Amazing Love – The Legacy of Charles Wesley

Whether it is “blue jean” contemporary services, traditional church services with pipe organs, or an informal worship gathering  under trees in a small African village, the words that Charles Wesley wrote in the 1700s are still being sung by and impacting Christians worldwide.

Charles Wesley is often considered less well known than his older brother, John. However both Wesley brothers were ordained ministers and both were writers of hymns.

Charles was the eighteenth child of Samuel and Susannah Wesley born on December 18, 1707 in Epworth, Lincolnshire in England. Susannah provided a rigorous education at home for her 19 children that included Greek, Latin and French. After home education and attending Westminster School, Charles spent nine years at Oxford which further grounded him in the classical languages and literature. While at Oxford, Charles and several classmates which later included John, formed the Holy Club to help the young men lead disciplined Christian lives. They celebrated communion weekly and focused on Bible study, spiritual development, and prison ministry. Because they adhered to a strict regime and set out to methodically fulfill the commands of scripture, they become known as “Methodists.”

Both Charles and John were ordained into Anglican priesthood and they made a trip as missionaries to the colony of Georgia  in 1735. Their efforts were not successful and they returned to England despondent over the experience.

The turning point for Charles came in 1738 when after studying the scriptures he wrote in his diary, “At midnight I gave myself to Christ, assured that I was safe, whether sleeping or waking. I had the continual experience of His power to overcome all temptation, and I confessed with joy and surprise that He was able to do exceedingly abundantly far more above what I can ask or think. ” Later he journaled, “I now found myself at peace with God and rejoice in hope of loving Christ.”

Two days after Charles’ personal salvation experience he wrote in his journal that he was writing a new hymn. It is thought that the hymn he wrote at that time was Amazing Love or And Can It Be that I Should Gain.

And can it be that I should gain

An interest in the Savior’s blood?

Died He for me, who caused His pain—

For me, who Him to death pursued?

Amazing love! How can it be,

That Thou, my God, should die for me?

Amazing love! How can it be,

That Thou, my God, should die for me?

The hymn is based on Acts 16:26 which is the story of Paul and Silas being flogged and imprisoned in Phillippi. At midnight, as Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns, the earth rumbled with an earthquake. The  prison doors flew open and prisoner’s chains fell off. Although they were no longer bound, Paul and Silas stayed in the prison and ministered to the Roman jailer and were later released by the magistrate. It is thought that Charles, in looking back on his previous life, felt as if his life had been shaken by the experience with Christ and, through Christ, he was released from the “chains” holding him in bondage. Charles wrote of these feelings in the fourth verse.

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.

Three days after Charles’ conversion experience, John also found his heart “strangely warmed” in a meeting-house on Aldersgate Street in London. He described his conversion in his journal, “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface  to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.”  The two brothers began traveling throughout England to preach the gospel. Not welcome in the churches, they took their ministry outside preaching to groups of 10,000-25,000.

Those were not easy years for either brother. One entry in the diary of John Wesley reads:

“Friday, March 10.—I rode once more to Pensford at the earnest request of serious people. The place where they desired me to preach was a little green spot near the town. But I had no sooner begun than a great company of rabble, hired (as we afterwards found) for that purpose, came furiously upon us, bringing a bull, which they had been baiting, and now strove to drive in among the people. But the beast was wiser than his drivers and continually ran either on one side of us or the other, while we quietly sang praise to God and prayed for about an hour.” 

Charles’ journal notes many of the same trials and tribulations in his ministry.

“Wed., July 31st. I expounded Isal. xxxii. l, 2, to a quiet, attentive congregation, who constantly attend, about two hundred of whom seem more and more to know their wants. At night I laid the axe to the root, and showed them their actual and original corruption from Rev. iii. 17: “Thou sayest, I am rich and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.” The strong man was disturbed in his palace, and roared on every side. My strength increased with the opposition. A gentleman on horseback gnashed upon me with his teeth; but my voice prevailed, and they retreated to their strong hold, the alehouse. There with difficulty they procured some butchers to appear in their quarrel; yet they had no commission to approach till I had done. Then in the last hymn they made up to the table with great fury. The foremost often lifted up his stick to strike me, being within his reach; but he was not permitted. I stayed to pray for them, and walked quietly to my lodgings…I am persuaded more good has been done to-night, than by any of my former discourses. The concern and love of the people for me is much increased by my supposed danger. We joined together in prayer and thanksgiving, as usual, and I slept in peace.”

It is reported that the passages below are from John’s diary but that could not be verified by a search of the diary but the sentiments seem to sum up the experience of both John and Charles as they traveled England.

Sunday p.m., May 5, preached at St. John’s, deacons said, “Get out and stay out.”

Sunday a.m., May 12, preached at St. Jude’s, can’t go back there either.

Sunday p.m., May 12, preached at St. George’s, kicked out again.

Sunday a.m., May 19, preached at St. somebody else’s, deacons called special meeting and said I couldn’t return.

Sunday p.m., May 19, preached on the street, kicked off the street.

Sunday a.m., May 26, preached in meadow, chased out of meadow as a bull was turned loose during the services.

Sunday a.m., June 2, preached out at the edge of town, kicked off the highway.

Sunday p.m., June 2, afternoon service, preached in a pasture, 10,000 people came to hear me.

After spending several years as an itinerant preacher, Charles settled in Bristol in 1756 and preached locally and in London. Charles was a writer of verse for all of his adult life and became the most prolific and skilled hymn writer in English history.  Over his life he wrote 9,000 poems, 27,000 stanzas and 180,000 lines. His songs include some of the most widely sung hymns of today such as, O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing, Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, Jesus, Lover of My Soul,  Hark the Herald Angels Sing. What would Christmas be without, Joy to the World or Easter without Christ the Lord is Risen Today?

The Christian church is blessed by the legacy of the hymns of Charles Wesley which speak to new believers, contemporary musicians, “seasoned” Christians and traditional liturgical services. As we lift our voices in song with words that were written 250 years ago, lets give thanks for the gifts and labor of Charles Wesley and join him in proclaiming…

My chains fell off, my heart was free,

I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

And Can It Be That I Should Gain (Amazing Love)

Charles Wesley (1738)

And can it be that I should gain

An interest in the Savior’s blood?

Died He for me, who caused His pain—

For me, who Him to death pursued?

Amazing love! How can it be,

That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

Amazing love! How can it be,

That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

(verse 2)

’Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies:

Who can explore His strange design?

In vain the firstborn seraph tries

To sound the depths of love divine.

’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,

Let angel minds inquire no more.

’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore;

Let angel minds inquire no more.

(verse 3)

He left His Father’s throne above

So free, so infinite His grace—

Emptied Himself of all but love,

And bled for Adam’s helpless race:

’Tis mercy all, immense and free,

For O my God, it found out me!

’Tis mercy all, immense and free,

For O my God, it found out me!

(verse 4)

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.

(verse 5)

Still the small inward voice I hear,

That whispers all my sins forgiven;

Still the atoning blood is near,

That quenched the wrath of hostile Heaven.

I feel the life His wounds impart;

I feel the Savior in my heart.

I feel the life His wounds impart;

I feel the Savior in my heart.

(verse 6)

No condemnation now I dread;

Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;

Alive in Him, my living Head,

And clothed in righteousness divine,

Bold I approach th’eternal throne,

And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

Bold I approach th’eternal throne,

And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

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