Charles (1707-1788) an Anglican Clergyman, and younger brother of John Wesley is known for his gift of over 6,000 hymns. You will probably say that you’ve never heard of Charles, but I guarantee you that you know at least two of his hymns. Do you find this text to be familiar?
Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies;
With th’angelic host proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”
Now that we have established familiarity, let’s see if you know this one:
Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia!
Earth and heaven in chorus say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heavens, and earth reply, Alleluia!
Like I said, there are another 6,000 other hymns Charles wrote. In my last blog entry, I wrote about how lyrical theology that we find in the Psalms and today in our hymns is another way for us to get to know God. Charles and John understood this early on and their combined efforts of sermons and hymn singing provided double opportunities for people to begin or deepen their relationship with God.
As I said before – Lyrical theology is based on poetry and poetry is like a springboard for our imagination and that, in turn, strengthens our individual relationship with God. If I cannot hear the message through the sermon, I may hear it through the hymn and vice versa.
As Methodist we practice this double approach still today. Preachers and Worship Teams sit down together, talk about the interpretation of the scripture and carefully choose hymns and prayers that convey the same message as the sermon. We remember that our role as worship leaders is to prompt the congregation in their worship to God, to ensure that ample opportunity is given to anyone who walks in the door to worship God in their own way.
Our Wesley series speaks to the spiritual ethos and cultural context out of which John’s sermons and Charles’ hymns were born. What makes it spectacular though is that these words apply to us as much as they did to the people then. The Wesleys were a vessel for God’s love to the people they encountered, and our mission has not changed. Each one of us is designed to be that vessel and for some of us that means to help others to sing so they too can experience God that way.
Theology in hymns can be a tricky thing though, because multiple criteria in a hymn can result in different theological interpretation. S T Kimbrough, JR. outlined 5 layers of theological meaning conveyed through a hymn/song in his latest book The Lyrical Theology of Charles Wesley: A Reader.
When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss and pour contempt on all my pride.
Although the first line seems to be fairly easy to understand – a great emphasis on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross – the second line is really not so clear. My richest gain and loss are probably different from yours. There is a multilayered theology involving the author’s intent and the singer’s response.
Diverse communities will sing the same hymn in different ways due to their culture, language, ethnicity and life experience. The Wesley’s were well aware of that. African Americans will have a different theological understanding of the following hymn than a native German.
Jesus, Lover of my soul,
Let me to thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high.
Hide me, O my savior, hide,
Till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide;
O receive my soul at last.
At the same time, one wonders about Charles Wesley’s context and what prompted him to write those words. How would a prisoner walking to his execution have heard these words?
I have experienced many times how different worship settings receive hymns in different ways. The contemporary/traditional settings come to mind but more interesting are different cultures. I remember sitting in my office listening to the Tongan choir practicing and realizing that the song they were singing was an adaptation of Handel’s aria -Lascia qu’io pianga from the opera Rinaldo. I had sung that aria many times and did not associate it with my faith at all and yet, here were 20 + Tongan women and men who sang their hearts out to God. Of course, they sang in Tongan and a different text, but still…
Charles Wesley’s hymn text often included 20 plus stanzas and it was not feasible for publishers to print all of them and many congregations would not sing all of them either. Hymnal editors proceeded more or less carefully to reduce the hymns to 5 – 7 stanzas. As you can imagine, that changes the theological meaning of the hymn. The famous Charles Wesley Hymn O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing was originally titled Glory to God, and Praise and Love and included 17 stanzas. The opening stanza in our United Methodist Hymnal is the 7th stanza in the original hymn text. Thinking that a poem usually tells a story, the story will be altered when you begin to tell it in the middle.
Melody and rhythm of the tune that the text is matched with can make a huge difference in the theological meaning of the hymn. I guess, now is the time to let you in on a little secret. Each hymn has a particular meter. There is common and long meter, and many, many other kinds and they all have to do with how many syllables are in each line. Let’s look at Amazing Grace:
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound (8)
that saved a wretch like me (6)
I once was lost, but now am found; (8)
was blind, but now I see. (6)
This is called a common meter. Here is another hymn with the same meter:
O for a thousand tongues to sing (8)
my great Redeemer’s praise, (6)
The glories of my God and King, (8)
the triumphs of his grace! (6)
Now sing this text to the tune of Amazing Grace and vice versa. Isn’t it amazing? If you really want to have fun with this, you should try to sing O Little Town of Bethlehem to the tune of the Yellow Rose of Texas.
O Little Town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie;
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
I know you are in shock that that works! Something else you might not know about the hymns we sing is that the tunes were often matched with the hymn long after the hymn had been written. A hymnal editor made this choice for us and sometimes we come across hymns that we do not sing because we are so unfamiliar with the tune that it would be too much of a challenge. Sometimes the tune does not seem to fit the hymn very well. You have maybe observed that I am in the habit of changing the tune if it is unfamiliar or awkward, but the hymn would fit well with the sermon.
It has often been said that Charles matched his hymns with drinking songs, but I should probably not perpetuate this although helpful myth. He and John did, however, look for music that would be familiar to the people they were trying to reach.
In our Wesley series we (the worship team including the preacher) sat down and looked at Charles’ hymns in the hymnal and were shocked how few of them we sing due to the often-awkward tunes. Together we made an effort to choose tunes that will help us to sing these beautiful texts. But and there is a huge but…. Familiarity is only one factor in the decision of what tune to match with what text. If the character of the text is contemplative and the tune is a joyful marching song, we have obscured the theological message completely. The decision of what to sing in our worship comes with tremendous responsibility and very quickly can the intent of inviting someone into a relationship with God become a gigantic roadblock. Like Charles, we always must know our audience.
The following entries will discuss the hymns we are singing each Sunday. You will have an opportunity to look at what they are and what their theological message is (to you). If you ever have any questions, please do not hesitate to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rev. Suzi Byrd