Northfield Women’s Fellowship – 1st March 2007

Northfield Women’s Fellowship – 1st March 2007

One of the anniversaries we are celebrating this year is 300 years since the birth of Charles Wesley so it seemed a good idea to give a very brief picture of his life, look at some of his hymns and sing a few verses.

Charles was born on 18th December 1707 at Epworth Rectory, so that means he was four and a half years younger than John.  When he was eight he went to Westminster School, where his eldest brother, Samuel, was already teaching.  It is possible that Samuel encouraged him to become a poet.  In 1726 Charles followed John to Oxford University, though John was away a lot of the time helping his father in Epworth.  When John returned three years later he found that Charles and some other students had become very serious minded – studying, reading the Bible and praying together, as well as visiting the poor and the local prison.  They were nicknamed ‘Methodists’.  Eventually, Charles was ordained as an Anglican priest.

Charles and John both went to America in 1735, but Charles was unhappy and unwell, so he returned home just 14 months after he left.  He was longing and searching for a deeper faith.  Then, on Whit Sunday, 21st May, just three days before John’s heart was ‘strangely warmed’ at the meeting in Aldersgate Street, Charles had his own conversion experience.  For the next 50 years Charles wrote wonderful devotional verse.  On the whole, it would be true to say that, because of his hymns, Charles Wesley is better known than John to many people outside Methodism.  Many of his hymns appear in the hymn books of  churches of all denominations.  A lot of his hymns are sung on all sorts of occasions, even by people who know nothing of the hymn writer or Methodism.  I once had a strange phone call from someone who asked me if I could tell her a hymn by Charles Wesley and she was rather taken aback when I said he had written ‘Love divine, all love excelling’, ‘Hark the herald angels sing’ and ‘Christ the Lord is risen today – she’d obviously had no idea that such well-known hymns were his!

Before we turn to look at the hymns just to finish Charles’ life story:  On 8th April 1749 he married Sarah Gwynne of Garth in Breconshire and they became a devoted couple.  Although Charles continued to travel as in itinerant preacher he poured out his love for Sarah in verse.  Sarah and Charles lived at 4 Charles Street, Bristol (now known as Charles Wesley House and a museum).  Here their eight children were born, but five died in infancy and were buried in the nearby St James churchyard.  Of the three who survived, Sarah was a writer, and the two boys, Charles and Samuel, were musical. In 1771 the family moved to London.  Charles Wesley died on 20th March 1788 and true to his life long loyalty to the Church of England he chose to be buried in the ‘consecrated ground’ of Marylebone churchyard.  Recently there has been considerable debate about the relocation of the memorial, but his true memorial is surely his hymns.  Sarah survived Charles by more than 34 years, dying on 28th December 1822.   In 1876 a memorial tablet was unveiled in Westminster Abbey to both Charles and John Wesley.

It has been estimated that Charles Wesley wrote about 9,000 hymns, of which around 4,600 were published during his life time and 3,100 were printed after his death.  Then there were many unfinished poems – 1,300 being published as recently as 1988.   However, it is quality and range of his hymns and how they have enriched the worship of the church which is so important.

1.  Charles’ hymns have an ordered structure, with one thought leading on to another,  and the fact that we do not often notice this when we sing them shows just how good he was at doing this. Let us look at ‘O, for a thousand tongues to sing’ [744]  The lines build one on another like building blocks  – see vv. 2-6.  It is said that when Charles was talking to Peter Bohler about his conversion Peter said  ‘Had I a thousand tongues, I would praise Him with all of them’ and this is thought to be the inspiration for this hymn, which Charles wrote to celebrate the anniversary of his conversion.  This hymn was always the first in the hymn book, until it was moved from that place in Hymns and Psalms.  It has a note of joyful and triumphant praise.  [sing 744 vv.1-3]

2.  Charles’ hymns are firmly based in Scripture, and full of theology, for example, ‘And can it be’ [216] contains 11 references to the New Testament.  Look at v.4, which is based on Acts 12:7 and which may also have been influenced by his visiting the prisoners in Oxford and in Newgate.  When I was at University we had a Church of Scotland Professor who lectured on Theology and one day he remarked on one of the theories of the atonement and said it was in one of Charles Wesley hymns and did I know it?  Being a good Methodist I said, ‘yes, hymn 371 v 3’.  To say he was surprised would be an understatement!   The hymn has a link with John’s death bed-bed when Elizabeth Ritchie, who was in the room, spoke to him and he repeated the words

Bold I approach the eternal throne,

And claim the crown,

through Christ my own.

So this hymn has a note of assurance and gratitude and wonder.  [sing 216 vv.1,4,5]        Another great hymn full of Biblical references is ‘Jesus, lover of my soul’ [528].  There are many stories of the comfort it has brought to people.  It was a favourite of my mother’s. [sing 528 vv 1-2]

3.  Another thing we find is the emphasis on holiness – the ‘perfect love’ which the Wesleys regarded as the goal of Christian living.  Conversion was just the start – it was a continuing process, so we get hymns like ‘O thou who camest from above’ [745] where he expressed his longing to have ‘a flame of perfect love’ burning ‘with inextinguishable blaze’ to the glory of God.  He is telling us that we ought not be satisfied with anything less.  [sing 745 all?]

4. Charles wrote Communion hymns.  Remember the Wesleys were Anglican priests and encouraged their followers to attend Communion in their parish church, so he wrote hymns such as ‘Victim divine’ [629] and ‘Come, thou everlasting Spirit’ [298].

5.  There is a marvellous variety in the hymns Charles Wesley wrote as he wrote for all occasions and moods – hymns of rejoicing and hymns to comfort the mourning.  ‘My heart is full of Christ and longs its glorious matter to declare!’ [799] is full of joy.  Hymn 574 ‘Worship, thanks and blessing, And strength ascribe to Jesus!  Jesus alone Defends his own, When heaven and earth oppress us….’  was written to encourage that people of Wednesbury when they were being persecuted by the mob in 1743 to assure them that God was with them in all their trials and tribulations and nothing could separate them from the love of God.

6.  Lastly, Charles wrote for the great festivals of the church.  So we get ‘Hark, the herald angels sing’ [109] for Christmas; ‘Christ the Lord is risen to-day’ [193] for Easter; ‘Hail, the day that sees him rise’ [197] for Ascension and ‘Away with our fears’ [296] for Whit Sunday.  [sing 193 vv.1-3]

I would like us to end with the hymn that Charles wrote as a love poem to Sarah Gwynne near to the time of their marriage [374].  John altered verse 3 from ‘both’ in lines 2 and 5 to ‘we’ and ‘all’ so that it could be used for congregational singing and it was included in the section called ‘For Christian Friends’ in the very early hymn books and in the ‘Fellowship’ section of the 1932 Methodist Hymn Book.  [sing 374 vv 1-3]   It is often sung at weddings to-day.