Methodist Church

Journals reveal more to Charles Wesley than just hymns

MANCHESTER – Journals written by Charles Wesley almost 300 years ago are revealing new insights into a man best known for his prolific hymn-writing and for being the younger brother of Methodism founder John Wesley.

For instance, he was occasionally critical of his older brother, frequently discouraged and sometimes worried about what awaits him on “the other side of the grave”.

Sections of the journals, written in an obscure 18th-Century shorthand and deemed “sensitive in nature”, had been omitted from previously published editions.

These omissions include criticism of John such as one shorthand entry dated Jan 13, 1751, in which Charles wrote: “Heard my brother exhort the society. I thought he misspent his strength in trifles.”

Other “questionable material”, although not written in shorthand, was also omitted from previous editions because past editors “cleaned up Charles’ act”, said the Rev Dr S. T. Kimbrough Jr, a research fellow at the Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition at Duke Divinity School.

“He wrote in terse, shotgun kinds of sentences, without the flowery oratory that John uses,” explained the Rev Dr Kimbrough, a United Methodist and expert on Charles Wesley. Past editors cleaned it up and made it all seem beautiful, he said.

News that the shorthand sections have been decoded and published has been reported in many of Britain’s national newspapers and resulted in an Aug 29 report on the BBC’s major morning radio news programme.

The work, which is more akin to transcription than decoding, has been carried out by a group of scholars on both sides of the Atlantic under the auspices of the Charles Wesley Society.

Wesley is not the only one of his contemporaries to use this shorthand, created by poet John Byrom in the mid- 1700s. However, Wesley invented his own adaptations and shortcuts, making the painstaking task of transcription even more challenging.

Involved with the transcription project since its inception, the Rev Dr Kimbrough noted that unlike the previous editions of the journals, “what we have is really what Charles Wesley wrote”.

The original journals are held at the Methodist Archives and Research Centre in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, some 320 km north of London. The library holds the world’s largest collection of manuscripts related to Charles Wesley as well as other members and close associates of the Wesley family.

Charles’ journals proved a real “page turner” at times, said British scholar Kenneth Newport, who played a major part in transcribing them.

During nine years of working on the journals, he was most surprised by the extent to which Charles was frequently “down in the dumps about things”. At times, Charles even wrote that he wished he were dead, then admitted he was worried about what awaited him on “the other side of the grave”.

“He is doubting his own eternity, but then, of course, he writes things that take him to the other end of the spiritual spectrum,” said Prof Newport, who is Professor of Christian Thought at Liverpool Hope University.

Prof Newport became skilled in Byrom shorthand when transcribing Charles Wesley’s sermons for publication in 2001. About half of those sermons were written in shorthand.

Charles also used shorthand in journal entries when reflecting on the disappointment of his failed ministry in Georgia and his strained relationship with John over the issue of marriage. Charles recorded that he was “thunderstruck” to hear of John’s plans to marry in 1771. On a different occasion, he was deeply annoyed when John deemed a US$200 annual stipend to help Charles support his new wife, Sarah Gwen, as unaffordable for Methodism.

His journals make clear that Charles was against the move in Methodism to separate from the Church of England. According to Prof Newport, he had a “dog-eared refusal to contemplate” such a move for sacramental reasons as well as those of church authority. These are deep convictions that Prof Newport said still have implications today in Britain, where Anglicans and Methodists are engaged in “unity talks” about closer cooperation between the two denominations.

Mr Robert Williams, head of the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History, said Charles Wesley has “lived in John’s shadow all these years” – recognised for his hymns and then “shunted off to the side”.

Called the poet of the Methodist movement, Charles wrote thousands of hymns, many of which are still a vital part of Christian worship around the world. The list includes “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”, “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”.

“These journals give us a greater appreciation of Charles Wesley as more than just a hymn writer,” Mr Williams said. – United Methodist News Service.

Kathleen LaCamera is a United Methodist News Service correspondent based in England.