The hymns of Charles Wesley
The Charles Wesley hymns that we find in our current hymnbooks and other sources are so popular, especially when set to rousing tunes, that it is hard to understand why so few are in current use.
There does appear to be some misunderstanding among producers of modern songbooks. It is thought that, unless hymns are in modern idiom, they will not appeal to young people.
This may be true of hymns in which the words lack fire, especially when set to dirgy tunes, but Wesley hymns are a great exception. Many young people are surprised when they enter a meeting in which Wesley hymns are sung enthusiastically to suitable tunes.
I have noticed that young people, in some cases completely unfamiliar with Christian meetings, respond very positively to these hymns, even when the older English idiom in which they were written remains unmodernised.
Many of the most popular tunes are actually traditional tunes, but not of the Anglican genre to which most traditional hymns are still set. Nonconformists have traditionally had their own alternative hymn tunes and a number of these survive today.
Obvious examples are Lydia (‘Jesus the name high over all’), Sagina (‘And can it be’), Lyngham (‘O for a thousand tongues’), Wilton (‘O thou who camest from above’) and so forth.
Such tunes are still being written today, but there is a trend to set them aside in favour of modern arrangements, such as those popularised by Songs of Fellowship.
The reader may be surprised to hear that I am by no means against modern songs in principle. Like all creative works, they vary in quality and I have been responsible for introducing a number of these into our own fellowship.
But the really interesting thing is that Wesley hymns set to the most suitable tunes can easily be interspersed with the best modern songs — yes, in the same meeting. And young people love them!
They are also a very useful basis for doctrinal instruction, particularly if sung more than once in the same meeting, and with explanation of some of the concepts and language.
One of the problems with young Christians today is that many of the songs they are given to sing in meetings are minimal in doctrinal content. But this is by no means true of the Scripture-based Wesley hymns.
All it needs is a bit of grit to get these hymns back in circulation, even as a supplementary diet. We must not be demoralised by the propaganda which insists that hymns cannot edify unless everything is presented in modern language!
As some readers will know, Charles Wesley was converted to Christ in May 1738 and from that time until his death in 1788 he wrote over 6000 hymns, including some of the most powerful in the English language.
Immediately after the opening of the City Road Chapel in 1778, Charles’ brother, John, began preparing a collection of 539 hymns, first published in 1780.
This was the largest single-volume collection of Charles’ hymns and became known popularly as Wesley’s hymns, eventually evolving (or maybe ‘devolving’?) into the Methodist hymnbook.
Now let me talk about two great, yet neglected, Wesley hymns. Hymn 415 in Wesley’s hymns is ‘Jesus hath died that I might live’. This is a favourite of mine, not least because it includes the following profound verse:
Thy gifts, alas, cannot suffice
Unless Thyself be given.
Thy presence makes my paradise,
And where Thou art is heaven.
I wonder if it could have been inspired by these words from the Song of Songs: ‘Because of the fragrance of your good ointments, your name is as ointment poured forth’ (1:3).
This tells us that we know of God’s goodness by the gifts he gives us. His many gifts are a sign of his intentions toward us. The fact that all these gifts are good tells us that he means us well. And the very fact that he can and does give us such amazing gifts shows the goodness of his essential nature.
By this, God proves to us how worthy he is to be loved, adored and worshipped. You cannot separate God from his essential goodness. Praise God! What a wonderful God he is!
Possibly one of the most powerful hymns ever written in the English language is Charles Wesley’s ‘O God, my hope, my heavenly rest’. It is split into two parts in the larger Wesley hymnbook to become Hymns 283 and 284.
This amazing hymn is based on the incident described in the Book of Exodus where Moses asks God, ‘Please, show me your glory’.
God replies that he will indeed make his goodness pass before Moses and will proclaim Jahweh’s name before him. But he adds: ‘You cannot see my face; for no one will see me, and live’.
So God gives Moses a place to stand on the rock by him, and Moses would be protected by the rock, covered by God’s hand. Finally, God would take away his hand and allow Moses to see his back, ‘but my face shall not be seen’ (Exodus 33:18-23).
The hymn begins with this prayer:
O God, my hope, my heavenly rest,
My all of happiness below,
Grant my importunate request,
To me, to me, Thy goodness show;
Thy beatific face display,
The brightness of eternal day.
Here Charles Wesley, basing his prayer on Moses’ request, is asking God for the same favour. He wants to see God — directly, with nothing between God and himself. This is a very daring request, since God describes himself as ‘a consuming fire’ (Hebrews 12:29).
‘Beatific’ is a word not commonly used by modern evangelical Christians, being more common in mystical writings. In fact, the ‘beatific vision’ denotes an unmediated sight of God’s glory. Yet, appropriately, Wesley asks God to empower his soul to bear this glorious sight:
O put me in the cleft; empower
My soul the glorious sight to bear!
His prayer is partially answered. And so the second part of the hymn commences with this testimony:
To Thee, great God of love! I bow,
And prostrate in Thy sight adore;
By faith I see Thee passing now,
But this is not enough for a hungry soul. He goes on:
I have, but still I ask for more,
A glimpse of love cannot suffice,
My soul for all Thy presence cries.
The intensity continues to mount and literally explodes in this cry:
I cannot see Thy face, and live,
Then let me see Thy face, and die!
Now, Lord, my gasping spirit receive,
Give me on eagles’ wings to fly,
With eagles’ eyes on Thee to gaze,
And plunge into the glorious blaze.
As the hymn progresses, Charles Wesley shows how his desire ties in with the gospel message; he makes the gospel the legal ground of his plea for this vision:
Moses Thy backward parts might view,
But not a perfect sight obtain;
The gospel doth Thy fulness show
To us, by the commandment slain;
The dead to sin shall find the grace,
The pure in heart shall see Thy face.
More favoured than the saints of old,
Who now by faith approach to Thee,
Shall all with open face behold
In Christ the glorious deity;
Shall see, and put the Godhead on,
The nature of Thy sinless Son.
What a prayer! With petitions like this, it is no wonder that the people of this land experienced revival in the 1700s.
Clearly there were people in our nation who took Jesus’ words seriously: ‘But from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of the heavens is taken by violence, and [the] violent seize on it’ (Matthew 11:12).
To be continued
Mike R. Taylor