Parents worry about their children. I was reminded of this simple fact while reading John Tyson’s thoughtful biography: Assist Me to Proclaim: The Life and Hymns of Charles Wesley (2007). Despite his status as one of the most notable ministers and lyricists in eighteenth-century England, Charles Wesley cared no less about the formation and development of his children than any other parent in his age (or our own, for that matter, I suppose).
Charles Wesley’s son was uniquely gifted. Samuel Wesley, named after his grandfather, was a master musician. When his parents allowed Samuel to play concerts in their home before “genteel lovers of music, monied aristocrats—not profoundly religious people, and not Methodists” (304), friends and colleagues criticized the Wesleys’ decision. Thomas Coke, one of the most influential leaders in the history of early Methodism, commented: “I looked upon the Concerts which he allows his sons to have in his own house, to be highly dishonorable to God; and himself to be criminal, by reason of his situation in the Church of Christ.” Coke quickly qualified his criticism in light of the child’s unparalleled talents, “I cannot blame him,” but his words undoubtedly reflected a wider perception of Charles’s permissive parental guidance.
Tyson’s biography explains that Samuel did, in fact, depart from the patterns of faith that Charles and Sally set forth for their children: “Samuel seemed to chafe under his father’s restrictions, and since these were frequently rooted in Methodist convictions, he probably resented his father’s religion as well” (303). Eventually, Samuel did the unthinkable: he began to affiliate with the Roman Catholics. His decision had massive social and political implications in eighteenth-century England. Charles’s son knew well enough to keep the matter a secret as long as he could: “I cannot act in opposition to my conscience, but I will not distress the author of my being by taking such a step as I know would rob him of his comfort” (324).
As a parent myself, I know the feelings of worry and doubt that surround our child-rearing decisions. Parents often cling to the proverb, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6). Parents worry about their decisions, and they often face criticism for the choices they make—particularly when a child eventually departs from the patterns and traditions of their youth.
As a college professor, too, I have observed many students leave home and make decisions in matters of faith and practice with which their families disagree. The freedom to explore new ideas, relationships, and behaviors also leaves open the possibility of new expressions of religion. The prospect is terrifying, if we are honest with ourselves, which is why I found the case of Charles and Samuel Wesley to be so peculiarly instructive.
Charles continued to cherish his son—despite profound worry for Samuel’s soul. He dissuaded him from his path. Samuel’s uncle, too, encouraged him to weigh the matter with the utmost care (“Whether of this Church or that I care not,” John told the young man, “you may be saved in either, or damned in either; but I fear you are not born again” ).
In the end, Samuel eventually did return to the Church of England, but Charles didn’t live long enough to see the day. Nonetheless, I think it is notable that on Charles’s deathbed—the time he always expected to experience his greatest sanctification in this life—he affirmed his son in love. Tyson’s simple portrait of the scene provides a powerful witness to love despite disapproval, even in matters of deepest concern:
Though it was difficult for the dying man to speak, Sally recalled, upon seeing Samuel he took hold of his hand and said, ‘I shall bless God to all eternity, that ever you were born. I am persuaded I shall. (334)
May all of us be filled with such faithful love for our children, neighbors, and even our enemies.