We Are What We Sing

Our classic hymns reveal evangelicalism at its best.
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Evangelicalism at its best is the religion displayed in its classic hymns. The classic evangelical hymns contain the clearest, most memorable, cohesive, and widely repeated expressions of what it has meant to be an evangelical.

Diligent preaching, an incredible organizational energy, and learned theology have gone into the creation of modern evangelicalism. But nothing so profoundly defined the faith of evangelicalism as its hymnody: what evangelicals have been is what we have sung. Perhaps because it so obviously is a creature of the Bible's salvific themes, the hymnody of evangelicalism defined a religion that was clearer, purer, better balanced, and more sharply focused than much evangelical practice.

One way to mark the influence of evangelical hymnody is to ask: When did modern evangelicalism arise in the English-speaking world? It is possible to date that beginning with Jonathan Edwards's preaching of justification by faith in his Northampton, Massachusetts, church in 1735, or with John Wesley's Aldersgate experience in May 1738, or with George Whitefield's momentous preaching tour of New England in September 1740. But it makes more sense to date the emergence of modern evangelicalism to an act of hymn composition by Charles Wesley.

The very week his brother John received an unusual manifestation of divine grace during a Moravian meeting at Aldersgate, Charles Wesley underwent a similar experience. Many know what John Wesley wrote in his journal after his experience: "About a quarter before nine, while [the speaker] was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for my salvation; and an assurance was given me ...

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