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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

The Work of an Evangelist

CHARLES WESLEY became the recognized poet of the Evangelical Revival and his hymns supplied a vehicle by which the converts might express their new-found joy in the Lord. But it should be remembered at this point that Wesley was not only a poet: he was also a preacher of exceptional power. With the Gospel burning like a fire in his heart he threw himself as enthusiastically and energetically as his brother into the glad work of proclaiming the Gospel of salvation up and down the land. “For the next fifteen years he rivalled his brother John in the self- sacrifice, the energy, the courage, and the persistency with which he gave himself to the work of evangelism. In the convincing and converting power of his sermons he probably surpassed him.”(1)

At first the preaching was confined to churches, for strict churchmen as both the brothers were, they would almost have regarded it as sacrilege to preach the Gospel anywhere than in a consecrated building! But two things hastened to produce a change of attitude. The first was the closing of church doors in their face owing to the opposition of the clergy to the new “enthusiasm.” The second was the inspiring and courageous example of their colleague, George Whitefield, who on Moorfields and Kennington Common drew congregations numbering up to twenty thousand persons to hear the Gospel. Charles Wesley was invited to assist in this remarkable enterprise. For some time his ecclesiastical scruples restrained him from accepting, and he was greatly troubled about the propriety of such an undertaking; but eventually, on St. John Baptist’s Day, 1739—influenced no doubt by the example of the great wilderness preacher—he boldly abandoned his doubts and scruples and addressed a crowd of ten thousand in Moorfields. As he himself expressed it in his Journal, he “invited them in his Master’s words as well as name, ‘Come unto Me all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’” Wesley speedily witnessed tokens of divine blessing attending this form of evangelism and it was not long before he became almost as popular as Whitefield himself.

Open-air preaching was a conspicuous feature of the Revival. This fact is reflected in a number of Charles Wesley’s hymns, which have a distinct open-air flavour about them. Expressed in happy, lilting metres, they invite the casual passer-by to draw near and to heed the joyful tidings of a Saviour’s grace. Take, for example, the well known hymn beginning:

                                All ye that pass by,
                                To Jesus draw nigh:
                     To you is it nothing that Jesus should die?
                                Your ransom and peace,
                                Your surety He is:
                     Come, see if there ever was sorrow like His.

Or as another example:

                    Ye neighbours, and friends of Jesus draw near:
                    His love condescends By titles so dear
                    To call and invite you His triumph to prove,
                    And freely delight you In Jesu’s love.

And again:

                   O let me commend My Saviour to you,
                   The publican’s friend And advocate too;
                   For you He is pleading His merits and death,
                   With God interceding For sinners beneath.

In another hymn he cries:

                 Come, sinners, to the Gospel feast,
                 Let every soul be Jesu’s guest;
                 Ye need not one be left behind,
                 For God hath bidden all mankind.

                 Sent by my Lord, on you I call,
                 The invitation is to all:
                 Come, all the world; come, sinner, thou!
                 All things in Christ are ready now.

“Only a preacher, perhaps only an open-air preacher,” writes Dr. Gregory, “could have written such hymns. They are not hymns of the oratory, of the class-room or the village church; but of that vast cathedral whose roof is the blue vault of heaven; they are songs of Moorfields, of Kingswood, of Newcastle, and of Gwennap.”(2)

Nowhere was the transforming power of the Gospel more strikingly witnessed than in these open-air services. At Kingswood colliery, Bristol, the miners gathered in their thousands, and as they listened to the message of God’s redeeming love, tears of penitence and gratitude made white furrows down their begrimed faces. John Wesley testified in his Journal to the change which was wrought in their lives. “Kingswood does not now, as a year ago, resound with cursing and blasphemy. It is no more filled with drunkenness and uncleanness, and the idle diversions that naturally lead thereto. It is no longer full of wars and fightings, of clamour and bitterness, of wrath and envyings: peace and love are there. Great numbers of the people are mild, gentle, and easy to be entreated. They ‘do not cry, neither strive,’ and hardly is their ‘voice heard in the streets,’ or, indeed, in their own wood; unless when they are at their usual evening diversion, singing praise unto God their Saviour.”(3)

Charles Wesley was not slow to provide hymns with which they might thus sing God’s praise. One hymn which he wrote specially for these Kingswood colliers illustrates the transfiguring experience which was theirs in Christ:

                     Thou only, Lord, the work hast done,
                           And bated Thine arm in all our sight;
                     Hast made the reprobates Thine own,
                           And claimed the outcasts as Thy right.

                     Suffice that for the season past
                           Hell’s horrid language filled our tongues,
                     We all Thy words behind us cast,
                           And lewdly sang the drunkard’s songs.

                     But, O the power of grace divine!
                           In hymns we now our voices raise,
                     Loudly in strange hosannas join,
                           And blasphemies are turned to praise!

This widespread preaching of the Gospel to all sorts and conditions of men was, not unnaturally, accompanied by a great deal of persecution. The preachers found themselves opposed not only by the unruly mobs, but also by the hostile clergy. Charles Wesley came in for his full share of these hardships and more than once his life was in peril. The hazardous experiences through which he and his companions passed is reflected in many of the hymns. A number of them are headed “In Time of Persecution” and “In a Tumult.” Included among the latter is the well-known hymn beginning “Ye servants of God, your Master proclaim.”

To the early Methodist preachers the reproach of the Cross was all too familiar and to suffer for Christ was a very real thing. But even more real to them was the assurance of their Lord’s presence and the consciousness of the unseen hosts encompassing their path. This is finely expressed in the hymn “Earth, rejoice, our Lord is King!” It is not difficult to imagine John and Charles Wesley—both of them men of dauntless courage—encouraging their followers in the midst of riot to sing:

                      Though the sons of night blaspheme,
                      More there are with us than them;
                      God with us, we cannot fear;
                      Fear, ye fiends, for Christ is here!

                      Lo! to faith’s enlightened sight,
                      All the mountain flames with light;
                      Hell is nigh, but God is nigher,
                      Circling us with hosts of fire.

And we can likewise picture the heroic warrior-bands advancing to the fray with triumphant songs like these upon their lips:

                                Soldiers of Christ, arise,
                                And put your armour on,
                      Strong in the strength which God supplies
                                Through His eternal Son;
                                Strong in the Lord of hosts,
                                And in His mighty power,
                      Who in the strength of Jesus trusts
                                Is more than conqueror.

                                               *    *    *

                               Jesu’s tremendous name
                               Puts all our foes to flight:
                      Jesus, the meek, the angry Lamb,
                               A Lion is in fight.
                               By all hell’s host withstood,
                               We all hell’s host o’erthrow;
                      And conquering them, through Jesu’s blood,
                               We still to conquer go.

And so despite all opposing forces the holy war went on.

A form of evangelism which especially attracted Charles Wesley was work among prisoners, as it had done before in his undergraduate days. Amazing scenes were witnessed in Newgate gaol and striking conversions took place. Thus in his Journal under the date July 10, 1738, Charles wrote: “I went . . . to Newgate; and preached to the ten male-factors, under sentence of death, but with a heavy heart. My old prejudices against the possibility of a death-bed repentance still hung upon me; and I could hardly hope there was mercy for those whose time was so short. But in the midst of my languid discourse, a sudden spirit of faith came upon me, and I promised them all pardon, in the name of Jesus Christ, if they would then, as at the last hour, repent and believe the gospel. Nay, I did believe they would accept of the proffered mercy, and could not help telling them, I had no doubt God would give me every soul of them.”

Wesley’s faith was vindicated. When, a week or so later, he accompanied the condemned men to Tyburn for their execution, he found them full of “calm triumph” and exhibiting “incredible indifference to dying.” They sang a number of hymns together, including one written by Samuel Wesley, the father of the Wesleys:

                         Behold the Saviour of mankind,
                               Nailed to the shameful tree!
                         How vast the love that Him inclined
                               To bleed and die for thee!

Wesley parted with his friends with affectionate farewells, praying the Saviour to receive their spirits; and in his Journal he wrote: “That hour under the gallows was the most blessed hour of my life.”

With so great a love in his heart, and so mighty a Gospel on his lips, small wonder Charles Wesley was a powerful evangelist! Like his brother John, he travelled for many years all over the country, proclaiming his message of salvation to tens of thousands of people. Where churches were open to him, he gladly availed himself of the opportunity. He preached in many London churches, including Westminster Abbey. More often he found his congregation on village green, in market square or city centre. He paid more than one visit to Ireland and witnessed the triumphs of the Gospel among Protestants and Papists alike. In his Journal under the date Sunday, July 12, 1741, he testified: “The power and seal of God is never wanting while I declare the two great truths of the everlasting Gospel, universal redemption and Christian perfection.” These “two great truths” are well exemplified in the text from which Wesley had preached that Sunday—Titus ii. 11-14, with its message of divine grace extending to all mankind and its urgent call to holiness of heart and life. Such was Wesley’s dynamic Gospel with its evangelical appeal and ethical emphasis.

Endnotes:

1) F. Luke Wiseman, op. cit., p. 63.
2) The Hymn Book of the Modern Church, p. 194.
3) John Wesley, Journal, November 27, 1739.

 

 

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