The Rev. Charles Wesley, M A., 'sweet singer of Methodism' and arguably
the greatest hymn writer ever, died on March 29th 1788. As a hymn writer
he needs no introduction. His hymns show little sign of losing their appeal
after more than 200 years. However, little else is commonly known about
the life of one who was seemingly lost in his brother's shadow. When studies
and biographies of John Wesley are never in short supply, the new biography
of Charles Wesley by Arnold Dallimore 'A Heart Set free' is welcome indeed!
Although the Methodist Church has every reason to remember Charles Wesley
on what is also the 250th anniversary of the brother's conversion (May,
1738), evangelical people of all denominations have cause to thank God
for hymns which are in a sense the property of us all.
"If ever there was a human being who disliked power, avoided prominence,
and shrank from praise, it was Charles Wesley." So wrote someone
who knew him well. Even if he tended to be hidden by his brother's exploits,
Charles Wesley's life was far from a shadowy existence. He was born on
December 18th 1707, the third surviving son and eighteenth child of Samuel
and Susanna Wesley. He was not fifteen months old when the old Rectory
at Epworth was totally destroyed by fire. Charles, like John, had to be
rescued from the inferno. He was hastily carried by a maid and placed
safely in his mothers arms. Samuel Wesley's ambition was to make
scholars and clergymen of his three sons - the daughters, alas, had lesser
prospects and little happiness. John was educated at Charterhouse, but
Charles like his older brother Samuel - was sent to Westminster school.
As well as proving an excellent scholar, Charles showed his mettle by
defending others from the school bullies. In June 1726, he entered Christ
Church, Oxford. By then, John had been ordained and elected a Fellow of
Lincoln College. When he tried to restrain the rather careless and fun
loving ways of his young brother, Charles resisted with "Would you
have me to become a saint all at once?" If Charles was no less
a scholar than John, he was less calm and collected than his brother,
and subject to emotional ups and downs. When he graduated in 1730, father
Samuel wrote from Epworth, "You are now fairly launched. Hold up
your head and swim like a man." After John returned for a while to
Epworth to assist his father, Charles became deeply exercised about spiritual
things. He gathered together some others who shared his new religious
seriousness. Thus began the 'Holy Club' in 1729, its members soon to receive
the nickname 'Methodists'. While John later became leader of the little
group, it was started by Charles. Thus he was properly the 'first Methodist'.
In 1732, George Whitefield of Pembroke College joined the group, and a
close bond of friendship developed between himself and Charles Wesley
who was now a College tutor. There is no doubt that the Holy Spirit
was at work in the lives of these young men. Even before they were
delivered from the legalism of their sincere but lifeless religion - Whitefield
was the first to find assurance of salvation in May 1735 - there were
signs of life. On his death-bed in April 1735, old Samuel said to John,
"The inward witness, son, the inward witness, this is the proof,
the strongest proof of Christianity." Laying his hand on Charles'
head, Samuel said "Be steady. The Christian faith will surely revive
in this kingdom. You shall see it; though I shall not."
Georgia and failure.
Charles accompanied John on the mission to the new colony of Georgia in
1735. He actually served as the secretary of the Governor, General James
Oglethorpe. The entire episode was to prove a failure. The two brothers,
having led hitherto a relatively sheltered and privileged life, were no
match for the conditions and characters they were to meet. Life was hard
in every sense. Misrepresentations and accusations of scandal at the hands
of unprincipled people quite broke Charles' spirit. "Life is bitterness
to me," he wrote at this time. Feeling somewhat shattered Charles
left Georgia, landing in England on December 3rd, 1736. John was to remain
in Georgia for another year. Having recovered a measure of strength
and self respect, Charles was soon meeting important people. Having
been deeply impressed by the godly Moravians in America, he was similarly
affected on meeting their leader Count Zinzendorf in London. He was selected
to appear before King George II on behalf of the University of Oxford
at Hampton Court on August 26th 1737. But despite the dignified circles
he was now moving in - he was something of a celebrity having returned
from Georgia - Charles was full of unrest and uncertainty. In his distress,
he sought help from the mystic William Law, but to no avail. An old friend
from the Holy Club, Benjamin Ingham wrote to John, "Charles is so
reserved, he neither writes to me nor comes too see me..........."
Charles was cheered by his brother's return from Georgia in February,
1738. He still hoped to return to Georgia as a missionary, but all expectations
ended with a severe attack of pleurisy. Resuming academic life at
Oxford seemed the only way ahead, but God had other plans for the Wesley
brothers. They traveled to Oxford in April with the young Moravian Peter
Bohler. From him they first learned the nature of true evangelical Christianity.
Bohler's portrait of the brothers in a letter to Count Zinzendorf is very
revealing: "The elder, John, is a good-natured man; he knew he did
not properly believe in our Saviour, and was willing to be taught. His
brother is at present very much distressed in his mind, but does not know
how he shall begin to be acquainted with the Saviour."
The Day of deliverance.
In the month of May 1738, the Wesleys were in London. Charles was recovering
from a recurrence of illness in the home of some Moravians in Little Britain,
not far from St, Paul's Cathedral. Through the humble concern and sincere
Christian testimonies of his hosts and others, Charles was deeply affected.
God was truly dealing with him. Opening his Bible at Isaiah 40:1, the
light of salvation shone upon him! His Journal entry for May 21st reads:
"I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving
Christ..... I saw that by faith I stood, by the continual support of faith.......I
went to bed still sensible of my own weakness....yet confident of Christ's
protection." On the following day, Charles strength began to
return. He also commenced what proved to be the first of some 6,000 hymns!
The day after - May 24th - John himself found assurance of salvation during
a meeting in nearby Aldersgate Street. Let Charles tell us what
happened that evening:
"Towards ten, my brother was brought in triumph by
a troop of our friends, and declared, "I believe." We sang
the hymn with great joy, and parted with prayer.........."
The joyful account is not complete without the hymn:
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
Or sing my great Deliverer's praise?
Exactly a year later, Charles wrote the more famous hymn,
"0 for a thousand tongues to sing", which he recommended for
singing "on the anniversary of one's conversion."
The Great Awakening.
None can doubt the impact of Charles Wesley's conversion experience in
May 1738. As D. M. Jones wrote, "After this experience Charles Wesley
was for a time at least lifted quite above all timid introspection and
anxious care about his own spiritual state. It seemed as if this release
was all that was needed to make him a channel for immense spiritual forces."
Charles Wesley's new spiritual life was seen in his deep compassion for
lost men and women. His preaching was quite transformed. He preached extempore
for the first time at St, Antholin's Church in Bristol in October 1738.
Unusual blessing was accompanying his powerful ministry. By this
time, George Whitefield's ministry was having an astonishing impact and
he was severely criticized in London and Bristol. Charles Wesley stood
at Whitefields side when he preached to an enormous crowd at Blackheath,
and asked, "What has Satan gained by turning him out of the churches?"
In May, Charles Wesley joined his brother in following Whitefield's example
when he preached to large crowds in the Essex villages. It has been
said with some truth that if George Whitefield was Methodism's orator,
and John Wesley its organiser, then Charles Wesley was its poet. However,
this interesting view of the famous trio fails to acknowledge the impact
of the Wesley's preaching. But if John Wesley was a greatly used preacher
and evangelist, Charles himself was a preacher second only to Whitefield
himself! "His preaching at his best was thunder and lightning,"
says one of the early Methodists. Joseph Williams of Kidderminster once
heard Charles Wesley preaching at Bristol to a crowd of 1,000 people:
"He preached about an hour.....in such a manner as I have seldom,
if ever heard any minister preach; that is, though I have heard many a
finer sermon according to the common taste, yet I have scarcely ever heard
any minister discover such evident signs of a vehement desire or labour
so earnestly to convince his hearers." There was, of course, that
other dimension; the singing. A selection of Charles Wesley's hymns was
first published in 1739, and these became instantly popular, judging by
Joseph William's account: "Never did I hear such praying or such
singing. Their singing was not only the most harmonious and delightful
I ever heard, but they sang 'lustily and with a good courage'.........If
there be such a thing as heavenly music upon earth I heard it there."
Subsequent hymn hooks for "The People called Methodists" (1779,
1877 (with Supplement), 1904, 1933 and 1983) and selections of Wesley's
hymns in numerous other hymn books enable us to be familiar with the hymn-writer's
unique gift. His fame and usefulness are guaranteed. However, we should
not allow ourselves to forget his courageous evangelistic labours in which,
for twenty years, he lifted up his voice for Christ.
At Kingswood near Bristol, where Whitefield had seen the tears of the
colliers making white channels down their coal-blackened faces. Charles
Wesley witnessed the power of the Holy Spirit. In May, 1741 he recorded:
"At Kingswood, as soon as I named my text, "'It is finished',
the love of Christ crucified so constrained me that I burst into tears
and felt strong sympathy with Him in His sufferings. In like manner the
whole congregation looked on Him Whom they had pierced and mourned."
The previous year his public appeals and preaching subdued a riot amongst
the colliers occasioned by the high price of corn. This kind of incident
- one of many in those turbulent days - illustrates the fact that the
evangelical revival had a profound effect on stemming a revolutionary
tide in the Country. Conditions were improved by changing the hearts of
the people; the wealthy became more caring and the lower classes more
respectful and civilised. However, gospel victories were hard won.
During a visit to Cardiff in 1740, certain of Charles Wesley's hearers
- doctors, magistrates and others - were annoyed at his directness in
preaching. Some of them told them that in the church he recognised no
superior but God, and should not ask anyones permission to expose his
sins. During the night a mob consisting of theatrical people surrounded
the house, incensed that Methodist preaching was proving too much of a
counter-attraction! However, although a man approached Wesley with a sword,
God was so wonderfully present - "Great was our rejoicing within"
- that he was able to pass through the crowd to safety to catch the boat
for Bristol. As far afield as Sheffield and Devises, such deliverances
were experienced. Sometimes there were minor injuries, a small price to
pay when souls were being saved in great numbers. These heroic times are
often reflected in Charles Wesley's hymns. When tougher men might shake
for fear, Wesley and his fellow- labourers had the strong sense of being
upheld by an invisible Hand!
During the early 1750s, Methodism was becoming a nationwide phenomenon.
The intense persecution was beginning to subside. In days when many people
travelled on horseback, you could tell a Methodist was coming by his singing.
"We overtook a lad whistling one of our tunes," wrote Charles
Wesley. It became increasingly clear that his labours were often taxing
his strength. In addition, his highly emotional preaching was often followed
by severe depression as well as nervous exhaustion. Charles sometimes
lamented that God seemed to work through him but not in him. He evidently
could not sustain the kind of ministry exercised by his brother and George
Whitefield indefinitely. Many who knew Charles Wesley well realised that
he needed a wife and a home. His temperament needed less arduous patterns
of service. It was during a visit to Wales when Wesley met Sarah Gwynne.
Her father was Marmaduke Gwynne, the Squire of Garth near Builth Wells
in modern Powys. If brother John made an unsuccessful marriage, the union
between Charles and Sarah must rate as one of the happiest Christian marriages
of all time. They were married on April 8th 1749, with brother John officiating.
The happy couple settled for a while in Bristol. Until family duties prevailed,
Sarah accompanied Charles on his last preaching excursions. His itinerant
ministry effectively drew to a close with his last visit to the north
of England in the autumn of 1756. His journal ceases with an entry for
November 5th of that year.
London and the latter years.
The Wesleys moved to Chesterfield Street, Marylebone in London in 1771.
Here Charles had effective oversight of the London Methodists. His ministry
therefore continued but on a more local scale. His growing family also
took up considerable time. His two sons Charles and Samuel were musical
prodigies, inviting the attention of such eminent musicians as William
Boyce. The boys were allowed to hold concerts to which many famous people
were invited. Young Samuel was such a gifted composer that he was compared
with Mozart! Charles Wesley was a hymn writer to the end. When traveling
he would take out a piece of carol and write down a line or two. When
he lay dying in March, 1788 - quite worn out with toil in his master's
service, he dictated these lines to his beloved Sally:
"In age and feebleness extreme,
Who shall a helpless worm redeem?
Jesus. my only hope Thou art,
Strength of my failing flesh and heart,
0, could I catch a smile from Thee
And drop into eternity!"
(Written by Rev. Dr. Alan C. Clifford. - Minister of Great Ellingham
Baptist Church, Norfolk. England) Copyright © 1997 Heath Christian
Book Shop Charitable Trust
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