The magnificent royal wedding of William and Kate in Westminster Abbey recently included Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” Later, when the Pope attended a service in that historic place, the congregation sang another Wesley hymn, “O Thou Who Camest from Above.”
These hymns were written 250 years ago, and were two of approximately 6,500 he wrote, a number of which are still published in hymn books old and new by practically all denominations.
Charles Wesley, to this day, is the songbird of Methodism. What inspired such an outpouring of pleasing lyrics expressed in sound theology? What is it that makes the following words resonant century after century: “Joy to the World, the Lord Is Come; let earth receive her king”?
Charles Wesley’s journal covering the dates from December 3, 1736, to May 31, 1738 shed light on his spiritual journey as a young Church of England clergyman, and his unintended elevation to the role of England’s foremost composer of hymns?
His journal shows him to be highly sociable, and a young man of emotional highs and lows. But what stands out is his earnestness as a clergyman. He appears to be always attentive to his contacts and at the ready for conversations about spiritual matters. Today we would call him pious, urgent, and aggressive for the faith.
For example, after a deep conversation with a certain “Graves,” he notes in his journal as follows: “He seemed on the brink of the new birth.” On yet another page he writes that while reading to two sisters at Blendon, he “prays with them for conversion.” His journal is filled with such references.
His theology is orthodox; his zeal commendable. Then into his life in the Oxford community comes Peter Bohler, a Moravian on his way to the the American colonies as a missionary, to whom Charles is to teach English.
The Moravians were a community of devout evangelical Christians from a settlement in Germany.
In February, 1738, Charles was sick in bed with a raging toothache and painful pleurisy. Peter Bohler came to his bedside, prayed with him, and then asked this clergyman a penetrating question.
Bohler: “Do you hope to be saved?”
Bohler: “For what reason do you hope it?”
Wesley: “Because I have used my best efforts to serve God.”
Bohler shook his head and said no more.
Wesley writes, “I thought him very uncharitable, saying in my heart, ‘What, are not my endeavors a sufficient ground of hope? Would he rob me of my endeavors? I have nothing else to trust to.’”
The truth was out. Charles, like his brother, was ardently doing the things ministers are supposed to do – teaching the Scriptures, exhorting others to be earnest, engaging in spiritual conversation with all and sundry. But he had not recognized that his faith was lodged in his own achievements. He was hoping entrance to heaven would be granted him based on his good works.
Nearly three months after that conversation, Charles Wesley made the great transition from faith in his own serious endeavors to a deep all-encompassing faith in Jesus Christ alone as the source of his salvation. He had experienced a genuine Christian conversion.
It was then that God’s Spirit released in him the power to put into poetic cadences the hymns that bless the world to this day. For example, these lines, that encompass the essence of salvation:
False and full of sin I am; Thou art full of truth and grace.
Plenteous grace with thee is found; grace to cover all my sin.
Let the healing streams abound; make and keep me pure within.
How sad if Charles Wesley had gone on seeking heaven on his own achieved merit. There would never have flowed from his heart such lines as: “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise.” And millions of the redeemed would never have sung them either.