How Charles Wesley’s Understanding of God’s Love Was Reflected in His Marriage

Christians love to talk about marriage and babies, and sometimes even sex. But our earthly loves—the intimacy of bodies built on friendship and romantic affection—are so often described as little more than a physical means to a spiritual end. When we compare our earthly loves to eternity, the significance of embodied life seems little more than a temporary good, paling in comparison to the glories of a future hope.

Still more confusing, consider those puzzling words of Jesus on the hallowed institution: “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30).

Is there any good in romantic love? The great Methodist preacher Charles Wesley—in a little-known letter to his wife—provides a fresh reminder of the power of romantic affection to shape us for good both here and in the hereafter.

The “Lesser” Wesley

Accounts of the great evangelical revival of the 18th century often neglect the life and thought of Charles Wesley (1707–1788). He wrote well over 7,000 hymns, but his older brother John has almost always been honored as the greater of the two men. Even as a child, Charles tended to be sickly, and illness plagued him for much of his life.

Yet Charles was raised in the same home as his brother John, listening to their father, Samuel Wesley Sr., preach in the Epworth church in Lincolnshire, England. Charles, likewise, learned under the tutelage of their assiduous mother, Susanna, who guided the children in their earliest years and taught them the basics of Christian belief and practice.

At Oxford, Charles was initially rather indifferent to matters of faith. After a year of study, however, he recognized the need to set new patterns. Charles began to take the religious life more seriously, celebrated the Lord’s Supper weekly, and convinced a few of his friends to accompany him in the process.

These newly acquired habits garnered the attention of fellow students, and they began to call Charles and his circle of friends “Methodists” derisively for their devotion. If the origins of Methodism can be traced back to Charles Wesley, then the inspiration for their “Holy Club” was love of God expressed in friendship with others.

Charles welcomed his brother John into the group and encouraged him to help administer it when he returned to Oxford as a fellow. Make no mistake: John’s administrative skill proved essential to the growth of what quickly blossomed into a movement, first in Britain and then around the world. In those early days at Oxford, their small group began to study classics of Western spirituality by Thomas à Kempis, Jeremy Taylor, William Law, and Henry Scougal.

When John suggested that the brothers serve as missionaries in Georgia across the Atlantic, Charles agreed, was quickly ordained, and set out with John across the ocean for Georgia. But life in Georgia proved far more challenging than either of the Wesleys expected. Charles’s health failed, while John attempted to impose a rigid discipline (and experienced a bad breakup with a young lady in Savannah to boot). Soon, the brothers sheepishly returned to London with considerable doubts about their own faith.

Converted by Love

John Wesley’s subsequent “conversion” at Aldersgate Street in London is well known, but fewer realize that Charles experienced his own “heart strangely warmed” experience only a few days before. On Pentecost Sunday (“Whitsunday”), May 21, 1738, Charles attained what might alternately be called a deepening of faith, a new birth, and an assurance of God’s love that helped launch one of the great revivals in modern Christianity.

As he lay sick in bed, Charles experienced what he described as a new “Pentecost.” He heard the voice of a woman, calling out to him: “In the Name of Jesus of Nazareth, arise, and believe, and thou shalt be healed of all thy infirmities.” Charles records in his journal: “The words struck me to the heart.” In a moment, Charles, with “strange palpitation of heart,” declared “I believe, I believe!”

Three days before John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience, Charles beat John to the punch. He came to recognize the love of God in the presence of the Spirit, dispelling the darkness of doubt from his heart. The event was so moving that he later memorialized the day in one of the great hymns in Christian history, “For the Anniversary Day of One’s Conversion,” more popularly known as “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing.”

In fact, the hymns of Charles Wesley are replete with references to love. At Easter, Christians around the world repeat the words of his most famous composition, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” and declare “Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!” Elsewhere Charles praises “Love divine, all loves excelling” and honors God’s great and “universal love.”

Charles believed that love was at the heart of the gospel. While his brother caused controversy for teaching that “perfect” love could be known in an instantaneous blessing, Charles emphasized the gradual process whereby a Christian grows in a pilgrimage of faith.

For Charles, the new birth initiated a journey. According to his leading biographer, John Tyson, Charles Wesley looked for the complete realization of perfect love at the end of a life lived from grace to grace through suffering.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today, by Jeffrey W. Barbeau