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Charles Wesley: Biography, Hymns & Poems

Instructor: Kelly Beaty

Kelly has taught fifth grade language arts and adult ESL. She has a master's degree in education and a graduate certificate in TESOL.

Charles Wesley was an 18th-century English poet and clergyman. In this lesson, you will learn about his life and work, especially his writing and his role in the Methodist movement within the Church of England.

Charles Wesley
Charles Wesley

Inspiration

Have you ever had an experience so life-changing that it moved you to create something beautiful? Events like the birth of a child, a visit to the Grand Canyon, or falling in love often serve as inspiration for songs, poems, paintings, and other works of art in the modern world.

For an 18th-century Englishman named Charles Wesley, the source of inspiration was a life-changing spiritual experience, and the creative outlet was poetry.

Setting the Stage for Greatness

Charles Wesley was born in England in 1707, the 18th child of Samuel and Susanna Wesley. Even though Charles was born prematurely, he beat the odds and lived a long, productive life before he died in 1788. Out of 19 children in the family, he was one of only ten to make it to adulthood.

Religion and academics were part of Wesley's life from the start. His father was a Church of England priest; his mother educated the children at home during their early years. Her expertise in Latin, Greek, and French gave Charles and his siblings a strong academic foundation. Wesley's early studies were not wasted; he excelled in formal education, ultimately earning a Master's degree from Oxford University in England.

Oxford University
Oxford University

Living Faithfully

While studying at Oxford, Wesley regularly met with some like-minded people to practice their faith in a systematic way. Serious study of scripture, religious observance, and service to others were hallmarks of these student meetings, whose members became known as the Holy Club.

The members of the Holy Club were nicknamed 'Methodists' due to their adherence to rigorous methods of religious practice. The Methodist movement grew into a powerful force within the Church of England, and ultimately led to the establishment of the Methodist Church as an independent entity.

United Methodist Church logo
UMC logo

It is important to note that Charles Wesley's brother John was also instrumental in the Methodist movement. Both Charles and John were preachers and writers; Charles is best known for writing, and John is best known for preaching.

Turning Point

After graduating from Oxford and getting ordained as a clergyman of the Church of England, Charles, together with his brother John, served a one-year mission to the Native Americans in Georgia. This was in 1735, when what is now the state of Georgia was still a British colony.

The one-year mission was not successful, leading Wesley to seriously question his faith. He did some serious soul-searching, which led to what some people consider his 'true' conversion to the Christian faith in 1738. Wesley experienced, for the first time, a genuine sense of being at peace with God. This powerful personal experience served as Wesley's inspiration to write the poetry and hymns that people have known and loved for more than two centuries.

Making a Mark on the World

Not everyone has heard of Charles Wesley, but it would be hard to experience a winter holiday season without hearing the following Christmas carol:

Hark the herald angels sing,

'Glory to the newborn King!

Peace on earth and mercy mild

God and sinners reconciled.'

Wesley wrote these lyrics to 'Hark! The Herald Angels Sing' in 1739. Today we experience them set to the now-familiar melody of Felix Mendelssohn. Likewise, many of Wesley's poems are now sung as hymns in Christian churches today.

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