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

Early on a Sunday morning

It is early on a Sunday morning and I am listening to a cd of old hymns.

There are many Christians who wouldn’t know a classic old hymn if they fell over it. The churches they attend only play the current contemporary songs – some which are wonderful but many are formulaic, and the worst are the “Jesus is my Boyfriend” type which only requires a slight tweak to become a contemporary secular song.

What do we lose by not singing historical hymns?

1. We lose the history of the church. We relegate the great movements in the church to the dust pile. The medieval hymn “O sacred head now wounded”, possibly written by Bernard of Clairvaux, is an insight into the heart and soul of our medieval brothers and sisters as they contemplated and reflected on the death of their/our saviour. In the Geneva of the Reformation a passion for the Psalms was renewed under the glow of the Reformation. And how else could we understand the heart of a regenerated slaver if it wasn’t for “Amazing Grace”.

2. We lose our connection with the saints of the past – their stories and journeys in the Kingdom. In other words we lose perspective. “It is well with my soul” also known as “When peace like a river” is the response of Horatio Spafford after first losing everything in the Chicago fire of 1871 and then losing his four daughters when their ship sank travelling to Europe. It is a testament to faith and trust under enormous personal hardship. If we don’t sing that hymn we are the losers.

3. I believe the worst aspect of failing to recognise the great hymns of the past is that we, in our C21st arrogance, make ourselves the centre of history and the universe rather than just seeing ourselves as a group of fellow pilgrims journeying over the centuries as we prepare for the return of the King.


Categories: christian, Christianity, Church, hymns, Reflections | Tags: | 4 Comments

A Prayer With Which to Start Sunday

I found this beautiful little hymn in Marva J Dawn’s book, “Is It  Lost Cause? Having the Heart of God for the Church’s Children” It is a great prayer with which to start this Lord’s Day. The hymn is by the C19th Moravian, Frederick William Foster.

To Thee our vows with sweet accord,
head of your church, we pay;
we and our house will serve you Lord;
your word we will obey.
Grant us and all our children grace
in word and deed your name to praise,
and in each family, your will 
and purpose to fulfil.
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By Faith in Christ I Walk With God – John Newton

Yesterday I posted one of Newton’s hymns which was not Amazing Grace. I couldn’t help

Newton’s grave in Olney. It was moved over 100 years ago from London when his grave was in the path of Tube extensions.

myself. Here is another. What I love about his words/poetry is the intersection of Biblical truth with life’s experience. This hymn also has echoes of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The words may be quaint with their archaic usage but the truth and meaning ring clear. Thanks once again to cyberhymnal.org.

By faith in Christ I walk with God,
With Heav’n, my journey’s end, in view;
Supported by His staff and rod,
My road is safe and pleasant too.

I travel through a desert wide
Where many round me blindly stray;
But He vouchsafes to be my Guide,
And will not let me miss my way.

Though snares and dangers throng my path,
And earth and hell my course withstand;
I triumph over all by faith,
Guarded by His almighty hand.

The wilderness affords no food,
But God for my support prepares;
Provides me every needful good,
And frees my soul from wants and cares.

With Him sweet converse I maintain,
Great as He is I dare be free;
I tell Him all my grief and pain,
And He reveals His love to me.

Some cordial from His Word He brings,
Whene’er my feeble spirit faints;
At once my soul revives and sings,
And yields no more to sad complaints.

I pity all that worldlings talk
Of pleasures that will quickly end;
Be this my choice, O Lord, to walk
With Thee, my Guide, my Guard, my Friend.

Categories: christian, Christianity, Devotional, Faith, hymns, Poem, poetry | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

Begone Unbelief – John Newton

The trouble with writing a great hymn like Amazing Grace is that the poet’s other hymns are forgotten. John Newton wrote many hymns;  a number with his friend William Cowper (The Olney Hymns). However if you peruse Newton’s hymns you find many challenging and encouraging words. A good place to search for them is at Cyberhymnal.org.

The following hymn is a wonderful encouragement to hold to the promises of God when circumstances tempt us to look elsewhere.

This painting is at the Cowper and Newton Museum in Olney

Begone unbelief, my Savior is near,
And for my relief will surely appear:
By prayer let me wrestle, and He wilt perform,
With Christ in the vessel, I smile at the storm.

Though dark be my way, since He is my Guide,
’Tis mine to obey, ’tis His to provide;
Though cisterns be broken, and creatures all fail,
The Word He has spoken shall surely prevail.

His love in time past forbids me to think
He’ll leave me at last in trouble to sink;
Each sweet Ebenezer I have in review,
Confirms His good pleasure to help me quite through.

Determined to save, He watched o’er my path,
When Satan’s blind slave, I sported with death;
And can He have taught me to trust in His Name,
And thus far have brought me, to put me to shame?

Why should I complain of want or distress,
Temptation or pain? He told me no less:
The heirs of salvation, I know from His Word,
Through much tribulation must follow their Lord.

How bitter that cup, no heart can conceive,
Which He drank quite up, that sinners might live!
His way was much rougher, and darker than mine;
Did Jesus thus suffer, and shall I repine?

Since all that I meet shall work for my good,
The bitter is sweet, the medicine is food;
Though painful at present, wilt cease before long,
And then, O! how pleasant, the conqueror’s song!

Categories: christian, Christianity, Devotional, Faith, hymns, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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