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 Issues | Church History | Charles Wesley

 

Great Churchmen (No 8)

Charles Wesley

by Frank Colquhoun

The Poet of the Evangelical Revival

Published by Church Book Room Press

Characteristics of the Hymns

In the remaining part of this sketch we must dwell at a little greater length upon the hymns; for, as we have sought to emphasize, the hymns are Charles Wesley’s abiding legacy to the Church of God. We have already drawn attention to their high literary value. A modern authority on English verse has described Wesley as “the most admirable devotional lyric poet in the English language.”(1) A hymn, for example, like “Wrestling Jacob” (“Come, O Thou Traveller unknown”), with its rich imagery and powerful emotional force, is worthy to be included in any anthology of English lyrics. Or consider the poetical genius enshrined in a single verse like the following:

                 Long my imprisoned spirit lay
                      Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
                 Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
                      I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
                 My chains fell off, my heart was free,
                 I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

We shall not pursue this aspect of the subject further. But it is much to be regretted that Gospel songs since Wesley’s day have not maintained the high standard that he set. Unhappily the evangelistic hymns of the next century—particularly those which were imported from America and which attained an enormous popularity— descended to a level which was scarcely worthy of their exalted theme. And still to-day “mission hymns” are generally of a pathetically poor quality—and the music associated with them is no better. It is a mystery why “the Gospel of the glory of the blessed God” should be allied with doggerel verse and third-rate melody! It would be an immense gain to the cause of modern evangelism if Charles Wesley’s glowing Gospel songs were to be rediscovered and re-enlisted in the service of the Church.

We will now take note of four prominent features of the hymns as a whole: their scriptural and doctrinal content; their personal and experimental character; their note of joyful assurance; and their supreme emphasis upon the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.

1. As regards the first, we may quote again John Wesley’s famous “Preface” to the Collection of 1780 when he inquires: “In what other publication of the kind have you so distinct and full 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; particularly those that are now most prevalent? and so clear directions for making your calling and election sure; for perfecting holiness in the fear of God?”

Charles Wesley was a theologian and scholar of no mean order, and in the course of his hymns all the great doctrines of the Christian faith are formulated and expounded. The Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Resurrection and Ascension, the Holy Spirit, the Church, the Blessed Hope—Wesley moves with perfect mastery among these massive themes. He never strays outside the limits of revelation. In this respect his hymns afford a striking contrast to many modern effusions, which appear to be more concerned with Nature than with Grace and to be based on sentiment rather than on Scripture.

The hymns of Wesley are definitely theological in character, and his theology is derived first-hand from the Bible. An examination of his Short Hymns on Selected Passages of Scripture—over five thousand in all!—will reveal the extraordinary breadth and accuracy of his Bible knowledge. Like his brother John, he was “a man of one book.” It has been said that Holy Scripture was his sole literary inspiration, and that “a skilful man, if the Bible were lost, might extract much of it from Wesley’s hymns.” Nothing is more striking in the hymns than the constant and skilful use of scriptural words, phrases, names and titles. His whole thought was soaked in the language of revelation. Analyse almost any hymn and you will find a biblical allusion in every verse, almost in every line.

2. It is scarcely surprising that Wesley’s hymns strike a deeply personal note in view of their writer’s own spiritual experience. It was, as we have seen, his conversion that opened his lips to show forth God’s praise; and his conversion had been largely influenced by Luther’s emphasis on the personal pronouns in the verse, “Who loved me, and gave Himself for me.” Luther wrote: “Thou shouldest so read these little words me and for me, as to meditate well upon them, and deem that they have much in them. Use thyself to lay hold of this little word me with a sure faith, and apply it to thyself, and do not doubt that thou art of the number named in this little word me.”

We find an echo of this in hymn after hymn. It is prominent, for example, in the hymn which Wesley wrote at the time of his conversion, beginning:

                  And can it be, that I should gain
                       An interest in the Saviour’s blood?
                  Died He for me, who caused His pain?
                       For me, who Him to death pursued?
                  Amazing love! how can it be
                  That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

Another hymn written shortly afterwards is marked by the same personal emphasis:

                      O filial Deity,
                      Accept my new-born cry!
                 See the travail of Thy soul,
                      Saviour, and be satisfied;
                 Take me now, possess me whole,
                      Who for me, for me, hast died!

Well might John Wesley describe the hymns as “a little body of experimental and practical divinity.” Both brothers could say, “We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen.” They were not purveyors of a second-hand religion. Their message, whether in speech or song, issued from a living experience of the grace of God. To them, redemption, forgiveness, new birth, adoption and sanctification were no mere dogmas but realized certainties. Their theology and their experience were one.

                     What we have felt and seen,
                     With confidence we tell;
                And publish to the sons of men
                     The signs infallible.

                     We by His Spirit prove
                     And know the things of God,
                The things which freely of His love
                     He hath on us bestowed.

Let it be added here that the Gospel which the Wesleys offered men included not only the experience of salvation (to use that word in its popular sense) but the experience of sanctification. They laid particular stress on personal holiness as well as on personal forgiveness; they distinguished between the blood which cancels sin and brings peace, and the blood which cleanses from sin and brings purity. So Wesley prays:

                  O for a heart to praise my God,
                       A heart from sin set free!
                  A heart that always feels Thy blood
                       So freely spilt for me!

And again in another hymn:

                 Speak the second time, “Be clean!”
                 Take away my inbred sin;
                 Every stumbling-block remove,
                 Cast it out by perfect love.

This last line is important, as it supplies the key to Wesley’s doctrine of sanctification. The highest aspiration of his heart was to possess and be possessed by “perfect love.” On the one hand he yearned to comprehend the divine love in all its depth and length and breadth and height; on the other hand he longed to love the Lord with all his heart and soul and mind and strength. To him this was the summit of spiritual attainment. Space will not permit us to illustrate this aspect of his teaching, but the reader will find it exemplified in such familiar hymns as “O Love divine! how sweet Thou art,” “Thou hidden love of God,” and “Love divine, all loves excelling.”

3. Again, Wesley’s hymns ring with the note of joyful assurance. In this respect they were in decided contrast to the prevailing religious mood of the day—the somewhat gloomy Calvinism of non-conformity and the cold, unemotional Deism of the Established Church. The clergy—and especially the bishops—were positively afraid of anything in the nature of “enthusiasm”! In the Collection of 1780 the longest section of all was headed “For Believers Rejoicing,” and in the very first hymn we find the glowing lines:

                 O Love, Thou bottomless abyss,
                      My sins are swallowed up in Thee!
                 Covered is my unrighteousness,
                      Nor spot of guilt remains on me,
                 While Jesu’s blood, through earth and skies,
                 Mercy, free, boundless mercy, cries.

This exultant note is characteristic of the hymns. When Wesley thought on the love of God his spirit took to itself wings and soared aloft in songs of jubilant praise. The very metres he employed in certain of his hymns were indicative of the ecstatic joy he felt. He used metres which before his time had been used only for dances and jigs! His joy was such that he could not express it in the customary sedate and sober measures; he must praise the Lord in the dance!

As an instance of what have been called Wesley’s “joyous anapaestics,” take the following verses.

                     My God, I am Thine,
                     What a glory 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.

                     True pleasures abound
                     In the rapturous sound;
                And whoever hath found it hath paradise found:
                     My Jesus to know,
                     And feel His blood flow,
               ’Tis life everlasting, ’tis heaven below.

Or take a verse from a hymn which Wesley wrote to celebrate one of his birthdays:

                     In a rapture of joy
                     My life I employ,
                The God of my life to proclaim;
                    ’Tis worth living for this,
                     To administer bliss
                And salvation in Jesu’s name.

It was when Charles Wesley was approaching his first “spiritual birthday” that he heard his Moravian friend, Peter Böhler, remark, “If I had a thousand tongues, I would praise Jesus Christ with them all!” The words caught hold of the imagination of the poet and to mark the anniversary of his conversion he wrote the joyous lines:

                O for a thousand tongues to sing
                     My great Redeemer’s praise,
                The glories of my God and King,
                     The triumphs of His grace!

                Jesus! the name that charms our fears,
                     That bids our sorrows cease;
               ’Tis music in the sinner’s ears,
                    ’Tis life, and health, and peace.

4. This leads us to remark that the grand characteristic of Wesley’s hymns is their Christ-centredness. The emphasis throughout is upon the person and work of the Redeemer. He sings:

                 My heart is full of Christ, and longs
                      Its glorious matter to declare!
                 Of Him I make my loftier songs,
                      I cannot from His praise forbear;
                 My ready tongue makes haste to sing
                 The glories of my heavenly King.

Surely no other hymn-writer is so “full of Christ” as Charles Wesley. In the words of what is possibly his most popular hymn—though it is by no means his greatest—he confesses:

                Thou, O Christ, art all I want,
                     More than all in Thee I find!

That simple couplet may be said to crystallize the whole of Wesley’s theology. The Gospel to which he gave such lyrical expression was, most emphatically, the Gospel of Christ. He had no other purpose than to magnify the Saviour’s name.

His hymns remain with us to-day as an abiding expression of his consuming love for his Lord, his triumphant faith in the Gospel and his overmastering desire to share with all mankind the unspeakable riches of Christ. He has left no finer testimony behind than this:

                   Jesus! the name high over all,
                        In hell, or earth, or sky,
                   Angels and men before it fall,
                        And devils fear and fly.

                   O that the world might taste and see
                        The riches of His grace!
                   The arms of love that compass me
                        Would all mankind embrace.

                   His only righteousness I show,
                        His saving truth proclaim,
                   ’Tis all my business here below
                        To cry, “Behold the Lamb”!

                   Happy, if with my latest breath
                        I may but gasp His name;
                   Preach Him to all, and cry in death,
                       “Behold, behold the Lamb!”

Endnotes:

1) W. J. Courthorpe, A History of English Poetry.

 


                              
                        

 

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