Wesleyan Hymnody

Credit: umc.org

Their Story:

The Wesley brothers were a great combination of theological revelation and poetic inspiration. The Wesley brothers, who are also considered the fathers of the Methodist Church, have influenced the way modern writing and publication in done. John and Charles attended Oxford University where they gained training and discipline. While they were in training to become Anglican ministers they founded a small group of fellow students called the “Holy Club” who took seriously the call to discipline within the Christian faith. They made it a practice to study the Bible, pray, visit the sick, visit those in jail and lead worship services.

After their time at Oxford they were called to America. This took place in 1735 where they were inspired to do more. From here Jon became a minister for a church in Savannah, GA while Charles became the secretary of Indian affairs. This cross-cultural experience caused them both to question the sincerity of their faith as they faced challenging times. Running into a group of Moravian believers helped them learn more about faith, themselves, the importance of contextual worship and language, and evangelical aspects of the Gospel. Shortly after this experience, the brothers begin the release publication for both church services and evangelical revival meetings.

Their Publications:

A Collection of Psalms and Hymns was published in 1737. They were psalms and hymns arranged according to the Christian week acting as one of the earliest publications of English hymnody in North America. The Charleston Collection was the first hymn collection to be written by a collection of different people and the earliest collection of English hymns in America. It was mainly used in the Anglican Church. In 1739 Hymns and Sacred Poems was published as a collection for revival and preaching services. Then in London, in 1741, a Collection of Psalms and Hymns were published for Sunday schools and weekly services.

Through their travels John, the theologian and Charles, the hymn writer, continued to work on publications. The Foundery Collection of 1742 was the first Wesleyan collection to contain tunes. They came from sources like psalm tunes, Handel and German tunes. This eclectic combination attracted many of its listeners. In 1761 the Sacred Melody was published as a tunebook edited by John Wesley consisting of only melodies. In 1780 the Sacred Harmony was published as a harmonized version of the 1761 tunebook. This was unique to its time allowing for a more elaborate execution of the hymns.

Their Impact:

The biggest impact of the Wesley brothers is their shift to an evangelical emphasis in hymn writing. Because of their missionary experience in the New World and their encounters with the Moravians, they were able to develop a thirst for text that communicated clearly with those who may be seeking the Lord outside of the Church. This profound impact is still felt today as much of our contemporary music appeals to seekers. They also communicated their ideas of unlimited atonement and the work of the Holy Spirit through their hymn writing that shaped the theology of the next generation of Christian leaders. Their writing also spoke to the Christian experience in a new way. This was evident in the use of the hymns in revival meetings.

Along with theological insight they provided musical expansion. In the preface of the 1761 publication of Sacred Melody, there were detailed instructions for congregational singing. This along with the harmonized versions of the tunes improved the overall musical quality of worship. The Wesley brothers also expanded the metrical concept of hymn writing with their works.

As an individual, John Wesley (1703–1791) translated many Moravian hymns making it accessible to the world of English Hymnody. Charles Wesley (1707–1788) was a prodigy. He wrote and estimated 6,500 hymn texts. Of those texts, we may recall “And can it be that I should gain,” “Christ the Lord is risen today,” “Hark the herald angels sing,” and “O for a thousand tongues to sing.” Their work collectively has helped to shape generations of hymn and spiritual songwriters.