O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing

For our Wednesday Nights at Glenn main stage program this evening, and for 8:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. worship this Sunday, we will sing hymns of Charles Wesley. Author of the words to over 6,000 hymns, Charles Wesley gave his brother John’s Methodist movement the wings of song. The music to one of these hymn’s, “O Thou Who Camest from Above,” was written by Charles’s grandson, Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-1876), a leading church musician of his day.  

Through these hymns, not only will we worship through the poetic artistry and theological depth of Charles Wesley’s hymns, we will also undertake to follow John Wesley’s admonitions to raise these in song in a manner that commends our souls to God. You can find his Directions for Singing on page vii of our hymnal. May we ever strive to embody the Wesleys’ passion and faith in our singing and worship:

There let it for Thy glory burn
With inextinguishable blaze,
And trembling to its source return,
In humble prayer and fervent praise.

(O Thou Who Camest From Above)

The debt we Methodists, and Christians worldwide, owe Charles Wesley cannot be measured.

The Methodist movement was greatly facilitated by Charles’ hymns and their famous “lusty” singing. From the 16th century, the English reformation followed John Calvin’s precept that worship should not include words written by humans – hymns, but only those written by God – scripture. Thus, from the Reformation through most of the 18th century, congregational singing in the English speaking world, including the American colonies, consisted principally of metrical psalms, not hymns. Isaac Watts (1674-1748) and the Wesleys are the pioneers that brought the hymn singing revolution to congregational worship. 

John set the theological direction of the hymns they sang, selected the composers and edited the Methodist hymnals. Ever with a “method,” John Wesley insisted on standards of theology, poetry, music and taste. For example, a hymn written by Charles in our Lessons and Carols service, “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending,” we sing to the same tune the Wesleys used – Helmsley – which embodies a nobility appropriate to the subject. He and Charles did not always agree. For example, John excluded Charles’s great “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” from their definitive Wesleyan hymnal of 1780, presumably because of John’s known objection to the use of intimate language in reference to Jesus or God.

Charles loved great music and bred his children to it. His son Samuel and his grandson Samuel Sebastian Wesley figure among England’s greatest composers. As one measure of Charles Wesley’s influence, find the “Composers” index in our hymnal, and that of other hymnals when you find them, and count the number of his hymns included. The currency of his work is very impressive. Among his most well-known, are “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” and “Christ the Lord is risen Today.” It is a commonplace that hymns are the strongest purveyor of theology, for we take them from worship and sing them through our daily lives. Thus, over the centuries, Charles Wesley has set many thousands of tongues singing “Glory to the new-born King.”


Steven Darsey