Home | Search | Help
Version: 1.2

Go to WHS website

Hymn-singing

In the words of the Preface to the Methodist Hymn Book (1933), 'Methodism was born in song,' fuelled by Charles Wesley's unparalleled output of hymns. The rise of Methodism followed closely on the transition at the turn of the seventeenth century from metrical psalms to hymns, of which Isaac Watts was the chief catalyst, Charles Wesley the chief heir and the Methodist people the first beneficiaries. John Wesley had learned from his Moravian companions on the way to Georgia the value of hymn-singing as a corporate expression of faith. He translated hymns from the German and published the first of many collections, the 'Charlestown Hymn-book', while still in America. Charles Wesley's outburst of poetic fervour began at the time of his conversion and was sustained over half a century. Hymns were an essential ingredient of the preaching service, which was intended to supplement, not replace, the worship of the parish church. In the open air they were used to attract a congregation (a technique also used by PM preachers in the next century). There is much testimony to the effectiveness of hymn-singing in both arousing and giving expression to faith as people responded to the preaching of the 'Methodist gospel'. At the same time they were experiencing what John Wesley saw as the essentially social nature of religion and, however unconsciously, were learning what he called 'all the important truths of our most holy religion, whether speculative or practical' - a safeguard, still necessary, against empty emotionalism.

In an age when literacy was limited, the practice of 'lining out' prevailed, the words being given out, usually two lines at a time, before being sung. This rather tedious practice died hard: as late as the WM Conference of 1844 there were complaints that whole verses were being given out at a time. Conference expressed its disapproval of this innovation and made further attempts in 1860 and 1877 to maintain the earlier custom, which nevertheless succumbed to the rising tide of popular education and survives only in the custom (rare in Anglican circles) of announcing a hymn by reading out at least the opening line.

Sources

  • Sidney G. Dimond, The Psychology of the Methodist Revival (1926) pp.101-3, 119-24
  • A.S. Gregory, Praises with Understanding, illustrated from the words and music of the Methodist Hymn-Book (1936; revised and enlarged, 1949)
  • Leslie F. Church, More about the Early Methodist People (1949) pp.228-36
  • John Bishop, Methodist Worship in relation to Free Church Worship (1950), pp.138-53
  • J.R. Watson, The English Hymn (Oxford, 1997)
  • Joseph Ritson, The Romance of Primitive Methodism (1909) pp.263-73
  • David M. Chapman, Born in Song: Methodist Worship in Britain (Buxton, 2006), pp.286-309
  • Martin V. Clarke, 'John Wesley's "Directions for Singing": Methodist Hymnody as an expression of Methodist beliefs in thought and practice', in Methodist History, 47:4 (July 2009), pp.196-209

Entry written by: JAV and PLC
Category: Subject

Comment on this entry