Quiet Hymns

Wesley's Chapel joint Meeting for Worship with the Bunhill Society of Friends - 22nd October 2006

On behalf of the Methodists Jennifer Potter expressed her thanks to the Bunhill Quakers for their generous invitation and the opportunity to learn from each other as we seek to worship God more fully.

Methodist Worship and the role of hymns and hymn-singing
By Jennifer Potter

So much of our patterns of worship are the result of accidents of time and place. New branches of Christianity, such as Quakerism and Methodism, developed at particular times in history and responded to the mood of the time, often by reacting to what other Christians had done or were doing. For those new branches of Christianity which had charismatic leadership like Fox and Wesley - the temperament and ideas of those leaders were also an enormous formative influence.

John and Charles Wesley grew up as the children of Anglican parents. Their father was the Rector of the parish of Epworth in Lincolnshire. Both parents had returned to the Church of England, having grown up in families who had dissented from the Act of Uniformity in the 17th century. Samuel Annesley, John and Charles' maternal grandfather had been Rector of our local Parish Church, St Giles' Cripplegate, before being ejected.

So, as they grew up, the norm of worship for John and Charles were the usual Anglican services and especially the Eucharist or Holy Communion. They both went to study for the priesthood in Oxford. While there they banded together with a group of like-minded students in the Holy Club for regular prayer, Bible reading and social work such as visiting prisoners in the local jail. They were objects of fun for other students, who referred to them, in a less-than complementary was as 'methodists'; the name stuck and came to be used a badge of honour.

In their zeal for a closer relationship with God and a more personal and lively faith, John and Charles offered themselves for service in the North American colonies where they hoped to be able to minister both to the settlers and to the native Americans.

The freedom of the frontier allowed John to experiment a little - making adaptations to the liturgy and introducing variations in the psalms and hymns - changes that had not been authorised. These actions together with his difficulties with a certain young lady got John severely censured and he and also Charles for other reasons had to beat as hasty a retreat home from the colony of Georgia as the ships of the day would permit.

It was while in North America that John Wesley published his first collection of hymns, A Collection of Psalms and Hymns published in Charleston, South Carolina in 1737. This collection is eclectic and includes work of the Anglican poet/priest George Herbert, a selection of hymns from the Moravians who had so impressed the Wesleys, from Isaac Watts - a dissenter, from John Austin a Roman Catholic and contributions from Samuel Wesley Senior and his eldest son, also Samuel.

At this point we sang the first two verses of Isaac Watt's hymn

'I'll praise my maker while I've breath' (No 439) which was a favourite of John Wesley and was on his lips as he died.

I'll praise my Maker while I've breath,
And when my voice is lost in death,
Praise shall employ my nobler powers;
My days of praise shall ne'er be past,
While life, and thought, and being last,
Or immortality endures.

Happy the man whose hopes rely
On Israel's God: He made the sky,
And earth, and seas, with all their train:
His truth for ever stands secure;
He saves th'oppressed, He feeds the poor,
And none shall find His promise vain

Once back in Britain the Wesleys continued their link with the Moravians and worshipped with them for some time in their Chapel in Fetter Lane, just off Fleet Street. Singing was important to the Moravians and Wesley went to learn more at Herrnhut in Germany one of their settlements. He continued to translate their hymns from the German.

At this point we sang the first two verses of August Gottlieb Spangenberg's 'What shall we offer our good Lord' (807)

What shall we offer our good Lord,
Poor nothings! for His boundless grace!
Fain would we His great Name record,
And worthily set forth His praise.

Great object of our growing love,
To Whom our more than all we owe,
Open the fountain from above,
And let it our full souls o'erflow.

However the parting of the ways with the Moravians came rather quickly over the issue of quietism. The Moravians had an emphasis on stillness and passivity, with which the Wesleys, with their much more activist approach to faith, could not accept.

The Wesleys secured a lease on disused cannon foundery just 200 yards to the south of where the Chapel now stands. This is where all the emphases of the Methodist movement developed over the next 40 years. It is helpful to recall that at that time Methodism was a movement within the Anglican Church. The people were grouped in 'societies' not churches or chapels. Methodists were expected to attend the Parish Church every Sunday before going on to Methodist worship. The legacy of that remains with Methodist Service starting later at 11.00am. So the worship that went on in these Methodist Societies was extra to the normal worship. There was preaching and singing and the nurturing of fellowship - the bringing of people closer to each other and closer to God as they journeyed on a communal pilgrimage of faith.

At this point we sang the first two verses of 'All praise to our redeeming Lord' (753) [This hymn had been a theme of the Holy Communion service at Welsey's Chapel in the morning. It is reproduced here in full]

"All praise to our redeeming Lord,
Who joins us by His grace;
And bids us, each to each restored,
Together seek His face.

He bids us build each other up;
And, gathered into one,
To our high calling's glorious hope,
We hand in hand go on.

The gift which He on one bestows,
We all delight to prove;
The grace through every vessel flows,
In purest streams of love.

E'en now we think and speak the same,
And cordially agree;
Concentered all, through Jesus' Name,
In perfect harmony.

We all partake the joy of one;
The common peace we feel;
A peace to sensual minds unknown,
A joy unspeakable.

And if our fellowship below
In Jesus be so sweet,
What height of rapture shall we know
When round His throne we meet!"

Until Isaac Watts came along and wrote a freer form of psalms and hymns, the only singing that had been allowed in Anglican Churches had been metrical psalms. After his heart-warming experience on 21st May 1738, three days before his brother, John, had a similar experience, Charles Wesley expressed his gratitude to God through his prolific hymn-writing. One of the hymns that was an immediate fruit of this experience was 'Where shall my wondering soul begin'.

At this point we sang the first two verses of 'Where shall my wondering soul begin' (706)

Where shall my wondering soul begin?
How shall I all to heaven aspire?
A slave redeemed from death and sin,
A brand plucked from eternal fire,
How shall I equal triumphs raise,
Or sing my great Deliverer's praise?

O how shall I the goodness tell,
Father, which Thou to me hast showed?
That I, a child of wrath and hell,
I should be called a child of God,
Should know, should feel my sins forgiven,
Blessed with this antepast of Heaven!

A stream of hymnbooks were produced by Charles for the congregation at the Foundery, at the New Room in Bristol, at the Orphanage in Newcastle and in the growing societies all around the country that developed as a result of John's itinerant ministry on horseback and which he visited on a regular basis.

There were 19 hymn books produced between 1739 and 1747 - some general and some for specific days in the Christian calendar. Yet more were produced in ensuing years including Hymns Occasioned by the Earthquake-Part I and Part II in 1750 and Hymns on the Expected Invasion 1759. By the end of the period at the Foundery as they were preparing to move to the New Chapel in City Road a new collection from all these books was being put together. So in 1780 'A Collection of Hymns for the People called Methodists' was published. This hymnbook reflected the spiritual journeys of John and Charles as can be seen by the section headings.

For example in Part Four we have 'For Believers, Rejoicing, Fighting, Praying, Watching, Working, Suffering, Groaning for full Redemption, Brought to birth, Saved and Interceding for the World.

This Hymn Book was described by John Wesley as 'a little body of experimental and practical divinity.' These hymns were sung in services and class meetings but were also used for personal devotions.

John Wesley's Preface, dated London 20.10.1770

"It is not so large as to be either cumbersome, or expensive: and it is large enough to contain such a variety of hymns, as will not soon be worn threadbare. It is large enough to contain all the important truths of our most holy religion, whether speculative or practical; yea, to illustrate them all, and to prove them both by Scripture and reason: and this is done in a regular order. The hymns are not carelessly jumbled together, hut carefully ranged under proper heads, according to the experience of real Christians. So that this book is, in effect, a little body of experimental and practical divinity".

At this point we sang verses from two of Charles' popular hymns that continue to be sung to the present day

'What shall I do my God to love' (46)

'And can it be that I should gain' (216)

What shall I do my God to love?

What shall I do, my God to love,
My loving God to praise!
The length, and breadth, and height to prove
And depth of sovereign grace?

Thy sovereign grace to all extends,
Immense and unconfined;
From age to age it never ends,
It reaches all mankind.

Throughout the world its breadth is known,
Wide as infinity,
So wide it never passed by one;
Or it had passed by me.

Come quickly, then, my Lord, and take
Possession of Thine own;
My longing heart vouchsafe to make
Thine everlasting throne.

Assert Thy claim, receive Thy right,
Come quickly from above,
And sink me to perfection's height,
The depth of humble love.

And can it be that I should gain

And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior's blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain-
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

'Tis mystery all: th'Immortal dies:
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
'Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.
'Tis mercy all! Let earth adore;
Let angel minds inquire no more.

He left His Father's throne above
So free, so infinite His grace-
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam's helpless race:
'Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!
'Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature's night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray-
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

Still the small inward voice I hear,
That whispers all my sins forgiven;
Still the atoning blood is near,
That quenched the wrath of hostile Heaven.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th'eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Bold I approach th'eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

As the Wesleys parted company with the Moravians so did they with their friend and early fellow-worker, George Whitfield - the issue was predestination. John and Charles could not accept that a loving gracious God could predestine some of his children to salvation and some not. The controversy was waged through flysheets but also in hymns.

Charles was always at pains to stress the universal nature of God's love and grace, always awaiting the response of the sinner. In the next hymn we can note how often Charles uses the word 'all'.

At this point we sang the first and last verses of 'Father, Whose everlasting love' (520)

Father, Whose everlasting love
Thy only Son for sinners gave,
Whose grace to all did freely move,
And sent Him down the world to save;

Help us Thy mercy to extol,
Immense, unfathomed, unconfined;
To praise the Lamb who died for all,
The general Savior of mankind.

Thy undistinguishing regard
Was cast on Adam's fallen race;
For all Thou hast in Christ prepared
Sufficient, sovereign, saving grace.

The world He suffered to redeem;
For all He hath the atonement made;
For those that will not come to Him
The ransom of His life was paid.

Why then, Thou universal Love,
Should any of Thy grace despair?
To all, to all, Thy bowels move,
But straitened in our own we are.

Arise, O God, maintain Thy cause!
The fullness of the Gentiles call;
Lift up the standard of Thy cross,
And all shall own Thou diedst for all.

The influence of hymns on Methodism and the Methodist people can scarcely be exaggerated. Hymns were the means whereby theology entered the bloodstream of the people. People sang their faith.

Remarkably the hymns of Charles Wesley have lasted down the generations and are still sung now across denominations and around the world. Next year is the Tercentenary of Charles' birth when we shall remember with gratitude to God the contribution that he made to the Christian Church at large. There will be many celebration events which we hope you will join us for.

While the Methodist Hymn books that followed the 1780 edition included new hymns written both by Methodists and non-Methodists, there was no dominating figure like Charles.

However in recent years one Methodist minister came close to Charles in the relevance and theological rigour of his hymns. That minister was Fred Pratt Green who died in 2000. We will sing from two of his hymns, one which was chosen as the official hymn for the Queen's Silver Jubilee and the other which sums up much of what we have been saying about the role of music and hymn singing in worship.

At this point we sang the first two verses from the following hymns;

'It is God who holds the nation' (404)

'When in our music God is glorified' (388)

We have heard from Pratt Green, and we have our wonderful Elvis Pratt playing for us on the instrument and now we are going to conclude with a modern hymn by the minister, Andrew Pratt. He is a person who writes hymns about contemporary events and tries to make sense of our life in the 21st century.

At this point we sang verses from the hymn entitled Hurricane

The mingled tears of memory
Of present grief and fear,
Reminders for humanity
That death is always near.

The hurricane, the tidal wave,
The terrorist attack
That fracture faith, unsettle hope
Can cause belief to crack.

And so amid these mingled tears
We cling to those who care
And in the silence come to feel
The love of God is there.

And so, indeed, may we feel the love of God in the silence. Amen

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  29.7.1772: A letter from Mary Stokes (later Dudley) to her friend, John Wesley, on attending Quaker Meetings on the Quaker Home Page

Mary Stokes born Bristol 8.6.1750. A member of the established church who became involved with Baptists, but then became a Methodist (part of the established church). Joined Quakers in 1773. Married Robert Dudley (Ireland) in 1777. After his death, moved to south London in 1810. Buried Bunhill 1823. November 1824: The life of Mary Dudley: including an account of her religious engagements and extracts from her letters