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... 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 mother,s 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."
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 to 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 travelled 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."
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, "O for a thousand tongues to sing,"which he recommended for singing "on the anniversary of one's conversion."
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 criticised in London and Bristol. Charles Wesley stood at Whitefield's 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 books 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 anyone's 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.
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 travelling 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,
O, could I catch a smile from Thee
And drop into eternity!"