The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Charles Wesley
(1707-1788)

Engraving of Charles WesleyBorn: December 28, 1707, Epworth, Lincolnshire, England.

Died: March 29, 1788, London, England.

Buried: Marylebone Parish Church, London.

Charles Wesley was the eighteenth and last child of Samuel and Susanna Wesley. He was born December 18, 1707, in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England. He was first educated at home by his parents and later enrolled in the Westminister School in 1716 where his brother Samuel paid his room and board. He went on to Christ College in Oxford with a Westminster scholarship; he received his B.A. in 1730 and his M.A. in 1732. While there, he, along with his brother John and George Whitefield, formed the Oxford Holy Club for the purposes of worship, Bible study, frequent Holy Communion and visiting the sick and imprisoned in their pursuits they became known as the first "Methodists." After graduation he became a college tutor.

In 1735, Charles was ordained as a deacon in the Church of England; shortly thereafter he sailed for Georgia as a missionary to the new colony. Although secretary to General James Oglethorpe, he became disillusioned and in 1736 returned to London by way of Boston, in the process preaching in what is now the Old South Church. Upon return to London in 1737, he fell in with William Law, Count Zinzendorf and the Moravians and Peter Böhler and was converted on Whitsunday, May 21, 1738, Charles is said to have found "rest to his soul." The day is marked by his writing the hymn, "Where Shall My Wondering Soul Begin."

He then began as curate without license from the bishop in a strongly Methodist parish, St. Mary's in Islington. He moved to Bristol in 1749 where he married Sarah Gwynne on April 18th; of the eight children they had, three survived. They returned to London in 1771 where he renewed his prison ministry to Newgate.

Charles was just as involved and instrumental in spreading and sustaining the Methodist movement as his brother, John Wesley. The myth holding Charles as the poet and John as the organizer and preacher is not true. John was one of the organizers of Methodism, but Charles was the one who developed its practical theology with his hymns. Throughout, Charles maintained his ties and allegiance to the Church of England and at times reprimanded his brother for his increasing distance from the church.

In his over 6,000 hymns, all but four books of the Bible are cited, and he used over 45 different meters. His hymns are contained in 64 collections published during his lifetime. Like most hymnists, his work were frequently altered. In the preface to one of his hymnals, he wrote:

I beg leave to mention a thought which has been long upon my mind, and which I should long ago have inserted in the public papers, had I not been unwilling to stir up a nest of hornets. Many gentlemen have done my brother and me (though without naming us) the honour to reprint many of our hymns. Now they are perfectly welcome to do so, provided they print them just as they are. But I desire they would not attempt to mend them, for they are really not able. None of them is able to mend either the sense or the verse. Therefore, I must beg of them these two favours: either to let them stand just as they are, to take things for better or worse, or to add the true reading in the mar­gin, or at the bottom of the page, that we may no longer be accountable either for the nonsense or for the doggerel of other men.

Charles died in Marylebone, London on March 29, 1788. He was buried in the churchyard at Marlebone, against his brother's wishes, with eight clergymen of the Church of England as pallbearers. "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." Wesley's hymns were very good in every respect. They seem to have flowed from his pen, and it was only death that stopped the course of the stream.

Sources:

The Cyberhymnal

The Hymnuts