This is the text of the third of a series of talks for Lent 2017, given in the Parish Church of St Peter & st Paul, Lufton
Today’s talk is entitled Love divine.
While during the Reformation and in the years after it in Germany the Lutherans were singing hymns the situation in England was rather different, perhaps because the Reformation took a very different course.
The dissatisfaction with the abuses of the Catholic Church and the Papacy were felt by dissenters and reformers in exactly the same way as in continental Europe. The political situation though was the catalyst for change. Henry VIII’s need of a male heir drove him to declare a sort of Universal Declaration of Independence. It was never Henry’s intention that the liturgy or practice of the Church should change but events on the continent together with a growing movement in England made change inevitable. So it was that during the reign of Edward the first Book of Common Prayer was introduced in 1549 and followed in 1552 by the second. However, although the worship was now in the vernacular the practice of hymn singing was not encouraged.
Hymns therefore took a while longer to come to England – at least in public worship.
But things were changing and ironically it may have been Mary Tudor’s restoration of Catholicism that led to that change. The persecution of the Puritans and the Reformers which characterised her reign led them to travel to the continent to seek refuge. There they were introduced to the psalmody in the Calvinist Churches of Geneva and France. So it was that the metrical Psalters we looked at in our first talk were compiled and introduced.
Although hymns other than the metrical psalms were not sung in churches they were becoming popular in the home and in private gatherings. Many people were writing devotional poetry, some of which were later given tunes and used as hymns, and others were writing hymns for private devotion. One such hymn, Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire, a translation of a 9th century Latin hymn by John Cosin (1594-1672), Bishop of Durham, was included in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (in the Ordination services of Priests and Bishops, as it still is in Common Worship).
Examples of poems made into hymns are Samuel Crossman’s (1623-1683) My song is love unknown and Jerusalem on high (see here)and Richard Baxter’s Lord, it belongs not to my care and He wants not friends, who hath thy love.
John Wesley was adept at finding devotional poetry and setting it to music. He saw the potential of some of George Herbert’s poetry and four remain in our hymn books today,
- Let all the world, in every corner sing
- The God of love my shepherd is
- Teach me my God and King (see here)
- King of glory, King of peace
More modern compilers of hymns have followed Wesley’s example plundering the poetry of John Donne, Thomas Traherne, Henry Vaughan and Richard Crashaw.
The Wesleys, John and his brother Charles, are enormously important in the development of English hymnody, not only in the writing and promoting of hymns but in the way they used them and the purposes to which they put hymns.
John (1703-1791) and Charles (1707-1788) were both members of the Church of England and remained so until their deaths. While members of the Holy Club at Oxford they sought to live a holy life dedicated to prayer and service. Through their connections with George Whitefield they became involved in taking the gospel to the poor who they believed to have been neglected by the Church of England. Preaching initially in the open air they supported their teaching by the singing of hymns. Charles wrote more than 6 000 hymns, many of which are still to be found in our hymn books. There are twenty in the English Hymnal (1933) written by him, and Hymns Old & New (1996) has twenty-one. Many of his hymns remain among the most popular.
- Hark, the herald angels sing (Hark how all the welkin rings)
- Lo, he comes with clouds descending
- Love divine, all loves excelling
- Jesu, lover of my soul
- And can it be
- Come thou long-expected Jesus
- Love’s redeeming work is done
- O, for a thousand tongues to sing
Charles Wesley marks a significant change in English hymnody. Isaac Watts (1674-1748) was a prolific hymn writer a little before Wesley. He wrote some 750 hymns, some of which are numbered among many Christians’ favourites,
- When I survey the wondrous cross
- Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
- O God our help in ages past
- Joy to the world
Watts protested against the lack of the Christian gospel in Psalms. Jesus shall reign (see here) is a good example of the new way he hoped hymns might be written. Although the hymn is based on Psalm 72 it is neither a metrical version nor a paraphrase His dominion shall be also from the one sea to the other : and from the flood unto the world’s end (v8), he shall deliver the poor when he crieth : the needy also, and him that hath no helper (v.12). Rather he takes ideas from the psalm and applies them to Jesus. Inspired by the psalm but proclaiming the gospel. All that he writes is rooted in scripture but much freer in expression than anything in hymns that had gone before.
This same approach inspired Charles Wesley. In this way he was able to use hymns as a means of teaching the people and of proclaiming the gospel. He appears to have understood that people may hear the sermon, and even be inspired by it, but are unlikely to remember much of what was said. But teach them a hymn and they can go away singing the words. He could preach on God’s love, how it is more excellent and wonderful than any human love, that it is a love that can bring us salvation and that the perfect response to that love is to sing God’s praise before God’s throne when we are brought into heaven. But if the congregation can go away singing Love divine, all loves excelling (see here) they will remind themselves of the teaching throughout the following week, and beyond. It’s all a bit reminiscent of the practice among the Arians in the third century of teaching through hymns but these hymns are all firmly rooted in an orthodox theology and doctrine, even if they do occasionally take a little artistic licence. Love divine, as with all of Wesley’s hymns, references scripture without directly quoting it. In this hymn we recall 1 Corinthians 13, 2 Corinthians 5.14, Romans 8 and much more besides.
Wesley was extremely skilled at crafting hymns that were easy to memorize (even if many of them were much longer than the versions we have in our hymn books today!) but full of teaching, based in scripture, requiring a personal response from the singer, challenging and rewarding for those who reflect carefully on what they have to say to the believer.
As the Wesleys’ congregations were not in the churches but in the coal mining areas of Somerset, Gloucestershire and throughout the country, and mostly not literate, such a way of teaching was invaluable and effective.
Part of the reason for the remarkable growth of Methodism was undoubtedly the variety and quality of Wesley’s, and other writers’, hymns. This growth was reflected in other non-Conformist movements. The chapels in other working class areas such as South Wales saw a blossoming of hymn writing. William Willams’s Guide me, O thou great Jehovah, contemporary with Wesley, is probably the best known hymn outside of Wales, but shows the same qualities as Wesley’s hymns – scripturally based (recalling the Exodus, the gift of manna, the rock which gives water, the pillars of fire and cloud) and without once mentioning Jesus recalls the giving of holy communion, the salvation of Jesus, the constant protection which God supplies through Jesus and the resurrection.
Of local interest perhaps is the hymn Rock of ages (see here). Written by Augustus Toplady (1740-1778) it is a hymn of personal faith and reads a little like a religious testimony. Using the first person, as it does throughout, is very effective in provoking in the singer an identification with the feelings expressed, particularly in the sense of a desire to entrust oneself to God’s protection.
The Evangelical revivals of the eighteenth century saw a huge number of hymns written. Many of them were very good and the best are still in our hymn books today. This blossoming of hymn writing was a response to a new freedom given by the non-Conformist chapels which allowed authors to write with a freedom and imagination that had previously been denied them. The hymns were personal expressions of faith and have shaped the Christian experience even to today.