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In1780, the main hymnal of John Wesley’s Methodist movement was published.
Like most of the Methodist hymnals that preceded it, A Collection of
Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists consisted of hymns
largely written by Charles Wesley and was edited by John. It was, in J. Wesley’s
mind, a summation of the central doctrines of Methodism. He says in his introduction:
“It is large enough to contain all the important truths of our most holy
religion, whether speculative or practical; yea, to illustrate them all,
and to prove them both by Scripture and reason” (J. Wesley, “Preface,” in
F. Baker, ed., Works 7:73-74).
The hymnal was analogous to Wesley’s standard sermons or the Minutes of
Several Conversations. It set forth in an organized fashion the theology of
the movement. As such, this hymnal dealt with the full range of the Christian
life, from prevenient grace to Christian perfection. J. Wesley notes: “The
hymns are not carelessly jumbled together, but carefully ranged under their
proper heads, according to the experiences of real Christians. So this book
is in effect a little body of experimental and practical divinity” (74).
One purpose of this hymnal was to teach—to teach the doctrine found in
Wesley’s Sermons, Minutes, and Notes on the NT. In this it followed good
Anglican tradition. Just as the Articles of Religion, Book of Homilies, and
Book of Common Prayer provided theological grounding for the Church of England,
the hymns joined J. Wesley’s sermons, commentaries, and conference minutes
as means to convey Wesleyan theology. Their purpose was not to serve as an
“official” doctrinal authority but to disseminate the theology to the widest
possible audience. The hymns were not just for the preachers, but also served
the people called Methodists.
In its doctrinal role the hymnal was not atypical. The Wesleys understood
most of their hymnals to be handbooks of doctrine. To take another example,
the Hymns on the Lord’s Supper are arranged according to theological
categories, and each hymn sheds light on the content of those categories.
Persons come to know how the Lord’s Supper mediates Christ, as well as how
the worshipper responds.
I once told a class that these hymns taught theology. A student objected,
saying that would ruin them. I was taking great sources of inspiration and
devotion and making them dense and dull. Likewise, a pastor reported to
me that when he pointed out the theology of a hymn to his choir, one choir
member angrily accused him of destroying the meaningfulness of the hymns.
There is a set of assumptions about theology in these responses. Theology
is a matter of ideas, a cognitive enterprise, while hymns are about inspiration
and experience, moving the heart. To turn them into theology is to rob them
of their power. The Wesleys did not share these assumptions. Doctrine and
theology were designed to direct us to God, including God’s purpose for
our lives and God’s mission in the world. Like a good map, they show us
the way to salvation, enabling us to get from where we are to the destination
God has for us. The hymns, along with J. Wesley’s sermons and commentaries,
were designed for this purpose.
Yet the hymns are more than this. They are a means to encounter the realities
to which they point. They not only teach us about God, they enable us to
experience God. In this way they are analogous to prayer, proclamation, and
sacraments. As we sing them or even read them devotionally, they are a means
of grace the Holy Spirit uses to transform our lives.
In our day we have seen much controversy over music in worship. Contemporary
praise choruses have replaced hymns as more friendly to today’s culture.
The popularity of the choruses is undeniable, including with this writer.
The Wesleys have sometimes been used to endorse this development. While
the claim they used bar tunes is a myth, their desire to give the people music
for worship is undeniable. But they also raise this question: what does the
music teach about God and salvation? The Wesley hymns covered the full range
of theology, and utilized a wide range of imagery and Scripture. Each hymn
had a richness of teaching that enabled Christian growth. The Wesleys would
ask us to consider how what we sing in worship contributes to the formation
that God desires for our lives and our churches.
By Henry H. Knight III, Donald and Pearl Wright Professor of Wesleyan
Saint Paul School of Theology.