Charles Wesley

Charles Wesley

Born: De­cem­ber 18, 1707, Ep­worth, Lin­coln­shire, Eng­land.
Died: Lon­don, Eng­land.
Buried: East Finch­ley Ce­me­te­ry, Lon­don, Eng­land.

Charles Wesley: Prolific Hymnwriter and Leader of the Methodist Movement

Imagine having the words you wrote be sung by millions of voices, in dozens of languages, echoing down through the centuries. Such is the legacy of Charles Wesley, a prolific English hymnwriter and Anglican cleric who penned over 6,500 hymns during his lifetime in the 1700s. Many of his works like “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” are still beloved classics sung in churches around the world today.

But Wesley was more than just a composer of singable verses. Together with his brother John, he was also one of the principal leaders of the Methodist movement that swept through England and beyond, bringing spiritual revival and reformation to the Anglican Church. Let’s explore the life, ministry, and enduring impact of this dedicated man of God.

Early Life and Education

Born in 1707 in the Anglican parsonage of Epworth, England, Charles Wesley was the 18th child of Rev. Samuel and Susanna Wesley. Talk about being born into a legacy of ministry! After attending Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford, he followed in his father’s and brother’s footsteps and was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1735.

It was at Oxford that Charles, his brother John, and fellow student George Whitefield formed a prayer group and Bible study that others mockingly called the “Holy Club” due to their methodical and disciplined lifestyle. Little did they know this small band would launch a movement that would change the world.

Conversion and Ministry

Everything changed for Charles in May of 1738 when he had a profound evangelical conversion experience, feeling spiritually renewed and empowered to spread the gospel. He began writing hymns prolifically as a means of teaching sound doctrine, reaching the common people, and nourishing the Methodist societies that were springing up.

Finding many Anglican pulpits closed to their evangelical message, the Wesley brothers took to open-air preaching, reaching coal miners and commoners with the good news. Despite opposition and mob violence, the revival spread like wildfire throughout England. Charles traveled extensively alongside John, exercising joint leadership of the growing Methodist movement.

After marrying Sarah Gwynne in 1749 and starting a family, Charles made his home base first in Bristol and later in London, focusing his ministry there for the remainder of his life. While the brothers didn’t always see eye-to-eye on issues like separation from the Anglican Church, they maintained a close bond and common purpose in the gospel.

Legacy of Hymnody

Wesley’s greatest legacy is undoubtedly the thousands of hymns he wrote that have stood the test of time, continuing to be sung around the world. It’s estimated he wrote as many as 10,000 in total! Marked by strong biblical teaching, poetic beauty, and musical diversity, his hymns cover themes like the Trinity, Christ’s resurrection, sanctification, grace, and more.

Consider classics like:

  • “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”
  • “Jesus, Lover of My Soul”
  • “Rejoice, the Lord is King!”
  • “And Can It Be That I Should Gain?”

Wesley’s words have endured in part because they can be sung to so many tunes – for example, his iconic Christmas carol “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is set to a soaring Mendelssohn melody. But it’s really the rich meaning and sound doctrine behind the words that give them staying power.

Beyond individual hymns, Wesley also published many hymnals and collections, like Hymns on God’s Everlasting Love, Hymns on the Lord’s Supper, and Hymns on Select Passages of Scripture. These went on to form the bedrock of Methodist hymnody and enrich worship far beyond that tradition. He also produced metrical paraphrases of the Psalms that continue the heritage of Christological interpretation.

While Methodism’s founder John Wesley is often seen as the public face of the movement, one Methodist historian rightly calls Charles its “private face” and “heartbeat.” The younger Wesley poured his evangelical passion and gift of verse into igniting hearts and shaping the theology of this revival in a way that still resonates today.

On his deathbed, Charles insisted, “I have lived, and I die, a member of the Church of England.” He remained committed to Anglicanism even as the Methodist movement gathered steam toward becoming its own denomination after his lifetime. But his hymns breached denominational barriers – they have been embraced by Methodists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, and even Catholics. His musical legacy is truly universal.

An Enduring Legacy

To this day, Charles Wesley is remembered as perhaps the greatest hymnwriter of all time, a reformer of worship, and a minister of the gospel in word and song. His hymns have endured for nearly 300 years and show no signs of fading away. They continue to inspire, teach, and unite Christians around the globe.

As we sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” each Christmas or “Christ the Lord is Risen Today!” every Easter, we join our voices with the generations who have gone before and those still to come, all procaliming the same ageless truths. That is the power of an anointed hymnwriter – to provide the soundtrack for our faith and to join us together in praise. All of this springing from one man’s passion to make Jesus known in every way he could. That is the enduring legacy of Charles Wesley.

Don Chapman

Don Chapman

Composer/arranger Don Chapman has created HYMNDEX as a labor of love to help new generations learn about the lives, legacies and lyrics of historic hymn writers.