We take the brothers together, for, though it is with Charles we have chiefly to do, John (1703-1791) also wrote and translated hymns, and powerfully influenced the course of English hymnology by his work as a hymnal editor, and by his strenuous advocacy of the use of hymns in public worship.
Of all those who have "admonished" the Church with hymns the first place in respect of quantity must be given to Charles Wesley, as he is credited with having written more than 6000, while the brothers together published some fifty books and booklets of hymns including a very remarkable series on the Lord's Supper. The marvel is that having written so much he wrote, on the whole, so well.
Some of his compositions are no doubt poor enough, for though his brother made bold to say in the preface to one of their hymn-books, "In these hymns there is no doggrel (sic)...no feeble expletives...nothing turgid or bombast...no words without meaning," other critics will hardly be so generous. But if he has given us chaff as well as wheat, tinsel as well as gold, his wheat is of the finest, his gold is of the purest. The apostle's phrase, "Admonishing with hymns" is specially applicable to his work. Often he sang, like Keble, as the birds sing, because they must, or as St. Paul preached, because necessity was laid upon him; but more often still he wrote with didactic aim, making his hymns an appendix to his sermons—a gathering up into verse of their central truth. What one has written of John Wesley as hymnbook editor applies equally to Charles, "He saw that hymns might be used not only for raising devotion, but also for instructing and establishing the faith of his disciples—in short a kind of creed in verse," "a body of experimental and practical divinity."
The brothers were born at Epworth, near Lincoln, where their father was vicar. Their mother, a notable disciplinarian who taught her children to "cry softly," was of inexhaustible patience. Her husband once remonstrated, "You have told this child the same thing twenty times"; she replied, "I should have lost my labour if I had only told him nineteen, for it was at the twentieth I succeeded." Charles was educated at Westminster School, and became its captain. One of his schoolfellows was William Murray of Scone, afterwards Earl Mansfield and Chief-Justice of England, who never forgot how Wesley befriended him when his strange Scotch dialect made him the butt of the school. From Westminster Charles went to Christ Church, Oxford, where he gathered round him a band of seriously-disposed students—Whitfield among the rest—for the study of the Greek Testament, the observance of weekly Communion and of stated hours of private devotion, the visitation of the sick, and the instruction of neglected children. This association, founded by Charles, fostered by John, had many derisive epithets cast at it, among others that of "Methodist," which became afterwards the recognized title of the denomination to which John Wesley's teaching gave rise. Both John and Charles owed much in their religious, and probably also in their poetical, development to two members of the Moravian Brotherhood, Count Zinzendorf and Peter Böhler. The Moravians as a community had and have combined with great practical sagacity, an intense and ardent piety which seeks and finds expression—on its active side—in missionary enterprise; on its contemplative side—in a hymnody aglow with passionate devotion to the person of Christ. Wesley's hymns indeed have been called by Ward Beecher "Moravian hymns re-sung." But this must not be taken to mean that they were mere translations or adaptations. We have some translations from the pen of John (who knew German, Charles did not), as for example that beautiful rendering of one of the saintly mystic Tersteegen's compositions, Thou hidden love of God, a hymn whose teaching recalls St. Augustine's memorable words, "Thou hast made us for Thyself, and we are restless till we find our rest in Thee." Charles felt the inspiration of this Moravian evangelical fervour. Most of his hymns are bright and sunny. His creed was simple and clear. He "saw life steadily and saw it whole." There is no trace in his poetry of the weary, wistful, modern mood with its haunting sense of insoluble mystery. He rested in what was revealed. He knew the heights of faith but not the depths of doubt. The great dramatic hymn, Come, O Thou traveller unknown, a poetic spiritualizing of the scene at Peniel, which Isaac Watts considered "worth all the verses" he himself had written, may seem to imply that he had had his doubts. But it is not the song of a man groping in the darkness; faith is master all the while. After his brother's death John could never repeat without emotion the third line of its first verse:—
My company before is gone.
Charles Wesley, while loyally aiding and fully sympathizing with his brother in his great work of evangelization, did not approve his action where it involved departure from the recognized principles of the Church of England, as when he began to "ordain" his preachers. For himself he was resolved to die as he had lived in the communion of the Church of England, and to be buried in the graveyard of his parish church.
The Church Hymnary contains twenty-one hymns from Charles Wesley's pen, but the greatness of our debt is apparent only when we weigh as well as count. How maimed the hymn-book would be that left out Hark! the herald-angels sing; Come, Thou long-expected Jesus; Love divine, all loves excelling; O for a heart to praise my God; Christ, whose glory fills the skies; Gentle Jesus, meek and mild; Hail the day that sees Him rise; Love divine, how sweet thou art! and Jesus, Lover of my soul, of which Ward Beecher said, "I would rather have written that hymn than to have the fame of all the kings that ever sat upon the earth!"
Wesley deals with various phases of the Christian life, and with various aspects of Christian doctrine. He sings of the birth, of the death, and of the rising of Christ, and of the gift of the Holy Ghost. He calls to praise, to service, to conflict, to submission, to trust, but no theme so fired his muse as the love of Christ. All he wrote might be termed one great fugue, with Cowper's lines as typical melody—
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And shall be till I die.
These lines were Cowper's ideal;—Wesley realised it.
From Hymns and Hymn Makers by Duncan Campbell. London: A & C Black, 1898.
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