The English hymn writer and preacher Charles Wesley (1707-1788) joined his brother John in starting Methodism and composed thousands of hymns to express its religious ideals.
Charles Wesley was born on Dec. 18, 1707, the eighteenth child of the rector of the Anglican church in Epworth, Lincolnshire. All 19 Wesley children received individual weekly instructions in religious matters from their mother, who gave them some of her own independent spirit. Although Charles was bright, he wasted much of his energy looking for good times when he began his studies at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1726. In 1729, after he had settled down, Charles, his older brother John, and several other Oxford students formed the Holy Club, for the purpose of studying the Bible and receiving the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The group soon became known as the "Methodists" because of the regularity of their religious activities.
By the time Wesley received his master's degree in 1733, he had proved himself an excellent scholar and a master of Latin. In 1735 he was ordained a priest in the Church of England. With his brother John he left England for the New World. He became secretary to Col. James Oglethorpe, governor of the colony of Georgia. But he had a hard time adapting to Georgia's climate and had to return to England the next year.
In the spring of 1738 Wesley experienced a profound religious awakening. He became vividly convinced of the power of the New Testament message of salvation and saw more clearly than ever before how faith in Jesus Christ could change one's life. For the next 50 years Wesley brought this message to as many people as he could, particularly to the poor and uneducated workers in London's slums. Along with his brother and their "Methodist" friends from Oxford, Wesley preached that the value of one's life is to be measured by his faith and decent sober conduct, rather than by his church attendance. Many Anglican officials were displeased by the Methodists' approach. Less devout people often ridiculed their fervent preaching. After Wesley married in 1749, he lived for a while in Bristol, where opposition to his ideals was less severe, but 12 years later he resumed his preaching in London.
Wesley was a master of the English language. Over the years of his ministry he wrote some 6, 500 hymns to spread the New Testament message as he understood it. When he died in London on March 29, 1788, he was known as a preacher of great power and wisdom. Many of his hymns (among them Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and Jesus, Lover of My Soul) are sung in churches today, and it is for them that he is famous.
The most recent and readable biography is by Frederick C. Gill, Charles Wesley: The First Methodist (1964). A deeper insight into Wesley's character can be gained from Frank Baker, Charles Wesley as Revealed by His Letters (1948). John E. Rattenbury, The Eucharistic Hymns of John and Charles Wesley (1948), analyzes the religious ideas behind Wesley's principal contribution to the Church.
Dallimore, Arnold A., A heart set free: the life of Charles Wesley, Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1988.
Wilder, Franklin, The Methodist riots: the testing of Charles Wesley, Great Neck, N.Y.: Todd & Honeywell, 1981. □
A founder of Methodism and a hymn writer; b. Epworth, Lincolnshire, Dec. 18, 1707; d. London, March 29, 1788. He was the 18th of the 19 children of Susanna and Reverend Samuel Wesley. In April 1716 he entered Westminster School and in June 1726, Christ Church, Oxford, from which he received his B.A. (1730). A pious student, he formed a Holy Club (1729), which was converted into a society by his older brother John wesley. Charles was an excellent scholar and Latinist and took his M.A. in 1733. After being ordained an Anglican priest in 1735, he accompanied James Edward Oglethorpe (1696–1785) to Georgia, but partly because of ill health he returned to England (July 26, 1736). He met Nikolaus von zinzendorf, the celebrated Moravian evangelist in January 1737. After his "conversion" on May 21, 1738, he resumed preaching in London churches, ministered to felons, and, imitating George whitefield, preached in the fields. He and his brother John formed a partnership for itinerant missions and for ministering to the Methodist societies in Bristol and London. For 18 years he preached in many parts of England, visiting Ireland twice, and enduring persecution. But he was completely overshadowed by his more famous brother. As Charles saw it, the Methodist societies were wholly within the Anglican church. John's ordination of two ministers for America angered Charles, who regarded it as defiance of the church. Personal and religious differences tended to draw the devoted brothers apart in later years. But like John, Charles was Arminian in his theological views, and hostile to the doctrine of salvation of the Calvinistic Methodists. In 1749 he married Sarah (Sally) Gwynne (1726–1822), who bore him eight children. In 1771 Wesley removed his family to London, where he continued his labors on behalf of the Methodists to the end of his life. Although he was a great preacher, his fame today rests on his hymns. He published 4,430 hymns and left 2,840 in manuscript. The most famous collection was the joint work of John and Charles, Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (1779). The hymns deeply influenced the English and helped diffuse the teachings of the Bible, which was the inspiration of the hymns.
Bibliography: t. jackson, Life of the Rev. Charles Wesley, 2 v. (London 1841). m. l. edwards, Sons to Samuel (London 1961). f. baker, Charles Wesley as Revealed by His Letters (London 1948). j. e. rattenbury, The Evangelical Doctrines of Charles Wesley's Hymns (London 1941). c. w. flint, Charles Wesley (Washington 1957). r. a. knox, Enthusiasm (New York 1961). a. gordon, The Dictionary of National Biography from the Earliest Times to 1900, 63 v. (London 1885–1900) 20:1209–13. m. schmidt, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 1957–65) 6:1655–56. f. l. cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (London 1957) 1445–46.
[g. l. vincitorio]
John F. C. Harrison