Charles Wesley (1707-1788)

It has been calculated that Charles Wesley wrote an average of ten lines of verse every day for fifty years. In his 1962 study Representative Verse of Charles Wesley, Frank Baker estimates that 8,989 of Wesley’s religious poems have survived, many of which serve as hymns. Small wonder that our Hymnal has more hymns by Wesley than any other author.

In his masterful survey of English hymnody Hymns and Human Life (1952), Erik Routley notes that many contemporaries of Charles Wesley felt that his hymns were too personal and enthusiastic. “Those who see in conversion nothing but a pathological condition will see in Wesley’s hymns a strong force driving people to hysteria and sensationalism. . . . Wesleyan hymnody is so powerful and so persuasive in its impact that there are many who are embarrassed by its fulsomeness and put off by its insistence on the security of the believer.”

But Routley thinks this is a misrepresentation of Wesley’s verse. “Methodist hymnody was founded by a man who combined with a revivalist enthusiasm two cooling and moderating disciplines — that of poetry (the poetry, be it recalled, of the most artificial of English periods), and that of Biblical theology.” At their best (which is often), Charles Wesley’s hymns combine “rich scriptural allusion, sound and catholic doctrine, and a persuasiveness of expression.”

Routley argues that Wesley’s hymns broke down the wall between doctrine and experience as well as the class barriers that all too commonly divided people within the English church. They were composed “in order that the men and women whom Hogarth depicted in his terrible pictures might sing their way not only into experience but also into knowledge; that the cultured might have their culture baptized and the ignorant might be led into truth by the gentle hand of melody and rhyme. This disciplined fervour was what made it possible for English hymnody to have a classical age before it fell into corruption and decay.”

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“As a hymn-writer Charles Wesley was unique. He is said to have written no less than 6,500 hymns, and though, of course, in so vast a number some are of unequal merit, it is perfectly marvellous how many there are which rise to the highest degree of excellence. His feelings on every occasion of importance, whether private or public, found their best expression in a hymn. His own conversion, his own marriage, the earthquake panic, the rumours of an invasion from France, the defeat of Prince Charles Edward at Culloden, the Gordon riots, every Festival of the Christian Church, every doctrine of the Christian Faith, striking scenes in Scripture history, striking scenes which came within his own view, the deaths of friends as they passed away, one by one, before him, all furnished occasions for the exercise of his divine gift. Nor must we forget his hymns for little children, a branch of sacred poetry in which the mantle of Dr. Watts seems to have fallen upon him. It would be simply impossible within our space to enumerate even those of the hymns which have become really classical. The saying that a really good hymn is as rare an appearance as that of a comet is falsified by the work of Charles Wesley; for hymns, which are really good in every respect, flowed from his pen in quick succession, and death alone stopped the course of the perennial stream.”

—from John Julian, A Dictionary of Hymnology (1907)

 

Hymns by Charles Wesley in our Hymnal

 

Christ the Lord is ris’n today

Christ, whose glory fills the skies

Come, thou long-expected Jesus

Forth in thy Name, O Lord

Hark! the herald angels sing

Hail the day that sees him rise

Jesus Christ is risen today (stanza 4 only)

Jesus, Lover of my soul

Jesus, my strength and hope

Lamb of God, I look to thee

Let saints on earth in concert sing

Lo! he comes with clouds descending

Love divine, all loves excelling

O for a heart to praise my God

O for a thousand tongues to sing

O thou who camest from above

Rejoice, the Lord is King!

Soldiers of Christ, arise