Singing Charles Wesley’s Hymns

One – but certainly not the only – benefit of marrying a Methodist is gaining familiarity with the hymns of Charles Wesley. The current issue of the Circuit Rider is devoted to John Wesley’s younger brother, who happened to compose over 6,000 hymns during the course of his life. The usefulness of many of these hymns is not limited to congregational singing on Sunday mornings; they can be sung before a Bible Study, with other family members, or even during private prayer when it is especially hard to concentrate. There is also a great deal of theology in these hymns. They might serve as a good middle way of catechesis for those who find memorizing a catechism to be impossibly dry and mechanical, yet find the wooliness and subjectivism of other approaches to be even worse. Can you explain the Incarnation more precisely and memorably than this stanza from one of Wesley’s nativity hymns?

He deigns in flesh t’appear
Widest extremes to join,
to bring our vileness near,
and make us all divine;
and we the life of God shall know,
for God is manifest below.

In one of the Circuit Rider articles, ST Kimbrough of Drew University gives us a few reasons to sing Charles Wesley’s hymns, which I can quickly summarize:

1. Charles Wesley communicates the sheer importance of the “dominical” sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. Regarding the Eucharist, it is true that Methodists, although believing in the Real Presence, do not embrace the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation (for the United Methodist Church, see This Holy Mystery). Furthermore, the Wesley brothers’ emphasis on frequent participation in the Lord’s Supper might seem unnecessary to Catholics, for whom such a practice simply goes without saying. But if some Methodists tend to neglect the Eucharist, for some Catholics the reception of the Eucharist inevitably becomes routine and taken for granted. In either case, Charles Wesley’s hymns might prove useful. Charles, who received communion daily whenever possible, writes about the practical importance of the Eucharist:

Why is the faithful seed decreased,
The life of God extinct and dead?
The daily sacrifice is ceased,
And charity to heaven is fled.

Besides sustaining our needy souls “with fresh supplies of love,” the Eucharist overcomes divisions in the church. Charles Wesley goes on to say:

Sure and real is the grace,
The manner be unknown;
Only meet us in thy ways
And perfect us in one.

2. Wesley’s hymns are deeply scriptural – “steeped in scriptural language, imagery, and metaphors,” pronounces ST Kimbrough. They can help us Catholics better respond to the request of the Second Vatican Council that the faithful “should gladly put themselves in touch with the sacred text itself, whether it be through the liturgy, rich in the divine word, or through devotional reading, or through instructions suitable for the purpose and other aids which, in our time, with approval and active support of the shepherds of the Church, are commendably spread everywhere” (Dei Verbum 25). As Kimbrough states, Wesley’s hymns do not reflect a narrow biblical literalism, but closely relate the reading of Holy Scripture to the experience of faith. Wesley writes:

The Word in the bare literal sense,
Tho’ heard ten thousand time, and read,
Can never of itself dispense
The saving power which wakes the dead;
The meaning spiritual and true
The learned expositor may give,
But cannot give the virtue too,
Or bid his own dead spirit live.

3. Wesley’s hymns move us to proclaim our faith. His hymn, “Give me the faith which can remove,” begins:

I would the previous time redeem,
And longer live for this alone,
To spend and to be spent for them
Who have not yet my Savior known.

4. Finally, Wesley’s hymns inspire us to share in the fullness of God’s mission:

Work for the weak, and sick, and poor,
Raiment and food for them procure,
And mindful of God’s Word,
Enjoy the blessedness to give,
Lay out your gettings to relieve,
The members of your Lord.

This can seem hopelessly vague. Or liable to being misconstrued and abused. Where does one even begin? Wesley roots his missional imperative in the solidarity and support of small groups in which, as his brother John said, Christians would truly be able “to watch over one another in love.” Here love can become accountable and concrete. Charles Wesley bids that we

Help us to help each other, Lord,
Each other’s cross to bear;
Let each his friendly aid afford,
And feel each other’s care.

Help us to build each other up,
Our little stock improve;
Increase our faith, confirm our hope,
And perfect us in love.

May we indeed become perfected in love, perhaps in some small way through these hymns.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Liturgical Music, Neil. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Singing Charles Wesley’s Hymns

  1. Pingback: The History and Future of Hymns « Catholic Sensibility

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