Charles Wesley And Methodist Hymnology
Charles Wesley, if less adapted for practical achievements among men than his brother John, was, on the whole his efficient coadjutor. For a series of years he was his associate in the perils and toils of the itinerancy, and though he ceased after 1756 from extensive journeyings, he remained still attached to Methodism, and devoted his ministry to its societies in London and Bristol. In his later years he was troubled with apprehensions that a separation from the Established Church might occur, and was afflicted by some points in his brother's policy, especially his ordinations. But these differences were not allowed to sever the bond of affection between the two brothers.
Charles in temperament was much less even and settled than his brother. "Few ministers,"says Jackson, "it is presumed, have been subject to greater variation of feeling than Charles Wesley. When traveling from place to place, preaching the word of life, and witnessing the power of divine grace in the conversion of ungodly men, his joy sometimes rose to rapture, and at other times his energies were paralyzed by despondency, and be earnestly desired to descend into the grave." In domestic life, whether by reason of greater aptitude for the married state or not, he was infinitely more happy than his brother.
Though a preacher of no mean ability, Charles Wesley is known almost wholly for his unique gifts in sacred poetry. More than any other whose poetic talent was enkindled by the revival, he lived and moved and had his being in sacred song. Fitted by his classical training to understand the niceties of verse, holding theological views in full sympathy with the most august, tender, and fruitful themes of the gospel, possessing religious sensibilities that were easily kindled to a flame, and baring a command over language which made it the facile instrument of his thought and feeling, he was every way qualified to be a master hymnist. The distinct products of his poetical genius were in the neighborhood of seven thousand. As the hymns of the Jewish Psalter were the adequate vehicle for almost every phase of Hebrew piety, so the hymns of Charles Wesley give apt expression to nearly every characteristic thought and feeling of Protestant Christianity. "It may be affirmed," says Isaac Taylor, "that there is no principal element of Christianity, no main article of belief as professed by Protestant churches; that there is no moral or ethical sentiment peculiarly characteristic of the gospel; no height or depth of feeling, proper to the spiritual life, that does not find itself emphatically and pointedly and clearly conveyed in some stanza of Charles Wesley's hymns." Stoughton aptly remarks: "There are hymns of smoother versification and pervaded by a serener spirit,--more suited to Anglo-Catholics, and perhaps to sedate Nonconformists; but for light and life, force and fire, no compositions can compare with those of the Methodist poets. They bear distinctly a character of their own, and reflect the excitement out of which they rose. Perhaps at times Isaac Watts may hare surpassed them in calm grandeur of conception, and Philip Doddridge in tenderness of sentiment; but beyond anything in either, there are in Charles Wesley's hymns tones of conflict and victory which resemble the voice of a trumpet, and strains of praise like the sound of many waters."
It was the fortune of Charles Wesley to reach the goal before his brother. He died March 29, 1788. A fortnight later the surviving brother, then ill his eighty-fifth year, while conducting service at Bolton, gave out the hymn of the deceased poet beginning with the words, "Come, O Thou Traveller unknown." as he reached the lines -
"My company before is gone,
And I am left alone with Thee,"
the bereaved old man was overpowered by his emotions, burst into a flood of tears, and was unable for a few moments to proceed with the service. A companionship extending over three quarters of a century, notwithstanding some differences on points of expediency, had nurtured a rare affection between the organizer and the poet of Methodism.