By Ryan Danker —
We all know the words of his hymns. For anyone in the Wesleyan movement and many beyond, his words speak to our experience of conversion, assurance, and even sanctification. Of course, I’m not talking about John Wesley. I’m talking about his younger brother, Charles.
Charles Wesley’s words quickly became the poetic vehicle of the Wesleyan revival. They linger in the mind, and even in the heart. They include: “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” “Soldiers of Christ Arise,” and so many others. He wrote nearly 9000 poetic works.
As the message of the Wesley brothers and so many other leaders during the Evangelical Revival spread across the Atlantic and even farther, it was the hymns that carried the message with ease. The early Wesleyans carried their experiences, of course. They knew the dramatic experience of the new birth. Their hearts had been warmed by God’s assurance. Many could testify to the cleansing of Christian perfection. But even if they couldn’t quote one word from John, they could sing about their experience and of the love of God by heart using the words of Charles. In many places around the world today, many Christians can do the very same.
Yet apart from being the younger brother and a hymn writer, the average Wesleyan believer today knows very little about Charles Wesley the man. It often comes as a surprise that he wasn’t a good singer. Or that he never wrote a line of music. Even less is known about his family life and his adamant attachment to the Church of England, something his brother also maintained but with less regularity. If John was the cool organizer, Charles was the emotional artist. Apart from God, John’s first love was the Methodist movement. Apart from God, Charles’ first love was his wife and children, followed very closely by the Church. The brothers often bickered even if they often collaborated. Charles was like his father, and John like his mother. It’s a very complex story. And Charles can also be seen without his brother.
Like so many Wesley children, Charles was born in Epworth, the small Lincolnshire town where his father served as the incumbent of the parish church, St. Andrew’s. It’s thought that he was named after King Charles I, the great high church martyr. The execution, or martyrdom, of the King haunted the political and social imagination of the England that Charles Wesley knew throughout his life.
Charles was the third and youngest boy born to Samuel and Susanna Wesley who lived to adulthood. Nine of the children lived. Many died. This was common in the eighteenth century, but its commonality did not lessen the heartbreak felt by parents and families. Charles and his wife, Sarah, would experience the same grief many times in their own life together.
But the story is told that Charles was born sickly, or at least that he needed to be wrapped in blankets and kept by the fire to stay warm. He was born in December, after all. Charles did have some health problems throughout his life, but even these have been overblown simply because he had less energy than his overly-energetic brother. We do know of a toothache that he suffered in Boston in the late 1730s. The prescribed treatment was tobacco, which he tried. It made him sick to his stomach and may have distracted him for a bit, but obviously it didn’t work. He never tried tobacco again.
Charles grew up in a home filled with women. His oldest brother, Samuel, Jr., was out of the house by the time he was born. John went to Charterhouse School in London when Charles was six. So he and his father lived in Epworth with his mother, Susanna, and the six Wesley daughters. When he did go off to school, he went to Westminster. It was there – in the shadow of that great Abbey church, the site of coronations and the graves of the monarchs all around him – that he studied and where he became particularly close to Samuel Wesley, Jr. and his wife Ursula. Samuel worked at the school. Given the age difference between the two brothers, their relationship at this point was more like parent and child. The letters between Charles and his brother and his wife are very sweet. He refers to them as “my best friends.”
Like his father and his older brothers, Charles “went up” to Oxford and studied at Christ Church. It is here that the close association between Charles and John begins to form, although at first it wasn’t mutually desirable. John was a fellow, a tutor, at Lincoln. And at this time, tutors at Oxford were more than simply educators, they often encouraged the spiritual as well as educational development of their students. John tried to play this role with Charles, who did not eagerly welcome it.
All of the Wesley children were raised in the Christian faith. With John and Charles in particular, though, they experience what might be called key spiritual awakenings that continue to shape them throughout their lives. For Charles, the first was a turn toward a more serious Christian commitment in the face of a deist scare in Oxford that flared up in 1729. Two students were eventually expelled from Magdalen the next year, but the university – perhaps over-reacting – went into a full-blown defense of orthodoxy, with statements from deans, sermons, and a commitment to rid the university of the heresy. Charles Wesley was caught up in all of this fervor and dedicated himself to a stricter religious life in its wake. It is out of this that he joins with other students, and eventually his brother, and creates what will become the Holy Club, or the first rise of Methodism.
John had taken a “turn toward seriousness” earlier with his study of the Church Fathers and the Caroline Divines. Now the brothers were equally serious about their faith and it blossoms as they begin their life-long project to restore “primitive Christianity.” This is key to understanding the Wesley brothers and their efforts. Even when they disagreed, they were aiming at this standard and its restoration. Their efforts were not meant to create anything new, but to restore the old. This is what they thought they were doing when they travelled to Georgia to serve as clergy in the new colony.
At the beginning of the Revival, Charles is a different figure than he would be later. There seems to have been something of a tug-of-war between his emotional side with its desire for experiential Christianity and the traditions and ecclesiastical world of Anglicanism in which he was formed. The mature Wesley would come to see that his experiences needed to be grounded in tradition in order to avoid self-centeredness and being blown around by every wind of doctrine. But in the late 1730s – and not because of that tobacco in Boston – he was caught up in the emotive experience of the trans-Atlantic revival. This was yet another spiritual turning point for Charles.
Being caught up in the great sweep of the Spirit happened to many of the key figures that we know in Evangelicalism today. First, it struck George Whitefield in 1735. Later, it would catch up the Wesley brothers, Selina Huntingdon, John Newton, William Romaine, Francis Asbury, Charles Simeon, and so many others.
I think it’s a misinterpretation to say that Charles Wesley became a Christian when he had what he called his “Pentecost” experience in May of 1738. The journal account of his evangelical experience reads much more like an experience of assurance. He knew in his bones that he was a child of God. Strangely enough it came by way of Charles’ confusion when he was sick. He heard the voice of God when in fact it was the maid. Regardless, it changed him. It didn’t make him a hymn writer or poet, but after this experience his poetry carries both his experience and his theology to the masses. And the hymns pour out of him. Marking the year’s anniversary of his Pentecost experience, Wesley wrote “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” including the words:
On this glad day the glorious Sun
Of Righteousness arose;
On my benighted soul He shone,
And fill’d it with repose.
Following his experience he also began to follow his brother in the creation of the Methodist system of societies, classes, and bands, all with the intention of reviving the Church and spreading scriptural holiness. He even itinerated during this period, traveling and preaching. And writing hymns.
During the middle part of the century, Charles produced a number of hymn collections. In 1739, he published the
first edition of Hymns and Sacred Poems, a collection that he would revise and expand many times over. In 1745, he published Hymns on the Lord’s Supper, which is perhaps the greatest Wesleyan contribution to Eucharistic theology. The collection strongly points to the reality of Christ’s presence in the bread and the wine. At times, Charles is quite blunt about it while maintaining the mystery of it, a mystery he wrote that not even the angels could comprehend.
O the depth of love Divine,
Th’ unfathomable grace!
Who shall say how bread and wine
God into man conveys!
How the bread His flesh impart,
How the wine transmits His blood,
Fills His faithful people’s hearts
With all the life of God!
Additional collections would continue to be published including among others: Nativity Hymns (1745), Resurrection Hymns (1746), Ascension Hymns (1746), Hymns for Children (1763) and his ultimate collection, A Collection of Hymns for the People Called Methodist (1780). However, not all of his poetic output was intended for singing. When he and Sarah lost a child, Charles communicated his grief through poetry in his Funeral Hymns (1759). One stanza will provide a glimpse of his emotion, that of a father in grief at the loss of his son:
Mine earthly happiness is fled,
His mother’s joy, his father’s hope:
O had I died in Isaac’s stead!
He should have lived, my age’s prop,
He should have closed his father’s eyes,
And follow’d me to paradise.
The poetry that he wrote as a father is heart wrenching at times. At others, it’s quite practical and quotidian, such as his hymn “For a Child Cutting His Teeth” in Hymns for a Family (1767), which although about teething is also highly theological.
Love for the poor, especially those who are in prison, comes out in his hymns. Charles believed very firmly in prison reform. And so in many respects, we can read the line from “And Can It Be” as referring to both a spiritual freedom, but also a tangible one when we sing “my chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose went forth and followed Thee.” This love for the least was also seen in his work with those who were condemned to the death penalty. Like other Methodist leaders at the time, he often preached to them even as they rode to their execution. Given his love for the poor, later critiques of Charles claiming that he lived too well seem odd. He did, however, have a comfortable income from the sale of hymn collections – something necessary to gain permission to marry his beloved Sarah – and he was comfortable amongst the wealthy, particularly Lady Huntingdon.
He wrote polemical poetry against Calvinists, the second Jacobite rebellion, and even against his brother, John, when he thought that he was leaning toward separation from the Church in 1755 with his widely published Epistle to Mr. John Wesley including a reminder to his brother that the Methodists are just a part of the Church, not the whole: “The Church of Christ and England – is But One!”
So why did he stop itinerating? Many modern evangelical thinkers have said that he did this because he got married and settled down. Literally. But this, too, is a misinterpretation of the story. It played a part, but imposing contemporary evangelical concepts of family life on the eighteenth century isn’t a good idea. Instead, Charles probably stopped itinerating a few years after his marriage because he saw the separatist trajectory of Methodism and that much of it would eventually depart from the Church of England. He couldn’t participate in that separation with integrity. Methodist interpreters often struggle to understand this aspect of Wesley’s thought, both then and now. Charles was the conservative at the center of the Wesleyan wing of the Evangelical Revival.
His marriage to his wife Sarah and the birth of their children was the greatest joy of his life. The letters between he and Sarah are warm and loving. They read like the letters between John and Abigail Adams, also of the same period. Much of their married life was spent in Bristol in a four-story townhome near the center of town. In a letter from 1760, Charles wrote to his wife recalling both his Pentecost experience and his marriage. Writing of their life together he states, “Eleven years ago He gave me another token of His love, in my beloved friend.”
This was in stark contrast to John’s romantic life. But Charles didn’t always help his brother in this regard. He married off John’s likely fiancé when John was off on a preaching tour of Ireland because he didn’t think they were of similar social standing. The letters between the brothers in the aftermath of this episode are some of the most emotional we have between them. John would enter an unfortunate marriage in 1751.
Differences over the trajectory of Methodism would strain the brothers’ relationship. And in the autumn of 1784 it was challenged more than anything up to that point when John declared himself “a New Testament bishop” and ordained Thomas Coke as superintendent and Thomas Vasey and Richard Whatcoat as presbyters for the Methodists in America. Charles was in Bristol when the ordinations took place. John knew better than to even tell him about them. Some of the poetic lines that Charles wrote in the aftermath are a combination of wit, frustration, and anger:
So easily are Bishops made
By man’s, or woman’s whim?
W[esley] his hands on C[oke] hath laid,
But who laid hands on Him?
Charles had particular venom for Coke, whom he was convinced had duped his brother into this action. Amazingly, John’s ordinations did not sever him from the Church. He died in good standing as a presbyter within it. However, the relationship with his brother was never the same.
For many decades, Charles had a difficult relationship with many of the lay preachers of Methodism as they clamored for ordination outside of the Church. Some he was able to recommend for holy orders. Many bishops were hesitant to ordain Methodists. In Samuel Seabury, however, the first bishop of the Episcopal Church, Charles found a true colleague.
Toward the end of his life, Charles committed himself to seeing Methodist preachers in the newly independent United States ordained in the emerging Episcopal Church. In fact, he wrote the required recommendation letters for ordination on behalf of Joseph Pilmore in 1785, one of the earliest leaders of American Methodism. Pilmore was ordained by Seabury and planted evangelical Episcopal parishes in and around Philadelphia.
Charles and Sarah moved to London later in life. And it was there that he died in 1788 at the age of 8o. As he and Sarah lived in the London parish of Marylebone, he insisted that he be buried in the consecrated cemetery of his local parish. His body was to be carried to its final resting place by six priests of the Church of England. To his dying breath, he believed in the historic witness and structures of the Church and that they give space to experience, ensuring that it is guided by the Christ who is found in Scripture and the bishops and priests appointed to his church.
Looking at Charles Wesley’s long and productive life, three things are noteworthy within the space we have here. First, he was a man who loved many, particularly his wife and children, particularly his family, and even his brother with whom he had the greatest impact and the most passionate disagreement. The story is told of John after Charles’ death falling into tears at a Methodist meeting at the words of the hymn: “My company before is gone, and I am left alone with Thee.” The affection between the brothers was real. Secondly, and related to it, is Charles’ gift for friendship. This was what his wife Sarah said was his greatest gift. Charles was a friend to many, even across differences. Finally, but definitely not the least, is the passion that Charles had for God, for the message of salvation, and for his Savior. We see this so clearly and so beautifully in his hymns. This love drove his poetic work. And we are the benefactors of that gift. With saints below and saints above, because of Charles Wesley we can sing the praises of God in words both profound and sublime. We can sing of that transforming love that makes us whole, even in the words of one of his greatest offerings:
Finish then Thy new creation,
Pure, and spotless, let us be,
Let us see Thy great salvation,
Perfectly restored in Thee:
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise!
Ryan Nicholas Danker is the Director of the John Wesley Institute in Washington, DC, as well as the president of the Charles Wesley Society. Dr. Danker is the author of Wesley and the Anglicans: Political Division in Early Evangelicalism and co-editor of The Next Methodism and Assistant Lead Editor of Firebrand Magazine.