When it comes to hymnody the Wesley brothers stand among a small number who could be called giants. Their shoulders have withstood the standing of countless men and women throughout the years. The reason for their vast influence is quite simple; their hymns, (Charles’ in particular), embody truth and doctrine with beauty. The Wesley’s not only used their hymns for praise to God, but also for discipleship. Wesley’s teachings and doctrines (like Luther’s before him) were dispersed through song. Methodism was strengthened and sustained through these hymns, and Christians, beyond the borders of Methodism, have benefited from the overflow of truth and beauty contained in their songs.
So it comes as no surprise that John Wesley sought to encourage his congregations to sing. He understood the value, purpose, and importance of hymns (to glorify God and edify the Church) and sought to instruct his followers to sing these songs so that they would be of the greatest benefit to the participants of worship. In a 1761 hymnbook prepared for his people, John Wesley included some brief “Directions for Singing”. He states:
That this part of Divine Worship may be the more acceptable to God, as well as the more profitable to yourself and others, be careful to observe the following directions.1. Learn these Tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please.2. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.3. Sing All. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing.4. 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. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.5. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.6. Sing in Time: whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it; but attend closely to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can. And take care you sing not too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.7. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your Heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.
My plan is to offer some thoughts on each of these seven points of instruction on their own as series of separate posts.
But before we really jump into this series, I would like to look briefly at the reasons John Wesley gives for offering these Directions in the first place. He opens with the simple but informative sentence, “That this part of Divine Worship may be the more acceptable to God, as well as the more profitable to yourself and others, be careful to observe the following directions.”
For Gathered Worship
The first thing we can pull out of this is that Wesley envisioned these hymns for a particular audience and placed in a particular setting. Namely, they were to be sung as a part of gathered worship. First and foremost this hymnbook was not for the individual believer, but for the congregation of believers for “this part of Divine Worship”. Of course “this part of Divine Worship” is referring to congregational singing. (That Wesley speaks of singing as a ‘part’ of worship happily contrasts with those today who only view singing as some “truer” form of worship than preaching or partaking of the sacraments. How often have we heard in the parking lot, “The worship was great, but the sermon was a bit dull”?)
To Glorify God and Edify the Church
Wesley reveals these Directions for Singing have two goals in mind: That it “may be the more acceptable to God, as well as the more profitable to yourself and others”. In sum, the goal of congregational singing in worship is to glorify God and to edify the Church. These instructions seek to aid the church in accomplishing both.
We might also see here that the phrase, “acceptable to God” conjures (for us) a bit more than simply “glorify God”. To be sure, acceptable worship does indeed glorify God, but Wesley here is concerned with the way in which his people get to the point of glorifying God. By stating that there is a kind of worship that is acceptable to God, Wesley is also saying that there is a kind of worship that is unacceptable to God. Worship that is acceptable or unacceptable is as old as Cain and Abel. It is deep in our DNA, and yet the phrase “acceptable worship” causes us to cringe. It automatically puts us in a place of vulnerability. It leaves us exposed. It puts us on a scale. It leaves open the possibility that our worship might not be up to par. Wesley’s brief Directions do not cover this idea of worship that is ‘acceptable to God’ to the fullest extent, but there are glimpses in the instructions that we can expand upon further when we get to them. In the meantime, I’d like to think if someone asked him to further expand on this theme that Wesley would say, “Have you considered this song by my brother Charles?
Arise, my soul, arise; shake off thy guilty fears;
The bleeding sacrifice in my behalf appears:
Before the throne my surety stands,
My name is written on His hands.”
A Pastor's Heart
The reasons Wesley provides are not ground-shattering, but they are helpful. Someone could read these Directions and in a huff write them off as legalistic or old fashioned. But they would be missing the heart of Wesley. A pastor’s heart aimed at shepherding his flock, leading them to the best grazing lands he can find. He wants to give them the deepest truths and have them behold the greatest beauties while in his care. At the end of the day John Wesley is saying, “In these hymns there is truth and beauty. Here are some ways, as your pastor, I believe will help you to glorify God, to see truth better, to behold beauty deeper, and to experience the joy of fellowship as best as we can.”
The Directions for Singing series