Holiness in different guises: Charles Wesley and Charles M. Sheldon


Here’s another “People Worth Knowing” column from the pages of Christian History & Biography. Again we have brief, linked profiles of two people with a thematic connection. This time: holiness.

Holiness of heart, life, and pen
Charles Wesley and Charles H. Sheldon
Chris Armstrong

Charles Wesley (1707-88). Charles M. Sheldon (1857-1946). Separated by 150 years and a continent, these two men shared traits deeper than a common first name. Both believed Christians must respond to their Savior’s amazing love by loving others in practical ways. And both, desiring that others be captivated by a higher vision of life in Christ, expressed that vision in words that galvanized millions.

Charles Wesley

The prematurely born eighteenth child of Samuel and Susanna Wesley, Charles Wesley would remain a short man, like his famous older brother. But while John Wesley’s compact frame contained a commanding personality, Charles Wesley has been described as a round-faced, near-sighted man whose speech was abrupt and social manner awkward.

In contrast to his driven, disciplined, and perhaps over-earnest older brother, Charles was also, in the words of his beloved wife Sarah, “tender, indulgent, kind, as a brother, a husband, a father” and “warmly and unalienably devoted” to his friends.

What people noticed most about Charles Wesley, however, was his great humility. Literary scholar David Lyle Jeffrey writes of Charles’s “luminous” spiritual character, recounting the first time the great antislavery reformer William Wilberforce encountered Wesley. It was two years before Charles’s death, at the house of Hannah More. Wilberforce later remembered, “when I came into the room Charles Wesley rose from the table, and coming forward to me, gave me solemnly his blessing. I was scarcely ever more affected. Such was the effect of his manner and appearance that it altogether overset me, and I burst into tears, unable to restrain myself.”

This “luminousness” of spiritual character should not surprise us. The Wesley brothers were brought up steeped in the Bible, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and the spiritual classics their parents loved to read. Their mother Susannah formed them with regular times of catechism and devotion—a formation that doubtless contributed to their later sense that the Holy Spirit is present in all the Christian’s experience.

Charles first felt this presence in a powerful way after he returned from a disappointing missionary trip to Georgia in 1736. He had been seeking for personal assurance both of faith and of his vocation. Historian Frank Whaling tells the story:

“On May 21, 1738, three days before his brother, he received an inward assurance of faith. Influenced by Luther’s commentary on Galatians, he heard an inward voice asking him to arise and believe, and through the medium of interior words such as these and Scripture passages such as Isaiah 40, verse 1, ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, says your God,’ he found a new inner dynamic.”

In what was to become a life-long pattern, Charles immediately poured out some of this experience in a hymn. Captivated by God’s grace, he turned from rejoicing over his own assurance of salvation to inviting others:

Outcasts of men, to you I call,
Harlots, and publicans, and thieves!
He spreads his arms to embrace you all:
Sinners alone his grace receive.

This sense of a personal call from Christ and a wonder at God’s love towards all people would characterize so many of his hymns. Indeed, some have suggested that Wesley’s tremendous body of work—over 9,000 hymns, with some 500 still sung today—has taught the body of Christ even better than anything John wrote or spoke.

Mere teaching, however, was never enough, even if it helped bring people to salvation or a greater sense of the immediate presence and love of God. Trained in the classics of church history, the brothers Wesley imbibed the medieval principle that salvation involves not just faith but “faith formed in love” (fides caritate formate)—disciplining all one’s relationships and actions for the good of others. To be loved by God was, by definition, to love other people. John and Charles’s ministries testified to this from the beginning.

When Charles, for example, formed a group of serious-minded Christians at Oxford—the “Holy Club”—to study and follow intensively introspective spiritual disciplines, the inner life of the group overflowed into practical ministry to London’s most needy. They gave liberally to the poor, preached to those in prison, and generally practiced down-to-earth care for others. Developing habits of charity in that setting, Charles became known even to his detractors as one who worked tirelessly among the poor, providing from his own goods (for example) to release impoverished parents from debtors’ prison and arrange for their children to go to school.

Throughout his life, the labor of love that occupied Charles Wesley most was the work of evangelism. Like so many Methodists who followed, Wesley traveled almost incessantly, preaching wherever an audience presented itself. What is staggering about this is that in the midst of such labor, along with the responsibilities of his family and his flock (he was ordained a priest and served more than one congregation), Wesley managed a writing pace that yielded, as biographer John R. Tyson calculates, “one finished hymn every two days, year in and year out, for the fifty years of his ministry.”

To the end Charles Wesley stood, as poet, evangelist, and minister to the needs of the hurting, between God and his people. He stretched out his arms in both directions and gave both actions and words—what words!—to God’s yearning for his people, and to the people’s answering worship.

Charles M. Sheldon

“Somehow I get puzzled when I see so many Christians living in luxury and singing ‘Jesus, I my cross have taken, all to leave and follow Thee,’ and remember how my wife died in a tenement in New York City, gasping for air and asking God to take the little girl too.” These words rang out one Sunday morning in comfortable upper-middle-class First Church in the fictional town of Raymond. The speaker was a tramp who had walked, mid-service, into the church and up the center aisle.

“It seems to me,” he continued, “there’s an awful lot of trouble in the world that somehow wouldn’t exist if all the people who sing such songs went and lived them out. I suppose I don’t understand. But what would Jesus do?”

When, the following week, First Church’s pastor, Rev. Henry Maxwell challenged his congregation to live up to their faith by asking themselves that same question, “What would Jesus do?” and act accordingly regardless of personal cost, the resulting movement revolutionized First Church and Raymond, and then other churches and cities throughout the country.

This is the story of one of the most-read religious novels of all time, In His Steps. The writer, Charles M. Sheldon, was himself a Congregational minister. Beginning in October, 1896, Sheldon read the story to his own congregation. Then he had it published serially. Then as a book. Though never considered a literary classic, Sheldon’s novel touched people and captured their imaginations from the first. His biographers claim that for the 60 years following its first publication, In His Steps sold more copies than any other book in the United States after the Bible: more than 8 million.

From early in life, Charles Sheldon was both a lover of God and a lover of “the people”—all people, rich or poor, black or white. The son of a Congregational minister who served as that church’s first missionary home superintendent, Sheldon grew up in the Dakota Territory in a log cabin he himself helped build. Biographer Timothy Miller recounts that the young Sheldon “hunted with the Dakotas, fished with them, slept with them on the open prairie, and learned some of their language.”

Sheldon also drank in the Bible from an early age, as “each morning the family would sit together in the ‘parlor’ of the log cabin and read aloud, each member of the family old enough to participate taking two verses in turn.” Though his conversion as a teenager was unemotional, Sheldon’s new life in Christ made him “strangely happy.” He spoke of feeling that “a great burden had been rolled off my back” and desiring to avoid “anything possibly offensive” to Christ.

In his first pastorate in Waterbury, Connecticut, Sheldon attended not just to the souls but the daily needs of his congregation and their town. After “boarding around” with 45 families of his small mountainous parish’s 175-member church, he launched a series of practical works. He planted a vegetable garden on church property and sold the produce. He began Bible study groups and a successful reading club that attracted over 200 youth and resulted in a drive to create a town library. He worked with a young doctor to convince the people to move their wells farther from their pigpens when a typhoid epidemic killed more than two dozen townspeople.

In 1889, Sheldon was called to the founding pastorate of Central Congregational Church in Topeka, Kansas. In his first sermon to what would be his lifelong flock he expressed his intention to preach “a Christ who belongs to the rich and to the poor, the ignorant and the learned, the old and the young, the good and the bad.”

The following year, Sheldon was confronted with an issue that would become a flashpoint for the young “social gospel” movement: unemployment and labor unrest. On the burgeoning industrial landscape of America, thousands of men were losing their jobs. Though some Christians blamed the unemployed for their indolence, Sheldon perceived the systemic evil of a capitalist system that cared nothing for individuals.

The young minister put on old clothes and tramped for a futile week in search of work. Then he spent one week each with eight different Topeka groups: streetcar operators, college students, blacks, railroad workers, lawyers, physicians, businessmen, and newspaper men.

The families of Tennesseetown, a black community up the street from Sheldon’s church, comprised one-third of Topeka’s population. “Exodusters” from the south, their houses were dilapidated and their poverty abject. Sheldon stayed longer here than elsewhere, the first week trying to understand the roots of Tennesseetown’s poverty and help find work, the second visiting their schools, and the third traveling with a black man to gauge the level of prejudice in the surrounding communities.

He concluded that it was not “incompetence,” as local newspapers insisted, but racism and a cycle of poverty that oppressed the people of Tennesseetown. He was the first white to say so. Through a survey of some 800 residents, he found out which basic social services were most needed, and he set out to provide them. Other churches soon joined in his efforts, many of which included a significant self-help component. Tennesseetown crime rates fell and prosperity increased. Resident Minus Gentry remembered fondly, “Everybody loved him, everybody. I’m sure nobody ever resented him.”

Going beyond practical help to address the racist roots of the community’s problems, Sheldon became an early civil rights advocate. He stood up against anti-black activities and spoke out against the Klan.

From his “sermon stories” (he read some 30 of these to his congregation, packing the house every Sunday evening) to his lifelong social activism (most notably his fervent crusade against the “whiskey trade”), Sheldon crossed lines and confounded categories. Though he clearly imbibed the new streams of theological liberalism that were emerging at Andover during his time there, he refused to become drawn into theological controversy. A true pietist, he saw such disputes as a waste of time when so many Christians were failing to live like their Master.

Sheldon certainly considered himself a part of his day’s liberal social-gospel movement. But in many ways he looked like what we might call an “evangelical.” The person and work of Christ were his touchstone. While he saw the need to address systemic social evils, he also saw that it was often personal habits—such as drinking and patterns of crime—that oppressed individuals and communities. He believed that real change could ultimately come only through a change in individual sinners’ hearts. And he believed those individuals could be changed only by the grace of God and the willing, sacrificial work of faithful Christians (two of his famous novel’s most sympathetic figures are a tent evangelist and his wife).

Like Charles Wesley 150 years before, Charles Sheldon was activated above all by a profound sense of Christ’s love for every person. And like Wesley, Sheldon felt that such a love demanded nothing less than a life of total dedication. Though it showed in different ways—social action rather than evangelization, novels rather than poetry—who can doubt that both these Charleses lived, and wrote, faithful to the grace of the same Lord?

No epitaph for Charles M. Sheldon is more fitting than his own words of anticipation as he grew older: “It is not death but life I greet … when he who loves me calls me home.”

Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today International/Christian History & Biography magazine.

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