What’s in a Song?

–November of 2007

What’s in a Song?

Methodism, it has been said, was born in song; and this was facilitated by the poetic genius and deep piety of Charles Wesley.  Few would argue that Charles Wesley‘s work in the composition of hymns has no equal in the English language, and is perhaps superior to any other man that ever lived.  Wesley’s story is even more remarkable when one remembers that he had never written a hymn before his “heart warming” experience on Whitsunday, 1738.  Following his conversion he wrote his first hymn, “Where shall my wondering soul begin?”   He went on to publish more than 4,500 hymns and left some 3000 in manuscript form.

Wesley’s hymns have become the gold standard for all other hymns.  They are worshipful, scriptural, instructional and pregnant with every conceivable phase of Christian experience and Methodist theology. They not only lift ones heart in adoration and praise to God, but they fill ones head with good Wesleyan theology.

The question naturally arises, “How did he do it?” along with the question, “Why isn’t someone today writing hymns like Wesley’s?”  I have neither the musical expertise nor insight to answer those questions to anyone’s satisfaction, including my own.  But music scholars Harry Eskew and Hugh McElrath give the traits of a Wesley hymn according to form and content in their book, Sing with Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Hymnody.

In summarizing what these music scholars have said a hymn by Charles Wesley will consistently have the following five traits in its form:  1. It is rich in the variety of poetic meters.  2. Sound and sense coincide, that is, individual lines express complete thoughts while being alliterative.  3. Wesley is bold and free in scriptural paraphrase without sacrificing the true meaning of the passage.  4. He uses a skillful mixture of the English and Latin vocabularies.  5. He uses a wide range of literary devices masterfully.

The content of a Wesley hymn also possesses certain remarkable characteristics such as: 1.Wesley’s hymns are replete with Christian dogma. Hymns taken as a body constitute skillfully condensed doctrine.  2. They are full of scriptural allusion. 3. They express a passionate Christian experience. Every mood of the Christian soul is expressed. 4. They are simple and smooth. Important matters concerning God and the souls of humans are dealt with simply and directly. 5. They are appropriately mystical.  The Wesley hymnic language reflects an appropriate intimacy in which God is talked to as a friend but never treated like a chum. This quality makes these hymns timeless and universal.

If it is true that Methodism was born in song, then it is equally true that her faithful sons and daughters still value that song.  For this very Sunday, Wesleyans all around the world will sing the words “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great redeemers praise; the glories of my God and King the triumph of His grace” and will be able to do so because Charles Wesley knew what was in a good song!

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