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Every great religious movement has witnessed an outburst of song. This was particularly true of the Lutheran Reformation in Germany and other lands and of the Methodist revival in England. John and Charles Wesley, like Martin Luther, understood something of the value of sacred song in impressing religious truths upon the hearts and minds of men. While John Wesley was undoubtedly a preacher of marvelous spiritual power, the real secret of the success of the Wesleyan movement more likely must be sought in the sublime hymns written by his brother Charles.

With Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley holds the foremost place in the realm of English hymnody. No less than 6,500 hymns are said to have been written by this “sweet bard of Methodism.” Naturally they are not all of the highest order, but it is surprising how many of them rise to real poetic excellence. Of the 770 hymns in the Wesleyan Hymn Book, 623 are from the pen of Charles Wesley!

Wesley did not write hymns merely as a duty, nor yet as a pastime. His soul seemed filled with music and poetry, and when his genius became touched by the divine spark of Christ’s Spirit, it burst into full flame. It has been said of Franz Schubert that “he had to write music.” The same was true of Charles Wesley. When his soul was full of song, he had to give expression to it by writing his immortal hymns. The inspiration came to him under all sorts of 226 conditions. Some of his hymns were written on horseback, others in a stage-coach or on the deck of a vessel. Even as he was lying on his deathbed, at the age of eighty years, he dictated his last hymn to his faithful and devoted wife. It begins with the words, “In age and feebleness extreme.”

Charles Wesley was the next to the youngest of nineteen children born to Rev. Samuel Wesley and his remarkable wife Susannah. The father, who was a clergyman in the Church of England, possessed more than ordinary literary gifts. He is the author of at least one hymn that has survived the passing of time, “Behold, the Saviour of mankind.” The mother presided over the rectory at Epworth, where both of the distinguished sons were born, and also looked after the education of the younger children of the large family. Concerning this very unusual mother and the spiritual influence she exerted over her children, volumes have been written.

Poverty and other tribulations descended upon the Epworth rectory like the afflictions of Job. The crowning disaster came in 1709, when the Wesley home was completely destroyed by fire. John, who was only six years old at the time, was left behind in the confusion and when the entire house was aflame he was seen to appear at a second-story window. The agonized father fell upon his knees and implored God to save his child. Immediately a neighbor mounted the shoulders of another man and managed to seize the boy just as the roof fell in. Thus was spared the child who was destined to become the leader of one of the greatest spiritual movements in the Christian Church.

While John and Charles were students at Oxford University, they became dissatisfied with the spiritual conditions existing among the students. Soon they formed an organization 227 devoted to spiritual exercises. Because of their strict rules and precise methods, they were nicknamed “the Methodists,” a name that afterwards became attached to their reform movement.

The hymns of Charles Wesley are so numerous that only a few of the more outstanding can be mentioned here. “Hark! the herald angels sing,” “Love divine, all love excelling” and “Jesus, Lover of my soul” form a triumvirate of hymns never surpassed by a single author. Add to these such hymns as “A charge to keep I have,” “Arise, my soul, arise,” “Christ, whose glory fills the sky,” “Come, Thou long-expected Jesus,” “Soldiers of Christ, arise,” “Hail the day that sees Him rise,” and “Suffering Son of Man, be near me,” and it will readily be understood why the name of Charles Wesley is graven in such large letters in the hymnody of the Christian Church.

“Jesus, Lover of my soul” is generally recognized as the finest hymn of Wesley. This is all the more remarkable since it was one of the earliest written by him. It was first published in 1740 in a collection of 139 hymns known as “Hymns and Sacred Poems, by John and Charles Wesley.” This was at the beginning of the Wesleyan movement, which soon began to spread like fire all over England.

There are several stories extant as to the origin of the hymn. The most trustworthy of these tells how the author was deeply perplexed by spiritual difficulties one day, when he noticed through his open study window a little song bird pursued by a hungry hawk. Presently the bird fluttered exhausted through the window and straight into the arms of Wesley, where it found a safe refuge. Pondering on this unusual incident, the thought came to Wesley that, in like 228 manner, the soul of man must flee to Christ in doubts and fears. Then he took up his pen and wrote:

Jesus, Lover of my soul,

Let me to Thy bosom fly.

The reference to the “tempest” and the “storm of life” may have been prompted by the memory of an earlier experience, when he and his brother John were on their way to the colony of Georgia on a missionary journey. It was in the year 1735 the brothers formed a friendship with a band of Moravians who were sailing on the same ship for America. During the crossing a terrible tempest was encountered and for a while it was feared the ship would sink. While all of the other passengers were filled with terror, the Wesleys were impressed by the calmness and courage of the Moravians, who sang hymns in the midst of the raging storm.

Seeking for a reason for their spiritual fortitude, the brothers found that the Moravians seemed to possess a positive certainty of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. The Wesleys also made the sad discovery that they themselves did not really possess this assurance, but had been trying to work out their salvation by methods of their own. John Wesley later made the confession that he and his brother had gone to Georgia to convert the people there, whereas they themselves had need to be converted!

Upon their return to London the brothers fell in with other Moravians, and through them they became familiar with Luther’s teachings. Charles came to a saving faith in Christ during a severe illness, and a week later his brother had a similar spiritual experience. It was on May 24, 1738, that John Wesley attended a meeting in Aldersgate 229 Street, where some one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. Then for the first time light dawned on his soul, and he found peace with God through Christ.

Soon afterwards John Wesley left for Halle, Germany, the seat of the Pietist movement, in order to become more familiar with the teachings of Luther and the evangelical methods of the Pietists. At Halle he also became deeply imbued with missionary zeal. Upon his return to England he launched, with John Whitefield, the greatest spiritual movement his country had ever known. Revivals flamed everywhere. No buildings were large enough to house the crowds that gathered to hear the evangelists, and, because the English clergy were hostile to the movement, most of the meetings were held in the open air.

Charles at first aided in preaching, but eventually devoted his time mainly to hymns. It is estimated that John Wesley held no less than forty thousand preaching services, and traveled nearly a quarter of a million miles. It was he who said, “The world is my parish.” John wrote some original hymns, but his translations of German hymns are more important. We are indebted to him for the English versions of Paul Gerhardt’s “Commit thou all thy griefs,” Tersteegen’s “Thou hidden love of God whose height,” Freylinghausen’s “O Jesus, Source of calm repose,” Zinzendorf’s “Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness,” and Scheffler’s “Thee will I love, My Strength, my Tower.”

Charles Wesley died March 29, 1788, after fifty years of service to the Church. The day before he was taken ill, he preached in City Road chapel, London. The hymn before the sermon was Watts’ “I’ll praise my Maker, while I’ve breath.” The following evening, although very sick, he amazed his friends by singing the entire hymn with a 230 strong voice. On the night of his death he tried several times to repeat the hymn, but could only say, “I’ll praise—I’ll praise—,” and with the praise of his Maker on his lips, he went home to God. John Wesley survived his brother three years, entering his eternal rest on March 2, 1791. The text of his last sermon was, “Seek ye the Lord while He may be found.”

Whether Charles Wesley or Isaac Watts should be accorded first place among English hymnists has been a subject of much dispute. The fact is that each occupies a unique position, and the one complements the other. While Watts dwells on the awful majesty and glory of God in sublime phrases, Wesley touches the very hem of Christ’s garment in loving adoration and praise. Dr. Breed compares the two in the following striking manner:

“Watts is more reverential; Wesley more loving. Watts is stronger; Wesley sweeter. Watts appeals profoundly to the intellect; Wesley takes hold of the heart. Watts will continue to sing for the Pauls and Peters of the Church; Wesley for the Thomases and the Johns. Where both are so great it would be idle to attempt to settle their priority. Let us only be grateful that God in His gracious providence has given both to the Church to voice the praises of various classes.”

Henry Ward Beecher uttered one of the most beautiful of all tributes to “Jesus, Lover of my soul” when he said: “I would rather have written that hymn of Wesley’s than to have the fame of all the kings that ever sat on the earth. It is more glorious. It has more power in it. I would rather be the author of that hymn than to hold the wealth of the richest man in New York. He will die. He is dead, and does not know it.... But that hymn will go singing 231 until the last trump brings forth the angel band; and then, I think, it will mount up on some lip to the very presence of God.”

George Duffield, author of “Stand up, stand up for Jesus,” called Wesley’s lyric “the hymn of the ages.”

No one will ever know how much help and consolation it has brought to souls in affliction. Allan Sutherland tells of the following pathetic incident:

“On an intensely warm day, as I stood on the corner of a sun-baked street in Philadelphia, waiting for a car to take me to the cool retreats of Fairmount Park, I heard a low, quavering voice singing, with inexpressible sweetness, ‘Jesus, Lover of my soul.’ Looking up to an open window whence the sound came, I saw on the sill a half-withered plant—a pathetic oasis of green in a desert of brick and mortar—and resting tenderly and caressingly upon it was an emaciated hand. I could not see the person to whom the voice and hand belonged, but that was unnecessary—the story was all too clearly revealed: I knew that within that close, uncomfortable room a human soul was struggling with the great problem of life and death, and was slowly but surely reaching its solution; I knew that in spite of her lowly surroundings her life was going out serenely and triumphantly. I shall never forget the grave, pathetic pleading in the frail young voice as these words were borne to me on the oppressive air:

Other refuge have I none;

Hangs my helpless soul on Thee;

Leave, ah, leave me not alone,

Still support and comfort me!”

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