Charles Wesley’s Contribution

CT620 John Wesley’s Concept of Christian Perfection

January 28th 2008

Seminar 8 Charles Wesley’s Contribution

By Danilo Carvalho

Introduction

We cannot ignore the importance of Charles Wesley in the proclamation of the Kingdom of God. It is very easy to make the mistake of thinking that the only contribution made by Charles Wesley to Church life was his hymn writing. In fact, being a brother to John Wesley, one of the great men of history, of both the Church of England and the Methodist Church, meant that Charles Wesley was often under his shadow. This sentiment is supported by the fact that most of the biographies written feature John Wesley while only a few are about Charles Wesley. In reference to Charles Wesley Mitchell says: “His writings are more widely known than their author.”[1]

Research has revealed that there are many more important aspects of Charles Wesley’s life and ministry than just hymn writing. Without doubt, Charles Wesley is celebrated as one of the greatest Christian hymn writers in Christian history. It has been noted of Charles Wesley that after his evangelical conversion in 21 May 1738 “He wrote in excess of 8000 pieces of religious verse in the next 50 years. That makes him the most prolific English poet of all time, producing more lines of poetry than Shakespeare, Milton, Pope or Wordsworth.’[2]

Charles Wesley’s Brief Biography:

Charles Wesley was born on 18th December 1707 and was the eighteenth child of Susanna and Samuel Wesley. “His premature arrival threw the Epworth household into no little confusion and anxiety, for he was born so small and frail that it hardly seemed he could live. For two months he neither cried nor opened his eyes, and it says much for his mother’s care that he survived.”[3] Gill amplifies the above truth in quoting Dr. John Whitehead by stating that ‘…he appeared dead rather than alive when he was born. He did not cry, nor open his eyes, and was kept wrapt up in soft wool until the time when he should have been born according to the usual course of nature, and then he opened his eyes and cried.’[4] Like his brother John, Charles Wesley was born in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England, where their father was the parish Rector. “His mother, Susannah, was a daughter of Rev. Samuel Annesley, one of the most eminent divines among the Dissenters, and whose father was a brother of Arthur, the first Earl of Anglesea.”[5]

CHARLES WESLEY AS POET

“Charles Wesley was the Methodist music man, the youngest of the most remarkable trio of blood brothers in Christian history, and the younger of the most famous and revolutionary pair of siblings in the history of Christian evangelism.”[6] There is no doubt about his immense contribution to in the wonderful success of the Methodist Revival in 1738. Mitchell affirms this when he says: “Charles Wesley cannot be cut out of the history of the Evangelical Revival nor divorced from contemporary Christian worship and evangelism. He is much more a part of our Christian worship than John.”[7] Consistent with the above findings, Telford states, “No one, however, can study the poet’s life without feeling that his poetry was only one of many gifts which he contributed to Evangelical Revival”[8]

Charles Wesley’s poems are summed up in the following quote, “Nine thousand poems; 27,000 stanzas; 180,000 lines. The output of Charles Wesley was prodigious. It was, in fact, three times the total output of William Wordsworth, one of England’s most prolific poets. Had Wesley written poetry every day, he would have written ten lines per day for fifty years.”[9] Kimbrough says: “Charles Wesley is indubitably one of the important literary figures of eighteenth century and one of the most outstanding Christian poets in English history.”[10] The purposes for Charles Wesley’s hymns are noted in the following statement, “Charles wrote his hymns for public use in meetings for preaching and for use in class meetings and for devotional, private reading. Even the more devotional poems were ‘public poems’ designed to explore matters common to Christians seeking a disciplined life of obedience to God’s will.”[11] He composed some of the most memorable and lasting hymns of the church. An examples Charles’s songs are such as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “And Can It Be,” “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” “Soldiers of Christ, Arise,” and “Rejoice! The Lord Is King!” Mitchell says “His hymns, so solidly based in the letter and spirit of Scripture, and so devotedly Christ-centered and objective, are without peer in our language. Their inestimable worth, both in proclaiming and in expounding the gospel, was realized fully by John, who saw these hymns not only as the expression of Christian experience but also as an invaluable teaching tool.”[12]

In 1780 in the light of the urgent need for a hymnbook to use in Methodist society, John published ‘A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists’ arranged in theological categories.[13] Many of the hymns in these hymnbooks had been written by Charles. Majority of the hymns were of a devotional nature, hymns that had a real meaning, and gave comfort at difficult times. In the opinion of Harper, “even today many Methodists would regard Wesley’s hymns as a vital ingredient of their worship, and may well regard them as second in importance to the Bible.”[14] There is no doubt that hymns were an instrument of expressing joy and teaching scriptural truth thus helping people to understand the dynamic of grace as prevenient, justifying and sanctifying.

CHARLES WESLEY AS THEOLOGIAN

Charles Wesley’s contribution to theology is highly valued by those who have critically examined his hymns. In this light, Kimbrough says:

To understand Charles Wesley’ theology it is necessary to understand that, it is theology-as-hymn, that is, it is theology expressed by, limited by enlivened by its hymn form. Charles Wesley’s theology is ‘a theology one can sing.’ In this sense it is a theology with which one can praise; it is a theology with which one can pray, a theology with which one can teach; it is a theology with which one can use to initiate, to guide, and to envision the final hope of Christian existence.[15]

While the above quotation has noted the immense theological contribution to theology, it is important to note that Christian perfection is one of the areas he made a significant impact. In Charles’s mind, Christian perfection was the aim and goal of Christian life. As a matter of fact, “Charles Wesley deemed Christian perfection one of the two great truths of the everlasting Gospel (the other being universal redemption).”[16] In the words of Tyson in reference to Charles, “…Christian Perfection was indeed an attainable goal in each believer’s life. Like his brother, he was compelled by the witness of biblical texts.”[17] He believed in striving for perfection in life, but he was very vocal about the belief that it was not fully possible to accomplish that standing until death and glorification. Mitchell notes,

From the late 1740s, Charles Wesley appears increasingly hesitant about regarding or at least asserting entire sanctification as a crisis experience in the life of the believer, that is, as a specific punctiliar action of the Holy Spirit. He creates the impression that only in the very instant and article of death will God entirely sanctify the Christian soul. It is a case of Till death Thy endless mercies seal, and make the sacrifice complete.[18]

For Charles, perfection should be sought daily by the believer until death. In this light, Charles understood salvation as a process with two important marks along the way. Tyson affirming the above idea states, “The attainment of Christian perfection or full ‘sanctification’ is, therefore, in the hymns of Charles Wesley, referred to as a (new) birth and on occasion specifically as a ‘second birth’, ‘second blessing’, or ‘second gift’…Charles obviously divides the process of redemption into two different stages, ‘justification’ and ‘sanctification’ and these two technical terms are not foreign to his hymnody.”[19] Charles, further believed that perfection was only attainable by faith in God and that it was possible not to sin due to God’s power enabling the believer.

Though attention is normally given to John Wesley’s understanding of perfection, it is important to note Charles Wesley’s thinking on the subject and how it compares with John’s teachings on the subject. Some of the key differences between the two brothers on perfection were mainly on, the timing of perfection, gradual vs. instantaneous, and the qualifications of perfection

Commenting on the differences between the two brothers Tyson gives a detailed analysis of which a portion of it is found below.

The first Methodist dispute over sanctification came in mid -1740s, and had to do with the timing of Christian perfection. The Wesleys emphasized synthesis of instantaneous and pilgrimage language when talking about salvation from all sins, urging Christian Perfection both as a possibility in this life and as an on-going, lifelong quest. As the brothers began articulating their respective views it seemed that John Wesley was more likely to characterize Christian Perfection as Perfect Love that caused inner conformity with the will of God, and hence thought of it as instantaneous gift that brought purity of intentions (“The Single Eye”) with an infusion of God’s love. This sort of perfection was liable to improve and grow but was to be expected at any time.

Charles more typically thought of Christian perfection as the restitution of the imago dei and the concomitant removal of original sin. He therefore tended to expect an unqualified sort of perfection that was to be realized on the threshold between life and death. The respective views of the two brothers were further complicated, in the early years at least, by John Wesley editorial control over the content of the Methodist hymnals, and therefore over the content Charles’s hymns. While there was always a strong basic agreement between the Wesleys on characteristic emphasis; one that emerged quite early was Charles’s expectation that perfection occurred at the threshold of death.[20]

Mitchell who has gone into great lengths to analyze Charles Wesley’s music has noted on several occasions differences between the two brothers. For example, he notes that Charles Wesley’s idea was setting Christian perfection too high as compared to his brother John. As a matter of fact, his brother accused him of making it too high, so high indeed as effectually to make it absolutely unobtainable in this life. However he notes that the difference may have been occasioned chiefly by use of different terminology and definition.[21] It has further been noted that all the theological differences between the two brothers cannot be fully detected in light of the published collections of the hymns attributed to the two. One of the main factors associated with this is that John was the editor of the hymns including those of Charles or of both of them. This implies that not all of Charles’ theosis hymns, expressing his yearning for full redemption made it into John’s published collections. Characteristically, John edited and revised or deleted Charles’ hymns according to his own standards and sensibilities for Methodist audiences.[22] However Lawson published one of the Charles’ hymns which he thought to be “…perhaps the best-loved hymn on the present theme, and his most emphatic statement on the divine gift of holiness. It is this line which caused John Wesley to omit this verse when he included the hymn in the 1780 hymnal, and the editors of American hymnals to modify the line. [The song itself that is found below reflects these differences between the two brothers. The three stars below indicate an area that John changed from its original wording to suit his theological reflections on scripture. He changed it to read as follows ‘Pure and spotless let us be’]

Love divine, all loves excelling,

Joy of heaven to earth come down,

Fix in us thy humble dwelling,

All thy faithful mercies crown;

Jesu, thou art all compassion,

Pure unbounded love thou art,

Visit us with thy salvation,

Enter every trembling heart

.

Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit

Into every troubled breast,

Let us all in thee inherit,

Let us find that second rest:

Take away our power of sinning,

Alpha and Omega be,

End of faith as its beginning,

Set our hearts at liberty.

Come almighty to deliver,

Let us all thy life receive,

Suddenly return, and never,

Never more thy temples leave.

Serve thee as thy hosts above,

Pray, and praise thee without ceasing,

Glory in thy perfect love.

Finish then new creation,

Pure and sinless let us be,***

Let us see thy great salvation,

Perfectly restored in thee;

Changed from glory into glory,

Till in heaven we take our place,

Till we cast our crowns before thee,

Lost in wonder, love, and praise.[23]

Sangster affirms the theological differences between the two brothers in his sentiments expressed in the following, “The two brothers differed somewhat in their understanding of Christian Perfection but it is John’s interpretation which is stressed in the official books.”[24] All the above discussion points to the fact that we cannot know the full extent of the differences between the two brothers on the area of Christian Perfection. However, it is sufficient to prove that there were theological differences if not in the expressions of their theology.

Conclusion and summary:

In concluding Charles’ Wesley’s theological contributions through his hymns, it is sound and fair to include one of his hymns that reflect on his hope of eternal life. This is because Charles lived an abundant life in full hope of eternal life. He sought for Assurance and Perfect Love every day in his life. The following hymn best illustrates the hope referred above.

I know that my Redeemer lives,

And ever prays for me;

A token of his love he gives,

A pledge of liberty.

I find him lifting up my head,

He brings salvation near,

His presence makes me free indeed,

And he shall soon appear.

He wills that I should holy be,

What can withstand his will?

The counsel of his grace in me

He surely will fulfil.

Jesus, I hang upon thy word:

I steadfastly believe

Thou wilt return and claim me, Lord,

And to thyself receive.

Thy love I soon expect to find,

In all its depth and height;

To comprehend the Eternal Mind,

And grasp the infinite.

When God is mine, and I am his,

Of paradise possessed,

I taste unutterable bliss,

And everlasting rest.

The bliss of those that fully dwell,

Fully in thee believe,

This more than angel-tongues can tell,

Or angel-minds conceive.

Thou only know’st, who did’st obtain,

And die to make it known;

The great salvation now explain,

And perfect us in one![25]

Since the time Charles had his evangelical conversion till the last moment of his life, he never stopped expressing the deep biblical truth, especially in the area of Christian perfection. His deep love for the propagation of the Christian faith is reflected even at the moment of his death when he sought for an opportunity to jot down a piece of music. Indeed, shortly before he died at the age eighty “he called Mrs Wesley to him, and requested her to write the following lines at his dictation:

In age feebleness extreme,

Who shall a sinful world redeem?

Jesus! My only hope thou art,

Strength of my failing flesh and heart;

Oh! could I catch a smile from thee,

And drop into eternity.[26]

The above are believed to be his last words in this side of life, when in March 29, 1788, Charles Wesley died at his house in Chesterfield Street, in his eightieth year. His remains were interred in Marylebone churchyard, but his contribution to the Church of Christ has been with the church till this day and hopefully will continue to instruct and inspire faith in Christ in the generations to follow till Christ comes again. “All his life Charles Wesley confessed that in this world’s order he was a ‘stranger and pilgrim’. His real was hid with Christ in God, and with joyful anticipation he looked for Christ’s appearing as the believer’s entrance upon his true existence.”[27]

I agree with Harper “Although there are many important aspects of Charles Wesley’s life and ministry, it is, of course as a hymn writer that he is best remembered.”[28]

Like Kimbrough, I pen off this research with some lines from one of Charles Wesley’s hymns:

‘O heavenly King, look down from above,

Assist us to sing Thy mercy and love.’”[29]

Brief summary of Charles Wesley’s contributions.

The following is a brief summary of this paper in point form of the Charles’s Wesley’s key contributions to the Church.

1. Although hymn writing was Charles Wesley’s major contribution, there are many other important aspects of his life and ministry than just hymn writing. No singles research can easily express all of them.

2. He wrote more than 8000 pieces of religious verse in a period of 50 years since his evangelical conversion in 21 May 1738 till his death in March 29th 1788. All of these hymns were genuine attempts to pack theology into songs.

3. Besides hymn-writing, Charles made a significant contribution in poetry writing and composition, marking him as one of the most prolific English poets of all the times.

4. He was the original founder or initiator of Methodism and was instrumental in the 18th century Evangelical Revival.

5. In all his works he made significant contribution in understanding the doctrine of Christian Perfection, especially through his hymns. A key note is that perfection is gradual and should remain the aim and gaol of each and every Christian.


[1] T. Crichton Mitchell: Charles Wesley Man with the Dancing Heart , 12

[2] McGonigle Herbert B. Foreword, A thousand Tongues, 9

[3] Frederick C. Gill: Charles Wesley the first Methodist, 17

[4] Gill: Charles Wesley the first Methodist, 17

[5] Hatfield, Edwin F. Charles Wesley, http://www.wholesomewords.org/biography/bwesley4.html

[6] Mitchell , Charles Wesley Man with the Dancing heart, 11

[7] Mitchell, Charles Wesley Man with the Dancing heart, 13

[8] Telford, The life of the Charles Wesley, 12

[10] Shields D. Kenneth. Charles Wesley Poet and Theologian, p45

[11] Shields. Charles Wesley Poet and Theologian

[12] Mitchell, Charles Wesley, Man with the Dancing Heart, p144

[13] Berger, Theology in Hymns, 65

[14] Harper, Malcolm, The Parish of North Stoneham and Bassett, Southampton, http://www.bassettparish.hampshire.org.uk/resources/mh01.html

[15] Kimbrough, ST Jr. Charles Wesley Poet and Theologian, p97

[16] Tyson, 360.

[17] Tyson, John R., Charles Wesley A Reader, p 361

[18] Mitchell p 166

[19] Tyson, Charles Wesley Reader, p 363

[20] Tyson, 361.

[21] See Mitchell, 167ff.

[22] Tyson, Charles Wesley A Reader, p369,370

[23] Lawson, A Thousand Tongues, p193, 194, P.W. iv. 219; W.H. 385; M.H.B. 431; M.H. 283; H.P. 267

[24] Sangster, W. E., The Path to Perfection, p11

[25] Lawson, A thousands Tongues p 190 , P.W. ii. 242; W.H. 348; M.H.B. 565; H.P. 731

[27] Wiseman, Charles Wesley Evangelist and Poet, p192

[28] Harper, The Parish of North Stoneham and Bassett, Southampton, http://www.bassettparish.hampshire.org.uk/resources/mh01.html

[29] Kimbrough, ST Jr. Charles Wesley Poet and Theologian, p105

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