But I must also highlight another great leader in the eighteenth-century Methodist revival: John’s younger brother, Charles. Charles was four years younger than John and often followed in his brother’s footsteps (to Christ Church in Oxford, into the priesthood, to America, and ultimately to leadership in the Methodist movement). But it could be argued that in some ways Charles served as an important catalyst for John’s ministry and actually led the way for his older brother.
While a student at Oxford, Charles asked John to mentor him and his friends in what John would later call the “first rise of Methodism.” Charles experienced his own “conversion” or heart-warming experience three days before John did. John and Charles embraced field preaching, shared in the itinerant ministry, organized people into groups and societies, and had very similar theological convictions. Where Charles stood apart and made a unique contribution was in recognizing the power of music for the Spirit’s work in the revival.
Duke Divinity School has an online collection of 4,400 hymns and poems that scholars identify as coming from the pen of Charles Wesley. There may be many more, but scholars seem confident in ascribing these to Charles. The hymns were Charles’s poetry set to music, and the tunes were easy to sing. Words and music combined in hymns that taught and reinforced the key theological and spiritual convictions of the movement.
The hymns were moving expressions of praise and thanksgiving to God. Some of them celebrated and commemorated key moments in a Christian’s life. For instance, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” was written to mark the first anniversary of Charles’s conversion experience, yet its celebratory tone and passionate praise spoke to nearly every believer. At the other extreme, some of Charles’s hymns were composed for prisoners sentenced to die, to help them as they approached the gallows. At times Charles would actually sing the hymns to the prisoners in their final moments.
In the debate concerning contemporary music in our churches, sometimes we forget that all of Charles Wesley’s hymns were “contemporary” when they were written. At that time in the Anglican Church, psalms and chants were offered in the context of worship. Charles Wesley, along with a handful of others, played a key role in introducing hymns that put into everyday words and phrases the themes of the faith and the experiences believers had of God’s grace.
It is still true for those who seek their own spiritual revival that singing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19) opens our hearts to the Spirit and leads us to experience a closeness to God and a spiritual passion. Often in my times of prayer I’ll sing to God. I do it while taking walks or driving in my car, and certainly during corporate worship in the church. I often return to the Wesley hymns in addition to more contemporary songs of faith. In addition to “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” Charles Wesley’s best-known hymns include “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” and “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.”
John Wesley sought to give clear directions on how to sing the hymns he and Charles compiled into hymn books. Here are some of his directions, still printed in the front of The United Methodist Hymnal:
- Learn these tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please.
- Sing them exactly as they are printed here . . . .
- Sing all. . . .
- Sing lustily and with a good courage. . . .
- Sing modestly. . . .
- Sing in time. . . .
- Above all sing spiritually. . . .
I find that I have to prepare for worship and singing. Often, if I take no time to prepare my heart for worship, I’ll sing several songs without fully engaging my mind or heart. It is easy to sing a hymn and never once think about what we are singing, why we are singing it, or to whom we are singing. Our songs become acts of worship only when we engage our minds and hearts. If we don’t, we become like those whom Jesus, and before him Isaiah, warned about: “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’ ” (Matthew 15:8).
Nineteenth-century Methodists in America had their own hymnals, very small so as to fit into a pocket. These were considered important companions to the Bible at that time. Reading Scripture, hearing it proclaimed, and singing its precepts were all essential to the Wesleyan revival, as we can tell from Charles Wesley’s most famous hymn:
"O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise, the glories of my God and King, the triumphs of his grace!"
I wonder, have you discovered the joy of singing your prayers and acts of worship to God?
Today's post is an excerpt from Revival.