Charles Wesley at 300
2007 is going to be a bumper year for anniversaries. Christians of all traditions will join with people of other faiths and of none in marking the bicentenary of the law abolishing the slave trade in the British Empire, and evangelicals will remember the pioneering role of William Wilberforce and the ‘Clapham Sect’ in the long campaign against slavery. Methodism has a series of special anniversaries too, and a dedicated website (www.methodistanniversaries2007.org.uk) with details, background information, a calendar of events and worship resources.
Of all the Methodist anniversaries, the one that will surely make the greatest impact, both within Methodism and beyond, is the tercentenary of the birth of Charles Wesley. In many ways Charles should not be seen as the exclusive property of the Methodist Church: he was a life-long member of the Church of England; he was an Anglican priest for more than fifty years; he resisted any development which seemed to him likely to result in the separation of the Methodist movement from the Established Church; and his hymns are sung by Christians of many persuasions. So who was Charles Wesley and why should Methodists celebrate his birth?
Charles was born on 18 December 1707 at Epworth, the third and youngest surviving son of Samuel and Susanna Wesley. Both Wesley parents were remarkable people: Samuel a clergyman and scholar, Susanna a gifted educator and theologian. As an undergraduate at Oxford, Charles and a group of friends began meeting for study and their programme then expanded to incorporate prayer, worship and Christian service. This ‘Holy Club’, taken over by Charles’ elder brother John, was one of the sources of Methodism.
Following an abortive missionary expedition to Georgia in 1735-6, Charles linked up with groups in London which were experiencing stirrings of revival. His assurance of acceptance with God came on Whit Sunday 1738 (several days before John Wesley’s Aldersgate Street experience), and this produced an outpouring of religious verse unparalleled in the English language. Despite his vast output – estimates vary from 6500 to 10,000 hymns - Charles was not just a hymn writer. In the early years of Methodism he was very active as an itinerant preacher and was fully involved in the development, shaping and consolidation of that part of the broader Methodist movement which came to be called the Wesleys’ ‘connexion’. His marriage to Sarah Gwynne in 1749 reduced his travels – the family set up home first in Bristol and then in London – but he remained a very significant influence in the connexion, quite prepared to challenge John Wesley, to investigate overblown claims to extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit and to rebuke what he saw as the pretensions of the preachers. John Wesley’s decision to ordain preachers to serve the Methodists in the United States in 1784, a clear breach of Anglican discipline, was taken without consulting his brother, and Charles was distressed and appalled. Their relationship survived, and preaching a fortnight after Charles’ death in 1788, it is recorded that John gave out his brother’s hymn ‘Come, O thou Traveller Unknown’. When he reached the lines:
~q‘My company before is gone
And I am left alone with thee,'q~
he broke down in the pulpit and wept.
Taking Charles Wesley seriously in 2007 will help us better to understand our roots. It will remind us – or make us realise for the first time – that the Methodist movement was not a monolith created single-handedly by John Wesley. The Wesleys’ Methodism was part of something much bigger, and their connexion grew by absorbing existing groups as well as by pioneer evangelism. Even within the connexion, other leaders – principally Charles – challenged John Wesley’s autocracy. There were personality clashes, tensions over strategy, mistakes and failures as well as successes. Charles’ story gives us a richer, deeper and more accurate appreciation of what was going on, and of whence we come.
Some of the vexed issues of the eighteenth century have their counterparts today. Does the Methodist movement properly belong as an agent for renewal within the Church of England or are we really something separate? How do we balance faith and order, tradition and inspiration, ‘fresh expressions’ and ‘old paths’? When is a ‘new way of being church’ an old error in (post-) modern costume? When an exciting development is a wonderful new wine straining the tired old wine-skins and when is it a fizzy substitute doomed to fall flat and disappoint?
In understanding who we are and in deciding where we should go, Charles Wesley’s hymns continue to offer us wisdom and guidance. For most of its history, Methodism has learned its theology principally from its hymn book. People who would not dream of reading one of John Wesley’s sermons know and love a core of hymns which express, inform, nurture and sustain their faith. Our hymns have provided us with an interpretation of the Christian faith which is biblical and contemporary, evangelical and catholic, sacramental and experiential. Those emphases which have entered into the bloodstream of Methodism – summed up in the ‘four alls’ – have done so via our hymns, and Charles Wesley is the ‘gold standard’ of Methodist hymnody. Like it or not, we have been formed as a people, a denomination, by the sanctified poetry of Charles Wesley as well as by the organisational gifts of his elder brother. We can use this Wesleyan theology to guide our mission and to shape our response to fresh challenges and new developments.
But do Charles Wesley’s hymns still speak to us today? New hymns and an explosion of worship songs clamour for use in worship; the lectionary is not always friendly to the great Wesleyan themes of salvation and sanctification; people say that traditional hymns are ‘difficult’. Methodists have always been selective: no hymn book has contained more than a fraction of Charles’ verses. We can continue to choose wisely, but if we lose touch completely with our Wesleyan heritage, we risk theological drift and spiritual anaemia. 2007 is a good opportunity to recall the rock from which we were hewn.
The Revd Martin Wellings is a minister in the Oxford Circuit, and is president of the World Methodist Historical Society.
Headline Spring 2007 pp. 11-12.