Hymns & Hymn Writers: And Can It Be

It would be hard to quantify the full effect two brothers had on the spread of the gospel in 18th-century England.The entire world has been spiritually improved by the words and works of John and Charles Wesley.

Samuel and Susanna Wesley lived in significant poverty, but their lives, and that of their family’s, were rich in the things of God. Samuel was a preacher, faithful to God in his ministry and preaching. Susanna was a faithful mother to their children – all 17 of them. She trained and taught them, until they were old enough to go away to school. She had a simple set of rules under which she brought up her children in the fear of the Lord: subdue self-will in a child, and thus work together with God to be a help in the saving of his soul; teach him to pray as soon as he could speak; give him nothing he cries for and only what is good for him if he asks for it politely; to prevent lying, punish no fault which is freely confessed, but never allow a rebellious, sinful act to go unnoticed; commend and reward good behavior; and strictly observe all the promises you have made to your child.

Charles went away to school when he was eight years old. He was a brilliant scholar, and earned his M. A. degree by age 22. He then became a college tutor at Oxford. When this was completed, he left for America, with his brother John, but they did not stay, and returned home to England. Even with all of his religious training, Charles could not preach the gospel, for he was not yet saved.

Soon after their return, he was stricken with a serious illness, and was convicted of his spiritual need before a holy God. He was saved by God’s grace on May 20, 1738, at the age of 31. He wrote his first hymn shortly after his conversion.

In the remaining 50 years of his life, he wrote over 6000 hymns and songs of praise. He and his brother John published 39 volumes of hymns and poetry together.

The two brothers traveled the English countryside, preaching and singing the glorious gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. They reached rural farmers and illiterate coal miners, and had a heart to bring the gospel to those who would never attend religious services. They did this for many years, covering over a quarter of a million miles, and saw an untold number of souls saved for eternity.

The common themes of Charles’ hymns were the grace and mercy of God, His redeeming power, and the work of the cross. Some of his more well-known hymns include Christ the Lord is Risen Today, Jesus, Lover of My Soul, Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing, and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. He paraphrased the Psalms, and put them into poetry as hymns. He was one of the first to introduce the Lord Jesus into these “Psalm-hymns,” and took criticism for this, even from his own siblings. His hymns have stood time’s test, and he was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1995, 207 years after his death.

The influence of the Wesley brothers upon the gospel in England, has been memorialized. One wrote “John set the country weeping, Charles set it singing; those tears of bitter repentance, and those songs of plenteous redemption were the outward and visible evidence of the mightiest spiritual surge in the nation’s experience. This movement, that brought new life to the world in the 18th century, stands crystallized in the throbbing verse of Charles Wesley.”

Charles wrote hymns and poems into his 80s. Shortly before his death, he dictated these final words to his wife, and entitled it “A Last Wish.”

In age and feebleness extreme,
Who shall a feeble worm redeem?
Jesus! My only hope Thou art,
Strength of my failing flesh and heart.
O could I catch one smile from Thee,
And drop into eternity!

His best-known hymn echoes his favorite themes – the redeeming grace of God extended to a lost captive and an unworthy sinner, but which lifted him to the lofty place of the very presence of God. These words will never grow old. How many times have they touched our hearts, and captivated our souls!

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?

‘Tis mystery all! The Immortal dies;
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the first-born seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine;
‘Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.

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!

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.

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 the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ, my own.

Contrast these words with some of the more modern hymns and songs of praise, and the latter will pale in comparison. These words are part of us, and for many, have been since our earliest childhood.

We should be grateful to God, Who saved such a man, and gifted him with such an amazing ability to put the gospel of His grace into such lasting hymns. We close this, borrowing a few lines from another of Charles Wesley’s gems:

He breaks the power of canceled sin;
He sets the prisoner free –

His blood can make the foulest clean –
His blood availed for me.