« PreviousContinue »
CHARLES WESLEY AND METHODIST HYMNS.
BY REV. FREDERIC M. BIRD, PHILADELPHIA.
It is a singular circumstance that the most prolific and powerful of Christian lyric poets should be comparatively unknown. Positively unknown he is not; his praise is in all the churches; no Christian denomination has entirely refused to accept his valuable help in the common work of worship; in every modern English and American hymn book he is represented by some of the noblest of spiritual songs. But relatively to his genius and his works, the world knows little of him. Perhaps one tenth of his poetry is yet in print. The Methodists cherish his memory, and their various collections contain some eight hundred hymns bearing his honored name. Other hymnals have a sprinkling of the Wesleyan style and spirit, more or less, according to the views, the prejudices, the knowledge of their editors : if
· The Life of the Rev. Charles Wesley, M.A. By Thomas Jackson. 2 vols. 8ro. London. 1841.
Hymns and Sacred Poems. By John and Charles Wesley. 2 vols. 1749. Hymns and Sacred Poems. By Charles Wesley. 3 vols. 1739, 1740, 1742.
Short Hymns on Select Passages of the Holy Scriptures. By Charles Wesley. 2 vols. 1762, 1794.
Hymns on the Lord's Supper. 1745, 1825.
A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People called Methodists. By the Rev. Johu Wesley, A.M. London.
Hymns for the Use of the Methodist Episcopal Church. New York.
the compiler have an unusually liberal spirit, and a rare acquaintance with his subject, the number of Wesleyan hymns may approach one hundred. But we have yet to see an American non-Methodist selection which does fair justice to the greatest of hymn writers.
Beyond what is contained in the standard denominational hymn books, the Wesleyan poetry is inaccessible to ordinary readers, and can be reached by the most zealous bookworm (in America at least) only at some expense of time, trouble, and labor. It is scattered through over thirty separate publications, the dates of which range from 1738 to 1785. Most of these were never reprinted; and all, except three which have been republished by the British Methodists within the century, have been out of print for many years. So much for the published poems (between four and five thousand) of Charles Wesley; but there are rearly as many, says his biographer, which he left in manuscript at his death, and which have never seen the light. Such is the enterprise and spirit of the English Wesleyan Conference, to which they belong.
It is difficult properly to handle a subject of such magnitude, and one which has been so little studied and appreciated. “ The glorious reproach of Methodism” is scarcely yet extinct; the name of Wesley still arouses many oldtime prejudices: Calvinists have not quite lost their suspicion of the Arminian teacher, nor churchmen forgotten to look coldly upon the great schismatic. Can any good thing come out of Nazareth? Charles Wesley was the “ bard of Methodism"; and most people, without knowing very thoroughly what Methodism is, judge it to be something quite different from other forms of Christianity, and therefore conclude that its poet can hardly be the poet of the church at large. Mr. Creamer, in his “ Methodist Hymnology," hazards the opinion, that the man is not born who should fully appreciate the genius of the Methodist poet. Certainly the day will come when the grateful praises of his own people shall be echoed by the thanks of the whole
Christian world ; when posterity shall remedy the tardy justice of time, and Charles Wesley be acknowledged as a name great among British poets, and facile princeps of modern sacred song. It is because the Methodist poet is not known, that he is not appreciated. The more extensively and closely his writings are examined, the more will be found in them worthy to be admired and used. Other hymn writers have had some measure of justice done them. Of Dr. Watts especially, the name and writings are household words: his Psalms and Hymns may be found at every bookstall, and very copious extracts from them in every hymn book. But only a few venturesome persons have explored the vast mine of Wesleyan poetry; and its treasures are as yet unclaimed and unused by the church at large. Dr. Watts has been commonly considered the most voluminous and powerful of hymnists. Many of our readers will be surprised to hear that the published Wesleyan hymns are five times as numerous as bis, and that of this immense mass the literary standard is far higher than that of the lesser bulk of the more celebrated writer. Set aside one hundred of Watts's and five hundred of Wesley's best hymns; there will be no comparison between the remainder, in style and poetic merit. Dr. Watts was a poet at certain times, and under special inspiration ; Charles Wesley was a poet by nature and habit, and almost always wrote as such. Of course bis effusions are not equal among themselves; but he established and observed, through all his multiplicity of verses, a standard which no other hymn writer up to bis time was able to approach, and wbich none has since surpassed.
The above remarks have an air of special pleading. It may relieve our readers to know, that the present writer is not a Methodist, and simply wishes to see justice rendered. He has had inclination and opportunity to study the Wesleyan poetry as few persons have done, and the conclusions resulting from that study are here expressed. The object of the present Article is to communicate as thorough and VOL. XXI. No. 81.
extensive a knowledge of the subject as our limits will permit, by allowing our author to speak for himself as naturally as may be, and illustrating the various phases of his genius and character by extracts from his works. If any attention is thereby drawn to a realm of literary wealth which lies a little off the high road, and has been neglected by most travellers, but offers to the enterprising visitor unequalled attractions and rewards ; if, in any quarter, an enlarged interest be awakened in the most fertile and important, yet least explored, region of English hymnology, the labor will not be lost.
The interest which attaches to the Wesleyan poetry is not due merely to its intrinsic excellence. It is the product, not only of a great mind, but of a rare day, and wonderful doings. No hymns were ever so autobiographic and bistorical. They groan under the mortal anguish of repentance; they throb and quiver with the throes of the new birth ; they swell with the triumphs of faith, the full glories . of a present salvation. The whole vitality, not only of the poet, but of his people and the Lord's, is in them. The life-blood of the time flows through them; they are big with the great awakening, which turned the world upside down. The controversy of the Lord with the nations has come; his servants are at war with the world ; the “spark of grace" has fallen, the fire is beginning to burn. The fearless preacher has gathered his thousands in the open air ; you hear the clamor of persecution, the shouts of the godless mob; you see the eager faces of the listening multitude, as the words of life drop into their hearts. The work goes on: the contempt of the high, the hatred of the low, opposition, slander, brute force, are wasted on it in vain.
Ilow happy are the little flock
In all commotions rest!
They lodge in Jesus' breast.
This is the peculiarity of the Wesleyan hymns. They are not versified moralities, not didactic disquisitions, nor languidly virtuous sentimentalisms; but they are most intensely alive and thoroughly practical.' Dr. Watts and his followers wrote their hymns in their closets, and if there were a circumstance or story of personal interest in connection with any of them, it is told as something remarkable. Charles Wesley composed on horseback, on a journey, in all times, places, and surroundings; and the verses were generally called forth by the special fortunes and emotions of the hour. When “going to Wakefield to answer a charge of treason,” he sings :
Thou who at thy creature's bar
Didst thy Deity declare,
Witness for thyself in me.
Who that trusted in the Lord
Was ever put to shame ?
Thou all-victorious Lamb!
For every occasion of human life he (as his biographer observes) “ had a hymn, had a psalm.” His soul was melody, and its most natural language praise or prayer.
6 His thoughts flowed most readily in sacred verse.” His and his life illustrate and reproduce each other. In his poems we may trace all the more important events, expe. riences, changes of his history, whether as a man or as a minister. The death or loss of his friends; the progress of the “ new religion”; his personal blessings and trials; the varied circumstances and wants of the people whom he was over in the Lord, are all immortalized in his glowing strains. " His heart overflowed with sacred verse till it ceased to beat; and his tuneful voice was never silent till it was silenced in death.” In his last illness, when his failing hand had ceased to hold the pen, be dictated to his wife these dying lines :