Susan Southall presented this paper on Charles Wesley to the Spiritual Reading Group in the Carmelite Library on Tuesday the 19th of September.
The 18th Century
The lives of John Wesley and his brother Charles comprised almost the whole of the 18th century. John lived from 1703-1791 and Charles 1707-1788. This is the context of Charles Wesley’s hymns.
The 18th century in England is bracketed by revolutions. In 1688 the Glorious Revolution replaced the Roman Catholic James II with Protestants William and Mary. Jacobites continued to contest it throughout the first half of the 18th century: the question, who is the legitimate ruler? was deeply destabilising. The end of the century saw the American Revolution in 1776, the French Revolution in 1789. Wars with French in North America led to impressment of men off the streets to serve on the tall ships: it took 600 men to serve a man of war. Their families starved.
The Enlightenment raised questions. Is there a God? What kind of Supreme Being might it be? Is the church always right? Sermons in the Church of England might be intellectual and abstract, while the clergy had married into the gentry and lived in the Jane Austen manner, with livings they might not even visit, as elite incumbents.
Land Enclosures brought suffering to tenants and villagers in the name of agricultural efficiency. People became surplus to requirements. There was a falling away from the established church as all these factors came into play.
The 18th century saw the height of the slave trade. Wilberforce, sometimes called a Methodist, saw the abolition of the slave trade in 1833: his campaign inspired by a conversion such as undergone by Charles Wesley in 1838. At the time of the American Revolution, a slave was counted as 3/5ths of a man.
Charles Wesley was the 18th of 19 children, of whom 13 died. He had a stern mother who thought more of her children’s souls than their bodies; she taught them by much punishment ‘to cry softly.’ What we today consider child abuse was then respected as a parent’s concern for a child’s eternal fate.
He attended Charterhouse and Christ Church, Oxford. Religion was the family business. His father Samuel was an Anglican clergyman who had left the dissenting college to put himself through Oxford. Wesley rejected ‘the stern individualism of Calvinism’ and was once told that as he wished to serve God and go to heaven, he could not go alone. ‘You must therefore find companions or make them. The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.’
The brothers were at Oxford together, where they began by preaching to prisoners. They were known as Methodists because they were exceptionally methodical in their Biblical study and disciplined in their lives.
In 1838 Charles experienced an evangelical conversion which led him to take up open-air preaching. This is when he began to write hymns. 150 of his hymns are in the Methodist hymnal. The phenomenal energy of the brothers is shown by the career of John Wesley, who travelled on horseback 8,000 miles per year. He preached 5,000 times per year.
Charles Wesley had 9 children, and 3 survived. His sons became musicians: Charles became organist to the royal family; Samuel was one of the most famous musicians of the time, called ‘the English Mozart’. Samuel’s son, Samuel Sebastian Wesley, a famous 19th century composer who wrote famous hymn tunes.
John and Charles Wesley are commemorated in the Anglican Calendar on 24th May, the date of conversion, as evangelists and hymn writers.
The Hymns of Charles Wesley
The hymns of Charles Wesley are densely theological by deliberate design; an entire theological argument and world of study is contained in them. They are also conscious literary products. Charles Wesley sees his hymns as poems to be compared with the works of other poets, but not in imitation of Shakespeare or Milton. He finds those who make up pretty phrases to be lacking in sincerity and power. There has to be a steady theology behind hymns, which are called to illustrate the truths of religion, providing proofs both rational and scriptural. A line of a Wesley hymn works on several levels: to inspire, inform, relieve, and welcome.
In his preface to the 1780 selection, he says: ‘ As but a small part of these hymns are of my composing, I do not think it inconsistent with modesty to declare that I am persuaded no such hymn book as this has yet been published in the English language. In what other publication of the kind have you so distinct and full an account of scriptural Christianity? Such a declaration of the heights and depths of religion, speculative and practical? So strong cautions against the most plausible errors, particularly those that are now most prevalent? And so clear directions for making our calling and election sure, for perfecting holiness in the fear of God?
‘May I be permitted to add a few words with regard to the poetry? Then I will speak to those who are judges thereof, with all freedom and unreserved. To these I may say, without offence: (a) In these hymns there is no doggerel, no botches, nothing put in to patch up the rhyme, no feeble expletives. (b) Here is nothing turgid or bombast on the one hand, nor low and creeping on the other. (c) Here are no cant expressions, no words without meaning. Those who impute this to us know not what they say. We talk common sense (whether they understand it or not) both in verse and prose, and use no word but in a fixed and determinate sense. (d) Here are (allow me to say) both the purity, the strength, and the elegance of the English language — and at the same time the utmost simplicity and plainness, suited to every capacity. Lastly, I desire men of taste to judge — these are the only competent judges — whether there is not in some of the following verses the true spirit of poetry, such as cannot be acquired by art and labour, but must be the gift of nature.
‘… What is of infinitely more moment than the spirit of poetry is the spirit of piety. And I trust all persons of real judgement will find this breathing through the whole Collection. It is in this view chiefly that I would recommend it to every pious reader: as a means of raising or quickening the spirit of devotion, of confirming his faith, of enlivening his hope, and of kindling or increasing his love to God and man. When poetry thus keeps its place, as the handmaid of piety, it shall attain, not a poor perishable wreath, but a crown that fades not away.’
Hymns are the liturgical work of the congregation. While Augustine thought that hymns were in essence praise of God in song, they came to be known as corporate prayer, sung prayer within worship and a group experience. The Reformation brought hymns to the fore, especially in the Lutheran tradition. Luther’s great hymn ‘ Ein’ feste Burg — translated by Thomas Carlyle as ‘A safe strong-hold our God is still’ — was used as a marching song by the Swedish army during the 30 Years’ War and is known as ‘the Marseillaise of the Reformation’: sung by the Lutheran princes at Augsburg and by the Luther’s supporters at the Diet of Worms, today it is sung even in Catholic Churches. It became the Cantata BWV 80 (Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott) by J. S. Bach, a devout Lutheran, and it is a paraphrase of Psalm 46.
Throughout the Reformation the psalms were the basis of hymnody: although the Calvinists would tolerate only the metrical psalms, other traditions paraphrased with great effect. It was Isaac Watts who freed hymns from the strict metre, and with such inspired hymns as ‘Our God our help in ages past’ (modified by John Wesley) and ‘Jesus shall reign where’er the Sun’ became one of the most prolific and popular of hymn-writers.
Although hymn-writing might have seemed to be a male occupation, women like Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878) were also notable: she translated many of the German hymns and published The Chorale Book for England, Lyra Germanica, and other works and you will see her in the hymn book as the one who gave us the fine English translation ‘Now Thank We All Our God.”
‘In 1739 … there happened a great event in English hymnody...there appeared Hymns and Sacred Poems. Published by John Wesley, M.A., Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, and Charles Wesley, M.A., student of Christchurch, Oxford’. This was the first hymn-book of the Wesleys to be published in England. His brother John was editor of some of Charles Wesley’s hymns: choosing the best for publication, and of these the best verses. “John’s editorial powers were exercised over the theology as well as over length, selection and presentation. Against the line ‘Thou didst in love Thy servant leave’, John writes “Never. — J.W.’; against ‘And all our rapturous happiness/In hasty sorrow ends,’ he writes, ‘Not always. — J.W.’  ‘Love divine, all loves excelling’ … refers to the coming of Christ in the fullness of His saving power into the heart of the believer, rather than His final coming at the end of the world. This famous hymn first appeared in Wesley’s Hymns for Those That Seek and Those That Have Redemption in the Blood of Jesus Christ (1747), where it was entitled ‘Jesus show us Thy salvation’. In the original there was another verse which included the line ‘Take away our power of sinning’. Even Methodist theologians have felt that this is too strong an expression and the verse is now omitted, but it shows that the whole hymn implies the experience of the full assurance of ‘Thy new creation’ which is so characteristic of Wesley.”
“Wesley’s hymns represented and, to a considerable extent, created the specific Methodist type of religious thought, emotion, and expression. They were, also, the vehicle by which doctrine was conveyed to the minds of the uneducated masses. The great truths which it was the mission of Methodism to teach are conspicuous in the Methodist hymns. Justification by Faith, the Witness of the Spirit, Universal Redemption, Entire Sanctification, are all taught in Charles Wesley’s remembered hymns as they are in John Wesley’s forgotten tracts. If the hymns have ceased to be peculiarly Methodist, it is because Christian experience and teaching have been so largely influenced by them.”
God’s grace begins the process and ‘…because the prevenient grace of God operates in all men, all men have this embryonic spirituality, including the Jews and those outside the Judeo-Christian world….Salvation in the lower dispensations belongs to anyone who in God’s account sincerely and uprightly follows the light of his dispensation, albeit through the merits of the unknown Christ…This notion was, of course, contrary to Calvinistic beliefs.” ‘
Some flavour of this is given in such verses as:
Come, sinners to the gospel feast,
Let every soul be Jesu’s guest;
Ye need not one be left behind,
For God hath bidden all mankind.
Nevertheless, the Wesleys were aiming at the highest form of spiritual experience, a new life in God. The spiritual birth comes about through justification by faith, but it goes beyond Enlightenment rationality to pure experience through ‘feelings’ and sensations akin to the sense of touch: not merely emotional but even physical in conviction. The Church resented Wesley’s theology: the idea of the gifts of the Holy Spirit made certain in assurance of God’s pardoning and forgiving nature. And it is for everyone. ‘It was not the prerogative of spiritual masters, or monastic inhabitants, or priests, or even long-established Christians. It was the potential birthright of every human being.’ The bishops particularly disliked the availability of this spiritual life to ordinary members of the working classes: miners, labourers, the working poor. Wesley was dismayed by the separation between Methodism and the established church. His words to his own vicar were: “ ‘Sir, whatever the world may have thought of me, I have lived and die a communicant of the Church of England, and I wish to be buried in the yard of my parish church’. And so indeed he was.”
 Augustine Birrell, ‘An Appreciation of John Wesley’s Journal ’in John Wesley’s Journal, abridged by Percy Livingstone Parker (London: Isbister, 1903), xvii.
 Augustine Birrell, ‘An Appreciation of John Wesley ‘s Journal’ in John Wesley’s Journal, abridged by Percy Livingstone Parker (London: Isbister, 1903), xix.
 Charles Wesley, “Preface and Selection of Hymns from the 1780 Handbook,” in John and Charles Wesley: Selected Prayers, Hymns, Journal Notes, Sermons, Letters and Treatises, ed. Frank Whaling (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), pp. 175-176.
 Parry, Kenneth L., Christian Hymns (London: SCM Press, 1956) p. 31.
 Dudley-Smith, Timothy, A Flame of Love: A Personal Choice of Charles Wesley’s Verse (London, SPCK, 1987), p. xii.
 Parry, Kenneth L. Christian Hymns (London, SCM Press, 1956), p. 65.
 Gregory, Arthur E. The Hymn-Book of the Modern Church: Brief Studies of Hymns and Hymn-Writers (London: Charles H. Kelly, 1904), p. 170.
 Whaling, Frank, ed,, John and Charles Wesley: Selected Prayers, Hymns, Journal Notes, Sermons, Letters and Treatises (New York: Paulist Press, 1981) pp. 43-44.
 Ibid. p. 45.
 Dudley-Smith, A Flame of Love (London, SPCK,1987), p.ix.