This week I feature arguably the world’s greatest hymn writer of all time, Charles Wesley (1707-88). Like his better known brother, John, Charles was an Anglican priest and a prodigious hymn writer, something that was considered scandalous in his day. Richard Schmidt writes that:
[M]odern worshipers will not easily believe that the singing of any hymn in the modern sense was suspect in Anglican churches until around 1800. It is estimated that Charles wrote 9,000 hymns, of which some 400 are still in use among Christians in some part of the world. That is an average of three hymns a week for sixty years–and some of them contain over twenty stanzas.
Many of [Wesley’s hymns] are active, visual images–of burning, running, leaning, thirsting, rising, standing, melting, shouting. This gives Wesley’s hymns and earthy, sinewy vigor. [Unlike his brother John’s theology which] tended to stress instantaneous conversion…Charles emphasized gradual growth in holiness.
For the Wesleys, theological ideas emerged not merely from a mind thinking of Christ, but from a soul in love with Christ. Several typically Wesleyan themes recur again and again in Charles’ hymns: Through the death of Christ, God invites all persons to be reconciled to him (this emphasis distanced the Wesleys from the Calvinists who taught that only the “elect” were saved). Charles Wesley drew in his hymns on all the major biblical metaphors referring to human salvation or atonement–purchase/redemption, pardon/acquittal, cleansing/purification, and victory/liberation. To receive the gift of salvation, human beings are called to make a free response (another distancing of the Wesleys from the Calvinists). Christian faith leads to a joyful heart and an obedient life; growth in holiness follows conversion. The eucharist is a means of grace in the life of the believer.
[Wesley’s hymns] do more than teach right beliefs. They celebrate a person’s relationship to God, and cover the whole range of emotions which a deep relationship entails, from penance to praise, from judgment to joy, from the shadows to sunshine
—Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality, 128-130
As you read the lyrics to Wesley’s hymns this week, keep the above in mind and see how much of it you can spot. Some of the best known hymns that we sing are Charles’ and if you don’t know the melody to some of them, visit HymnSite.com and listen to them.
Today’s hymn is one you will recognize if you have ever attended an Easter Day service. If you don’t know the tune, listen to it here. What theology do you see in this hymn?
Christ the Lord is Risen Today (302)
Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia!
Earth and heaven in chorus say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heavens, and earth reply, Alleluia!
Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids him rise, Alleluia!
Christ has opened paradise, Alleluia!
Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Once he died our souls to save, Alleluia!
Where’s thy victory, boasting grave? Alleluia!
Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!
Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!
Hail the Lord of earth and heaven, Alleluia!
Praise to thee by both be given, Alleluia!
Thee we greet triumphant now, Alleluia!
Hail the Resurrection, thou, Alleluia!
King of glory, soul of bliss, Alleluia!
Everlasting life is this, Alleluia!
Thee to know, thy power to prove, Alleluia!
Thus to sing, and thus to love, Alleluia!