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John Wesley and music

September 2017 | by Roger Fay

It comes as almost a shock to read in John Wesley’s Journal that this earnest minister was not above very occasionally attending a concert or, rather more often, looking over large estates of the kind you find in today’s National Trust.

Clearly, Wesley not only regarded all the world as his parish, but saw the created order as God’s providential gift to mankind. Yet, after his conversion to Christ, he never obsessed about culture in the way that some modern evangelicals have.

Although aware of the sacred oratorios of his own day and acknowledging God might, on occasion, use such to convey biblical truth to the unconverted, Wesley was not subservient to new music fashions. He made his own (often idiosyncratic) evaluation of musical performances, but viewed them from a spiritual standpoint.

Oratorios

John Wesley wrote in his journal, for 29 February 1764: ‘I heard Judith, an oratorio [by Thomas Arne, composer of the music for ‘Rule, Britannia!’] performed at the Lock. Some parts of it are exceedingly fine; but there are two things in all modern pieces of music which I could never reconcile to common sense.

‘One is singing the same words ten times over; the other, singing different words by different persons at one and the same time. And this, in the most solemn addresses to God, whether by way of prayer or of thanksgiving. This can never be defended by all the musicians in Europe till reason is quite out of date’!

Both John and Charles Wesley were friendly with family members of Newcastle’s contemporary composer Charles Avison, and John had appreciated reading Avison’s Essay on music. He called Avison ‘a thorough master of the subject’.

In his journal for Thursday, 17 August 1758, John Wesley had written: ‘I went to the [Bristol] cathedral to hear Mr Handel’s Messiah. I doubt if that congregation was ever so serious at a sermon as they were during this performance. In many parts, especially several of the choruses, it exceeded my expectation’.

But, in spite of his appreciation, we don’t find Wesley turning Methodist meetings into indoor or open-air concerts (either high-brow or low-brow), or parading ensembles of musicians and singers at his evangelistic meetings, even though doing so might well have saved him from many a hard stone or clod of vile-smelling mud.

Moreover, such an alliance of gospel and culture was not inconceivable, since the eighteenth-century theatres and assembly halls were mainly full, while the churches were mainly empty. But Wesley knew that the ministry of the gospel must be by Word and Spirit, not by carnal stratagem (2 Corinthians 10:3-5); from this he never deviated.

In the same way, today there can be no justification for attempting to draw people to evangelical churches by the use of ensembles and bands (whatever genre of music is on offer). It is surely enough to sing united hymns and psalms of praise to God without resorting to musical entertainments. And shouldn’t Jesus Christ be the only attraction in our worship services anyway?

Holy Spirit baptism

Probably the most powerful experience Wesley ever had of the Spirit of God took place on 1 January 1739. It was just seven months after his conversion.

In his account of this astonishing experience, we read of no musical instruments or music programme, although there was, Wesley records, unaccompanied sung praise, some of it quite spontaneous. George Whitefield said it was ‘the happiest’ New Year’s Day he had ever seen.

The occasion was a Moravian love feast at the Fetter Lane Society, in London, attended by 60 Moravians and seven Oxford Methodists. The love feast began at 9.30pm on New Year’s Eve, and the evening was spent in prayer to God and in ‘psalms and thanksgivings’.

John Wesley describes what happened a few hours later: ‘About three in the morning, as we were continuing instant in prayer, the power of God came mightily upon us, insomuch that many cried for exceeding joy, and many fell to the ground.

‘As soon as we were recovered a little from that awe and amazement at the presence of his Majesty, we broke out with one voice, “We praise thee, O God; we acknowledge thee to be the Lord!”’

It seems that this Pentecost experience was an enduement of power from on high, preparing the early Methodists for preaching the gospel in spiritual power — especially in the open-air — to many thousands in Britain, Ireland and America.

Such an account of vital, authentic spiritual experience presents a huge challenge to evangelicals today. Occurring as it did in a context devoid of worship ‘aids’ (or electricity supply!), it stands in stark contrast to today’s arid, entertainment-driven spiritual ‘ministry’.

Breathtaking prospect

Wesley was no killjoy; he could be appreciative of cultural dimensions. But he was aware too of their transitory nature.

He wrote for Friday, 25 August 1769: ‘We rode through a lovely country to Chepstow. I had designed to go straight on, but yielded to the importunity of our friends to stay and preach in the evening. Meantime, I took a walk through Mr Morris’s woods [at Piercefield]. There is scarcely anything like them in the kingdom.

‘They stand on the top and down the side of a steep mountain, hanging in a semi-circular form over the river. Through these woods, abundance of serpentine walks are cut, wherein many seats and alcoves are placed; most of them command a surprising prospect of rocks and fields on the other side of the river. And must all these be burned up? What will become of us then, if we set our hearts upon them?’

Music events and festivals, and large estates, will one day wither away like the flower of the field in the scorching sun, but what is accomplished by the Word of God will stand for ever (Isaiah 40:6-8).

Roger Fay is a director and editor of Evangelical Times, a director of Evangelical Press Missionary Trust, and pastor of Zion Evangelical Baptist Church, Ripon