George Osborn’s Collection of The Poetical Works of John and Charles Wesley

For over a century the most broadly used source for study and citation of verse by the Wesley brothers has been The Poetical Works of John and Charles Wesley, edited by George Osborn (London: Wesleyan-Methodist Conference, 1868-72). This 13-volume collection was a herculean effort in its time and played a significant role in preserving access to the Wesleys’ poetry and hymn publications. However it is marked by several characteristics that limit its value as the standard source for scholarly study and citation of the Wesley brothers’ poetical works:

  1. Osborn framed his collection to contain only those poems and hymns that he believed were original to John or Charles Wesley. This meant excluding John’s first two published collections, CPH (1737) and CPH (1738), which were comprised entirely of items that John adapted or translated from other authors. It also ruled out major sections of similar material in other early collections. While these materials are not original compositions by John, they are important indicators of the influences upon him and many of them were standards in early Methodist worship for decades. Moreover, careful consideration of John’s editorial reshaping of the source hymns often yields insight into his theological convictions. As such, these appropriated hymns are very relevant to scholarly study and citation.
  2. Despite his intentions, Osborn included — unawares and without indication — some hymns or poems from the early collections that were not composed by John or Charles Wesley. John often neglected to indicate when he was appropriating verse from other authors and Osborn lacked the electronic databases that now help identify these cases.
  3. Osborn is to be commended for locating the vast majority of the original verse that was published by either John or Charles Wesley. But there are a few scattered items he missed, such as the “Hymn for Mary Langson” (1770) and the “Hymn for John Wesley” (1779).
  4. The general flow of the text in Osborn’s collection is chronological, moving from earlier works issued by the Wesley brothers to later works. However, he frequently alters the structure of the works included. Sometimes this occurs because Osborn does not want to duplicate material that appeared in more than one work. Sometimes it occurs because he decided to group individual poems and hymns by topic. For example, he chose to follow a manuscript collection that gathered Charles Wesley’s poetic adaptations of the Psalms in one setting. Many of these were originally published in collections by John that were ordered according to the weekly rhythms of Anglican worship. This intent is obscured when they are found only in a gathered setting. For scholarly study and citation it is important to have access as well to the original setting.
  5. One of the most puzzling decisions that Osborn made was to mix items from published collections of Charles Wesley’s verse with items that Charles left in manuscript. This is particularly problematic in volumes 9–13, where there is no indication of which hymns included appeared in Charles Wesley’s 2-volume Scripture Hymns (1762) and which are from manuscript sources. Nor does Osborn indicate when he is using a later manuscript version to revise or enlarge the form found in Scripture Hymns (1762). Scholarly study and citation needs to observe both the distinction between what was purposefully printed or left in manuscript and the relative dating of various items.
  6. It should also be noted that Osborn chose to publish only select portions of the manuscript verse of Charles Wesley of which he was aware. Access to the remaining manuscript items was limited until publication of the 3-volume Unpublished Poetry of Charles Wesley, ed. by S T Kimbrough Jr. and Oliver A. Beckerlegge (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1988-92).
  7. For the items from published collections, Osborn usually prints the text of the last edition issued during John Wesley’s life. While many of these collections underwent little change, there were occasional significant revisions or variant readings between editions, none of which are noted in Osborn. A standard for scholarly study and citation typically builds on the text of the first edition, annotating subsequent changes or additions.
  8. On occasion the text printed by Osborn for a specific item departs from all earlier published versions. In most of these cases Osborn is opting to print manuscript corrections that John Wesley made in his personal copy of texts that Charles had published independent of John’s editorial control. Since Osborn gives no indicator of these insertions, the original emphasis of Charles — and John’s disagreement with it — is often obscured.
  9. Osborn also consistently modernizes spellings and expands many of the contractions that appeared in the original Wesley publications. While this move may be helpful to modern readers, scholars often desire greater historical accuracy.
  10. Osborn provides very few introductions to enlighten the occasion and context of the works included in his collection.
  11. Samuel Rogal has recently begun to issue A New and Critical Edition of George Osborn’s “The Poetical Works of John and Charles Wesley” (1868—1872), with the Addition of Notes, Annotations, Biographical and Background Information (Edwin Mellen, 2009ff). This edition adds background on Osborn and identifies sources for some hymns in the early collections that are not by the Wesley brothers. But it simply replicates Osborn’s text of the hymns. Thus, nearly all of the limitations noted above remain in this edition, in terms of its reliability for scholarly access to and citation of poetical works by the Wesley brothers.
  12. Finally, the indexing in the Osborn collection is uneven. In particular, there is no separate first-line index for the materials gathered in volumes 9-12.