All over the English-speaking world this Christmas, millions will be singing Charles Wesley’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” – one of more than 6,000 hymns he penned. 300 years after his birth, Dave Allen looks at the life of the lesser-known Wesley brother. At this season of the year, the Incarnation is uppermost in minds – the wonder of God becoming man ‘for us men and for our salvation’. And it has never been better expressed than in Charles Wesley’s ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’.
Largely overshadowed by his more famous brother John, Charles deserves to be remembered not just as a prolific and talented writer of hymns devotional songs, but also for his contribution to the biggest revival the UK has ever seen.
This year marks 300 years since Charles Wesley’s birth, but his story begins even before that. His family - from a remote and marshy area of Lincolnshire - was a very large one. Rev Samuel and wife Susanna had at least 17 children, though not all of them survived. Somehow Susanna managed not only to bring up her brood but also to educate them in the Christian faith. The maternal education of Charles, as with all the others, began on his fifth birthday in what has been called the ‘kitchen school’.
At age eight he was sent to Westminster School before later winning a place at Christ Church, Oxford. After graduation he took Holy Orders and followed his elder brother and father into the Anglican ministry.
Oxford University was not generally known for high academic standards at that time. Many undergraduates spent more time in drinking and gambling rather than in serious study. Charles and a small group of three or four friends were different: they met regularly for prayer, Bible study, mutual confession and devotional reading; they also spent time visiting prisoners, widows and orphans.
John Wesley became the leader of the group when he became a tutor at Lincoln College. Because of their spirituality they were the butt of many jokes – they were variously called ‘Bible Moths’, ‘the Holy Club’, ‘Enthusiasts’ and ‘Methodists’. That last nickname stuck and was how the new discipling societies they formed became known.
The role of Charles in leading those early meetings at Oxford has led some scholars to credit him with being the real founder of Methodism. Others give that honour to Susanna for her early lessons in Christian doctrine and devotion in the kitchen at Epworth rectory. Depression and deliverance Both John and Charles Wesley took seriously their call to ministry, so much so that they volunteered for missionary service in the new settlement of Georgia, North America. Their mission was a failure; and they returned to England disillusioned and depressed. But God was at work.
In Georgia, and on the perilous Atlantic crossing, the brothers encountered for the first time a group of Moravian brethren. These were followers of Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf. The aristocrat had undergone a dramatic conversion and from that time on became a promoter of missions.
For the Count and his followers, Jesus was the centre of their devotions and the new birth was the essential means of entry to the Kingdom of God. The pious Wesleys knew nothing of this, but their encounter with the Moravians set them both on the path to salvation. Charles was converted on Whit Sunday 1738 and John’s heart was “strangely warmed” a few days later. Charles celebrated his conversion with the grateful hymn, ‘Where shall my wondering soul begin?’ The brothers’ new-found faith and assurance did not please everybody: soon pulpits were closed to them as they were branded “enthusiasts” – the 18th century term for those we would call “fanatics”. Encouraged by another Oxford enthusiast, George Whitefield, John and Charles became itinerant field-preachers. If the pulpits were closed, declared Whitefield, the village greens and market places were not.
When Leonard Bernstein was asked what was the most difficult instrument to play, he replied, “Second fiddle”. Charles Wesley is a good example. He was in many ways second fiddle to his elder brother; but his contribution to the Wesleyan Revival – the greatest ever to sweep the British Isles – was immense.
His huge output of more than 6,000 hymns played a vital role in promoting corporate worship and in teaching ‘sound doctrine’ to the mass of converts. John was certainly the more effective evangelist and organiser, but the “Songs of Zion” Charles provided were the perfect complement.
Charles Wesley’s hymns cover the whole range of Christian doctrine and human response to the grace of God, blending warmth and personality with solidly biblical doctrine. All the major seasons are celebrated – Christmas, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost – and prayer, proclamation of the Gospel, the Trinity, and, of course, the centrality of the Incarnation and the Cross are all there in memorable and matchless language and imagery. Take this as a vivid example:
Stung by the scorpion sin / My poor expiring soul / The balmy sound drinks in, / And is at once made whole: / See there my Lord upon the tree / I hear, I feel, He died for me!
In that short verse, an Old Testament incident, the Cross of Jesus, the appeal of the Gospel and the sinner’s grateful and heartfelt response are wonderfully and economically woven together. And Charles Wesley did it again and again. In all, he wrote about 180,000 lines of verse. That’s more than Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Milton or Tennyson.
Hark the Herald Angels Sing is Charles Wesely’s bestknown hymn, perhaps even the best known carol of all. By definition a carol is a song of joy associated with one or another Christian festival – usually, but not exclusively, Christmas. And there’s joy in abundance in this ever-popular Christmas song.
The first verse is an angelic song of joy and an encouragement to all the nations to join in.
The eternal Sonship, Deity and Virgin Birth of Christ are robustly affirmed in the second verse – all of them being denied by some of the poet’s own contemporaries under the influence of rationalism and, in the Church, Unitarianism. These are truths that need preaching in every age and emphasising through the medium of song by new generations of Christian poets and musicians.
The third stanza – surely with Philippians 2:5-11 in mind – speaks of Christ’s voluntary incarnation and humiliation, that he might ‘raise the sons of earth’ and ‘give them second birth’.
There are few more Christ-exalting hymns than this favourite carol: He is Jesus the new-born King, the Everlasting Lord, Incarnate Deity, Immanuel, Prince of Peace and Son of Righteousness. So, at this festive season, spare a thought for Charles Wesley. Second fiddle he may have been; but what a first class treasury of sacred poetry he produced!