Catholic Historical Review, April 2009
Several volumes were published in conjunction with the tercentenary year (2007) of Charles Wesley’s birth: Gary Best, Charles Wesley.’A Biography Epworth, 2006); Gareth Lloyd, Charles Wesley and the Struggle for Methodist Identity (Oxford, 2007); Kenneth G. C. Newport and Ted A. Campbell, eds., Charles Wesley.’ Life, Literature and Legacy (Epworth, 2007); T. Kimbrough, Jr. and Kenneth G. C. Newport, The Manuscript Journal of Cba,’les Wesley, MA, Abingdon, 2008); and the volume reviewed here, John Tyson, Assist Me to Proclaim’ The Life and Hymns of Charles Wesley.
The Tyson volume provides a sweeping overview of Wesley’s life and ministry and uses poetry as a commentary on his life and thought. Tyson provides a chronological overview of his life and work, and generally uses poetry to punctuate the development and views of both. The author takes the reader on a journey from Wesley’s beginnings and home life to school, university, and his American experience in Georgia; his return to England; his conversion in 1738; and his lifelong relationship with his family and friends, the Church of England, and the Methodist movement.
A strong aspect of the volume is the exploration of Wesley’s relationship to his family, especially his brother,John; his wife; and his children.Tyson does not romanticize Wesley, but shows the man as he is: tender and loving, yet headstrong and stubborn; deeply committed to the evangelical revival, yet equally committed to the Church of England. From this account the reader has a keen sense of his struggle to stay within the Methodist movement and within the Church of England. Intimately a part of this struggle at times was his difficult relationship with John, especially as regards the role of lay preachers and ordination. Although the relationship often was rocky, Tyson makes clear that Wesley’s deep love for his brother never diminished and what the two accomplished in ministry and in publications is indeed amazing.
The author has perused an enormous amount of material, as is indicated by the extensive annotated bibliography, "A Note on the Sources," at the end of the volume. This is a useful resource to those interested in further study on Wesley.
The editors of the series Library of Religious Biography aver on the first page of the book:"Marked by careful scholarship yet free of footnotes and academic jargon, the books in this series are well-written narratives meant to be read and enjoyed as well as studied" (emphasis in original). The decision to provide no documentation of quotations, especially of poetry sources, is unfortunate. It can indeed be read and enjoyed, forTyson writes a smooth narrative, but readers cannot know that what they are reading is accurate.
The book is deeply flawed by poor editing. There are a number of misspellings, such as along = alone p. 93), mony = many (p. 196), was = wast (p. 201), and you = your (p. 302). Much more troubling, however, are the errors in the poetry quotations. Many lines of poetry do not scan properly because of misprints, such as passt = passest (p. 113), draws’st = draw’st (p. 113),"And be like his Son" = "And to be like his Son" (p. 103), and innocence = innocency (line 2, stanza 10, p. 151; also on p. 143), was = wast and exalting = exulting (lines 3 and 5 of the first stanza of poetry, p. 201), "The instantaneous witness see" (this is the next to the last line of the poem at the top of page 250 and it is completely omitted), and gracious = greater (first line of poem at the bottom of p. 249). In some instances the format of the poetry has not been carefully edited. On page 108 a poem in 8.8.8,8 meter of alternating rhyme wrongly appears with the first and third lines indented, while on the facing page stanza 7 of the same poem appears correctly with the second and fourth lines indented.
It is unfortunate that Tyson relied primarily on George Osborn’s thirteenvolume The Poet,)’ of John and Charles Wesley (1868-72) for many quotations of poetry In so doing he has transmitted some of the flaws of Osborn’s own editing, such as meaningless capitalizations of third-person pronouns for the divine and erratic transcriptions of Wesley’s verse, For example, in the early publishing practice of Wesley’s poetry the "e" of a verb in the past tense was replaced by an apostrophe. On p. 1 18 Tyson quotes the well-known hymn "All praise to our redeeming Lord," In line 3 the original "restor’d" is written "restored." This is a precise quotation from Osborn, which, in terms of linguistic style, makes no sense.
There are some authorial assertions that cannot be supported by known facts. On page 252 Tyson claims, "He [Charles Wesley] was a capable keyboard musician," which is not borne out by the existing literature. Wesley’s ownership of a small organ does not support the claim. Clearly, his wife, Sarah (Sally), and their two sons, Charles and Samuel, were capable keyboard musicians. The author also asserts, "It is clear that Charles created several of the Wesleyan hymns that are translations from German" (p. 257). Although Wesley knew some German, there is no "clear" evidence that any extant English translations from German were made by him.
Tyson uses the term Holy Club as an appropriate name for a small group of students at Oxford University that the Wesley brothers joined and that sought an enriched spiritual life. However, he does not consider recent scholarship that questions the validity of the term. In addition, at times the author confuses both historical fact and places.
The author’s comparison of Wesley and Watts is well meaning but misdirected. He states, "Thus, where Isaac Watts paraphrased the Bible in his hymns, Wesley actually commented, and created theology while he versified" (p. 261). Although Wesley may indeed have created theology while he penned poetry, he also wrote numerous metrical paraphrases of scriptural passages, particularly of the Psalms. Earlier in Tyson’s volume there is another compar - ison with Watts. He rightly asserts that Wesley often set his verse in the first person and thus "placed words and experiences upon the singer’s lips" (p. 57). In this way he "was able to make the singers of his hymns participants in the experiences they sang about" (p. 57).This is a valid point, but the author goes on to say, "This was a relatively new development in hymnody, one that broke the pattern with Wesley’s evangelical precursors like Isaac Watts and added a new vitality to singing in church" (pp. 57-58). One example, however, suffices to point out that Watts had done this beautifully, namely, in the hymn "When I survey the wondrous cross."
Tyson refers quite regularly to the "unpublished" poetry of Wesley which gives the impression that the poetry is still unpublished. Unless some unpublished selections of poetry surface, all of the previously unpublished poetry by Wesley has been published.
Although this volume may be "a good read," it is most unfortunate that more care was not taken in the editing and that the author was not more judicious in assertions that cannot be supported by careful research and in checking his quotations of Wesley’s poetry and prose, as well as historical facts and places.
S. T. KIMBROUGH, JR.
The Divinity School