Born on 18 December, 1707 in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England, Charles Wesley was the 18th and last child of Samuel and Susanna Wesley. They had three sons who survived, the eldest, John Wesley, was born in 1703. At 15 months, the old Rectory at Epworth was totally destroyed by fire, and Charles, like John, had to be rescued from the inferno. He was hastily carried by a maid and placed safely in his mothers arms.
Charles was first educated at home by his parents and later enrolled in the Westminster School, London, UK in 1716 where his brother Samuel paid his room and board. There, he gained a reputation through defending others from the school bullies. He went on to Christ College in Oxford with a Westminster scholarship, and received his BA in 1730 and his MA in 1732. Whilst there, he and his brother John formed the Oxford Holy Club in 1729 for the purposes of worship, and by often visiting the sick and imprisoned, its members soon received the nickname 'Methodists'. While John later became leader of the little group, it was started by Charles, who was therefore the 'First Methodist'. In 1732, George Whitefield of Pembroke College joined the group, and a close bond of friendship developed between himself and Charles Wesley who was now a college tutor. Through this, they became known as the first 'Methodists'. After graduation Charles, too, became a college tutor.
In 1735, Charles was ordained as a deacon in the Church of England, and sailed with John to Georgia, USA as a missionary to the new colony. He actually served as the secretary of the Governor, General James Oglethorpe, yet became disillusioned. The two brothers had led hitherto a relatively sheltered and privileged life, and were unprepared for the conditions and they were to meet, which were nothing compared to the people. Emotionally exhausted, Charles left Georgia, landing in England on 3 December, 1736. John was to remain in Georgia for another year.
After recuperating and recovering strength and self respect, Charles started meeting important and influential people. He was even selected to appear before King George II on behalf of the University of Oxford at Hampton Court on 26 August, 1737. But despite this, and the fact he was considered something of a celebrity having returned from Georgia, Charles was still full of unrest and uncertainty.
John returned in February 1738, and this immediately cheered Charles up. He planned to return to Georgia as a missionary, but a severe attack of pleurisy interfered, and resuming academic life at Oxford seemed the only way. They travelled to Oxford in April with the young Moravian Peter Bohler, who taught them about evangelical Christianity.
The Day of Deliverance.
In May 1738, the Wesleys were in London. Charles was recovering from his illness in the home of some Moravians in Little Britain, near St Paul's Cathedral. Through the humble concern and sincere testimonies of his hosts and others, Charles was deeply affected. On the following day, Whitsunday, 21 May, 1738, he wrote his first hymn, 'Where Shall My Wondering Soul Begin', which was the first of over 6,000 hymns. Charles' strength began to return immediately.
Exactly a year later, Charles wrote the more famous hymn, 'O for a thousand tongues to sing', which he recommended for singing 'on the anniversary of one's conversion'.
Charles Wesley's new spiritual life was seen via his deep compassion for everyone. His preaching was transformed, and he preached extempore for the first time at St Antholin's Church in Bristol in October 1738. He then began as curate without license from the bishop in a strongly Methodist parish, St Mary's in Islington. He moved to Bristol in 1749 where he married Sarah Gwynne on 8 April. Together they had eight children, but only three survived. They returned to London in 1771 where he renewed his prison ministry to Newgate.
Charles was just as involved and instrumental in spreading and sustaining the Methodist movement as his brother, John Wesley, and the belief that Charles was the poet and John was the organizer and preacher is not really true. John was one of the organizers of Methodism, but Charles developed its practical theology with his hymns, and it was his hymns that moved many to Methodism. It also fails to acknowledge the impact of the Wesley's preaching. A selection of Charles Wesley's hymns was first published in 1739, and these became instantly popular1.
Whether you believe or not, no one can deny that the Wesleys and the Methodist Movement had an effect on Britain at this time. In 1740 his public appeals and preaching subdued a riot amongst the colliers occasioned by the high price of corn. Historians generally agree that the evangelical revival had a profound effect on stemming a revolutionary tide in the country. Conditions were improved by changing the hearts of the people; many of the wealthy became more caring towards the workers, and the artisan working classes acted more respectfully and civilised. During a visit to Cardiff in 1740, a mob consisting of theatrical people surrounded the house, incensed that Methodist preaching was proving too much of an attraction and threatening their business.
During the early 1750s, Methodism was becoming a nationwide phenomenon, and the intense persecution of the movement was beginning to subside. It was often said that in the days when many people travelled on horseback, you could tell a Methodist was coming by his singing. Charles, though, was still weak. It became increasingly clear that his labours were often taxing his strength. In addition, his highly emotional preaching was often followed by severe depression as well as nervous exhaustion.
During a visit to Wales, Charles Wesley met Sarah 'Sally' Gwynne. Her father was Marmaduke Gwynne, the Squire of Garth near Builth Wells in modern Powys, and, as previously mentioned, they were married on 8 April, 1749. The service was performed by Charles' brother John. Sarah and Charles settled for a while in Bristol, and had a happy marriage, unlike John's sadly unsuccessful marriage.
The Wesleys moved to Chesterfield Street, Marylebone in London in 1771, where Charles had effective oversight of the London Methodists. His ministry continued, on a more local scale, and naturally his growing family was important to him. Charles and Sarah had two sons, Charles and Samuel, who were both musical prodigies. They held concerts to which many famous people were invited. Young Samuel was considered such a gifted composer that many felt he was comparable even with Mozart.
Charles maintained his ties and allegiance to the Church of England and often reprimanded his brother for his increasing distance from the church. In his hymns, all but four books of the Bible are cited, and he used over 45 different meters. His hymns are contained in 64 collections published during his lifetime. When he lay dying in March, 1788, worn out from toil, he dictated these last lines to his beloved Sally:
In age and feebleness extreme,
Who shall a helpless worm redeem?
Jesus, my only hope Thou art,
Strength of my failing flesh and heart,
O, could I catch a smile from Thee
And drop into eternity!
Charles died in Marylebone, London on 29 March, 1788. He was buried in the churchyard at Marylebone Parish Church, against his brother's wishes, with eight clergymen of the Church of England as pallbearers. He considered himself to have lived and died as a member of the Church of England.