Charles Wesley (1707-1788), the “poet of Methodism,” brother of the denomination’s founder, wrote over six thousand hymns. At Christmas, Christians around the world know by heart his “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” At Easter, we stand in sanctuaries filled with flowers to proclaim “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today!”
Charles Wesley also ministered to the poor waiting for execution in London’s Newgate prison. Mass hangings were held every six weeks at the Tyburn gallows. Neglected by the church and brutalized by the state, the imprisoned poor found a friend in Wesley.
Death sentences were handed out like candy in London then, not only to murderers, but to pickpockets, thieves, and poachers. Once, Wesley counseled a ten-year-old scheduled for execution.
In July, 1738, he spent a week with ten doomed men, praying and singing with them, reassuring them that each was loved by God. As they were led to the gallows, all ten rejected the pious prison chaplain, whose prayers were too little, too late. Instead, they sought out Charles Wesley, a forgiving presence in the crowd and a friend to the end. Powerless to end executions, Wesley did not hesitate to stand with the condemned.
A short time later, Wesley penned “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” a lullaby for the lost and fearful. He knew that the same words that brought peace of mind to those facing execution could comfort others who felt helpless and alone.
This hymn is a prayer for refuge: “Hide me, O my Savior, hide, till the storm of life is past; safe into the haven guide; O receive my soul at last.”
In the U.S., the debate over capital punishment, expensive, ineffective, archaic, and barbaric, still rages. Death row cages are populated by the poor, though now the slick machinery of death is high tech and hidden, more the stuff of bureaucracy than of flesh and blood.
How easy it is to forget the condemned or to write them off as hopeless losers or monsters who deserve to die. Progressive Christians and social justice activists work to change the course of our society, from reliance on death and revenge, to faith in restorative justice.
Hymn music and lyrics at Hymnary.org site
“Jesus, Lover of My Soul” on Hymn Studies Blog, July, 2008
Death Defying: Dismantling the Execution Machinery in 21st Century U.S.A. by Pam McAllister (Bloomsbury, 2003)