Charles Wesley, Volume of Shorthand Hymns

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 133 Eng MS 1583
  • Dates of Creation
      n.d. [c.1749-1770]
  • Name of Creator
  • Language of Material
  • Physical Description
      106 x 83 mm. 1 volume, i + 105 + i ff.; leaves excised between ff. 33-4 (1 leaf), 36-7 (c.6), 40-1 (2), 46-7 (1), 69-70 (1), 79-80 (1), 97-8 (?2), 102-3 (1), 103-4 (c.6), 105 and free endpaper (1). Medium: paper, horizontal chain lines and watermark of the Dutch papermaker 'Gerrevink'. Binding: full-bound in contemporary calf, three raised bands, covers and spine compartments framed with double gilt rules, marbled endpapers. Condition: calf binding worn, front inner hinge cracked.
  • Location
      Collection available at John Rylands Library, Deansgate.

Scope and Content

Pocket volume containing hymns written in shorthand by Charles Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism and one of the greatest English hymn writers. The manuscript includes what may be the only surviving autograph draft of one of the ‘Great Four Anglican Hymns’: ‘Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending’.

Wesley’s manuscript begins with a shorthand table of contents (f. 1r), followed by shorthand hymns on ff. 3r-33r, or pages [1]-61 according to Wesley’s original pagination, Wesley’s pagination continuing to page 72 (f. 36v). Wesley’s organisation of his manuscript effectively divides it into 37 sections - around 25 separate hymns. There follow 10 unpaginated pages (ff. 37r-41r) in Roman script which transliterate the first three hymns in the manuscript from shorthand, namely: ‘Come Let Us Join Our Friends Above’ (ff. 37v-38r); ‘For One Grown Slack, the 4th or Last Part’ (ff. 38r-39v); and ‘For Those in the Wilderness’ (ff. 40r-41r). More than half of the manuscript is largely blank (ff. 42-105) and it seems likely that Wesley intended to transliterate the whole of this collection.

Charles Wesley wrote the vast majority of the hymns using John Byrom’s shorthand, adapted to his own usage, each leaf folded vertically along the middle for ease of use. Some of the texts are readily identifiable with known hymns by Wesley, most notably ‘Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending’ (f. 12v) which survives in a draft by John Wesley but is apparently unknown in Wesley’s hand outside this manuscript. At least two of the hymns were published in Wesley’s Intercession Hymns of 1758 and the hymns ‘On the Death of Mrs Ann Wigginton’, 24 April 1757 (f. 21v), and ‘On the Death of Mrs Mary Naylor’, 21 March 1757 (f. 23r), appeared in his collection of Funeral Hymns.

On the endpaper facing the contents list, Charles Wesley has written in shorthand a list of members of a ‘Wednesday evening band’. Later in the manuscript there is a single page in another hand which addresses the theme of Friendship (f. 61v) and a couple of further pages of notes including the title of a separate work, ‘Isaac a Sacred Drama’ (f. 35v), followed by the heading ‘Act 1 Scene 1’ (f. 36r) [presumably a reference to Thomas Noon Talfourd’s precocious poem, ‘The Offering of Isaac, a Sacred Drama’ (1811)]. There are several floral doodles and pen-trials, and at the back of the manuscript a list, once again in Charles Wesley’s hand, of ‘Dr Birom’s Subscribers’ which begins with ‘Mrs CW’, presumably Mrs Charles Wesley. This means the earliest possible date for this entry must be the year of the couple’s marriage in 1749. The two dated ‘death’ poems from 1757 give further help dating the manuscript which seems likely to have been compiled in the late 1750s and 1760s before being given away in 1770 to Wesley’s friend Edward Spencer.

Description courtesy of Christian White, Hayes Williams and Dr Tim Underhill.

Administrative / Biographical History

Charles Wesley was born at Epworth in Lincolnshire, the son of a poverty-stricken clergyman. He received his early education from his mother Susanna, before being sent to Westminster School, where his eldest brother was a master.

In 1726 he went up to Christ Church, Oxford, where he was one of the founder members of the Holy Club or Oxford Methodists, a small Christian group which included the Wesley brothers, and their fellow Evangelists George Whitefield and Benjamin Ingham. Wesley graduated in 1730 but stayed on as a College tutor.

Despite his membership of the Holy Club, Wesley remained very unsure in his faith, and it was only with great difficulty that his brother John persuaded him to seek ordination, before becoming a missionary in the new North American colony of Georgia.

Wesley’s stay in Georgia was not a success. Plagued by self-doubt and the petty intrigues of the colonists, he returned to England in December 1736, after a stay of less than a year.

Charles Wesley underwent a conversion experience in London in May 1738, a few days before John Wesley’s famous Aldersgate experience. After Whitefield’s example, he commenced preaching in the open air in July 1739.

For seventeen years after his conversion, Charles Wesley was one of the central figures in the great Evangelical revival, which saw the birth of the Methodist Church. He travelled constantly in England, Wales, and Ireland, suffering frequent harassment, which was often instigated by fellow clergymen. While his brother John was without doubt the leader of the Methodist movement, Charles was his most trusted colleague, and often exercised a restraining influence on those Methodists who wished to break away from the Church of England.

In 1749 he married Sarah Gwynne, the daughter of a wealthy convert, and despite an age difference of nineteen years the union proved to be a very happy one. They had eight children but only three survived infancy. He withdrew from the itinerancy in 1756, and settled first in Bristol, and then London. He exercised a very active ministry in both these key cities until almost the end of his life.

Charles Wesley’s greatest legacy to Methodism is his hymns, which are regarded as among the finest ever written. The Methodists gave the singing of hymns a central place in worship, contrary to contemporary Anglican practice. The fervour and Christian joy of the early Evangelicals are reflected in Wesley’s hymns, and they contain many key elements of Methodist doctrine. They formed the basis of the Methodist hymn books of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and are still sung all over the world by Christians of every denomination.

Both John and Charles Wesley learned John Byrom’s shorthand system. John probably became familiar with it during his visits to Manchester in the 1730s, while Charles’s earliest surviving use of Byrom’s shorthand appears to date from February 1736. (Underhill, pp. 34 and 36) Charles’s motivations for using shorthand included secrecy, especially when referring to sensitive subjects, and economy of time and paper. Underhill (p. 51) records that, ‘Like his brother, Wesley wrote shorthand into his old age. That he could even do so on horseback to draft hymns shows its value to him as a medium for readily capturing thoughts, and his continuing employment of it for endorsing or drafting letters proved helpful in more routine matters.’ Beyond these practical considerations, Underhill (p. 52) suggests that Charles was motivated by the hope that Byrom’s shorthand system might become a universal language, facilitating the spreading of the word across countries and cultures.

Access Information

The manuscript is available for consultation by any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

The manuscript was purchased from Christian White, Modern First Editions, in January 2021.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the manuscript can be supplied for private research and study purposes only, depending on the condition of the manuscript.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the manuscript. Please contact the Head of Special Collections, John Rylands Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.

Custodial History

The manuscript was in the possession of Charles Wesley until it was presented by him to the Rev. Edward Spencer (1739-1819), rector of Winkfield, Wiltshire, in around 1770. It passed to Edward Spencer’s daughter, Christiana (Mrs Joseph White Niblock); to her daughter, the Hon. Amelia St John Wellesley (1815-1889); to her daughter, Emily Grace Calthrop (1850-1916); and thence by descent until it was sold at auction at Mellors & Kirk, Nottingham, on 17 September 2020, lot 793, hammer price £7000.

The provenance of the volume is recorded on the verso of the front endpaper in a Latin inscription written by Edward Spencer in 1791: ‘Donum dignissimi Viri Caroli Wesley AM...’ This nine-line inscription has been translated by the book’s next owner on a sheet of paper tipped in close to the gutter of the recto of the same leaf: ‘The gift of a most worthy man, Charles Wesley, M.A. To the end of his life Presbyter of the Ch: of England. Given about the year 1770. Edward Spencer wrote this in memoriam of the donor, now with the saints, in the year 1791. The donor wrote this with his own hand these divine songs in short hand’ - ‘dator propria manu cantus divinos brachygraphica scripsit.’ On the verso of this translated leaf is a later explanation in the same hand: ‘This E.S. was the Rev.d Edward Spencer Rector of Winkfield Wilts. My Mother’s Father. A[melia] St J. Wellesley.’


Frederick C. Gill, Charles Wesley: The First Methodist (London: Lutterworth, 1964).

Gareth Lloyd, Charles Wesley and the Struggle for Methodist Identity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

Kenneth G. C. Newport (ed.), The Sermons of Charles Wesley: A Critical Edition with Introduction and Notes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Kenneth G. C. Newport and S. T. Kimbrough (eds), The Manuscript Journal of the Reverend Charles Wesley M.A., 2 vols (Nashville, Tenn.: Kingswood Books, 2007-8).

Kenneth G. C. Newport and Gareth Lloyd (eds), The Letters of Charles Wesley: A Critical Edition, with Introduction and Notes, 2 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013 & 2021).

Timothy Underhill, ‘John Byrom and the Contexts of Charles Wesley’s Shorthand’, Wesley and Methodist Studies, 7.1 (2015), 27–53.