541 And Can It Be

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Story Behind the Hymn

As young men, Charles Wesley and his brother John, had “a fair summer religion” until their conversion in 1738. Both were ordained, both preached, taught, wrote, composed hymns, and were missionaries. Even so, neither met with success until they discovered a personal relationship with Jesus. Before they met Jesus, their religion was one of outward practice, not inward transformation. But God, rich in mercy, heard their mother’s persistent prayers for her children.

In 1735 Charles left his home in London to take up missionary work in Georgia. Less than 2 years later, he returned to England, a failed missionary, doubting his salvation, and physically ill with pleurisy. As he lay sick in bed, someone said to him, “In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, arise, and believe, and thou shalt be healed of all thy infirmities.” Upon hearing these words, he records in his journal:

I got out of bed and opening my Bible read from the Psalms: “He have put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God,” followed by the first verse of Isaiah 40, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.”       

These words churned in his mind until he was able to rest in the understanding that salvation is by faith (Eph. 2:8):

I labored, waited, and prayed to feel who loved me, and gave himself for me. At midnight I gave myself up to Christ:  assured I was safe, sleeping or waking. I had continued experience of his power to overcome all temptation; and confessed, with joy and surprise, that he was able to do exceedingly abundantly for me, above what I can ask or think . . . I now found myself at peace with God and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ. I saw that by faith I stood . . . the Spirit of God chased away the darkness of my unbelief and I have found myself at peace with God” (Dudley-Smith, 1987)).

Charles’ strength returned and two days later he began his prolific hymn writing journey. According to the editor of The Oxford Edition of the Works of John Wesley, [This hymn] was written immediately following Charles Wesley’s conversion to Christianity on May 21, 1738.” It has become one of his best-loved hymns, capturing the joy and awe of salvation, so fresh and piquant in the heart and mind of this newly born child of God.”  His mother’s prayers for her son’s salvation fulfilled. Charles is on the path of God’s grace in his life, assured of his own salvation.