Charles Wesley was the eighteenth child of Susanna Wesley and Samuel Wesley. He was born in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England, where his father was rector. He was educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford, where he was ordained. At Oxford, Charles formed a prayer group among his fellow students in 1727; his elder brother, John, joined in 1729, soon becoming its leader and moulding it in line with his own convictions. They focused on studying the Bible and living a holy life. Other students mocked them, saying they were the "Holy Club", "Sacramentarians", and "the Methodists", being methodical and exceptionally detailed in their Bible study, opinions and disciplined lifestyle. George Whitefield joined the group. After graduating with a master's degree in classical languages and literature, Charles followed his father and brother into Anglican orders in 1735.
Wesley was educated at Oxford where his brothers had also studied, and he formed the "Holy Club" among his fellow students in 1729. John Wesley later joined this group, as did George Whitefield. Charles followed his father and brother into the church in 1735, and he travelled with John to Georgia in America, returning a year later. In 1749, he married Sarah Gwynne, daughter of a Welsh gentleman who had been converted to Methodism by Howell Harris. She accompanied the brothers on their evangelistic journeys throughout Britain until Charles ceased to travel in 1765.
On 14 October 1735, Charles and his brother John sailed on The Simmonds from Gravesend, Kent for Savannah in Georgia Colony in British America at the request of the governor, James Oglethorpe. Charles was appointed Secretary of Indian Affairs and while John remained in Savannah, Charles went as chaplain to the garrison and colony at nearby Fort Frederica, St. Simon's Island, arriving there Tuesday, 9 March 1736 according to his journal entry. Matters did not turn out well, and he was largely rejected by the settlers. In July 1736, Charles was commissioned to England as the bearer of dispatches to the trustees of the colony. On 16 August 1736, he sailed from Charleston, South Carolina, never to return to the Georgia colony.
Wesley's conversion had a clear impact on his doctrine, especially the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The change in doctrine can be seen in his sermons after 1738, but is most notable in his hymns written after 1738.
Wesley felt renewed strength to spread the Gospel to ordinary people and it was around then that he began to write the poetic hymns for which he would become known. It was not until 1739 that the brothers took to field preaching, under the influence of George Whitefield, whose open-air preaching was already reaching great numbers of Bristol colliers.
In April 1749, he married the much younger Sarah Gwynne (1726–1822), also known as Sally. She was the daughter of Marmaduke Gwynne, a wealthy Welsh magistrate who had been converted to Methodism by Howell Harris. They moved into a house in Bristol in September 1749. Sarah accompanied the brothers on their evangelistic journeys throughout Britain, until at least 1753. After 1756 Charles made no more journeys to distant parts of the country, mainly just moving between Bristol and London.
Only three of the couple's children survived infancy: Charles Wesley junior (1757–1834), Sarah Wesley (1759–1828), who like her mother was also known as Sally and Samuel Wesley (1766–1837) Their other children, John, Martha Maria, Susannah, Selina and John James are all buried in Bristol having died between 1753 and 1768. (See monument in garden on north side of junction of Lewis Mead and The Haymarket, Bristol.) Both Samuel and Charles junior were musical child prodigies and, like their father, became organists and composers. Charles junior spent most of his career as the personal organist of the English Royal family, and Samuel became one of the most accomplished Musicians in the world and is often called "the English Mozart." Furthermore, Samuel Wesley's son, Samuel Sebastian Wesley, was one of the foremost British composers of the 19th century.
After ceasing field preaching and frequent travel due to illness in 1765, Wesley settled and worked in the area around St Marylebone Parish Church. On his deathbed he sent for the church's rector, John Harley, and told him "Sir, whatever the world may say of me, I have lived, and I die, a member of the Church of England. I pray you to bury me in your churchyard." Upon his death, his body was carried to the church by six clergymen of the Church of England. A memorial stone to him stands in the gardens in Marylebone High Street, close to his place of burial. One of his sons, Samuel, became the organist at the church.
In 1771, Charles obtained another house, in London, and moved into it that year with his elder son. By 1778 the whole family had transferred from Bristol to the London house, at 1 Chesterfield Street (now (now Wheatley Street), Marylebone, where they remained until Charles' death and on into the 19th century. The house in Bristol still stands and has been restored, however the London house was demolished in the mid 19th century.
Some 150 of his hymns are in the Methodist hymn book Hymns and Psalms, including "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing, and "The Church Hymn Book" (In New York and Chicago, US, 1872) where "Jesus, Lover of My Soul" is published. Many of his hymns are translated into other languages, and form the foundation for Methodist hymnals, as well as the Swedish Metodist-Episkopal-Kyrkans Psalmbok printed in Stockholm in 1892.
Wesley is still remembered for his ministry while in St. Simon's Island, Georgia, by the South Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church; in 1950, the conference opened a Christian retreat center on the island by the banks of the Frederica River, designating it Epworth by the Sea in honour of his and John's birthplace. He is commemorated in the Calendar of Saints of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on 2 March with his brother John. The Wesley brothers are also commemorated on 3 March in the Calendar of Saints of the Episcopal Church and on 24 May in the Anglican calendar. Charles is commemorated on 29 March in the Calendar of Commemorations by The Order of Saint Luke; John is commemorated on 2 March; their parents are also commemorated.
As a result of his enduring hymnody, the Gospel Music Association recognised his musical contributions to the art of gospel music in 1995 by listing his name in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
In November 2007, An Post, the Irish Post Office, issued a 78c stamp to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Wesley's birth.
Wesley was the 18th child in his family. He has been said to be "the greatest hymn Writer of all time", with about 6,500 hymns to his credit.