O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing: Charles Wesley

by Gaylon L Powell

This article is reprinted from the January 2000 issue of Texas Sacred Harp Newsletter.

To the Methodists, Charles Wesley is known as the co-founder of the Methodist Church. To other Christian religions, however, his name may not be known, but his works are well known. He is the author of some 6,000 hymns which after more than 200 years are showing little sign of losing their appeal. His belief was that the hymns were a means of teaching theology; the subject matters of his hymns cover every area of theology and every season of the liturgical year. Each week he would write three hymns.

Charles Wesley was born at Epworth in Lincolnshire December 18, 1707, as the third surviving son and eighteenth child of Samuel and Susanna Annesley Wesley. His father was a poverty-stricken Anglican minister, who was the rector at Epworth, and his mother had a strong, Godly influence on him.

It was his father's ambition to make scholars and clergymen of his three sons: Samuel, John, and Charles. John was educated at Charterhouse, while the younger Samuel and Charles attended school at Westminster. Charles entered Christ Church, Oxford, in June 1726. By that time, John had been ordained and elected a Fellow of Lincoln College. Charles proved to be an excellent scholar and graduated in 1730.

In 1729 Charles began to have a deep interest in spiritual things. He gathered together others, including his brother John, who shared this interest and formed a Holy Club. This Holy Club later was nicknamed by others as "Methodists" because John, a methodical person, wrote out a list of rules and methods for the daily living of club members. The purpose of this club was to add a spiritual improvement to their lives. It was Charles who formed the club, but it was John who became their leader. In 1732 George Whitefield became a member of the Holy Club, and a close friendship developed between Charles and Whitefield.

In their eyes, the Anglican Church was full of legalism and lifeless, but yet it was sincere. At the deathbed of their father in April 1735, their father told John, "The inward witness, son, the inward witness, this is the proof, the strongest proof of Christianity." Samuel then told Charles, "Be steady. The Christian faith will surely revive in this kingdom. You shall see it; though I shall not."

In May 1735, Charles and John went to the new colony of Georgia. They went as missionaries; John was appointed Anglican chaplain and Charles was a secretary for Governor James Oglethorpe. This proved to be a failure; John and Charles had led a sheltered and privileged life and were not prepared for the conditions and characters that they met. The colony of Georgia was organized by Oglethorpe to give those who had fallen on hard times a new start. Life in Georgia had too many misrepresentations and too many scandals coming from unprincipled people that Charles fell into low spirits. Because of this, he returned to England in December 1736. John returned a year later.

Even though their missionary work in Georgia was declared a failure, it was during this experience that the foundation was laid that would soon change their lives. On board the Georgia bound ship with John and Charles were 26 German Moravians. The Wesley brothers were impressed with the hymn singing and the preaching of the Moravians, and even during the fierce Atlantic storms. John and Charles realized for the first time that hymn singing could be a spiritual experience.

In 1737 John printed a hymnbook for the use of his congregations. This hymnbook was titled Collection of Psalms and Hymns and included some songs by Isaac Watts. This was not well received by the community, and a grand jury indicted John with "introducing into the church hymns not authorized." John went back to England before his case could come to trial.

After recovering from his bad experience in Georgia and regaining his self-respect, Charles was soon regarded as a celebrity because of his returning from Georgia. He was even selected to appear before King George II. In spite of the attention he was getting, Charles was full of unrest and uncertainty. Remembering the Moravians that impressed him in America, he was equally impressed with Count Zinzendorf, who was the Moravians' leader in London.

John's return from Georgia in February 1738 lifted Charles' spirits. Charles had hoped to return to America; however, he had a severe attack of pleurisy, and it seemed that the only path for him to take at this point was an academic life at Oxford. In April, John and Charles traveled to Oxford with Peter Bohler, a young Moravian. The brothers learned from Bohler the nature of true evangelical Christianity. Bohler wrote to Count Zinzendorf his impressions of the Wesley brothers, "The elder, John, is a good-natured man; he knew he did not properly believe in our Saviour, and was willing to be taught. His brother is at present very much distressed in his mind, but does not know how he shall begin to be acquainted with the Saviour."

The next month, the Wesley brothers were back in London. Charles suffered a relapse of his earlier illness and was recovering in the home of one of the Moravians. He was very troubled, but was deeply affected through the humble concerns and sincere Christian testimonies of his hosts and others. He opened his Bible and read Isaiah 40:1

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.

From reading this verse, Charles' eyes were opened; he received a revelation from God, and found comfort. His diary entry for May 21 reads:

I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ... I saw that by faith I stood, by the continual support of faith... I went to bed still sensible of my own weakness...yet confident of Christ's protection.

The next day, Charles's strength began to return, and he wrote the first of his many hymns. On the May 24, John would find himself with the same experience. He found the assurance of his salvation during a meeting at a Moravian mission on Aldersgate Street in London. John wrote of his account:

I went very unwillingly to a Society in Aldersgate Street where one was reading about Luther's preface to The Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine whilst he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that He had taken my sin, even mine."

One year later, Charles wrote the hymn O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing and recommended that everyone sing it "on the anniversary of one's conversion."

O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer's praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of his grace!

My gracious Master and my God,
Assist me to proclaim,
To spread through all the earth abroad
The honors of thy name.

Jesus! the name that charms our fears,
That bids our sorrows cease;
'Tis music in the sinner's ears,
'Tis life, and health, and peace.

He breaks the power of canceled sin,
He sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean;
His blood availed for me.

He speaks, and listening to his voice,
New life the dead receive;
The mournful, broken hearts rejoice,
The humble poor believe.

In Christ, your head, you then shall know,
Shall feel your sins forgiv'n;
Anticipate your heaven below,
And own that love is heav'n.

George Whitefield, who found the assurance of his salvation in 1735, joined the zeal of the Wesley brothers in preaching the Gospel where they could find an audience: in the open fields, prisons, to coal miners at the pit heads-most of whom would not find themselves in the Anglican Church. Many Anglican churches were soon closed to the Wesley brothers, and they and their converts were forced to meet outdoors until they could build their own meeting places.

One early Methodist made this comment about Charles:

His preaching at his best was thunder and lightning.

Another, Joseph Williams, commented after hearing Charles preach at Bristol to a crowd of 1,000 people:

He preached about an hour...in such a manner as I have seldom, if ever heard any minister preach; that is, though I have heard many a finer sermon according to the common taste, yet I have scarcely ever heard any minister discover such evident signs of a vehement desire or labour so earnestly to convince his hearers.

There was another aspect of the early Methodist worship service, and that is the singing. A selection of Charles' hymns was first published in 1739. Charles worked with many composers to find just the appropriate tune for his hymns. Many were German chorales, classical and popular melodies, and new psalm tunes. They became popular. Joseph Williams observed:

Never did I hear such praying or such singing. Their singing was not only the most harmonious and delightful I ever heard, but they sang "lustily and with a good courage" ...If there be such a thing as heavenly music upon earth I heard it there.

It became evident that Charles' health would not hold up to the preaching in the manner just described and traveling; he did not have the stamina that John or Whitefield had. He knew that he would have to find a wife and a home. On a trip to Wales, he met Sarah Gwyanne. They were married April 8, 1749 with John officiating. Theirs was rated as the happiest Christian marriage of all time. They settled in Bristol until 1771 when they moved to London.

Charles continued to write hymns. Even while dying, he wrote one last hymn and dedicated it to his wife. He died March 29, 1788. Charles' greatest gift to Methodism was his hymns, and they are regarded as among the finest ever written. It was once said that you could tell when a Methodist was coming by his singing. Charles' hymns formed the basis of the Methodist hymnbooks since that time, and they are still sung all over the world by many Christian denominations.

Last Revised 4/3/2021