Music and Charles Wesley’s Legacy

Clarke, Martin V. (2024). Music and Charles Wesley’s Legacy. The Journal of Religious History, Literature and Culture (In Press).


This essay examines the music to which Charles Wesley’s hymns were and are sung, highlighting their multiple roles in forging a collective Methodist identity as well as nurturing individual seekers and adherents. A significant number of his hymns, albeit a small proportion of the estimated nine thousand he wrote, have been widely and continuously sung in worship by Methodists and other Christians in Great Britain and beyond since the eighteenth century. Charles’s hymn texts were written to be sung, whether by the early followers of Methodism in the small group meetings that were integral to the movement’s structure, or in the public worship of the Church of England, which the early Methodist leaders sought to reinvigorate. Most people, within and beyond Methodism, who have encountered Charles Wesley’s religious poetry since the mid-eighteenth century have done so through participating in hymn singing or by hearing others do so.

Drawing on case studies of especially celebrated hymns by Charles, this essay examines the complexity of the relationship between words and music in his hymns. The mood and tone of a hymn can change across its stanzas, while the tune is fixed; on the other hand, a single piece of verse can be twinned with multiple tunes. Charles had a wide-ranging musical education, and this is reflected in the range of metres in which he wrote hymns; he was also a metrical innovator. Some tunes used by early Methodists had their origins in the London theatre, suggesting a contested relationship with the seriousness of the hymns’ message. However, by the early nineteenth century Methodists increasingly sang Charles’s hymns to simple and emphatic tunes, embodying the ‘spirited singing’ for which Methodist congregations were then known. Later in the century, growing Methodist respectability found its reflection in the choice of hymn-tunes, as have—more recently—ecumenical opportunities and tensions. Even today Charles’s words continue to inspire composers working in contemporary idioms, as well as congregations across the world.

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