Fairacres Chronicle 1/2009
Preaching in Oconomowocin, Wisconsin, USA, I said that Charles Wesley had written 3000 hymns. »He wrote 4000«, a member of the congregation called out. We were both wrong. He wrote more than 9000. That anyone should do this is a marvel; that a man as busy and as constantly travelling as Charles Wesley should is little short of a miracle. John Tyson's biography links a tiny proportion of this vast number to events in Wesley's life. There are already numerous biographies of this great man, and if this one needs an excuse, it may be found in this correlation, which throws light on both life and writings.
Charles Wesley's name is associated, quite rightly, with Methodism. But it is important to make clear, as this book does, that in Wesley's time, Methodism was a lay movement within the Established Church—though both Charles, and his older brother John, were ordained Church of England clergy. As young men, the two were very close, but very different. John was the leader, the organizer, of quieter, more even temperament; Charles the more passionate, the quicker to speak his mind forcefully, something he often did, without fear or favour. Over the years, this led to a certain distance between the two brothers, though they never totally separated.
For instance, Charles believed emphatically that Methodist lay preachers should not usurp nor conflict with the ordained ministry of the Church of England. So when John ordained three men for ministry in North America, Charles was scandalised. (John pressed the pastoral argument in favour: the three were ordained to minister in North America where there was but one ordained Anglican priest to minister to the Methodists.) Charles in turn caused brother John pain by refusing to be buried in the crypt behind the New Chapel on City Road which John had prepared for the two of them. He is buried in his (Church of England) parish churchyard. Tyson sees
this as his final insistence that the growing Methodist movement must remain loyally within the Church of England, as Charles himself did.
Charles was a man of an intensity and immediacy in prayer. Tyson shows how particular occasions inspired him to tum his prayer into a poem. Many of these were prompted by a particular event or disagreement. Some he set some to music. These he might sing, line by line, to teach a congregation. Many were published. The result, as has often been appreciated, is accessible and popular spirituality and doctrine—most chiefly that salvation lay in God's gracious justification by faith, not works. This was Paul's gospel, and it was his (and brother John's). Perfection is not so much a moral concept as one of formation: the renewal within a person of the Imago Dei. His hymns are profoundly biblical: a good exercise is to identify the multitude of scriptural references in them, line by line.
Tyson covers many pastoral and ecclesial issues which the brothers had to resolve, some of which still haunt the Church. He describes the almost unbelievable energy of his subject: how Charles would sometimes preach three or even four times a day, travelling on horseback to as many different places (and these sermons were not seven minutes long!); how he would provoke tears of repentance (and sometimes stones of fury); how, when churches were barred to him, he would preach in churchyards, to congregations numbering hundreds, thousands and even tens of thousands.
Clearly, Charles' energy was immense. Constantly travelling, he composed his hymns on horseback, and on one occasion (Tyson reports) drove his horse through his host's garden, to his front door where, as the door was opened, he demanded pen and paper quickly to write down what was in his head. Then he greeted his host!
Sadly, in a book with this title, Tyson does not cover Charles' eucharistic hymns. This may be due to the way in which he has I inked his selection to events on Charles' journeys. Or it may reflect the churchmanship of the author. (They are covered in The Eucharistie Hymns of John and Charles Wesley, J. E. Rattenbury.)
Tyson writes of Charles' friendships, and of his marriage and children. It is a salutary reminder of conditions in the eighteenth century that, of their eight children, only three survived infancy. (Charles himself was number eighteen out of nineteen, but only ten survived.)
Tyson has painted a readable and lively portrait of Charles. There are, however, occasional misprints and typographical infelicities here and there, which a good sub-editor ought to have sorted out. And the index doesn't always work.