Christian History Home > Issue 85 > Holiness of heart, life, and pen
Holiness of heart, life, and pen
Charles Wesley and Charles H. Sheldon
Charles Wesley (1707-88). Charles M. Sheldon (1857-1946). Separated by 150 years and a continent, these two men shared traits deeper than a common first name. Both believed Christians must respond to their Savior's amazing love by loving others in practical ways. And both, desiring that others be captivated by a higher vision of life in Christ, expressed that vision in words that galvanized millions.
The prematurely born eighteenth child of Samuel and Susanna Wesley, Charles Wesley would remain a short man, like his famous older brother. But while John Wesley's compact frame contained a commanding personality, Charles Wesley has been described as a round-faced, near-sighted man whose speech was abrupt and social manner awkward.
In contrast to his driven, disciplined, and perhaps over-earnest older brother, Charles was also, in the words of his beloved wife Sarah, "tender, indulgent, kind, as a brother, a husband, a father" and "warmly and unalienably devoted" to his friends.
What people noticed most about Charles Wesley, however, was his great humility. Literary scholar David Lyle Jeffrey writes of Charles's "luminous" spiritual character, recounting the first time the great antislavery reformer William Wilberforce encountered Wesley. It was two years before Charles's death, at the house of Hannah More. Wilberforce later remembered, "when I came into the room Charles Wesley rose from the table, and coming forward to me, gave me solemnly his blessing. I was scarcely ever more affected. Such was the effect of his manner and appearance that it altogether overset me, and I burst into tears, unable to restrain myself."
This "luminousness" of spiritual character should not surprise us. The Wesley brothers were brought up steeped in the Bible, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and the spiritual classics their parents loved to read. Their mother Susannah formed them with regular times of catechism and devotion—a formation that doubtless contributed to their later sense that the Holy Spirit is present in all the Christian's experience.
Charles first felt this presence in a powerful way after he returned from a disappointing missionary trip to Georgia in 1736. He had been seeking for personal assurance both of faith and of his vocation. Historian Frank Whaling tells the story:
"On May 21, 1738, three days before his brother, he received an inward assurance of faith. Influenced by Luther's commentary on Galatians, he heard an inward voice asking him to arise and believe, and through the medium of interior words such as these and Scripture passages such as Isaiah 40, verse 1, 'Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, says your God,' he found a new inner dynamic."
In what was to become a life-long pattern, Charles immediately poured out some of this experience in a hymn. Captivated by God's grace, he turned from rejoicing over his own assurance of salvation to inviting others:
Outcasts of men, to you I call,
Harlots, and publicans, and thieves!
He spreads his arms to embrace you all:
Sinners alone his grace receive.
This sense of a personal call from Christ and a wonder at God's love towards all people would characterize so many of his hymns. Indeed, some have suggested that Wesley's tremendous body of work—over 9,000 hymns, with some 500 still sung today—has taught the body of Christ even better than anything John wrote or spoke.
Mere teaching, however, was never enough, even if it helped bring people to salvation or a greater sense of the immediate presence and love of God. Trained in the classics of church history, the brothers Wesley imbibed the medieval principle that salvation involves not just faith but "faith formed in love" (fides caritate formate)—disciplining all one's relationships and actions for the good of others. To be loved by God was, by definition, to love other people. John and Charles's ministries testified to this from the beginning.
Browse More ChristianHistory.net
Home | Browse by Topic | Browse by Period | The Past in the Present | Books & Resources