Visit the home of a poor 18th century Methodist family. Their library includes only two books, volumes considered essential to consistent spiritual growth: a King James Bible and a Wesley Hymnbook.
Visit a 19th century British Methodist chapel. The Hymnbook is marked, “For the Use of Visitors.” Regular members carry their own “pocket hymnbook” between church and home. The Hymnbook is an integral part of private devotions and an important vehicle for personal spiritual growth.
Barry Liesch wrote that Protestants have been “people of two books, the Bible and the hymnbook” (2001:23). If this is true for Protestants as a whole, how much truer it is for “the people called Methodists,” believers who developed under the influence of both the Bible and Wesley’s Hymnbook.
The 1780 Hymnbook, the greatest Wesley hymn collection, was edited by John Wesley as a book of “practical divinity,” a manual for the Christian life. In his preface, Wesley pointed to the “regular order” by which the Hymnbook is organized: “The hymns are not carelessly jumbled together, but carefully ranged under proper heads, according to the experience of real Christians.” Wesley organized the hymns to correspond to the progress of the Christian life.
Many later hymnals are organized according to categories of systematic theology, reinforcing the importance of doctrine. Other hymnals are arranged according to the sequence of a worship service (Renew, for example). Hymnals from high church traditions are often organized around the Christian Year (The Hymnal for the Episcopal Church).
Each of these approaches has value. However, while the Wesleys certainly valued doctrine, their Hymnbook placed particular emphasis on the role of hymns for guiding Christian experience. The 1780 Hymnbook taught theology; but more importantly, it served as an aid to spiritual formation. This spiritual biography traced a “Methodist’s Progress” from the first conviction of sin to spiritual maturity:
Part One: Introductory Hymns
Part Two: Convincing
Part Three: For Mourners and Backsliders
Part Four: For Believers
Part Five: For the Society
Part One, “Introductory Hymns,” is notable for its section “Exhorting Sinners to Return to God.” The Hymnbook opens with Charles’ Anniversary Hymn, “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing.”
He breaks the power of cancelled sin,
He sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean –
His blood availed for me (WHM, no. 1).
Charles’ conversion is a testimony to God’s willingness to save all mankind. Wesley testified that if God would forgive him, “the chief” of sinners, anyone else could also “know, shall feel your sins forgiven”:
With me, your chief, ye then shall know,
Shall feel your sins forgiven;
Anticipate your heaven below,
And own that love is heaven (WHM, no. 1).
Charles’ great Anniversary Hymn is followed by a hymn proclaiming the unlimited atonement:
Come, sinners, to the gospel feast;
Let every soul be Jesu’s guest;
Ye need not one be left behind,
For God hath bidden all mankind (WHM, no. 2).
The universal call to redemption is repeated through Part One of the Hymnbook. In one of the greatest invitation hymns ever penned, Wesley repeats the question from Ezekiel 18:31, “Why will you die?”
Sinners, turn, why will you die?
God, your Maker, asks you why.
God, who did your being give,
Made you with Himself to live;
He the fatal cause demands,
Asks the work of his own hands,
Why, ye thankless creatures, why
Will you cross his love, and die?
Sinners, turn, why will you die?
God, your Savior, asks you why.
God, who did your souls retrieve,
Died himself that you might live.
Will you let him die in vain?
Crucify your Lord again?
Why, ye ransomed sinners, why
Will you slight his grace, and die?
Sinners, turn, why will you die?
God the Spirit asks you why.
He, who all your lives hath strove,
Wooed you to embrace his love.
Will you not the grace receive?
Will you still refuse to live?
Why, ye long-sought sinners, why
Will you grieve your God, and die? (WHM, no. 6)
In Part Two, “Convincing,” or we would say “Convicting,” Wesley reflects on the formal religion he had practiced:
Long have I seemed to serve thee, Lord,
With unavailing pain;
Fasted, and prayed, and read thy Word,
And heard it preached – in vain.
Oft did I with th’assembly join,
And near thy altar drew;
A form of godliness was mine –
The power I never knew (WHM, no. 88).
In contrast to this struggle, Wesley testifies to the assurance of faith:
How can a sinner know
His sins on earth forgiven?
How can my gracious Saviour show
My name inscribed in heaven?
What we have felt and seen
With confidence we tell,
And publish to the sons of men
The signs infallible (WHM, no. 93)
Hymns for Mourners and Backsliders
Part Three begins the pilgrimage of the sinner who responds to conviction. Wesley understood that man brings nothing of merit to God; even a prayer of repentance is the gracious gift of God:
Ah, give me, Lord, myself to feel,
My total misery reveal;
Ah, give me, Lord (I still would say),
A heart to mourn, a heart to pray;
My business this, my only care,
My life, my every breath be prayer! (WHM, no. 96)
Wesley ends the section for “Mourners convinced of sin” with a hymn on Micah 6:6-8:
Wherewith, O God, shall I draw near
And bow myself before thy face?
How in thy purer eyes appear?
What shall I bring to gain thy grace?
Who’er to thee themselves approve
Must take the path thy word hath showed:
Justice pursue, and mercy love,
And humbly walk by faith with God.
What have I then wherein to trust?
I nothing have, I nothing am;
Excluded is my every boast,
My glory swallowed up in shame.
See where before the throne he stands,
And pours the all-prevailing prayer,
Points to his side, and lifts his hands,
And shows that I am graven there (WHM, no. 123).
Hymns for Believers
Part Four contains hymns “For Believers.” This extensive group of hymns addresses various aspects of the Christian’s pilgrimage: Rejoicing; Fighting (against sin); Praying; Watching; Working; Suffering; Groaning for Full Redemption; for Believers Brought to the Birth; Saved; Interceding for the World.
The largest group in this section contains hymns for believers “Groaning for Full Redemption,” hymns on entire sanctification. This group includes what may be the greatest definition of holiness in all hymn literature, “O for a Heart to Praise my God”:
O for a heart to praise my God,
A heart from sin set free!
A heart that always feels thy blood,
So freely spilt for me!
A heart resigned, submissive, meek,
My great Redeemer’s throne,
Where only Christ is heard to speak,
Where Jesus reigns alone.
A heart in every thought renewed,
And full of love divine,
Perfect, and right, and pure, and good-
A copy, Lord, of thine!
Thy nature, gracious Lord, impart;
Come quickly from above;
Write thy new name upon my heart,
Thy new, best name of love! (WHM, no. 334)
Hymns “For Believers Brought to the Birth” encourage believers to persevere in their prayers for a pure heart. These hymns testify to the possibility of a pure heart:
He wills that I should holy be;
That holiness I long to feel,
That full divine conformity
To all my Saviour’s righteous will.
Come, Saviour, come, and make me whole!
Entirely all my sins remove;
To perfect health restore my soul,
To perfect holiness and love (WHM, no. 396).
Hymns for the Society
The hymns for believers seeking a pure heart are followed by a group of hymns “For Believers Saved.” In Wesley’s terminology, these hymns refer to “Full Salvation.” Much has been made of the differences between John and Charles regarding the extent and timing of Christian Perfection, but for 1780 Hymnbook, these differences were set aside. As editor, John chose hymns that reflected basic theological agreement between the brothers. The placement of these hymns of testimony after the earlier hymns for believers “Groaning for Full Redemption” shows that John (regardless of Charles’ later doubts) considered these hymns to refer to entire sanctification. Charles Wesley writes:
Quickened with our immortal Head,
Who daily, Lord, ascend with thee,
Redeemed from sin, and free indeed,
We taste our glorious liberty (WHM, no. 407).
John Wesley conceived of the Hymnbook as a “Pilgrim’s Progress” to help the believer grow in the Christian life. The hymnal was much more than a collection of hymns to be used on Sunday; it was the daily companion of the growing Christian. The Wesley Hymnbook was second only to the Bible in inspiring spiritual growth among early Methodists.
Perhaps pastors today would do well to encourage church members to use the hymnal in their daily devotional time. Bible Reading plans could be accompanied with suggested hymns that trace the progress of the spiritual life. As believers avail themselves of the rich body of hymn literature, they will be encouraged in their spiritual growth.
From their spiritual birth to the grave, the Hymnbook was the constant companion of early Methodists. John Bunyan portrayed “Christian” carrying a book, the Bible; had John Wesley written a similar allegory of the Christian walk, his Pilgrim would have carried two books, a Bible and a hymnal. Both are valuable roadmaps for the highway to heaven.
- Beckerlegge, Oliver A. 1983. “The Hymn-book in Methodist Worship and Devotion” in A Collection of Hymns, for the Use of the People Called Methodists, 61-70. Oxford University Press.
- Liesch, Barry. 2001. The New Worship: Straight Talk on Music and the Church (Expanded Edition). MI: Baker Book House.
- McElrath, Hugh. 1990. “The Hymnbook as a Compendium of Theology.” Review and Expositor, 87, No. 1 (Winter): 11-31.
- Wesley, John (ed.). 1983. A Collection of Hymns, for the Use of the People Called Methodists. (Ed. Franz Hildebrandt and Oliver A. Beckerlegge with James Dale). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Abbreviated WHM in the text.)