Wesley and the Doctrinal Role of Hymnody

By Henry “Hal” Knight III

In 1780, the main hymnal of John Wesley’s Methodist movement was published. Like most of the Methodist hymnals that preceded it, A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists consisted of hymns largely written by Charles Wesley and was edited by John. It was, in J. Wesley’s mind, a summation of the central doctrines of Methodism. He says in his introduction: “It is large enough to contain all the important truths of our most holy religion, whether speculative or practical; yea, to illustrate them all, and to prove them both by Scripture and reason” (J. Wesley, “Preface,” in F. Baker, ed., Works 7:73-74).

The hymnal was analogous to Wesley’s standard sermons or the Minutes of Several Conversations. It set forth in an organized fashion the theology of the movement. As such, this hymnal dealt with the full range of the Christian life, from prevenient grace to Christian perfection. J. Wesley notes: “The hymns are not carelessly jumbled together, but carefully ranged under their proper heads, according to the experiences of real Christians. So this book is in effect a little body of experimental and practical divinity” (74).

One purpose of this hymnal was to teach—to teach the doctrine found in Wesley’s Sermons, Minutes, and Notes on the NT. In this it followed good Anglican tradition. Just as the Articles of Religion, Book of Homilies, and Book of Common Prayer provided theological grounding for the Church of England, the hymns joined J. Wesley’s sermons, commentaries, and conference minutes as means to convey Wesleyan theology. Their purpose was not to serve as an “official” doctrinal authority but to disseminate the theology to the widest possible audience. The hymns were not just for the preachers, but also served the people called Methodists.

In its doctrinal role the hymnal was not atypical. The Wesleys understood most of their hymnals to be handbooks of doctrine. To take another example, the Hymns on the Lord’s Supper are arranged according to theological categories, and each hymn sheds light on the content of those categories. Persons come to know how the Lord’s Supper mediates Christ, as well as how the worshipper responds.

I once told a class that these hymns taught theology. A student objected, saying that would ruin them. I was taking great sources of inspiration and devotion and making them dense and dull. Likewise, a pastor reported to me that when he pointed out the theology of a hymn to his choir, one choir member angrily accused him of destroying the meaningfulness of the hymns.

There is a set of assumptions about theology in these responses. Theology is a matter of ideas, a cognitive enterprise, while hymns are about inspiration and experience, moving the heart. To turn them into theology is to rob them of their power. The Wesleys did not share these assumptions. Doctrine and theology were designed to direct us to God, including God’s purpose for our lives and God’s mission in the world. Like a good map, they show us the way to salvation, enabling us to get from where we are to the destination God has for us. The hymns, along with J. Wesley’s sermons and commentaries, were designed for this purpose.

Yet the hymns are more than this. They are a means to encounter the realities to which they point. They not only teach us about God, they enable us to experience God. In this way they are analogous to prayer, proclamation, and sacraments. As we sing them or even read them devotionally, they are a means of grace the Holy Spirit uses to transform our lives.

In our day we have seen much controversy over music in worship. Contemporary praise choruses have replaced hymns as more friendly to today’s culture. The popularity of the choruses is undeniable, including with this writer.

The Wesleys have sometimes been used to endorse this development. While the claim they used bar tunes is a myth, their desire to give the people music for worship is undeniable. But they also raise this question: what does the music teach about God and salvation? The Wesley hymns covered the full range of theology, and utilized a wide range of imagery and Scripture. Each hymn had a richness of teaching that enabled Christian growth. The Wesleys would ask us to consider how what we sing in worship contributes to the formation that God desires for our lives and our churches.

This article was originally posted as part of the Considering Wesley series on February 01, 2005 at CatalystResources.org

Dr. Henry H. Knight III is Donald and Pearl Wright Professor of Wesleyan Studies at Saint Paul School of Theology. His books include From Aldersgate to Azusa Street: Wesleyan, Holiness, and Pentecostal Visions of the New Creation (Wipf and Stock, 2010) and A Future for Truth: Evangelical Theology in a Postmodern World (Abingdon, 1997).

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