Worship, November 2008
John R.Tyson, professor of theology at Houghton College in Houghton, New York, began studying Charles Wesley for his doctoral dissertation and has written other books about him. This one is a chronology of the younger Wesley’s life. Tyson notes that Charles has been eclipsed by his older brother John, not only because of John’s personality and organizing skills. Charles dismissed lay preachers while John supported them, contributing to Methodism’s tendency to forget Charles. Tyson has not forgotten and has written a full-orbed study of Charles rather than add to those about his more-studied elder brother. An Introduction provides an overview. Tyson then groups the topics of Charles’ life into twenty chapters, organized chronologically. Many stanzas of Wesley’s 9000 hymns are interspersed where they fit into the narrative. The book concludes with nine pages of amply-glossed notes on the sources and nine more pages for an Index.
Assist me to Proclaim (from the hymn, "0 for. a Thousand Tongues to Sing") paints a comprehensive picture of Charles’ life. Ordered from birth to death, Wesley’s theology by means of his hymns, his conflicts, personality, travels, precarious health, family of origin, close but sometimes rocky relationship with his brother John, happy marriage to Sally Gwynne, and their talented children all emerge with clarity. The book gives the reader a good understanding of who Charles was and what he did.
The context of eighteenth-century evangelicalism also emerges. Charles’ (and the Wesleys’) strong concern for characteristic facets of the Christian faith in its wholeness is evident: like catholicity, evangelicity, Word, sacraments, freedom, justification, sanctification, zeal for mission, ethical commitment, pastoral concerns, and the life of discipleship. But an almost morbid fascination with oneself and especially with one’s own feelings about his or her spiritual temperature is also evident, strengthened by the evangelical movements of the period. It threatens to overtake everything else and to undermine the whole. The stillness controversy with the Moravians, the excesses of lay preachers, the battles over a break with the Church of England, and the disagreements over perfection seem inevitable with this overriding individual thrust in place.
Several questions might be raised. First, there is no mention of the Hymns on the Lord’s Supper (17). This is puzzling, especially in Chapter 6, "The Snare of Stillness," where sacramental issues arise. Second, there is no indication of what tunes Wesley used for the hymns he wrote when he lined them out (as on p.253). Third, the mischief of falsely attributing "Why should the devil have all the good music" to Charles Wesley (as to Luther, Calvin, or John Wesley) is continued. Tyson does not make the attribution directly, but says Charles asks the question by his hymn, "Listed Into the Cause of Sin." In fact, that is not the question at all. The hymn’s title, "On the True Use of Musicke" (p. 268), indicates the topic, and the hymn itself says Jesus is "the Soul of Musicke" who impels us to sing and rejoice (P. 269). If Charles really felt "the devil" had all the good music in tunes like "Pop Goes the Weasel" (p. 268), it is incomprehensible that he would have sent his son Charles to study with Joseph Keiway, "one of the most famous organists in London" (P. 290). Fourth, Tyson knows Charles Wesley "composed no original music" (p. 252), and he knows the Methodists had no musical opportunities for his sons (p. 296) who were musical prodigies. Yet, he confuses hymns with music (P. 271). This contributes to the continuing misunderstanding that Charles Wesley wrote music.
The questions are important, but may be minor in an overall sense. Scholars and the interested general public will benefit from this book.
St Paul, Minnesota