Charles Wesley was born into a family or succession of hymn-writers. His father, the Rector of Epworth, was the author of various hymns. One of these, written on a piece of music, was rescued from the fire which destroyed the parsonage. The infant Charles was saved from the flames at the same time. He was born into an atmosphere of poetry and music.
He had a narrow escape — what his more famous brother called a "fair escape" — from being a man of wealth and rank. A rich namesake, a landed proprietor in Ireland who was without an heir, offered to adopt him. Although only a schoolboy at Westminster, young Wesley had a life-plan, and declined the proposal. A cousin was adopted in his stead, Richard Colley Wesley, whose son became an earl and the father of the Duke of Wellington, who changed Wesley into the older form of Wellesley.
Curious to think of the influence which young Charles Wesley's refusal of the heirship had upon the history of religion in England, upon the sacred song of the Church, and upon the military glory of Britain under the great Duke. Like Moses, he refused to be the heir of a landed proprietor, and chose to suffer hardships in the poor parsonage at home, and to win his way to spiritual usefulness.
He had a long and complete classical training; was nine years at Christ Church, Oxford; became a deft master of pure English; and so was being prepared for writing some of our richest and most classic hymns.
At Oxford he began a course of such systematic study, such scrupulous regularity in the use of his time, and in attendance at the services of the Church, that he was nicknamed "Methodist."
He became the center of a small "Society" of pious gownsmen. This "Godly Club" was soon joined by John Wesley, whose energy and generalship gave it a wider influence. These two were the Moses and Aaron of the movement afterwards called "The Methodist Revival."
But thus far neither had learnt the simple Gospel. They were intensely religious, but their religion was one of rigorous Churchism.
Charles went with his brother John on a mission to Georgia under the "Society for the Propagation of the Gospel," but his efforts proved a failure. In feeble health he returned to England, during his two months' voyage experiencing a terrible storm at sea. The impression left on his mind by this voyage led him to write, in later years, the hymn to be sung at sea:
"Throughout the deep Thy footsteps shine,
We own Thy way is in the sea,
O'er awed by majesty divine,
And lost in Thy immensity."
At home he met many of the godly aristocracy. He became tutor to Peter Böhler, a Moravian who was preparing to go as a missionary to Georgia. The tutor taught his pupil English, and the pupil taught his tutor a higher subject.
Wesley seemed once "on the point to die," and the Moravian asked him, "Do you hope to be saved?" Charles answered, "Yes." "For what reason do you hope it?" "Because I have used my best endeavours to serve God." In recounting the event Charles Wesley says, "He shook his head and said no more. I thought him very uncharitable, saying in my heart: Would he rob me of my endeavours?" But that sad, silent, significant shake of the head shattered his confidence in his "endeavours." It was left to a "poor ignorant mechanic, who knows nothing but Christ," to teach him to hope, not in endeavours, but in the merits of a perfect Saviour.
Curious that Luther On the Galatians was the book which brought him most light...
It does not fall within the scope of the present sketch to tell of all his work as an evangelist, and as the founder of Methodist Societies. It is as a hymn-writer that we are now studying him.
Coleridge says of Luther: "He did as much for the Reformation by his hymns as by his translation of the Bible, for in Germany the hymns are known by heart by every peasant. They advise, they argue, from the hymns."
So Charles Wesley sang the Gospel into hundreds of hearts that would never have been touched by the preaching of his brother.
George Eliot in Adam Bede describes Seth Bede, the village Methodist, as driving away all his griefs and perplexities as he strode across the lonely Derbyshire moors, on a bright Sunday morning, by singing Wesley's "Morning Hymn:"
"Christ, Whose glory fills the skies."
The same author describes another Methodist, Dinah Morris (in Adam Bede), as singing away her sorrows with another of Wesley's hymns:
"Eternal Beam of light divine,
Fountain of unexhausted love;
In Whom the Father's glories shine
Through earth beneath and Heaven above."
Wesley had learnt a system of shorthand, and usually dashed down his hymns in this shape at first, just as they came into his mind.
It was his habit to carry small cards in his pocketbook, on which he wrote down the lines of his hymns as they arose in his mind. Many of his verses upon Prayer and Communion were composed and jotted down immediately after leaving the Prayer Meeting and the Communion Table.
"Often would he get off his horse, throwing the reins loose to let the animal graze by the roadside, while he sat upon a stone-heap or a stile, and recorded in verse the 'experiences' through which his soul had passed in some little conventicle where he had been holding forth the Word of Life."
One of his hymns, not commonly sung, interprets a scene at Land's End. There the extreme projection of the land stands two hundred feet above the boiling, seething waters of the British Channel and the Atlantic:
"Lo! on a narrow neck of land
Twixt two unbounded seas I stand."
The motif of his
Oh! for a thousand tongues to sing
My dear Redeemer's praise,"
was to commemorate his own conversion. The keynote was probably given him by a remark of the Moravian missionary, Peter Böhler: "Had I a thousand tongues I would praise Him with them all."
Of his hymns some twenty-two are in common use. The most precious, and most famous, however, is:
"Jesus, Lover of my soul."
The traditional origin of the hymn is that "Wesley was seated at his desk when a bird, pursued by a hawk, flew in at the open window. The baffled hawk did not dare to follow, and the poet took his pen and wrote this immortal song about Christ, the Refuge of the soul."
Few hymns have been such a comfort to the weary and dying as this. One could tell many stories connected with it.
Several years ago a ship was burned in the English Channel. Among the passengers were a father, mother, and their infant daughter. When the alarm of fire was given the family became separated in the confusion. The father was rescued and taken to Liverpool; but mother and child were carried overboard, drifted out of the Channel, the mother clinging to a fragment of the wreck, her little one clasped to her breast.
A vessel bound from Newport, Wales, to America, was moving slowly on her course. Their attention was called to the floating object: there was no ship within sight, and they thought it could not be a human being. But they sent a boat. As the boat approached the floating fragment, suddenly the sound of a gentle voice was borne on the breeze, and the sailors heard these words sung:
"Jesus, Lover of my soul."
Mother and child were rescued, were afterwards conveyed to America, where they found husband and father.
Another story is told, and, although evidently "cooked," may well have had something true to cook.
A party of Northern tourists formed part of a large company gathered on the deck of an excursion steamer, that was moving slowly down the historic Potomac one beautiful evening in the summer of 1881. A gentleman had been delighting the party with his happy rendering of many familiar hymns, the last being the petition, so dear to every loving heart, "Jesus, Lover of my soul."
The singer gave the first two verses with much feeling, and a peculiar emphasis upon the concluding lines that thrilled every heart. A hush had fallen upon the listeners, that was not broken for some seconds after the musical notes had died away.
Then a gentleman made his way from the outskirts of the crowd to the side of the singer, and accosted him with, "Beg your pardon, sir, but were you actively engaged in the late war?"
"Yes, sir," the man of song answered courteously; "I fought under General Grant."
"Well," the first speaker continued, "I did my fighting on the other side, and think — indeed am quite sure — I was very near you one bright night eighteen years ago this very month. It was much such a night as this. If I am not mistaken, you were on guard-duty. We of the South had sharp business on hand. I crept near your post of duty, my weapon in my hand; the shadows hid me. Your beat led you into the clear light. As you paced back and forth you were humming the tune of the hymn you have just sung. I raised my gun and aimed at your heart, — and I had been selected by my commander for the work because I was a sure shot. Then out upon the night floated the words:
"'Cover my defenceless head
With the shadow of Thy wing.'
Your prayer was answered. I couldn't fire after that. And there was no attack made upon your camp that night. I felt sure, when I heard you singing this evening, that you were the man whose life I was spared from taking.
The singer grasped the hand of the Southerner and said, with much emotion: "I remember the night very well, and distinctly the feeling of depression and loneliness with which I went forth to my duty. I knew my post was one of great danger. I paced my lonely beat, thinking of home and friends and all that life holds dear.
"Then the thought of God's care came to me with peculiar force, and I sang the prayer of my heart, and ceased to feel alone. How the prayer was answered I never knew until this evening. 'Jesus, Lover of my soul' has been a favourite hymn; now it will be inexpressibly dear."
From Romance of Psalter and Hymnal: Authors and Composer by R. E. Welsh. London: Hodder and Stoughton; New York: Pott., 1889.
>> More Charles Wesley