Sunday, May 24, 2009

John Wesley's Directions for Singing Hymns

John Wesley (1703 - 1791) is known to us as the founder of Methodism, but he exerted influence on all Christians through his hymn collections. He was not a prolific composer himself, and his brother Charles is more well known for writing original texts. Nonetheless, he helped shape congregational singing through his hymn translations and by editing and publishing of a number of hymnals.

His activities helped promote congregational singing as a vital part of a worship service. His old hymnals are fantastic to flip through for the variety and specificity of the hymns. Rather than headings like Easter, Lent, or Christmas, his hymnals have general sections titled Rejoicing, Praying, Watching, Suffering, and Working. There are also specific items, though, as "Graces before and after Meat," "Laying the Foundations of a Chapel," and "Exhorting Sinners to Return to God." Finally, there are century-specific headings like "For the King" and "Going on Shipboard." There's a hymn for every occasion and purpose, and families and congregations were expected to know and sing them!

This month's back page of The American Organist (published by the American Guild of Organists) included some of his singing directions for a congregation. I want to share three of his points, because they're still relevant advice for us today:

1. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a single degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.

2. Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half-dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.

3. Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing.

So Mr. Wesley tell us to sing everything, sing it strong, and sing it spiritually. Let's hear that advice in practice on Pentecost!

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