Reisterstown United Methodist Church

Singing Our Faith: Happy Birthday, John!

This Wednesday, June 17, is John Wesley’s birthday – his 312th  birthday, to be exact.  And since it was time for us to enjoy another Sunday in our Singing Our Faith Series, I thought it might be fun to celebrate by singing and reflecting on Wesleyan hymns.

John Wesley and a group of friends in his college days were known to be exceptionally pious young men who met for Bible study and to help each other stay focused on their relationship with God.  In the Holy Club at Oxford were John and his brother Charles, George Whitefield, Harvey Hames and several others.  They are those who were derisively called “Methodists” because of their commitment to their method of tending their souls. 

The Wesley brothers and Whitefield were among the most effective preachers of their day, winning souls to Christ and, at least in the case of the Wesleys, making a huge difference in the lives of those who were living in poverty and despair.  Their message always made it clear that Methodists were pious and quick to offer ministries of mercy.  In his Dictionary of Hymnology written in 1907, John Julian wrote:

The popular conception of the division of labour between the two brothers in the Revival, is that John was the preacher, and Charles the hymnwriter. But this is not strictly accurate. On the one hand Charles was also a great preacher, second only to his brother and George Whitefield in the effects which he produced. On the other hand, John by no means relegated to Charles the exclusive task of supplying the people with their hymns. John Wesley was not the sort of man to depute any part of his work entirely to another: and this part was, in his opinion, one of vital importance. With that wonderful instinct for gauging the popular mind, which was one element in his success, he saw at once that hymns might be utilized, not only for raising the devotion, but also for instructing, and establishing the faith of his disciples. He intended the hymns to be not merely a constituent part of public worship, but also a kind of creed in verse. They were to be "a body of experimental and practical divinity.

I wonder if any of you remember the little ditty that made the rounds during the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Christmas Conference at Lovely Lane – the founding conference of the Methodist Church in the US which took place in 1984.  It honestly flies in the face of what I just read, but it’s fun, so I thought we’d sing it.  Written by Tim Spencer and sung by groups like The Gaithers, The Wesley Brothers has a very catchy and memorable refrain:

      Listen to the song at https://goo.gl/VU8xR3

John Julian was right when he said that John Wesley knew the power of music in our faith.  Yet, John only wrote a couple of hymns himself.   Servant of God, Well Done was written for the funeral of George Whitefield, his friend and renowned preacher of the day.  Please note especially verse 7.  John was mourning the loss of his dear friend, and as many of us do, he was clinging to the hope of seeing George again by asking, how long?  When?  The full poem is included in your bulletin, but we will sing only verses 1, 5, 7 and 8 to the tune of A Charge to Keep I Have.

Servant of God Well Done

Servant of God, well done!
Thy glorious warfare’s past;
The battle’s fought, the race is won,
And thou art crowned at last.
Of all thy heart’s desire
Triumphantly possessed;
Lodged by the ministerial choir
In thy Redeemer’s breast.
In condescending love,
Thy ceaseless prayer He heard;
And bade thee suddenly remove
To thy complete reward.
Ready to bring the peace,
Thy beauteous feet were shod,
When mercy signed thy soul’s release,
And caught thee up to God.
With saints enthroned on high,
Thou dost thy Lord proclaim,
And still to God salvation cry,
Salvation to the Lamb!
O happy, happy soul!
In ecstasies of praise,
Long as eternal ages roll,
Thou seest Thy Savior’s face.
Redeemed from earth and pain,
Ah! when shall we ascend,
And all in Jesus’ presence reign
With our translated friend?
Come, Lord, and quickly come!
And, when in Thee complete,
Receive Thy longing servants home,
      To triumph at Thy feet.

While John was not much of a hymn writer, he was a gifted translator, especially from German.  You may remember that while sailing to Georgia for one of his ill-fated missions to America, he was deeply influenced by the Moravians traveling with him.  The Moravians held what they called Singstunde, or singing meetings,[1] and John felt that their singing and the hymns they sang significantly connected him with God. 

Dr. C. Miichael Hawn, Professor of Sacred Music at Perkins School of Theology compares the personal trials suffered by Paul Gerhardt and the challenges the Wesleys met in their efforts to evangelize in America – not to mention in their personal relationships.  He quotes Albert Bailey, a noted hymnologist:

“No doubt [Gerhardt] repeated these lines to himself many a time in the after years when, one by one four of his five children died, his influential position in Berlin was taken away, and his wife succumbed after a long illness, leaving him with a single surviving son.”

Hawn goes on to say:

No doubt this hymn served as a comfort to the Wesley brothers as they traveled into hostile towns to spread the gospel.

Mr. Bailey describes one such incident that happened in Devizes in February 1747: “The mob opposition was worked up by the local Anglican clergyman who went from house to house to make the absurd charge that he heard Charles preach blasphemy at the University. When the crowd got underway, the leaders proved to be led by ‘the chief gentleman of the town,’ accompanied by ‘the jealous curate, dancing for joy.’

“They surrounded the house where Wesley and his aides were staying, they broke the windows, ripped off the shutters and drove the horses into the pond. Next day they got out the fire engine and deluged the house in which Wesley had taken refuge, flooding all the rooms and ruining the stock-in-trade of the shopkeeper on the street floor. Local leaders of the Methodist Society were ducked in the pond.”

Though the circumstances that Gerhardt and the Wesleys faced were different, this hymn served as a source of comfort for two influential leaders in two different cultures, languages and centuries.


 1 Give to the winds thy fears,
Hope and be undismayed,
God hears thy sighs and counts thy tears,
God shall lift up thy head.
2 Through waves and clouds and storms,
He gently clears thy way;
Wait thou his time, so shall this night
Soon end in joyous day.
3 Leave to God’s sovereign sway
To choose and to command,
So shalt thou wondering own his way,
How wise, how strong his hand!
4 Let us in life, in death,
Thy stedfast truth declare,
And publish with our latest breath
Thy love and guardian care.

If time permits, I’d like to do 2 more hymns this morning, but we may have to do just one.  Part of John Wesley’s brilliance was that he recognized when to employ the gifts of his brother, Charles, who was not only a prolific hymnwriter but also a gifted musical theologian and storyteller.  And Can It Be is one of two hymns identified as Charles Wesley’s conversion hymns.  Just as John wrote about his heart being strangely warmed at a meeting in Aldersgate Street, Charles described a similar event in his own spiritual life.  John’s conversion of the heart came while listening to Luther’s Preface to the Letter to the Romans.  Charles’ came when he was reading the Letter to the Galatians. 

And Can It Be, interestingly enough, is based on Acts 16:26.

Scripture Reading Acts 16:25-26

[Paul and Silas were thrown in jail in Philippi.]  25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone's chains were unfastened.


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?
'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.
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!
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.
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.

I will admit that I love it when a writer of today takes a timeless hymn text and sets it – or at least sets some of it -- to modern tune and rhythms.  Billy James Foote has done that with And Can It Be.  We will sing along with the video for this one:

View The Newsboys Video at https://goo.gl/nqtpRs

Scripture Reading Psalm 146:1-2

1 Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul! 2 I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

We will close today with one last hymn that neither of the Wesleys wrote.  Isaac Watts wrote I’ll Praise My Maker While I’ve Breath, and John Wesley not only altered it but is said to have turned to this hymn as he lay on his deathbed.  At the age of 88, with several people gathered around and despite extreme weakness, John began singing this hymn.  We will sing verses 2 and 4.  UMH #60


1 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.
2 How happy they whose hopes rely
on Israel's God, who made the sky
and earth and seas with all their train;
whose truth forever stands secure,
who saves the oppressed and feeds the poor,
and none shall find God's promise vain.
3 The Lord pours eyesight on the blind;
the Lord supports the fainting mind
and sends the laboring conscience peace.
God helps the stranger in distress,
the widowed and the parentless,
and grants the prisoner sweet release.
4 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.


[1] Quotes and information in this section are from Dr. C. Michael Hawn, History of Hymns: Give to the Winds thy Fears” as found at http://goo.gl/Q7FTCJ.

Read More