That time Charles Wesley was attacked by a drunken mob: a study in joy.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Philippians 4:4

How do we experience joy through the music of the church– through singing, playing, and composing?

A point of clarification to start: joy is not the same thing as happiness. Happiness is an emotion, like sadness, anger, or grief, but joy is a state of the soul.

feel happy.

live in joy.

In fact, you can experience any emotion– from happiness to anger or grief– and still live in joy. Of course, it’s easier to relate to joy when we’re happy, but if we do not conflate joy with happiness, we can learn to understand what joy truly is, and we can begin to discover joy within our souls even when we’re not happy.

That’s what God wants for us, anyway– notice the scriptures don’t say “Be happy always! Again I say, be happy!” And if you’ve read any of the Old Testament, or Acts for that matter, there was a lot going on there that it would be hard to be happy about. Being beheaded or stoned to death? Yeah, woohoo!

But living in joy is a whole different thing. It’s joy that God promises, that God wants for us, not happiness.

This joy comes from the knowledge of the saving grace of Jesus, the love of God, and the guidance of the Spirit. Living with that knowledge in your heart, you may not always be happy, but you’ll always be able to rest in the security of God’s love and grace. That’s the source of this life-giving joy. That’s why we rejoice.

Frequently, scriptural admonishments to rejoice are paired hand-in-hand with instructions to sing, to play instruments, and to lift up your voice in song. Music is the natural expression of an overflow of emotion, it’s why we turn to music when we grieve, when we’re heartbroken– and likewise when our spirits overflow with joy. Praise and rejoicing are among the most important roles of music for the worshipping church.

The Methodists in Cornwall

And that brings us to one of my absolute favorite Charles Wesley hymns, UMH #715, “Rejoice, the Lord is King!”

Rejoice, the Lord is King:
Your Lord and King adore!
Rejoice, give thanks and sing,
And triumph evermore.
Lift up your heart,
Lift up your voice!
Rejoice, again I say, rejoice!

Written in 1744, what makes this hymn so intensely meaningful is its context– specifically, Charles’ life and ministry during this period. The more I’ve learned about that history, the more imperative I find this hymn’s call to rejoice.

18th-century Cornwall was a wild, lawless place. Think the Wild West plus pirates– but not fun Johnny Depp pirates, murderous ones. Smuggling was rampant, drunkenness was “general”, and common pastimes were cockfighting, bullbaiting, wrestling and hurling, and more drinking. There were clergy around, but they were well known for helping the smuggling trade and participating in it themselves, even using church cellars to conceal contraband. Others wrote of the clergy there: “even an amiable apologist must admit that among them were men whose character and conduct it is useless to defend.”

Charles joins the Cornwall Methodists

In 1743, a Methodist sea captain named Joseph Turner landed at St. Ives in Cornwall and met a dozen members of a struggling religious society. He took the news of them, along with the general debauchery of Cornwall, back to the Methodist Society in Bristol. Two lay preachers were sent in reply, Thomas Williams and William Shepherd, to share the good news with the townspeople there. Charles Wesley decide to follow, arriving in St. Ives on July 16th, 1743.

One can imagine how unwelcome the Gospel was to this town, even (especially!) among the present clergy, who were fully partaking of the lawless culture. After his second day in St. Ives, Charles wrote, “I spoke with some of this loving, simple people, who are as sheep in the midst of wolves. The Priests stir up the people, and make their minds evil affected toward the brethren [the Methodists].”

Upon his arrival, Charles found the local churches preaching against the Methodists. One preached on the scripture that includes “Beware of false prophets,” and of this Charles wrote, “His application was downright railing at the new sect, as he calls us, those enemies to the Church, seducers, troublers, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, &c. I had prayed for a quiet heart, and a steady countenance; and my prayer was answered. My calmness was succeeded with strong consolation.”

Charles went out to preach the following day, and a mob formed at the market, beating drums and shouting. In the kind of violent culture that had been cultivated in that area, the opposition to the Gospel was bound to be expressed through violence. Some of the mob charged at Charles and tried to pull him down, but Charles records, “They had no power to touch me. My soul was calm and fearless. I shook off the dust of my feet and walked leisurely through the thickest of them, who followed like ramping and roaring lions: but their mouth was shut. I met the Mayor, who saluted us, and threatened the rioters. I rejoiced at my lodgings in our Almighty Jesus.

One of the worst attacks came on Friday, July 22nd. Charles wrote (emphases mine):

I had just named my text at St. Ives, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God,” when an army of rebels broke in upon us, like those at Sheffield or Wednesbury. They began in a most outrageous manner, threatening to murder the people, if they did not go out that moment. They broke the sconces, dashed the windows in pieces, tore away the shutters, benches, poor-box, and all but the stone-walls. I stood silently looking on; but mine eyes were unto the Lord. They swore bitterly I should not preach there again; which I disproved, by immediately telling them Christ died for them all. Several times they lifted up their hands and clubs to strike me; but a stronger arm restrained them. They beat and dragged the women about, particularly one of a great age, and trampled on them without mercy. The longer they stayed, and the more they raged, the more power I found from above. I bade the people stand still and see the salvation of God; resolving to continue with them, and see the end. In about an hour the word came, “Hitherto shalt thou come, and no farther.” The ruffians fell to quarrelling among themselves, broke the Town-Clerk’s (their captain’s) head, and drove one another out of the room.

Having kept the field, we gave thanks for the victory; and in prayer the Spirit of glory rested upon us. Going home, we met the Mayor, with another Justice, and went back to show him the havoc which the gentlemen and their mob had made. He commended our people as the most quiet, inoffensive subjects, encouraged us to sue for justice, said he was no more secure from such lawless violence than we, wished us success, and left us rejoicing in our strong Helper.

The following week, Charles discovered the root of much of the violence: the clergy themselves. He wrote,

The Mayor told us, that the Ministers were the principal authors of all this evil, by continually representing us in their sermons as Popish emissaries, and urging the enraged multitude to take all manner of ways to stop us. Their whole preaching is cursing and lies: yet they modestly say, my fellow-labourer and I are the cause of all the disturbance. It is always the lamb that troubles the water.

Yesterday we were stoned as Popish incendiaries; to-day, it is our turn to have favour with the people.

Rejoice, the Lord is King!

In the midst of these violent mob attacks, as they faced curses and insults hurled at them by (usually drunken) passersby, these early Methodists rejoiced. It was in the very following year, 1744, that Charles wrote the text to this hymn, “Rejoice, the Lord is King!”

How did Charles and these early Methodists face this virulent anger from the community they had come to serve– the betrayal by their fellow clergy– the danger to their lives and the lives of their friends? And they not only came to terms with it, but they found a way to live in joy throughout this time. In fact, they found so much joy in their lives that Charles was led to pen a hymn with the refrain: “Lift up your heart, Lift up your voice! Rejoice, again I say, rejoice!”

We know that one source of their joy was the many conversions that they witnessed during this period, which eventually drew Charles’ brother John to preach the Gospel in Cornwall as well, though he too faced angry mobs during his many visits to the area, and mud and stones being thrown at him as well.

But their main source of joy, as it is with persecuted Christians of any age, was the security of their knowledge in the saving grace of Christ, their absolute faith in the sovereignty of God, and their knowledge of the presence of the Spirit. Though they didn’t always have many reasons to be happy, they certainly had cause to live in joy as they saw neighbors become brothers and sisters through the saving grace of Christ. It was that joy that so stirred Charles to write such a purely joyful text for the church to sing. He composed as an attempt to express this profound experience of joy, and to share it with others. The beautiful thing is that through his music, Charles provided an ever-replenishing fount through which the church can rejoice, lifting their hearts and voices in praise. His hymns of joy have spoken to the church in every generation since, and throughout the world. And with this hymn’s simple adaptation of Philippians 4:4, I’m sure it will continue to speak to the church for generations to come.

Jesus, the Savior, reigns,
The God of truth and love;
When He has purged our stains,
He took his seat above;
Lift up your heart, Lift up your voice!
Rejoice, again I say, rejoice!

His kingdom cannot fail,
He rules o’er earth and heav’n;
The keys of death and hell
Are to our Jesus giv’n:
Lift up your heart, Lift up your voice!
Rejoice, again I say, rejoice!

Rejoice in glorious hope!
Our Lord and judge shall come
And take His servants up
To their eternal home:
Lift up your heart, Lift up your voice!
Rejoice, again I say, rejoice!

As we study the lives of the early Methodists, we can learn to find our own joy in the midst of those times when we have no reason to be happy. And as we pursue and discover our joy, we can follow the instructions of the psalmists and sing!

But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, so that those who love your name may exult in you.

Psalm 5:11

Resources and further reading: The Journal of Charles Wesley, from the Wesley Center Online.


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