Your Master Proclaim: a Tribute to John and Charles Wesley

This year, 1988, marks the 250th anniversary of the conversions of John and Charles Wesley and the 200th anniversary of Charles Wesley's death. In light of the tremendous contributions these men made to Christian hymnody, RW asked Merwin Van Doornik to tell the Wesleys' story and to remind readers of some of the beautiful hymns Charles Wesley left as a legacy to Christians everywhere.

In the early eighteenth century two brothers, John (1703-1781) and Charles (1707-1788) Wesley, joined a small Christian club at Oxford University. Members of the group, who called themselves "The Holy Club," promised to assist each other with homework; read helpful books, especially the New Testament; attend Communion regularly; and pattern their lives in accordance with New Testament teachings. Other students—noting how the Wesleys and their friends organized their lives according to a schedule, or method—soon dubbed them "Methodists."

In 1735 John and Charles volunteered to serve as missionaries to Georgia—an American colony established as an alternative to prison for English debtors. When a violent storm threatened their ship during the ocean crossing, the two frightened brothers were impressed with the peace and courage of some fellow travelers, Moravians. Later, safely on shore in Georgia, the Moravian leader asked John pointedly, "Do you know Jesus Christ?" "I know that he is the Savior of the world," John replied. "True," continued the Moravian, "but do you know he has saved you?" John did not reply.

The brothers' adventures in Georgia didn't last long. Charles returned to London after only four months. John followed him a short time later, fleeing a lawsuit launched against him when he refused to serve Communion to a young woman who had spurned his attentions and married someone else.


Although John and Charles were both ordained clergymen in the Anglican Church, neither had really come to terms yet with the question the Moravian had asked John back in Georgia: "But do you know he has saved you?"

John's eyes were opened on May 24, 1738, during an informal meeting of the Anglican Society in London. John sat with the others, listening to a reading of Luther's comments on Romans. Later he wrote: "About a quarter before nine … I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death." John noted that he was influenced that day not only by Romans and Luther but also by Psalm 130, which he had heard sung that afternoon at St. Paul's Cathedral (probably to a tune by William Croft): "Out of the deep I have called unto thee, O Lord. O Lord, hear my voice."

A little-known fact is that brother Charles had had a similar conversion experience only four days earlier on Pentecost Sunday, when he "found peace with God and rejoiced in the hope of a living Christ."

Wesley Hymns

During this year marking the 250th anniversary of these conversions as well as the 200th anniversary of the death of Charles Wesley, we pay tribute to the Wesley contributions to Christian hymnody. John was a preacher and a lover of music, who made many lasting suggestions for improving congregational singing (see box). Charles was the lyricist. How many hymns he actually wrote depends on how one defines a hymn. The number usually cited is 6500—though some would claim that Charles wrote as many as 8989 hymns.

Contrary to some misconceptions, Charles did not ride behind John on the same horse as the latter conducted his itinerant preaching. John traveled; Charles stayed home and supplied a poetical form to the truths they both believed. In short, Wesley's hymns stress the believer's experience rather than the great acts of God. The table of contents in the Methodist hymnal of 1780 (the Large Hymnbook, in which 487 of the 535 hymns were Wesley's) is organized, therefore, according to experience rather than the Christian year or theology:

Part I: Introductory Hymns Exhorting and Beseeching Sinners to Return to God

Part II: Describing Formal and Inward Religion

Part III: Praying for Repentance, for Mourners Convinced of Sin, for those Convinced of Backsliding and those Recovered

Part IV: For Believers Rejoicing, Fighting, Praying, Watching, Working, Suffering, etc.

Part V: For the Meeting of the Society: Giving Thanks, Praying, and Parting

In contrast to the Methodists, Reformed Christians have always put a great premium on hymns that spotlight God rather than ourselves. However, we have also continued to recognize that balance is needed. Even Isaac Watts, an uncontested Calvinist, wrote, "Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all."

Although Wesley's primary focus was the Christian's experience, many of his hymns Still center on God. Not surprisingly, these are the selections that appear in our hymnals. Some of Charles Wesley's valued contributions to our musical life are described in the paragraphs that follow.

"Ye Servants of God, Your Master Proclaim" was originally written not as a hymn of praise but as encouragement for believers facing persecution. The hymn first appeared in 1744 in a small collection of thirty-three hymns titled Hymns for Times of Trouble and Persecution and was captioned "To be sung in tumult." That year was a time of great tension and confusion in England and a time of bitter persecution for those new people called "Methodists," who were strangely accused of being Roman Catholics in disguise, working undercover for the pope. Mobs broke up Methodist services and often hurled bricks, cabbages, and eggs at the preachers. Undaunted, the Wesleys maintained a noble spirit, producing the 1744 collection to buoy the spirit of their followers.

Psalm 93:1-4 and Revelation 7:11-12 are the biblical basis for this hymn. The two stanzas that are now omitted especially reveal the local circumstances:

The waves of the sea have lift
up their voice,
sore troubled that we in Jesus
The floods they are roaring,
but Jesus is here.
While we are adoring, he always
is near.

When devils engage,
the billows arise,
and horribly rage
and threaten the skies.
Their fury shall never our steadfastness shock—
the weakest believer is built
on a rock.

"Rejoice, the Lord Is King", written about the resurrection, is an obvious echo of Philippians 4:4. (See "Hymn of the Month," p. 39-41.) Wesley did not appreciate the resurrection as much as he did Calvary, the ascension, and the present intercessory work of Christ. But in spite of Wesley's preferences, this is a good hymn (the tune helps), one I use with my congregation as the opening hymn each Easter morning.

Wesley's other Easter contribution, "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today," (said by some to be the greatest Easter hymn ever written) makes a better conclusion than opening for the Easter morning service:

Soar we now where Christ
has led, following our exalted Head.
Made like him, like him we

Even in this hymn, the most inspiring couplet is about the cross:

Love's redeeming work is done:
Fought the fight, the battle won.

"Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" is, of course, one of our most popular Christmas hymns. Ironically, much of its popularity is due to Mendelssohn's tune, which the composer said would never fit religious words! One of the most God-centered of Wesley's works, this hymn piles up one scriptural phrase after another to describe the person and work of Christ. Incidentally, to my knowledge this is the only hymn in current popular usage that includes the great biblical word reconciled, a precious concept in these days of fractured friendships and fragmented families.

Calvinists and Wesleyans

Inevitably, conflict developed between Calvinists and Wesleyans. Charles Wesley's poetical indictment of Calvinism was called "The Horrible Decree." Calvinist Augustus Toplady retaliated with the hymn we know as "Rock of Ages" but which was originally called "A Living and Dying Prayer for the Holiest Believer in the World."

Today we rejoice that we have moved beyond the name calling and are able to use each other's hymns with appreciation. Albert Bailey, a competent and feisty hymnologist, remarked that "Rock of Ages" became the "number one hymn in the affection of all Christians." And today we Calvinists sing as many or more of Charles's hymns than do some Methodists.

Perhaps the magna charta for union and reunion in the body of Christ will be a hymnal, not a creed. Perhaps. Just wondering.

A Few of Charles Wesley's Best Loved Hymns

And Can It Be That I Should Gain
Arm of the Lord, Awake, Awake!
Captain of Israel's Host
Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies
Christ the Lord Is Risen Today
Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown
Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus
Come, Holy Ghost, Our Hearts Inspire
Come, Lei Us with Our Lord Arise
Eternal Beam of* Light Divine
Forth in Your Name, O Lord, I Go
Glory, Love, and Praise, and Honor
Hail the Day That Sees Him Rise
Hark! the Herald Angels Sing
Jesus, Lover of My Soul
Jesus, Lord, We Look to Thee
Let Saints on Earth in Concert Sing
Lo! I Come with Joy
Lo! He Comes, with Clouds Descending
Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
Oh, for a Heart to Praise My God
Oh, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing
Rejoice, the Lord Is King
Shepherd Divine, Our Wants Relieve
Soldiers of Christ, Arise
Son of the Living God!
You Servants of God, Your Master Proclaim

Concern for the Manner of Singing

In the preface to Sacred Melody, 1761, John Wesley gave the following instructions for congregational singing:

I. Learn these tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please.
II. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn them as soon as you can.
III. Sing All. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.
IV. Sing lustily and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep, but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.
V. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony, but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear, melodious sound.
VI. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it; but attend close to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can; and take care not to sing too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.
VII. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your Heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward you when He cometh in the clouds of heaven.

Reformed Worship 8 © June 1988, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.