Songwriters have a purpose for their songs. A study of most any hymn will show the deep thought, imagination, and theological reasoning put into its construction. Not only do we often ruin hymns through our casual use of them but we also do ourselves a disservice by not taking the time to carefully consider their content. Though a fairly new concept and area of study, lyrical theology should be given credence within the church.
It could be argued that the greatest lyrical theologian of the Christian faith is Charles Wesley. Perhaps still today Charles Wesley’s biggest influence on the church was his development of A Collection of Hymns for the use of People Called Methodists with his brother John. There are many points of interest to note about this hymnbook. Part of the purpose behind this collection of hymns was to give the people of the Methodist societies a liturgy to sing, especially concerning the Eucharist (since at this time in the Anglican Church, which the early Methodist societies were part of, people were not accustomed to singing as a part of the liturgy). Furthermore, (and unfortunately this has become a little-known fact to many), the purpose of this collection was to be a daily devotional guide as much as a musical book used in worship. John Wesley writes in the prologue to the hymnbook that its purpose was to provide “a full account of scriptural Christianity” and “the experience of real Christians.”
Thus, the hymnbook was used to help focus an individual’s spiritual growth from the time of conversion to the incorporation with the fellowship of believers. The content Charles Wesley wrote was broad in theme, ranging from lyrics on the Eucharist, Trinity, and Holy Scriptures to lyrics concerning Easter, Church calendar, and other Church celebrations.
Very few of Charles’ writings on poverty made the hymnbook. In fact, many of his poems and hymns dealing specifically with the poor were never published at all. These hymns most likely were circulated around to nearby churches and pastors, but they were never bound into a collection. Yet, we do know through collections of sermons and letters that both John and Charles had a deep conviction for the poor, and often preached very bold sermons warning on wealth and extravagant living.
In 1993, through the efforts of S.T. Kimbrough Jr., many of Charles Wesley’s hymns on poverty were finally collected and published in an album called Songs for the Poor: Help Us Make the Poor Our Friends. However, even unto this day, these hymns have not been widely circulated and are difficult to acquire. This might be understandable, when regarding some of the verses Charles wrote, such as this first verse of “The Poor as Jesus’ Bosom-Friends”:
The poor as Jesus’ bosom-friends,
The poor he makes his latest care,
To all his followers commands,
And wills us on our hands to bear;
The poor our dearest care we make,
And love them for our Savior’s sake.
He writes this verse in the hymn “Savior How Few There Are”:
Savior, how few there are
Who thy condition share,
Few who cordially embrace,
Love, and prize thy poverty,
Want on earth a resting place,
Needy and resigned like thee!
And in the hymn “Which of the Christians of Now?” he pens this verse:
Which of the Christians now
Would their possessions sell?
The fact that you scarce allow,
The truth incredible:
That saints of old so weak should prove
And as themselves their neighbors love
Certainly these are bold words that go against many popular methods of ministry today (and these are only the first of many verses in these hymns). Instead of being attractional, these words push the church toward action. Instead of looking for gain, they urge toward simplicity and sacrifice.
Charles Wesley saw the lack of concern for the poor to not only be rampant in many congregations in his time, but also in the lifestyles of many of his fellow clergy. He writes in another hymn:
Ye pastors hired who undertake
The awful ministry
For lucre or ambition’s sake
A nobler pattern see!
Who greedily your pay receive,
And adding cure to cure,
In splendid ease and pleasures live
By pillaging the poor.
I can honestly say that I have not heard many, if any, songs sung in the church today that make such bold claims as these, especially in regards to concern for the poor. I once had a professor say to me: “Tell me what you sing in church, and I’ll tell you what your church believes.” Unfortunately, professor, our songs (and probably more than just our songs) show that many of us do not believe in a concern for the poor.