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Charles Wesley in Contemporary Study: Wesley and the Methodists

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 Charles Wesley’s life, theology, and his standing in relation to the Church of England in contrast to his brother John. 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 Charles Wesley scholarship.

But before we get to new material, let me offer you some of the standard warnings from the offset, especially if you’re 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’re 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 that 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’m more likely to have an opportunity to sing it.) Most of the tunes to which we sing Charles Wesley texts date from the nineteenth century, and various Methodist cultures (North American, British, Caribbean, African, Asian, Latin American, etc.) utilize widely differing tunes for the Charles Wesley texts. It’s not a bad thing. Many of the extant eighteenth-century tunes (excluding those noted above) are deplorably boring.
  • If you haven’t 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’s 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.

Moreover, and this is not a warning but just a notice about earlier scholarship, the standard edition of poetry by John as well as Charles Wesley prior to the twentieth century was that of George Osborn:

George Osborn, ed., The Poetical Works of John and Charles Wesley (13 vols.; London: Wesleyan Conference Office, 1868).

The Osborn edition does not distinguish between works of Charles Wesley and John Wesley, but it is often cited as a baseline in Charles Wesley research. It also incudes a massive collection of hymns and poems on New Testament scriptures, beginning with Matthew and going through the Revelation, that was never published in the Wesleys’ lifetime and in fact has never been published since Osborn’s edition.

This all 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 Sub-Sub-Committee of the Texts Sub-Committee of the Hymnal Committee tasked with developing the 1988 UM Hymnal engaged in some deep scholarly reflections on the Charles Wesley material, and out of their (true confession: our) deliberations Dr. 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; cf. 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’s 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, which looks identical to our letter “y” but which represents the “th” sound; thus “ye,” 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 (http://divinity.duke.edu/initiatives-centers/cswt/). 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 [sic] Wesley.

In addition to reprint editions, scholars have produces 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 Oliver A. Beckerlegge, eds., The Unpublished Poetry of Charles Wesley (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1988-1992).

Kenneth G. C. Newport, ed., The Sermons of Charles Wesley: A Critical Edition, with Introduction and Notes (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

S T Kimbrough, Jr., and Kenneth G. C. Newport, eds., The Manuscript Journal of the Reverend Charles Wesley, M.A. (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 2007-2008).

Kenneth G. C. Newport and Gareth Lloyd, eds., The Letters of Charles Wesley: A Critical Edition, with Introduction and Notes (1 vol. to date; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Dr. 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 of Charles Wesley texts that he edited, Charles Wesley: A Reader (New York: 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 (Grand Rapids: 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 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2007), published to coincide with the three-hundredth anniversary of Charles Wesley’s birth.

Also coinciding with the Charles Wesley tercentennial, I edited with Kenneth G. C. Newport a collection of essays on Charles Wesley with some critical contemporary insights, Charles Wesley: Life, Literature, Legacy (Peterborough: Epworth Press, 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: 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 (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 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.”

Folks 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.

Ted A. Campbell, Perkins School of Theology SMU

Reprinted from Catalyst 40, no. 1 (2013): 3-5; online: http://www.catalystresources.org/charles-wesley-in-contemporary-study. Used with permission.

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