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Roots of Evangelical Worship: The Wesleys and Methodism

What today we might call “evangelical worship” stems from many different influences, some of which I have been highlighting here over the past couple of weeks, including German Pietism and American Revival.

A third contributing movement involved the Wesley brothers and Methodism, which arose as a response to increasing lack of devotion in the Church of England in the eighteenth century. This “evangelical” response sought to revive the church through an emphasis on personal holiness and piety. This movement is perhaps best represented by the leadership of John and Charles Wesley.

John (1703–1791) and Charles (1707–1788) Wesley were Anglican ministers who became concerned with revisions of the Book of Common Prayer and lack of piety within the Church, consequently stimulating a reform movement later called Methodism, after the stringent routines they advocated toward personal holiness. The brothers had been significantly impacted by the Pietism of Moravian Brethren with whom they shared a boat traveling to the New World; the Moravians were immigrating to the colonies to start a new life, and the Wesleys were traveling as Anglican missionaries. Both brothers were not actually converted until 1738, after Charles came under conviction in a German Lutheran church, John soon converting as well.

The Wesleys advocated weekly Communion, fasting, celebration of holy days, and other “methodical” observances of Christian practices. In 1784 John produced his revision of the prayer book, The Sunday Service, shortening the service to allow more room for preaching, hymn singing, and weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper. John did not at all reject the Book of Common Prayer, affirming in 1784, “I believe there is no liturgy in the world, either in ancient or modern language, which breathes more of a solid, scriptural, rational piety, than the Common Prayer of the Church of England.”1 He tried to establish a mediating position between those advocating for and against fixed forms by providing a formal eucharistic rite, but then adding, “Then the elder, if he see it expedient, may put up an extempore prayer.”2

In additional to Methodism, the Wesleys are known best for their hymns, which also help to illustrate their liturgical theology. They knew that singing formed people perhaps better than anything else, and they used the power of poetry set to music for just this purpose. Charles composed over six thousand hymns on various doctrinal themes, always infused with the deep piety that lay at the core of their theology. Some of his more well-known hymns include “And Can It Be” (1738), “O, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” (1739), “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” (1739), “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (1739), and “Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling” (1747). In contrast to Isaac Watts’s more straightforward, objective texts, Charles employed more complex, intricate poetic devices and meter. Also in contrast to Watts’s more Calvinistic theology, Charles’s hymns reflect the brothers’ Arminianism. Finally, John taught a doctrine he called “entire sanctification,” whereby believers in this life could reach a state of “perfect love” in which they would be freed from the desire to sin. This doctrine, too, found expression in Charles’s hymns, such as “Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling” (1747):

Breathe, O breathe Thy loving Spirit
into every troubled breast!
Let us all in Thee inherit;
let us find that second rest.
Take away our bent to sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
end of faith, as its beginning,
set our hearts at liberty.

In addition to Charles’s new hymn compositions, John translated many hymns from German to English, recognizing the rich Lutheran heritage of hymnody already available. He gave special attention to hymns of German Pietism, translating hymns like “Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness” in 1740 from Nikolaus von Zinzendorf’s “Christi Blut und Gerechtigkeit.”

Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness
my beauty are, my glorious dress;
’midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
with joy shall I lift up my head.

John was also particularly concerned with the quality of singing and that appropriate tunes be used. In 1761, he appended “Instructions for singing” to Select Hymns as well as prescriptions for specific hymns tunes for each text, something rare in hymnals of the day. His instructions to the singers were direct:

  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 it a blessing.
  4. Sing lustily and with a 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 close to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can; and take care not to sing too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from 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 do 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 here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.3

John drew from a variety of sources for his prescribed tunes, including psalters, German chorale tunes, earlier hymn tune collections, and tunes newly composed for Charles’s texts by local musician, John F. Lampe (1703–1751).4 He resisted the polyphony of “modern music,” avoiding anything that would obscure the words, yet he also made some strikingly revolutionary comments in “Thoughts on the Power of Music” that Westermeyer considers “a pivotal move toward Romanticism and music’s role in arousing emotions.”5 In the treatise, John appears to object to counterpoint and even harmony on the basis that it does not “move the passions” as ancient, monophonic music once did. In modern music, only “when the music has been extremely simple and inartificial, the composer having attended to melody, not harmony,” John argued, “the natural power of music to move the passions has appeared.”6 This emphasis demonstrate a characteristic early evangelical mix of interest in person piety in worship and an increasing Romanticism, especially with regard to music in the church.7 As Eric Routley notes,

There is in him a creative conflict . . . between the residue of Puritanism and the proleptic  Romanticism. . . . No seventeenth-century Puritan would have dreamed of saying that it was music’s purpose, in or out of church, to arouse emotions; if it did, they did not approve it. But to John, music’s primary purpose was just this.8

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Letter of John Wesley to Coke, Asbury, and “our brethren in North America,” September 10, 1784, printed with The Sunday Service in Bard Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church (St. Louis: Fortress Press, 1980), 416. []
  2. John Wesley, John Wesley’s Sunday Service for the Methodists in North America, Bicentennial Edition (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1984), 138. []
  3. John Wesley, “Instructions for Singing,” in Select Hymns, 1761, reprinted in Franz Hildebrandt, Oliver A. Beckerlegge, and James Dale, eds., The Works of John Wesley, vol. 7 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), 765. []
  4. Oliver A. Beckerlegge and Franz Hildebrandt, “Wesley’s Tunes for the Collection, 1786,” in The Works of John Wesley, vol. 7, 770. []
  5. Westermeyer, Te Deum, 214. []
  6. John Wesley, “Thoughts on the Power of Music,” 1779, in The Works of John Wesley, 7:777. []
  7. See Carlton R. Young, Music of the Heart: John and Charles Wesley on Church Music and Musicians (Carol Stream: Hope Publishing Company, 1995), 84–105. []
  8. Erik Routley, The Musical Wesleys (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), 22–23. []