New book presents Charles Wesley letters
New book presents Charles Wesley letters
A UMNS Interview by Sam Hodges*
Scholars say the new book, "The Letters of Charles Wesley," which includes transcriptions of letters such as this one, sheds much-needed light on a crucial early figure of Methodism. Web-only photo courtesy of the University of Manchester.
In transcribing Charles Wesley’s letters, Gareth Lloyd not only had to learn an 18th century form of shorthand, he also had to crack the code of Wesley’s idiosyncratic abbreviations.
A decade of editing labor by Lloyd and Kenneth G.C. Newport has yielded a new book called “The Letters of Charles Wesley, with Introduction and Notes: Volume 1 (1728-1756).” The British scholars are working on the second and concluding volume.
The project pulls together, for the first time, a complete, annotated collection of Wesley’s correspondence.
Volume 1, published by Oxford University Press, is 528 pages, and retails for an alarming $225. However, the Rev. Robert Williams, top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History, calls it an “extraordinary work of research and editing.” Williams contends the letters offer crucial new insight into Wesley, who enjoys a golden reputation as hymn writer (“Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”) but has been eclipsed by his brother, John Wesley, in accounts of Methodism’s founding.
Lloyd, 51, is curator in charge of Methodist manuscript and archival collections at the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester in England. Below are Lloyd's recent responses to questions about the work.
What drew you to Charles Wesley?
In 1990, I was appointed archivist for the Methodist collections at the John Rylands Library. I had been aware of Charles Wesley as a hymn writer, but was ignorant of other aspects of his life. One of my first tasks at the library was to catalog his papers, including his letters. I became fascinated by the fact that even though Charles was possibly the greatest hymn writer that the Christian church has produced, other aspects of his ministry have been largely neglected, despite the fact that he was one of the principal early leaders of the great Evangelical Revival.
In working with the papers, I discovered that Charles was a truly fascinating man with many dimensions. His personality leaps from the page in prose that crackles with wit and exuberance. He was possessed of great intellect, spiritual depth and strength of character; yet, he was also subject to deep depression and emotional outbursts. The correspondence charts his life in vivid detail as a poverty-stricken Oxford undergraduate, missionary in Georgia, persecuted itinerant preacher and devoted middle-aged family man. It was an exciting story told in Charles’ own words and one that provided new insights into the birth of Methodism and the evangelical movement as well as the society in which Charles lived and worked.
How would you summarize the scholarly re-evaluation of Charles that is going on?
Charles Wesley is known for such hymns as “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” but had a huge role, with brother John, in starting the Methodist movement. A web-only portrait courtesy of the University of Manchester.
In the 1990s, scholarship (and the Methodist Church) started to look anew at Charles Wesley. This upsurge in interest bore fruit in the appearance of a number of primary text editions of previously unpublished verse, sermons, journals and now, finally, his letters. Prior to this point, Charles Wesley scholars had been severely handicapped by lack of access to relevant and accurate texts. New studies of Charles Wesley have now started to appear — from a collection of scholarly articles to celebrate the tercentenary of his birth in 2007 to my own monograph “Charles Wesley and the Struggle for Methodist Identity” published in the same year.
I see my principal contribution as being one of facilitating other people’s research. As the custodian of the Charles Wesley papers at the John Rylands Library, I am in an ideal position to promote and provide access to the texts. At the same time, I have been privileged to be able to add my own voice to the debate. There are many articles and books that can and should be written. For example, we do not have a comprehensive modern biography of Charles Wesley that takes account of the primary text editions that are now available.
Why are his letters just now being published in a comprehensive way?
Charles was, for many years, a controversial figure. (Because he was) a staunch champion of the link between Methodism and the parent Anglican Church, his convictions ran counter to opinion within the 19th-century church leadership, which found his loyalty to the Anglicans something of an embarrassment. Also, he could be fiercely outspoken; his letters contain many critical comments of other Methodists, including his brother John Wesley. This aspect of his character did not sit well with Victorian sensibilities, and the letters that were published were often censored. In my opinion, Methodist scholarship has focused too much on the person of John Wesley — his contribution has overshadowed that of his contemporaries in the early Revival, and his brother Charles is the greatest (but not the only) casualty of that preoccupation.
Finally, there is the sheer quantity of material: approximately 700 letters scattered in institutions around the world. The majority (approximately three-quarters) is in the John Rylands Library, but important parts of the collection can also be found in other special collections repositories, particularly in the United States.
How did you and Professor Newport divide the labor?
Newport was the overall project lead. As the archivist in charge of the main collection of Charles Wesley letters, I was the obvious person to have responsibility for the transcriptions. Newport had the task of tracking down the location of material, liaison with the publisher and initiating contact with other institutions that had Charles Wesley letters. We shared the task of annotating the correspondence and writing the introductory chapters. We were also assisted in aspects of the work by colleagues, particularly Ursula Leahy of Liverpool Hope University, who coordinated the conversion of the raw text into the publisher’s house style and quality checked the draft.
What kind of shorthand did Charles Wesley use, and how did you learn it?
Excerpt from a letter written by Charles Wesley to his wife, Sarah, on March 17, 1750, from London.
My dearest, dearest friend,
Grace & peace be multiplied upon you, & yours. One letter in a week does not half satisfy me under y[ou]r absence. I count the days since we parted, & those still between us, & our next meeting. Yet I dare not promise myself the certain blessing. So many are the evils & accidents of life. Accidents, I sh[oul]d not call them, for God orders all things in heaven & earth. Who knows his will concerning this wicked city?
Charles Wesley and his brother used the shorthand system devised by their friend, John Byrom. Mastering the text was not a major difficulty, as a published shorthand manual exists; however, there is also a code within the shorthand. For example, in Charles Wesley’s shorthand letters, the following abbreviation sometimes appears “TMB,” which stands for “To my brother.” Even if one can read the shorthand, being able to decipher the “code” is dependent on intimate knowledge of Charles Wesley’s life, and acquiring that knowledge only comes with time.
Other transcription challenges?
The correspondence was quite simply a text editor’s nightmare. The biggest single problem is that the overwhelming majority of the letters are not dated. When dealing with so many individual texts, this meant that hundreds of individual letters had to be dated, based on internal evidence and cross-referencing with other manuscript sources, such as the journal of John Wesley.
To be able to date a Charles Wesley letter involves intimate knowledge on the part of the editor, not only of Charles Wesley’s life, but also of his family and friends and of the society in which he lived.
The textual issues were the main reasons it took so long for Volume 1 to be published. Volume 2 will not take as long because we now have an established methodology, and the editors’ knowledge of the collection and subject is vastly improved.
Describe the man who emerges in this first volume.
Charles was a conflicted and contradictory personality — courageous and insecure; generous and judgmental; loyal but possessed of his own firm convictions; compassionate and sharp-tongued; courageous and neurotic. It is very difficult to sum him in a few words, although something that comes to mind is that he was a good and loyal friend, but (also) fierce opponent — and sometimes simultaneously — as his brother John knew only too well.
What do the letters say about his relationship with John?
As a young man, Charles was very much under his brother’s influence and acknowledged as much in later life. Their contemporaries, including Charles’ older brother, Samuel, documented the unusually strong hold that John had over Charles during the 1730s and 1740s. During this period, John pressured Charles into ordination and into joining the Georgia mission, which was very much against Charles’ own inclination. The two men were also co-workers in the birth and early development of Methodism, and while John was the undoubted senior partner, his younger brother served as his right hand. The fact that two men joined by family loyalty and complementary abilities were working in close concert was advantageous to the early years of the movement.
Their relationship started to change in 1749 when Charles married. His principal loyalty was transferred to his wife, and this resulted in tension with John, who still expected to have first call on his brother’s time. The situation worsened later that year with the controversy over the wrecking of John’s engagement to Grace Murray — in which Charles played a pivotal and quite underhanded role. The stage was set in the early 1750s for major arguments between the two men that would test their relationship almost to destruction in the period 1756-88 and which had an impact on Methodism.
How about Charles as husband and father?
Co-editors Gareth Lloyd (at lectern) and Kenneth Newport (left) spoke recently about the book “The Letters of Charles Wesley.” Professor Jeremy Gregory (center) of the University of Manchester moderated the session. A web-only photo reproduced by courtesy of the University Librarian and Director, The John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester.
One of the very human and charming aspects of the letters is the picture that they present of Charles Wesley as a family man. His marriage to Sally was exceptionally happy, and the deeply personal letters between the two indicate a couple who were perfectly compatible, despite a considerable age difference. Charles considered his “dearest Sally” to be a gift from God, and he deferred to her in most aspects of their life together, which was unusual in an 18th century husband.
Charles was a very affectionate father to the couple’s three children and a surprisingly modern one in some respects. Charles and Sally lost a number of children to infant death, and some of the most moving letters in the collection document their grief and the way that Charles then used that experience in his own pastoral ministry.
When will we see Volume 2?
A difficult question. We have electronic texts of approximately half of the letters that will be included in Volume 2. However, even when we have all the texts, they will still need to be annotated, quality checked against the original source document, indexed and introductory chapters written. I estimate that it will take at least another three years before publication.
*Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas.
News media contact: Sam Hodges, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.