Friday, 8 June 2012

The Forgotten Wesley

While in England I have been reading John Tyson's book, Assist Me to Proclaim: The Life and Hymns of Charles Wesley. Despite having been a capable preacher, and producing between 6,000 and 9,000 hymns, Charles has not received the same scholarly interest as his brother John. Tyson argues that while John Wesley actively sought the limelight, his younger brother shunned such attention. In the introduction, Tyson writes, "It is clear that Charles Wesley did not intent to become famous from his hymn writing, since he often published his hymns jointly with his brother John, refusing to attach his own name directly to any single composition. Further, he withheld many of his compositions from publication, fearing that they would attract too much attention--being either too private or too bombastic for popular consumption. Nor did Charles make much money from his hymns" (ix). A second reason is that once Charles married, he gave up much of his itinerant preaching for a more stable life as a family man, first at Bristol, and then after 1771 in London. A third reason has to do with Charles's relationship with the early Methodist preachers. Some of his contemporaries complained that Charles was not fulfilling the Methodist mission of itineration, which also contributed to the fact that he was less highly regarded than his brother. Tyson notes that Charles could be overly critical of others by comparison to his older brother. John by contrast was much more lenient of the faults of his preachers and therefore was held in higher esteem by them. 

Born prematurely as the eighteenth child of Samuel and Susanna Wesley, Charles grew up under the strict guidance of his mother and siblings before entering college in 1727 at Christ Church, Oxford. After a year of card playing, dancing, and attending the theater, he began practicing a spiritual life more consistent with his upbringing. Charles is the first in the family to report that a fellow student called him a “Methodist” because of his newly-acquired methodical habits of piety. Soon he joined in fellowship of zealous believers which became known as the “Holy Club” at Oxford.  When John Wesley returned to Oxford in 1729 as a fellow of Lincoln College, Charles happily submitted to his brother’s leadership of the club. As the more introverted brother, Charles often allowed John to forge the way toward spiritual maturity. Charles, for instance, accompanied John to Georgia in the mid-1730s, despite his initial lack of interest in traveling to the American colony. Tyson writes that "There was, deep in Charles's personality, something that made him willing to be led by his brother, just as there was something in John that made him prone to lead. Things went along smoothly with their shared ministry when each man settled into his unspoken but well established role" (173). But as Tyson alludes, there were occasions when Charles firmly resisted his brother’s influence. After marrying in 1749, he balked at John’s insistence that Charles continue to itinerate as frequently as he had in the early 1740s. Unlike John, Charles had a happy married life and felt that he owed it to his wife and children to spend as much quality time with them at home as possible. Charles also had a different perspective on the Wesleyan doctrine of Christian perfection, viewing it as gradual and coming to completion at the end of one’s lifetime. John, by comparison, argued for the expectance of a sudden obtainment of sanctification, which need not come at an elderly age. Although both planned to remain loyal to the Church of England, Charles had a firmer commitment than his brother, which cost the younger Wesley the admiration of many of the Methodist preachers. Finally, whereas John welcomed laymen to join the ranks of the burgeoning movement, Charles was much more cautious in commissioning itinerant preachers. Disgusted with his brother’s apparent cavalier attitude toward religion on one occasion, Charles once wrote to a friend that John had made a tailor a preacher. "I, with God's help," Charles responded, "shall make a tailor of him again." Charles’s death in 1788, while officially lamented in the Methodist minutes for that year, allowed ambitious preachers in the movement to guide John Wesley towards a final break with the Church of England. 

Charles’s main contribution to Methodism was, of course, as the movement’s chief hymn writer. A talented lyricist, he penned an estimated 6,000 to 9,000 hymns and sacred poems during his lifetime. But it is difficult to determine exactly how many of these he composed since Charles usually published his work jointly with his brother John. Most scholars, however, attribute the majority of early Methodist hymns to Charles, seeing his brother’s role as the final editor. Charles wrote thematically on topics such as “Hymns for Christian Friends,” “Hymns for the Persecuted,” “Hymns for Children,” “Hymns for Families,” “Short Hymns on Select Passages of Scripture,” and hymns during special seasons like his “Hymn for Easter-Day,” better known as “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” After experiencing conversion in May 1738—days before John felt his heart “strangely warmed” at Aldersgate—Charles composed lyrics that the brothers sang together to mark this joyous occasion. We don’t know for certain which hymn they sang, but it might have been “And Can It Be,” which was published as “Free Grace” in 1739, or the popular, “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing,” composed in 1739 and published in 1740 as “For the Anniversary of One’s Conversion.” The inclusion of a “thousand tongues” is said to have come from the Moravian leader Peter Böhler, who once declared, “Had I thousand tongues, I would praise Christ with them all!” The theology behind words explicitly deferred all power of conversion to divine grace, while encouraging the singer to participate in the narrative of the song. 

Tyson's book is a very accessible introduction to the life of Charles Wesley, clearly showing the importance and genius of the younger brother. While I wished that Tyson would have included the context of such hymns as "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" or the theology behind "Wrestling Jacob," one cannot fault the author for not covering all of the thousands of compositions by Wesley. Rather, it seems fair enough to conclude that Tyson's main accomplishment is to whet one's appetite for further reading and study on this lesser-known Wesley.

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