Assist Me to Proclaim: The Life and Hymns of Charles Wesley, by John R. Tyson

Assist Me to Proclaim: The Life and Hymns of Charles Wesley, by John R. Tyson. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007. 356 pp. $17.50.

John R. Tyson is currently Visiting Professor of Church History and director of United Methodist Studies at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. He graduated from Grove City College with the Bachelor of Arts and from Asbury Theological Seminary with the Master of Divinity degree. Tyson earned the Master of Philosophy and Doctor of Philosophy degrees from Drew University. He has written and spoken extensively on the life and works of John and Charles Wesley. Dr. Tyson is an Elder and full member of the Upper New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Tyson’s Assist Me to Proclaim: The Life and Hymns of Charles Wesley is the most recent biography on the younger Wesley brother and co-founder of the Methodist movement. Tyson’s biographical work of Charles Wesley posits that Wesley’s reaction to the world around him was to compose poetry for sanctification and praise: “Wesley’s hymns were born of his Christian understanding of life. They were the expression of his poetical muse and his remarkable ability to see all of life as an area of God’s activity and an opportunity to respond in faith and praise” (viii).

The author traces themes throughout Wesley’s life, relating Wesley’s circumstances, growth, and poetic responses. These episodes are not necessarily chronological and often overlap in time. The opening three chapters are the most chronological and inclusive of all events, describing Wesley’s rearing, his schooling, home life, relationships, and religion. These chapters are of primary importance because they lay the foundation via education, relationships, and religion, for how Tyson will frame Wesley’s poetic reaction to the world around him. Chapter one closes as Charles earns his Bachelor of Arts degree and master’s degree from Oxford. Following the first chapter, Tyson launches into the varying facets of Wesley’s life, beginning with his ordination and trip to America. After returning from America and following a great deal of spiritual and physical struggle, Wesley places true faith in God, and he is converted. In chapter four, Tyson highlights major themes in Wesley’s life, including his traveling evangelism, preaching, and teaching ministry. In these chapters that illuminate the ongoing life of Wesley, Tyson describes the many circumstances that are common to most of humanity: sweetness of love, joys of parenthood, sting of controversy, straining of friendships, loyalty to a cause, and art of self-expression.

Tyson’s consistent course of action in his work focuses upon how the events in Wesley’s life moved him to write poetic verse that would be sung. A corresponding theme that recurs is the fact that most of these life experiences are common and easily related to many followers of Christ. Early in the work, Tyson tells of Wesley’s struggles in rugged colonial Georgia ministering to parishioners and how those experiences produced early hymns: “Charles was beginning to see his ministry in Frederica as part of the refining process involved in Christian Discipleship . . . Charles also began writing poetry during these trying months in Frederica” (33). Tyson highlights the personal strain of Wesley’s trip to America and postulates that this experience was a catalyst for hymn development. One of the milestones of Wesley’s life is his conversion in 1738; the author relates the hymn composition that corresponds to this event:

This act of faith and self-commitment took expression in what would become a familiar devotional act for Charles—the writing of a hymn. “At nine,” he wrote, “I began an hymn upon my conversion but was persuaded to break off, for fear of pride. Mr. Bray coming, encouraged me to proceed in spite of Satan. I prayed Christ to stand by me, and finished the hymn.” (48)

The author continues to explain and list hymns that find their genesis in Wesley’s contemplation on his own conversion, personal Bible study, and devotional time. These life experiences enriched Wesley’s own poetic composition and relate to those Christian readers for which the author writes (57). Tyson moves forward with his examination of Wesley’s life by noting the Christian friendships he had and the hymns that were produced as a result of them. Tyson states that “friendship was a fundamental aspect of Charles Wesley’s life and personality. . . . Over the course of more than a decade Charles Wesley wrote fifty-five ‘Hymns for Christian Friends’” (117). Further noting Wesley’s spiritual reaction through poetry to his life experiences, the author reflects on Charles meeting and courting Sally Gwynne and the hymns that flowed from this joyous time in the life of the Methodist leader.

Tyson progresses to assert his view that most of Wesley’s hymns were birthed from common Christian experience when he details Charles as husband and father. Tyson notes, “On September 4, 1749, Charles wrote to his friend Ebenezer Blackwell and quoted part of his first family hymn. It evidences Wesley’s desire to merge the private and professional aspects of his life into a whole fabric of Christian service” (199). Wesley also wrote hymns for birthdays and anniversaries of family and friends. Tyson chronicles the expanse of Wesley’s experiences and emotions as he catalogues the impetus behind such a great body of hymns. He gives an example of the weary Wesley who was weighed down with the threat of separation from the Church of England, stating that “Charles Wesley’s fullest report of the impact of the 1780 conference is encapsulated in a poem. . . . The poem is dipped deep in sadness and disappointment. Its singer is weary of contending against impossible odds, he is tired of being a ‘prophet of ills’” (284). Tyson highlights the experiential struggles of Wesley here; though turbulent and difficult, these types of struggles are common to readers and promote empathy. Tyson uses these instances and a host of others to assert that the themes of Wesley’s life were causes that gave rise to the immense repertoire of poetic texts that he penned.

Tyson’s work is an interesting addition to the body of literature on the subject of Charles Wesley. It is of particular value because of the nature of its composition; it almost functions as an interlinear volume with frequent interjections of hymn texts as the author recounts the major life events of Wesley that surround their composition. Tyson’s writing style is straightforward without the use of technical jargon or extremely scrupulous intricacies of detail. As a result of the format that Tyson uses, layering chapters of episodes of Wesley’s life that often overlapped or were chronologically concurrent, ascertaining the full context of each time period in Wesley’s life proved difficult at times. This work is primarily profitable to readers who are interested in Methodist or Wesleyan studies, students of hymnology, pastors, and lovers of Christian biographies. The work provides many questions for further research in the development of Wesleyan hymns and hymn collections.

Assist Me to Proclaim: The Life and Hymns of Charles Wesley does provide a thorough background on the life of hymn writer and Methodist leader Charles Wesley and the experiential context in which his poetry was composed.

Aaron M. Rice
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Fort Worth, TX

 

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