Friday, December 18, 2015

Charles Wesley

Charles Wesley, one of the most prolific hymnwriters in history, was born on this date in 1707, the eighteenth of nineteen children born to his parents.  Born prematurely, he nearly died in the first weeks of his life.  The Wesley children were tutored for six hours daily by their mother Susanna, who also spoke Latin, Greek, and French, so they were well prepared to continue their educational studies in more formal settings. While at Oxford University, Charles founded the Holy Club in 1727, a small group who conducted Bible study and celebrated the Eucharist weekly, and also visited prisoners and taught children to read. 

Of course, Charles and his older brother John went on to become the founders of the Methodist Church. Though they had never intended to leave the Church of England, those who followed them eventually set themselves up as a separate denomination. The Wesley brothers were committed to teaching a faith which was based in their classical educations and not on a fundamentalist view of the Bible.

Charles is best known for his hymns, of which more than 6500 have been identified.  Like John Calvin and Martin Luther before them, the Wesleys believed congregational singing to be a good way to spread their message. Duke Divinity School, founded by the Methodists in 1926, maintains a directory of Wesley's published and unpublished hymn texts on their website.

Today's lesser-known hymn was first published in Charles's 1747 collection Hymns and Sacred Poems

See how great a flame aspires,
Kindled by a spark of grace!
Jesus' love the nations fires,
Sets earth's kingdoms all ablaze:
To bring fire on earth he came;
Kindled in our hearts it is:
O that all might catch the flame,
All partake the glorious bliss!

Saints of God, your Savior praise!
Christ the door hath opened wide!
He hath giv’n the word of grace,
Jesus’ word is glorified;
Jesus, mighty to redeem,
He alone the work hath wrought;
Worthy is this work of God,
God, who made the world from naught.

Saw ye not the cloud arise,
Little as a human hand?
Now it spreads along the skies,
Hangs o’er all the thirsty land!
Lo! the promise of a shower
Drops already from above;
And our God will shortly pour
On the world eternal love.

Charles Wesley, 1746; alt.
Edward J. Hopkins, 1867

I like how the hymn begins with fire and ends with water (the cloud "little as a human hand" comes from 1 Kings 19:44, when Elijah's prayers to God bring rain after many years of drought). 

Charles and John Wesley are also commemorated together on March 3 in the calendar of the Episcopal Church.

Seven Years Ago: Phoebe Worrall Palmer

Five Years Ago: Charles Wesley

Three Years Ago: Charles Wesley

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