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Stories behind the songs of Charles Wesley

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“Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” is indisputably one of the most popular Christmas hymns of all time. However, when Charles Wesley penned the lyrics, the opening line read, “Hark, how all the welkens ring!” World-renowned Wesley scholar Paul Chilcote shares fun and interesting insights about a selection of Wesley hymns and explains how all of the 9,000 hymns written by The United Methodist Church’s most enduring and prolific hymn writer centers on one theme: love.

Rev. Dr. Paul Chilcote

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This episode posted on December 2, 2022.



Crystal Caviness, host: “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” is indisputably one of the most popular Christmas hymns of all time. However, when Charles Wesley penned the lyrics, the opening line read, “Hark, how all the welkens ring!” World-renowned Wesley scholar Paul Chilcote shares fun and interesting insights about a selection of Wesley hymns and explains how all of the 9,000 hymns written by The United Methodist Church’s most enduring and prolific hymn writer centers on one theme: love.


Crystal: I am so excited that, Paul, you are joining us again. You were a recent guest on "Get Your Spirit in Shape." Welcome back.

Paul:  Thank you so much, Crystal. You know I love being with you and talking with you about our Wesleyan heritage and particularly Charles Wesley.

Crystal:  And we are going to really do kind of a deep dive into some hymns that Charles Wesley wrote. He wrote … I think the number is around 6,000 hymns. Is that correct?

Paul:  Yeah. I would say 9,000 hymns and sacred poems. He had a lot of poetry, some of which could be kind of translated into hymns easily. So, yeah. A lot.

Crystal:            The good news is we aren’t going to go through all of them today…

Paul:    Oh, no, we aren't?

Crystal:  We just won’t get to all 9,000. But as you are considered a world-renowned Wesley scholar. I just can’t think of anyone better to have as a guest on "Get Your Spirit in Shape" today to talk about what I like to call the stories behind the songs. I’ve lived in Nashville for a long time. In Nashville which is known…. Nashville, Tennessee is known as Music City, songwriters have a revered role in the city and in the city's music business. And one of the really fun things that happens in Nashville is that the people who write the songs, who aren’t always the people who make them famous, will get together in a live music venue and they’ll sit…and a lot of times it’s acoustic. They’ll play the guitar, the piano, and they’ll tell the story behind how the song came to be. It’s a very special kind of event. And it’s always really a lot of fun. And we can’t bring Charles Wesley in today to do an in-the-round (is what they’re kind of called). So, we brought Paul Chilcote to do that on his behalf. So, we’re going to talk about some of his hymns, the stories behind them. Why, kind of the context of them. And the Advent season seems like a really great time to do that because some of our best-loved Advent hymns were written by Charles Wesley. So, with that we’ll kind of jump off there and I’ll just let you…. I know you’ve thought of some that you want to talk about. So, we’ll just…. I’ll let you start.

Paul:  Fabulous, Crystal. Those are so much fun, aren’t they, the stories behind songs and hymns in this case. You know, when you first invited me to think about this topic, I thought, ‘Oh, man. What fun to tell the stories behind the hymns of Charles Wesley.’ And then I began to think about it and thought, ‘Well, what stories are there?’ And to tell the truth, it’s very difficult to identify stories, per se, behind the hymns of Charles Wesley. Now part of the reason for that is because so many of the hymns were written for special times in the Christian year, like Advent and Christmas, or the Lenten season and Easter. And Charles wrote so many hymns that there isn’t a trigger story oftentimes behind it. He may be working systematically through scripture and writing hymns on a particular book like or a collection of songs. So, there aren’t too many stories. I was a little bit surprised by making that discovery myself. But there is a lot to talk about. And I have…. I’ve selected only 4 or 5 different hymns of Charles Wesley to kind of talk about around that kind of an issue. And the place I’d like to start is with maybe a somewhat lesser-known hymn, the first line of which is “Oh, for a heart to praise my God.” The full first stanza is: “Oh, for a heart to praise my God, a heart from sin set free, a heart that always feels like blood so freely shed for me.” Now, I love this hymn kind of as a starter because it's clear focus is on the heart. And our Wesleyan theology, while thinking about both John and Charles is most certainly a theology of the heart. So much for the Wesleys revolves around that…or call it that deepest part of our self. You know we think of our heart as our inner most self. And that’s really what the Wesleys were interested in. And so many, as I just said, so many of the hymns of Charles are based upon songs. And this is an illustration of that. Really based upon Psalm 51, and verse 10 in particular, which is actually familiar to many people. You might not know it, recognize it from the citation. But ‘make me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.’ That’s really the kind of focus of this hymn, talking about the heart, thinking of the heart in multiple dimensions, in a heart that is growing toward God and toward others, a love that is developing, a heart that is filled with love. And it’s a great hymn, too, that illustrates one of Charles Wesley's rhetoric devices. He was a great poet. And this is a perfect hymn to illustrate what’s known as tautology. And I’m not gonna get technical in all this stuff. But tautology is simply talking about the same idea, using different words. So, you have in successive stanzas in this hymn resign, submissive, meek, that trilogy. And in the next stanza, humble, lowly, contrite. All talking about the heart, of course. And then believing, true and clean. And then finally, kind of the climax in verse four, ‘a heart that is perfect, and right and pure and good.’ Those tautologies just kind of drive home all that emphasis upon the heart. And I love the way it closes. ‘Write thy new name upon my heart, thy new best name of love.’ So, write love on my heart. I just love that.

Crystal:  Paul, it almost seems like the lyrics are Charles’ own devotion, or his own study of that Psalm.

Paul:  Absolutely. And you can think of the hymns very much along those lines, Crystal. I think this was a devotional practice, the writing of hymns. And over the course of 50 years or so, Charles wrote about 10 lines of poetry each day. And that may not sound like a lot, but it’s really thoughtful work. It’s not just scribbling things down. It’s deep, reflective, even meditative work that he’s doing in that. So that’s about 200,000 lines of poetry altogether, over his lifetime.

Crystal:  He was a psalmist, too, wasn’t he?

Paul: He was. Absolutely. We’re recording here in the first week of Advent. So, we’re launching into the Advent season. And many United Methodists, I would imagine, probably sang on Sunday, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.” I took this first line of Charles Wesley's hymn as a title of a devotional book for Advent and Christmas, using the hymns of Charles Wesley. So, this is kind of a favorite of mine. And in 1744 Charles published a collection of hymns, a small collection, simply entitled “Hymns for the Nativity of our Lord.” So, these were all Christmas. This hymn, because of its kind of anticipatory nature got shifted from Christmas into Advent. So, that’s where you’ll find it in our United Methodist hymnal. And this is typical, too, again, of the way in which Charles Wesley wrote poetry. You’ll find a lot of small collections of hymns for these specific parts of the Christian year. So, hymns on the resurrection of our Lord. Hymns on the Ascension. Hymns…the title is actually for Whit Sunday, which in our context we know as Pentecost, oftentimes in Britain refer to more often as Whit Sunday. And then wrote hymns on all different kinds of practices in the church. My favorite collection in that regard is in 1745, “Hymns on the Lord’s Supper.” One hundred and sixty-six hymns, all on different dimensions of the Lord’s Supper. And those small collections were created and then published at very low cost. So instead of a large hymnal, people who didn’t have resources could purchase these small collections very cheaply and learn a whole range of hymns. This hymn “Come thou Long-Expected Jesus” has all different kinds of points of entry into the theology and the poetry of Charles. But the thing I love about this hymn, I think more than any other, has to do with its verbs. My doctor/father, Frank Baker, one time told me the main thing to do with Charles Wesley's hymns is look for the verbs. And the verbs in this hymn (there are 6 of them, I believe) that are all imperatives, commands. So, from our fears and sins release us. Release. Let us find our rest in thee.” Find. It talks about “ringing the kingdom,” the prayer that Jesus…. Ring the kingdom. “Rule in our hearts.” “Raise us.” Verbs are powerful. These are all action verbs: release, find, bring, rule, raise, and the very first word of the hymn, come. “Come, thou long-expected Jesus.” So, Charles uses all of these different devices to kind of get to our hearts, you know, make things sink in more deeply. Another thing, real quickly, that he does in this hymn is the repetition of the same word. And the primary example here is the word ‘born.’ So, Jesus is born to set us free. Born to deliver us. Born a child and yet a king. Born to reign in us forever. Just makes the hymns really powerful.

Crystal:  And you're right. Yesterday, in my United Methodist Church we did sing this hymn, and it felt like it was just ushering in the season in such a special way. From the time that Charles would have written this, how long would it have been before it was making its way into people singing it together in a church.

Paul:    Yeah, pretty quickly, I would imagine.Charles Wesley, together with his brother John, published several are called the major collections. They were entitled “Hymns and Sacred Poems." So, those came in rapid succession--1739, 1740, 1742, 1749, which was actually 2 volumes of hymns. So, those large collections came out, let’s say, at the height of the revival. If you think of the Methodist Movement being born in 1739, you can see from what I just said, there is a huge collection right there at the beginning. So, Methodist people were immediately singing this new-found faith through the use of these hymns. And then Charles built upon that successively in 1740, 1742, 1749, all right at the beginning of the revival. So, I think most of the hymns, just within a manner of weeks, were beginning to filter into local Methodist societies, as they would have been called, being sung regularly.

Crystal:  It’s no wonder, then, that these hymns are such an important part of our Methodist legacy. They’ve been there from the very beginning.

Paul: Absolutely. As I was thinking on the kind of the main question you posed, what are some of the hymn stories of Charles, the one that did come immediately to mind is the hymn, or actually say hymns (‘cause there were 2 of them), that were the product of Charles Wesley's own conversion. So, they’re sometimes known as ‘the conversion hymns.’ The first one that most scholars believe was the first one written, probably 2 days after Charles Wesley's conversion on Pentecost in 1738 is “Where Shall my Wondering Soul Begin.” It’s in our United Methodist hymnal but I think probably not known or sung by many folks. But the second hymn is sung around the world and is quite popular in some parts of the Methodist Church, and that’s “And Can it Be That I Should Gain.” “And can it be that I should gain an interest in my Savior’s blood? Died he for me who caused his pain, for me, who Him to death pursued. Amazing love! How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” Those are deep, deep questions. So, this was a hymn written, let’s say, in the shadow of Charles Wesley's experience of conversion. And I want to remind the listeners immediately (if they don’t know this already—I’ll let them know if they don’t know it already) that Charles Wesley had this, let’s call it his heart-warming experience, 3 days before John. So, the famous Aldersgate experience of John Wesley when he felt his heart strangely warmed, Charles’ experience (very similar to it) came 3 days earlier. And so, on the occasion of John Wesley's conversion they actually sang one of these conversion hymns that Charles Wesley had just written, maybe the day before. So, you see the hymns are actually bound together with the deepest religious experiences of the Wesley brothers.

Crystal:  So, they’re telling the story of what’s happening to the brothers almost in real time, it sounds like.

Paul:  Well, it is. That’s exactly what it is…in real time. And one of the themes that just resonates in both of these hymns is the theme of liberation or salvation or redemption as freedom, as liberation. So, I think of that…maybe one of the most famous stanzas of “And Can it Be” that simply says “Long my imprisoned spirit lay fast bound in sin in natures night. Thine eye diffused the quickening ray. I woke the dungeon flamed with light. My chains fell off. My heart was free. I rose, went forth and followed thee.” I’ll never forget the first time I ever heard this hymn sung in Britain, when we were living in Bristol, back in the early 1980s. And it was the first time I had ever heard it sung with the tune that they use there in Britain, which is a very rousing tune and is sung antiphonally between the men and the women. It was just so overwhelming and powerful. Another kind of just an interesting little tidbit about this. Charles borrowed a lot of lines from other great poets. And in the stanza I just quoted, he actually borrows straightforwardly…let’s say he plagiarized this. …a line from the great English poet Alexander Pope in a very powerful romantic fiction kind of a poem entitled “Eloisa and Abelard.” And the line he borrowed was “Thine eye diffuse a quickening ray.” Took that line straight out of Alexander Pope. Now, that doesn’t happen an awful lot, that it’s taken directly. But that one was. Just another line in this poem that means a lot to me that I wanted to share, without reading the whole stanza, and that’s the phrase ‘emptied Himself of all but love.’ So, he talks about Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, having emptied himself of everything but love. And this is Charles’ Christology. This is how he understands how God became human. God empties God’s self. The technical term is ‘kenosis,’and this is drawn ironically from one of the earliest hymns that’s quoted in the New Testament in Paul’s letter to the Philippian's. So, if readers or listeners want to check their bibles, Philippians 2, verses 5-11 is the hymn to which Charles Wesley is alluding to in his own hymn. Oftentimes you’ll see this happening in Charles, too. The allusions are just so wide ranging and interesting.

Crystal:  That’s such a powerful image. And even though it’s not… It isn’t considered an Advent or a Christmas hymn, it is.

Paul: Yeah. Well, you know, if you think about Christmas in particular focusing our attention on love becoming incarnate, then all these hymns are about love. All these hymns are about Christmas in that sense of love becoming real, love entering into human history, love becoming a human being, incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth. It’s all Christmas.

Crystal: Christmas all the time.

Paul:    And the gospel is all Christmas in some ways. That reminds me another hymn, “Love Divine All Loves Excelling” may be a favorite of some of the listeners here, sung at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. I think I mentioned that in a previous podcast we did together.

Crystal:  You did, Paul, and I didn’t realize that. And that just tells again the longevity and the influence, really, of Charles Wesley, and then the theology of his music.

Paul:    Yeah, I think I said it then and I’ll say it again. That service was probably listened to or viewed by more people around the world than any other religious service in history. And there was a Charles Wesley hymn, concluding that funeral service of the queen. And, you know, who cannot be moved in some ways just by the closing lines, ‘…’til we cast our crowns before thee.’ And I think that was…that was Queen Elizabeth’s connection, you see. ‘Til I cast my crown,’ that’s a person who actually wears a crown. ‘Til I cast my crown before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise.’ And Charles Wesley's hymns are just all about wonder, love and praise.

Crystal:  Let’s talk about maybe what could be the most popular of the Wesley hymns.

Paul:   Absolutely. In fact, I don’t think there’s any question, certainly in terms of Christmas hymns or even Christmas carols, if you throw them into the mix as well. I did see a global survey that was done… (I think it’s about 10 years old now.) …Let’s just say, 10 years ago, in a global survey, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” came in number one. “Hark? The Herald Angels Sing” was the most favorite of all the various Christmas songs sung. I couldn’t believe it that it even topped ‘White Christmas.’ I didn’t think anything would ever top Bing Crosby.

Crystal:  But Charles Wesley did.

Paul:    Yes. Charles Wesley did. What a great hymn it is. You could easily take a half hour just walking through this hymn in and of itself. It is just so packed with scriptural allusions and a deep, deep theology of incarnation. Here is where Charles Wesley really does wax theologically profound. So, it’s not just a fun hymn to sing. But I encourage the listeners to kind of read through the hymn and ponder each of the various phrases. See if you can discern biblical allusions because there are biblical allusions in every stanza of this hymn, from Haggai to the New Testament. But, you know, this one was published within a year of John and Charles Wesley's conversions in 1739 and was included in that very first collection of hymns and sacred poem in 1739. And you’re going tolove this. The opening line of this hymn was changed. So, here’s a hymn story that I do want to share with you. Charles Wesley's original opening line for this hymn was: “Hark, how all the welkin rings.”

Crystal:  What does that even mean, Paul?

Paul: I see the stupefied look on your face. The listeners can’t see it, but I can as we’re recording. What in the world is a welkin or welkins in welkin rings? Well, welkin was an ancient English word that meant the heavens or the hosts of heaven. So, he’s talking about the heavenly choir here. Or ‘hark, how the heavenly choruses are ringing’ is basically the statement he’s trying to make there. But there were some of his contemporaries even realized nobody knows what a welkin is. And George Whitfield, who was a very close colleague of John and Charles Wesley, and a fellow student with them at Oxford University, he published his own collection of hymns in 1753. So, a little bit later, after this hymn had been written, and in his collection he changes the opening line from that welkin business to ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.’ And you can easily see why George Whitfield’s line stuck, and Charles Wesley's was quickly abandoned. And because of that change of the rings to ring, he had to change the second line as well and introduce ‘glory to the newborn king,’ which also is George Whitfield. So here you have a hymn of Charles played with by someone else and in this, I’ll say singular instance, improved it. It’s hard, in fact, to improve on most of what Charles Wesley wrote.

Crystal:  Did George Whitfield get a co-write credit on that song?

Paul:  I think…. you know, back in the 18th century people weren’t that concerned about the credit or footnote or whatever. But they certainly did let people know in time that that change was made. It was pretty obvious to everybody.

Crystal: It seems like it made it more accessible to everyone…with those changes.

Paul:    Yeah. You know, and another thing that made that hymn really accessible was the tune, the tune that we still use today, which was actually applied to the hymn about a century later and was based upon a melody that was written by Felix Mendelssohn. So, if people look in the United Methodist hymnal at “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” down at the bottom of the page you’ll see the title of the tune, which was Mendelssohn and arranged, rearranged by a musician by the name of Cummings. And adding…using that melody of Mendelssohn also necessitated the adding of a refrain to the hymn, which was not there originally. So “Hark! T7he Herald Angels Sing glory to the newborn king” is repeated as a refrain at the close of each verse. So that wasn’t original to the hymn either. And maybe that’s a way of saying, you know, music evolves. Hymns evolve. The great power of Charles Wesley's hymn and hymns remains, but we adapt them. I think, for example, a hymn I’ve talked about today, “And Can it Be” I actually don’t like the tune generally used, which is kind of arousing. I’ll just sing a line. [sings] “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood.” You could almost see, you know, somebody with a beer stein, you know, rocking back and forth singing that in a pub somewhere or a bar. And these are deep pondering questions in the hymn. And I looked online a couple of years ago, to see if I could find any new adaptions of “And Can it Be” with different, more modern tunes. And I found one that drove me to tears when I heard it performed by an English Christian group known as Phatfish. So, again, listeners, if you want to hear a version of “And Can it Be” that will simply move you to tears, simply pull that up online and listen to the Phatfish rendition of it. So, our hymns, our music, is always evolving. It’s al… It needs to relate to us in our own time and our own place. And a lot of wonderful musicians around the world are doing this very thing with Charles Wesley texts, bringing them to new life.

Crystal:  Paul, we talked about this on an earlier episode of  "Get Your Spirit in Shape." This is really a place where people can…the music can bring God to people in a way that maybe a sermon wouldn’t.

Paul:  Absolutely.

Crystal:    And an entry point to be a place that they… either it’s more comfortable for them, or it’s just something that speaks to them in a special way, where they might not hear it in the same way or in the same, you know, in a church…properly sitting in a church or something like that.

Paul:    Yeah. You know, St. Augustin who was a great early church father from North Africa one time said that to sing is to pray twice. So, when we sing words to God and words about God, those go deep into our hearts and into our lives. And I think that’s what Charles Wesley longed to have happen more than anything else. This is the simplest message I could give you. Charles Wesley wanted people to know how much God loved them. He wanted every human being to know that he or she is loved. And what better way to do that than to sing it.

Crystal:  I love that. Paul, thank you for being here. I’ve asked you this question before. I’m going to ask it again because you are a guest on "Get Your Spirit in Shape," giving us some insight into this really special music that can really refresh our souls and our spirits. How do you keep your own spirit in shape?

Paul:   Yeah. Well, that’s an easy one. I hadn’t actually remembered that. So, this is right off the cuff. I sing my faith, Crystal. And there’s nothing that brings me back to faith when my faith is challenged than to sing. And boy, what better time to do that than this Christmas season. I just don’t think there’s any better music that’s ever been produced than music that’s oriented around this Christmas season that’s approaching. So, my advice to anyone is sing your hearts out.

Crystal: That’s great advice. Thank you again for being here and sharing this insight into just a few of the Charles Wesley hymns. And I know personally I will be reading those lyrics in a new way and really pondering them so that it does become…just singing it becomes something that’s really special and a devotion time for me. Thank you for sharing that.

Paul:  My great pleasure to be with you, Crystal, as always.


Crystal: That was Paul Chilcote, a retired elder in The United Methodist Church, prolific author, a recent director of the Center for Global Wesleyan Theology at Wesley House in Cambridge, England, and a world-renowned Wesley scholar. To learn more about Chilcote and the stories behind Charles Wesley’s hymns, go to and look for this episode, where you will find helpful links and a transcript of our conversation. If you have questions or comments, feel free to email me at a special email address just for “Get Your Spirit in Shape” listeners, [email protected].

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