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Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists

Bernard Manning

A paper read to the University Methodist Society at Wesley Church, Cambridge, on Sunday, November 20, 1932.

Come with me to John Wesley's own country: Lincolnshire. Come to the North Wolds, where from the Earl of Yarborough's woods at Pelham's Pillar you can see the line of the Humber and the North Sea, and the Dock Tower of Grimsby by day; and by night the lantern of Spurn lighthouse, the dull glow of Hull on the north, the duller glow of Gainsborough on the west, and between them the flaring furnaces of Scunthorpe. Come to the place where the hill–country of the Wolds ends suddenly with a sharp escarpment. Away to the west stretches the chess–board of variegated woodland, meadows, and ploughed fields till it rises suddenly on a far horizon to that sharp ridge on which, thirty miles away, stands the cathedral church of Lincoln. Half–way down this steep western escarpment of the Wolds in the hungry forties of last century, in the ancient Roman town of Caistor, the Methodists built a new chapel, square and high and red, in a county of red bricks and curly red tiles. Inside, the chapel had a deep gallery, and a lofty rostrum. Under the rostrum was the vestry, and through a trap door in the rostrum floor the preacher climbed from the vestry to his place. You saw him enter the vestry below by an ordinary door, and then in due time appeared his head and beard, and you hoped he would forget to shut the trap door, but he never did.

In that chapel it was my fortune to hear many sermons and to be bored by not a few. I am not less grateful for those that bored me than for those which held me interested; for in the effort to escape from boredom I made the most of the resources of my grandfather's pew. Attempts to read the one plain tablet at the side of the rostrum always failed. I grew weary of wondering why the bright yellow blinds were fitted only on the south side of the chapel, not on the north (I was very young, you see). I knew by heart the beauties of the thin iron pillars painted by some very ingenious person to deceive us into thinking they were marble. I had to wait for the hymns before the boy who blew the organ would begin his attractive diving and jumping. I had tried to imagine what would really happen if I suddenly put both my hands on the bald head of our friend there in the pew in front until the fascination of the experiment became so great that I was compelled for safety's sake to put away the thought. What, then, was left? Only the pile of Bibles and hymn–books in the left–hand corner. The Bibles, I regret to confess, did not attract me; but Wesley's Hymns, Wesley's Hymns with a Supplement, and Wesley's Hymns with New Supplement, upon these I fell week after week. And there in that pew began an unregulated, passionate, random reading which has gone on ever since.

I could inflict upon you, but I will not, a description of the other chapel that I knew well in those days: the 1662 meeting house of my father's Congregational Church. There I found sermons less dull, for my father preached them; but the casual ministrations of strangers drove me to Part II of Dr. Barrett's Hymnal, where among ‘Ancient Hymns of the Church' I found Irons's noble translation of the most moving of all medieval hymns — Dies Irae; and from Dies Irae, not knowing what I did, I caught the infection of a love of Medieval Christianity. To boring sermons, then, I owe two of the best things that I know.

Now, few of you have Methodist grandfathers at Caistor; few of you hear boring Methodist sermons; and, even if you did, few of you would still find your old hymn–books left in the pew. I may be wrong, but I suspect that many of you hardly know even the outward and visible signs of the hymn–book about which I am to talk; and I propose, therefore, before we try to approach its inward and spiritual grace to discuss its external make–up. The power of the late Wesleyan Conference was so great that when in 1904 it said ‘Let there be a new hymn–book', behold, it was so. Old hymn–books passed away; all hymnbooks became new. Henceforth you were to know only your new hymn–book of 1904, which came in when I was only a boy, but which still left the old on the pew shelves for my research.

I do not speak of it, The Methodist Hymn–Book, with its commonplace title, like every one else's hymn–book, I speak of your glory: ‘A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People called Methodists. By the Rev. John Wesley, M.A., sometime Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford. With a supplement. London: Wesleyan Conference Office, 2 Castle Street, City Road; sold at 66 Paternoster Row.' That was a title page. {The edition of the hymn–book which I describe in this paper is not the classical one of 1780, but an undated mid–nineteenth–century edition (used by my grandfather), with the 1830 supplement.} It had English history and English life in it, enough at least to set one bored little boy wondering. ‘Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford': so even at Caistor we had some touch with Oxford; but what Oxford was, I had no notion. I suppose I respect and love Oxford more than I should otherwise because I first heard of it in a Methodist hymn–book. ‘Sometime Fellow of Lincoln College.' What was a Fellow and a sometime Fellow? And why Lincoln College? — a pertinent question in Lincolnshire. And then, opposite the title page — surely in almost every one of the old books — there was what ought never to have been removed from any of them, the page of thicker paper with the clean–cut, chaste engraving of the venerable man himself, and his clear, beautiful signature, John Wesley. It was in itself an introduction to the engraver's art, for it was a good engraving; and early familiarity with that dignified figure — the long curling hair, the Geneva gown and cassock and bands — gave me, I imagine, my ineradicable prejudice in favour of a properly dressed minister and my revulsion from the parson in mufti. Did it do no more? It did, and you made one of the profoundest mistakes you ever made when in 1904 you removed that engraving from your hymn–books. That engraving alone stamped on the mind and heart of your people the figure of the founder of Methodism. Your devotion to him has been a by–word with the rest of us, you know, since Crabbe wrote of you as folk whose ‘John the Elder was the John Divine'.

Well, let Crabbe have his joke: I think Methodism will lose a most valuable and most characteristic bit of itself when the lineaments of its founder are less clear in the mind of all its people. Every Methodist ought to know at least what Wesley looked like: and you began to erase his image when you removed him from the book. Why you did so wanton and so silly a thing, I cannot imagine. Yes, I can; but I will not go into that.

So much we learnt from the first opening of the book. Now turn over. A single page of close print contained the Preface, signed like the portrait, John Wesley, and dated (how many of you know the date?) London, October 20, 1779; a great but unobserved Methodist feast. I am inclined to read the whole of the Preface to you; for, unwilling as I am to think ill of you, I believe that many of you have never read it. Never read it! Why, you have never seen it. The rascals who compiled your hymn–book in 1904 saw to that. They had the effrontery to refer to it as ‘a celebrated preface' (‘a preface' forsooth); and the wickedness to banish it from the book which you were to use for thirty years. They robbed you in 1904 of what, as the children of John Wesley, you should regard as one of your priceless heirlooms. I use strong language, but that Preface is, to begin with, one of the noblest pieces of eighteenth century prose extant: from its quaint opening words, ‘For many years I have been importuned', to its moving conclusion, ‘When Poetry thus keeps its place, as the handmaid of Piety, it shall attain, not a poor perishable wreath, but a crown that fadeth not away'. I used to read it often; I do not say I understood it then; but because I read it first in Caistor chapel I have kept on reading it till I begin to understand it. Apart altogether from Methodist interest, it is a first–rate introduction to the mind of the eighteenth century, a stimulating bit of literary criticism, and a model of plain, forceful, and at times sarcastic prose. I shall return to the Preface, but let us now pass on.

The Table of Contents follows. It is, of course, unique. Wesley said, ‘The hymns are not carelessly jumbled together, but carefully ranged under proper heads, according to the experience of real Christians'. The arrangement is quite unlike that with which we are now all familiar: hymns, I mean, arranged as they are in almost all our books under the three main heads: God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; Man, his needs and moods; the Church, its privileges and services. Wesley arranged his hymn–book as a spiritual biography of the sort of person whom he called in the Preface a real Christian. There is the introductory section, ‘Exhorting sinners to return to God'; followed by a contemplation of the great facts which should induce them to do so: the Pleasantness of Religion, the Goodness of God, and the last four things, Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. Next, the outlines of religion being sketched for the contemplation of the Exhorted Sinner, Formal Religion is described and distinguished (in Part II) from Inward Religion. With this precaution taken, the real work begins in Part III. Here we have the sinner trying to find the light. He prays for repentance in Section I. In Section II he is already a mourner convinced of sin. He is on the sure way to become a believer. But stay; before we deal with the sinner turned believer, we must glance at another class. Not all those who pray for repentance and wish to begin the true life do it now for the first time. Some have been here before, have started well, then have failed, and by this time need to get their second wind, or, it may be, their third or fourth. These are the people delightfully called Backsliders. And so we have the two sections: ‘For Persons convinced of Backsliding' and ‘For Backsliders recovered'. Wesley now sees his way clear. He has put the saving facts before sinners; warned them against mistaking false religion for true; and brought them to genuine repentance, whether for the first or a later time. He can now pass on to consider their experience as believers. He contemplates them first rejoicing, then fighting, praying, watching, working, suffering, seeking full redemption — a long and most distinctive section — and then saved; finally interceding for the world. In the last section Wesley considers his Society (the Methodist Church, as we should now call it); and we have the hymns of corporate life: For the Society Meeting, Giving Thanks, Praying, and Parting.

With the history of the various supplements I do not propose to deal. In them we find the beginning of the more usual present–day grouping of hymns. They contain, of course, some of the greatest of Charles Wesley's hymns at first published separately; we find here in particular some of the sacramental hymns and the hymns for the great festivals. Into the very canon approved by John Wesley his followers did not hesitate, however, to insert a few not inserted in his life; but they marked these evidences of their rash piety by branding these pirate hymns with an asterisk. Most famous of these is ‘Jesu, Lover of My Soul'. {Included in Hymns and Spiritual Songs, 1753, but not in the hymn–book of 1780.} In 1830 the compilers confess that some of the hymns which they now admit ‘sink below the rank of the Wesley poetry', but they defend their inclusion of these because of ‘some excellence which will be found in the sentiment', because they afford a greater choice of subjects, and because ‘Mr. Wesley' himself gave most of them his sanction by putting them in smaller supplemental books of his own.

Before we look into the hymns themselves, we must glance at the end of the book. Here is a mass of indexes: {The index of subjects and the index of texts were added in 1808.} indexes which by their thoroughness and minuteness link the book with Medieval and Renaissance scholarship. Scholars had not yet forgotten the way to index a book when Wesley published his hymns, and so we have a variety of indexes, which show that the book was used, as he intended it to be used, as ‘a little body of experimental and practical divinity'. There is an excellent index of subjects — not an apology for one, but the genuine article, of great use to any user of the book. There is an index of texts of Holy Scripture illustrated in the volume. This is not complete, it goes without saying, for there is a reminiscence of Holy Scripture in every verse, almost in every line, that Charles Wesley ever wrote. But, necessarily incomplete as it is, this index proves how fully justified was John Wesley's suggestion that in no other publication of the kind could men discover ‘so distinct and full an account of Scriptural Christianity'. Of the thirty–nine books of the Old Testament, only four are not recorded as illustrated: Ezra, Obadiah, Nahum, and Zephaniah. Of the twenty–seven books of the New Testament, only one: the Third Epistle of St. John. Some books, e.g. Romans and Isaiah, are illustrated chapter by chapter, almost verse by verse. There are, for instance, over thirty references to Romans viii. Last among indexes there is the Index to every verse: giving evidence, if there were no other, that the book was used for reference and study. The book is indeed a treasury for the expression of every state of mind and every condition of the soul. It is a modern Book of Psalms. Exactly as the devout of all times have found in the Psalms a better expression of their fears and hopes, their defeats and victories, than in any words they could put together for themselves, so the lover of Wesley's hymns finds inevitably and unconsciously that he drops into quoting them whatever point he has to make, whatever confession he has to utter. Before we look at the hymns themselves, then, I want to emphasize to you the unique possession of your Church in this book which you hardly know today. You talk much, and you talk rightly, of the work Methodism does for the world and for the universal Church; but your greatest — incomparably your greatest — contribution to the common heritage of Christendom is in Wesley's hymns. All the other things which you do, others have done and can do as well, better, or less well. But in Wesley's hymns you have something unique, no one else could have done it, and unless you preserve it for the use of all the faithful, till that day when we are all one, we shall all lose some of the best gifts of God. I implore you then, in these days when you are tempted to look at other parts of the Church and to dwell on your likeness to them and on the great things that we all have in common, keep that good thing committed peculiarly to your charge. This is your vineyard: do not come one day saying, ‘Whatever I have done elsewhere, mine own vineyard have I not kept'. In Wesley's hymns, not divorced from the great tunes of the Handel tradition, you have what only you understand and what (I sometimes fear) you no longer think it worth while to understand.

You may think my language about the hymns extravagant: therefore I repeat it in stronger terms. This little book — some 750 hymns {Wesley's Collection of 1780 has only 525 hymns.} — ranks in Christian literature with the Psalms, the Book of Common Prayer, the Canon of the Mass. In its own way, it is perfect, unapproachable, elemental in its perfection. You cannot alter it except to mar it; — it is a work of supreme devotional art by a religious genius. You may compare it with Leonardo's ‘Last Supper' or King's Chapel; and, as Blackstone said of the English Constitution, the proper attitude to take to it is this: we must venerate where we are not able presently to comprehend.

If you are now in a fit state of mind, we will look at the hymns. Let me admit at once that, in spite of all I have said, Charles Wesley did not always write well. The book contains many stilted, feeble, dull verses, and not a few that may strike us as ludicrous. These weaknesses are especially to be noticed when Wesley writes of occasional or less exalted subjects. Among the hymns included under the heading ‘For Believers Interceding' are, for instance, some ‘For Masters'. These are interesting inasmuch as they give us the point of view of an eighteenth–century householder with his apprentices, his servants, and his family around him:

Inferiors, as a sacred trust,

I from the Sovereign Lord receive,

That what is suitable and just,

Impartial I to all may give:

O'erlook them with a guardian eye;

From vice and wickedness restrain;

Mistakes and lesser faults pass by,

And govern with a looser rein.

The servant faithfully discreet,

Gentle to him, and good, and mild,

Him would I tenderly entreat,

And scarce distinguish from a child.

Yet let me not my place forsake,

The occasion of his stumbling prove,

The servant to my bosom take,

Or mar him by familiar love.

As far from abjectness as pride,

With condescending dignity,

Jesus, I make Thy word my guide,

And keep the post assigned by Thee.

That you may think merely quaint, but it is much to be wished that all modern employers read on to the last two verses:

O could I emulate the zeal

Thou dost to Thy poor servants bear!

The troubles, griefs, and burdens feel

Of souls entrusted to my care:

In daily prayer to God commend

The souls whom God expired to save:

And think how soon my sway may end

And all be equal in the grave!

The hymns ‘For Parents' show some concern lest the rod be too much spared, and the child spoilt.

We tremble at the danger near,

And crowds of wretched parents see

Who, blindly fond, their children rear

In tempers far as hell from Thee:

Themselves the slaves of sense and praise,

Their babes who pamper and admire,

And make the helpless infants pass

To murderer Moloch through the fire.

Parents are to be concerned rather —

To time our every smile or frown,

To mark the bounds of good and ill,

And beat the pride of nature down,

And bend or break his rising will.

And again, in another hymn:

We plunge ourselves in endless woes,

Our helpless infant sell;

Resist the light, and side with those

Who send their babes to hell.

We mark the idolizing throng,

Their cruel fondness blame;

Their children's souls we know they wrong; —

And we shall do the same.

Yet parents may hope to avoid extreme measures:

We would persuade their heart t' obey;

With mildest zeal proceed;

And never take the harsher way,

When love will do the deed.

The hymn ‘For the Mahometans' has great interest for students of Church history. Wesley has given a vivid and a true picture of the devastation wrought in the Christian East by Islam. He displays a sympathetic appreciation of the facts remarkable for his time when English Christians were perhaps even less understanding about the tragedy of the Eastern Church than we are today. This hymn alone would mark the extra–ordinarily wide and understanding survey which the Wesleys made of the Christian world; it was not an idle boast, that of John's: ‘I look upon the whole world as my parish.' The two brothers had the most truly Catholic mind in eighteenth–century England — nay, in eighteenth–century Christendom:

The smoke of the infernal cave,

Which half the Christian world o'erspread,

Disperse, Thou heavenly Light, and save

The souls by that Impostor led,

That Arab–chief, as Satan bold,

Who quite destroyed Thy Asian fold.

O might the blood of sprinkling cry

For those who spurn the sprinkled blood!

Assert Thy glorious Deity,

Stretch out Thine arm, Thou Triune God

The Unitarian fiend expel,

And chase his doctrine back to hell.

The couplet about the Unitarian fiend has perhaps a wider application than to Mahometans; as I have sometimes wondered in old days if Wesley did not write with a prophet's pen that couplet about a widely circulated religious weekly:

The world, The Christian World, convince

Of damning unbelief.

I know not how it is among you, but many well–meaning Congregationalists, I am sorry to say, are now too well–bred, or too squeamish, to sing that great missionary hymn of Heber's, in which we can breathe again the fervent faith of the heroic days of modern missions. I mean, of course, ‘From Greenland's icy mountains'. How then would they get on with Wesley: ‘For the Heathen'?

The servile progeny of Ham

Seize, as the purchase of Thy blood;

Let all the Heathens know Thy name;

From idols to the living God

The dark Americans convert;

And shine in every Pagan heart.

There are, of course, quaint passages in the main body of hymns:

Me, me who still in darkness sit,

Shut up in sin and unbelief,

Bring forth out of this hellish pit,

This dungeon of despairing grief.

Suffice that for the season past

Hell's horrid language filled our tongues;

We all Thy words behind us cast,

And loudly sang the drunkard's songs.

There are references to the contemporary controversy with the Calvinists. Were the benefits of the Atonement intended for the whole race or only for those who did in fact receive them? Here is a hymn which sounds today as if any one might sing it; but in Wesley's time it was a battle–song of militant Arminianism. Notice the stab at debased Calvinism in every line:

Father, whose everlasting love

Thy only Son for sinners gave;

Whose grace to all did freely move,

And sent Him down the world to save:

Help us Thy mercy to extol,

Immense, unfathomed, unconfined;

To praise the Lamb who died for all,

The general Saviour of mankind.

Thy undistinguishing regard

Was cast on Adam's fallen race;

For all Thou hast in Christ prepared

Sufficient, sovereign, saving grace.

The world He suffered to redeem:

For all He hath th' atonement made:

For those that will not come to Him,

The ransom of His life was paid.

Arise, O God, maintain Thy cause!

The fulness of the Gentiles call:

Lift up the standard of Thy cross,

And all shall own Thou diedst for all.

It is time to leave these curiosities and turn to the central part of the book. Why do I confidently make such great claims for it? Well, first a word about the language and literary form. It was Charles Wesley's good fortune, or (if you like) it was in the providence of God, that he was set to express the Catholic faith as it was being newly received in the Evangelical movement at a moment when prevailing taste and prevailing literary habits combined to give him a perfect literary instrument for hymn–writing. Dryden, Pope, and the rest of the much derided ‘Classical' school had just shown what could be done with the English language inside the limits of what Milton called ‘the troublesome and modern bondage of riming'.

Charles Wesley's generation was bred to the use of rhymed couplets and formal metres as you today are bred to the control of cars and wireless sets. In trying to say what he had to say in common metre, long metre, short metre, 6.8s, 7s and 6s, 8s and 6s, and the like, he was not kicking against the pricks as the genius of Francis Thompson or Christina Rossetti would have been. He was moving naturally in what was to him a natural medium, and so you simply are not aware of the trammels of the literary form, because he is not. He moves with complete mastery, with an ease that conceals mastery. His art is so cunning that it is difficult indeed to illustrate it.

We are, however, all aware of odd jolts that we get in some hymns where the sense quarrels with the metre or oversteps it. That very literary person, F. S. Pierpoint, in his exquisite (I use the adjective in its good and its bad sense) hymn, ‘For the Beauty of the Earth', though he is rather oppressively ‘cultured' most of the time, is not master of his metre and crashes awkwardly in verse two:

For the beauty of each hour

Of the day and of the night.

You don't want to emphasize the absurd word ‘of', but Pierpoint has contrived his couplet so ill that you must.

Or we may look at Tennyson (though this is not quite fair, because Tennyson was not writing a hymn). The opening stanzas of In Memoriam make a noble hymn; but there is that metrical difficulty (apart from discovering exactly what Tennyson means) in the last stanzas:

Let knowledge grow from more to more,

But more of reverence in us dwell,

That heart and mind, according well,

May make one music as before,

But vaster. We are fools and slight.

But vaster is an awkward ‘carry over' to a new verse and a new start of the tune. It is a great merit in a hymn if each line, to say nothing of each verse, contains a more or less rounded thought. I dare say that you have often felt that in singing the great hymn of Dr. Watts on which John Wesley died, ‘I'll praise my Maker'. It goes smoothly enough till you come to –

Happy the man whose hopes rely

On Israel's God! He made the sky,

And earth and seas, with all their train.

I know that it is partly the Psalmist's fault. Watts was following him, and the Psalmist has this sudden transition: ‘He made the sky'; but it would have been neater, nevertheless, if Watts had made the transition in meaning at the end of the line where you get the natural transition of metre. And what I am driving at is that Charles Wesley never, or almost never, is caught out by his metre as Pierpoint and Watts and Tennyson (considered as a hymn–writer) are; and as almost every one is. There may be examples in Wesley: I can only say that I have noticed none. His strong accent always seems to fall in the right place; and most lines contain one thought and not more than one.

You do not notice his perfect mastery of his medium, I said; but you can trace it. To do that helps to explain the smoothness of his verse and his success in bringing it off every time with a facility which, at its worst, is almost a sort of slickness. I will give you one example. You know the literary artifice called by the grammarians ‘chiasmus'. You have four ideas which hang together in two pairs, which we can call A and B. Instead of dealing first with the first pair, the A's and then with the B's, you mention one of the first pair, then both the second pair, and then finish with the second member of the first pair: A B B A. There sounds to be little in it, but it is most effective, especially in four lines of verse. Let us look at a hymn in detail. Take the great baptismal hymn, ‘Come Father, Son, and Holy Ghost'. You remember verse two:

We now Thy promised presence claim,

Sent to disciple all mankind,

Sent to baptize into Thy Name,

We now Thy promised presence find.

You have there the lines 1 and 4 similar and the lines 2 and 3 similar. You see how Wesley rings the changes. Beginning with promised presence, he goes off to the idea of Sent to do this; then he presses that home again, Sent to do that; and finally gives the knock–out blow by a return to the place from which he started, promised presence.

Now take a hymn like ‘Jesu, Lover', about which I dare say you think you know everything. Here Wesley's feeling is very high. You know this hymn is often criticized as poor in literary form, though moving in its piety. Many jests have been made about the confused navigation pictured in the metaphors of verse one: a bosom in a storm becomes a ship; and our Saviour, from being the pilot (‘safely to the haven guide') is turned into some one on the shore who welcomes the vessel. That sort of comment is all very small and silly; I mention it only to show that, even in a hymn where Wesley's control of his metaphors is not the tightest, he still is very active with his quiet skill of weaving a pattern in his words. Consider the famous verse that brings divine consolation to millions who never think of its literary form. Have you noticed the fingerprints of the accomplished classical scholar still on that?

Just and holy is Thy Name,

I am all unrighteousness;

False and full of sin I am,

Thou art full of truth and grace.

Here you have two people in contrast: the holy Saviour and the sinful speaker. Wesley begins with the Saviour. ‘Just and holy is Thy Name'; then he has two lines on the sinful speaker:

I am all unrighteousness;

False and full of sin I am.

And, finally, he mentions the Saviour again: ‘Thou art full of truth and grace.'

The contrast, that is to say, is made two ways in the first two lines: Saviour — sinner; then in the next two, sinner — Saviour: A B B A. But look at the pattern of the verse a little more closely. Inside this main design you see two variants of it worked, so to say, on a smaller scale. Take the lines about the sinner:

I am all unrighteousness:

False and full of sin I am.

Here you have the pronoun ‘I' and a description of the speaker, ‘I am all unrighteousness': ‘I am false and full of sin'. But you see how Wesley arranges it: ‘I' first, then epithet: ‘I am all unrighteousness'; then comes another epithet, and lastly ‘I': ‘False and full of sin I am'. A B B A.

Now look at the two lines about the Saviour. They exactly balance; and the same literary device is used in precisely the same way.

Just and holy is Thy Name; A B

Thou art full of truth and grace. B A

So in four very simple lines, on the most simple theme, we have the same effective pattern twice woven small, and then the whole enclosed in a larger setting of exactly the same pattern.

This, I know, has been tedious, and perhaps not very convincing. I must mention it, however, because it gives you a hint of the literary power and skill and instinct for form that lie behind Wesley's success as a verse maker. I must not analyse more. If he does that in four comparatively simple lines, you may judge what he does elsewhere. Ex pede Herculem. I do not suggest that Methodist congregations know why the verse is good; but if it is good and clear, and not tedious and flat, it is so, I submit, because your congregations unconsciously benefit by Wesley's literary power. And it was, as I said, Wesley's good fortune that the sort of literary skill most appreciated in his day, and therefore that in which he was most trained, was a skill which helped him in writing the concise verse that is necessary in hymns. After the Romantic Revival, another kind of verse — of a more continuous, straggling kind — came into fashion; and when it was chopped into verses, it often seemed, and indeed it was, unnatural and unhappy.

But it was not only in the form of his metre that Wesley was happy. He lived in an age of robust common sense, common sense that was often pedestrian and uninspiring and commonplace, but common sense for all that. This gave his language a clarity and reality and vigour that are most precious. For in religion, if it is to save souls (or whatever the modern phrase may be) those qualities — clarity, reality, vigour — are essential. In religious talk you must understand what the fellow means; you must be sure he is talking about facts and talking sincerely; you must be knocked down, or at least effectually persuaded, by what he says. Now, of all people who talk about religion, Charles Wesley is the least sentimental and soulful. There is no sort of self–conscious tension or priggishness or humbug about him. He says what he has to say in the simplest, plainest way he can. He does not take refuge in abstract nouns and over–subtle adjectives. Concrete nouns, active verbs, and plain metaphors: these are his material. He can use a Latin word on occasion with great effect. At times he can be so scholarly as to be hardly understood by the crowd. But these are quite exceptional moods; and he is never foggy. His allusions sometimes may be too erudite for most to grasp; but, once grasped, they are quite simple. Take these examples — space permits only sample verse quotations:

Arm of the Lord, awake, awake!

Thine own immortal strength put on!

With terror clothed, hell's kingdom shake,

And cast Thy foes with fury down.

As in the ancient days appear!

The sacred annals speak Thy fame:

Be now omnipotently near,

To endless ages still the same.

Thy arm, Lord, is not shortened now;

It wants not now the power to save;

Still present with Thy people, thou

Bear'st them through life's disparted wave.

Where pure, essential joy is found,

The Lord's redeemed their heads shall raise,

With everlasting gladness crowned,

And filled with love, and lost in praise.

You will notice how full this is of scriptural allusion: in places it is almost a transcript from scripture. You will notice its vigour, its simple metaphors, its occasional Latin, ‘omnipotently near', ‘pure essential joy'.

When Israel out of Egypt came,

And left the proud oppressor's land,

Supported by the great I Am,

Safe in the hollow of His hand,

The Lord in Israel reigned alone,

And Judah was His favourite throne.

Creation, varied by His hand,

Th' omnipotent Jehovah knows;

The sea is turned to solid land,

The rock into a fountain flows;

And all things, as they change, proclaim

The Lord eternally the same.

Here is an extreme example of Wesley's more erudite verse (he is speaking of Heaven):

Those amaranthine bowers

(Unalienably ours)

Bloom, our infinite reward,

Rise, our permanent abode;

From the founded world prepared;

Purchased by the blood of God.

‘Amaranthine bowers' and ‘the founded world' need footnotes; but little of Wesley is like that. On the other hand, it is pleasant to find with how sure a touch he deals with a technical subject like heraldry, as he does in the verse:

What though a thousand hosts engage,

A thousand worlds, my soul to shake?

I have a shield shall quell their rage,

And drive the alien armies back;

Portrayed it bears a bleeding Lamb:

I dare believe in Jesu's name.

Portrayed is a word that betrays the man who knows how to describe a shield.

This use of simple, direct words is illustrated by the Table of Contents. Where modern editors talk in long Latin abstract nouns, regeneration, temptation, discipline, resignation, aspiration, consecration, Wesley hits out simply: ‘For Believers fighting, suffering, praying.'

This gift of elemental simplicity and stinging direct speech comes out in such a hymn as that for the Watch Night Service, ‘Come, let us anew'. I know not how it is with you, but familiarity has never made me proof against the sheer magic of the words:

Our life is a dream;

Our time, as a stream,

Glides swiftly away

And the fugitive moment refuses to stay.

The arrow is flown;

The moment is gone;

The millennial year

Rushes on to our view, and eternity's here.

Notice the supreme cunning which introduces into the simple Anglo–Saxon the two Latin adjectives, the fugitive moment, the millennial year.

But all this, you will say (and you will say very truly), does not suffice to make the book great, religiously great. I agree. So far I have spoken only of the external things because I want you to see those, as I saw them, first. That was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural. Wesley might have done all that I have mentioned so far, and yet have been no more than one of those competent versifiers with whom the eighteenth century abounded. His precise verse and his simple, unaffected language, had there been nothing behind them, would have produced a book edifying indeed, but dull and unmoving. We have to inquire, therefore, what was behind. What made Wesley different from the pious poetasters of his generation — different as the Canon of the Mass is different from modern Romanist handbooks of devotion, different (that is to say) by the whole difference of religious genius? I will name three things among the many which might be named.

First, there is the full–orbed and conscious orthodoxy of a scholar trained and humbled as he contemplates the holy, catholic, and evangelical faith in its historic glory and strength. The hymns are charged with dogma. They set forth, not the amiable generalizations of natural religion in which Wesley's contemporaries delighted, but the peculiar and pungent doctrines of uncompromising Christianity. References to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, of the Incarnation, of Redemption by the Passion, of the Resurrection — we never move far from these. Simply to state the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is for Wesley a pleasure and a means of grace. Often he wants nothing more than that: it is enough for him to name the Name of God:

Round us when we speak Thy Name

There spreads a heaven of light.

This quality in his work puts Wesley in line with the greatest hymn–writers of the Greek Church. A most prominent feature in their hymns, as in his, is the spiritual exaltation which they discover as they glory in a statement of the orthodox faith and as they triumphantly assert the Christian doctrine of God. Hear Wesley on the Incarnation:

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.

He laid His glory by,

He wrapped Him in our clay,

Unmarked by human eyes,

The latent Godhead lay;

Infant of days He here became,

And bore the mild Immanuel's name.

Hear him on the Passion:

With glorious clouds encompassed round,

Whom angels dimly see,

Will the Unsearchable be found,

Or God appear to me?

Jehovah in Thy person show,

Jehovah crucified!

And then the pardoning God I know,

And feel the blood applied.

Wesley's orthodoxy, it is true, some of your modern theologians have been rash enough to question. With puny daring, they suggest that he denies the true humanity of the Son and flirts with patripassianism. This is a feeble and unconvincing display by men who wince before the strength of his doctrine. Let them master the doctrine of the communication of attributes, as Wesley mastered it, and fears for his orthodoxy will give place to fears for their own. It is, then, because Wesley has such great things to say — stupendous assertions about God made Man — that in his hands the slick mechanical metres of the eighteenth century are not only smooth and easy, but moving and even harrowing.

But Wesley, as probably he does not quite reach the excellence of the Greek writers in dogmatic hymns, goes beyond them in another way. For Wesley has not only the full faith to set out; he goes on to tell of a present experience, of its effects in his own life:

What we have felt and seen

With confidence we tell.

Most men and women merely disgust us when they talk about their souls and their secret experiences; they did this quite effectually even before psychology became the rage; but Wesley's common sense and scholarly taste kept him from mawkish excesses without crushing his spirit. The result is that few people have been as successful as he was in speaking at once with passion and with decency about God's work in their own lives. For him the important things are the great, external, objective truths about God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and the definite impact of faith in these on his own life and other men's. Through all the book there rings an absolutely overmastering note of confidence, certainty, and happiness. ‘The best of all is, God is with us', with us especially in Emmanuel, the incarnate Son: nothing can make Wesley forget that. Historic Christianity applied to the individual soul and the sharing of this experience with other men who know it too — so Wesley reaches that sense of a common life which all ‘real' Christians — Wesley's word — live. So, too, he comes to yearn over the great troubled world that is missing this heavenly treasure.

Lastly, there is something else. There is the solid structure of historic dogma; there is the passionate thrill of present experience; but there is, too, the glory of a mystic sunlight coming directly from another world. This transfigures history and experience. This puts past and present into the timeless eternal NOW. This brings together God and man until Wesley talks with God as a man talks with his friend. This gives to the hymnbook its divine audacity, those passages only to be understood by such as have sat in heavenly places in Christ Jesus, and being caught up into paradise have heard unspeakable words which it is not lawful for a man to utter.

Let me illustrate this mystical quality by two of the most famous hymns. In them Wesley is at the height of his inspiration: nothing short of inspiration keeps the daring emotion sane and reverent and orthodox. The first is:

Ah! show me that happiest place,

The place of Thy people's abode,

Where saints in an ecstasy gaze,

And hang on a crucified God;

Thy love for a sinner declare,

Thy passion and death on the tree;

My spirit to Calvary bear,

To suffer and triumph with Thee.

The second example is, of course, ‘Wrestling Jacob', that hymn described with such power by Percy Lubbock in his account of Dr. Warre's sermons in Eton Chapel. Wesley saw in this story of Jacob prevailing over the mysterious Wrestler even under the old dispensation a mystical revelation of the humiliation of the Word; and he argues, commands, and hectors as if the Word of God were already wearing our Flesh. I should like to quote it all; I will remind you only of it:

Come, O Thou Traveller unknown,

Whom still I hold, but cannot see!

Incidentally, we notice those doctrines that Barth is teaching us anew in the lines:

When I am weak, then I am strong;

And when my all of strength shall fail,

I shall with the God–Man prevail.

There have been other writers of dogmatic hymns (we think of the Greek Church); there have been other writers of hymns revealing a personal experience of religion (we think of the nineteenth century); there have been other writers of mystical religious poetry (we think of the seventeenth century). It is Wesley's glory that he united these three strains — dogma, experience, mysticism — in verse so simple that it could be understood, and so smooth that it could be used, by plain men. You can find a union of these qualities in the greatest Latin hymns of the Medieval Church, but hardly (I believe) anywhere else.

These three qualities, among others, give such a life to the hymns that they can never grow old while Christians experience God's grace. There is indeed a strange timelessness about them: their essential confidence does not rest on the position won by the gospel at the time of Wesley's writing, on the progress or lack of progress of the work of God. Some few of the expressions are such as we should not use today, but the main things that Wesley has to say we want still to say. He is greatest when he is on the greatest things; greatest of all, possibly, in his sacramental hymns. In reading fully one which your modern book truncates, I end. Notice its simple language, its profound and vigorous orthodoxy, its firm personal faith and experience, its mystical air:

Victim Divine, Thy grace we claim,

While thus Thy precious death we show:

Once offered up a spotless Lamb.

In Thy great temple here below,

Thou didst for all mankind atone,

And standest now before the throne.

Thou standest in the holy place,

As now for guilty sinners slain;

The blood of sprinkling speaks, and prays,

All prevalent for helpless man;

Thy blood is still our ransom found,

And speaks salvation all around.

The smoke of Thy atonement here

Darkened the sun, and rent the veil,

Made the new way to heaven appear,

And showed the great Invisible;

Well pleased in Thee, our God looked down,

And calls His rebels to a crown.

He still respects Thy sacrifice;

Its savour sweet doth always please:

The Offering smokes through earth and skies,

Diffusing life, and joy, and peace;

To these, Thy lower courts, it comes,

And fills them with divine perfumes.

We need not now go up to heaven,

To bring the long–sought Saviour down;

Thou art to all already given,

Thou dost even now Thy banquet crown:

To every faithful soul appear,

And show Thy real presence here!

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