[Today’s post is excerpted from the forthcoming book, Abide With Me, by acclaimed photographer Paul Seawright and Professor of English John Parker. The book and its CD with 20 classic hymns, will be released in April 2009 by New Leaf Press.]

Llanlleonfel Church in the Irfon Valley of Wales dreams quietly of its past. Narrow loophole windows of leaden glass peer down on us as we stroll solemnly through the churchyard filled with lichen-covered tombstones centuries old. Quiet reflection reigns here now.

On April 8, 1749, though, the church originally standing here was filled with eager anticipation as Charles Wesley waited for Miss Sarah Gwynne to walk from nearby Garth House along the path to Llanlleonfel to become his bride. A restless, joyful yearning would characterize Charles all his life, and it would become a major theme in the some 4500 published works that place him at the front of a long list of British hymnwriters.

Born the 18th child of a minister, Charles followed the influence of his older brother, John, and in 1726 joined John at Christ Church in Oxford to prepare to preach. Here the brothers led a group of spiritually committed young men whose discipline was so strict that fellow students taunted them with such names as “Bible Moths,” “the Holy Club,” and finally, “Methodists.” Thus the two brothers unwittingly began a major Protestant denomination.

Ordained an Anglican priest in 1735, Charles joined John on a mission trip to Georgia in the American colonies where he became secretary to General James Oglethorpe. But he was unsuited for the work and, in poor health and restless, returned to Britain the next year. Following an intense religious conversion in 1738, he began a decade of itinerant evangelical preaching throughout England, ever wandering in search of spiritual fulfillment.

Returning from Aemrica, John established himself in Bristol as the powerful and determined leader of the evangelical Methodist movement. Charles, having married Sarah, settled near his brother to support the work there. It was in this house Charles composed hundreds of his famous hymns.

Eventually the Wesleys moved to London and the Wesley Chapel, center of their work for the rest of their lives. Charles, like his brother, was himself a preacher, but his major contribution to Christianity was his prolific output of powerful and touching hymns centering on the grace of Christ and urging us to recognize and joyfully seek it. He produced several thousand songs, many of which have become the most familiar and frequently used in Britain and America.

Beloved for their happy, rejoicing themes, Charles’ hymns include “A Charge to Keep I Have,” “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” the carol, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” and finally, “Love Divine, All Excelling,” a hymn urging Christ to visit us, indicative of Charles’ joyful yearning.