Recalling how a herald angel sang

05 September 2007

There was more to Charles Wesley than his great hymns, says Martin Wellings

A ministry undervalued: Charles Wesley preaching; a 19th-century engraving that forms the jacket illustration for the biography reviewed

A ministry undervalued: Charles Wesley preaching; a 19th-century engraving that forms the jacket illustration for the biography reviewed

Charles Wesley: A biography
Gary Best

Epworth £19.99 (978-0-7162-0615-6)
Church Times Bookshop £18

reviewed with 

Paternoster £12.99 (978-1-84227-550-4)
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

CHARLES WESLEY (1707-88) is honoured across the Churches today principally, if not solely, as a prolific hymn-writer. Estimates of his output vary from 6500 to 10,000 hymns. His compositions included such enduring favourites as “O for a thousand tongues to sing”, “Love Divine, all loves excelling”, and “Hark! the herald angels sing” (originally “Hark! how all the welkin rings”).

There was much more to Charles Wesley, however, than a remarkable ability to turn the mysteries of Christian truth and the depths of Christian experience into poetry that is at once lyrical and sublime. With his brother John (1703-91), he was among the leaders of a movement of religious renewal in 18th-century Britain which profoundly influenced the Church of England, revitalised the ailing Nonconformist denominations, and eventually created new expressions of spirituality beyond the existing Churches. He was a crucial figure in the 18th-century Revival, particularly in that strand of the movement which was the forerunner of the modern Methodist Church.

Charles Wesley, unlike his brother, has not been well served by biographers. Shortage of accessible primary sources has encouraged historians to relegate him to a chapter on hymnody in the history of Methodism. Gary Best has sought to remedy this neglect in a full-scale biography that restores Charles to his rightful place.

It traces the story of his life from his Lincolnshire upbringing, via education in London and Oxford, to ordination; then, after an unhappy year in Georgia, it brings Charles back to the London of the spiritual awakening of the late 1730s. For the next 50 years, Charles is shown amid the vicissitudes of the Revival, as preacher, pastor, spiritual director, and protagonist in the sometimes tense relationships between such forceful personalities as George Whitefield, the Countess of Huntingdon, and John Wesley.

Best portrays Charles as a warm character, a loving husband and father, a loyal brother, and “a man made for friendship”, and argues that he played a vital part in drawing others into the Methodist movement, and in mediating in the conflicts generated by more abrasive individuals.

Best writes in a lively, accessible, and colloquial style, sometimes verging on the racy. He has produced a very readable biography, and one that fulfils its aim of res-cuing Charles Wesley from neglect. In so doing, Best has opened up for the general reader the personalities and tensions that make the Evangelical revival so intriguing.

Given its laudable aims and engaging style, then, it is a pity that this book cannot be given an unqualified endorsement. It is marred by faults likely to mislead the unwary reader and to exasperate the expert. There are numerous factual inaccuracies: mistakes over names, dates, and events. To read of Charles’s being ordained deacon and then “minister”, and of George Whitefield, already a deacon, having to complete his Master’s degree “so he could become a minister”, raises doubts about the author’s understanding of the threefold ministry of the 18th-century Church of England.

The sketch of the 17th-century background in the first chapter of the book, particularly the description of the Commonwealth and Protectorate period, is a caricature after the model of 1066 and All That. The suggestions that Catholic-minded Anglicans hoped to return the Church of England to papal control, and that the Puritans “denigrated” holy communion, are plain wrong.

Most regrettably, Best promotes Charles’s real significance by casting John as an ogre — cruel, vindictive, dictatorial, irrational, disloyal, and hypocritical. This may make for an entertaining and provocative presentation, but it ultimately vitiates the book’s purpose of presenting a rounded picture of the Wesley brothers and their context.

Very different in aim and tone is the late John Lawson’s study of the Wesley hymns, first published in 1987. This takes 53 biblical themes, from “God the Sovereign Creator” to “the Second Advent”, and illus-trates each from one or more hymns. A brief introduction is offered to each theme and each hymn, and the hymns are annotated with copious references, showing how Charles wove scriptural references and allusions to the Bible into his lyrics.

It may be wondered who will buy this book and how it will be used, fascinating and learned as it is. Given the steady drift away from traditional hymnody in modern Methodism, this is almost a period piece: the contemporary heirs of the Wesleys share neither their founders’ biblical literacy nor their robust commitment to an Evan-gelical pilgrimage from conversion to perfect love.

While hoping that it will be helpful as an aid to devotion and understanding, one fears that it will be a resource in search of a market, in a Church in danger of forgetting its heritage.

The Revd Dr Wellings is President of the World Methodist Historical Society.

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