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Charles Wesley: "The Poet of Methodism"

Charles WesleyCharles Wesley: One of the founders of Methodism; born at Epworth (23 miles northwest of Lincoln), [England] December 18, [1707], O. S. (December 29, N. S.); died in London March 29, 1788. He was the son of Samuel Wesley, Sr., and brother of [John] Wesley. In childhood he declined an offer of adoption by a wealthy namesake in Ireland; and the person taken in his stead became an earl, and grandfather to the duke of Wellington. He was educated at Westminster School, London, under his brother Samuel, 1716; at St. Peter's College, Westminster, London, 1721; and at Christ Church, Oxford, 1726, where, with his brother John and one or two others, he received the nickname of "Methodist" in consequence of the method they employed in prayer and daily life.

In 1735 he was ordained, and went with John Wesley to Georgia, returning 1736. May 21, 1738, he "experienced the witness of adoption," and at once joined his brother's evangelistic work, traveling much, and preaching with great zeal and success. He never held ecclesiastical preferment, and bore his share of the persecutions which beset the early Methodists. April 8, 1749, he married Sarah Gwynne: by her he had eight children, two of whom became eminent musicians.

John Wesley's expression, "his least praise was his talent for poetry," is unmeaning: whatever his other gifts and graces, it is because he was "the poet of Methodism" and one of the most gifted and voluminous of English hymn-writers that his fame and influence live. The Poetical Works of John and Charles Wesley, as reprinted by the Wesleyan Conference (London, 1868-72), fill thirteen volumes, or near 6,000 pages. Of the original publications, the earlier ones bore the names of both brothers, but most were the work of Charles alone. While in the books of joint authorship it is not always possible to distinguish with absolute certainty between the two, it is generally agreed that John wrote only the translations (almost wholly from the German, some forty in all) and a very few originals. Their style is the same, save for a little more severity and dignity on John's part. Their first volume (or perhaps John's alone, for it bears no name), possibly also the first English Collection of Psalms and Hymns, appeared at Charleston, S. C., 1737 (cf. C. Evans, American Bibliography, vol. ii., no. 4207, Chicago, 1904; there is a copy in the Public Library, New York). A single, copy was found in London, 1879, and reprinted 1882. The original contains some pieces by John, but apparently none by Charles, who perhaps had not then begun to write. Another small Collection was published in London, 1738; and in 1739 began the long series of original works in verse. The more extensive of these were Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739, 1740, 1742; three separate books); the same (2 vols., 1749); Hymns on God's Everlasting Love (1741); On the Lord's Supper (1745); For those that Seek and those that have Redemption (1747); Funeral Hymns (1746-59); Short Hymns on Select Passages of Holy Scripture (2 vols., 1762; 2,348 pieces); Hymns for Children (1763); For Families (1767); On the Trinity (1767). Besides these there are some twenty tracts, minor in size, but containing some of Charles Wesley's most effective lyrics, and a few elegies and epistles. The work of publication went on, though less vigorously in later years, till 1785, and that of composition till his death, at which he left in manuscript a quantity of verse, chiefly on Bible texts, equal to one-third of that printed in his lifetime. His huge fecundity hindered his fame; had he written less, he might be read more; but he had not the gift of condensing. His thoughts, or at least his feelings, flowed more readily in verse than in prose; he wrote on horseback, in a stage-coach, almost in "the article of death." His fifty-six Hymns for Christian Friends, some of them continuously and widely used, were dedicated to Miss Gwynne; and his last verse, taken down by her "when he could scarcely articulate," preserves something of the old fire.

Nearly every occasion and condition of external life are provided for in the vast range of his productions, which have more "variety of matter and manner" than critics have commonly supposed; and, as to feelings and experiences, "he has celebrated them with an affluence of diction and a splendor of coloring never surpassed and rarely equaled." Temperament and belief alike inclined him to subjective themes, and, guiding his unique lyrical talent, made him preeminently "the poet of Methodism." To the wonderful growth and success of that system his hymns were no less essential than his brother's government. They are the main element in most Wesleyan collections, both English and American. In the newest official hymnal of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, no fewer than 121 of the 748 hymns are Charles Wesley's. The most widely used, in America at least, are "Oh for a thousand tongues to sing," "Jesus, lover of my soul," and "Love divine all loves excelling." Probably no school or system in any age or land has owned so mighty an implement in the way of sacred song, and no other hymn-writer has succeeded in voicing so felicitously the varied states of religious feeling. His productions are still esteemed as among the most choice and helpful devotional literature, and many of them seem to be wholly unaffected by the marked changes in religious thought and in the emphasis placed upon various doctrines.

Non-Methodists long suspected and shunned this poetry, and still need to exercise discrimination in making selections from it. Its author was given not only to extravagances of expression (which were sometimes pared down by his brother's severer taste), but to unrestrained and often violent emotion. Withal he is too fluent, too rhetorical; his mannerism at times involves a lack of simplicity; his "fatal facility of strong words" is a fault both literary and religious. Yet his intensely sincere and fervent piety, his intellectual strength and acuteness, his unmistakably high culture, and the matchless spontaneity of his eloquence, place him easily near the head of British sacred lyrists. No collection is complete — probably for a century none has been formed — without his hymns; and they are now perhaps more generally and widely used than of old. He is entitled to rank not merely as a hymn-writer, but among Christian poets. Many of his pieces which are not adapted to public worship, and very little known, possess much literary and human interest; his autobiographic and polemic verses, e.g., are probably unequaled. He cannot be adequately judged by his fragmentary appearances in the hymnals, not even by John Wesley's Collection for the Use of the People called Methodists (1780; supplement 1830); though that presents a considerable fraction of his writings, with much less abridgment and alteration than any other, and has nearly all the qualities claimed by its editor in his vigorous and memorable preface. [A somewhat higher estimate than the above of the poetry and hymns of Charles Wesley is furnished by Canon Overton (Julian, Hymnology, p. 1258): "As a hymn-writer Charles Wesley was unique. He is said to have written ... 6,500 hymns, and though ... in so vast a number some are of unequal merit, it is ... marvelous how many there are which rise to the highest degree of excellence. His feelings on every occasion of importance ... found their best expression in a hymn... Nor must we forget his hymns for little children, a branch of sacred poetry in which the mantle of Dr. Watts seems to have fallen upon him... The saying that a really good hymn is as rare an appearance as that of a comet is falsified by the work of Charles Wesley."] by Frederic M. Bird. Revised by H. K. Carroll.

Bibliography: Besides the preface to John Wesley's Collection for the Use of the People Called Methodists, ut sup, and The Early Journal of 1736-39, London, 1910, consult: T. Jackson, Life of Rev. Charles Wesley, 2 vols., London and New York, 1842 (the authoritative work); D. Creamer, Methodist Hymnology, New York, 1848; C. Adams, Memorials of Charles Wesley, ib. 1859; F. A. Archibald, Methodism and Literature, Cincinnati, 1883; S. W. Duffield, English Hymns, pp. 346-351, New York. 1887; J. Telford, Life of the Rev. Charles Wesley, enlarged ed., London, 1900; N. Smith, Hymns historically Famous, pp. 69-83, Chicago, 1901; Julian, Hymnology, pp. 726-729, 1255-66... and R. Green, The Works of John and Charles Wesley. A Bibliography containing an exact Account of all the Publications issued by the Wesley Brothers...in chronological Order, London, 1896.

From The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge... New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1912.

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