The Wesleys’ Hymns

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:

Categories: christian, Christianity, Church, hymns, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 11 Comments

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11 thoughts on “The Wesleys’ Hymns

  1. Kees

    cf “Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns – How pop culture Rewrote the Hymnal” by T David Gordon. P & R Publishing, Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 2010.
    Although this author has a bias against guitars, and sometimes confounds his arguments because of that, most of his arguments are valid, well grounded, and reasonably succinct. Worth reading.

    • I must have a look. It sounds interesting.

    • Hi Kees, I have finally read the book. The following is a short review I placed on Goodreads:
      There as there is much that I agree with in this book such as: the dearth of great hymns in public worship, our poor knowledge of hymnody and etc. There is also much I disagree with. It is nearly as though the Holy Spirit has stopped inspiring people in the last few decades. Gordon’s tarring of all modem choruses with the same brush is disappointing. The thoughtful works of Rich Mullins, Michael Card, Keith Green and John Michael Talbot are implicitly brushed aside – heaven help them if they used a guitar.

      Although the analysis of the superficiality of much of the modern music is compelling and astute, Gordon misses the nuance of those who strive against popular and superifical trends

      The poverty of this book is a lack of balance. Yes there are trite choruses but I am also sure that many of the poor old hymns have disappeared and we only see the best. By overstating his case the author has spoiled the power of his argument.

      PS I would encourage him to listen to Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band to put a guitar into a different context. I also thought that I would love to have heard Jimi Hendrix do a version of A Mighty Fortress …

      • Kees

        Yes, he has overstated his argument. At the same time, there is some sympathy for his argument in a world with precious few hymns, in a world awash with fluffy songs. Oh for the day when the evening service is used for enjoying lots of hymns and just a little sermon. Oh, the envy I have for the dying for whom the church choir (or a rump thereof) sings hymns with the departing. How thankful I am for all the hymns of childhood I can recall, especially when the task at hand lacks any interesting aspects.

      • You are starting to sound cynical in your senior years! 🙂 I agree we need to appreciate the hymnody of our church history – but let us not get snooty about the good stuff that is done today.

      • Kees

        I remember that, in 1970, I heard about a Youth Synod at a Reformed Churches Youth Convention in the USA. Amongst the overtures was a request for more modern songs to be included in the Church services.
        This sounded like a good idea at the time, and I persuaded the Kingston Youth Club that we should ask the Session for same. Their response was to allow one or two songs chosen by the youth to be sung before the service – singing to be led by one of the youth. This was to be for a period of trial!
        They were worried about campfire style songs, and did ask to vet the choices before each Sunday.
        So began the slow separation of the RCA Kingston from the Psalter Hymnal. Not an inevitable separation, nor evolutionary, but a slowly growing awareness and acceptance of points of view not included in the Psalter. To say nothing of Synod trying to keep up.

      • So you were the cause of Johnny’s problem!

        One of the issues that we always see topics like this in absolute terms. Then or now, modern or old. What about Biblical, aesthetic and most of all, worshipful!

  2. John Ball

    Thanks for this, Pieter. Couldn’t agree more about the need to keep some of these lovely old hymns in our modern worship. You’ll often hear Graham Kendrick making a similar argument. As a 5th generation Methodist, I was brought up on this stuff. I have the CD you mention here. My favourite Maddy Prior & Carnival Band album of Wesley songs is another one called ‘Sing Lustily with Good Courage’ – have you come across that? Cheers, John

  3. Yes John, I do have the other album. It is also one of our favourites. Hetty and I both loved the song “Come Away to the Skies” on the “Paradise Found” album.

  4. Thank you for the post, Pieter. If you are interested, the book Black Country, the opening book of The Asbury Triptych Series, features many of the writings of Charles and John Wesley. Black Country details the key figures in the early Methodist movement in England, featuring not only the brothers Wesley, but also George Whitefield, Lady Selina the Countess of Huntingdon (she was the financial backer to the Wesleys and Whitefield), Lord Dartmouth and naturally, the namesake of the trilogy, Francis Asbury. The website for the book series is Feel free to read the numerous character profiles and articles on Francis Asbury while on the website. Again, thank you for the post.

    • Thank you Al for the information. I will certainly pursue it. The people mentioned are in my area of interest. I grew up in a town in Victoria Australia that started life as a Methodist holiday camp. The streets are named after Methodist luminaries of the time and historical places. I lived in “Epworth Street and behind us was Asbury Street. The town has since grown but many of these name traces are still there.

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