Issue of Authorship

John or Charles Wesley?
The Issue of Authorship in Early Wesley Hymn Collections

One of the challenges in studying the poetical works of John and Charles Wesley is determining which brother authored specific texts in their early shared collections. This challenge was created by the brothers’ agreement not to indicate individual authorship in these collections.

In some cases the question can be settled by the survival of a particular item in the manuscript collections of one of the brothers. Beyond that, scholars are reduced to debating internal criteria for discerning whether John or Charles might be the author of a particular text. A sense of this debate can be gained by comparing Henry Bett, The Hymns of Methodism in their Literary Relations (London: Epworth, 1920), 21-33; to Frank Baker, Representative Verse of Charles Wesley (New York: Abingdon, 1962), lviii-lxi. See also the summary by Oliver Beckerlegge in his Introduction to Hymns (1780) in John Wesley’s Works, 7:35-38.

Three broad generalizations have emerged from this debate. First, scholars generally concur that John took the lead in selecting and adapting the poems and hymns by other authors that are included in the various collections issued jointly by the brothers. Second, scholars also converge in assigning John authorship of the translations of German and Spanish hymns in the collections (except for a couple of loose adaptations by Charles in the Collection of Moral and Sacred Poems). Finally, there is consensus that the vast majority of original contributions in the early joint collections were penned by Charles.

The challenge of distinguishing between the two brothers dissipates by 1749, as Charles Wesley turned to publishing most of his verse independent of his brother’s editorial hand.