Biography of Charles Wesley
Portrait by John Russell
|Born||(1707-12-18)18 December 1707|
Epworth, Lincolnshire, England
|Died||29 March 1788(1788-03-29) (aged 80)|
|Education||Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford|
|Spouse(s)||Sarah Wesley (née Gwynne)|
|Parent(s)||Samuel and Susanna Wesley|
|Relatives||Samuel Wesley (brother), Mehetabel Wesley Wright (sister), John Wesley (brother)|
|Church||Church of England|
Charles Wesley (18 December 1707 – 29 March 1788) was an English leader of the Methodist movement, most widely known for writing about 6,500 hymns.
Wesley was born in Epworth, Lincolnshire, the son of Anglican cleric and poet Samuel Wesley and his wife Susanna. He was a younger brother of Methodist founder John Wesley and Anglican cleric Samuel Wesley the Younger, and he became the father of musician Samuel Wesley and grandfather of musician Samuel Sebastian Wesley.
Wesley was educated at Oxford where his brothers had also studied, and he formed the "Holy Club" among his fellow students in 1729. John Wesley later joined this group, as did George Whitefield. Charles followed his father and brother into the church in 1735, and he travelled with John to Georgia in America, returning a year later. In 1749, he married Sarah Gwynne, daughter of a Welsh gentleman who had been converted to Methodism by Howell Harris. She accompanied the brothers on their evangelistic journeys throughout Britain until Charles ceased to travel in 1765.
Despite their closeness, Charles and John did not always agree on questions relating to their beliefs. In particular, Charles was strongly opposed to the idea of a breach with the Church of England into which they had been ordained.
Early portrait of Wesley
Charles Wesley was the eighteenth child of Susanna Wesley and Samuel Wesley. He was born in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England, where his father was rector. He was educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford, where he was ordained. At Oxford, Charles formed a prayer group among his fellow students in 1727; his elder brother, John, joined in 1729, soon becoming its leader and moulding it in line with his own convictions. They focused on studying the Bible and living a holy life. Other students mocked them, saying they were the "Holy Club", "Sacramentarians", and "the Methodists", being methodical and exceptionally detailed in their Bible study, opinions and disciplined lifestyle. George Whitefield joined the group. After graduating with a master's degree in classical languages and literature, Charles followed his father and brother into Anglican orders in 1735.
Voyage to America
On 14 October 1735, Charles and his brother John sailed on The Simmonds from Gravesend, Kent for Savannah in Georgia Colony in British America at the request of the governor, James Oglethorpe. Charles was appointed Secretary of Indian Affairs and while John remained in Savannah, Charles went as chaplain to the garrison and colony at nearby Fort Frederica, St. Simon's Island, arriving there Tuesday, 9 March 1736 according to his journal entry. Matters did not turn out well, and he was largely rejected by the settlers. In July 1736, Charles was commissioned to England as the bearer of dispatches to the trustees of the colony. On 16 August 1736, he sailed from Charleston, South Carolina, never to return to the Georgia colony.
Plaque at Postman's Park, London, commemorating John and Charles Wesley
Plaque in Westminster commemorating the site of Wesley's house
Charles Wesley experienced a conversion on 21 May 1738—John Wesley had a similar experience in Aldersgate Street just three days later. A City of London blue plaque at 13, Little Britain, near the church of St Botolph's-without-Alders, off St. Martin's Le Grand, marks the site of the former house of John Bray, reputed to be the scene of Charles' evangelical conversion on 21 May 1738. It reads, "Adjoining this site stood the house of John Bray. Scene of Charles Wesley's conversion by faith in Christ on May 21st 1738".
Monument in St Mary le Bone Old Churchyard at the position of Wesley's original grave
Wesley felt renewed strength to spread the Gospel to ordinary people and it was around then that he began to write the poetic hymns for which he would become known. It was not until 1739 that the brothers took to field preaching, under the influence of George Whitefield, whose open-air preaching was already reaching great numbers of Bristol colliers.
After ceasing field preaching and frequent travel due to illness in 1765, Wesley settled and worked in the area around St Marylebone Parish Church. On his deathbed he sent for the church's rector, John Harley, and told him "Sir, whatever the world may say of me, I have lived, and I die, a member of the Church of England. I pray you to bury me in your churchyard." Upon his death, his body was carried to the church by six clergymen of the Church of England. A memorial stone to him stands in the gardens in Marylebone High Street, close to his place of burial. One of his sons, Samuel, became the organist at the church.
Marriage and children
In April 1749, he married the much younger Sarah Gwynne (1726–1822), also known as Sally. She was the daughter of Marmaduke Gwynne, a wealthy Welsh magistrate who had been converted to Methodism by Howell Harris. They moved into a house in Bristol in September 1749. Sarah accompanied the brothers on their evangelistic journeys throughout Britain, until at least 1753. After 1756 Charles made no more journeys to distant parts of the country, mainly just moving between Bristol and London.
In 1771, Charles obtained another house, in London, and moved into it that year with his elder son. By 1778 the whole family had transferred from Bristol to the London house, at 1 Chesterfield Street (now Wheatley Street), Marylebone, where they remained until Charles' death and on into the 19th century. The house in Bristol still stands and has been restored, however the London house was demolished in the mid 19th century.
Only three of the couple's children survived infancy: Charles Wesley junior (1757–1834), Sarah Wesley (1759–1828), who like her mother was also known as Sally, and Samuel Wesley (1766–1837) Their other children, John, Martha Maria, Susannah, Selina and John James are all buried in Bristol having died between 1753 and 1768. (See monument in garden on north side of junction of Lewis Mead and The Haymarket, Bristol.) Both Samuel and Charles junior were musical child prodigies and, like their father, became organists and composers. Charles junior spent most of his career as the personal organist of the English Royal family, and Samuel became one of the most accomplished musicians in the world and is often called "the English Mozart." Furthermore, Samuel Wesley's son, Samuel Sebastian Wesley, was one of the foremost British composers of the 19th century.
Wesley's conversion had a clear impact on his doctrine, especially the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The change in doctrine can be seen in his sermons after 1738, but is most notable in his hymns written after 1738.
From Charles' published work "Hymns and Prayers to the Trinity" and in Hymn number 62 he writes "The Holy Ghost in part we know, For with us He resides, Our whole of good to Him we owe, Whom by His grace he guides, He doth our virtuous thoughts inspire, The evil he averts, And every seed of good desire, He planted in our hearts."
Charles communicates several doctrines: the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, the depravity of mankind, and humanity's personal accountability to God. His hymns have had a significant influence not only on Methodism, but on modern theology as a whole.
Charles Wesley preaching, by William Gush.
In the course of his career, Charles Wesley published the words of over 6,000 hymns, many of which are still popular. These include:
- "Arise my soul arise" (Lyrics)
- "And Can It Be That I Should Gain?" (Lyrics)
- "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today" (Lyrics)
- "Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies" (Lyrics)
- "Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown" (Lyrics)
- "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus" (Lyrics)
- "Depth of Mercy, Can it Be" (Lyrics)
- "Father, I Stretch My Hands to Thee" (Lyrics)
- "Hail the Day that Sees Him Rise" (Lyrics)
- "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" (Lyrics)
- "Jesus, Lover of My Soul" (Lyrics)
- "Jesus, The Name High Over All" (Lyrics)
- "Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending" (Lyrics)
- "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" (Lyrics)
- "O for a Heart to Praise My God" (Lyrics)
- "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing" (Lyrics)
- "Rejoice, the Lord is King" (Lyrics)
- "Soldiers of Christ, Arise" (Lyrics)
- "Sun of Unclouded Righteousness"
- "Thou Hidden Source of Calm Repose" (Lyrics)
- "Ye Servants of God" (Lyrics)
The lyrics to many more of Charles Wesley's hymns can be found on Wikisource and his many publications.
Some 150 of his hymns are in the Methodist hymn book Hymns and Psalms, including "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing, and "The Church Hymn Book" (In New York and Chicago, US, 1872) where "Jesus, Lover of My Soul" is published. Many of his hymns are translated into other languages, and form the foundation for Methodist hymnals, as well as the Swedish Metodist-Episkopal-Kyrkans Psalmbok printed in Stockholm in 1892.
Wesley's hymns are notable as interpretations of Scripture. He also produced paraphrases of the Psalms, contributing to the long tradition of English metrical Psalmody. A notable feature of his Psalms is the introduction of Jesus into the Psalms, continuing a tradition of Christological readings of the Psalms evident in the translations of John Patrick and Isaac Watts. The introduction of Jesus into the Psalms was often the source of controversy, even within Wesley's own family. Charles' brother Samuel Wesley wrote a poem against such practice. Of particular importance is Wesley's manuscript Psalms, held in the archives of the Pitts Theology Library at Emory University.
Death and Burial
At the age of 80, Charles Wesley died on 29 March 1788, in London, England. Since he considered himself a member of the Church of England, he had requested to be buried as such, and is buried in the Marylebone Parish church graveyard.
Wesley is still remembered for his ministry while in St. Simon's Island, Georgia, by the South Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church; in 1950, the conference opened a Christian retreat center on the island by the banks of the Frederica River, designating it Epworth by the Sea in honour of his and John's birthplace. He is commemorated in the Calendar of Saints of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on 2 March with his brother John. The Wesley brothers are also commemorated on 3 March in the Calendar of Saints of the Episcopal Church and on 24 May in the Anglican calendar. Charles is commemorated on 29 March in the Calendar of Commemorations by The Order of Saint Luke; John is commemorated on 2 March; their parents are also commemorated.
As a result of his enduring hymnody, the Gospel Music Association recognised his musical contributions to the art of gospel music in 1995 by listing his name in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
Wesley wrote two of the so-called Great Four Anglican Hymns: "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" and "Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending".
24 May 2007 was celebrated as the tercentenary of Wesley's birth, with many celebratory events held throughout England, even though Wesley was in fact born in December 1707. The date of 24 May is known to Methodists as "Aldersgate Day" and commemorates the spiritual awakening of first Charles and then John Wesley in 1738. In particular, in the Village of Epworth, North Lincolnshire, at the Wesley Memorial Methodist Church, there was a flower festival, on 26 and 28 May, with flower arrangements representing some of Wesley's hymns, such as O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing, And Can It Be, and O For a Trumpet Voice.
In November 2007, An Post, the Irish Post Office, issued a 78c stamp to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Wesley's birth.
Stained glass depictions of Wesley
Wesley at St. Matthew's Church, Bristol
Bach, Wesley and Handel, at Cambridge Rd Methodist Church, Birmingham.
Charles Wesley, John Wesley, and Francis Asbury at Lake Junaluska
- Charles Wesley: Hymns of Praise – Comenius Foundation, 2005, in which Charles Wesley (portrayed by John Jackman) tells the stories behind the writing of many of his hymns
- A Heart Set Free – T. N. Mohan, 2007, a feature-length documentary on Charles Wesley's life and hymns
- Wesley – Foundery Pictures, 2009, starring Burgess Jenkins as John Wesley, R. Keith Harris as Charles Wesley, and featuring June Lockhart as Susanna Wesley and Kevin McCarthy as Bishop Ryder
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Poem of the day
by Sidney Lanier
I charge you by your life, go back to death.
This glebe is sick, this wind is foul of breath.
Stay: feed the worms.
'Oh! every clod
Is faint, and falters from the war of growth
And crumbles in a dreary dust of sloth,
Read complete poem