Hymns based on the poetry of Charles Wesley (1707-1788) have been one of the principal means by which Wesleyan teachings have been transmitted to generations of Methodist people. Thousands of Methodist folk who have never read a line of John Wesley’s writings have sung verses from Charles Wesley repeatedly through their lives.
There has been a small revolution in studies of Charles Wesley in recent decades. This has resulted in new editions of Charles Wesley’s works and new interpretive studies of his life, theology, and his standing in relation to the Church of England. Deliberations leading up to the United Methodist Hymnal of 1988, and then the tercentennial of Charles Wesley’s birth in 2007, served to spawn new scholarship on Charles Wesley.
But before we get to new material, let me offer you some of the standard warnings from the offset, especially if you are beginning the study of Charles Wesley.
- Charles Wesley was primarily a poet, not a musician. Although he owned an organ (still viewable and even — if you are lucky — playable in the Foundery Chapel attached to Wesley’s Chapel on City Road, London), and although he knew the world of music and raised a family of musicians, he was neither a musical performer nor a composer himself.
- Only a small group of Charles Wesley’s poems were intended to be sung as hymns. Some of the poetry that we sing as hymns was redacted from longer poems.
- Almost none of the hymns we attribute to Charles Wesley are given in hymnals in their full, original forms. John Wesley himself severely redacted (some say, “potted”) a significant amount of Charles’s poetry in the Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (1779), and Methodist churches have continued to edit the hymns, adding and removing verses, and updating language through the two centuries since Charles Wesley began publishing poetry. This is not a bad thing. Many members of congregations would die of exhaustion long before reaching the sixteenth verse of an original Charles Wesley poetic text, and much of what they sang prior to their unhappy deaths would have been unintelligible to them, like, for example, references to God’s bowels moving (“to me, to all, thy bowels move, / thy nature and thy name is love”).
- Almost none of the tunes to which we sing Charles Wesley texts are from his era. Two notable exceptions that do date from the Wesleys’ time are the tune “Amsterdam” (in the UM Hymnal, no. 96) and the tune “Helmsley” (UM Hymnal, no. 718), to which is traditionally sung the hymn, “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending.” United Methodist Churches seldom sing this because (I suppose) it deals so graphically with the second coming of Jesus Christ. (I sometimes sneak over to an Episcopal or Lutheran Church on the first Sunday in Advent, where I am more likely to have an opportunity to sing it.) Most of the tunes to which we sing Charles Wesley’s texts date from the nineteenth century, and various Methodist cultures (e.g., North American, British, Caribbean, African, Asian, and Latin American) utilize widely differing tunes for the Charles Wesley texts. This is not a bad thing. Many of the existing eighteenth-century tunes are deplorably boring.
- If you have not heard elsewhere, then I deeply regret to inform you that Charles Wesley did not compose texts to be set to “bar-room tunes.” This is one of the most beloved of American Methodist tales about Charles Wesley and one that I repeated frequently and passionately when I was a church youth director. Charles Wesley did write one set of lyrics to be sung to the bawdy tune “Nancy Dawson” (sounds like “All Around the Mulberry Bush”; Charles Wesley’s text begins, “Listed into the cause of sin…”), but that is about as far as we can get with that claim. His musical tastes were more classical, and most of his poetry does not seem to have been written with tunes in mind.
These warnings being duly noted, we can turn our attention to a flourishing of scholarship on Charles Wesley that has appeared especially since the early 1980s. The Charles Wesley Texts Committee tasked with developing the 1988 UM Hymnal engaged in some deep scholarly reflections on the Charles Wesley material, and out of their deliberations S T Kimbrough Jr., organized the Charles Wesley Society, which has met annually since the 1980s and has emerged as a central, international forum for scholarship related to Charles Wesley (http://charleswesleysociety.org).
One of the projects of the Charles Wesley Society has been to offer facsimile reproductions of original Charles Wesley collections of poetry. Readers of these reproductions have to beware of the eighteenth-century long form of the letter “s”: it looks like “ſ”, as in “Praiſe the Lord!” One little trick to be aware of in scholarship about John and Charles Wesley is that in searching digital versions of eighteenth-century printed texts for the name “Wesley,” it is often possible to find references by entering “Wefley” with the incorrect letter “f” since OCR (optical character recognition) software almost always reads the long “s” form as “f.” Some eighteenth-century texts also utilize the now-disused letter called the thorn (Þ), which came to be written like our letter “y” but which represents the “th” sound; thus “ye” would be pronounced and correctly transliterated as “the” (and not to be confused with “ye” as the second-person objective pronoun, pronounced and transliterated as “ye”).
PDF reproductions of almost all of the original Charles Wesley poetry collections are now available on the website of the Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition at Duke Divinity School. In addition, this website also has critical editions of some unpublished poetry of Charles Wesley, and other research materials such as listings of hymns known to have been composed by John Wesley.
In addition to reprint editions, scholars have produced a number of critical contemporary editions of Charles Wesley materials in recent decades. Some of these editions are as follows.
- S T Kimbrough Jr. and O.A. Beckerlegge, eds., The Unpublished Poetry of Charles Wesley (Kingswood, 1988-1992).
- Kenneth G.C. Newport ed., The Sermons of Charles Wesley: A Critical Edition, with Introduction and Notes (Oxford University Press, 2001).
- S T Kimbrough Jr. and Kenneth G. C. Newport, eds., The Manuscript Journal of the Reverend Charles Wesley, M.A. (Kingswood, 2007-2008).
- Kenneth G. C. Newport and Gareth Lloyd, eds., The Letters of Charles Wesley: A Critical Edition, with Introduction and Notes (vol. 1; Oxford University Press, 2013).
John R. Tyson has been a leading contributor to the Society and to scholarship on Charles Wesley. Among his numerous publications in the field, I would call attention to a collection texts that he edited, Charles Wesley: A Reader (Oxford University Press, 1989); a fine study of Charles Wesley on Sanctification that discusses in depth some of the nuanced and not-so-nuanced differences between John and Charles Wesley on this critical issue (Francis Asbury Press, 1986); and what is perhaps the most accessible as well as up-to-date biographical study of Charles Wesley, Assist Me to Proclaim: The Life and Hymns of Charles Wesley (Eerdmans, 2007), published to coincide with the three-hundredth anniversary of Charles Wesley’s birth.
Also coinciding with the Charles Wesley tercentennial, Ted Campbell edited with Kenneth G. C. Newport a collection of essays on Charles Wesley with some critical contemporary insights, Charles Wesley: Life, Literature, Legacy (Epworth, 2007). This has a variety of essays on Charles Wesley’s life, his writings (including an essay on reading his shorthand), his theology, and his reception in global contexts.
One of the most challenging newer studies of Charles Wesley is that of Gareth Lloyd, Charles Wesley and the Struggle for Methodist Identity (Oxford University Press, 2007). In this work, Lloyd has probed the rift between Charles and John Wesley that began around 1756 when Charles refused to itinerate as John wished him to do. Lloyd shows how very deep this rift was, and how it was patched-over by subsequent Methodist historians to give the appearance of unity between the two brothers. His work shows that Charles Wesley led what was in effect a separate continuing branch of the Wesleyan movement, a group Lloyd identifies as “Church Methodists,” who elected to remain in canonical conformity to the Church of England and who did not engage in itinerant preaching. By contrast, Lloyd’s work shows how separatist — almost sectarian — John Wesley was becoming in the 1760s and beyond.
Finally, I mention a more interpretive contemporary work, S T Kimbrough Jr.’s study of The Lyrical Theology of Charles Wesley: A Reader (Cascade, 2011). Although the second part of the work is a reader in Charles Wesley texts laid out in a classic ordo of systematic theology and of Methodist hymn collections, the first half of the work is a sustained essay on the contemporary theological relevance of Charles Wesley’s verse, including Kimbrough’s analysis and defense of “lyrical theology.”
People in historic Wesleyan communities, and especially those of us involved in the work of interpreting Wesleyan cultures, are deeply indebted to this new outpouring of Charles Wesley scholarship. I heartily commend it to readers of Catalyst, and hope that some of you will offer fresh contributions to this stream of interpretation.