Charles Wesley – Protagonist or push over?
(300th Anniversary of his birth, December 18, 1707)
Paper delivered at the Trinity Theological College Wesley Dinner, Auckland, New Zealand May 25th 2007
I think it is fair to say that though many Methodists are able to quote the odd line or so from the writings of John Wesley, such as: “the world is my parish”, “there is no religion but social, no holiness but social holiness”, “an ounce of love is worth a pound of knowledge”: considerably more, could quote Charles Wesley and quote him more extensively. The reason for this is quite clear. Charles Wesley, the less well known brother, has through his hymns shaped the heart and life of ongoing Methodism. If John Wesley was Methodism’s founder, Charles Wesley has been its guiding light at least at the grass roots.
Many of us have sung Charles Wesley’s hymns since our childhood. Words like: “Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the new born king”, or “Love divine all loves excelling, joy of heaven to earth come down”, or ‘Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go, my daily labour to pursue”, and, one appropriate for the week of Pentecost, “O thou who camest from above, the pure celestial fire to impart, kindle a flame of sacred fire on the mean altar of my heart!”, are part of Methodism’s bread and butter. Today we are increasingly aware that these hymns have not only influenced Methodism. They have gone on to influence the worship and theology of the world Church. Roman Catholics and Pentecostals alike are willing to draw on the hymnody of Charles Wesley. True it was John Wesley who inaugurated and shaped what became the Methodist Church but it is Charles Wesley who nurtured our theology at the grassroots and I suspect will go on nurturing it for years to come.
But who was this man, Charles Wesley? Who was this man who has been so influential in our lives that not a Sunday goes by without thousands, indeed hundreds of thousands, singing words that he wrote. (He may not have been granted “a thousand tongues to sing his great redeemers praise” in a personal literal sense – but who can doubt that his plea has been answered – and is answered Sunday by Sunday.) Who was this man who was arguably the most prolific hymn writer of all time, writing almost 7000 hymns, many of which have become classics?
The fact is most of us know less of Charles as a person than we know of John. The familiar stories that surround the older brother, of being a “brand plucked from the burning”, of riding over a quarter of a million miles on horseback, of a broken romance and an unhappy marriage, are lacking in equivalents when it comes to Charles. But let that not divert us from the effort to become acquainted with the Charles. A happily married man, his wife’s name was Sarah, and an affectionate father to his three children, Charles, Sarah, and Samuel. Who was this Charles Wesley the man who ensured more than any other that Methodism was “born in song”?
Charles Wesley was born on 18th December, 1707, 300 years ago this year, in the rectory at Epworth in the north of England. He was four and half years younger than John. Like John, and the rest of Samuel and Susannah’s large family, he was nurtured at his mother’s knee. Susannah gave him a love of learning that was to take him to Oxford University. She, also in her regular one on one sessions with her children, set him on a spiritual quest, a quest that would lead him into ordained ministry. His poetic gift, however, that was to be so influential in his life he gained from his father, Samuel. The editor of Charles Wesley’s Journal describes Samuel as a “fine poet”. Charles himself was not so sure. In an appraisal of his father’s poems in a letter written in 1747 Charles says “that the verses are (some of them) tolerable, the notes good, but the cuts best of all”.
Charles followed John to Westminster School, and later to Christ Church College, Oxford, where he became a founding member of the Holy Club. He graduated at Oxford in 1730. Two years later he introduced George Whitefield, who was to become the other great evangelist of the age, to the Holy Club. He felt the call to be a missionary and on October 14th 1735 sailed with bother John to the new world. Charles went to Frederica, John to Savannah, in Georgia. While there Charles acted as the Colony’s Secretary for Indian Affairs, and tried to bear witness to his faith amongst both the settlers and the native peoples. As with John, Charles’ time in Georgia was neither happy nor greatly productive. Consequently, less than ten months later he returned to England. The plus from the experience was that both brothers witnessed the lively faith of some German Christians, Moravians, and were impressed by their faith and increasingly dissatisfied with their own.
Back in England, on the Day of Pentecost, May 21st, 1738, just three days before his brother’s celebrated “conversion” experience (though some have argued it was less a conversion than the discovery of an assurance that God loved him), Charles, records the following in his Journal; ‘I rose and looked into the Scripture. The words that first presented were: “And now Lord, what is my hope? Truly my hope is even in thee”. I then cast down my eye, and (read), “…put a new song in my mouth, even a thanksgiving unto our God. Many shall see it, and fear, and shall put their trust in the Lord”. Charles continues: “I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in the hope of loving Christ.”... “I saw that by faith I stood.” I went to bed still sensible of my own weakness (and I humbly hope to be more and more so) yet confident of Christ’s protection.” “I saw that by faith I stood” -
Now I have long held the view that Charles Wesley was a gentler, more amenable, more inclusive, and less dictatorial man than his brother John. However, I must confess that this view was based not so much on research but rather on a gut feeling, a hunch that those of a poetic bent are like that. Besides how could one write so eloquently of Love Divine and not be like that? Particularly if one asks that the Divine Love be realized in himself. “Finish then they new creation, Pure and spotless let us be.” Certainly Charles’ hymns lead me to think there is at least a modicum of credibility in my hunch.
But if Charles was this gentler, more amenable, preacher, was he a push over, mere putty perhaps in the hands of his brother? I think not. What I have discovered as I read Frank Baker’s Charles Wesley as revealed in his Letters earlier this year is that this relative gentleness does not mean, indeed cannot be taken mean in any sense whatsoever that Charles Wesley was a push over. And I have found that to be true whether in terms of his relationship with his brother, or with those from whom he differed in theology, or with the secular or ecclesiastical authorities. Charles Wesley I have discovered was a man with back bone, a man of conviction, as well as gifted poet and hymn writer. We can sense something of Charles inner strength of character in the way he responds to and deals with various conflicts. Let me illustrate this by giving you three examples:
1. Conflict with the secular authorities.
Unlike John who visited Ireland twenty one times, Charles visited Ireland only twice, the first being from September 1747 to March the following year, and the second from August to October 1748. One result of these visits was that an Irish Judge sentenced him in his absence to transportation to one of the colonies. I haven’t been able to track down the exact cause of this though on several occasions there were riots or near riots on the edges of Charles Wesley’s open air meetings in Dublin, Athlone, Cork, and elsewhere. Charles responded to this by writing a poem in which he suggests that it was an honour to be convicted for the spreading of the gospel:
“Me He hath counted for His name
Worthy to suffer wrong and shame;
Condemned for publishing my Lord,
Proscribed for ministering His word;
Untried, unheard, to exile driven,
‘Gainst all the laws of earth and heaven.
Needless to say he was far from impressed with the judge…
“While those who fill the Judge’s chair
To’ abuse their dread commission dare;”
“The Lord, whom on our side we have,
Shall from unrighteous Judges save,
His injured messengers confess,
And give His suffering people peace."
(I am not sure what happened to his sense of rhyme in the latter verse!) Charles had the wisdom not to forward his poem to the judge but no doubt shared it with his friends. Be that as it may it does give an insight into Charles' strong feelings about the matter.
2. Conflict over theology.
As mentioned earlier, it was Charles who introduced George Whitefield to the Holy Club at Oxford. Whitefield had remarkable oratorical gifts and became famous for his preaching. Some have suggested that he was a more effective preacher than either of the Wesley brothers. However, he was also for a time a thorn in the side of the Wesley’s. This was due to the fact that Whitefield held a Calvinistic understanding of the sovereignty of God and thus elevated the doctrine of predestination, including double predestination: that is the predetermining of a human life to end either in heaven or in hell. Both Charles and John Wesley were by contrast Arminian by conviction. They believed that no one is predetermined to either heaven or hell, but that all people can be saved. Charles makes this clear in several of his hymns and poems:
“O that the world might taste and see,
The riches of His grace!
The arms of love which compass me
Would all mankind embrace.”
And again in:
“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.”
And again in:
“Pardon for all flows from His side;
My Lord, my Love is crucified.”
On August 22nd 1739 Charles wrote in his Journal “Here I cannot but observe the narrow spirit of those that hold particular redemption (predestination).…Mrs Seward is irreconcilably angry with me “for (she says)he (ie. Charles) offers Christ to all”. Her maids are of the same spirit; and their Baptist teacher insists that I ought to have my gown stripped over my ears.” Charles continues: “When Mr. Seward, in my hearing, exhorted one of the maids to a concern for her salvation, she answered, “It was to no purpose; she could do nothing.” The same answer he received from his daughter, of seven years old. See the genuine fruits of this blessed doctrine!”
This flowed over into dispute with George Whitefield. On the 16th March 1741 Charles wrote to his brother John; “this is to summon you hither immediately. George Whitefield, you know, is come. His fair words are not to be trusted ..; for his actions (are) most unfriendly. An answer to your sermon he just put into my hands. The title was enough.”
A day later Charles asked George to preach. Charles was at heart a peacemaker. But he was quick to regret his request as George chose to preach on predestination. Afterwards Charles says “I mildly expostulated with him, asking him if he would commend me for preaching the opposite doctrines. (I also) protest(ed) against the publishing (of) his answer to you, and labour(ed) for peace to the utmost of my power”.
3. Conflict with his brother, John:
While Charles argument with his friend George Whitefield was over theology, his argument with his brother had to do with ecclesiology. From beginning to end Charles was a committed Churchman, he was very clear that he was a Church of England clergyman and that he intended to remain so. He abhorred talk of the Methodist societies separating from the Church of England. Frank Baker’s goes so far as to say that “The attempt to keep Methodism within the Anglican Church was Charles’s life-
Certainly it was an issue close to Charles heart. Time and again he cautioned his brother, and the lay preachers, from breaking their allegiance to the Church of England. In 1752 this led Charles to prepare a document, which he and more importantly from Charles’ perspective, his brother John signed, along with their preachers, binding them to “never leave the communion of the Church of England without the consent of all whose names are subjoined”. Charles tried for a time to have it made mandatory for all new preachers to sign this but the document never achieved that status.
Charles’ unease with respect to John’s commitment to the Church of England is evident in a poem he sent to John in 1755, it read:
“When first sent forth to minister the word,
Say, did we preach ourselves, or Christ the Lord?
Was it our aim disciples to collect,
To raise a party, or to found a sect? … p.94 Baker.
Charles certainly did not want to be party to founding a sect. He hoped John might remain of the same mind. John did, for a while.
Matters came to a head in the lead up to the 1780 Conference. A number of the Methodist preachers were seeking ordination, but not by an Anglican bishop, but by John Wesley himself. We can understand why, many knew little of the Church of England. But for Charles this was not acceptable. Believing that this issue would find its way on to the agenda of the Conference he replied to John’s invitation to attend, saying:
“My reasons against accepting your invitation to the Conference are:
1. I can do no good.
2. I can prevent no evil.
3. I am afraid of myself; you know I cannot command my temper, and you have not (the) courage to stand by me.
4. I cannot trust your resolution; unless you act with a vigour that is not in you.
…so I am to stand by and see the ruin of our cause! You know how far you can depend on me; let me know how far I may depend on you and on our preachers.” p.133 Baker
That’s pretty strong stuff. In fact Charles did attend the Conference but he kept a low profile. No ordinations took place. It wasn’t till four years later, in the face of the desperate need for ordained leadership in America that John Wesley took the step of ordaining three preachers – among them Dr. Thomas Coke, who was already a clergyman, as superintendent.
Charles heard about this through a third party, Henry Durbin. He replied to Durbin saying: “I am thunderstruck. I can(not) believe it.” A little later, after reading John Wesley’s defense of his action, Charles wrote again to Durbin saying:
“I have the satisfaction of having stood in the gap so long, and staved off the evil for near half a century. And I trust I shall be able, like you, to leave behind me the name of an honest man. Which with all his sophistry he (ie. John) can never do…I call you …to witness that I have had no hand in this infamous ordination.”
To his brother John he wrote, with a touch of sarcasm, “..for three score years (they) said (you were) a Papist; an lo (you) turn out at last a Presbyterian!”
Charles later wrote to an American clergyman, Thomas Chandler, saying that his brother “ha(d) acted contrary to all his declarations, protestations, and writings…and left an indelible blot on his name as long as it shall be remembered! Thus our partnership here is dissolved, but not our friendship. I have taken him for better for worse, till death do us part – or rather re-
The underlying brotherly friendship remained, though Charles continued to dispute the matter of separation from the Church of England with John and to plead with him to go no further. Months before he died Charles discovered that John had ordained some preachers to serve in Scotland. He was however spared from witnessing the ultimate step the ordaining of a preacher to serve Methodists in England. That took place in August 1788. Fortunately Charles Wesley had entered into his eternal rest some four months earlier.
Methodism which he had served so long and so well, was well on its way to becoming a separate Church – a Church he never sought – but it would be a Church enriched for generations to come by his wonderful gift for marrying profound theology with sing able verse.
If to keep Methodism within the Church of England was Charles Wesley’s life’s work then we have no option but to see that work as a failure. His brother, ever the pragmatist when it came to spreading the gospel, was not overly imbued with such idealism. John would not be a slave to ecclesiastical niceties if they were seen to impede the spread of the gospel. However, to say that Charles failed in this respect is not to deny that he fought long and hard, and forthrightly, for his convictions on this matter. Charles was no push over. And who knows maybe it will yet be Charles who will have the last word. Certainly he would rejoice in the Covenant now in place between the Church of England and the Methodist Church, and the covenant in place between the Church of Ireland and the Irish Methodist Church. Which leads me to ask when will it happen here? (
Charles enduring legacy is in song. While we may express things differently today we do well to ponder his legacy. Listen to his incisive word on the incarnation: “Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensively made man”; listen to his joyful announcement of the nativity: “Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the new born king”; listen to his sense of wonder at the cross: “The immortal God for me hath died! My Lord, my Love is crucified.” Listen to his exuberance at the resurrection “Lives again our glorious King; where O death, is now they sting? Listen to his words for Pentecost: “The Holy Ghost, if I depart, the comforter shall surely come, Shall make the contrite sinner’s heart, His loved, His everlasting home”, listen to his summation of the radical nature of Christian conversion: “My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee”. These and many others deserve to be remembered, and not just remembered, but sung.
But in our remembering Charles and the deep insights often contained in his words may we also be reminded that God deserves the best we can offer when we too sing to God’s glory.
Norman E Brookes
May 25, 2007
Charles Wesley As Revealed by His Letters Frank Baker Wesley Historical Society Lectures
Journal of Charles Wesley volumes 1 and 2.
Methodist Hymn Book 1933
Life of Charles Wesley Telford London 1900