Happenings

John wesley on hymn singing

Oct 2010    

In a note announcing the adoption of the Methodist Hymnal more than a century ago, the Pastor of the English (later wesley Methodist) Church, took the opportunity to remind his congregation, as well as readers of the (Methodist) Message, of John wesley’s guidelines to early Methodists on how they should sing the hymns at worship services. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of the distinction we should make between worshipping the Lord and enjoying a performance.

John Wesley

THE METHODIST CHURCH from its inception has always given a large place in its services to “praise”.

The following extract gathered from Hurst’s History of Methodism is interesting in proof of this.

Wesley severely criticised the Church music of the day, referring to the choir as “screaming boys who bawl out what they neither feel nor understand”, and the hymns are defined as “second-class doggerel”. The audience does not escape, but is mentioned as “lolling at ease or in the indecent posture of sitting, drawling out one word after another”. John Wesley published the first hymn book in 1737, and followed it in 1742 by the first Methodist tune book. Wesley was a personal friend of Handel, the greatest composer of that age, who set three of Charles Wesley’s hymns to music. For several years the “Messiah” was rendered on Christmas Day morning at 7 o’clock in the chapel at City Road [London]. Nor was singing thought unworthy of notice by the Conference. The Minutes contain many instructions on singing.

Wesley’s advice to his preachers on the subject was: “Preach frequently on singing, suit the tunes to the words. Do not suffer the people to singing slow. Let the women sing their parts alone; let no man sing with them unless he understands the notes and sings the bass. Exhort everyone in the congregation to sing; in every large society let them learn to sing. Recommend our tune book everywhere.”

To the congregation, directions are equally explicit. In the Sacred Harmony published in 1781 the following is found in the preface. “Sing all, sing heartily and with good courage”, not “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 it being heard than when you sang the songs of Satan. Sing modestly. Do not bawl as so 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. Sing in time and take care you sing not too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy and it is high time do drive it
out from among us and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.

“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 shall approve of here and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.”

On the introduction of Methodism into America this important part of Divine service was well considered. At the Conference held in 1784, besides other measures adopted it was decided: “to reform the singing, let all our preachers who have any knowledge in the notes improve it by learning to sing true themselves and keeping close to Mr Wesley’s hymns and tunes”.

In 1796 the Methodist preachers of America were directed by the Conference to discourage the singing of “fugue” tunes, not because such elaborate music was in itself sinful but because public singing is a part of Divine worship in which all the congregation ought to join. Most of this advice is not out of date even now.’ – MM, August 1905, p.104-5, edited.

■ The MCS Archives and History Library is located at #04-01 Methodist Centre, 70 Barker Road, Singapore 309936. Please call 6478-4775 if you wish to make a research visit. Research questions may be sent to: archive.history@methodist.org.sg

■ Web site: http://archives.methodist.org.sg

By Rev A. J. Amery

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