At rare intervals in our national life Divine Providence has singularly gifted brothers to function with great distinction in their generation. The Wesleys in the eighteenth century and the Bonars in the nineteenth are significant examples, and an interesting similarity may be noted. In each case, while the brothers were gifted preachers, one was endowed pre-eminently with the spirit of poetry; thus Charles Wesley and Horatius Bonar are remembered today principally as hymn writers. Many of their finest compositions continue in general use, a legacy of abiding spiritual value to Christians in affording a means of expressing emotions, desires, praise and worship. It is beyond dispute that Charles Wesley has been one of the greatest of hymn writers in the English language. His output was prodigious 4,480 hymns were published in his lifetime a very considerable number being of high merit.
Like his older brother John, Charles was born in the rectory at Epworth Lincolnshire, the eighteenth child in the family. He left home when eight years old to attend Westminster School, the alma mater of many famous men, where he was a bright and lively scholar, gaining appointment as captain of the school.
His education continued as a typically carefree student at Oxford. In his third year, however, he adopted a serious mode of life and study, and through his influence upon two other students he formed an association which soon became ridiculed and was called by others "The Holy Club". The strict religious practices of Charles Wesley and his friends, commendable in many respects, were nevertheless in reality an effort to establish their own righteousness, and consequently brought neither joy nor peace to their souls.
In due course Charles graduated and after a period of employment as a tutor took "holy orders" preparatory to sailing with his brother to Georgia. There he met German Moravian Christians and saw in these believers a calm assurance of faith he did not possess. The mission in Georgia was not a success and, disappointed, he returned to England where in London came under the influence of the Moravian, Count Zinzendorf. It was on Whit Sunday, 1738 that Charles at last was born again, just a few days prior to Johns conversion. He had been studying the Epistle to the Galatians with Luthers commentary thereon, and on the text at chapter 2.20 dwelt long "on this little word me". This led him to recognise the absolute necessity of personal faith in Christ and, believing, he found rest unto his soul. His conversion became the stimulus for an outpouring of evangelical hymns and spiritual songs - the product of a heart on fire for God, a warm and emotional nature, and a genius for writing verse. Many of the early hymns were sung at the open air meetings when Whitefield and the Wesleys preached to large crowds:
All ye that pass by, to Jesus draw nigh;
To you is it nothing that Jesus should die?
Your ransom and peace your surety He is.
Come see if there ever was sorrow like His.
Such were the songs of the revival, expressing the sheer joy and vibrancy of salvation. The hearty singing of large congregations out of doors was unprecedented in that age, and must have been a soul stirring experience for all present. Charles Wesleys gifts found a ready outlet as he preached enthusiastically in churches, where these were opened to him, and in fields with power and great effect. He also had a deep interest in prison work. The regime then existing in prisons was harsh to an extreme, with overcrowding and resulting insanitary conditions adding to prisoners misery. Undeterred, Wesley went into prisons such as Newgate Gaol in London where on one occasion, laying aside previous prejudice against deathbed conversions, he preached to ten men under sentence of death. The men were saved and a week or so later he accompanied them to Tyburn where with "calm triumph" they went to the gallows. On the way they sang hymns including one written by the Wesleys father:
Behold the Saviour of mankind,
Nailed to the shameful tree!
How vast the love that Him inclined
To bleed and die for thee!
We can only imagine the impression that must have been made on the crowds that witnessed such a scene.
In the course of his travels Wesley met and courted a young Welsh woman named Sarah, whose father Marmaduke Gwynne was a wealthy magistrate living near Brecon, South Wales. Mr Gwynne had been converted through the ministry of the well-known Welsh evangelist Howell Harris. Charles and Sarah, known as Sally, were married on 8th April, 1749 and soon after set up home in Bristol. Sally was twenty-three years old and eighteen years younger than her husband, but well suited to support him in his spiritual endeavours. For some time she accompanied him on his itinerant preaching tours, and her fine voice often led the singing. In December, 1753 Sally contracted smallpox. Charles was preaching in London and the Countess of Huntingdon, who at that time was living nearby, bravely visited Sally twice daily, even when her condition deteriorated and her life hung in the balance. Sally did recover but sadly her son Jacky caught the infection and died only sixteen months old. Of their eight children only three survived infancy. Such events were all too common in those days!
Deep soul experience with God, in sorrow and in joy, in trials and in triumphs, lent richness to hymns covering a wide range of spiritual subjects. The yearning of a storm tossed soul for refuge and comfort echoes in the lovely words:
Jesus, Lover of my soul,
Let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high.
The heart of every believer is surely lifted up in praise when singing:
Oh for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemers praise!
In his famous carol, "Hark! the herald angels sing", Wesley takes us to the heart of the doctrine of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the lines:
Late in time behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgins womb;
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th Incarnate Deity.
In 1771 Charles moved to London where he exercised a pastoral ministry among the Societies of Christians in the capital. He preached twice on most Sundays in the City Road Chapel after its opening in November, 1778. In later years his powers as a preacher waned, but not his ability in writing verse. However, at the beginning of 1788 his strength began to fail and he died on 29th March of that year.
Charles Wesleys hymns were his greatest contribution to the mighty work of God of his own day, and Christians the world over still rejoice in those hymns included in the major collections presently in use. Fourteen appear in The Believers Hymn Book, and others are found in Hymns of Light and Love. Thus we share in Wesleys spiritual legacy! But when we sing, "And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Saviours blood?", or "Love divine, all loves excelling", or other of his hymns, we are not of Wesley! Rather Wesley is ours, just in the sense that Paul meant when, in rebuking the sectarian spirit in the assembly of God at Corinth he wrote, "Therefore let no man glory in men. For all things are yours; Whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours; And ye are Christs and Christ is Gods" (1 Cor 3.21-23).