Sunday is Aldersgate Sunday, the nearest Sunday to 24th May, celebrated by Methodists worldwide as the anniversary of John Wesley’s 1738 ‘conversion experience’ in a religious society meeting in Aldersgate. For the Islington and Camden Mission Circuit Aldersgate Sunday this year is being commemorated in a very special way: the Admission of two of our members, Brian and Dawn, into the office and ministry of Local Preacher. The leading of this service falls to the Superintendent Minister. It’s the first time I have had this privilege, and I’m rather looking forward to it.
What better hymn could there be for this occasion than Charles Wesley’s great ‘O for a thousand tongues to sing’? Both as an expression of the necessity of preaching the Gospel (My gracious Master and my God/ Assist me to proclaim/ To spread through all the earth abroad/ The honours of thy name) and a celebration of God’s Spirit working within the lives of John and Charles Wesley.
The story of John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience is well known and frequently recounted. Less familiar is younger brother Charles’ similar spiritual experience, which took place three days earlier on Pentecost Sunday. Charles was suffering from pleurisy and was being cared for at the house of John Bray in Little Britain, just a short distance from Aldersgate. The illness had brought him very low physically and spiritually. He was conscious of the faith of those who attended upon him and prayed for the same. In his Journal Charles wrote:
Sun., May 21st, 1738. I waked in hope and expectation of His coming. At nine my brother and some friends came, and sang an hymn to the Holy Ghost. My comfort and hope were hereby increased. In about half-an-hour they went: I betook myself to prayer; the substance as follows :–
“Oh Jesus, thou hast said, ‘I will come unto you ; ‘thou hast said, ‘ I will send the Comforter unto you ; thou hast said, ‘My Father and I will come unto you, and make our abode with you.’ Thou art God who canst not lie; I wholly rely upon thy most true promise: accomplish it in thy time and manner.”
Having said this, I was composing myself to sleep, in quietness and peace, when I heard one come in (Mrs. Musgrave, I thought, by the voice) and say, “In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, arise, and believe, and thou shalt be healed of all thy infirmities.” I wondered how it should enter into her head to speak in that manner. The words struck me to the heart. I sighed, and said within myself, “O that Christ would but speak thus to me… of my recovery, soul and body…
I rose and looked into the Scripture. The words that first presented were, “And now, Lord, what is my hope truly my hope is even in thee.” I then cast down my eye, and met, “He hath put a new song in my mouth, even a thanksgiving unto our God. Many shall see it, and fear, and shall put their trust in the Lord.” Afterwards I opened upon Isaiah xl. 1: “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God: speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sin.”
I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ… I saw that by faith I stood; by the continual support of faith, which kept me from falling, though of myself I am ever sinking into sin.
Over the following days Charles’ strength gradually increased. He prayed that his brother John would receive the same assurance of faith. On 24th May this prayer was answered:
Towards ten, my brother was brought in triumph by a troop of our friends, and declared, “I believe.” We sang the hymn with great joy, and parted with prayer.
‘The hymn’ sung by Charles, John and his friends was probably ‘When shall my wandering soul begin’, which Charles had written the previous day. But this was not the only hymn inspired by Charles’ religious experience. ‘And can it be’ was also written around the same time, and a year later Charles returned to this subject with ‘O for a thousand tongues to sing’, originally titled ‘For the anniversary day of one’s conversion’. As it was published in 1740, the hymn was probably written around 21st May 1739.
The famous first line was possibly inspired by Charles then spiritual mentor, the Moravian Peter Bohler, who had remarked, on confessing Christ, ‘Had I a thousand tongues, I would praise him with them all.’ However, this was not the original opening verse of the hymn. Today’s hymn is verses 7-12, 14 and 18 of an 18 verse original, which began
Glory to God, and praise and love
be ever, ever given,
by saints below and saints above,
the church in earth and heaven.
‘O for a thousand tongues’ traditionally occupied first place in Methodist hymn books, until the publication of Hymns and Psalms (1983). In my experience LYDIA has almost completely eclipsed RICHMOND as the tune to which it is sung in British churches, though the more difficult LYNGHAM is also popular (and I note that it is set to LYDIA and LYNGHAM in the forthcoming Singing the Faith.)
John Telford quotes ‘Mr Stead’:
‘The first man whom this hymn helped was Charles Wesley himself. Given the first place in the Methodist hymn-book, it may be said to strike the key-note of the whole of Methodism, that multitudinous chorus, whose voices, like the sound of many waters, encompassed the world.’
Here, then is the hymn, as sung in British Methodism today:
O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of his grace!
My gracious Master and my God,
Assist me to proclaim,
To spread through all the earth abroad
The honours of thy name.
Jesus-the name that charms our fears,
That bids our sorrows cease;
‘Tis music in the sinner’s ears,
‘Tis life, and health, and peace.
He breaks the power of cancelled sin,
He sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean;
His blood availed for me.
He speaks; and listening to his voice,
New life the dead receive;
The mournful, broken hearts rejoice,
The humble poor believe.
Hear him, ye deaf; his praise, ye dumb,
Your lossened tongues emply;
Ye blind, behold your Saviour come;
And leap, ye lame, for joy!
See all your sins on Jesus laid;
The Lamb of God was slain;
His soul was once an offering made
For every soul of man.
In Christ, your head, you then shall know,
Shall feel your sins forgiven;
Anticipate your heaven below,
And own that love is heaven.
Charles Wesley (1707-88)