Charles Wesley

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Ben Wulpi Worship Literature Dr. Myers Hymn Writer Project April 22, 2008 Charles Wesley Charles Wesley is often overshadowed in history by his big brother John, who is known as the founder of Methodism and one of the greatest theologians and pastors in Christian history. But Charles was his brother’s partner all they way, and he had a tremendous impact on the church himself. Charles wrote somewhere between 5,0009,000 hymns (sources vary), and is remembered as one of the greatest and most prolific hymn writers in history. To Wesleyans, Methodist, and any others who descend from the Wesley’s influence, Charles Wesley is known as the Father of Sacred Song. Charles Wesley was born on December 18, 1708, in the humble rectory of Epworth, Lincolnshire. His father, Samuel, was the pastor at Lincolnshire, and his mother, Susannah, was the daughter of a respected pastor, so Charles grew up with a strong Christian foundation based in the Anglican Church. Charles was the second youngest of nineteen children, only ten of whom survived infancy. Their family was not wealthy, so living conditions were often tight. The household was under very strict rules, and Charles and his brother John were trained to strict habits of regularity. Charles was taught by his mother until he was eight, when he was sent off to Westminster boarding school, and later off to Oxford on scholarship. He was a diligent


student, but had no real thoughts about religion at this point in his life. In his third year, Charles entered into a serious mode of life. "Diligence," he says, "led me into serious thinking; I went to the weekly sacrament, and persuaded two or three young students to accompany me, and to observe the method of study prescribed by the statutes of the University. This gained me the harmless name of Methodist. In half a year [after this] my brother left his curacy at Epworth, and came to our assistance. We then proceeded regularly in our studies, and in doing what good we could to the bodies and souls of men" (Hatfield). So Charles Wesley thus became the first “Methodist” in 1729, and from this we can trace the beginnings of the great Methodist ecclesiastical movement. When Charles graduated, he worked as a tutor. In 1732, Charles, although he had "exceedingly dreaded entering into holy orders," was ordained a deacon in the Church of England in order to accompany his brother John on a missionary trip to Georgia. In the year 1738, Charles came down with a sever illness, and while ill, was influenced by the Moravian Peter Bohler to renounce his self-righteousness and learn how to truly believe, and find the joy and peace in that. This happened on May 21, 1738, a day which Charles would look back on as the day of his conversion. His brother John experienced a similar conversion three days later. Soon after, Charles took to the fields in preaching and ministering to thousands. In some respects, he even excelled his brother as a popular preacher. As the son and the younger brother of poets, Charles never seemed to have practiced the art of poetry until after he graduated University and set out in his ministry career. But once his gift was realized, it was a lively and almost constant exercise. His hymns and poems were often influenced by the personal conversion that he himself had experienced, and the love and grace of God, reflecting the Moravian influence with


undertones of Armenian theology. They are full of scriptural allusion, and reflect an appropriate intimacy with God. They were replete with Christian dogma, serving a influential teaching function. For the first time, hymns had an evangelical emphasis, were about Christian experience, and greatly expanded the use metrical systems used in hymnody. Charles composed an average of three hymns a week, which covered every area of theology as well as every season of the liturgical year. As far as form, Charles’ hymns contain a rich variety of poetic meters with a masterful use of literary devices. Often the sound and sense collide, meaning the individual lines express complete thoughts. They are bold and free in their scriptural paraphrase, using imaginative commentary on scriptural passages. “The writings of the early Methodists mark an epoch in English literature. The early eighteenth century was a period when almost every writer was chilled into conventionality by a false classicism” (Bett). The writings of the Wesleys and the early Methodist marked the first return to simplicity and sincerity in prose. And it was the same for poetry. At a time when English poetry had become sterile and artificial, the hymns of Methodism became the prelude of a lyrical revival. As Methodism was a movement of the people, the common man, so the hymns were fashioned for this niche as well. The Wesleys together looked for tunes that could be sung readily, but that also contributed to reverence. Often popular tunes were used so people could easily know and identify with the hymns. Personally, I’ve only ever sang a few of Charles Wesley’s hymns before, but it’s easy to see by singing them and by studying them what a gift he had for poetry and song. The theological concepts that are taught in his hymns are ones that still teach and keep in


check the Church today. Some of his most famous works include “Christ the Lord is risen today,” “Hark! The herald angels sing,” “O for a thousand tongues to sing,” and “Love divine, all loves excelling.” These and many others are still sung in churches today. I would definitely consider using Charles Wesley’s hymns in a contemporary worship setting. I believe that they carry truths and teachings that should not be lost to a postmodern Church. It would be a challenge though to use them, and might take some creative presentation or teaching to prepare a congregation for it. Challenges would be that the songs are in a poetic language that takes some thinking to comprehend, and the musical style that is unfamiliar to pop culture music. But if used and presented well, these hymns can be an effective means of worship for the Church even today.


Works Cited Bett, Henry. The Hymns of Methodism in their Literary Relations. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. <>. April 20, 2008 Eskew, Harry and Hugh McElrath. Sing with Understanding: An Introduction To Christian Hymnody. 2nd Ed. Rev. Nashville: Church Street Press, 1995. Hatfield, Edwin F. “Charles Wesley.” Christian Biography Resources. <>. April 20, 2008 Mitchell, T. Chrichton. Charles Wesley: Man with the Dancing Heart. Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 1994. Reynolds, William J., and Milburn Price. A Survey of Christian Hymnody, 4th ed. Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Company, 1999.


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