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Assist me to Proclaim – A Review by Robert Oliver

Category Book Reviews
Date September 12, 2008

Assist me to Proclaim: The Life and Hymns of Charles Wesley

By John R. Tyson
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan and Cambridge, UK; 2007
356 pp, pbk, £12.99.
ISBN: 978 0 80282 939 9

This biography which is based on careful research of Charles Wesley’s life helpfully brings him out from under the shadow of his older brother John. It is well written and Mr Tyson is clearly an expert on Wesley’s hymns and poetry. He brings together these writings with significant episodes in the writer’s life.

Charles Wesley’s fame as a hymn writer has ensured that he continues to be held in high esteem by Christians, but it is John whose name is generally recalled by historians. Mr Tyson traces the relationship between the two brothers, which was not always easy. Both were passionate evangelists and played a significant part in the eighteenth century Revival. Both were Arminian in their theology, but were not in complete agreement in their understanding of the doctrine of sanctification. Their perfectionism meant that they deviated from Reformed orthodoxy. Both men were ordained ministers of the Church of England, but while John was prepared to risk his relationship with the Church authorities by ordaining men to the Christian ministry, Charles considered such action as presumptuous and schismatic. John’s action created a serious strain on relations between them. John also found it difficult to understand how the demands of family and a constitution not as robust as his own prevented Charles from sharing the same demanding schedule of travel and preaching. John seems to have believed that fresh air and exercise cured every ill. Although Charles continued to preach in the London Wesleyan chapels he moved out of the leadership of the Methodist movement.

Like John, Charles was a convinced Arminian and was ready to use his poetic gifts to attack Calvinism in verse described by George Whitefield as ‘bad and rash’. Over the years his passion for the knowledge and love of God has transcended the theological divide with the result that his hymns are valued by many Calvinists as well as by Arminians. Perhaps these compositions are the most enduring and valuable legacy of this remarkable family.

John Tyson excels in researching the details of Charles Wesley’s life, but at times his presentation of the English background is confused. For example, it is not true to say that under English law, the monarch was deemed ‘the Head of the Church of Christ on earth’, p.2. The statement that the activity of Archbishop Laud was ‘in reaction to the Calvinistic Puritan theology of the “Protectorate”‘, p. 99, is inaccurate and misleading. Laud had been executed half a decade before the Protectorate can be considered to have begun. Such blemishes aside, this book presents an important and helpful picture of Charles Wesley.

Robert W. Oliver is Lecturer in Church History and Historical Theology at London Theological Seminary

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