Sermon: The Hymns of Charles Wesley

Rev Geoff Blyth, retired Uniting Church minister, preached recently at St George’s Cathedral, Perth, for their celebration of John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism. Following is Geoff’s sermon on ‘The Hymns of Charles Wesley.’

A You-Tube video clip turned up on our computer which caused us great hilarity and quite a deal of thought, if not nostalgia. It is called: “Methodist Blues” The singer, Garrison Keillor, makes reference to many of the characteristics of Methodism. But the lines that have stayed with me the most are these:

“Now Methodism was started by John Wesley, not Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley.”

Methodism was started by John Wesley

When I retired as a Minister of the Uniting Church in Australia in 2001 I went with my wife, Esme, to take up a one-year appointment with the Methodist Church of Britain in the Kirkoswald Circuit and the ten congregations up and down the Eden Valley in Cumbria. Not only were we exposed to the People called Methodist, we stood on the spot where John Wesley had preached to the people of Gamblesby, right there near the barn where the whole village turned out to hear him. I preached regularly at Temple Sowerby where at the chapel door there was a stone and plaque declaring that: ‘John Wesley preached here in this village on two occasions…’

It was great to re-live the memory of such preaching by both John and Charles Wesley up and down Britain. But it was even greater simply to be within a Methodist congregation, in worship, singing the great hymns of their faith with such power and meaning. Singing the great hymns of Charles Wesley which we have sung and celebrated here tonight!

We truly have been obedient to the call of the prophet Isaiah:

“Tell the heavens and earth to celebrate and sing; command every mountain to join in the song. The Lord’s people have suffered, but he has shown mercy and given them comfort.”

The preface to the Methodist Hymn Book states: “Methodism was born in song. Charles Wesley wrote the first hymns of the Evangelical Revival during the great Whitsuntide of 1738 when his brother and he were “filled with the Spirit” and from that time onwards the Methodists have never ceased to sing… While no part of the New Testament escaped him, most of all Charles Wesley sang the “gospel according to St. Paul.” He is the poet of the Evangelical faith. In consequence Methodism has always been able to sing its creed.”

Methodism was born in song.

Methodists have never ceased to sing.

Methodism has always been able to sing its creed.

When I was seventeen years old I joined a choir called ‘The Methodist Music Society.’ It met in Wesley Church and we sang at many special services and occasions over the years. We sang from the Methodist Hymn Book alone and thus learned, enjoyed and taught the whole range of hymns, particularly those of Charles Wesley.

Significantly, when I commenced studies for ministry we met for classes in Systematic Theology with our Presbyterian colleagues. One of them said with either teasing or disdain, “You Methodists wouldn’t know any theology without your hymn book!”

For one who was struggling with the complexities of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, it was refreshing to have in simple verse Charles Wesley’s gospel according to St. Paul:

“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.”

Methodism singing its creed

Leslie F Church in his book ‘Knight of the Burning Heart’ has this to say:

“It was only after 1738, and the great awakening of Charles, that he began to write his marvelous hymns. Within a year he had written, ‘Where shall my wondering soul begin?’, ‘And can it be that I should gain’,’Come,Holy Ghost, all quickening fire!’ Next year he wrote, ‘Christ whose glory fills the skies’ and ‘Jesu, lover of my soul’, then, ‘O for a thousand tongues to sing’.

Such hymns as these immediately welded together the people who were singing them, just as the ‘Marseillaise’ united the French people. No one can understand the real meaning of Methodism who is not prepared to read carefully the hymns of Charles Wesley and try to understand their vital message to an eighteenth-century England whose religious outlook had become dim and impersonal.”

“There had been no hymn-singing as we understand it, in the Church of England. The Psalms were sometimes sung, but they never produced enthusiastic congregational singing. There had been hymn books issued by the Congregationalists Philip Doddridge and Isaac Watts. But it was not till Charles Wesley became the hymn writer of Methodism that their full value was realized. They are not just solemn paraphrases of scripture – they have their own vitality, they are alive, your heart dances as you sing, or it is bowed with shame, or again it rises up on wings to the very throne of God.”

That is why Leslie Church could boldly say: Methodism is Church on Englandism felt. FELT!

The Hymn ‘Depth of Mercy;

There for me the Saviour stands;
Shows his wounds and spreads his hands.
God is love, I know, I feel;
Jesus lives and loves me still.

The Hymn ‘And can it be:
My chains fell off, my heart was free
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

“That was what they were singing, and it was the song of free men and women whose bondage was ended, and ended so plainly that doubt was silenced. There was a new confidence in their approach to life, but it was based on faith in God, not on themselves.”   Leslie Church

Wordsworth and Wesley

William Wordsworth travelled extensively in England and drew materials for his poetry from the world of nature: like a host of golden daffodils.

Contemporary hymn writers draw also on the world of nature, environment, as well as the social conditions in our world. There is a lot of emphasis upon social justice and the cause of peace in modern hymns. These themes seem to be completely lacking in the hymns of Charles Wesley.

Did Charles Wesley not see the beauty that was so apparent to Wordsworth? Did he not feel moved to sing the praises of God for the natural order and abundant beauty of England?

When John Wesley preached to the people – crowds of them bearing impossible and degrading conditions of life – he saw a different kind of beauty. In his hymns Charles Wesley saw all the beauty that could be brought out in people through God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

“In perfect righteousness renewed and filled with all the life of God.”

Though these qualities are not mentioned by our political and community leaders today, are they not the very things we hope and pray for as a revival and renewal of this nation – and all nations of the world?

OUR HYMNS:   They are a means of raising and quickening the spirit of devotion, of confirming our faith, of enlivening our hope, and of kindling and increasing love to God and to all humanity.

O for a thousand tongues to sing – vintage Charles Wesley.

He speaks, and listening to his voice, new life the dead receive,
the mournful broken hearts rejoice, the humble poor believe.
Hear him, you deaf; his praise, you dumb, your loosened tongues employ;
you blind, behold your Saviour come; and leap, you lame, for joy.

Paul: “Sing psalms, hymns, and sacred songs: sing to God with thanksgiving in your heart!”


Rev Geoff Blyth

Sunday 25 May 2014

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