O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing


                          John Wesley preaching

Charles Wesley (1707-1788), the brother of Methodism’s founder John Wesley, wrote this hymn, along with 6,000 others, including such favorites as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending.”  In 1726, upon entering Oxford University, Charles felt the need for a stronger devotional life; shortly thereafter he formed the “Holy Club,” a group at Oxford who would meet together to study the Bible and to do good works methodically—according to a schedule not unlike many ministries today. The club, later taken over by Charles’ brother John, would be called derisively “Methodist” by their opponents.  In fact, neither John nor Charles (who remained in the Church of England until death) sought to break away from the Established Church; like Luther, they sought only to restore evangelical fervor to the Church and to encourage proper morality and ethics, which presumably had become subsumed to doctrinal concerns and polity debates. St Paul writes in I Tim. 6: 3:4 warns us against prideful arrogance of our presumed knowledge: “Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and with the teaching that is in accordance with godliness, is conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words.” The Wesleys were concerned about the “morbid craving for controversy” which they perceived in the churchmanship of the day. This is a difficult topic—while it is arguably not a good idea for a Christian to nitpick the finer points of theology, they also must know firmly what they believe. Who is Christ? What did He come to do? How is my salvation secured? These are all important questions which necessarily lead to theologizing. Neither the Wesleys nor certainly the Apostle Paul intended people to believe whatever they feel compelled. Their beliefs and consciences should be formed by scripture and hence the Holy Spirit. As hymnwriters, both John and Charles Wesley sought to infuse doctrine with human feeling. What is our reaction to our salvation? We can use the words of the sixth stanza: “Glory to God and praise and love be now and ever given by saints below and saints above, the Church in earth and heaven.”

This hymn was written in 1738, on the anniversary of Charles Wesley’s conversion experience.  (He had been baptized as a child, attended seminary, but did not feel salvation until 1737!)  Whatever we might make of this, we can certainly ascertain that Wesley’s virtually-unrestrained enthusiasm well reflects Psalm 96: 2, “Sing to the Lord, proclaim His salvation day after day.”  Wesley sings of the “triumph of His grace,” prevenient grace being a theme for Wesley, as that grace of the Holy Spirit which calls us to salvation before such time as we might make a “decision.”  In the second stanza, he asks “my gracious master and my God, assist me to proclaim,” recognizing that even praise, not to mention good works, is a “. . . gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”  (Ephesians 2: 9)  In the third stanza we read from whence the old cliché arises, “Music to my ears.”  Wesley says that it is “Jesus,” a more intimate and familiar form of address than, say, “Christ,” who is “music to the sinner’s ear.”  Before repeating the theme of grace in the fifth stanza, Wesley refers to Christ’s blood making “the foulest clean;  His blood avails for me.”  Neither of the Wesleys feared using “blood language,” of which we moderns are so reticent.  We tend to shy away from the rugged blood language, as uncomfortable as it makes us, but in which we are reminded that our joyous Easter praises can only be earned through the blood and sufferings of Christ Jesus.

When singing this hymn, consider how Charles Wesley seeks to imbue those crucial doctrines of the Christian faith with an exuberance which one cannot help but sing.


Saviour, Again, to Thy Dear Name We Raise

                  John Ellerton

This hymn, particularly appropriate for the end of the service, although categorized within the Holy Eucharist section of The Hymnal 1982, was written by John Ellerton (1826-1893), an Anglican priest.  Born in Clerkenwell, London, Ellerton suffered from health problems his entire life and had to retire to Switzerland and Italy before his eventual death due to paralysis. He began hymn writing at age 33 and continued publishing hymns and various ministry manuals through the famous Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, an organization founded in 1698 to further missions and evangelism. (This writer has often visited their antiquarian bookshop in London and encourages the gentle reader of music notes to consider the literature and resources offered on www.spck.co.uk.) This particular hymn was written in 1866 for a choral festival.

The composer of the tune, Edward John Hopkins (1818-1901), was a boy chorister at the Chapel Royal and at St Paul’s Cathedral, London. It was said his entire Sunday was spent being shuffled back and forth to sing services!  Apparently, choristers of his time were ill-treated and malnourished. Nonetheless, he eventually became one of the most noted organists in England.

This text is a prayer. The Gospel is not explicit in the hymn; however, the first stanza is clear to address the “Savior,” and the ensuing stanzas continue with petitions beginning with “Grant us.” This hymn was meant to be used at the end of worship in which the Law and Gospel have been proclaimed, in which the Sacrament has been administered, and where God’s Word has elsewhere been proclaimed through reading, preaching and music. This hymn presupposes the aforementioned has been accomplished; as such, its theology is not complete by itself. It is not evangelistic, and underscores the fact that the biblical concepts of “worship” and “evangelism” are not interchangeable.

The first stanza states that “Once more we bless You ere [before] our worship cease.”  Taken by itself, this statement may be misleading, for we know that Christian worship should not end with the formal worship services on Sunday morning.  Rather, we know that our life should be lived as a “sacrifice” (something “made sacred”) for God at all times. The first stanza, then, is referring to a specific worship time in which the congregation gathers which has a definite beginning and end. The following stanzas describe a life lived in Christian “peace.”  The first stanza states that “With You began, with You shall end the day.”  The Anglican Book of Common Prayer has always contained prayers for all occasions and all times of the day in order to fulfil the command of I Thess. 5: 17, “Pray without ceasing.” The writers of the prayer book intended for all Christians to begin and end their day in prayer, in essence to begin and end “with God.”

The third stanza asks for preservation and safety through the night.  Whilst this may be taken as the literal night, the fourth stanza expands the conception of “light” and “dark” to the theological and spiritual.  The fourth stanza implores to “Grant us

Your peace throughout our earthly life, Our balm in sorrow and our stay in strife. . .”  Our earthly life, characterized by “sorrow” and “strife” is viewed metaphorically as a “night” in comparison to the joys of heaven, only to be found when the Lord “Calls. . . to eternal peace.”

Lord, Dismiss Us With Thy Blessing

John Fawcett

John Fawcett (1740-1817) wrote the text to this hymn which is useful to sing at the end of corporate worship or other Christian gathering. As The Hymnal 1982 tends to do, hymns appropriate for the dismissal are often grouped in the “Holy Eucharist” section, even though their connection to communion is tenuous. The text makes no mention of the sacrament, although the refrain of the first stanza, “O refresh us, O refresh us, traveling through this wilderness,” could obliquely refer to the Sacrament of the Altar. If we read it this way, however, we must realize this was not what the author intended. John Fawcett was a Baptist, and had been “converted” by George Whitefield (who also “converted” Augustus Toplady, author of “Rock of Ages”) in London at age 16. (More accurately, the Holy Spirit is the only one who can convert people, so we must be careful in ascribing people too much credit in the endeavor.) Fawcett preached in a small village in northern England.  In 1772, he was extended a “call” to be pastor at a large evangelical church in London (the equivalent of Prestonwood Baptist, perhaps) for which he subsequently announced his acceptance. However, when the carts were loaded with his furniture and when the horses were strapped with his books, the crying and tears of the townspeople imploring him to stay got the better of him, and he remained. (This technique seldom works for congregations these days. . .)

Fawcett wrote many books on “Practical Religion.” He was concerned with living the Christian faith, not just speaking of it or thinking of it.  (Notice the second stanza of this hymn:  Thanks we give and adoration/For your Gospel’s joyful sound./May the fruits of your salvation/In our hearts and lives abound.) This hymn is not written to “praise,” or to express “confession,” or to manifest any other ambiguous emotion. There was a need (at the time) for hymns at the closing of the service, and this hymn was written with that practicality in mind. This hymn should be sung like a prayer, praying for the manifestation of “the fruits of thy salvation in our hearts and lives abound: ever faithful, ever faithful to thy truth may we be found.” In a world which offers many temptations that allure us away from Christ, this hymn reminds of the centrality of Christ and his salvation earned on the cross.

Lord, Enthroned in Heavenly Splendor

This tune, BRYN CALFARIA, is Welsh and means “Mt Calvary.”  It is related to those other Welsh tunes, such as the one associated with “Thy Strong Word” (also powerfully in the minor key) or the happily major one, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer” in addition to “Immortal, Invisible” or HYFRYDOL, often associated with “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”  Composed by William Owen around 1886 for the Welsh hymn, “Gwaed y groes sy’n cody fynny,” the original text dealt with Jesus’ sacrificial love evidenced on the cross.  Anecdotal evidenced suggests that this hymn is so popular in Wales that it is used in times of both national tragedy and exultation.  The tune is strong and, whilst unfamiliar to some, has been called by hymnologist Erik Routley “a piece of real Celtic rock.”  The text we sing to the tune today, “Lord Enthroned,” was written by George Bourne which he published in his Post-Communion Hymns of 1874.

The strength of the melody conveys the majesty of the opening words, “Lord, enthroned in heav’nly splendor, first begotten from the dead.”  This language recalls the second article of the Nicene Creed when we profess that Christ is “begotten of the Father before all eternity.”  However, in this instance the thought is juxtaposed with his death on Calvary, contrasting incarnationally Christ’s eternity with the very real human death he suffered.  The stanza concludes exclaiming, “Jesus, true and living bread!”  We recall the Old Testament lesson from I Kings in which Elijah seeks shelter under a tree, eventually to be provided both food and water by an angel of the Lord.  This foreshadows Christ in the New Testament when, in the gospel this morning, Jesus declares, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”  In the words of the fourth stanza, Christ is the “Life-imparting, heav’nly manna, stricken rock with streaming side,” alluding to Moses drawing water from the side of the rock, providing sustenance for the Hebrews.  Christ’s blood is our spiritual sustenance, redeeming us from death.

The general tenor of this hymn is Christocentric.  The text focuses on what Christ has done and continues to do for us.  We do not spend any time poetically pontificating on all the manifold things we do to serve Him.  We do not even sing of our joy in Him, except perhaps in the litany of alleluias.  We certainly do not recount all the emotions we feel about such matters.  All have a place in our devotional life, but this hymn’s Christology points away from ourselves and to Christ and what He has done. This hymn points us straight to Christ from which all our service, good works, and even pious feelings (which of themselves are normally harmless) do proceed.

This objectivity of the text, coupled with the sturdiness of the tune, difficult as it might be to sing the first time, testifies not only to Christ’s incarnation and death, but to his resurrection and omnipotence.


When I Survey

Isaac Watts, (c) Hackney Museum, Chalmers Bequest

This favourite hymn comes from Isaac Watts (1674-1748), the great English Dissenting hymnwriter who gave the English-speaking Church its first non-psalm-based hymnody. “When I Survey” was first published in Watts’ Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707)—the first hymnal (not psalm translations) published in the English language. This hymnal, a copy of which the writer of music notes owns, eventually influenced the Church of England to adopt “hymns of human composure,” as Watts called them, resulting in the great burgeoning of English hymnody in the nineteenth century.

In this great hymn, Watts distills the vast cosmos down to a heartfelt realization of the Saviour’s suffering and death.  Consider the following excerpt from “Isaac Watts, the Wesleys, and the Evolution of 18th-Century English Congregational Song,” written by the writer of music notes:

According to Bernard Lord Manning, Watts expresses a vastness and universality of faith in his hymns. To Watts, time and space cannot limit God, for “Nature with open volume stands” as a testimony for Christ’s love, and it may involve “Millions of years my wond’ring eyes shall o’er thy beauties rove, and endless ages, Ill adore the glories of thy love.”   The Christian’s response to this universality is one of utter futility, for “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small.”  Although Watts certainly produced profoundly personal texts, they are not so much introspective. These hymns always assume an understanding of the Christian in community—both with God and with neighbor. These hymns may begin personally, but they proceed to remove the thoughts from oneself onto the greatness of God beyond (“survey”—a word frequently used in Watts—best sums up this teleological effect.) Charles Wesley employs plenty of grandeur—the heavenly, herald angels may sing “Glory to the newborn King,” in which all the nations will “joyful rise,” but Wesley brings this cosmic scope down to the heart of every believer, who implores this same Christ to “fix in us a humble home. . . formed in each believing heart.”  Whereas Watts is expansive, Charles Wesley is deep.  [As Wesley writes:] “Depth of mercy!  Can there be mercy still reserved for me?  Can my God His wrath forbear?  Me, the chief of sinners, spare?  I have spilt his precious blood, trampled on the Son of God, filled with pangs unspeakable!  I, who yet am not in hell!”   © Methodist History (Vol XLII, No 4, July 2004)

Watts’ hymnody frequently employs this word “survey.”  One may survey the landscape, or the horizon, or their lawn.  One’s eyes represent the point at which the visual surveying radiates outward, as in an arc or cone.  The act of surveying always proceeds directionally from the lesser (the individual) to the greater (the landscape, for example.) Watts’ mind comprehended the universality of theology—the word “survey” appears in many of his hymns and can be likened to a person standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, taking in a spatially-vast and aesthetically-wondrous vista beyond the realm of human control or understanding.  Watts approaches theology like this—he stands at the border of the cosmos trying to comprehend the vastness of God’s being and actions, realizing humanity’s wisdom is God’s own foolishness (“My richest gain I count but loss. . .”)  The world, to Watts, is comprised of “vain things that charm me most,” which he then will “sacrifice them to His blood.”

Watts’ third stanza paints a crucifix in verbal imagery—“His head, His hands, His feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down,” echoing Gerhardt’s evocative “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.”  Watts’ final stanza again places the singer of the precipice of eternity—even if the “whole realm of nature mine, That were a tribute far too small,” reminding us of Holy Week, as only a Calvinist like Watts can, of our own inability to redeem ourselves.  Understanding that makes the events of Easter morning evidence profound, not cheap, grace.