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Singing Doctrine

By December 1, 2007June 6th, 2014No Comments

What does the name “Charles Wesley” mean to you? Many, if not most, Christians might know a few simple facts about Charles Wesley. They may associate his name with the Methodist denomination, link him with his better-known brother John Wesley, tie him to his country of England, and, of course, remember seeing his name in songbooks as a writer of none other than our Christmas season’s “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” and the majestic Easter hymn “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.”

We Baptists must admit that we borrow many of our fine hymns from non-Baptist writers and composers, and this month marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of one of them who truly stands out as few others. Therefore, it is appropriate that we reflect upon Charles Wesley, who was born on December 18, 1707. Today when many people are devoid of knowledge and appreciation of the rich spiritual heritage found in our hymns and their sources, we take this opportunity to focus on a giant in the field of hymnody. Writers have devoted whole books to Charles Wesley’s life story; so a magazine article could scarcely do justice. So let’s concentrate on a few interesting, unusual, or unfamiliar facts before looking at Wesley’s theological contribution.

Charles Wesley’s conversion

On the day of his conversion in 1738, Charles Wesley’s eyes fell upon Psalm 40:3: “He hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: many shall see it and fear, and shall trust in the Lord” (KJV). That verse would seem uniquely prophetic, as Charles not only wrote his first hymn the very next day (which some hymn historians believe is that grand autobiographical hymn “And Can It Be That I Should Gain?”) but kept on writing hymns for the next fifty years, about 6,500! And that number doesn’t include other poems he wrote.

Concerning church affiliation, Charles never really left the Church of England (Anglican), although he and his brother John certainly got the Methodist denomination rolling. Charles was buried in an Anglican burial plot, unlike John. Lay preachers expanded the movement called Methodism as time went on, and “Methodists” were increasingly barred from the established churches.1 Interestingly, Charles’s paternal and maternal grandparents were Puritans, and their influence—along with his esteemed and often noted mother, Susanna, and his father, Samuel, who was also a hymnwriter—impacted Charles’s adulthood. His education also bore fruit. He mastered at least seven languages, including Latin, Hebrew, and Greek.

Charles became a pastor before his conversion. Perhaps his initial negative experience in a parish had a bearing on a salvation experience. But he definitely was influenced by several born-again men: the great preacher and friend from Oxford days, George Whitefield, who had been converted a few years earlier; a Moravian missionary named Peter Bohler, who witnessed to Charles; and John Bray, whom Charles termed “a poor ignorant mechanic who knows nothing but Christ; yet by knowing [H]im, knows and discerns all things.”2 Prior to Charles’s conversion, Bohler one day asked Charles, “Do you hope to be saved?” When Charles responded in the affirmative, Bohler asked him, “For what reason do you hope it?”

Charles answered, “Because I have used my best endeavors to serve God.” Bohler shook his head.3 Thus Charles Wesley was among many ministers through time who have never truly been born again but have instead trusted and preached good works for salvation. Thank God that some ministers have, like Charles, seen the light and been truly saved.

Back in the days of Wesley, pastors usually read their sermons rather than “speaking from the heart” with the aid of only an outline or notes. A few months after Charles’s conversion, he became convinced that reading his sermons “robbed him of freedom of expression and prevented him from using any unprepared-for opportunities that might arise.”4 Therefore he began preaching “extempore,” as he put it, and this new practice helped him in future open-air preaching.

As with most young preachers in the ministry, a certain amount of maturing had to take place. One example of this need was Charles’s amateurish habit of “opening the Bible at random and accepting the first verse his eye lighted upon as being the direct message of God to him in the circumstances he was then experiencing.”5 This practice reminds us of people today who open their Bibles at random, as though they were reading a horoscope for the day.

Marriage and family

When Charles and his brother John came to America to minister in the Georgia colony, Gov. James Oglethorpe told Charles, “On many accounts I should recommend to you marriage rather than celibacy. You are of a social temper, and would find in a married state the difficulties of working out your salvation exceedingly lessened, and your helps as much increased.”6 In time Charles met Sarah Gwynne, also known as Sally, in Bristol, England. Charles said it was love at first sight. He was almost forty years old, and Sarah was but twenty-one. She became a faithful traveler with Charles in his meetings, and she was a constant help, even though she came from wealth and privilege, while Charles was quite poor. Charles and Sarah’s thirty-nine-year marriage was generally full of joy and blessing. Sarah outlived Charles by thirty-four years, not leaving this life herself until 1822, in her nineties.

Blessings and trials

Charles’s marriage might have been joyful, and his songs have the same tone, but Charles experienced many heartaches too. He and Sarah had eight children, but five of them died in infancy or in early childhood. The three who lived were Charles Jr., Sarah (also known as Sally), and Samuel.

As can be expected, music played an important part in the family’s life, with Charles Jr. playing harpsichord music he heard around the city and studying organ from a respected organist. Samuel began composing before he could write. And Sarah had her father’s penchant for poetry and literature.

However, Charles Wesley apparently did not communicate well with his children. Age may have been a factor, since he was already fifty at the birth of Charles Jr. Yet he wrote affectionately about the children. As a mother, Sarah was said to have largely failed in the matter of discipline. But the saddest fact about the Wesley children was that they didn’t give evidence of being saved. Charles once told his son Charles Jr., who never married and was cared for by his mother and sister, “You do not sufficiently take God into your counsel.”7 But Samuel was the greatest disappointment. He got involved with the Roman Catholic Church through his organ playing, and Charles was brokenhearted when his son composed a mass and the pope sent greetings. Charles wrote of Samuel:

But while an exile here I live,
I live for a lost son to grieve,
And in thy Spirit groan,
Thy blessings on his soul to claim,
Through Jesus’ all-prevailing name,
Presented at thy throne.

Samuel did finally leave the Catholic Church, but not until after his father had passed on.
Health also presented many sorrows. In the year that Charles Wesley died, the 1788 Methodist Conference stated in its report, “Mr. Charles Wesley, who after spending four score years with much sorrow and pain, quietly retired into Abraham’s bosom. . . . The weary wheels of life stood still at last.” Interestingly, the last effort a bedridden Charles made at poetry went like this:

In age and feebleness extreme,
Who shall a sinful worm redeem?
Jesus, my only hope thou art,
Strength of my failing flesh and heart;
Oh, could I catch a smile from thee,
And drop into eternity.

He was so weak that he had to compel his wife to write down the above words. Much of his last days were spent in unconsciousness.

Wesley’s theology

Having seen a short glimpse of Charles Wesley’s life, we turn to the man’s theological contribution and how Baptists view it. In other words, if Wesley and Methodism are quite different from Baptist theology in various respects, how can we so freely use his songs? After all, most of the hymnals we use in our churches include a total of songs by Charles Wesley that are rivaled only by those of Fanny Crosby and a few others. But the mention of Fanny Crosby again reminds us that we do borrow hymns from other groups, as she was also a Methodist. Many of our best hymnwriters were Anglicans, such as Reginald Heber, who wrote one of our most treasured hymns, “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

The key lies in the fact that these men and women, including Wesley, wrote songs that are laden with Scripture and accurately parallel Scripture, almost as if we’re singing Scripture and doctrine itself. These hymns basically reflect orthodox truths that all true believers affirm, although some of Wesley’s songs reflected theology that is foreign to fundamental Baptists. On the baptism of infants he wrote,

Seize the young sinner at Thy right,
Before it good or evil know,
And cleanse in the baptismal flood,
And wash my babe through Jesus’ blood.

It should be noted, however, that the Wesleys believed in a new birth experience subsequent to infant baptism. “Most of his hearers were members of the Church by baptism, and Wesley warns them against taking comfort from this as proof of their justification before God.”10 Various believers today in Lutheran, Presbyterian, and other denominations—particularly in offshoot conservative groups from the older mainline bodies—still practice infant baptism, even though they also recognize the need to be born again once a person has reached the age of understanding his or her need for salvation. These believers generally think that infant baptism satisfied only the problem of humanity’s sin in Adam and that it made no provision for their personal sins.

The Wesleys were Arminian in doctrine, stressing the responsibility of individuals in contrast to the Calvinistic emphasis on God’s sovereignty. So naturally we readily find songs by Wesley implying that believers can attain sinless perfection in the present life. The following words reflect this belief:

Faithful I account Thee, Lord,
To Thy sanctifying word;
I shall soon be as Thou art,
Holy both in life and heart;
Perfect holiness attain,
All Thine image here regain,
Love my God entirely here,
Blameless then in heaven appear.

Despite these and other differences in theology (and even the most Calvinistic denominations sing many of Wesley’s hymns), we realize that the majority of songs Charles Wesley wrote are solidly Scriptural. To strike them from our repertoire simply because he wasn’t a Baptist would require us to shun songs ranging from pedobaptist (infant baptizer) Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” right down to contemporary praise songs whose writers are not Baptists but are, rather, charismatics and people of other persuasions.

Wesley’s aim

In studying Charles Wesley’s hymns we find scores of songs on each of the doctrines of Scripture, major and minor. An interesting book titled The Wesley Hymns as a Guide to Scriptural Teaching by John Lawson divides many of Wesley’s hymns according to these doctrines. The words to the hymns mentioned in this book are provided, and beside each line are Scripture passages that express the thought. See one example of this in the sidebar, “Come, O Thou Prophet of the Lord.”
From this example we can see that, despite any differences we might have with Wesley’s theology, his songs are thoroughly intertwined with Scripture. When we contrast the lyrics of some of today’s Christian songs with the spiritual richness of Wesley’s and other great hymns of the faith, we understand why the latter still endure. We can only admire how well Charles Wesley knew both the Bible and theology. His songs were for the purpose of teaching, above all else. One might say they were “doctrine in songs.” If we could see what we’re missing by not following Charles Wesley’s example, we might be able to witness a new day of understanding God’s Word among among Christian people. That would be the greatest contribution Charles Wesley could ever make.

Norman Olson is senior editor of the Baptist Bulletin. For the full article with citations, see the Baptist Bulletin print edition (December 2007).

Also in this series of articles on Charles Wesley: