18 December 1707–29 March 1788
CHARLES WESLEY was born December 18, 1707, in the humble rectory of Epworth, Lincolnshire. His father, Samuel Wesley, was the Rector of the parish. His mother, Susannah, was a daughter of the Rev. Samuel Annesley, LL.D., one of the most eminent divines among the Dissenters, and whose father was a brother of Arthur, the first Earl of Anglesea. Charles was the youngest, save one (Kezia), of nineteen children, of whom only ten survived their infancy, seven daughters and three sons, Samuel, John, and Charles.
Such was the improvidence, in some respects, of the father, so numerous were his dependents, and so small his income, that their condition was exceedingly straitened, and their struggles with poverty seldom intermitted. They had scarcely any intercourse with Dissenters, and were rigidly attached to the Church of England. The father had become extensively known as a ready writer of poetry, and the mother was a strenuous Jacobite.
The utmost method and system prevailed in the household, and both he and his brother, John, were trained to strict habits of regularity. The first eight years of his life were passed at home, under the tuition of his mother. John, five years his senior, had been sent (1714) to the Charterhouse School, in London; and, two years later (1716), Charles was entered at Westminster School, of which his eldest brother, Samuel (then about twenty-five years old, and by whom he was at first supported there), was one of the teachers.
Charles, in 1721, was admitted as one of the King’s scholars in St. Peter’s College, and his expenses were borne by the foundation. His stay at Westminster was prolonged ten years, during which he was thoroughly fitted for the University. In 1726, being in his eighteenth year, he was elected to Christchurch College, Oxford, as his brother, John, had been five years before. The latter, having now graduated, had just obtained a fellowship in Lincoln College. “My first year at college,” says Charles, “I lost in diversions; the next I set myself to study.” “He pursued,” says John, “his studies diligently, and led a regular, harmless life; but, if I spoke to him about religion, he would warmly answer, ‘What? Would you have me to be a saint all at once?’ and would hear no more.” John left Oxford in August, 1727, and did not return until November, 1729. Early in his third year, Charles entered (1729) upon a methodical and serious mode of life. “Diligence,” he says, “led me into serious thinking; I went to the weekly sacrament, and persuaded two or three young students to accompany me, and to observe the method of study prescribed by the statutes of the University. This gained me the harmless name of Methodist. In half a year [after this] my brother left his curacy at Epworth, and came to our assistance. We then proceeded regularly in our studies, and in doing what good we could to the bodies and souls of men.”
Charles Wesley, it thus appears, was the first “Methodist.” This was in the spring of 1729, to which date, therefore, the rise of Methodism, as a great ecclesiastical movement, and a religious denomination, is to be traced. Charles began it, and John controlled and shaped it. Besides the two brothers Wesley, the little band included only William Morgan and Robert Kirkham. Charles took his degree of B.A., the same year, and presently began to take pupils—still prosecuting his studies for orders. His father died April 25, 1735, and the family home at Epworth was broken up. Charles had graduated, M.A., in 1732, and had continued his work as a tutor. When John, in 1735, concluded to go to Georgia as a missionary, Charles was induced to accompany him, as secretary to Governor Oglethorpe. Though he had “exceedingly dreaded entering into holy orders,” his scruples were now overcome, and he was ordained, in September, a deacon, by the Rev. Dr. John Potter, Bishop of Oxford, and, the Sunday following, priest, by the Rev. Dr. Edmund Gibson, Bishop of London.
Mr. Wesley embarked, October 14, 1735, and sailed from Gravesend, on the 22d, but did not leave Cowes until December 10, arriving, after a stormy passage, February 5, 1736, in the Savannah river. He was stationed at Frederica. After a stay of but little more than six months, he sailed from Charleston, August 16th, in the London Galley, for London. The vessel was compelled, September 24, to put in at Boston, Mass., where he remained a month, reaching England, after a most perilous voyage, December 3, 1736. The year following he spent at London, Oxford, and Tiverton, visiting friends, and waiting on the Board of Trade. In the spring of 1738, he was prostrated by severe illness. Heretofore, he had espoused the doctrines of the Rev. William Law, and had rested in a legal righteousness. During his illness, under the instructions of the godly Moravian, Peter Böhler (who had selected him as his English teacher), and those of his simple-minded host at London, Mr. Bray, a brazier, he was brought to renounce his self-righteousness, and to obtain joy and peace in believing, on Whitsunday, May 21, 1738. To this date he looked back ever afterwards as the era of his conversion.
Recovered from his illness, he became, at the close of July, a curate for Mr. Stonehouse, the Vicar of St. Mary’s, Islington, who subsequently became a Moravian. Meeting with much opposition from a portion of the parish and his diocesan, he continued there only eight or nine months. Following the example of [George] Whitefield, he now resorted to the fields, and, June 24, 1739, he preached to thousands at Moorfields. From this time forth, he gave himself, with all his powers, to the work of an evangelist—going everywhere, all over the kingdom and the principality of Wales, extending his labors into Ireland, with manifold success, and no small tribulation. In all these respects he vied with his elder and more noted brother, John, whom, in some respects, he excelled, as a popular preacher.
On one of his tours, he came to Bristol, July 31, 1745, where and when he formed the acquaintance of Marmaduke Gwynne, Esq., of Garth, sixteen miles from Brecon, South Wales—a gentleman of fortune, of high social position, and a magistrate, who had been converted to Methodism, under the preaching of Howell Harris. Some two years later, Mr. Wesley, on his way to Ireland, visited Mr. Gwynne at Garth, and became enamored with his daughter, Sarah. Repeated visits of the itinerant preacher to Garth, and of Mr. Gwynne with his daughter to London, followed, resulting in Wesley’s marriage, April 8th, 1749, to Miss Gwynne, by his brother, John. The bride was twenty-three years old, and her husband in his forty-first year. The marriage was in all respects suitable, congenial, and of happy results. Eight children were born to them, of whom only the youngest three, Charles, Sarah, and Samuel, survived their infancy.
At the close of 1756, Mr. Wesley ceased to itinerate, confining his labors mostly to Bristol, the home of his family, and London, to which he made frequent official visits. Mrs. Gumley [Miss Degge], the aunt of Lady Robert Manners, in 1771, presented Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wesley with a twenty years’ lease of her town residence, richly furnished; which henceforth became their home. It was in Chesterfield Street, Marylebone, near Regent's Park, and three miles from “The Foundry,” John’s London home. In 1777, the lease of the Foundry expired, and the commodious City Road Chapel was built. In these two renowned localities, or in some other of the city chapels, Mr. Wesley, when not disabled by disease, ordinarily preached twice on the Sabbath, during the remainder of his life. Though of a frail body, and a life-long victim of disease, he was spared to a good old age, dying at his house in Chesterfield Street, Saturday, March 29, 1788 in his eightieth year. His remains were interred in Marylebone churchyard.
Like his brother, John, and the great hymnist, Watts, he was considerably below the middle stature, and, though stouter than John, not at all corpulent. He was shortsighted, abrupt, and impetuous, without affectation. His simplicity, integrity, frankness, and amiability were marked. In the words inscribed on the memorial Tablet, City Road Chapel, “as a preacher, he was eminent for abilities, zeal, and usefulness, being learned without pride, and pious without ostentation.”
Charles Wesley was the son of a poet, and the younger brother of a poet. Yet he seems not to have practised the divine art himself until long after the completion of his University career, and his entrance on the work of the ministry. His first hymn, so far as known, is his “Hymn for Midnight,” beginning with “While midnight shades the earth o’erspread,” and written early in 1737, in his twenty-seventh year. The experience of divine grace, to which he ever afterwards referred as the date of his conversion and true regeneration, May 21, 1738, stirred up within him the gift of holy song. From that day until the very day of his death, this gift was in lively and almost constant exercise.
by Edwin Hatfield
The Poets of the Church (1884)