Books & Culture, May/June 2009
Books discussed in this essay:
Gary Best, Charles Wesley: A Biography (Epworth, 2006).
Gareth Lloyd, Charles Wesley and the Struggle for Methodist Identity (Oxford Univ. Press, 2007).
S.T. Kimbrough, Jr., and Kenneth G. C. Newport, eds., The Manuscript Journal of the Reverend Charles Wesley, M.A., 2 vols. (Kingswood Books, 2007).
Kenneth C. Newport and Ted A. Campbell, eds., Charles Wesley: Life, Literature & Legacy (Epworth, 2001).
John U. Tyson, Assist Me to Proclaim: The Life and Hymns of Charles Wesley(Eerdmans, 2007).
I look out my office window in Vancouver at a mountain that appears singular and imposing. From experience, though, I know that if you drive up that mountain, you will find that it distinguishes itself into two equally impressive peaks. In fact, the bowl-shaped depression between them will be the site of some of the events for the Winter Olympics in 2010. Yet we still speak of it in Vancouver as one "mountain."
So have the brothers John and Charles Wesley been seen by later generations. Founders of Methodism, and key figures in the 18th-century evangelical revival in Britain, they appear from a distance as a kind of hyphenated compound: John-and-Charles-Wesley. One mountain. If we distinguish the two at all, it is John Wesley plus a hymn-writing sidekick. Charles Wesley is just John Wesley in rhyme. Maybe we even unconsciously see the Wesleys as an 18th-century version of the later evangelistic teams in American revivalism: preacher plus songleader, sort of like Moody and Sankey, or Billy Graham and Cliff Barrows. But does it really matter where you put that tiny little apostrophe, anyhow? Wesley’s theology, or the Wesleys’ theology?
It does matter. The tercentenary of the birth of Charles Wesley (1707-88) saw the publication of a number of fine books on the younger evangelist that have begun to distinguish him clearly so that he stands out in his own right, no longer elided into the towering figure of his brother John (1703-91). The result is that w’e can see two mountains now, and sometimes even a wide gap between them.
These publications mark the culmination of a renewed scholarly interest in the younger evangelist that has gathered pace over the past two decades, especially since the founding of the Charles Wesley Society in 1990. This scholarship is founded in the first instance on getting the primary texts right and getting them out there. For those of us who have sung "And Can It Be?" or "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" for as long as we can remember, it is hard to believe that three centuries on there could still be Charles Wesley manuscripts that have yet to be prepared properly for publication. And this is where much of the attention of a small group of dedicated scholars has been focused, doing the painstaking work of textual criticism and preparing critical editions. As with John Wesley’s works, this has involved deciphering and translating Charles’ idiosyncratic shorthand, and using internal and external evidence to distinguish which sermons and hymns were from John and which came from Charles’ pen (and which ones we can’t be sure of either way).
For example, The Poetical Works of John and Charles Wesley, edited by George Osborn (1868-72), was for long the chief source for studying the poems of the Wesley brothers, but its usefulness was limited, given its omissions, inaccuracies, and editorial eccentricities. The Unpublished Poetry of Charles Wesley, edited in three volumes by S.T. Kimbrough, Jr. and Oliver A. Beckerlegge (Kingswood Books, 1988-92), brought to light the poetry that had been left unpublished in Charles’ own lifetime or was simply missed by Osborn. And now the Duke Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition has placed reliable editions and transcriptions of the published verse of Charles Wesley online too. Together this forms a large body of poetry, some of which had never seen the light of day before, and all of it more usable for scholars than ever.
Likewise, various prior editions of Charles’ sermons have been superseded by a critical edition edited by Kenneth Newport, The Sermons of Charles Wesley (Oxford Univ. Press, 2001). And the tercentenary saw the publication of a critical edition of Charles’ journal, The Manuscript Journal of the Rev. Charles Wesley, MA., edited in two volumes by Kenneth Newport and S. T. Kimbrough, Jr. For the first time, this edition translated the shorthand and restored the deletions of the Victorian editors. Some of the personal details that previous editors did not see fit to publish are the sort of everyday concerns that most interest many of us now, To this body of texts, we may add a scholarly edition of the journal letters and familiar correspondence of Charles Wesley that is also in the works. I only wish I’d had these texts available for the last book I wrote, in which Charles Wesley figured significantly.
If these last two paragraphs seem something of a dull catalogue of unsexy scholarship that didn’t even use the word "postmodern" once, then I should hasten to emphasize just how crucial this work of basic scholarship is. It just so happens that during the same months that I was reading these Wesley texts, I was also reading a number of literary theorists on postcolonial, post-structuralist approaches to autobiography. After swimming in this high theory, I returned with real appreciation (even love) for the late Oliver A. Beckerlegge, who taught himself to read Charles Wesley’s shorthand by poring over the texts, looking for keys, comparing text with text, and puzzling over "whether a slightly slanting stroke is a t, b, or r; or whether a slightly curved stroke is intended to be a curve or a straight line." Or, again, to think that Beckerlegge faithful- ly left a lacuna in a sermon for years, rather than speculate what the shorthand symbols for rnd could mean, until at the page proof stage it dawned on him with certainty that this was "music and dancing" at the conclusion of the parable of the Good Samaritan. I have nothing but admiration for such patient and virtuous scholarship, which feels a deep accountability to the actual words of Charles Wesley, even to the ciphers themselves.
Such text critical work is indeed foundational. The vigor, quality, and breadth of research on Jonathan Edwards in the last generation, for example, simply would not have been possible were it not for the thoroughness and comprehensiveness of the Yale edition. It remains to be seen whether the similarly exacting textual work that is going into the Works of John Wesley, and now into the various works of Charles Wesley, will stimulate a similar wave of scholarship. There are certainly myriad possibilities for these texts beyond the good use made of them by the Methodist faithful.
The tercentenary was an occasion for new biographies from both sides of the Atlantic. Gary Best’s Charles Wsicy: A Biography and John Tyson’s Assist Me to Proclaim: The Life and Hymns of Charles Wesley are two very readable and sympathetic biographies that draw widely on the sources, though neither of these is the sort of scholarly biography that will be received as a definitive work, such as appeared just after the 250-year anniversary of John Wesley’s conversion with Henry Rack’s Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism (1989). Tyson does more w’ith the hymns and offers a more careful anal)’- sis of Charles Wesley’s theology; Best offers a stronger narrative and sense of context, and he paints a darker picture of brother John along the way. But both provide a sympathetic portrait of a Charles Wesley who is difficult not to like.
Gareth Lloyd’s monograph, Charles Wesley and the Struggle for Methodist Identity, is a biographical study of a narrower sort, but it stands out for its attempt to bring new archival sources to bear on understanding Charles’ life. It is written by an archivist at the John Rylands’ Library in Manchester who literally sits atop the largest cache of early Methodist manuscripts to be found anywhere. And Lloyd also writes as a Methodist outsider with a kind of hermeneutic of suspicion. Seeing firsthand how much the Victorian Methodists left out of their editions of Charles Wesley and his brother, Lloyd sets about examining all the manuscript evidence afresh, right down to Charles’ personal financial accounts. He doesn’t treat the hymns or analyze the theology at any length, and he doesn’t show much interest in Charles’ evangelical conversion in 1738, but within his narrower limits, he goes deep. Above all, he show’s how Charles emerged in the last half of his life as the champion of the "Church Methodists," who wanted Methodism to remain loyally within the Church of England. It was precisely this that led later Methodist historians to downplay Charles’ significance and paper over the cracks in his relationship with John.
How does Charles emerge from these biographies as distinct from his brother? We can identify four turning points in the life of Charles Wesley, the first two of which were paralleled in the life of John, the last two of which marked out for Charles a path of his own. The first turn- ing point came in 1729, when Charles was at Oxford. He had spent the first eight years of his life in the Epworth rectory in Lincolnshire under the firm hand of his mother, Susannah, and he had witnessed the dedicated devotion of both his mother and father. He probably inherited an emotional temperament more like his volatile father, Samuel, but he certainly retained a good measure of his mother’s strength of mind too. His schooling was at Westminster school in London, where he lived with his elder brother Samuel, Jr., and was confirmed in the principles of a Tory High Churchman that would stay w’ith him for the rest of his life. Here also, in his classical education, the foundation was laid for his felicity as a poet. But when he went on to Oxford he grew somewhat more relaxed in his seriousness about religion, complaining once to his brother, "What? would you have me to be a saint at once?"
In 1729, however, he returned to the high ideals of devotion he had been raised to appreciate, and he renewed his dedication to "purity of intention" after the pattern of Caroline High Church Anglican piety. "A man made for friendship," as one of his Oxford friends described him, Charles soon gathered others around him in his disciplined pursuit of the highest Christian ideals. The young George Whitefield was one of those recruited into this movement by Charles. During these years the two brothers \’\Tesley were the center of a devotional movement often described as "Oxford Methodism" to distinguish it from the later evangelical period.
The second turning point in Charles Wesley’s life occurred between 1736 and 1739. It was during these years that he passed through a profound crisis of insufficiency, experienced a climactic evangelical conversion, and found his voice as an evangelist and poet. His year as a failed missionary in Georgia was traumatic, with interpersonal conflict, serious illness and debility, and social estrangement culminating in a sense of spiritual malaise and inadequacy. Together, these experiences provoked a quest for the sort of direct experience of God’s mercy to which the Moravian Brethren testified. And so it proved on May 21, 1738, back in London, in one of the most liturgically well-timed conversion experiences in history. On the Day of Pentecost, bedridden with pleurisy, Charles experienced that "strange palpitation of heart" that was paralleled by John’s "strangely warmed heart" three days later. It truly was, as John Tyson says, "Pentecost made personal," and in 1739 Charles moved on from this experience to a new confidence as an evangelist.
The surest proof that this was a turning point was the new fluency he found in every sphere. He began to preach extempore for the first time and found himself buoyed up by the ease and facility he discovered in preaching and the reception he was given. His sermons texts from this period show a new confidence and bolder proclamation of God’s grace and the work of the Holy Spirit. He also began to preach outdoors in 1739. And it was in 1739 too that he began to publish with his brother a remarkable corpus of evangelical hymns that he would add to for the rest of his life. The classic body of Methodist hymnody appeared in some 500 hymns published jointly with John between 1739 and 1746. Thereafter Charles would publish under his own name. According to the calculation of the late Frank Baker, the Methodist scholar who laid the foundation for the present renaissance in Charles Wesley studies, Charles produced some 9,000 hymns or poems by the time he died roughly 27,000 stanzas or 180,000 lines. That is three times the output of Wordsworth. But again, this second turning point, in which we trace an arc from travail, through evangelical conversion, to evangelical fluency, was matched almost exactly in the experience of his brother John (though without the same extraordinary output of verse).
For the next decade, while Charles \’Vesley was in his thirties, he was in partnership with his brother John as a young and single traveling Methodist evangelist in the heady days of revival when all seemed to walk in a cloud of wonders. There is a good quantity of evidence (much of it from lay testimony) that Charles was actually regarded during these years as the more effective and powerful preacher of the two brothers. Certainly, when you read the few sermon manuscripts that are extant from this period, you sense the fire in his bones, and he pulled no punches in preaching either the law or the gospel. He might have been more critical than John of some of the ecstatic phenomena of revival that were observed during these years, but he was certainly front and center as a co-founder of Methodism in London and Bristol, and then regions beyond, as Methodism began to spread.
But with the last two turning points in Charles’ life, he began to mark out a path very different from his brother’s. During the period 1747-49, he met, courted, and married Sarah Gwynne and commenced a happy season of life as a husband, father, and householder. When it seemed that John was approaching a similar turning point in his own life as he began to form an affectionate bond w’ith the low’-born Grace Murray, who had nursed him in an illness and subsequently travelled with him for a time, Charles intervened dramatically to crush the prospect. Historians still disagree about this episode. Did Charles act rightly to end a scandal that threatened Methodism at its roots? Or did he act impulsively and recklessly? However one evaluates this episode, the brothers would from this point on move through life on different paths. When John Wesley did marry, he did so without informing Charles and the marriage was a disaster.
For the next seven years or so, Charles would struggle with divided loyalties, torn between his allegiance to his wife, to his brother and Methodism, to the Church of England, and above all, to his own conscience. But from 1749 forward, we must place the model offered in Charles Wesley of a Methodist evangelist as a happily married man with a family, alongside that of his brother John as the singular itinerant whose unsuccessful marriage seemed only an interference to his travelling ministry.
Against this personal backdrop, Charles also found himself at odds with John over the maintenance of discipline among the growing body of Methodist lay preachers. Charles was worried that John was far too trusting and even na ve in his handling of the preachers, and by 1751-52, when a particularly worrying case of open sexual scandal emerged, Charles voiced his concern that the lay preachers could well destroy the work of God that was Methodism. Charles would have much preferred that Methodism make more use of clergy or find a way to have lay preachers ordained, In the absence of this, he was determined to exercise discipline. In a letter he described his own resolve to undo the damage John ("a friend") had done: "A friend of ours (without God’s counsel) made a preacher of a tailor. I, with God’s help, shall make a tailor of him again." Yet even while Charles was purging the preachers and sending them out the front door, it seemed that John would forgive them and slip them in again at the back door.
A fourth turning point in Charles’ life was his withdrawal from active, regular itinerancy in 1756, as he settled down as a local Methodist minister in Bristol, and then, after 1771, in London. John would continue his superhuman traveling ministry as an almost mendicant figure, but Charles would maintain a respectable household and remain an anchor for Methodism in its heartland. He did not by any means retire from Methodism, and he would make excursions into the country from time to time, but his ministry was increasingly a settled one. "Settled" does not mean inactive, though, and he was very much at the center of the main developments in Methodism, such as the perfectionist revivals in the early 1760s. Here again, Charles was much more critical of the extravagant claims to perfection and the apocalyptic prophecies that emerged in this revival than his brother ever was. This was a matter both of discipline and doctrine. Charles formed a higher view of Christian perfection than John and therefore was less willing to accredit it among those of their followers who made claim to it. He considered perfection scarcely attainable before death.
Other tensions were to emerge too. Charles and Sarah moved easily among the gentry and aristocracy in London. This was Sarah’s lineage, and in order for her family to permit the marriage, Charles and John had needed to agree to a financial settlement essentially an endowment from Methodist publishing that would provide the couple with £150 per year. Though John agreed to this in the end, it surfaced time and again as a sore point, and many of the lay preachers seemed to resent Charles’ superior social and financial status. His total income could probably have supported more than a dozen lay preachers.
It is important to emphasize what a long phase of Charles’ life this period as a settled Methodist was some 32 years. It was during these years that Charles became, as Lloyd shows, the voice of those Methodists who wished to remain firmly in the Church of England. I came across a manuscript letter recently that was written by Charles in 1773, and it confirms Lloyd’s argument that there was a deep fissure during these years between "Church Methodists," who aligned with Charles, on the one hand, and Methodists bent on increasing independence from the Church of England, who aligned with John and certain of the lay preachers, on the other. Charles indicates that the local committee those with the money were on his side, but also, more surprisingly, the poor were too: "I firmly believe the bulk of the poor Methodists will never turn dissenters, but continue in the ship, till we are brought safe to the haven." 1 Charles even adds a postscript to this letter to confide his secret intention to make a surprise visit at the next annual Methodist conference and set the cat among the pigeons. This was to be, he said, his "last debt" to the Church of England and to his brother. As this letter shows, Charles’ churchmanship meant that he would become increasingly alienated not only from John but also from influential lay preachers of the next generation, such as John Pawson, who would in time suppress Charles’ reputation as one of the co-founders of Methodism. By the mid-19th century, Charles Wesley had become a much diminished figure in Methodist historiography.
But Charles’ reputation is emphatically on the rebound. One can get no better sense of the state of the art in Charles Wesley scholarship than by reading through Hie 28 essays edited by Kenneth Newport and Ted Campbell in Charles Wesley: Life, Literature rf Legacy. The essays are superb on the whole, and they range from technical descriptions of his shorthand, to criticism of the hymns, to expositions of his theology, to close historical reconstructions of Charles Wesley and (fill in the blank: the preachers, his children, Catholicism, his mother, Calvinism, etc.).
Let me focus on three essays which I found particularly illuminating in this collection for the way they identify important new areas of scholarship. First is Jeremy Gregory’s tour de force on "Charles Wesley and the Eighteenth Century," which shows how Charles can be seen both to "reflect and refract the period in which he lived." Here we see his importance as a figure for historians. In teasingly short vignettes, Gregory sets Charles against a series of backgrounds, or, to put it differently, he inserts him into a series of scholarly discourses on the 18th century and suggests how in each context we might gain a better appreciation for Charles and the period. So Gregory looks first at the longstanding literature that has sought to rehabilitate the Church of England in that period, showing how Charles may be seen as an exemplar of Anglican devotion and pastoral care, not necessarily or principally a dissident voice. But then Gregory proceeds across a range of issues in debate among 18th-century historians: the nature of the English Enlightenment (how secular was it?), sociability and politeness, marriage and family, autobiography and life-writing, medicine and health, national identity, self and society, and so on and into each of these discussions he sets Charles as "exhibit A." Really, he sets an agenda for a whole generation of scholar - ship on Charles Wesley, and his short essay would be helpful as a program for developing a research agenda for any evangelical figure in the period. Gregory concludes his essay by placing a kind of question mark against the common framework of a modernizing secular analysis that historians use to understand various areas of life in the 18th century: "The importance of Charles Wesley to the eighteenth-century historian is to show that, at least for him, these supposedly secular concerns all had profoundly religious connotations."
The historians are not the only ones with a stake in Charles Wesley. There are also the literary critics. J. R. Watson, Professor emeritus of English Literature at Durham, offers a Bakhtinian reading in an essay, "The Hymns of Charles Wesley and the Poetic Tradition." Watson examines Charles as a poet, exploring the multiple voices that are in rich dialogue in all his texts not just the Bible, but also his reading both of the Greek and Roman classics and of the Christian classics, especially Milton. Beyond allusions that can be traced as a matter of exacting source criticism, there is in Wesley always a whole world of texts. The writer never writes alone, and the reader never reads alone. And for a person formed as deeply as Charles Wesley in classical and Christian literature, this continuous dialogue is a rich consonance of voices, For example, the famous first lines of one of Wesley’s most enduring hymns, "Love divine, all loves excelling, I Joy of heaven, to earth come down," is a magnificently energetic and terse celebration of the incarnation of the Son of God, but it is also a parody of Dryden’s libretto for Purcell’s opera, King Arthur (1691), which invokes the goddess Venus to forsake Cyprus and descend on Britain. The language is like that used by Wesley. And also, there are echoes (a "dialogue") at some level in Wesley’s hymn with the visit of the gods to earth in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a clas- sical text Wesley would have known well. And so the layers could be built up, one upon the other, in several of his hymns. Wesley was, says Watson, "in perpetual dialogue with that world [the Britain of his own time], and with his poetic predecessors, in ways that make his hymnody incomparably rich."
Watson’s essay might also stand in more generally for the renewed appreciation on the part of many literary critics for the hymn genre and for Wesley’s use of it in particular. The poet and critic Donald Davie (building on the magisterial work of Frank Baker) was one of the first to give sustained attention to Charles Wesley as an Augustan poet, but many others have since. Watson’s own studies of the English hymn have further explored the art of Charles Wesley and his distinctively evangelical poetics. Apart from everything else, such criticism helps one better to appreciate the beauty of Charles’ best verse as verbal art of a particular kind, with a strength of diction that does not divide the didactic from the beautiful or pleasing. Even if poetry was strictly "the handmaid of piety" for him, rather than an organ of truth as it might have been for a later romantic figure such as Coleridge, it was no less of an achievement for all that.
So there is a Charles Wesley for the historians and a Charles Wesley for the literary critics, but, finally, there is also a Charles Wesley for the theologians. Jason Vickers has a superb essay in this anthol- ogy, "Charles Wesley and the Revival of the Doctrine of the Trinity," which expounds Charles’ contribution to Trini- tarian theology through his hymns. Early in the 18th century, fierce theological battles were fought between the orthodox party in the Church of England and the Deists over the nature of God, in which the orthodox sought to provide a rational account of personhood which would not entail a belief in three distinct gods. In this debate, the orthodox apologists won the battle but lost the war, as theology became sterile, losing touch with its sources in doxology. Or, as Vickers puts it in contemporary terms, all the focus was upon providing a rational defense of the immanent Trinity, without reference to the economic Trinity.
Yet it is our experience of God in the economy of his saving acts by which we come to enter the life of God and appreciate the Triune mystery. Charles Wesley took a markedly different line in his sermons and especially in his collections of hymns on the Trinity. Vickers argues that Charles’ evangelical conversion released in his preaching and verse a freshly spiritual theology which recognized that it takes God to reveal God: "Charles’ doctrine of the Trinity is primarily, if not exclusively, concerned with the divine economy, i.e. with the Holy Spirit’s coming to dwell in us so that we might become ’partakers of the divine nature’, and not with demonstrating that a doctrine of the immanent Trinity was compatible with or confirmable by unaided human reason." The force of aspiration in his hymns has not diminished with time, as in this stanza invoking the Holy Spirit, published in 1739, the year after his conversion:
Eager for thee I ask and pant
So strong the principle divine
Carries rue out with sweet constraint,
Till all my hallowed soul is thine;
Plunged in the Godhead’s deepest sea,
And lost in thy immensity.
When Charles does come to speak of the immanent Trinity, he does so in the language of worship that is ontological rather than speculative. "Put simply," says Vickers, "Charles refuses to separate the immanent Trinity from the economic Trinity." The form here is as significant in man), ways as the content, since these hyinns parallel and, in fact, embody the patristic concern to hold together the life of prayer and belief in a unity (lex orandi, lex credendi). It might be a little hard to work some of these hymns into our worship today, but we are all the poorer for that:
Beyond our utmost thought,
And reasons’s proudest flight,
We comprehend Him not,
Nor grasp the Infinite,
But worship in the Mystic Three
One God to all eternity.
The theology here that confesses apophasis is nevertheless deeply aspirational and doxological. Charles Wesley was thus not just a poet on the one hand, and a theologian on the other. He was a profoundly poetic theologian, like (in a very different time and place) John of the Cross.
So after some three hundred years Charles Wesley, on closer inspection, comes out from the shadow of his brother and appears distinct something of a mountain in his own right. A different sort of essay could have explored several of the ways in which it still remains entirely proper to stand back and see a common contribution in the ministry of the Wesley brothers not least in their united assault on nominal religion but it is appropriate to let Charles, at last, have his turn in the spotlight, It was his birthday, after all.
Bruce Hindmarsh is the James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College in Vancouver. He is working on a book on early evangelical spirituality.