Charles Wesley’s works amassed online

Charles Wesley

The Rev. Randy Maddox has tracked down, read, scrutinized and collected every one of the thousands of hymns and verses written by Charles Wesley (1707-1788), one of history’s greatest hymn writers and co-founder, along with his brother John, of the Methodist movement.

Now, Dr. Maddox is eager to share them with the rest of the world.

In February, the Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition at Duke Divinity School completed a five-year project which makes publically available, online, all of Charles Wesley’s hymns and verses.

The website, http://divinity.duke.edu/initiatives-centers/cswt/wesley-texts, offers two collections: one of Charles Wesley’s published material, and another of his manuscripts, some of which were never published.

“Combined, these two collections comprise every poem or hymn that can be traced with some confidence to the pen of Charles Wesley,” said Dr. Maddox, who is William Kellon Quick Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Duke Divinity.

A newly-completed online collection contains “every poem or hymn that can be traced with some confidence to the pen of Charles Wesley,” according to the Rev. Randy L. Maddox, professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Duke Divinity School. COURTESY DUKE UNIVERSITY

Not only is the “CW collection” proving a valuable repository for scholarly research, it’s aiding a project that could bring even more of Charles Wesley’s words to life for modern Christians.

Until now, scholars looking to access Charles Wesley’s entire body of work largely relied on 13 volumes edited by George Osborn in the 19th century. While the set represented a “herculean effort in its time,” according to Dr. Maddox, Osborn’s version is hard to find, incomplete, inaccurate in places and only partially indexed.

With the online version, scholars “have everything in one place, it’s all freely accessible, and it’s more accurate,” said Dr. Maddox. If printed, the online CW collection would likely comprise about 15 volumes.

By making the collection free, Dr. Maddox hopes it will become a resource for students and scholars at Methodist schools around the world, including those with limited libraries.

Users may download the texts (they’re in PDF format) and search Charles Wesley’s entire body of work by way of a word search (for example, looking for all of Wesley’s references to the word “humility”) or through an index of first lines of the hymns.

Many Christians are familiar with Charles Wesley’s hymns: About 15-20 are still widely used in churches of various denominations. In the United Methodist Hymnal, he’s credited as the author of more than 60 hymns, poems and responses.

However, thanks in part to this newly-completed online collection, Charles Wesley’s hymns could become familiar to even more Christians. Lester Ruth, research professor of Christian worship at Duke Divinity, says composers are turning to the website as part of an ongoing grassroots project of “re-tuning” classic texts of hymns to make them more accessible to modern worshippers. Composer Bruce Benedict of Raleigh, N.C., for example, is writing new tunes for some of Wesley’s more obscure texts, and frequently cites the online CW collection on his blog at http://cardiphonia.org.

Dr. Ruth, who is president of the Charles Wesley Society, also used the online collection to access texts by Charles Wesley that don’t have any tunes associated with them. He commissioned musicians to write tunes for those texts, and four or five will debut, with new musical settings, when the society gathers for its next annual meeting in Nashville, Tenn., in October.

“It’s great to be able to tell composers that there’s one place you can go to access all of Charles Wesley’s hymnody, and it’s free,” Dr. Ruth said.

Painstaking process 

The collection was assembled in a painstaking, five-year process which involved gathering the materials and comparing original manuscripts and various editions of Charles Wesley’s published works. Dr. Maddox traveled to the Methodist Archives and Research Center in Manchester, England, obtaining copies of original manuscripts, as well as to the John Wesley House in London and the archives at Drew University.

A transcription of this untitled funeral hymn, written by Charles Wesley, is available in the online collection.

In some places, the online version shows Charles Wesley’s creative process—indicating where he wrote one word, then crossed it out and wrote another. “You can see him writing and then changing his mind,” said Dr. Maddox.

Aileen Maddox, Dr. Maddox’s wife, transcribed many of the materials and became adept at understanding Charles Wesley’s handwriting. Thankfully, his penmanship was good, making her job easier.

“Charles was very precise, and his handwriting was the same,” Aileen Maddox said.

The collection also includes materials that were originally written in a form of shorthand developed by John Byrom, which both John and Charles Wesley learned at Oxford and used to save time and paper. For those passages, the collection drew on earlier transcriptions by Oliver Beckerlegge and S T Kimbrough Jr. (In deciphering the shorthand, Dr. Maddox also credits the aid of Timothy Underhill, an expert in John Byrom shorthand, and Richard Heitzenrater, an expert in the use of this shorthand by John and Charles Wesley.)

While the section on the website with Wesley’s “manuscript verse” includes many that Charles Wesley did not publish during his lifetime, most were published after his death, either in the 13-volume collection by Osborn or in a  three-volume set of The Unpublished Poetry of Charles Wesley by S T Kimbrough and Oliver Beckerlegge.

Personal glimpse 

Visitors who surf the CW collection will also glean interesting insights into Charles Wesley’s personal life. Two manuscript collections, “Courtship” and “Deliberative Hymns,” show how he wrestled, in verse, over whether to marry Sarah Gwynne, or to stay on the road as an itinerant preacher. One poem expresses fear of making the wrong choice, then confidence that God would show the way: “Surely, Lord, the Fear is vain;/Thou art Merciful and True,/Thou shalt make thy Counsel plain,/Thou shalt teach me what to do.”

Charles did eventually marry Sarah Gwynne, and the collection includes many unpublished works relating to their family life, ranging from the poignant—hymns written for Sarah as the couple mourned the death of their first son—to the whimsical, such as “On a battle of cats,” an ode to the family pet.

“There are a number of [writings] that Charles chose not to publish, but they’re very important if you’re trying to understand him as a person,” said Dr. Maddox.

The CW collection also illuminates disagreements between Charles and John.

“Like all brothers, there are times when they really go at each other,” said Dr. Maddox.

For example, Charles was much more adamant than John about remaining within the authority of the Church of England. So in 1784, after Thomas Coke followed John Wesley’s instructions and ordained Francis Asbury as co-superintendent of the American church, Charles Wesley wrote this bit of doggerel, expressing his displeasure: “A Roman emperor, ’tis said,/His favourite horse a consul made:/But Coke brings greater things to pass—/He makes a bishop of an ass.”

Value of collection

Dr. Maddox hopes that, in addition to scholars, clergy and lay people will use the collection as well. Because Charles Wesley wrote hymns on a wide range of Scripture passages, his works could aid in Bible study, personal devotion or sermon preparation.

In fact, Dr. Maddox’s own daughter is using the online collection in all three ways. The Rev. Erin Maddox McPhee, pastor of Pioneer Memorial UMC in Independence, Calif., turns often to the online collection for personal devotions and to find quotes for her church’s weekly worship bulletin. While preparing a recent sermon on the Psalms, Dr. McPhee searched the online collection and found a stanza of poetry that encapsulated a point she wanted to make.

“There are times when [Charles Wesley] is able to explain what I am trying to say better than I can,” she said.

Those searching for relevant material will find that the range of topics that Charles Wesley covered is vast. Shortly after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011, Mr. Benedict posted Charles Wesley’s “Earthquake Hymns” on his website. The hymns had been written over 250 years ago—following a 1750 quake in London—yet proved eerily apt: “Far into the ocean hurled,/Lo! We stand secure in God,/Amidst a ruined world.”

Wesley’s work remains relevant because it’s more than just good poetry, according to the Rev. Paul Chilcote, professor of historical theology & Wesleyan studies at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, Ohio.

“Charles Wesley’s hymns are packed with Scripture and theology,” he said. “They’re an amazing reservoir in terms of Wesleyan theology.”

While John Wesley is better known as the co-founder of Methodism, Dr. Chilcote believes that United Methodists are likely to know Charles’ words more intimately. When speaking at churches, he likes to ask, “How many of you have read a sermon of John Wesley?” Usually one or two hands will go up. But when he asks, “How many of you have sung ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,’ or ‘O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing’?” virtually everyone responds with a raised hand.

That’s why the Charles Wesley Collection represents such an important resource, Dr. Chilcote says—because Charles’ hymns were formative in the Wesleyan movement.

“Early Methodists learned their theology by singing it,” he said. “Having this corpus of material just gives us a much better sense of who we are and who Methodists have been in their history.”

 

mjacobs@umr.org

 

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This is good, I will volunteer to translate this into my Shona Language , if permitted.

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