faith of our fathers

Arthur Middleton on the hymns of Charles Wesley and their celebration of a personal relationship with God

Hymns are commonplace in Anglican worship today but until around 1800, the singing of hymns was suspect in the Church of England. This was due to the Puritan insistence that Scripture must regulate every detail of life. Anything sung must be drawn directly from Scripture. The only exception was the use of metrical versions of the biblical Psalms. It was the Congregationalist preacher, Isaac Watts, ‘father of English hymnody’, who published the first book of non-biblical hymns in 1707.

Hymn singing flourished among the Methodist societies in the eighteenth century, through the work of Charles and John Wesley. Millions of Christians can recite and often sing a few memorized lines from Charles. ‘Music readily roots itself in the memory, and with repetition, saturates the soul like water dripping on to a sponge’. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Anglicans were beginning to use them and in this way Charles’ hymns began to influence Anglican devotion.

Charles was born in 1707, the son of Samuel and brother of John, into a home with a strong taste for poetry and music. He was educated at Westminster School and Christ Church Oxford, becoming a member of the ‘Holy Club’, a group of undergraduates who lived by a strict rule of regular communion, prayer, Bible-reading, and visiting poor people and prisoners. In 1735 he was ordained and then accompanied his brother John to Georgia, and probably was influenced by Moravian hymn singing when he crossed the Atlantic with them. He experienced a conversion on Whitsunday 1738. Entering on the itinerant ministry in 1739, he preached and travelled until 1756. Charles remained a loyal Anglican throughout his life. With John he published several hymnbooks.

Lifelong passion

He was the most gifted of English hymn-writers and came to understand the importance of hymns for missionary, devotional, and instructional purposes. He wrote not only in his study, but when riding his horse he was known to dismount, run into a friend’s house and demand pen and paper. Charles wrote 9000 hymns, of which some 400 are still used among Christians. His hymns may not be exact translations of biblical texts but they were biblical. For example, the hymn Come, O Thou Traveller Unknown uses the story of Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis, to probe the Christian’s struggle for perfect love. Others are based on a single biblical passage. Most of his hymns weave together phrases and images from many parts of Scripture. Many of them are active, visual images of burning, running, leaning, thirsting, rising, standing, melting, shouting.

Growth in holiness

Charles emphasized gradual growth in holiness rather than instant conversion, and was loyal to the Church of England, strongly opposing separatist suggestions. His was a Spirit-filled, evangelical faith, a piety his hymns express. For him logical ideas emerged not merely from a mind thinking of Christ, but from a soul in love with Christ.

Through the death of Christ God invites people to be reconciled to him. Charles’s hymns used all the major biblical metaphors referring to human salvation or atonement – purchase / redemption, pardon / acquittal, cleansing / purification and victory / liberation. He was no Calvinist. Christian faith leads to a joyful heart, an obedient life; growth in holiness follows conversion. The Eucharist is the means of grace in the life of the believer.

Range of emotions

Many of Charles Wesley’s hymns have a specific liturgical or seasonal orientation. These include for Morning, Christ Whose Glory Fills the Skies for Advent, Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus; and for Christmas, Hark the Herald Angels Sing.

There is warmth about Charles Wesley’s hymns because of their personal tone. They are more than teaching about right beliefs because of the manner in which they are celebrating a personal relationship to God, and thereby include the whole range of emotions that such a relationship involves. So we move from penance to praise, from judgment to joy, from shadows to the sunshine. ND

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