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Charles Wesley, 1707-1788

by Norman Mable

Charles WesleyJesus, Lover of my soul.
O for a thousand tongues to sing.

The grandfather and great-grandfather of John and Charles Wesley were both ejected from their livings on St. Bartholomew's Day, 1662. No wonder, then, that the father was trained for the dissenting ministry. But he disagreed so strongly with the execution of King Charles I that he transferred from the Nonconformists to the Established Church. Eventually he was appointed rector of Epworth, Lincolnshire, where his two famous sons were born.

Charles came into the world in 1707—four years after John's arrival. He was educated at Westminster School becoming its captain and from thence proceeded to Christ Church, Oxford.

While at the University he joined a religious society—derisively called the 'Holy Club'—of which George Whitefield was a member. Such a concise system and methodical arrangement regulated its activities that members were facetiously termed 'Methodists', and this name later became the recognised title of the connexion founded by John and Charles Wesley.

In due course the two brothers received Holy Orders, and although the virtual creators of what has become a Nonconformist denomination, neither of them ever left the Church of their baptism.

Accepting an invitation from General Oglethorpe to go and preach to the inhabitants of his newly-created colony of Georgia, Charles accompanied his brother to America in 1735. Early in 1737 he was sent back with despatches from the general. The mission was not successful, and John returned to England later in the year.

The brothers then became acquainted with a Moravian missionary, Peter Böhler, and under his influence both were converted—Charles on Whit Sunday, May 21st, 1738, and John three days later.

After a visit paid by John to the Moravian Brethren at their original seat of Herrnhut, in Saxony, the two brothers joined Whitefield, through whose fervid preaching the religious enthusiasm known as Methodism had been greatly stimulated, and the three became intimately associated in religious work. And so began the great evangelical crusade which had an immense influence on the social as well as religious life of the nation, indeed of the whole world.

Shortly afterwards Whitefield went to Georgia, and John Wesley took sole charge of the movement. He worked as the evangelist and organizer, while Charles was his faithful coadjutor.

In 1749 Charles married Sarah Gwynne, of Garth, in Breconshire. For twelve years he actively assisted his brother as an indefatigable open-air preacher, after which he principally superintended the work of the various societies in London and Bristol.

He died at Marylebone in 1788 at the age of eighty-one, and was laid to rest in St. Marylebone churchyard, in accordance with his particular wish; for, ever loyal to the Anglican Church, he had explicitly stated: 'I have lived and I die in the Communion of the Church of England, and I will be buried in the yard of my parish church'.

Charles Wesley was the most prolific hymn-writer who ever lived. He wrote over six thousand five hundred hymns, published in more than fifty separate volumes.

When one considers such of his hymns as: Hark! the herald angels sing; Love divine, all loves excelling; Christ, whose glory fills the skies; Jesus, Lover of my soul; O, for a thousand tongues to sing; Christ the Lord is risen today, and Soldiers of Christ, arise, it is almost impossible to say definitely which is the most popular, but Jesus, Lover of my soul is generally conceded to be 'the crown of his work.' This, 'the finest heart hymn in the English language', appeared in 'Hymns and Sacred Poems', 1740, bearing the title, 'In temptation'.

Many eulogiums have been uttered concerning this beautiful hymn. The great American writer, Henry Ward Beecher, declared: 'I would rather have written that hymn of Wesley's, Jesus, Lover of my soul, than to have the fame of all the kings that ever sat on the earth. It is more glorious, it has more power in it. That hymn will go on singing until the last trump brings forth the angel fame; and then, I think, it will mount up on some lip to the very presence of God.'

The four opening lines have been altered many times by well-meaning hymn-menders, but most modern hymn books have rightly retained Wesley's version.

Various stories have been told of the origin of this hymn. They cannot all be true, of course, but are worth relating. First, then, is that while Charles Wesley was on a ship during a storm at sea, a sea-bird flew on board and took refuge in his lap, Another is of Wesley's own deliverance from the peril of a hurricane encountered when he was on a voyage. A third tells how while he was being searched for by a band of enemies in Ireland he hid under a hedge, and there wrote the hymn. While a fourth describes how Charles was once sitting at his desk when a bird pursued by a hawk flew into the open window, the baffled hawk not daring to follow. One of these episodes is supposed to have inspired the poet to write his immortal song; but how such fanciful tales are conceived is beyond comprehension. There are many true incidents on record, however, concerning Jesus, Lover of my soul, and one in particular is well worth relating.

During the American Civil War the opposing armies of the Federals and Confederates, on a certain occasion, were facing each other. One night a Confederate sentry was on duty when he heard the sound of singing coming from the Federal lines. He proceeded cautiously in their direction, and observed an enemy sentry pacing up and down, singing Jesus, Lover of my soul. Bringing his gun to his shoulder, he was about to shoot, when the singer came to the words:

Cover my defenceless head
With the shadow of Thy wing.

This was too much for the Confederate, and he lowered his weapon and allowed his would-be victim to go unharmed.

Many years passed, and the Confederate, now a private gentleman, was aboard an excursion steamer on the Potomac River, when he heard an evangelist singing this hymn. Memories were aroused, and thinking he recognised the voice, he made his way to the singer and in conversation found that the evangelist was indeed the sentry he had nearly shot. Great was their mutual joy when he revealed to the singer the peril from which he had been saved on that night long ago, when on sentry duty he besought Divine protection by singing, Jesus, Lover of my soul.

O for a thousand tongues to sing is a close second of Charles Wesley's hymns in popularity, and has been the first hymn in each successive Wesleyan hymn book since 1780. It was written 'For the Anniversary Day of One's Conversion', according to the title given to it in 'Hymns and Sacred Poems'; which would fix the date of composition some time in May, 1739. It originally consisted of eighteen verses, of which the seventh is the first of the present hymn. The opening lines of this verse were probably suggested to the writer by Peter Böhler, who, when Charles spoke to him a year previously about confessing Christ, replied: 'Had I a thousand tongues I would praise Him with them all.'

From Popular Hymns and Their Writers by Norman Mable. 2nd ed. London: Independent Press, Ltd., 1951.

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