Born DECEMBER 18, 1707John and Charles Wesley strongly impacted their world with the gospel. They didn’t set out to start a new denomination but to raise the level of Biblical spirituality around them. They were raised in the Church of England and educated at Oxford. Both had spiritual experiences that drove them to preach salvation and sanctification to all who would hear. While the life of his older brother John (born in 1703) weaves in and out of his life, this is Charles’ story.
PREPARATION: FIRST TWO DECADES
Charles’ parents, Samuel (the local pastor) and wife Susanna, of Epworth, England, never ran out of reasons to pray for their children. Susanna gave birth to seventeen babies before Charles. Not all lived. Charles arrived a few weeks premature, neither opening his eyes nor crying. His parents kept him wrapped in wool until the day he would have been born. On that day, Charles seemed to come to life and went on to be a healthy child.
When Charles was still a baby, the Wesley house caught fire. Those of the brood who could walk and run were ushered out of the burning building. A maid carried Charles through the house, to safety. Again, Charles survived. His life of great influence lay ahead.
Following his brother John’s example, Charles attended Oxford University. At Christ Church College, together with some other students, Charles committed himself to r e l i g i o u s devotion. Students noticing their methodical study of scripture and strict application of its teachings labeled them “Bible Moths” and “Methodists.” Charles and his friends had another name for themselves: the “Oxford Holy Club.” John returned to Oxford and became the leader. After Charles earned his Master’s Degree, John persuaded him to apply his devotion in a new way.
PEACE WITH GOD
Together, the two brothers sailed to America. They arrived in Georgia in 1736 as Church of England missionaries to the colonists. In America, Charles experienced mistreatment by his supervisor (Governor Oglethorpe), slander, and illness. He gladly returned to England.
On the trip to America, the Wesley brothers found themselves on board a ship caught in a severe storm. They questioned if they’d survive the storm. At the same time, a band of Moravians on board calmly worshiped God by singing hymns. John and Charles realized something lacked in their faith. Charles was the first to resolve his doubts.
He sought a deeper walk with God while ill at a friend’s house. After prayer for both his body and soul, Charles found full assurance of salvation on May 21, 1738. He wrote in his journal, “I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ.” That very week, he began putting his feelings on paper in poetic verse.
SERMONS ETCHED IN SONGThe Holy Spirit inspired Charles throughout his life. Flashes of insight came at various times. Sometimes while riding a horse en route to preach, he felt led to scribble rhyming versions of the Biblical truths he pondered. The end result: a total of over 6,000 songs.
Charles and John published 56 hymnals in a period of 53 years, most featuring Charles’ prolific scripture-baptized songs. The words of a Moravian friend inspired an eighteen-verse hymn Charles wrote a year after his conversion. He told Charles, “If I had a thousand tongues, I’d praise Christ with them all.” Charles felt the same. He easily turned those feelings into the hymn O for a Thousand Tongues.
In today’s five-verse version the hymn praises Jesus for His grace, for calming our fears, for replacing our sorrows, and for canceling our sins. Charles even testifies that “His blood can make the foulest clean; His blood availed for me.”
Another of his hymns still sung today, And Can It Be That I Should Gain?, captures the realities and results of Jesus’ mission to earth. Standout phrases, with scriptures that might have inspired them, include, “Died He for me who caused His pain” (Isaiah 53:5), “Emptied Himself of all but love” (Philippians 2:7-8), and “No condemnation now I dread” (Romans 8:1).What Charles preached in sermon and songwriting, he also proclaimed one on one. He had an effective prison ministry at England’s Newgate Prison. When any one of the men he visited was about to be put to death, Charles requested to spend the night in the condemned man’s cell so he could minister to him to the very end.
Charles traveled throughout England for years as an itinerant preacher. So did others, spreading the message of spiritual awakening within the Church of England. In 1744, the first conference of Methodism convened in London. That year, districts of Methodist societies were formed in England. Not to withdraw from the mother church, but simply to engage it in deeper spirituality.
In the early years, Charles had introduced a young George Whitefield to the Oxford Holy Club. He eventually rose to the status of a leading Methodist preacher. George talked John into following his style of outdoor preaching, but after trying it, Charles decided it wasn’t for him. When George preached in the American colonies, his success far exceeded the Wesley brothers’ time there. He served as a leading light in The Great Awakening.
Charles’ preaching tours continued after he married Sarah in the late 1740s. He didn’t favor it, but he did some open-air preaching, sometimes to thousands at a time. One incident led him to write the words to his hymn, Jesus, Lover of My Soul (see story here- http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/j/l/jlmysoul.htm). Charles and Sarah moved into a house in Bristol. He concluded traveling in 1756. The following year, the first of he and Sarah’s three children that lived to adulthood was born.
HOLY DAY HYMNS
Charles’ great Christmas hymn is Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. The meat of verse one points to the result of Jesus’ incarnation: “God and sinners reconciled.” Verse three con-cludes with “Mild He lays His glory by, Born that man no more may die; Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth.” The song describes Jesus with no less than nine titles— “King,” “Christ,” “Lord,” “Offspring of a virgin’s womb,” “the incarnate Deity,” “Jesus,” “Emmanuel,” “Prince of Peace,” and “Sun of Righteousness.”
His Easter anthem, Christ the Lord is Risen Today, was first sung almost 275 years ago. This great song that features “Alleluia” after each phrase still rings out every Easter morn-ing in countries throughout the world.
On March 29, 1788, Charles Wesley, passed from this life. The man whose survival as a newborn and an infant seemed at risk, preached and wrote words that have changed millions of lives.
Charles’ hymns were a powerful tool in the spread of Methodism in his day. They successfully put doctrinal truth in the hands and mouths of thousands of church-goers. The handful of his songs that are sung today retain their power to teach the mind and touch the heart.
LET ME KNOW: How has Charles’ story informed, encouraged, or otherwise helped you? I welcome your comments.
Larsen, Timothy, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
- Morgan, Robert J., Then Sings My Soul. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2003.
- “The Wesleys” Christian History. Vol. 20. No. 1, 2001.
- Smith, Jane Stuart and Betty Carlson. Great Christian Hymn Writers. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1997.
- “The Golden Age of Hymns” Christian History. Vol. 10. No. 3, 1991.
- http://wesley.nnu.edu/charles-wesley/. (includes Charles’ journal)
- The Charles Wesley page at Amazon.com-http://www.amazon.com/Charles-Wesley/e/B001HOX3L6/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_15?qid=1355852078&sr=1-15.
- Here are more books about Charles, Charles and John, and Susanna Wesley-http://www.christianbook.com/Christian/Books/easy_find?Ntt=charles+wesley&N=0&Ntk=keywords&action=Search&Ne=0&event=ESRCG&nav_search=1&cms=1&search=.
- A list of 265 of Charles’ hymns with lyrics and MIDI music- http://www.cyberhymnal.org/bio/w/e/s/wesley_c.htm
- All the verses of O for a Thousand Tongues– http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/o/f/o/ofor1000.htm.
- A large overview of Charles Wesley’s writings-http://divinity.duke.edu/initiatives-centers/cswt/wesley-texts.
- “Charles Wesley Life and Times” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2zbDxtvi_g&list=LPCNfgmnNK7Ag&index=10&feature=plcp.
- (1st of three parts) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V8kcWGNRHlo.