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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Lyrical Theology: O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing

Most of the following (lengthy) post comes from a section of a paper I wrote in seminary on the theology of Charles Wesley:

Charles Wesley is certainly one of the most beloved of all hymn writers, especially within the Methodist denomination. Yet, in the midst of Charles Wesley’s lyrical medium, it must not be overlooked that he was also a successful evangelist. Though he did not travel as extensively as his brother John, Charles remained very active in the life of his congregations in Bristol and London. For Charles Wesley, lyrical theology was a way of teaching and preaching. Perhaps still today his greatest influence on the church was his and John’s development of A Collection of Hymns for the use of People Called Methodists, published in 1780 and otherwise known as the large hymnal.
Part of the purpose of this hymnbook was to be a daily devotional guide as much as a musical book in worship. John writes in his prologue to the hymnbook that its purpose was to provide a “full account of scriptural Christianity” and “the experience of real Christians.”[1]
Thus, through the writing of hymns, it was for Charles Wesley that the inner experience of salvation was manifest through the praise of God. This is why, since the early establishment of the Methodist hymnal, the introductory hymn has always remained the same. We commonly know the hymn as “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” Charles wrote this hymn as a reflection on his own conversion experience. The original hymn contained eighteen verses, written by Charles on the first anniversary of his conversion. He appropriately entitled the hymn, “For the Anniversary of One’s Conversion.” John’s final edit for the hymnal pared it down to eight stanzas, beginning with the line “O for a thousand tongues.”
It is not only the backdrop of conversion that gives importance to the study of this hymn; the progression of Charles’ original eighteen stanzas exhibits the brilliance of his lyrical theology.
The first stanza of the hymn begins with a doxological prelude toward God:

Glory to God and praise and love
Be ever, ever given
By saints below, and saints above
The Church in earth and heaven.

There is a deep ecclesial context found within these lines. The individual’s experience of conversion is put into context through the praise of God, calling on the “saints below” and “saints above” who are offering this same praise. Thus, salvation is rooted in the praise and glory of God, and is understood in the context of a communal doxology.
            Stanzas two through six become testimonial, offering a description of Wesley’s own experience of salvation:

            On this glad day the glorious Sun
            Of Righteousness arose
            On my benightened soul he shone
            And filled it with repose

            Sudden expired the legal strife
            ‘Twas then I ceased to grieve
            My second, real, living life
            I then began to live

            Then with my heart I first believed
            Believed with faith divine
            Power with the Holy Ghost received
            To call the Saviour mine

            I felt my Lord’s atoning blood
            Close to my soul applied
            Me, me he loved, the Son of God,
For me, for me he died!

I found and owned his promise true,
Ascertained my part
My pardon passed in heaven I knew
When written on my heart

            Stanza seven then returns to the doxological proclamation with which the hymn first began. Stanzas eight through eleven continue this shift from testimony to proclamation, becoming a sermon of the gospel message of Jesus Christ and reflecting the universal call to salvation so important in the Wesleys’ preaching:

            O for a thousand tongues to sing
            My great Redeemer’s praise!
            The glories of my God and King
            The triumphs of his grace

            My gracious Master and my God
            Assist me to proclaim
            To spread through all the earth abroad
            The honors of Thy name

            Jesus, the name that charms our fears
            That bids our sorrows cease
            ‘Tis music in the sinner’s ears
            ‘Tis life and health and peace

            He breaks the power of cancelled sin
            He sets the prisoner free
            His blood can make the foulest clean
            His blood availed for me

            He speaks, and listening to his voice
            New life the dead receive
            The mournful, broken hearts rejoice
            The humble poor believe

            Wesley shows in these lines that with the experience of conversion comes the proclamation of the gospel. Furthermore, thought the call for salvation is universal, Wesley gets specific. In stanzas ten and eleven he shows that Christ comes to bring salvation to specific experiences of those to whom the proclamation is addressed: sinners are freed from the power of sin; prisoners are set free; the dead are given life; the sorrowful are given joy.
            Wesley takes an important further step in the final seven stanzas of the hymn. Thus far the hymn has been rooted in God’s glory. It has been testimonial. It has proclaimed the gospel. Now he recognizes the need for exhortation, commanding in boldness for others to accept this gospel message:

            Hear him ye deaf, his praise, ye dumb,
            Your loosened tongues employ
            Ye blind behold your Saviour come
            And leap ye lame for joy

            Look unto him, ye nations, own
            Your God, ye fallen race!
            Look, and be saved through faith alone
            And justified by grace

            See all your sins on Jesus laid
            The Lamb of God was slain
            His soul was once an offering made
            For every soul of man

            Harlots and publicans and thieves
            In holy triumph join
            Saved is the sinner that believes
            From crimes as great as mine

            Murderers and all ye hellish crew
            Ye sons of lust and pride
            Believe the Saviour died for you
            For me the Saviour died

            Awake from guilty nature’s sleep
            And Christ shall give you light
            Cast all your sins into the deep
            And was with Ethiop white

            With me your chief you then shall know
            Shall feel your sins forgiven
            Anticipate your heaven below
            And own that love is heaven

            The structure of the hymn (glory – testimony – proclamation – exhortation) demonstrates that the spiritual life is not to be primarily concerned with pious introspection of the individual; instead, conversion should lead to the praise of God and sharing the good news of the gospel. Teresa Berger writes, “on the one hand, this is developed by a way of a doxology that gives thanks for the events of the past, while, on the other hand, sounding the call to proclamation in the present.”[2]
            The Wesleys were evangelists. At the heart of their preaching was the universal call to salvation freely offered to all. Though many of us may not feel as gifted (or perhaps as bold) as the Wesleys, we do have a story to tell. Through this hymn, Charles Wesley brilliantly shows us how our own conversion presents a remarkable opportunity to give praise to God, tell our story of salvation, proclaim the gospel message, and encourage others to take claim of it in their life.

[1] B. Manning, The Hymns of Wesley and Watts: Five Informal Papers (London: Epworth Press, 1948), 14.
[2] Teresa Berger, Theology in Hymns? A Study of the Relationship of Doxology and Theology According to A Collection of Hymns for the Use of People Called Methodists (1780) (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1995), 81. 

1 comment:

  1. So well written...I enjoyed every sentence!! Look forward to reading your future posts! Blessings~ alice