The Revd. 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
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
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."
The Day of deliverance.
In the month of May 1738, the Wesleys were in London. Charles was
recovering rom 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
"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
intropection 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
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 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 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,
0, could I catch a smile from Thee
And drop into eternity!"