Consider Wesley

Shapers of Early Methodism: Charles Wesley

Henry H. Knight III

John Wesley did not single-handedly lead the Methodist movement, but was assisted by a number of clergy and lay allies. This year I want to look at three of the most significant. We begin by considering another Wesley: John’s younger brother, Charles.

Charles Wesley was born in 1707, the eighteenth of Susanna Wesley’s nineteen (only ten survived infancy) and the youngest of her three sons. Like all of her children, Charles was trained by her in matters educational and spiritual beginning at age five.

In 1716, Charles entered the prestigious Westminster School in London, where his oldest brother Samuel Jr. was head usher. There he lived with his brother and his wife, who were themselves old enough to be Charles’ parents.

He went to Oxford University in 1727, where just the year before his brother John had been elected a Fellow of Lincoln College. On his own for the first time, Charles initially led a spiritually indifferent life. When he was asked about this by a worried John, Charles would reply, “What! Would you have me be a saint all at once?”

But like John before him, Charles soon became serious about religion. It was Charles who actually formed the initial group of students that would derisively be called the “Holy Club,” and would become a model for the societies and classes at the heart of later Methodist practice. John would later call the Holy Club “the first rise of Methodism” (A Short History of the People Called Methodists,¶ 9).

Both John and Charles were seeking holiness of heart and life as well as assurance of salvation, and both were deeply influenced by Peter Böhler, of the Moravian Brethren, who told them faith in Christ comes as a gift of grace. Receiving this ability to trust in Christ for his salvation was at the heart of John’s famous Aldersgate experience.

For Charles it occurred three days earlier, on May 21, 1738, on Pentecost Sunday. Charles was sick in bed, being cared for at the home of John Bray. While lying there he heard a voice say, “In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, arise, and believe, and thou shalt be healed of all thy infirmities.” The speaker was Mrs. Musgrave, sister of John Bray, who said she was commanded by Christ to say these words. Charles struggled within, but “the Spirit of God strove with my own spirit . . . till by degrees he chased away the darkness of my unbelief. I found myself convinced, I know now how, or when . . . I found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ” (See the complete account in John Tyson, Assist Me to Proclaim [Eerdmans, 2007], 47).

It was the next day, May 22, that Charles wrote his first hymn, which many believe was “Where Shall My Wondering Soul Begin.” This would be the first of at least 6,500 hymns Charles would write, of a total of 8,989 hymns and poems together.

A year later, May 21, 1939, Charles wrote a hymn “For the Anniversary of One’s Conversion,” based on a comment by Peter Böhler: “Had I a thousand tongues to sing, I would praise him with them all.” The hymn, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” became one of his most well-known.

John edited and published most of his brother’s hymns, although Charles published some on his own. Overall there were 56 collections of hymns published by the Wesleys. John was a bad hymnwriter but a good editor, shortening his brother’s hymns with a keen sense of highlighting stronger verses and maintaining continuity. John also corrected his brother’s theology, which Charles did not always appreciate. But John admired Charles, calling him “the most admirable devotional lyric poet in the English language.”

At this time hymns were not sung in the Church of England—they lined the Psalms instead—so Charles’ hymns were written primarily for the Methodist Societies. The invitational and personal nature of many of the hymns was revolutionary, and their emphasis on God’s universal love made them distinct from hymns by Calvinist writers.

Within their overall agreement were theological tensions between the two brothers. Charles saw himself as an Anglican first and then a Methodist, and worried that John’s commitment to Methodism would lead him to waver in his devotion to the Church of England. This explains Charles’ fury when John ordains Thomas Coke a superintendent for American Methodists after the revolution, as well as ordaining two of his lay preachers.

As Joanna Cruickshank has shown in Pain, Passion and Faith (Scarecrow, 2009), Charles also emphasized the necessity of suffering for Christian growth in a way John thought both excessive and lacking proper nuance. Charles conflated enduring everyday hardships with taking up our cross to follow Jesus, while John distinguished them. Charles also defined Christian perfection in such absolute terms that John thought his brother made it impossible to attain in this life.

Methodism is a product of both Wesleys, not John alone. While Charles was known to be an excellent preacher, it is his hymns that have had the greatest impact. Vastly more Christians have sung the words of Charles than have read the words of John. That influence continues today, in hymnals all across the world.

Posted Mar 28, 2018