Charles Wesley was one of the founders of Methodism and a prolific hymn writer. He was born on December 18, 1707 in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England to Samuel and Susanna Wesley. Charles was the youngest of 19 children in the Wesley family. His older brother John Wesley was also a founder of Methodism.
Charles showed an early aptitude for learning and poetry. He attended Christ Church College at Oxford University, where he co-founded the Holy Club with his brother John and George Whitefield. This group was dedicated to spiritual disciplines like prayer, fasting and Bible study. They were mocked by other students who called them “Methodists” due to their methodical approach to their faith.
After graduating from Oxford, Charles was ordained as a minister in the Church of England in 1735. However, he struggled in his early ministry and went to the newly founded colony of Georgia in America in hopes of being a missionary to Native Americans. This venture proved unsuccessful and he returned to England depressed and ill in 1737.
Back in England, Charles experienced a profound conversion experience at a Moravian Church meeting. He felt the assurance of God’s grace and forgiveness in his life. A few days later, his brother John had a similar conversion experience. This launched both of the Wesley brothers into powerful preaching ministries.
Charles Wesley traveled extensively as an itinerant preacher and evangelist in the emerging Methodist movement. His fiery sermons and poetic gifts made him an extremely popular speaker. He preached to coal miners, prisoners and ordinary working people who were often neglected by the established Church of England.
It was during these early years of Methodism that Charles began writing hymns. His hymns focused on the themes of conversion, assurance, sanctification and God’s grace. Some historians believe Charles penned over 9,000 hymns during his lifetime! Many of his hymns are enduring favorites in churches today. Some of his most well-known hymns include “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”, “Jesus, Lover of My Soul”, “And Can It Be That I Should Gain?” and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”
Charles had a unique gift not just for writing emotive lyrics, but also for matching lyrics to melodies. His hymns often used popular melodies of the day, making them easy for common people to pick up and sing. This opened up congregational singing to the masses and also embedded Christian doctrine in their hearts through memorable worship songs.
Charles differed from his brother John in being less concerned with church polity and more focused on the experiential side of faith. However, their differing emphases actually complemented each other well in the Methodist movement. Charles provided the zeal, emotion and music while John provided the administrative leadership and theological stability.
In 1749, Charles married Sarah Gwynne and settled down to start a family. He continued writing prolifically even as he transitioned from being an itinerant preacher to being focused more locally in Bristol and London. In total, Charles is said to have written over 6,500 hymns published in 53 collections during his lifetime.
Charles and John remained devoted brothers and partners in ministry for their entire lives. Though they had their theological disagreements at times, they stayed united in their common commitment to renewing the church and spreading the Gospel throughout Britain. When John died in 1791, Charles was deeply impacted by the loss of his brother and died just one year later in 1792 at the age of 80.
Charles Wesley’s legacy lives on today through his timeless hymns that are still sung by millions of Christians every week around the world. The Wesley brothers helped spark a revival in 18th century England that transformed not just the church but also society as a whole. Charles Wesley played a key role in that revival through his passion for worship, his lyrical talents, and his focus on Christian experience and holy living.
Early Life and Education
Charles Wesley was born on December 18, 1707 in Epworth, Lincolnshire in England. He was the 18th child born to Samuel Wesley and Susanna Wesley, out of their total 19 children. Charles’ father Samuel was an Anglican priest and poet. His mother Susanna was known as a devout woman of faith who took responsibility for educating her children at home until they went off to boarding school.
Charles showed an aptitude for learning from a young age. As a child, he was rescued from a fire that destroyed the family home in 1709. Young Charles was trapped on an upper floor but was fortunate enough to be tossed out a window to safety. He considered this one of his earliest divine escapes.
At age 11, Charles attended Westminster School in London where he was educated in Greek, Latin and classical literature. He showed particular talent for poetry and language from a young age. In 1726, Charles followed in his brother John’s footsteps by attending Christ Church College at Oxford University. He excelled in his classical studies and poetry while at Oxford.
At Oxford, Charles was part of the Holy Club – a group of students who met several times a week for prayer, Bible study, fasting and mutual improvement. This group was mockingly referred to as the “Methodists” by other students due to their methodical devotion and lifestyle. The Holy Club included Charles Wesley, his older brother John, and future evangelist George Whitefield.
This group emphasized ascetic practices like fasting twice a week, abstaining from leisure activities, and visiting prisons and workhouses to care for the needy. The Holy Club was controversial at Oxford but greatly influenced the lives of early Methodism’s founders in applying their faith practically and with spiritual discipline.
Charles Wesley graduated with a Bachelor’s degree from Christ Church College in 1729. He then pursued an advanced degree and was elected a fellow of Lincoln College at Oxford in 1726. During this time he was ordained as a deacon in the Church of England in 1726 and then as a priest in 1728.
Ministry in Georgia
In 1735, Charles and his brother John answered a call from General James Oglethorpe to go serve as missionaries in the newly founded colony of Georgia in America. They hoped sharing the Gospel with Native Americans and serving the settlers there would reinvigorate their faith.
However, Charles struggled in Georgia both with relationships and ministering effectively. He did not connect well with either the settlers or the Native Americans he sought to reach. Charles became quite ill in Georgia and wrote to his brother Samuel that he was “weary of life” because of extreme pain. He also expressed some early doubts about his faith during this difficult time.
Charles ended up staying less than two years in Georgia before returning to England depressed and ill in late 1736. He viewed the Georgia episode as an impulsive mistake and a failure, though he did compose several hymns during the voyage.
This Georgia experience influenced Charles’ later ministry in realizing that rigorous devotion, discipline and piety were not enough for genuine faith. He began understanding the need for assurance and grace rather than rigid works.
Conversion and Early Ministry
After returning from Georgia, Charles Wesley experienced a profound conversion on May 21, 1738. He attended a Moravian society meeting in London where a reading from Martin Luther’s preface to the book of Romans was being discussed. During this meeting, Wesley later reported that he felt “strangely warmed” as he felt God assure him of his grace and forgiveness.
A few days later, his brother John had a similar evangelical conversion experience at a Moravian meeting where he felt his heart “strangely warmed.” This was a turning point for the Wesley brothers as they found new assurance, zeal and power in their ministry going forward.
Over the next few years, the Wesley brothers preached extensively, gathering new followers through their powerful proclamation of the Gospel. They preached salvation by faith alone and the witness of the Spirit to conversion. Charles traveled and ministered constantly, preaching in the open air to reach coal miners, prisoners and ordinary working people.
Charles Wesley differed from his brother John in being less concerned with questions of church government and order. Charles was focused more on the experiential side of faith. His hundreds of hymns captured the themes of assurance, sanctification, personal holiness and God’s grace that drove the early Methodist revival.
In 1739, Charles introduced some hymns he had written at a religious society meeting in London. The enthusiastic response convinced him to have them published later that year as Hymns and Sacred Poems. This was the first of many hymn collections Charles would publish in his lifetime.
Charles Wesley’s gifts as a preacher and evangelist complimented his brother’s organizational skills in helping lead and spread the early Methodist societies. Charles provided the fuel of music and proclamation that ignited the Methodist revival across Britain during the 1700s.
Marriage and Family Life
In 1749 at the age of 41, Charles Wesley married Sarah Gwynne, the daughter of a wealthy Welsh magistrate. Their marriage was a loving, lifelong partnership. Together they had eight children, with three living to adulthood. Charles scaled back some of his intensive traveling and preaching after marrying.
Charles and Sarah settled in Bristol in 1753. In 1771 they moved to London to be closer to Charles’ work organizing Methodist chapels. Sarah managed the large Wesley household and helped raise funds for the chapels Charles supported.
Even during these later years focused on his family, Charles remained active in ministry. He preached widely in the Bristol and London areas, edited hymn collections, mentored preachers and continued composing verse. Though no longer an itinerant preacher, Charles still spoke at Methodist meetings and conferenced whenever possible.
Charles became one of Methodism’s leading champions of abolitionism in his later years. He wrote anti-slavery tracts and hymns attacking the slave trade. Charles saw the abolition of slavery as an important part of fulfilling his Christian duty and furthering the movement’s ministry. His anti-slavery efforts paved the way for Methodism’s future role in abolition.
Relationship with John Wesley
Charles and his older brother John enjoyed one of the closest working partnerships and strongest friendships in church history. John provided the administrative leadership and theological stability to Methodism, while Charles provided the energy, poetic expression and soul.
The Wesley brothers not only shared a deep love for God and ministry, they also shared many mutual friends like George Whitefield, worked constantly together, and corresponded vigorously when apart. Their teamwork helped drive Methodism’s growth across Britain.
Though they were extremely close, Charles and John did have some theological disagreements at times. For instance, in the 1750s they argued over the doctrine of predestination. Charles was concerned that John’s view limited God’s redemptive love.
Charles favored a more open, and emotional Arminian perspective while John was more strict and logical in his theology. However, their disputes never ruptured the fraternal bond between them. When John died in 1791, the bereaved Charles was quoted as saying the “tie is broke that bound us twain.”
Death and Legacy
After John Wesley’s death in 1791, the grief-stricken Charles Wesley passed away one year later on March 29, 1792 at the age of 80. He was buried in Marylebone, London and had requested that only the lyrics of his brother’s hymns be sung at his funeral service.
Charles Wesley lived a long full life devoted to ministry, but sadly outlived many of his children. By the time of his death, only his sons Charles Jr. and Samuel had survived him. However, Charles left an indelible legacy that continues to impact Christian worship and theology today.
During his prolific career, Charles Wesley published over 6000 hymns across 53 collections. He wrote on a vast array of Scriptural themes like the Trinity, Advent, Easter, redemption, sanctification, love for God, and social justice issues. Charles had the ability to translate deep theology into lines that common people could grasp, memorize and sing devotionally.
Charles Wesley followed the Church Calendar, composing hymns appropriate for every holiday like Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and All Saints’ Day. He gave Methodism a lyrical expression of the Christian year for worship and devotion. Some historians argue that Charles’ hymns actually instituted Sunday Schools in early British Methodism as hymns were used for catechesis.
While John Wesley standardized Methodist doctrine, Charles’ hymns allowed for greater popular participation in the movement. The localized hymn singing of uneducated working people infused Methodism with greater cultural relevance and accessibility for the masses.
Countless Christians across denominations still regularly sing Charles Wesley’s hymns today like “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” The Wesley brothers’ complementary gifts helped ignite a powerful movement of spiritual renewal that transformed British Christianity and society.
Charles Wesley’s enduring hymns continue to anchor the worship life of Methodism and other Christian traditions. His lyrical talents combined doctrine and devotion in a way that still resonates with millions of Christians today. Alongside his brother John, Charles Wesley helped reshape modern Christianity through his passion, preaching and poetic sensibilities.