thine eye diffused the quickening ray -
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

Learning through song
This was the first of over 6,500 hymns Wesley wrote. For decades there poured forth from him an unstoppable stream of spiritual song. Charles Wesley, like Martin Luther, believed hymns were a means of teaching theology. He composed an average of three hymns a week. They covered every area of theology as well as every season of the liturgical year.

New songs for the hopeless
John Wesley's conversion soon followed upon Charles', and the two brothers became zealous preachers. They were determined that the unreached masses would hear the Gospel, so they preached everywhere--in the open fields, prisons, to coal miners at the pit heads. This kind of thing just wasn't done in respectable church circles then in England. But the message and the music of the Wesleys reached the desperate, downtrodden, and often gin-besotted underclass in England and some historians speculate that the ministry of the Wesleys brought such far-reaching changes that it may have enabled England to avoid a bloody revolution such as occurred in France in that same century.

In 1780, John published A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists arranged in theological categories. Many of the hymns had been written by Charles. In his preface to the hymnal, John extolled the uniqueness of the work: In what other publication of this time have you so full and distinct an account of Scriptural Christianity? Such a declaration of the heights and depths of religion . ..So clear directions for making our calling and election sure . . . ?

Hymn singing was very important to the evangelical revival in the eighteenth century; hymns were both a means of expressing joy and teaching scriptural truth. Charles Wesley's hymns often paraphrased Scripture as well as the Anglican Prayer Book. They were always full of praise, and they continue to enrich us today. It is difficult to imagine a hymnbook without hymns such as Charles Wesley's "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing," "Rejoice, the Lord Is King," "Jesus, Lover of My Soul," and "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing."

Variety pack
Charles Wesley worked with composers to match the tunes appropriately with his words. Many musical sources were used including German chorales, classical and popular melodies, and new psalm tunes. Because Charles' poems included over 30 different metrical patterns, a great variety of tunes was needed.