Sunday, January 4, 2009

Charles Wesley (1707-1788)

The Wesleys (Charles and his older brother John, 1703-1791) are considered the founders of Methodism, a movement within the Church of England in the 1730s that emphasized:

  • Salvation by grace through faith as a free will choice (not predestination);
  • Evangelism, since free will means all have the opportunity to be saved; and,
  • Personal holiness (spiritual disciplines of fasting, prayer, study, service, emphasis on “conversion experience”).

The Wesley brothers were educated at Oxford, and during their stay founded the "Holy Club" (as it was mockingly called by their classmates), which practiced the spiritual disciplines mentioned above. They were dissatisfied with what they saw in the state church--a marginal, "cultural" identification with Christianity, rather than a life-changing relationship with Christ. In 1735, the Wesleys sailed for North America, and did missionary work in the Georgia colony. Here they became even more frustrated with the established church's inability to relate to the rough lower classes that made up most of their congregation. Upon returning to England, finding the high church traditionalists opposed to their reforms, and the low church Puritans opposed to their doctrines, the Wesleys turned to independent evangelistic meetings, bringing in the “unchurched” or marginal Christians.

What does this have to do with hymns? Everything! The Wesleys were convinced that the individual had to make a choice to have a relationship with God, and that one of the ways this happens is through worship. In Anglican services of that era, however, the worship was led by the clergy and choir, with little for the congregation to do. They knew the congregation needed to be more directly involved; then, a chance meeting showed them a way. It happened that when they sailed for Georgia in 1735, they took passage on a ship with a group of Moravians (Church of the Brethren), refugees from Eastern Europe. These heirs of the Jan Hus reformation worshiped in extreme simplicity, with their music limited to congregational singing. In addition, they had a rich tradition of writing original hymns, rather than confining themselves to the Psalms as did the Calvinist Puritans. It was an encounter that forever changed the Wesleys' view of singing in worship.

In 1741 the brothers published A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People called Methodist, which ran through more than 5o editions by the end of the century and is the ancestor of the Methodist Hymnal of today. It relied heavily, of course, on the hymns of Isaac Watts; but the Calvinist beliefs of this older hymnwriter meant that the Wesleys would have to look elsewhere for songs on the subjects of evangelism and free-will salvation. They both tried their hands at writing, but Charles far excelled his older brother both in number and quality of hymns. Charles Wesley is credited with over 6,500 hymn texts!

The Wesleys' view of how to cultivate good congregational singing might be summed up as follows:

  • Keep it simple--make sure the melody and words are accessible to the people.
  • Adapt secular tunes and styles if necessary.
  • At the same time, educate the congregation in singing, as much as possible.

The following excerpt from the minutes of the 1765 Methodist Conference makes it clear:

Teach them to sing by note, and to sing our tunes first [i.e. the tunes published with the hymnal, rather than substituting their own, DH]; take care they do not sing too slow. Exhort all that can in every congregation to sing. Set them right that sing wrong. Be patient herein.

Words of wisdom for any songleader. For more on the Wesleys' views of congregational singing, read John Wesley's famous preface to his tune-book Sacred Melodies.

Wesley's hymns differed from those of Watts in their subject matter, which often dealt with the conversion experience and a personal relationship with Christ in an almost mystic tone (see "Jesus, Lover of my soul", PFTL #365). He frequently has an evangelistic emphasis as well, and touches often on the universal call of the gospel and the unlimited power of the blood of Christ. An excellent example of this theme is "Arise, my soul, arise", PFTL #46.

Although Wesley's concern was for the common people, he was still an Oxford scholar, and struggled for artistic beauty within the bounds of a simple vocabulary and poetic format. In this regard he is often more poetically sophisticated than Isaac Watts, and often more successful from that standpoint (though the Oxford scholars of the 19th century would criticize them equally as populist hacks).

Charles Wesley's hymns in Praise for the Lord are:

A charge to keep I have - #3
All praise to our redeeming Lord - #18
Arise, my soul, arise - #46
Before Jehovah's awful throne - #64
Blest be the dear, uniting love - #74
Christ, the Lord, is risen today - #97
Come, Thou long-expected Jesus - #108
Hark! The herald angels sing - #202
I know that my Redeemer lives - #285
Jesus, Lover of my soul - #364,365
Love divine, a love excelling - #405
O for a heart to praise my God - #465
O for a thousand tongues to sing - #467,468
Rejoice, the Lord is King - #547,548
Soldiers of Christ, arise - #585

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