Spiritual Growth and Christian Living Resources

Our Debt to Charles Wesley

  • Bob Kauflin Director of Worship Development, PDI Ministries
  • Published Dec 07, 2001
Our Debt to Charles Wesley
Hymnologist Eric Routley writes, "The gates that Watts had opened, Wesley joyously entered; and the field that Watts sowed he reaped, literally, a hundredfold." These "gates and fields" Routley describes were the full expression of congregational song in the church. The effect of Charles Wesley's songs can still be felt today.

One reason for Wesley's continued influence is the staggering number of songs he produced. From his conversion in 1738 until his death 50 years later, he averaged almost three hymns a week -- more than 6500 in all. Among them are "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing," and "Christ the Lord is Risen Today."

Volume alone, however, doesn't create a legacy. Charles' hymns are a wealth of biblical theology and sound doctrine. His brother, John, had one of the most significant preaching ministries in history. He viewed the "world as his parish" and often ministered to those in lower classes who were illiterate, simple, and unaffected by the traditional church. Both brothers viewed songs as a powerful tool for working the doctrines they preached into the hearts of their listeners. In Jubilate II, Donald Hustad writes, "Charles Wesley's hymns were fundamentally a compendium of Methodist theology, covering every aspect of Christian spiritual experience."

That emphasis on spiritual experience is another reason Wesley's hymns retain their popularity. Prior to the 18th century, hymns had primarily functioned as restatements of objective Scriptural truth. The fact that such truth might, or ought to, have an emotional impact on hymn-singers rarely entered the picture. However, both John and Charles had been profoundly influenced by their experiences with the Moravians, who sang with passion and focused on the more subjective aspects of the Christian faith. This resulted in Charles penning songs like, "Jesus, Lover of My Soul," which John initially felt was too emotional for inclusion in their hymnals. Throughout his life, Charles attempted to draw out the present effects of truth upon the heart of the singer. His songs are also wonderful examples of evangelical zeal, often inviting the sinner to respond to the truths being sung.

Charles' brother, John, served as editor for the 56 hymnals they produced in 53 years. He took great pains to ensure that hymns were wedded to specific tunes, which had not previously been the church's practice. John also saw to it that the tunes he suggested were sung properly. In the introduction to a collection of hymns in 1751, he specified they were to be sung exactly, completely, modestly, lustily, in time, and in tune. Above all else, John counseled, "Sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself or any other creature. In order to do this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continuously." Sound counsel for any generation.

Watts and Wesley together had an immeasurable effect on congregational song in the church. "Between them they ensured...that the Christian faith should never be without songs for its full expression." (Eric Routley) They also threw open the door to the role of emotions in Christian congregational worship. This was, in sum, surely a good thing, but not without risks. Stay with us as we examine next week how godly emotion can easily turn into emotionalism.

For His Glory,