Hymn, Autumn 2008
John Tyson, professor of theology at Houghton College and life-long student of the Wesleys, has crafted a fine biography of Charles. Engagingly written, the study is primarily chronological, though some of its twenty chapters focus on roles ("Father of a Family") and theological emphases ("Perfection"). We learn not only of Wesley’s spiritual journey and poetic skill, but also of his immense investment in maintaining personal and professional relationships while giving shape and voice to the evangelical revival, That his efforts were not always successful shows both Wesley’s frailties and his faithfulness.
Adhering to the format of the Library of Religious Biography, this book does not include documentation. Nonetheless, Tyson’s scholarship is evident in a valuable bibliographic essay and in the use of excerpts from primary sources. Quotations from journals, poems, and hymns are employed to great effect; his own hand is generally unobtrusive. Only in the sections on hymns and sanctification is he obviously analytical and didactic. The repetition of quoted material sometimes after a short interval is one of the few distrac-, tions in a well-constructed and insightful narrative. The author’s detailed knowledge is skillfully woven into a richtapestry of context.
Recurrent themes are Wesley’s fervent allegiance to the Anglican communion and his devotion to enduring friendships. In a manner typical of, but perhaps more intense than, his contemporaries, Wesley found the role of "friend" to be profoundly meaningful indeed, more theologically consequential than those of son, brother, parent, or spouse.
Of particular interest to the readers of this journal is the chapter on Charles Wesley as "Poet Laureate" of the Methodist movement. Following J. E. Rattenbury and Teresa Berger, Tyson mines the hymns for theological import and draws particular attention to the ways in which they explicate scripture. He identifies the genius of this literature: "By uniting heart and mind in an act of praise and adoration, Wesley’s hymns cause the singer to participate in and to experience the gospel’s truths in a way that sterile theological definitions do not" (pp. 253-54).
The significance of hymns to the Wesleyan cause is affirmed in the report of a disciplinary action. A written statement from Charles permitted one ’ William Darney to preach only under four conditions, of which - by far the most extensive was this:
That he does not introduce the use of his doggerel hymns into our Societies.
I cannot in conscience agree to his putting nonsense into their mouths. Indeed, they themselves would never consent to it. But he utterly refused to promise forbearance, therefore, I have promised him that in whatsoever Society of ours he uses his own verses, in that Society he shall preach no more (p. 196; italics original).
At the tercentenary of his birth, it appears that Charles Wesley is finally getting his due as more than a hymnist though his hymns, an inseparable part of his work, offer essential insight into his whole life. Tyson’s biography is an accessible and rewarding addition to the literature.
PAUL A. RICHARDSON
Paul A. Richardson is Professor of Music at Stanford University, Birmingham, Alabama, where he teaches voice and church music. He is a former president of the society.