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 Issues | Church History | Charles Wesley

 

Great Churchmen (No 8)

Charles Wesley

by Frank Colquhoun

The Poet of the Evangelical Revival

Published by Church Book Room Press

Battle-Songs of the Gospel

In 1749, when he was forty years of age, Wesley married. His marriage proved to be a happy one and his young wife bore him eight children. One of his sons, Samuel Wesley (1766-1837), became a distinguished musician—“the greatest English organist of his time and one of the great geniuses in music of his country.”(1) It is said of him that he could play and extemporise on the organ at the age of three, and when he was eight he knew all the Handel overtures by heart and composed an oratorio! Even more famous as a composer was the son of this Samuel Wesley, Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-76), Charles Wesley’s grandson. He was organist in turn of four English cathedrals and wrote a number of our finest and most familiar hymn-tunes and chants.

It was perhaps natural and inevitable that after his marriage Charles Wesley gradually relinquished his itinerant ministry and settled down to the comforts of home life, first in Bristol and later in London. In this respect he presents a notable contrast to his brother John, whose activity knew no abatement to the end of his days. But while as an evangelist and preacher Charles may have dropped somewhat into the background, as the poet of the Revival his genius and inspiration never flagged. He gave increasing attention to his hymnody; and his hymns were, after all, his greatest contribution to the cause he served, the rich legacy which he bequeathed to the Universal Church. It is a fact that in our own day the sermons and literary works of John Wesley are largely forgotten whereas the hymns of Charles Wesley are still being sung all round the world, and will continue to be sung while time shall last.

By his hymns Charles Wesley preached the Gospel in song, and through this medium he instructed the masses in the essentials of Christian theology. John Wesley was quick to appreciate the teaching value of the hymns as well as their evangelistic power. It has been said that “he saw more clearly than any since Luther the propagandist value of song as an aid to the evangelist.”(2) And this “propaganda” was much needed in Wesley’s day in combating current errors both within and without the church. A large number of the hymns were composed for the express purpose of setting forth the truth of God in the face of various forms of unscriptural teaching.

For example, in the eighteenth century Unitarianism was widely prevalent in certain non-conformist circles (e.g. among the English Presbyterians). It is for this reason that Wesley’s hymns so strongly emphasize Trinitarian doctrine and exalt the Godhead of the Lord Jesus. In the Passion hymns, for example, he never tires of publishing the “death divine”, nor does he hesitate to use such expressions as “Jehovah crucified”. Let this one example suffice from the hymn “God of unexampled grace”:

                            Endless scenes of wonder rise
                                 From that mysterious tree,
                            Crucified before our eyes,
                                 Where we our Maker see.

                            Now discern the Deity,
                                 Now His heavenly birth declare!
                            Faith cries out, “’Tis He, ’tis He,
                                 My God that suffers there!”

Another serious error the Wesleys had to contend with was that which went under the name of Quietism. It was advocated by an extreme section of the Moravians, who taught a doctrine of “stillness,” maintaining that since salvation was by faith alone, and faith itself was the gift of God, the seeking soul must do nothing but be “still” and wait for God to act. This meant in effect that the recognized means of grace—Scripture, Sacrament and prayer—were regarded as largely unnecessary, if not entirely useless, whether before or after the dawn of faith. The Wesleys strongly resisted and rejected such a view. They were insistent that the God-given ordinances were most certainly to be employed and not neglected. While not denying the peril that such ordinances might be abused and become an end in themselves rather than a means to an end, they continually urged their rightful use as channels of the grace of God to the soul. This is illustrated, for example, in Wesley’s sacramental hymns (see pages 24-5). In other hymns he taught the true doctrine of “stillness,” maintaining the proper balance between firsthand experience of Christ by faith and the due observance of the appointed means of grace.

                        Still for Thy lovingkindness, Lord,
                             I in Thy temple wait;
                         I look to find Thee in Thy word,
                             Or at Thy table meet.

                         Here in Thine own appointed ways,
                              I wait to learn Thy will;
                         Silent I stand before Thy face,
                              And hear Thee say, “Be still!”

                         I do the things Thy laws enjoin,
                              And then the strife give o’er;
                         To Thee the whole I then resign,
                              I trust in means no more.

                         I trust in Him who stands between
                              The Father’s wrath and me;
                         Jesu, Thou great eternal Mean,
                              I look for all from Thee.

Then there was the great Calvinistic controversy, which unhappily brought the Wesleys into conflict with their friend George Whitefield. Whitefield was a strict Calvinist, a firm believer in the doctrines of predestination and reprobation. The Wesleys on the other hand were uncompromising Arminians, exulting in the gospel of an illimitable salvation through the Cross. The issue at stake was really this: Did Christ die for all mankind, or only for the “elect”? And were the benefits of His redemption confined exclusively to these elect, so that the rest of men were, by arbitrary decree, irrevocably doomed and consigned to eternal perdition?

The Wesleys were in no doubt as to the answer to these questions. They decisively rejected any idea of “particular redemption” and did not hesitate to stigmatize the Calvinist doctrine as the “horrible decree.” To them such doctrine appeared to be a very denial of the Gospel of the Grace of God. In language which strikingly recalls that of Moses and Paul, Charles Wesley vehemently cries,

                              Take back my interest in Thy blood,
                                   Unless it streamed for all the race!

That the love of God for sinners was all-embracing and knew no bounds, and that the redemptive power of the death of Christ was available for every man, lay at the very heart of the Gospel which Wesley preached. He wrote his Hymns on God’s Everlasting Love expressly to set forth that Gospel in its universal range and at the same time to expose the blasphemy of the horrible doctrine of reprobation. With the most biting satire he caricatures the devilish teaching:

                                Sinners, abhor the fiend:
                                His other Gospel hear—
                                “The God of truth did not intend
                                     The thing His words declare;
                                He offers grace to all,

                                     Which most cannot embrace,
                                Mocked with an effectual call
                                     And insufficient grace.”

Any other number of illustrations of the same kind could be cited. Yet among these strongly controversial hymns are to be found some of the most glowingly evangelical of all Wesley’s lines. Nowhere does he rise to sublimer heights in magnifying the divine mercy and extolling the benefits of the Saviour’s Passion. And, as Dr. Rattenbury remarks,(3) it was these grand hymns rather than the scathing satires that did most to destroy Calvinism in England and to deliver religion from the nightmare of the “horrible decrees.” Take, for example, such verses as these from a hymn entitled “Jesus Christ, the Saviour of all men.”

                        Sinners, believe the Gospel word;
                             Jesus is come, your souls to save!
                        Jesus is come, your common Lord!
                             Pardon ye all in Him may have;
                        May now be saved, whoever will;
                        This Man receiveth sinners still.

                        O let Thy love my heart constrain,
                             Thy love for every sinner free,
                        That every fallen soul of man
                             May taste the grace that found out me;
                        That all mankind, with me, may prove
                        Thy sovereign everlasting love.

This same urgent desire is echoed in the lines:

                         O for a trumpet voice,
                              On all the world to call!
                         To bid their hearts rejoice
                              In Him who died for all;
                          For all my Lord was crucified,
                          For all, for all my Saviour died!

No finer example could be found than in the hymn which was placed first in the collection—“Father, whose everlasting love.” Here is a hymn which, sounds to-day as if anyone might sing it; but as Bernard Manning has expressed it, in Wesley’s time it was “a battle-song of militant Arminianism,” and in every line there is a “stab at debased Calvinism”.(4) Three verses are reproduced below with the original italics, in order to indicate the polemical character of the hymn.

                          Help us Thy mercy to extol,
                               Immense, unfathomed, unconfined;
                          To praise the Lamb who died for all,
                               The general Saviour of mankind.

                         Thy undistinguishing regard
                              Was cast on Adam’s fallen race;
                          For all Thou hast in Christ prepared
                              Sufficient, sovereign, saving grace.

                          A world He suffered to redeem;
                               For all He hath the atonement made:
                          For those that will not come to Him
                               The ransom of His life was paid.

Endnotes

1) Handbook to the Church Hymnary, p. 537.

2) F.J. Gillman, The Evolution of the English Hymn, p. 217.

3) Wesley’s Legacy to the World, p. 95.

4) The Hymns of Wesley and Watts, p. 18.

 

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