Brave as a lion
The 300th anniversary of Charles Wesley’s birth
There are two main reasons why the preaching of Charles Wesley is often overlooked. Firstly, most people focus on the ministry of his older brother John, a spiritual colossus in his own right who usually takes centre stage.
Many books magnify John’s role in the eighteenth-century revival while Charles is pushed into the background. I have a book on my shelves entitled A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, volume 2. The index contains 96 page references to John and five for Charles.
While this may reflect some people’s thinking about the brothers’ respective influence on Methodism and the revival, it nevertheless illustrates the ‘swamping’ effect John has on his sibling.
The second reason why Charles’ preaching is neglected is ironically that Charles was such a magnificent hymnwriter. I read somewhere recently that ‘perhaps taking quantity and quality into consideration [he was] the great hymnwriter of all ages’. He wrote some 3500 hymns in all, many of which are still enjoyed in churches throughout the land.
Songs that soar
According to W. Garret Horder, he penned some of the ‘grandest hymns in the English language’. Horder continues, ‘For spontaneity of feeling, his hymns are pre-eminent. They are songs that soar. They have the rush and fervour which bear the soul aloft’.
John Wesley reckoned that his brother’s hymns contained ‘the purity, the strength and the elegance of the English language’. We must add, of course, that they also taught the principal doctrines of the Bible. Extolling the theology in his hymns, Christian history magazine says that Charles included verses from every book in the Bible except Nahum and Philemon – a feat that will probably never be matched or surpassed.
But here lies the problem. Charles Wesley the preacher is all but forgotten, overshadowed on one side by the enormous stature of John and on the other by his own genius as a hymnwriter.
For this reason, as we celebrate the 300th anniversary of his birth, I want to highlight his preaching, taking particular note of his fearlessness in proclaiming the gospel.
Charles Wesley was born on 18 December 1707. When only fourteen months old he was rescued from a serious fire that destroyed his family’s home in Epworth. When eight he left home to attend school in London, where he stayed until he entered Oxford University in 1726.
After experiencing a personal reformation during his second year, he joined other students to form what became known as ‘the Holy Club’. Following in his grandfathers’ footsteps he entered the ministry of the Church of England and before long accompanied his brother as a missionary to the far-off colony of Georgia.
His mission across the Atlantic failed and he returned to England, but before long was gloriously converted. Soon he started to preach the gospel with ‘fervour and boldness’ in churches and in the open air, and many lives were changed.
Thunder and lightning
One of the early Methodists says his preaching at its best was ‘thunder and lightning’. Joseph Williams, a layman from Kidderminster who heard Charles preaching at Bristol to a crowd of 1,000 people, said, ‘He prayed with uncommon fervency, fluency and variety of expression. He then preached about an hour in such a manner as I have scarce ever heard any man preach.
‘That is, though I have heard many a finer sermon … yet I think I have never heard any man discover such evident signs of a vehement desire or labour so earnestly to convince his hearers that they were all by nature in a sinful, lost, undone, damnable state; that, notwithstanding, there was a possibility of their salvation through faith in Christ; that for this end our sins were imputed to him, or he was made sin for us, in order that his righteousness might be imputed to as many as believe on him.
‘Then by a variety of the most forcible motives, arguments and expostulations, did he invite, allure, quicken and labour … to compel all and every of his hearers to believe in Christ for salvation’.
Williams accompanied Charles to a society meeting that evening and came away exclaiming, ‘I do not remember my heart to have been so elevated in divine love and praise, and an affecting sense and savour thereof abode in my mind many weeks after’.
In The life of Charles Wesley John Telford writes that ‘his preaching was so tender, so pathetic, so full of convincing power that it made heavy demands upon his physical strength. At times he was so drawn out in his zeal for souls that he continued speaking for three hours’.
Brave as a lion
But Charles was also a courageous preacher. Yes, he was ‘eloquent and persuasive, tender-hearted, loyal’ but he was also ‘brave as a lion’.
His indomitable courage as a preacher is seen during his first visit to Cornwall in 1743. On Monday 18 July he was in St Ives. He went to the market place to preach and started to read Psalm 100. Immediately some men started to beat a drum and shout.
Charles stood silently for a while and then offered to speak to some of the most violent, but they would not listen. They ran at him, crying out that he would not preach in that place and trying to push him to the ground.
‘They had no power to touch me’, wrote Charles in his Journal. ‘My soul was calm and fearless. I shook off the dust of my feet and walked leisurely through the thickest of them, who followed like rampaging and roaring lions’.
Unperturbed, and with little thought for his own safety, he preached in the afternoon on Kenegie Downs to a thousand tin miners and pointed them to the Lamb of God. Many wept.
Power from above
Four days later he had just named his text when an ‘army of rebels’ broke into the meeting. They behaved in a ‘most outrageous manner, threatening to murder the people’. They smashed the windows, ripped off the shutters, and broke the benches ‘and all but the stone walls’.
Charles looked on silently with his eyes on the Lord. The men swore at him and told him he would never preach there again. Charles immediately told them that ‘Christ died for them all’. They refused to listen but lifted up their hands and clubs as if to hit him, but a strong arm restrained them.
They beat and dragged the women across the floor and trampled on them without mercy; but the longer they stayed the more power Charles found from above. He told the people to stand still and see the salvation of God, resolving to remain with them to the end.
Eventually, after about an hour of rioting, the ruffians started to quarrel among themselves and left the room. Unperturbed, Charles thanked God for the victory.
On Sunday 24 July, Charles was in the middle of his sermon when the mob attacked again. With abusive language they swore to take revenge on all present for disturbing the Sabbath and for taking people away from the Parish Church.
They assaulted those present with sticks and stones and tried to dash the preacher to the ground. ‘Strike me and spare the people!’ cried Charles. He was trapped, surrounded by vicious men with no way of escape until one of the persecutors took him by the hand and promised to protect him. He walked slowly away with the rabble behind him.
Later that evening Charles went out and faced his enemies. He looked them in the face ‘and they pulled off their hats and slunk away’.
Such was Charles’s intrepid spirit and determination to preach the gospel even at the expense of his own safety.
Facing the enemy
Today, in our politically correct and ‘delicate’ society – where a wrong word or look can be interpreted as discrimination – we need men who stand above the need to be applauded and are prepared to face the enemies of the gospel with the truth as it is found only in Christ Jesus.
Where are the preachers with the courage of a lion and the meekness of a lamb, who are not concerned about popular opinion but are ready to go into pubs and clubs, and stand in market places or town squares, to rescue lost souls?
Where are the men like the Wesleys – intrepid, adventurous and compelled by the love of God to declare the hope of Christ to a lost world, even at the expense of being hated, spat on, mocked, cursed and attacked? Where are the men who will stand firm as a storm of hostility rages around them?
May God in his grace put the ‘thunder and lightning’ back into our sermons and the courage of Christ back into our hearts.