Charles Wesley (1707 – 1788)
Background and Context
Charles Wesley was born in Lincolnshire, England. He was the younger brother of John Wesley. These two brothers went to the same school: Westminster and Christ Church College, Oxford. Later, they found the Methodist Church which was one of the most dynamic spiritual movements in the eighteenth century. Charles was the cofounder of the Methodist Church in England. At that time, he played a significant role in the early growth of Methodism. Afterward, it became a separate denomination. Now, we remember Charles for his contribution to Christianity as one of the greatest hymn-writers as well as theologian, English literati, historian and godly man of faith. He wrote more than 8,000 hymns which became a powerful mechanism for the growth of Methodism.
When Charles was in college in Oxford during 1728 – 29, the act of deriding or treating with contempt to the religious group was very normal. Charles and his brother John, along with some other students, formed a group who devoted themselves for serving other people. They visited sick, prisoner, and lived holy life. Because of this reason, their fellow collegian called them sarcastically “The Holy Club”. At the same year, John Wesley also joined the club. The members of the club were also called “Bible moths” because of their lifestyle, scholarship, and biblical principles – devotion, fasting, study, communion, and prayer. Later, this devotion became Methodism.
Charles became Anglican priest in 1735, and he joined his brother with a mission to Georgia in America. Their mission failed thoroughly, because John Wesley was involved in controversial relationship with Sophia Hopkey that made Wesley unpopular among Indians in Savannah, Georgia. As a result, both Wesley brothers came back to England in 1737 as defeated men in the spirit and also physically exhausted.
Charles started his own ministry called “peace with God” through the ministry of Moravian Brethren in 1738. Following three days of the establishment of the “peace of God”, John also had a life-changing experience which is widely known as Aldersgate experience that transformed his life forever. The excerpt from the Journal of John Wesley, May 24, 1738 also demonstrate how his life changed from the evening worship service that he attended in London:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while the leader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
Through those experiences and preparations, Wesley brothers came together and led the great Methodist movement in England that revived and reformed English society.
Charles got married with Sarah Gwynee, daughter of wealthy Welsh magistrate, who was much younger than him in 1949. They survived with three children out of eight children – two sons and a daughter. Their sons Charles II and Samuel were organist and composers. Samuel was very gifted in composition.
Later on, Charles separated from John, since they had breach on church issue and about John’s engagement with Grace Murray, one of the spiritual children of John. He along with George Whitefield went up against the engagement of John with a widow. Charles also condemned the way how John ordained the ministers. Thus, the journey of two Wesleys ended.
The main theme of Charles’ hymn “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” is to worship God for what he has done in our life through shedding his blood on the Cross in order to blot our sins and give us victory over it. He wrote this hymn to commemorate his first anniversary of his commitment to Christ (262). Richard Foster also comments on two stanzas which talk about the cancelation of our sin. Secondly, he comments on the invitation to sinners for embracing the gospel.
Charles commences the hymn with praises to God for his goodness and salvation plan for humanity. He professes his faith as a second, real, living life that he starts to live. He describes the crucifixion of Jesus and the ultimate purpose of atoning blood of the Lord. He proclaims the death of the Lamb as the sign of unfailing love and unconditional forgiveness to wicked humanity.
The author has presented the reality of sin that reigns over man. He emphasizes how the blood of Christ broke the bondage of sin and ‘expired the legal strife’ which had held the human heart. The way people are freed from imprisonment of Satan is also explained in the hymn. Next, Charles gives emphasis on the cleansing of our sin through blood. The Bible also says that our sins will be as white as snow, although they are like scarlet (Isa. 1:18). The combination of praise, worship, and the essence of the gospel is arranged in textual manner in this hymn.
Moreover, the stanza expresses compassion for those who are broken in heart and poor in the spirit. Another truth of the Gospel that dead receives new life is also presented here. Charles has an open invitation to all to hear the Lamb and praise him, and be filled with everlasting joy. There is no favoritism on race, gender and age whether they are deaf, dumb, blind, or lame. The honor of invitation for the deaf to hear and sing praise by the dumb is quoted in such a way that touches our hearts. Not only for them but the invitation and order are also for the blind man to behold his Savior and the lame to leap to worship the Lamb for paying our ransom.
Charles’ invitation to nations to receive Jesus resembles the voice of prophets all through the Bible. He calls the nations to look at God and know that they have fallen short of the Glory of God. He affirms publicly to be saved and justified by faith alone through grace. Once he makes us realize that Jesus became offering for us and was nailed on the Cross due to sin of every man.
The author has chosen the appropriate word to address the sinners in the hymn. He puts himself in the midst of harlots, publicans, and thieves. In Foster’s word too, Charles has used straightforward words like murderers, hellish crew, and sons of lust and pride in the hymn to address who need Jesus in their lives. At the same time, he has also included himself with those sinners to make the message very realistic and powerful. Finally, Charles concludes with the affirmation of his confession and repentance as Paul did. He assures his audiences and readers of forgiveness of sins.
The gospel message of love, forgiveness, and acceptance of God is well conveyed with the description of the atonement of our sins, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The divine call to the sinners to accept Jesus to be justified by faith and enter into the kingdom of God is the grace from God. Foster has said that praise is the avenue to worship. And Charles has worshipped God through his eloquent preaching and hymns full of praise.
Richard Foster, Spiritual Classics.