This past weekend my wife and I attended a Wesley Hymn Fest, where, as you can imagine, we were led in the enthusiastic singing of Wesleyan hymns. Now I don’t come from the Methodist tradition but there was something very special about 250 people being led by a small group of musicians, pipe organ and choir, declaring in song messages of hope, faith and truth.
I was struck by the wonderful words of the hymns. Charles Wesley, often assisted or supported by brother John, knew his Scripture and wove this understanding into his verses. Many hymns were inspired by particular Bible passages, or were Bible passages put to music. In response to Isaiah 51:9 he penned:
Arm of the Lord, awake, awake!
Thine own immortal strength put on!
With terror clothed, hell’s kingdom shake,
And cast thy foes with fury down!
The hymns also reveal a great understanding of the human condition. In an era when many children died young one can feel the tension of faith and pain that Wesley was only too familiar with in a hymn we didn’t sing last Sunday:
Dead, dead! the child I loved so well!
Transported to the world above!
I need no more my heart conceal;
I never dared indulge my love:
But may I not indulge my grief
And seek in tears a sad relief?
The language is quaint but the messages are still intimately personal:
My God, I am Thine, what a comfort divine,
What a blessing to know that my Jesus is mine!
In the heavenly Lamb thrice happy I am,
And my heart it doth dance at the sound of His name.
The image of the dancing heart is uplifting! Charles Wesley wrote nearly 6000 hymns which were often composed for special occasions. And still there were many others from the era who wrote fabulous hymns from John Newton’s Amazing Grace to Isaac Watts’ When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. Watts was a comparative sluggard as he only wrote 750 hymns. And there are others: William Cowper, Frances Havergal … and all the way back to Bernard of Clairvaux to name only three.
In many churches today these hymns have disappeared under the weight of modern songs and choruses. Every era is inspired by the Spirit anew but we shouldn’t forget these incredible songs from the history of the church – a history that extends all the way to the early church. In the case of the Wesleys it was a history of renewal and revival. It would be good if we had links to these brothers and sisters from the past every time we met in worship.
Here is one of my favourite singers singing one of Charles Wesley’s songs. Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band also have a great album of Wesley’s songs called Paradise Found: