Charles Wesley: Hymnist and Theologian

Randall McElwain

Charles Wesley changed both English hymnody and English theology forever. He took Isaac Watts hymnic innovations and made them the norm for later hymn writers. He also took theological principles preached by his brother, John, and popularized them for laymen. The Wesleys' emphases on the unlimited atonement, on assurance, and on Christian perfection were preached in the 52 Standard Sermons; these emphases were also proclaimed in the 1780 Wesley Hymnbook.

Charles Wesley revived the centrality of theology in hymns. Like Ambrose and other early hymn writers, Wesley used hymns as a tool for teaching theology. Laymen who had never studied the doctrine of assurance could understand that:

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine!
Alive in Him my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

Charles Wesley also revived the value of personal experience in hymns. Wesley understood that a doctrinal hymn should allow singers to testify to their own experience of that doctrine. The singer of "And Can It Be" sang, not only a general doctrine of assurance, but a personal testimony of assurance:

Long my imprisoned Spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature's night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth and followed Thee.

For 250 years, Methodists have learned theology from their hymnbook and have testified to their Christian experience through familiar Wesley hymns. As we begin the 21st century, let us preserve our rich heritage of Wesleyan hymns while we encourage young hymn writers to speak the same theological and experiential truths in the musical language of today.

Editorial Note: By late November or early December the Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition at Duke Divinity School will post an online scholarly edition of the published poetry of Charles Wesley (and the hymn/poetry collections of John Wesley). Randall McElwain prepared the text of the two-volume Hymns and Sacred Poems (1749) for this edition. Go to the Duke Divinity school web sight.

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