And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:8-10)
Charles Wesley was born in 1707 in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England, the 18th child of Samuel and Susana Wesley. His father was a rector in the Church of England, and his mother’s father was a minister as well. Susana in particular had a profound influence on her children: in each case, the day after their fifth birthday, they began schooling under her instruction. They were expected to learn the alphabet by the end of the first day. All of the children learned Greek and Latin as well as the traditional classical studies.
More importantly, she educated them spiritually. She taught all of them to read primarily using Scripture as the textbook. On one occasion, Susana and Samuel were separated for over a year due to a dispute they were having. She wrote to her estranged husband, I am a woman, but I am also the mistress of a large family…in your long absence I cannot but look upon every soul you leave under my charge as a talent committed to me under a trust. I am not a man nor a minister, yet as a mother and a mistress I felt I ought to do more than I had yet done. I resolved to begin with my own children…I take such a proportion of time as I can spare every night to discourse with each child apart.
Charles took these lessons to heart. He attended Oxford University, where he and some likeminded students formed a prayer group in 1727. Two years later his older brother, John, joined, quickly becoming the leader of the club. They primarily focused on Bible study and living holy lives. Other students mocked them, calling them the “Holy Club” or “Methodists” because of their systematic study and disciplined lifestyle.
After graduating, Charles was ordained in the Church of England. He and John went on a mission to the American colonies to evangelize Native Americans in Georgia. This was unsuccessful, and the Wesleys returned to England after less than a year. John and their friend and fellowmember of the Holy Club, George Whitefield, soon began to preach in the outdoors to ordinary people in urban areas, sparking a great spiritual revival in England.
Charles contributed primarily by beginning to write hymns. In total, he composed some 6,500 over the course of his life. While many of those have, of course, faded into obscurity, it is remarkable how many are timeless classics: “Soldiers of Christ, Arise,” “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing” and “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” among others. Convinced that, as Paul put it, we are teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Colossians 3:16), he utilized these to instruct the crowds in London, Liverpool, and Birmingham every bit as much as the preaching did.
We normally think of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” as a Christmas carol. But like so many hymns written by Wesley, it is full of biblical doctrine in nearly every line. The first verse tells the story of the angels’ announcement to the shepherds watching their flocks. But consider the verses you have probably heard but not given too much thought to, because we do not know them so well:
Christ, by highest heav’n adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord:
Late in time behold him come,
Offpsring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail th’incarnate Deity!
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel!
Hail the heav’nborn Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris’n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Here we have such important truths as the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, and the resurrection taught. Wesley’s hymns are not only beautiful and stirring; they educate and edify, as all hymns should. May we all give greater attention to the words that we sing in our worship to God.