Did you know that this is the 300th anniversary year of the birth of Charles Wesley? Charles, the younger brother of John Wesley, is well-known for his hymnody but often languishes in the background while John is portrayed as the genius of Methodism. In reality, Charles led a full and rich life himself and was a vital link with John in the Methodist movement.
Did you know that Charles was the 18th of the 19 children (9 survived childhood) born to Susannah and Samuel Wesley? George Stevenson writes in his 1876 book, Memorials of the Wesley Family, that Charles was born on December 18, 1707, “several weeks before his time; he appeared dead rather than alive… He did not cry, nor open his eyes, and was kept wrapped up in soft wool until the time when he should have been born according to the usual course of nature, and then he opened his eyes and cried.”
Susannah and Samuel Wesley made great sacrifices to ensure that Charles and his two brothers, John and Samuel Jr., received a fine education, whereas his six sisters never had that opportunity. Both Charles and John attended Oxford, where they gathered a group of like-minded men for the spiritual disciplines of Bible reading and discussion. They came to be known as The Holy Club, but it was their nickname, Methodists, which endured.
Did you know that both John and Charles were ordained in the Church of England and traveled to America in 1735? They ostensibly went to convert the heathen but were also hoping to save their own souls. Both brothers struggled with the relationship between faith and works and did not feel the assurance of God’s grace.
Unfortunately, their time in America was an utter disaster. Charles stayed less than six months, while John remained in Georgia for a year and ten months. Officially, Charles was Secretary for Indian Affairs and secretary to General Oglethorpe. However, he also became the local parish priest at the settlement, Frederica, on St. Simons Island. Charles thought that all of the settlers ought to follow a certain discipline and rule of life, like the Holy Club. As you can imagine, these rough and tumble folks did not respond well to Charles’ regulations. He got into so much trouble that he pleaded with John to travel 100 miles on open water in a canoe from Savannah to help. When John finally arrived, the brothers had to converse in Latin to ensure that their conversations were not overheard!
The week after John went back to Savannah, Charles preached a sermon on Palm Sunday, April 18, 1736, which was based on Psalm 126:6 and began with these words, “Experience shows us that even they who are Christians indeed, who serve God with all their strength, may go on their way weeping, perhaps for many years, perhaps to the end of their transitory life.” I suspect Charles was talking about himself. The brothers returned home without converting the heathen and without saving their own souls. They were as disturbed as ever and longed to receive faith.
Did you know that Charles had a conversion experience a few days before John? May 21, 1738, was Pentecost Sunday in the Church of England. Charles wrote in his journal, “I waked in hope and expectation of his coming.” He heard someone speaking downstairs and said, “I hoped it might be Christ indeed.” A Mr. Bray read to him from Psalm 32, “Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputeth no sin.” Charles said, “I felt a violent opposition and reluctance to believe, yet still the Spirit of God strove with my own and evil spirit, till by degrees he chased away the darkness of my unbelief. I found myself convinced, I knew not how nor when; and immediately fell to intercession.’ Two days later, Charles said, “I began a hymn upon my conversion.” It was most likely “Where Shall My Wondering Soul Begin.” Today is the anniversary of Charles’ conversion!!!
Did you know that for the next sixteen years, Charles was a traveling preacher, just as John was? A few weeks after his conversion, Charles reported this incident, “In the coach to London I preached faith in Christ. A lady was extremely offended; avowed her own merits in plain terms; asked if I was not a Methodist; threatened to beat me. I declared I deserved nothing but hell; so did she; and must confess it, before she could have a title to heaven. This was most intolerable to her. The others were less offended…”
After years of continual sacrifice, living a nomadic life, constantly facing mobs of angry people, expending enormous energy preaching and organizing people into societies, and risking his own health, Charles fell in love with Sally Gwyne. When they married and began a family, Charles gave up the itinerant ministry at age 49. The family lived off the royalties from his poetry, as Charles continued to be active in the Methodist movement in Bristol and London.
Did you know that the early Methodists learned theology from Charles Wesley’s hymns? Many illiterate people learned to read for the first time when they were converted. They owned only two books: a Bible and a hymnal. Society meetings were characterized by magnificent singing. Memorizing Charles’ hymns was just as important as listening to preaching for the spiritual development of Methodists. The Trinity, the Holy Spirit, sin and grace, judgment, salvation, social and personal holiness, perfection, the release of death, and abiding peace and joy were all common themes in Charles’ hymns.
How will you be celebrating Charles Wesley’s legacy in your congregation this year? Here are a few suggestions.
- Become more acquainted with Charles. Read Arnold A. Dallimore’s classic 1988 biography, A Heart Set Free; The Life of Charles Wesley. Other good resources are Charles Wesley; A Reader by John R. Tyson, the September/October 2006 issue of Circuit Rider, which was entirely devoted to Charles Wesley, and resources at the General Board of Discipleship web site, www.gbod.org.
- Teach a class on Charles Wesley and his hymns.
- Devote an entire worship service to Charles Wesley by singing all Wesley hymns and preaching on Charles’ theology.
- Make sure you’re at annual conference on Thursday evening, as we celebrate Wesley’s birth with an interesting and inspiring drama written by Frank Lyman. Each church will received a DVD of the program so you can use it in your own congregation.
- Use Charles’ hymns on a regular basis, even if you do contemporary worship! They will help your congregation to think theologically and have a depth of spirituality not always found in today’s hymns.
This Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, is a good time to begin. Why not sing, #541, “See How Great a Flame Aspires?” It’s one of Charles’ finest hymns.