Charles Wesley hymns – what they get us talking about

Authors & translators:
Wesley, Charles
Special Sundays:
Aldersgate Sunday

To mark the 230th anniversary of Charles Wesley's death (29 March 2018), StF+ asked people to name which of his hymns was their favourite. Discover the results here. We learnt as much from the accompanying discussion as from the poll findings themselves, as Laurence Wareing reports.

Charles Wesley by Thomas Hudson, 1749. (Epworth Old Rectory)

It almost goes without saying that Charles Wesley’s hymns are still greatly valued by many Methodists – as became clear in a number of Facebook discussions that evolved out of our request for Wesley favourites.

One thread asked whether his hymns are still “culturally relevant”. Relevance, it was noted, was not the same thing as accessibility, for which a new tune can sometimes make the world of difference. For example, an honourable mention should be made of Nicola Morrison’s tune “Leach” – a new setting of Come, and let us sweetly join (StF 646) that has helped one correspondent “fall in love” with words which had previously passed them by.

For some, there was a strong sense that Wesley hymns “teach some theology and therefore they might be more useful again, now that most of the congregation are ‘unchurched’”.

To the concern that Wesley’s hymns are “theology and poetry-filled, true, but difficult to understand for children and newcomers to our church”, one might set the observation that “if contemporary culture isn't receptive to some of the ideas” in Charles Wesley’s hymns, this is “not because they're out of date but because they are spiritual ideas that have always been alien to a secular mindset. We need to distinguish those which are part of the core message and try to find ways of helping those outside the church (and some within it perhaps) to recognise that they are just as relevant today as ever – that's evangelism”.

Jacobus Arminius, whose teachings influenced the Wesley brothers

For example, Let earth and heaven agree (StF 358) is an important statement of a crucial tenet of the Wesley brothers’ teaching, one that they had learned from Arminianism.

“I do like ‘Let earth and heaven agree’ for its emphasis on the ‘alls’ for whom Christ died, especially in the last verse” –

O for a trumpet voice
on all the world to call,
to bid their hearts rejoice
in him who died for all!
For all my Lord was crucified,
for all, for all my Saviour died.

“I could just imagine [Wesley] thumping his fist down when saying the words: for ALL, for ALL my Saviour died.”

For several respondents, very specific lines are the reason they love one hymn over another:

“changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place” (Love divine)
“still let me guard the holy fire, and still stir up thy gift in me” (O thou who camest from above) and, from the same hymn, “kindle a flame of sacred love on the mean altar of my heart! There let it for thy glory burn with inextinguishable blaze" – which, for one person, are “the most powerful hymn lines ever written”.

Several correspondents spoke about the importance of tunes and settings.

"Finish then thy new creation" (StF 503) (William Blake's 'The Dance of Albion')

To the question of whether any tune other than “Blaenwern” is conceivable for Love divine, all loves excelling (StF 503), we were reminded that Hymns & Psalms (the predecessor to Singing the Faith) printed three settings of the words, including “Westminster (Sacred Harmony)”, based on Purcell’s song, “Fairest Isle”, which Wesley is said to have had in mind when he wrote the words.

More thorny is the question whether or not the tune “Sagina” is too triumphalist for many of the sentiments expressed in And can it be (StF 345).

“The trouble is that so many Methodists seem to want to sing the whole hymn so triumphantly that I find it hard to believe that we mean the words”, complained one correspondent. Another argued that “you don't have to play Sagina as if it's a triumphant tub-thumper throughout”. However, he added that, while "’Tis mystery all, the immortal dies’ (v.2) may need a bit more meditation, I think ‘No condemnation now I dread: Jesus, and all in him, is mine. . .  bold I approach the eternal throne’ is rightly about as triumphant as you can get!”

There are alternatives (Erik Routley’s “Abingdon”, StF 499, was written for these words) but, equally, any dyed-in-the-wool knows when the “wrong” tune is being used. As one wrote:

"Hymn for our Lord's Resurrection" - Christ the Lord is risen today (StF 298) in Charles Wesley's own hand

“When Mark Wakelin was President of Conference he preached at Evensong at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and a number of local Methodists went along (self included). ‘And can it be’ was chosen as the last hymn. Nice touch, until the organist struck up the tune to 'Eternal Father strong to save'. Discombobulating experience: I forgot the words that are engraved on my heart!”

All this discussion, though, only skimmed the surface of the 79 Charles Wesley hymns included in Singing the Faith. Maybe the best way of marking the 230th anniversary of Charles’s death will be to spend a little time with the 58 hymns that didn’t get even a single mention in our poll. After all, as one Church of Scotland member wrote in: “You lot are so lucky. In the Church of Scotland we use Church Hymnary 4 (CH4) and it only has 14 Charles Wesley hymns included. That said, they are all good ones.”

Listen to the Revd Dr Jonathan Hustler speaking about Charles Wesley's genius as a hymn writer in Methodist Church podcasts.

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