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Charles Wesley

by John Brownlie

Charles WesleyIn the eighteenth century the voice of melody is heard in all its sweetness. It gave us Charles Wesley, one of the greatest hymn-writers the world has seen; and even had he not been surrounded by a brilliant throng, the century would still have been a bright one, lit up as it was with his matchless radiance.

Son of Samuel Wesley, Rector of Epworth in Lincolnshire, and brother of the famous John Wesley, he was born in the rectory of Epworth December 18, 1707. Being the youngest and eighteenth child of the family, to the support of which only a very small income was available, Charles Wesley was from his earliest years familiar with the pinch of poverty. But hard times make good men, and if Charles Wesley had to content himself with a minimum of creature comforts, and make the best of his lack of many advantages, he had blessings which cannot be overvalued. His father was a man of learning and piety; while in his mother, Susanna Wesley, a woman of great accomplishment and earnest godliness, he had a guide and instructor for his early years, whose direction was safe, and who did more to mould the poet's mind and shape his future character than we shall ever know.

Charles Wesley got his early education at home in the rectory, under the immediate direction of his mother; and when he had reached his eighth year was sent up to Westminster School, where an older brother, Samuel, held the position of second master, and with him he boarded.

When at Westminster an offer, even more handsome than that which was made to Isaac Watts, was given to him. A gentleman of wealth, and a kinsman of the Wesleys, who had no child of his own, offered to adopt Charles and make him heir to his fortune. The young poet would seem to have had a plan of life even at that early age, for the offer so generously made was courteously and promptly declined. His brother John was wont to say that Charles had had a 'fair escape' from becoming a man of rank and wealth. It may be added that the youth who was ultimately adopted by that heirless individual became father of the Earl of Mornington, whose son, the Marquis Wellesley—an older form of Wesley—was the Duke of Wellington, of Waterloo fame. Southey remarks: 'Had Charles made a different choice, there might have been no Methodists, the British Empire might still have been menaced from Seringapatam, and the undisputed tyrant of Europe might have continued to insult and endanger our shores.'

After ten years at Westminster School, Charles Wesley was elected to Christ Church, Oxford, where he spent nine years, graduating in 1729.

It was while a student at Oxford that there was inaugurated that movement of which his brother John afterwards became leader, which was termed the Methodist movement. At its inception, Wesley and those who were associated with him were extreme High Churchmen, but were impelled by a real and earnest desire to improve their religious life. They formed plans of study and devotion, strictly binding themselves to certain methods. To fixed hours of study they added regular weekly communion, stated times of fasting and prayer, philanthropic and home mission work. Thus they gained for themselves the name of Methodists. So far as Oxford was concerned, this movement, like the Tractarian movement of a hundred years later, soon disappeared; but when the evangelical revival under John Wesley began, with which Charles Wesley and Whitefield were identified, and which stirred England and certain districts of Scotland, those who gathered round the Wesleys and formed themselves into congregations, or societies, were again styled Methodists.

In 1738 Charles Wesley was appointed to a curacy in the north of London, which, however, he failed to retain. His preaching, that of a pronounced and earnest evangelical, and perhaps marked by peculiarities not altogether palatable, gave much offence; and fancying that if good work was to be done it must be done outside the regular Church services, he betook himself to the fields. Then began that course of itinerant preaching, in company with his brother John, which was fruitful of so much blessing.

Charles Wesley ultimately settled in London, and died March 29, 1788, in the eighty-first year of his age.

It would be difficult to say how much the success of the Methodist movement owes to the hymns of Charles Wesley. The music of the poet charmed the multitude; and where the voice of John Wesley was never heard, the hymns of his brother Charles carried on the work.

The hymns of John and Charles Wesley are contained in thirteen volumes. For every hundred written by Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley wrote a thousand. In looking over those volumes we are struck, at the first glance, with the variety of measures employed. He was a master of measure, and is not more at home with the iambic than with others more elaborate. There are few classical models which he has not mastered.

Of course, by far the greater number of the 6000 or so hymns which he wrote are unfit for use in Church praise. They served their time, and they are certainly interesting memorials of a wonderful religious upheaval. They are quite a theological compendium, theoretical and practical. There is hardly a text of Scripture that has not its hymn. Mediocrity you constantly find, sometimes unrelieved doggerel; but what else could be expected in thirteen volumes containing 6,000 hymns, nearly all by one writer?

In 1779 John Wesley prepared a hymnal 'Such as might be generally used in all our congregations throughout Great Britain and Ireland.' In that collection, which contains many hundreds by Charles Wesley, with a goodly number by Watts...

The Church Hymnary contains twenty-one hymns by Charles Wesley. They are for the most part hymns that are likely to live; and many of them have associations the most precious attaching to them. In the first place we rank:—

O love Divine, how sweet thou art!

in our estimation one of the finest hymns in our language;—

Jesus, Lover of my soul,

the comfort of many a sin-sick, tempest-tossed soul; and

Love Divine, all loves excelling.

These three are hymns of the rarest charm.

As hymns of praise how bright and hopeful are:—

O for a heart to praise my God!


Christ, whose glory fills the skies

which George Eliot puts into the lips of Seth Bede, and with which he sings down all his troubles.

Hark! the herald angels sing,

is a cheerful Christmas hymn, and well known.

For Easter could we have a more delightful hymn than:—

Christ the Lord is risen to-day.

Less attractive, but good, is the Ascension hymn:—

Hail, the day that sees Him rise.

Very plaintive and confiding are:—

Weary of wandering from my God,


Eternal Beam of Light Divine.

Very exuberant is that other Ascension hymn:—

Rejoice, the Lord is King;

and also

Soldiers of Christ I arise...
Come, Thou long-expected Jesus,
Blow ye the trumpet, blow!
All ye that pass by,
Come, let us join our friends above,
Forth in Thy name, O Lord, I go,

are of less merit, but are good wearable hymns, and are likely still to be of considerable use.

We have left to the last what is, strictly speaking, not a hymn at all, but is certainly a very fine sacred lyric. If we would know the pathos of which Charles Wesley is capable we have but to read:—

Come, O Thou Traveller unknown,

which was suggested to the hymn-writer by the strange incident at the brook Jabbok.

In the original text the poem is in two parts, and as they together constitute such an exquisite lyric, we give them in full—

Part 1
Come, O Thou Traveller unknown,
  Whom still I hold, but cannot see;
My company before is gone,
  And I am left alone with Thee;
With Thee all night I mean to stay,
And wrestle till the break of day.

I need not tell Thee who I am,
  My misery or sin declare;
Thyself hast called me by my name;
  Look on Thy hands, and read it there.
But who, I ask Thee, who art Thou?
Tell me Thy name, and tell me now.

In vain Thou strugglest to get free,
  I never will unloose my hold;
Art Thou the Man that died for me?
  The secret of Thy love unfold;
Wrestling, I will not let Thee go
Till I Thy name, Thy nature know.

Wilt Thou not yet to me reveal
  Thy new unutterable name?
Tell me, I still beseech Thee, tell;
  To know it now, resolved I am:
Wrestling, I will not let Thee go,
Till I Thy name, Thy nature know.

'Tis all in vain to hold Thy tongue,
  Or touch the hollow of my thigh:
Though every sinew be unstrung,
  Out of my arms Thou shalt not fly;
Wrestling, I will not let Thee go,
Till I Thy name, Thy nature know.

What though my shrinking flesh complain,
  And murmur to contend so long,
I rise superior to my pain;
  When I am weak then I am strong;
And, when my all of strength shall fail,
I shall with the God-Man prevail.

My strength is gone, my nature dies;
  I sink beneath Thy weighty hand;
Faint to revive, and fall to rise:
  I fall, and yet by faith I stand;
I stand, and will not let Thee go,
Till I Thy name, Thy nature know.

Part 2
Yield to me now, for I am weak,
  But confident in self-despair;
Speak to my heart, in blessings speak;
  Be conquered by my instant prayer.
Speak, or Thou never hence shalt move,
And tell me if Thy name is Love.

'Tis Love! 'tis Love ! Thou diedst for me!
  I hear Thy whisper in my heart;
The morning breaks, the shadows flee;
  Pure universal Love Thou art;
To me, to all, Thy bowels move;
Thy nature and Thy name is Love.

My prayer hath power with God; the grace
  Unspeakable, I now receive;
Through faith I see Thee face to face;
  I see Thee face to face and live.
In vain I have not wept and strove;
Thy nature and Thy name is Love.

I know Thee, Saviour, who Thou art,
   Jesus, the feeble sinner's Friend;
Nor wilt Thou with the night depart,
  But stay and love me to the end:
Thy mercies never shall remove;
Thy nature and Thy name is Love.

The Sun of Righteousness on me,
  Hath rose with healing in His wings;
Withered my nature's strength; from Thee
  My soul its life and succour brings.
My help is all laid up above:
Thy nature and Thy name is Love.

Contented now, upon my thigh
  I halt, till life's short journey end;
All helplessness, all weakness, I
  On Thee alone for strength depend;
Nor have I power from Thee to move:
Thy nature and Thy name is Love.

Lame as I am, I take the prey;
  Hell, earth, and sin, with ease o'ercome;
I leap for joy, pursue my way,
  And as a bounding hart ply home,
Through all eternity to prove,
Thy nature and Thy name is Love.

From The Hymns and Hymn Writers of the Church Hymnary by John Brownlie. London: Henry Frowde, [1899?].

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