Question: "Who was Charles Wesley?"
Answer: Charles Wesley (1707–1788) has sometimes been referred to as “the forgotten Wesley.” Though famous in his own right, Charles Wesley is often overshadowed by his older brother, John Wesley, considered the founder of the Methodist denomination. Charles established his own legacy as the author of some of the most memorable and lasting hymns of the church. Some of his 8,989 hymns include “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” “O for a Thousand Tongues,” “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” and “Jesus, Lover of My Soul.”
Charles was born prematurely in 1707 as the eighteenth of nineteen children born to Samuel and Susannah Wesley. Only ten of those children lived to adulthood, and it looked as though Charles would not be counted among them. As an infant, he lay ill for weeks, wrapped in a wool blanket. But God’s hand was upon him, and he lived, soon joining his brothers and sisters in their daily studies of Greek, Latin, and French taught by Susannah. He then spent thirteen years at Westminster in his native England, followed by another nine at Oxford where he earned a master’s degree.
While at Oxford, Charles was bothered by the worldly atmosphere. In response, he and a handful of classmates formed what other students called the “Holy Club.” Together, Wesley and his friends observed communion weekly and held themselves to a rigorous schedule of spiritual pursuits that included early rising, Bible study, and prison ministry. Because of this strict, self-imposed schedule, peers began calling them “Methodists.”
After graduation, Charles Wesley, an Anglican, was ordained into the ministry, as was his brother John, and the two Wesley brothers set out to evangelize the colony of Georgia in America. But this venture pummeled them with such overwhelming opposition, pain, and defeat that they returned to England after one year. John wrote in his journal of this disappointment: “I went to America to convert the Indians, but, O! Who will convert me?”
That turned out to be a pivotal question in both of their lives. Charles dove more deeply into the Scriptures for his own spiritual nourishment, rather than using Bible reading as a discipline or a means by which he could earn God’s favor. It was after reading Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians that Charles’ eyes were opened to the truth of justification by faith (Ephesians 2:8–9). At last he had found the doorway to peace with God. Two days after his conversion, Charles Wesley wrote his first hymn celebrating the joy that filled his heart. Through the influence of evangelist George Whitefield, John, too, found peace with God through faith in Christ alone (Titus 3:5). The zealous evangelistic brothers had been delivered from religion and were finally saved.
At the age of 40, Charles married 20-year-old Sally Gwynne. He continued traveling, preaching, and penning the lyrics to passion-filled, doctrine-rich hymns of faith that have defined Protestant Christianity for decades. Although John is the better-known itinerant preacher, Charles also preached to nearly 150,000 people. He gradually withdrew from traveling and spent the remainder of his years writing music until he died in 1788 at the age of 81.
Charles and John Wesley’s story reflects the truth of Romans 10:2–3, which says, “They have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.” Their brilliant minds sought to understand and master Christianity as a discipline rather than seeing it as a relationship made possible only through grace. We can learn from Charles Wesley that true power and fruitfulness only come when we exhaust our efforts to serve God and simply allow His Holy Spirit to live through us (Galatians 2:20).
No condemnation now I dread,
I am my Lord’s and He is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine.
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
(Charles Wesley, “And Can It Be?” 1738).