As usual these past 88 Sundays, today I add another entry in my series, Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth. This week we peer back 265 years to find the origin of the current selection. At that time, Charles Wesley wanted to encourage early Methodists enduring hardship. Wanting them to be a singing, joyful people to avoid discouragement and loss of hope, he wrote this poem in 1744 using text from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice, the Lord Is King.” Philippians is known as being characterized by joy, despite being written from prison, so the situation matched will with Wesley’s objectives for the verse, which was set to music as a hymn in 1746.
This year during Advent, I’m taking an uncharacteristic “Advent break” for the Sunday posts in my series Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth. During my youth, my church did not observe Advent or much else on the church calendar… so we inserted Christmas carols into the hymn selections in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Typically we would start with only one carol on Sunday morning, adding more as Christmas got closer. This week’s selection is “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” written by Charles Wesley in 1739. Wikipedia has a good intro to the carol, which explains that the carol was written by Charles Wesley, the brother of John Wesley and first appeared in “Hymns and Sacred Poems” in 1739. The original opening couplet was “Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings”, while the version commonly known today is the result of alterations by various hands, most notably George Whitefield, Wesley’s co-worker, who changed the opening couplet to the one we know today.
For the past few weeks, I’ve populated the entries in my ongoing series, Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth, with more recent or modern selections. This week it’s time for something more traditional. The words to “And Can it Be that I Should Gain” were written in 1738 by Charles Wesley, and it is sung to the tune of “Sagina”, by Thomas Campbell in 1825. The selection is reported to be one of the favorite hymns of Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. Evidently Wesley penned the lyrics not long after his conversion. He had been sick, and on May 20, 1738, God spoke to him through a vision after he had been reading his Bible for some period of time. He wrote in his journal,
Palm Sunday rolls around… and sneaked up on me a little this year. I wasn’t certain what hymn to select for today in honour of the calendar, but I’ve decided it’s time to include Charles Wesley’s hymn, “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing” in my regular series, Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth. In some way, I suppose it’s fitting — Palm Sunday marks Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when the people sang Hosanna! to him… and there must have been more than a thousand people involved. Casting a glance back at my youth, I remember singing this song and thinking it was just plain weird. A thousand tongues? What’s that all about? Could this hymn be any stranger? Now that I’m mostly growed-up, I get his point… but this is a purely nonsensical image to a young mind.