Hearts of Praise: Charles Wesley

By Rev. Dr. Patrick Eby Designed by Kory Pence

The way in which Charles Wesley captured our beliefs in song lyrics have comforted and blessed millions through the years.

Whether sung or read as poetry, music lyrics help us express our experience of God. And the outward praise has an effect on our inner thoughts. Over two hundred years ago, Charles Wesley had a special gift of capturing our beliefs in lyrics that people sang when they gathered together and thought about when they were alone with God. They have comforted untold millions in dark hours and blessed them on bright mornings. New believers and seasoned saints still find hope and help in many of Wesley's famous lines. He actually transformed the use of music in worship in England, a change which has ultimately been felt throughout most of the Christian world.

From Psalms to Experience

In their childhood, John and Charles used worship music primarily by singing the Psalms. Music had a limited place in worship. The English Church simply sang Scripture. While on board a ship, they encountered Moravian Christians who impacted not only their faith, but also their view of music. They encountered music that was more expressive of spiritual experience. John wrote a hymnal first, but ultimately it was Charles who wrote over 6,000 hymns that transformed English church music by communicating our personal experience of God.

Hymns as Testimony

Some of Charles’ most popular hymns have been about his conversion, such as “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” and “And Can it Be?” These remind us of the change that is possible in our lives if we put our trust in God. In just a few words, images are inspired that speak of being transformed from hopelessness to new life. In “And Can It Be” he describes a change that finds echoes in the hearts of millions of believers.

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,

Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;

Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—

I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;

My chains fell off, my heart was free,

I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

My chains fell off, my heart was free,

I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

The Nature of God

Charles also had the insight to take Bible stories and place the singer in the story as the main character. One example of this is his use of the story of Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis 32. In Charles’ hymn, the singer is the one who wrestles with God, desiring to know God’s nature and his name. He captures what we feel as we struggle to listen for the voice of God in our lives. God’s gentle answer can be seen in the climactic verse of the hymn. What is God’s nature? What is God’s name? For Charles it was universal love. Knowing that God is love changes everything, including the way we treat other people.

’Tis love, ’tis love! Thou died for me,

I hear thy whisper in my heart.

The morning breaks, the shadows flee:

Pure universal love thou art.

The Christian Year

Charles is also known for songs that we can sing as we move through the Christian year. During Christmas we sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and at Easter, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” One of the most profound collections is his reflections on the birth of Jesus in “Hymns for the Nativity of our Lord.” He expresses mystery in just a few words: “Our God contracted to a span, / Incomprehensibly made man.” He notes the paradox of the Incarnation: “See in that infant’s face / The depths of deity.” His poetry leaves us with awe.

1 Let earth and heaven combine,

Angels and men agree

To praise in songs divine

Th' incarnate deity,

Our God contracted to a span,

Incomprehensibly made man.

2 He laid his glory by,

He wrap'd him in our clay,

Unmark'd by human eye

The latent Godhead lay;

Infant of days he here became,

And bore the lov'd Immanuel's name.

3 See in that infant's face

The depths of deity,

And labour while ye gaze

To sound the mystery:

In vain; ye angels gaze no more,

But fall, and silently adore.


The Lord's Supper and the Trinity

Charles Wesley also used the hymns to help people understand theology. Two examples of this are his “Hymns on the Lord’s Supper” and his “Hymns on the Trinity.”

In both of these collections Charles translates deep theology into just a few words in song. “Hymns on the Lord’s Supper” illustrates the special place Communion has in the life of the Church as Charles describes the deep meaning found in Scripture. It is a way to remember both that Jesus died for us and that we will one day share this meal with Jesus in heaven. Jesus’ sacrifice and his command to serve others challenges us to a life of sacrifice and love. One of the great mysteries is the Trinity. It is God’s revelation of himself to us, but one can get lost trying to explain how three can be one. Charles’ approach is not to explain, but to affirm and glorify. His hymns avow that Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Father are one God. He affirms the three persons in the Trinity and the oneness or unity of God.

We God the Father praise,

We God the Son adore,

The Spirit of holiness

In majesty and power

Equal to both we magnify,

And holy, holy, holy cry!

He hath to us made known

The awful mystery,

The Trinity in One,

And Unity in Three,

And taught the ransom'd sons of men

What angels never could explain.

Beyond our utmost thought,

And reason's proudest flight,

We comprehend him not,

Nor grasp the infinite,

But worship in the mystic Three

One God to all eternity.