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Wesley, Charles
1707-1788

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Preacher and hymnwriter, born at Epworth on 18 December 1707. He was the youngest of the three Wesley brothers who survived infancy and was still a baby at the time of the Epworth fire in 1709. In 1716, at the age of 8, he entered Westminster School, where his brother Samuel was usher. He became a King's Scholar in 1721 and head boy in 1725-26 before going up to Christ Church, Oxford. By then John Wesley had become a Fellow at Lincoln College, but was often away in Lincolnshire. Charles' pleasure-loving personality took a more serious turn and he found himself meeting with other students in what became known as the 'Holy Club'. Graduating in 1730, he became a student (i.e. tutor) at Christ Church. Preparing to accompany John Wesley to Georgia as secretary to General Oglethorpe, in September 1735 he was ordained so that he might assist in his brother's parish duties. Failing to adjust to colonial life or to establish good relations with the settlers at Fort Frederica, he was back in England, a sick man, by the end of 1736.

The effect of his encounter with Moravian settlers on the voyage to Georgia was reinforced by the influence of Peter Böhler and of John Bray with whom he lodged in London. On Whit Sunday 1738 he had a 'conversion' experience similar to that of John Wesley in Aldersgate Street three days later. HP 706, 'Where shall my wondering soul begin?', is thought to be the hymn he wrote on this occasion, and from then on a spate of hymns and poems continued through the rest of his life. While John Wesley was visiting Herrnhut, Charles had begun an evangelical ministry which included visiting Newgate and the Marshalsea prisons and accompanying condemned prisoners to Tyburn. To the end he was the more stalwart churchman of the two, resorting to field preaching only after being refused the use of a parish church, harbouring reservations about the employment of lay preachers and recoiling at the news of John Wesley's ordinations in 1784 (which he blamed on the influence of Thomas Coke).

4 Charles Street   Click to enlarge
For some years he shared in John Wesley's peripatetic ministry and the leadership of the developing Methodist movement. He followed hard on the heels of his brother in visiting Newcastle, where he formed the first society in September 1742, and faced mob violence at Wednesbury and Sheffield in 1743 and at Devizes in 1747. On his way to Ireland in 1747 he met his future wife, Sarah Gwynne, at Garth, Breconshire. They were married on April 8, 1749, after John Wesley had guaranteed him an income of £100 a year from the sale of publications, and set up home in Bristol (from 1766 at 4 Charles Street). From then on his ministry became more static and his last northern tour was in 1756. In 1771 the family moved to London, where the musical talents of his sons, Charles Wesley (1757-1834) and Samuel Wesley (1766-1837, father of the composer and organist Samuel Sebastian Wesley), could be fostered and would be more appreciated. Recitals in their Marylebone home were attended by the upper classes.

Among the collections of Charles Wesley's hymns published in his lifetime were Hymns on God's Everlasting Love (1741, 1742), Hymns on the Lord\'s Supper (1745), and Short Hymns on Select Passages of the Holy Scriptures (1762), together with others celebrating the major festivals of the Christian year. His hymns (variously computed as totalling 6,500 or as many as 10,000) are marked by their strong doctrinal content (notably the Arminian insistence on the universality of God's love), a richness of scriptural and literary allusion, and the variety of his metrical and stanza forms. They have become part of the worship of Christians of many denominations throughout the world. His poetry included epistles, elegies and political and satirical verse. A collected edition of The Poetical Works of John and Charles Wesley, edited by George Osborn, was published in thirteen volumes in 1868-1872. (Cf A New and Critical Edition … with the addition of notes, annotations, biographical and background information edited by Samuel J Rogal, 3 volumes, Lewiston, NY, 2009). Osborn's collection has now been supplemented by the three volumes of The Unpublished Poetry of Charles Wesley, edited by S.T. Kimbrough and Oliver A. Beckerlegge (Nashville, 1988-1992).

Increasingly in his later years Charles became the mouthpiece of the 'Church Methodists'. His forthright opposition to the separation of Methodism from its Anglican roots and in particular to his brother's ordinations, and his outspoken criticism of the shortcomings of some of the lay itinerants, together with his withdrawal from the active work after 1756, led to his being marginalised by historians of Methodism throughout the 19th century.

Renewed interest in Charles Wesley in recent years has led to reassessment of his role in the early development of Methodism, his close, but often strained, relationship with his brother and his prose writings. Scholarly editions of his unpublished poetry, his sermons and his journals (to replace Jackson’s seriously flawed edition) have been published. The tercentenary of his birth saw the publication of important new studies, notably by S.T. Kimbrough, Gareth Lloyd, Kenneth G.C. Newport and John R. Tyson.

Charles Wesley died on 29 March 1788 and was buried in Marylebone old churchyard, despite his brother's wish for them to lie together in the graveyard at City Road Chapel. His widow survived another thirty-four years, supported financially by the Methodist connexion, and died on 28 December 1822, aged 96.

The so-called 'Lily' portrait, thought to have been painted in 1749 and ascribed to the portrait painter Thomas Hudson, was for long in Epworth Old Rectory, but in 2018 was donated to the musum at the New Room. Bristol.

Quotations

'Mr. Wesley was of a warm and lively disposition; of great frankness and integrity, and generous and steady in his friendships. His love oif simplicity, and utter abhorrence of hypocrisy, and even of affectation in the professors of religion, made him sometimes appear severe on those who assumed a consequence on account of their experience, or were pert and forward in talking of themselves and others… In conversation he was pleasing, instructive, and cheerful; and his observations were often seasoned with wit and humour. His religion was genuine and unaffected. As a Minister, he was familiarly acquainted with every part of divinity; and his mind was furnished with an uncommon knowledge of the Scriptures. His discourses from the pulpit were not dry and systematic, but flowed from the present views and feelings of his own mind. He had a remarkable talent of expressing the most important truths with simplicity and energy; and his discourses were sometimes truly apostolic, forcing conviction on the hearers in spite of the most determined opposition…

'From a review of the life of Mr. Charles Wesley, as delineated in the preceding sheets, it will appear evident, that the Methodists are greatly indebted to him for his unwearied labours and great usefulness at the first formation of the Societies, when every step was attended with difficulty and danger.'

John Whitehead, Life of the Rev. John Wesley Vol. 1 (1793) pp.370-1

Sources

For a detailed Bibliography of works on Charles Wesley, see Clive D. Field in Charles Wesley after 300 Years, Bulletin of the John Rylands Universitry Library of Manchester, 88:2 (2006), pp.179-214

  • Life:
  • John Whitehead, The Life of the Rev. John Wesley, MA,, vol. 1 (1793), pp.97-374
  • Thomas Jackson, The Life of the Rev. Charles Wesley (1841)
  • John Telford, The Life of the Rev. Charles Wesley, MA (revised edn., 1900)
  • Frederick Luke Wiseman, Charles Wesley, Evangelist and Poet (1932)
  • Frank Baker, Charles Wesley as Revealed by his Letters (1948)
  • Frederick C. Gill, Charles Wesley, the First Methodist (1964)
  • Robert L. Vilain, in WHS Proceedings, 47 pp.38-43
  • Geoffrey E. Milburn, 'Charles Wesley in the Populous North', in WHS Proceedings, 47 pp.202-20
  • Frederick E. Maser, 'Charles Wesley and his Biographers', in Methodist History, 29:1 (October 1990), pp.47-51
  • Gareth Lloyd, Catalogue of the Charles Wesley Papers (Manchester, 1994)
  • Philip Olleson, 'The Wesleys at Home: Charles Wesley and his children', in Methodist History, 36 (1997-98) pp.139-52
  • Gareth Lloyd, 'Charles Wesley and his Biographers: an exercise in Methodist hagiography', in Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library, 82:1 (Spring, 2000) pp.81-99
  • Henry D. Rack, 'Charles Wesley and the Irish Inheritance Tradition', in WHS Proceedings, 53 pp.117-26
  • Barrie Tabraham, Brother Charles (Peterborough, 2003)
  • Kenneth G.C. Newport, 'Charles Wesley and the Articulation of Faith', in Methodist History, 42:1 (October 2003) pp.33-48
  • Gary M. Best, Charles Wesley, a biography (2006)
  • Gareth Lloyd, Charles Wesley and the Struggle for Methodist Identity (Oxford, 2007)
  • John R. Tyson, Assist Me to Proclaim: the Life and Hymns of Charles Wesley (Grand Rapids, 2007)
  • Peter S Forsaith, 'Charles Wesley: a literature survey', in Epworth Review, 34:1 (January 2007) pp.39-50
  • Gareth Lloyd, '"My dearest Sally": the Marriage of Charles Wesley and Sally Gwynn', in WHS Proceedings, 56 (October 2007) pp.113-28
  • S.T. Kimbrough Jr and Kenneth G.C. Newport (eds.), The Manuscript Journal of the Reverend Charles Wesley, MA (Nashville, 2008)
  • Kenneth G.C. Newport, 'Charles Wesley "Warts and All"', in WHS Proceedings, 56 (February 2008) pp. 165-88
  • Kenneth G. C. Newport, 'Charles Wesley as revealed by his manuscript journal', Proceedings of the Charles Wesley Society, 12 (2008) pp.85-103
  • Oxford DNB
  • Gareth Lloyd and Kenneth Newport, The Letters of Charles Wesley: a critical edition, vol. 1 (2013)
Hymns, etc. 
  • J. Ernest Rattenbury, The Evangelical Doctrines of Charles Wesley's Hymns (1941)
  • Bernard L. Manning, The Hymns of Wesley and Watts (1942)
  • Henry Bett, The Hymns of Methodism (3rd edition, revised, 1945)
  • A. Kingsley Lloyd, 'Charles Wesley's Debt to Matthew Henry', in London Quarterly and Holborn Review, October 1946, pp.330-37
  • J. Ernest Rattenbury, The Eucharistic Hymns of John and Charles Wesley (1948)
  • R. Newton Flew, The Hymns of Charles Wesley: a study of their structure (1953)
  • George H. Findlay, Christ's Standard Bearer: a study of the hymns of Charles Wesley as they are contained in the last edition (1876) of 'A Collection of hymns…' (1956)
  • T.S. Gregory, 'Charles Wesley's Hymns and Poems', in London Quarterly and Holborn Review, 1957, pp.253-62
  • Oliver A. Beckerlegge, 'Charles Wesley's Vocabulary', in London Quarterly and Holborn Review, April 1968, pp.152-61
  • E.M. Hodgson, 'Poetry in the Hymns of John and Charles Wesley', in WHS Proceedings, 38 pp.131-35,161-65
  • E.M. Hodgson, 'John - or Charles - Wesley?', in WHS Proceedings, 41 pp.73-76
  • Francis Frost, 'Biblical Imagery and Religious Experience in the Hymns of the |Wesleys', in WHS Proceedings, 42 pp.158-66
  • Frank Baker, Charles Wesley's Verse: an introduction (revised edn., 1988)
  • S. T. Kimbrough, 'Charles Wesley as a Biblical Interpreter', in Methodist History, 26:3 (April 1988) pp.139-53
  • S.T. Kimbrough and Oliver A. Beckerlegge (eds.), The Unpublished Poetry of Charles Wesley, 3 vols (Nashville, 1988-92)
  • Frank Baker, 'Charles Wesley's Productivity as a Religious Poet', in WHS Proceedings, 47 pp.1-12
  • S.T. Kimbrough (ed.), Charles Wesley, Poet and Theologian (Nashville, 1992)
  • J. Richard Watson, The English Hymn: a critical and historical study (Oxford, 1997) pp.221-64
  • J. Richard Watson, 'Charles Wesley: the richness of hymnody', in Methodist Sacramental Fellowship Bulletin, no.125 (1996) pp.48-59
  • Brian Beck, 'Rattenbury Revisited: The Theology of Charles Wesley's Hymns', in Epworth Review, 26:2 (April 1999) pp.71-81
  • Keneth G.C. Newport (ed.), The Sermons of Charles Wesley: a critical edition... (Oxford, 2001)
  • Charles Yrigoyen, Praising the God of Grace: the theology of Charles Wesley's Hymns (Nashville, 2005)
  • J.R. Watson, 'Pitying Tenderness and Tenderest Pity: The hymns of Charles Wesley and the writings of St. Luke', in Epworth Review, 32:3 (July 2005) pp.33-38
  • J.R. Watson, 'Charles Wesley our contemporary: anorther look at "And can it be" ', in Epworth Review, 34:1 (January 2007) pp.29-38
  • Randall D. McElwain, 'Biblical Language in the Hymns of Charles Wesley', in Geordan Hammond and David Rainey (eds.), Wesley and Methodist Studies, vol. 1 (Manchester, 2009) pp.55-70
  • S.T. Kimbrough Jr., in T&T Clark Companion to Methodism (2010), pp.36-60
  • J.R. Watson, 'Charles Wesley and Eighteenth-century Poetry' in Wesley Historical Society Proceedings, 60 part 6, October 2016, pp.279-92
Miscellaneous:
  • London Quarterly and Holborn Review, October 1957
  • John C. Bowmer, 'The Churchmanship of Charles Wesley', in WHS Proceedings, 31 pp.77-80
  • Wesley F. Swift, 'Portraits and Biographies of Charles Wesley', in WHS Proceedings, 31 pp.86-92
  • John R. Tyson (ed.), Charles Wesley: a Reader (New York, 1989)
  • Kenneth G.C. Newport and Ted A. Campbell (eds.), Charles Wesley, Life, Literature & Legacy (Peterborough, 2007)
  • Peter Forsaith, 'Charles Wesley - a literature survey', in Epworth Review, 34:1 (January 2007), pp.39-50
  • Joanna Cruikshank, Pain, Passion and Faith: revisiting the place of Charles Wesley in early Methodism (Lanham, MD, 2009)
  • Charles Wesley after 300 Years, Bulletin of the John Rylands Universitry Library of Manchester, 88:2 (2006)

Entry written by: JAV
Category: Person

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