“A Charge to Keep I Have”: Charles Wesley & His Tercentennial

This year is the tercentennial of the birth of Charles Wesley (1707-1788), and in honour of that what follows is an overview of his life. Charles was the eighteenth child born to Samuel Wesley and his wife Susanna (née Annesley). He arrived prematurely on December 10, 1707, and apparently spent his earliest days of life wrapped in wool, neither opening his eyes nor raising his voice. But his voice would not always be silent! For fifty years after his conversion in 1738 it would announce, in sermon and in song, the Good News of God’s redemption through faith in Christ.

The story is told of how Charles, as a young boy, refused an offer of becoming the heir of a wealthy Anglo-Irish cousin, Garret Wesley, since it would remove him from the bonds of his family and friends. Another cousin, Richard Colley, went in Charles’ stead and became Richard Colley Wesley—the grandfather of Marquis Wellesley, who colonized India, and of the Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. How much history hung on a small boy’s decision! Yet, Charles Wesley also left a heritage, one more permanent than any empire and larger than any army.

For his early education Charles joined his siblings as each day his mother Susannah, who knew Greek, Latin, and French, methodically taught them for six hours. Charles then spent thirteen years at Westminster School, where the only language allowed in public was Latin. Finally, Charles went up to study at Oxford in 1726. “At first he lived a … carefree undergraduate life, intent only on having a good time—an attitude not unusual in one of his age.” But by 1729 he had become quite devout and threw all of his energies into seeking to live the Christian life. But he was not converted; and he was seeking to build his Christian faith and hope of salvation on his good works. Nearly ten years were to elapse before Charles came to Christ on May 21, 1738, Pentecost Sunday.

The key figure in his conversion was Peter Böhler (1712-1775), a German Moravian missionary. Early in that year, while living in London, Charles had fallen ill and had actually come close to death. Böhler came to visit him and spoke to him about his need of salvation. Böhler asked him: “Do you hope to be saved?” When Charles assured him that he did, Böhler enquired further: “For what reason do you hope it?” “Because I have used my best endeavours to serve God,” returned Charles. At such an inadequate response Böhler shook his head sadly and said no more. Charles later admitted that he considered Böhler to be most uncharitable and though to himself, “What are not my endeavours a sufficient ground of hope? Would he rob me of my endeavours? I have nothing else to trust to.”

It was another Moravian by the name of William Holland (d.1761) who gave Charles a copy of Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians to read (Holland in fact has been identified as the one who was reading this commentary on May 24, 1738 at Aldersgate Street when John Wesley was converted). On May 17, 1738, Charles noted in his diary: “I spent some hours this evening in private with Luther, who was greatly blessed to me, especially his conclusion of the second chapter. I laboured, waited, and prayed to feel ‘Who loved me and gave Himself for me’.”

On May 21, Pentecost Sunday, Charles awoke with great expectation. Still confined to bed because of his sickness, he was visited by John. After John had left, Charles lay back to sleep. He awoke to hear the voice of a woman (actually the sister of the man in whose house he was staying) saying: “In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, arise and believe, and thou shalt be healed of thy infirmities.” The woman, a Mrs. Turner, had been commanded by the Lord in a dream to convey this message. Charles was physically healed and spiritually converted. Three days later, on May 24, his brother was also converted.

Up until 1749 Charles, like his brother was an itinerant evangelist. But on April 8, 1749, he married a Sarah (aka Sally) Gwynne (d.1822), who was 23 at the time, and whom he had known since 1747 when he visited the home of her father Marmaduke Gwynne, a Welsh Methodist. Their correspondence had helped their friendship ripen into love, and in 1748 Charles wrote this verse:

Two are better far than one For counsel or for fight How can one be warm alone Or serve his God aright?

A gifted singer and accomplished harpsichordist, Sally was gentle and unselfish, and her and Charles had in many ways an ideal marriage. Charles’ itinerant ministry became less because of family responsibilities. Of eight children, they lost five as infants! They settled first at Bristol, and then in London in 1771, where he became a spiritual father to the burgeoning Methodist movement.

There was a shy and retiring side to Charles. He had to force himself to stand before the ten thousand people who came to Moorfields in London on July 8, 1739, to hear him preach on the text, “Thou shalt call his name Jesus; for he shall save his people from their sins.” Although both preacher and congregation were deeply affected by the sermon, Charles’ inner disquiet at such a public ministry was not easily silenced. Thus, that same year, he confided in a letter to George Whitefield: “I am continually tempted to leave off preaching, and hide myself… Do not reckon on me, my brother, in the work God is doing: for I cannot expect he should long employ one who is ever longing and murmuring to be discharged.”

But Charles Wesley knew better. Once, when an acquaintance said that if people spoke about him the way they did about Whitefield, he would run away and hide himself. “You might,” Charles apparently retorted, “but God would bring you back like Jonah.” These words have a ring of experience about them. The revival committed the younger Wesley to a vast scene of public ministry, and by God’s grace he overcame the natural inclinations of his temperament. Later celebrated this victory in the hymn “A Charge to Keep I Have” (1762; based on Leviticus 8:35):

1. A charge to keep I have, a God to glorify, a never-dying soul to save, and fit it for the sky.

2. To serve the present age, my calling to fulfill; O may it all my powers engage to do my Master’s will!

3. Arm me with jealous care, as in thy sight to live, and oh, thy servant, Lord, prepare a strict account to give!

4. Help me to watch and pray, and on thyself rely, assured, if I my trust betray, I shall forever die.

John Wesley once characterized himself as a man “full of business.” This would be a fair analysis of one side of his character. Methodist tradition has remembered the older Wesley as a man full of drive and discipline, one who expended himself in Herculean efforts that readily wore out those who chose him for a role model. But John also seemed to hurry through life in a way that robbed it of some of its richness. Though he was also an ardent evangelist, Charles was the sort of man who could pause to pen a poem, “Written at Land’s End,” while watching the sun set by the sea.

Despite these differences in temperament, the Wesley brothers established what they both called their “partnership” in ministry, and their partnership was so successful in their day that it has paid rich dividends into our own.