WESLEY, CHARLES (1707-1788),
divine and hymn-writer, eighteenth child,
youngest and third surviving son of Samuel
Wesley (1662-1735) [q.v.], was born at Epsworth
Rectory, Lincolnshire, on 18 Dec. 1707.
The correction from the usual date (1708)
is made practically certain in Stevenson's
'Memorials of the Wesley Family' ,
p. 385. A seven months' child, he was reared with
difficulty. In 1716 he entered Westminster
school, under the care and at the
cost of his brother Samuel [see under Wesley,
Samuel, 1662-1735], till he was elected
king's scholar in 1721. Among his school-follows
was William Murray (afterwards
first Earl of Mansfield) [q.v.] Wesley,
who was captain of the school (1725), was
Murray's protector from ill-usage on the
score of his Jacobite origin. He showed dramatic
ability and quickness in acquirement,
and bore a high character, though
his lively disposition got him into scrapes.
John Wesley affirmed (in an unfinished sketch
of his brother's life, written 1790, and meant
for publication) that at this period Garrett
Wesley or Wellesley (d. 23 Sept. 1728) of
Dangan, co. Meath, wrote to his father proposing
to provide for Charles's education and
adopt him as his heir. Money was accordingly
paid for his schooling for some years,
In 1726 Charles entered Christ Church, Oxford, as a Westminster student, matriculating on 13 June. For the first year he was indisposed to pass from the tutelage of his brother Samuel to that of John, then fellow of Lincoln. 'He would warmly answer, "What, would you have me to be a saint all at once?" and would hear no more.' His application to study was coincident with John's removal from Oxford (1727). Study brought 'serious thinking' in its train. He began to attend the weekly sacrament. In January 1729 he began a diary, kept it regularly for twenty years, then intermittently till 1756; the discontinuance was ascribed by his brother to 'wrong humility.' By the spring of 1729 (six months before John's return to Oxford, in November) he had 'persuaded two or three young scholars to accompany me, and to observe the method of study prescribed by the statutes of the university. This gained me the harmless nickname of methodist' (letter to Thomas Bradbury Chandler, 28 April 1785). The bestowal of the nickname is assigned by John Wesley to 'a young gentleman of Christ Church.' Its meaning has been much discussed. Watson (Life of John Wesley, 1839, p. 12) has cited its use as a religious designation ('plain, pack-staff methodists') as early as 1639. Daniel Williams [q.v.] and his followers were described (1693) as 'new methodists in the great point of justification.' John Wesley thought there was an allusion to the 'medici methodici' (as opposed to empirics). But there is no reason for questioning the testimony of Charles. He was called a 'Methodist' for advocating a system of study. The religious reference was not the primary one; the word meant little more than 'prig' (see PHILLIPS, New World of Words, 6th edit. 1706, ed. Kersey, where 'methodist' is glossed 'one that treats of a method, or affects to be methodical').
In 1730 Charles graduated B.A. and began
to take pupils, He was an excellent scholar,
an especially good Latinist. His plan of
associated study and religious exercises assumed
new proportions under his brother's lead.
[see WESLEY, JOHN].
He threw himself into the movement with conspicuous
zeal. It was to Charles Wesley that George
Whitefield [q.v.] first turned (1732) when he
felt drawn to the Methodist movement. Yet
he looked forward to no career beyond that
Leaving his brother at Savannah, Wesley reached (9 March 1736) Frederica, St. Simon's Island, Oglethorpe's residence. From this date his 'Journal' becomes available. He was to minister to the colonists and convert the Indians. His stay was not long; his strictness made him enemies in a lax community; by his refusal to recognise lay-baptism, he prejudiced his efforts for moral reform; he did not get on with Oglethorpe, and even welcomed 'a friendly fever.' On 13 May he left for secretarial duties at Savannah. He was anxious to resign his post. Taking despatches from Oglethorpe to the Georgia trustees and the board of trade, he left, Savannah on 26 July in very unfit health for a stormy voyage in an unseaworthy vessel. After delays at Charlestown and Boston, he landed at Deal on 3 Dec. 1736. He did not resign the secretaryship till 3 April 1788, when the state of his health and his brother's advice (that he should remain at Oxford) led him to give up the idea of the Georgia mission. He had previously made vain efforts to induce the ecclesiastical authorities to recognise Moravian co-operation. His intercourse with Zinzendorf began on 19 Jan. 1737. He was able to aid Zinzendorf, through his acquaintance with Bishop Potter.
By Potter's advice, he joined (26 Aug.
1737) the Oxford deputation with an address
to the throne at Hampton Court. Shortly
after, he consulted William Law [q. v.] on
religious matters, without gaining satisfaction.
In February 1738 he came under the
inflaence of Peter Böhler, who learned English
from him, during a visit at Oxford.
Wesley does not seem to have learned
German. The perusal of Luther on Galatians,
which he met with in May, gave
He entered upon the itinerant ministry on
16 Aug. 1739, riding to the west of England.
Taking his brother's place at Bristol,
he made this his headquarters, entering on
his ministry at Weavers' Hall on 31 Aug.
For the next seventeen years he pursued
his evangelistic journeys, finding hearers
up and down England and Wales, from the
'keelmen' of Newcastle-on-Tyne to the
'tinners' of Cornwall. His good sense appears
in his remarks (1743) on the convulsive
paroxysms which began in 1739;
some were counterfeit, others could be controlled,
the remainder he could not accept
as divine signs. On two occasions he
visited Ireland (9 Sept. 1747-20 March
1748, and 13 Aug.-8 Oct. 1748). He had
to endure much rough usage, yet at Kinsale,
he reports (8 Sept. 1748), 'the presbyterians
say I am a presbyterian; the churchgoers
that I am a minister of theirs; and the
Catholics are sure I am a good catholic
in my heart.' Except that he did not again
cross to Ireland, his marriage (1749) made
little change in his plans; his wife accompanied
his journeys, riding behind him on a
pillion. Her fine voice led the singing at
his religious meetings. By a strong measure
he frustrated his brother's unwise matrimonial
project of the same year. Though
he had encouraged lay preaching, and had
When Methodist preachers began to take the benefit of the Toleration Act, he would have had them leave methodism for dissent. As an alternative, he offered to use all his interest to obtain their admission to Anglican orders. He writes (27 March 1760) to John Nelson: 'Rather than see thee a dissenting minister, I wish to see thee smiling in thy coffin' (JACKSON, ii. 185). His health suffered; he was compelled in 1761 to retire from active duties to Bath. From 1762 the Wesleys diverged in their treatment of a point of doctrine. Both had preached 'perfection;' Charles now, in view of current fanatical claims, insisted on a gradual process, reaching a higher goal. No difference of opinion or of policy injured their mutual confidence or disturbed the frankness of their intercourse. Charles was always the champion of his brother's reputation, even when most suspicious of the aims of his followers.
In 1771 he removed with his family to
London, occupying a leasehold house,
1 Chesterfield Street, Marylebone, which
was given to him, furnished, for the remainder
of the lease (over twenty years) by
Mrs. Gumley. He preached in turn at the
Foundery; after the opening (1 Nov. 1778)
of City Road Chapel, he preached there
twice every Sunday during church hours
(contrary to his brother's custom) and reluctantly
submitted to share this duty with
At the beginning of 1788 his strength entirely
failed; by March he was unable to
write. On his brother's advice he was
attended by John Whitehead (1740?-1804)
[q.v.] He died on 29 March 1788. Owing
to the misdirection of a letter, the news did
not reach his brother till 4 April, too late for
attendance at the funeral. On 5 April he
was buried, at his own express desire, in the
churchyard of St. Marylebone, immediately
behind the old church; the pall was borne
by eight Anglican divines; the expenses of
his funeral (13l. 16s. 6d.) were met by a
private subscription (TYERMAN, John Wesley,
iii. 225); a small obelisk marks his grave.
In City Road Chapel (where he had declined
burial, the ground being unconsecrated) is
a marble tablet to his memory. His profile,
with that of his brother, is on the tablet
placed (1871) in Westminster Abbey on the
initiative of Dean Stanley. His portrait
(1771) by John Russell, in the Wesleyan
Centenary Hall, has often been engraved.
Another portrait (1784) is in Whitehead's
'Life,' engraved by J. Fittler, and again in
Moore's 'Life' (1824), engraved by W. T.
Fry. He was of low stature but not slight,
near-sighted, and abrupt and even odd in
manner. Always absent-minded, he could
read and compose at his ease, oblivious of his
company. Like his brother, he wrote Byrom's
shorthand. His manuscripts were
always models of neatness. In other respects
his more methodical habits in later life were
probably due to the influence of his wife
(WATSON, J. Wesley, p. 410). In old age 'he
rode every day (clothed for winter even in summer)
a little horse, grey with age' (MOORE,
1826, ii. 369). Tender and sensitive, his
family affections were strong; his warmth
of temper never led him into angry heats;
to his brother he looked up with a loving
He married (8 April 1749) Sarah (b. 12 Oct. 1726; d. 28 Dec. 1822), third daughter of Marmaduke Gwynne (d. 1769) of Garth, Breconshire; the marriage, celebrated by his brother John, was a most happy one. His widow had an annuity of 100l. from John Wesley, on whose death it was commuted, at her request, for a capital sum. After the expenditure of this she was relieved from straits by an annuity provided by William Wilberforce in conjunction with two friends. The Methodist body followed with an annuity, which was continued to the surviving children. Of Wesley's eight children, five died in infancy. Charles (1767-1834) and Samuel (1766-1837) are separately noticed. The surviving daughter, Sarah, a woman of great culture, who mixed in the best literary society of her day, died at Bristol, unmarried, on 19 Sept. 1828, aged 68.
John Wesley writes of his brother: 'His
least praise was his talent for poetry; although
Dr. Watts did not scruple to say that that
single poem, "Wrestling Jacob," was worth
all the verses he himself had written' (Minutes
of Conference, 1788). Yet among the many
services rendered by Charles Wesley to the
cause of religion, his work as a hymn-writer
stands pre-eminent. Exercising an hereditary
gift, he had early written verses both in
Latin and English, but the opening of the
vein of his spiritual genius was a consequence
of the inward crisis of Whit-Sunday
1738. Two days later his hymn upon his
conversion was written. He doubted at first
whether he had done right in even showing
it to a friend. The first collection of hymns
issued by John Wesley (1737) contains nothing
by Charles. From 1739 to 1746 the
brothers issued eight collections in their
joint names. Some difficulty has been felt
in assigning to each his respective compositions.
To John are usually given all translations
from German originals, as it is doubtful
whether Charles could read that language;
and if this is not conclusive (as the originals
might have been interpreted for him), a strong
argument may be found in his constant inability
to write on subjects proposed to him,
and not spontaneously suggested by his own
mind. All original hymns, not expressly
claimed by John in his journals and other
writings, are usually given to Charles. But
The following collections appear to contain
exclusively his own hymns:
1. 'Hymns on God's Everlasting Love,' 2 parts, 1741, 12mo.
2. 'For the Nativity,' 1744, 12mo.
3. 'For the Watchnight,' 1744, 12mo.
4. 'Funeral Hymns,' 1744, 12mo; enlarged, 1759, 12mo.
5. 'For Times of Trouble,' 1745, 12mo;
revised edition, same year; additional, 1746, 12mo.
6. 'On the Lord's Supper,' 1745, 12mo.
7. 'Gloria Patri ... to the Trinity,' 1746, 12mo.
8. 'On the great Festivals,' 1746, 4to.
9. 'For Ascension Day,' 1746, 12mo.
10. 'For Our Lord's Resurrection,' 1746, 12mo.
11. 'Graces before and after meat,' 1746, 12mo.
12. 'For the Public Thanksgiving,' 1746, 12mo.
13. 'For those that seek and those that have Redemption,' 1747, 12mo.
14. 'On his Marriage,' 1749.
15. 'On Occasion of his being prosecuted in Ireland,' 1749.
16. 'Hymns and Sacred Poems,' Bristol, 1749, 2 vols. 12mo.
17. 'For New Year's Day,' 1750, 12mo.
18. 'For the Year 1756,' 1756, 12mo.
19. 'Of Intercession,' 1768, 12mo.
20. 'For the Use of Methodist Preachers,' 1758, 12mo.
21. 'On the expected Invasion,' 1759, 12mo.
22. 'On the Thanksgiving Day,' 1759, 12mo.
23. 'For those to whom Christ is all,' 1761, 12mo.
24. 'Short Hymns on . . . Passages of . . . Scripture,' 1762, 2 vols. 12mo.
25. 'For Children,' 1763, 12mo.
26. 'For the Use of Families,' 1767, 12mo.
27. 'On the Trinity,' 1767, 12mo.
28. 'Preparation for Death,' 1772, 12mo.
29. 'In the Time of the Tumults,' 1780, 12mo.
30. 'For the Nation,' 1782, 12mo.
31. 'For Condemned Malefactors,' 1785, 12mo.
A few hymns were first printed separately. Other poetical
publications were an 'Elegy,' Bristol, 1742,
[Biographies of Charles Wesley are included in most of the biographies of John Wesley; of special value are those by Whitehead, 1793 (also issued separately), and by Moore, 1824-5. An independent Life, with much use of unpublished correspondence, was produced, 1841, 2 vols. (abridged as 'Memoirs,' 1848, 1 vol.), by Thomas Jackson, who also edited Charles Wesley's Journal (1736-56), 1849, 2 vols. with selections from his correspondence. Additional particulars are in the Life by John Telford . See also Forshall's Westminster School, 1884; Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1715-1886, iv. 1526; Julian's Dict. of Hymnology, 1892, which has been followed for the bibliography (articles 'Methodist Hymnody' and 'Wesley Family'); Green's Bibliography of the Works of John and Charles Wesley, 1896; authorities cited above, and references to art. WESLEY, JOHN.]
From: Dictionary of National Biography
See also Works by John and Charles Wesley at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.