As you read each post in this series,
I hope you’ll think with gratitude about those who have influenced you, and
I hope you’ll ponder your investment in the lives of others.
As a music composition major at the College-Conservatory of Music, the University of Cincinnati, I trained to be a composer of classical music. To learn our craft, we intensely studied the works of classical masters. In the years before sound recordings, composers used to learn the techniques of classical masters by hand-copying their scores.
One of the best ways to learn hymn writing is to employ the same strategy: study the hymns of the best hymnwriters. Immerse yourself in their work.
Before I had any personal designs on being a hymnwriter, the Lord exposed me to the hymns of many, many hymnists. Since I grew up in a hymn-singing church, hundreds of hymns were already engrained in my emotional memory. Then in my 20’s and early 30’s, I collected old hymnals and read many of them. While at the University of Cincinnati, I used to take old hymnals out of their rare books collection and photocopy entire hymnals on the spot so that I could read through them on my own.
In my early 20’s, before coming to Lillenas and before having any designs on music publishing or hymn writing, I bought numerous newly-published collections of songs and hymns. Some were contemporary collections from the “Jesus music” movement here in the U.S., while others were the hymns of British hymnwriters from the “Hymn Explosion” of the time—Fred Kaan, followed by Brian Wren, Fred Pratt Green, and Timothy Dudley-Smith. I read through each and every song and hymn. Often I would make notes on what I liked and didn’t like about each selection. What great training the Lord gave me! I had no ambitions. I was just following my interests.
During my first 12 years at Lillenas, I consciously prepared for the next denominational hymnal by reading through uncounted complete hymn collections looking for potential hymns. Some of the best of these found their way into Sing to the Lord (1993), which I had the privilege of editing.
I say all the above to make this point: in my formative years, I read many thousands of hymns from a wide variety of traditions. But I particularly studied the hymns of one particular writer: Charles Wesley. In addition to encountering his work in older hymnals, two projects intensified my exposure to his hymns:
1. Around the late ‘70’s, scholar Carl Bangs went to Bud Lunn, then head of Nazarene Publishing House, and suggested that the company release a new collection of Wesley hymns. I was given the joyful task of compiling such a book, which meant combing through many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Wesley hymn texts. Wesley Hymns was released in 1982.
2. During that same time frame, Wesleyan theologians were debating whether John Wesley associated entire sanctification with Pentecost. I contributed to the debate by doing a comparative study of the two topics as treated in the Wesleys’ hymn publications. The fall, 1982, issue of the Wesleyan Theological Journal published my study, “The Wesleys’ Hymns on Full Redemption and Pentecost: A Brief Comparison”.
As I immersed myself in Charles Wesley’s hymns, they became part of me. He wrote hymns for public worship, as well as more devotional hymns, and both were infused with his deep desire for the fullness of God.
He so beautifully and naturally balances the objective and the subjective. His fervent passion was fueled by both reason and emotion, by scripture as well as personal experience. As a result, notice the wide variety of protestant traditions that still consider his hymns a high water mark. The sheer quality of his work has taken his hymns far beyond their theological home turf.
I’ve long wanted to infuse my own hymns with his balance. And how the evangelical church still struggles to find that balance! The Apostle Paul could have been talking about Wesley hymns when he wrote:
I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. (1 Corinthians 14:15, NASB)
Father, thank you for providing the example and influence of Charles Wesley. Continue to keep our minds and hearts open to his lessons.