Three hundred years after Charles Wesley’s birth, Alan Edwards looks at his life and the sources of inspiration for some of his best-known hymns
Even in an increasingly secularized (and in some areas Islam -ized) Britain, Charles Wesley’s ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ will still be sung countless times this Christmastide. Countless too the hymns and poems by Wesley, born 300 years ago this year – five thousand at least; some estimates say seven thousand. His energy came from his mother Susanna; his poetry from his country rector father Samuel.
Although having ten children, Susanna gave individual tuition to each, not least in the High Church doctrine she shared with Samuel, though both came from Puritan stock. He did not, however, support her Jacobite views. Traditionalist maybe, but Susanna was not afraid to defy convention. She gathered up to two hundred folk in her rectory kitchen for prayers, hymns and sermon reading, Samuel saying that this was ‘unseemly for a woman.’
The adult Charles, while remaining an Anglican all his days, joined John in defying convention, preaching in the open air when church doors were closed against their evangelistic enthusiasm. His remaining true to Anglicanism, despite John’s ‘ordinations’ which led to separation, and despite the hostility of many bishops, may strike a chord in the modern orthodox constituency.
A more fiery preacher than John, he also directed his emotion into his verse. ‘And Can It Be?’ celebrated his experience of May 1738 when he came to trust Christ fully, having attended a Moravian meeting in London. He had first met Moravians on a voyage to Georgia for what turned out to be an unsuccessful mission. Possibly it was memories of that voyage that eventually led to ‘Jesu Lover of My Soul’.
His heart joined to the clear head that produced the methodical regime of the ‘Holy Club’ of the Wesleys’ student days led him to embrace John’s vision of the world being our parish. They preached to condemned criminals, colliers and the comfortable alike. Charles was an advocate of the Prayer Book ideal of regular communion. Hymns such as ‘Victim Divine’ proclaimed the Real Presence; ‘papists’ was an accusation sometimes thrown at the Wesleys.
The Prayer Book inspired many of his greatest hymns. ‘Christ Whose Glory Fills the Skies’ echoes the Benedictus. The reference in ‘Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending’ to glorious majesty’ is drawn from the Advent Collect. ‘Hail the Day that Sees Him Rise’ follows the Ascension Day Collect. John omitted that hymn from his Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists, preferring hymns reflecting personal religious experience to those following the liturgical year.
Charles frequently revised his verses and freely borrowed from other writers. ‘Hark How the Welkin Rings’, a variant first line of ‘Hark the Herald Angels’, drew ‘welkin rings’ from another poet’s work of four years earlier. ‘O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing’ may have been suggested by a Moravian’s remark that ‘Had I a thousand tongues I would praise Him with all.’ He would also have known Isaac Watt’s ‘Begin My Tongue, Some Heavenly Theme’, turning one tongue to a thousand.
His balance of Catholic and Evangelical spirituality was followed in later times by Fr Stanton and Fr Andrew. Balance was also a characteristic of his personal life. Whereas John, like many born leaders, could be domineering, Charles was described as ‘sociable and affectionate’, enjoying a long and happy marriage. John continued itinerant ministry until his death, but Charles settled down in middle age, eventually at London’s City Road chapel.
The calendar revision of recent years designated 24 May as a day to remember the Wesleys, a date long celebrated in Methodism. A Saturday in 2008, so why not, on the Sunday, choose every hymn from the Charles Wesley corpus? After all, there are five thousand to choose from!