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.”
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.”
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.
 B. Manning, The Hymns of Wesley and Watts: Five Informal Papers (London: Epworth Press, 1948), 14.
 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.