I would rather have written ‘Jesus, Lover of My Soul’than to have the fame of all the kings that ever lived.” So said Henry Ward Beecher, the famed nineteenth-century preacher. That hymn is but one of many by Charles and John Wesley still sung in English-speaking churches everywhere.

Two hundred years ago this December, the Methodist Episcopal Church became the first denomination organized in the United States. Although John Wesley himself directed its development from England, his greatest influence ultimately may have been through the hymns he and his brother Charles wrote and published. For the past two centuries, those hymns have been a dynamic, effective force wherever the Methodist church has taken root. The two brothers changed to a radical degree the course of hymnody and hymn singing in their own day, and they significantly influenced its development to the present.

Charles Wesley’s hymns are a true model of the proper balance of theology and personal experience. Whereas most hymns stress one aspect or the other, Charles’s hymns not only teach Wesleyan theology, but encourage the singer to make the words an expression of his own experience. Any aspiring hymn writer would benefit from a thorough study of Wesley’s texts.

The Wesleys’ hymns express the full range of Christian doctrine in song, while at the same time maintaining literary integrity. As John said: “In these hymns there is no doggerel; no botches; nothing put in to patch up the rhyme; no feeble expletives. Here is nothing turgid or bombast, on the one hand, or low and creeping, on the other. Here are no words without meaning. Here are purity, the strength, and the elegance of the English language; and, at the same time, the utmost simplicity and plainness, suited to every capacity.”

Their Hymnic Heritage

Samuel Wesley, their minister father, prepared his sons early for their hymn writing. He considered the quality of the popular metrical versions of the psalms then sung in church so wretched that it was impossible to make “good music of them.” His criticism greatly influenced John, who disguised none of his own feelings when he chided the psalm-singing practices of the local town churches. (As children, John and Charles had experienced the prevailing practice of “lining out.” Since the people usually did not have individual hymnals, the leader would sing out a line or two at a time, which then was repeated by the congregation. If the leader was bad—usually the case, apparently—the congregational singing could be atrocious and seemingly unending.) The “miserable, scandalous doggerel” of the psalter, said John, was droned out by “a poor, humdrum wretch” two lines at a time, then “bawled out … by a handful of wild, unawakened striplings … who neither feel nor understand” what they are singing.

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Hymn- and psalm-singing evidently was a regular feature of the meetings of the Holy Club, founded at Oxford by John and Charles with George Whitefield. It was not until John and Charles were enroute to America in 1735, however, that John realized that hymn singing could be a spiritual experience. (The two were going to the colonies as missionaries, John to be chaplain to the English colony at Savannah, and Charles to be chaplain and secretary to Gov. James Oglethorpe.) The 26 German Moravian colonists on board ship made great use of hymns as a regular part of their religious practice. John was so moved by the singing of the Moravians during a storm at sea that he began to learn German so he could converse with them and also make English translations of their hymns. Among the German poems he translated were those of Count Nikolaus Zinzendorf (“Jesus, thy blood and righteousness”) and, particularly, Paul Gerhardt (“Give to the winds thy fears,” “Jesus, thy boundless love to me”). Ever after, John made hymns an important part of his ministry, even though his own ability to appreciate a hymn was surprisingly limited. “I seldom relish verses at first hearing,” he wrote in his Journal on July 3, 1764; “till I have heard them over and over, they give me no pleasure; and they give me next to none when I have heard them a few times more, so as to be quite familiar.”

Why The Wesleys Wrote Hymns

Erik Routley, the late English hymn authority, summarized three purposes in Charles Wesley’s hymn writing: “(1) to provide a body of Christian teaching” as found both in the Bible and in the Book of Common Prayer; (2) “to provide material for public praise; and (3) to objectify his rich personal faith.”

As Luther before him, Charles Wesley saw the hymn as an effective means of teaching theology. Over a 57-year period he sought to encompass the full range of theology in his writing, composing an average of three hymns a week. Of his 8,989 extant religious poems, about 6,500 are considered hymns. Many of these poems were intended as much for private devotional enrichment as for public singing. In fact, John called Charles “the most admirable devotionallyric poet in the English language.”

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An ordained Anglican minister—he and John never left the Anglican church—Charles tried to create a liturgical hymnody. He wrote hymns for the entire church year, ranging from Advent (“Come, thou long expected Jesus”) and Christmas (“Hark, the herald angels sing”), to Easter (“Christ the Lord is risen today”) and Ascension (“Hail the day that sees him rise”). By contrast, Isaac Watts, the other major hymn writer of the day (whose psalm settings were in wide use), never wrote a Christmas hymn because Christmas was not celebrated in his church. Watts’s “Joy to the World,” commonly considered a Christmas hymn, clearly is about Christ’s second advent and millenial reign, not his nativity.

Charles and John attempted to reform those abominable psalm-singing practices of their day. John’s seven rules for singing (see box) were published as part of the 1780 hymnal. Their efforts to set the course of hymnody on a new path were surely effective, for the singing of the Methodists was characterized by enthusiasm and spontaneity.

Although the Wesleys ministered to the social outcasts of their day, their hymns actually were directed more to the cultured elite. Both the text and accompanying music were of a relatively sophisticated style. The brothers were more interested in reaching the educated, not the illiterate, with their hymns, and they disdained such popular musical devices as the refrain—which has remained a staple of the gospel song since its inception.

Beginning their hymn-writing career during the voyage to Georgia, John continued to translate and use new hymns upon his arrival at Savannah. His procedure was simple, systematic, and effective. First, he would translate a hymn and sing it by himself. Then he would try it out with a few people who met with him for early morning devotions. He would also visit people in hospitals and sick rooms and sing it with them. Finally, he would use the hymn in weeknight and Sunday meetings. Only after he had extensively tested each hymn in actual use would he allow it to be printed.

John printed his first hymnal at Savannah in 1737, Collection of Psalms and Hymns. Half of the 70 selections were by Watts. (Charles had not yet begun to write hymns and had already returned in disgrace to England.) The parishioners responded with such extreme hostility that, in that same year, a grand jury in Savannah charged John with altering the authorized metrical psalms and “introducing into the church and service at the Altar compositions of psalms and hymns not inspected or authorized by any proper judicature.” For this and other reasons, John slipped out of Georgia before the trial and returned to England, in disgrace and quite disillusioned with the church.

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Composing The Hymns

Crushed by the narrow legalism of the church, John and Charles associated themselves with the Moravian community in Aldersgate, London. On Whitsunday, May 21, 1738, the day of his conversion, Charles opened the Scriptures to Psalm 40:3: “He hath put a new song in my mouth; many will see and fear and will trust in the Lord.” The very next day he started his first hymn, “Where shall my wand’ring soul begin?” (There is some debate as to whether that hymn or “And can it be?” was the first: they were written at about the same time, and both are largely autobiographical and reveal Charles’s despondency at his legalistic bondage.)

Many of Charles’s hymns are autobiographical. When the Moravian Peter Böhler said to Charles, “Had I a thousand tongues, I would praise him with them all,” Charles responded on May 21, 1739, with “O for a thousand tongues,” which he originally captioned, “For the Anniversary Day of One’s Conversion.” The commonly omitted first 6 stanzas of the original 19 are closely related to Charles’s conversion. For example, the original second stanza clearly is Charles’s own testimony:

On this glad day the glorious Sun

Of Righteousness arose,

On my benighted soul he shone,

And filled it with repose.

John’s conversion occurred three days after Charles’s, on Wednesday evening, May 24, which followed his attendance at an afternoon performance at Saint Paul’s Cathedral of William Croft’s setting of Psalm 130, “Out of the Deep.”

Charles influenced both the literary and musical styles of hymnody. When he began to write, only three patterns of syllables per line, or meters, were commonly used. One of his major contributions was the expansion of metric patterns. This gave greater energy and variety to the texts, for he used over 30 such patterns. He also insisted that a hymn should have genuine poetic quality and raise the masses to its level. This contrasted directly with Watts’s view that a hymn was not a poem—and should be written down to the lowest level of the masses!

The Wesleys made use of many musical sources—the German chorale, classical and popular melodies, folk tunes, and new psalm tunes. John was especially concerned that the tunes encourage total congregational participation and be both serious and reverent. He believed the function of the tune was to express the words. Trying to influence the choice of music to which the hymns were sung, he approved 102 tunes and published them in a series of tune-books.

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John’s primary musical contribution became the editing and publishing of Charles’s hymns, making him the first English hymnal compiler. He tried to keep Charles’s texts from straying into areas he believed might be theologically questionable; also, Charles seemed totally incapable of self-criticism. Over a 50-year period, 1741–91, John published a series of 30 hymn tracts, each containing a group of hymns on a single subject. These were eventually collected into the definitive hymnal of 1780, A Collection of Hymns for the use of the People called Methodists (three shillings, sewed). John called it “large enough to contain all the important truths of our most holy religion.” The structure of the book reflects his conviction that a hymnal should be organized along theologically logical lines.

John and Charles’s first joint hymnal, Hymns and Sacred Poems, appeared in 1739. What it omits is nearly as instructive as what it includes—such as “Jesus, lover of my soul” because John objected to the intimate and “amatory” nature of the text. This hymn did appear in their next hymnal (1740), however, along with “O for a thousand tongues” and “Christ, whose glory fills the skies.” Over the next 47 years the Wesleys edited and substantially wrote no fewer than 64 hymnals; 36 consisted exclusively of texts by John and Charles.

Some of the sources from which Charles occasionally took inspiration for his texts would disturb some contemporary evangelicals. For example, the first line of “Jesus, lover of my soul” comes from the Apocrypha, Wisdom of Solomon 11:26, “O Lord, thou lover of souls.” Charles could even write a text based on a commentary, for, in 1762, he put comments by Matthew Henry on Leviticus 8:35 into verse. The hymn, “A charge to keep I have,” was one of 16 on Levitical texts.

Charles sometimes had particular music in mind when he wrote. When he wrote “Love divine, all loves excelling,” he was thinking of a specific tune by the English composer Henry Purcell. The title is actually based on a line from a patriotic poem by John Dryden that extols Britain as the “Fairest Isle, all isles excelling.”

In the year of his conversion, Charles wrote “Hark, how all the welkin [the heavens’ expanse] rings / Glory to the King of Kings.” George Whitefield changed the first two lines in 1753 to the now familiar “Hark, the herald angels sing / Glory to the newborn King.” As an interesting sidelight, some years ago a major British medical firm, the Beecham Pharmaceutical Company (of which the late conductor Sir Thomas Beecham was an heir), gave hymnals to churches as part of a promotional scheme. (This is not unlike a former practice of American funeral homes of providing churches with cardboard fans, usually showing a pastoral scene on one side and a printed advertisement for the funeral home on the other.) In the Beecham hymnal, the congregation at Christmastime could find itself performing a singing commercial:

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Hark, the herald angels sing

Beecham’s Pills are just the thing,

Peace on earth and mercy mild,

Good for man and good for child.

Texts Of Substance

Writing in his 1780 preface, John Wesley commented on the theological comprehensiveness of their hymnal.

“In what other publication of this time have you so full and distinct an account of Scriptural Christianity? Such a declaration of the heights and depths of religion, speculative and practical? So strong cautions against the most plausible errors? And so clear directions for making our calling and election sure; for perfecting holiness in the fear of God?”

In fact, it seems that hardly any theological topic escaped Charles’s poetic hand. Though some topics emerge with greater frequency than others, one of the most significant is his emphasis on free grace and unlimited atonement.

At the time, the predominant theological views were Calvinistic, as expressed in the hymns of Isaac Watts. While Watts could thank God for his own salvation, as one of the “elect,” he did not utter a word of invitation to others. Part of the opposition the Wesleys faced was a result of their sympathy with the views of the sixteenth-century Dutch theologian Arminius. They believed a man could himself decide whether or not he would be saved since God’s grace is free and salvation is truly offered to all. Because a man could be persuaded, the Christian was responsible to move others to accept this salvation. This new note of evangelism introduced the modern evangelistic hymn.

Charles could in fact attack the doctrine of election with a startling vehemence. In 1741 he wrote “The Horrible Decree,” a 15-stanza hymn that includes these lines:

Ah, gentle, gracious Dove,

And art thou grieved in me?

That sinners should restrain thy love

And say, “It is not free;

It is not free for all;

The most thou passest by,

And mockest with a fruitless call

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Whom thou has doomed to die.”


Worthy of whence it came!

Forgive their hellish blasphemy

Who charge it on the Lamb,

Whose pity him inclined

To leave his throne above,

The Friend and Savior of mankind,

The God of grace and love.

Charles sometimes expressed the doctrine of Christian perfection—also a frequent theme—too strongly even for John, who occasionally found it necessary to emend his brother’s texts. In stanza four of “Love Divine,” for example, John changed the original “pure and sinless let us be” to “pure and spotless.” He also objected to “Take away our power [italics Charles’s] of sinning.”

Another frequent theological emendation in that same hymn revolves around the phrase “Let us find that second rest.” Wesley meant it as a second work of grace, and the text bothered many even then. Although numerous hymnals today retain the original phrase, others use the alteration of 1760, “Let us find that promised rest.”

Yet another phrase in the same hymn, “changed from glory into glory,” refers to progressive sanctification. Most singers today, if they think about it at all, probably assume the phrase refers to our eventual entrance into heaven, although the use of the word “till” in “till in heaven we take our place” obviously precludes any interpretation other than an increasing level of holiness in this earthly life.

John was particularly jealous for the integrity of their hymn texts. He himself felt perfectly free to tamper with Charles’s hymns as well as those of others, but he warned anyone else against doing so. In the 1780 preface, he unequivocally denounced such efforts. “Many Gentlemen have done my Brother and me (though without naming us) the honour to reprint many of our hymns. Now they are perfectly welcome to do so, provided they print them just as they are. But I desire they would not attempt to mend them; for they really are not able. None of them is able to mend either the sense or the verse.”

The Wesleys would have been especially horrified at a change in their denominational hymnal from 1935–1964 that avoided the doctrine of the Virgin Birth in “Hark, the herald angels sing.” “Late in time, behold him come, / Offspring of a Virgin’s womb” was changed to “Long desired, behold him come, / Finding here his humble home.”

The personal element in the Wesleyan hymns was another departure, a major development that helped pave the way for the gospel song of the nineteenth century. English hymnody largely had avoided personal language, and a phrase such as “And can it be that I should gain?” was therefore somewhat revolutionary.

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The Wesleys’ Legacy

In addition to titles already mentioned, we are familiar with many others: “Ye servants of God, your master proclaim,” “Rejoice, the Lord is king,” “Depth of mercy, can there be,” “Arise, my soul, arise,” “I want a principle within,” “O for a heart to praise my God,” “Soldiers of Christ, arise,” “Praise the Lord who reigns above.” Of 552 selections in the 1964 Methodist Hymnal, 80 selections are from the hand of the two brothers—72 hymns by Charles and 8 by John. Practically every English language hymnal also contains contributions of the Wesleys. One current English hymnal includes 240 of their hymns; even that is barely 2½ percent of Charles’s total output.

In our era, when an increasing number of believers are struggling for release from the pervasive spiritual bondage of guilt trips laid upon them by their subculture, the emphasis of the Wesleys on God’s love and grace—and subsequent freedom from such bondage—can be a much-needed relief and encouragement. They speak to our culture, and to us, with the positive message of God’s complete forgiveness and limitless love, and they set the pattern for our own responses.

Tim Stafford is a free-lance writer living in Santa Rosa, California. He is a distinguished contributor to several magazines. His latest book is Do You Sometimes Feel Like a Nobody? (Zondervan, 1980).

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