Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Charles Wesley's Birthday

John Wesley is credited as the father of Methodism, but his brother Charles played a major part in the movement as well. What John taught in his sermons Charles put into musical form. He wrote over 5,000 hymns before his death in 1788. Since the Wesley brothers initially reached out to the poor and illiterate, doctrinal teaching was facilitated by the singing of songs that were rich in theological truths.

Charles Wesley’s hymns have fallen out of fashion. You will hear his most famous ones at Easter (Christ the Lord is Risen Today) and at Christmas (Hark the Herald Angels Sing). Even I, who grew up Methodist, was only familiar with half a dozen others until a few years ago. While in seminary I was given a biography of the Wesley brothers and in the back were the words to over 100 of Charles’ hymns. I read them devotionally – one a day – for several years and was greatly enriched. Today in honor of his birthday I’m quoting a few favorite lines and stanzas. (Almost three hundred of his hymns can be heard at cyber hymnal.)

From Hymn 22
Talk with us Lord, thyself reveal,
While here o’er earth we rove;
Speak to our hearts, and let us feel
The kindling of thy love.

With thee conversing we forget
All time and toil, and care:
Labor is rest, and pain is sweet
If thou, my God, art here.

Hymn 75 starts by highlighting our “God of unexampled grace”. Later he writes “Thrice happy am I” because of the three blessings of salvation: pardon, grace and heaven. Hymn 108 reminds us that the “Sun of righteousness” appeared “to gild our gloomy hemisphere”.

Poetry is compact language and as a Christian and theology teacher I love it when a lot of meaning is packed into a minimal amount of words. Next to John Donne, Charles Wesley is my favorite Christian poet.

For Christmas it seems appropriate to conclude with the first stanza of Hymn 107:

Let earth and heaven combine,
Angels and men agree,
To praise in songs divine
The incarnate Deity,
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.


Sherry said...

I do like those last two lines especially. "Incomprehensibly" indeed.

Carol in Oregon said...

Hymns are untapped riches to us moderns. Thank you for this post. I will have to explore more CW.

I think my favorite CW hymn is "Arise, My Soul, Arise".

Wait! That's not true! "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing" is my favorite. We sang that growing up around the table. I think there are a zillion other verses not in my hymnbook.

Part of our morning routine this month is singing "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus."

I have to mention another favorite: "Rejoice the Lord is King." I love to modulate a half step higher on the last verse and play it a bit slower.

Can't forget "And Can It Be" and "Jesus, Lover of My Soul".

Yep, I love Charles Wesley's hymns! I think many other people do too, they just may not know it.

hopeinbrazil said...

You're right, Carol. People who grew up with hymns are probably more familiar with CW than they think. I feel sorry for those with no "hymn heritage". For years we sang hymns with our boys for family devotions because we knew that was the only way they'd ever hear them. Now my oldest son attends the earlier of two church services at his college because the "senior citizen" service has hymns while the second service has only choruses. (I personally like churches that have a balance between choruses and hymns.)