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Charles Wesley: Hymn writer

Charles WesleyCharles Wesley...was the great hymn-writer of the Wesley family,—perhaps, taking quantity and quality into consideration, the great hymn writer of all ages. Charles Wesley was the youngest son and 18th child of Samuel and Susanna Wesley, and was born at Epworth Rectory, [England] December 18, 1707.

In 1716 he went to Westminster School, being provided with a home and board by his elder brother Samuel, then usher at the school, until 1721, when he was elected King's Scholar, and as such received his board and education free. While he was at Westminster, his father received a letter from a wealthy Irish man, asking him if he had a son named Charles, and if so offering to adopt him and make him his heir. The acceptance of the offer was left to Charles himself, who declined it.

In 1726 Charles Wesley was elected to a Westminster studentship at Christ Church, Oxford, where he took his degree in 1729, and became a college tutor. In the early part of the same year his religious impressions were much deepened, and he became one of the first band of "Oxford Methodists."

In 1735 he went with his brother John to Georgia, as secretary to General Oglethorpe, having before he set out received Deacon's and Priests Orders on two successive Sundays. His stay in Georgia was very short; he returned to England in 1736, and in 1737 came under the influence of Count Zinzendorf and the Moravians, especially of that remarkable man who had so large a share in moulding John Wesley's career, Peter Böhler, and also of a Mr. Bray, a brazier in Little Britain. On Whitsunday, [1738], he "found rest to his soul," and [the same year] he became curate to his friend, Mr. Stonehouse, Vicar of Islington, but the opposition of the churchwardens was so great that the Vicar consented that he "should preach in his church no more." Henceforth his work was identified with that of his brother John, and he became an indefatigable itinerant and field preacher.

On April 8, 1749, he married Miss Sarah Gwynne. His marriage, unlike that of his brother John, was a most happy one; his wife was accustomed to accompany him on his evangelistic journeys, which were as frequent as ever until the year 1756, when he ceased to itinerate, and mainly devoted himself to the care of the Societies in London and Bristol. Bristol was his headquarters until 1771, when he removed with his family to London, and, besides attending to the Societies, devoted himself much, as he had done in his youth, to the spiritual care of prisoners in Newgate.

He had long been troubled about the relations of Methodism to the Church of England, and strongly dieapproved of his brother John's "ordinations." Wesley-like, he expressed his disapproval in the most outspoken fashion, but, as in the case of Samuel at an earlier period, the differences between the brothers never led to a breach of friendship.

He died in London, March 29,1788, and was buried in Marylebone churchyard. His brother John was deeply grieved because he would not consent to be interred in the burial ground of the City Road Chapel, where he had prepared a grave for himself, but Charles said, "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." Eight clergymen of the Church of England bore his pall. He had a large family, four of whom survived him; three sons, who all became distinguished in the musical world, and one daughter, who inherited some of her father's poetical genius. The widow and orphans were treated with the greatest kindness and generosity by John Wesley.

As a hymn-writer Charles Wesley was unique. He is said to have written no less than 6500 hymns, and though, of course, in so vast a number some are of unequal merit, it is perfectly marvellous how many there are which rise to the highest degree of excellence. His feelings on every occasion of importance, whether private or public, found their best expression in a hymn. His own conversion, his own marriage, the earthquake panic, the rumours of an invasion from France, the defeat of Prince Charles Edward at Culloden, the Gordon riots, every Festival of the Christian Church, every doctrine of the Christian Faith, striking scenes in Scripture history, striking scenes which came within his own view, the deaths of friends as they passed away, one by one, before him, all furnished occasions for the exercise of his divine gift. 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. It would be simply impossible within our space to enumerate even those of the hymns which have become really classical. 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; for hymns, which are really good in every respect, flowed from his pen in quick succession, and death alone stopped the course of the perennial stream.


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from A Dictionary of Hymnology... edited by John Julian. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1892.

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