Theological Themes in Wesleyan Hymns

Four points in Wesley’s theology of the Lord’s Supper.

1) Believers were to approach the Lord’s table expecting to meet Christ in the elements.
2) The Lord’s Supper is a memorial meal to the sacrifice Jesus gave on the cross.
3) Communion is a sign and a means of grace whereby God forgives sins and reconciles with us.
4) The Eucharist is a pledge given to the believer for future and eternal glory in heaven.

Daniel Stevick: The Altar’s Fire (p. 30-33)

The following hymns, cited in the 1745 songbook put together by John and Charles Wesley titled “Hymns on the Lord’s Supper or included in the 1989 United Methodist Hymnbook show examples of how Wesleyan hymnody supports Wesleyan theology of the Lord’s Supper, also known as Communion or the Eucharist. Wesley, from his own practice of the sacrament, had a sense that it is where one meets the crucified and living Christ. To this end, he recommended daily or as he described in a sermon by the same name “constant communion”. His hymns invite Christ to attend to the believer during communion

He asks in hymn 63 from Hymns on the Lord’s Supper (1745):
Visit us in pardn’ning Grace,
Christ the Crucified appear,
Come in thy appointed Ways,
Come, meet, and bless us here

We see in this hymn text that, for Wesley, communion is also a means of grace. “Visit us in pardn’ning grace” asks Christ to provide forgiveness as he meets us at the altar.

Devout Christians, longing for this sacramental appointment with God, would meditate during communion on such hymns as #77 in the songbook titled Hymns on the Lord’s Supper:

Come to thy house again,
Nor let us seek in vain;
This the place of meeting be,
To thy weeping flock repair,
Let us here thy beauty see,
Find Thee in the House of Prayer

And from hymn #78 in the same songbook:

In thine own appointments bless us,
Meet us here, now appear, Our Almighty Jesus.

As the Lord’s Supper is to be the place we meet Christ, Wesley asserted that Christ was present in the bread and the cup, present and active as a means to impart forgiveness.

Wesley Speak of Christ this way in hymn 81:

He give his flesh to be our meat,
And bids us drink his blood:
Whate’ver th’ Almighty can
To pardon’d sinners give,
The fullness of our God made man
We here with Christ receive.

Wesley never attempts to define how Christ is present in the elements of commuion; additionally, as seen in hymn 92, he doesn’t worry about it:

Receiving the bread
On Jesus we feed,
It doth not appear
His manner of working;
But Jesus is here!

Hymns from the 1989 edition of The United Methodist Hymnal also include texts of invitation for modern worshippers to meet the Christ during the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. The section of the hymnal between pages 612-641 contains hymns for the Lord’s Supper from a variety of sources including the Wesleys. In an effort to keep the hymnal culturally relevant as well as both honoring its legacy and celebrating new expression of theology, there are hymns from several countries and historical periods included in this collection.

Particular hymns of invitation and of meeting Christ at the table include:
UMH 612 Deck Thyself, My Soul, with Gladness
“…through the gifts thou here dost give me, as thy guest in heaven receive me.”

UMH 613 O Thou Who This Mysterious Bread
“O Thou Who This Mysterious Bread dids’t in Emmaus break,
return, herewith our souls to feed, and to thy followers speak.”

UMH 616 Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast
“Come, sinners, to the gospel feast, let every soul be Jesus’ guest.”

A familiar hymn sung at dinner as table grace is the communion hymn that invites Christ to be present:
UMH 621 Be Present At Our Table Lord
“Be present at our table, Lord; be here and everywhere adored.”

UMH 623 Here, O My Lord, I See Thee
“Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face; here would I touch and handle things unseen;”
This hymn goes on to express Wesley’s practice of spending time in communion with God, not simply eating the bread and taking the cup; but communing with God. When one comes to meet God, one should not be in a hurry to leave, but rather, be attentive for as long as the Lord would have us stay. Even though the bread and the wine would be ingested and gone, the love of God would linger still.

Verse 2: This is the hour of banquet and of song;
This is the heavenly table spread for me:
here let me feast, and feasting, still prolong
the hallowed hour of fellowship with thee.

Verse 4: Too soon we rise; the symbols disappear;
the feast, though not the love, is past and gone.
The bread and wine remove; but thou art here,
Nearer than ever, still my shield and sun.

The Communion elements as Sign and Means of Grace
Stevick, p. 33

Contrary to the Puritan practice of Wesley’s time, regarding who could partake of the Eucharist, John Wesley wrote hymn 8:
“Come to the Supper, come, Sinner there still is Room.” (GBOD recording-#16 Music arranged by Patrick Matsikenyiri, Grandfather of African church hymnody and singers from Africa University in Zimbabwe, Africa.

While the Puritans had requirements for those who could attend to communion, based on Paul’s counsel to examine oneself in Corinthians 11:28, Wesley followed Jesus’ parable of the rich man who bade many people to come to the feast he had prepared.

The United Methodists today sing Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast (UMH, 616)
Verse 1: Come, sinners, to the gospel feast, let every soul be Jesus’ guest.
Ye need not one be left behind, for God had bid all humankind.

Verse 2: Do not begin to make excuse; ah! Do not you his grace refuse;
Your worldly cares and pleasures leave, and take what Jesus hath to give.

Wesley’s sermon, Constant Communion, addresses the excuses given for not partaking of communion. He accepts no excuses but directly addresses those who feel they are not worthy of the Holy Meal by chiding them “if you feel you are unworthy to take the bread and cup, is that not when you should accept the Lord’s offer of forgiveness; and then, obey Christ’s command to ‘eat, this is my body’ and ‘drink, this is my blood of the new covenant’?

Wesley remarked in a 1740 article that ‘no previous preparation is indispensably necessary; but a desire to receive whatsoever God pleases to give.’ He felt that the Holy Communion could be a ‘conversion ordinance’, that is an evangelistic opportunity for a sinner to be converted into a believer. Hymn 28 explains the forgiveness of sin provided in the Eucharistic re-enactment of the cross. The Eucharist means what the cross means – God dealing with sin finally at Calvary and presented eternally in heaven, now made available on earth.
“We see the blood that seals our peace, Thy pard’ning mercy we receive.”

We sing it today through the hymn “I Come with Joy” UMH 617: (recording -
Verse 1: I come with joy to meet my Lord, forgiven, loved and free,
in awesome and wonder to recall his life laid down for me,
His life laid down for me.

And the 1968/69 hymn “Now the Silence” (recording – )
Now the silence; Now the peace; Now the empty hand uplifted.
Now the kneeling; Now the plea; Now the Father’s arms in welcome.
Now the heart forgiven leaping; Now the Spirit’s visitation
Now the Son’s epiphany; Now the Father’s blessing.

Wesley valued a person’ life experience within the sacraments. He writes of believers who come to the table seeking or distraught yet for their partaking of the elements, they feel Christ is not present. Wesley doesn’t try to explain the event, but rather, reminds us of Christ’s promise to be present in the sacrament and for us to be faithful in attending the Supper expecting Christ.

UMH 623 Here, O My Lord, I See Thee states:

Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face:
here would I touch and handle things unseen:
here grasp with firmer hand eternal grace,
And all my weariness upon thee lean.

UMH 625 Come, Let Us Eat

Verse 3: In his presence now we meet and rest,
In the presence of our Lord we gather.

UMH 627 O the Depth of Love Divine acknowledges the mystery of how Christ is present in the bread and wine. Charles Wesley gives no accounting of the alchemy yet, honors the holy mystery in all four verses. This is hymn #57 from the Hymns on the Lord’s Supper songbook that is in the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal.

Verse 1: O the depth of love divine, the unfathomable grace!
(Communion is a sign and means of God’s grace and redemption)
Who shall say how bread and wine God into us conveys!
How the bread his flesh imparts, how the wine transmits his blood,
fills the faithful people’s hearts with all the life of God!

Verse 2: Let the wisest mortals show how we the grace receive;
feeble elements bestow a power not theirs to give.
Who explains the wondrous way, how through these the virtue* came?
These the virtue did convey, yet still remain the same.
(* “virtue” in Wesley’s context means the reality, the actuality, the potency of the Christ although he maintained that the bread and wine did not change their make up. He did not subscribe to transubstantiation of the elements as in the Roman Catholic communion).

John Wesley held the belief that God works through the bread and wine but he wasn’t concerned with how that happens. However, for the transformation to occur requires an encounter between Christ and his people. The elements convey divine life, but they remain bread and wine as he writes in hymn 57 from Hymns on the Lord’s Supper:

“Who shall say how bread and wine God into man conveys?”

Likewise, UMH 629 You Satisfy the Hungry Heart, written in 1977 by Omer Westendorf attests to the mystery of the transformation of the cup and bread.

Verse 3: Is not the cup we bless and share the blood of Christ outpoured?
Do not one cup, one loaf, declare our oneness in the Lord?

Verse 4: The mystery of your presence, Lord, no mortal tongue can tell;
whom all the world can not contain comes in our hearts to dwell.
Verse 5: You give yourself to us, O Lord; then selfless let us be,
to serve each other in your name in truth and charity.

UMH 631 O Food to pilgrims Give comes from 1661 words from the Maintzich Songbook.

Verse 1: O food to pilgrims given,
O bread of life from heaven,
O manna from on high!

We hunger; Lord, supply us,
Nor thy delights deny us,
Whose hearts to thee draw night.

Verse 3: O Jesus, by thee bidden, (We are to partake expecting to meet Christ)
we here adore thee,
hidden in forms of bread and wine. (Christ’s virtue/presence is in the elements)
Grant when the veil is risen,
we may behold, in heaven, (pledge of eternal glory for the believer)
thy countenance divine.

Wesley’s Thoughts on Grace

From Ole Borgen’s book, John Wesley on the Sacraments, we learn that Wesley’s order of salvation (his ‘ordo salutis’) pre-supposes atonement, that is, that Jesus redeemed us and is always the spring of God’s perpetual grace.

On this basis, the stages on the way to salvation are of importance. Because atonement, that is to say, prevenient grace which is our natural conscience is given to all. Justifying grace is given to anyone who believes that Christ has redeemed us (it is the individual’s action of belief that is needed). And finally, sanctifying grace is the act of getting perfected in love, that is, living a life of Christian perfection, living honorably, in faith and with good works – always striving to perfection.

Wesley’s order represents his systematic understanding of how God dispenses salvation. It is dispensed to each person according to her need and situation – prevenient, convincing/converting (Wesley felt that communion could be a converting moment), justifying or sanctifying.

Hymns of Prevenient Grace can be found in The United Methodist Hymnal pages 337-359. See the heading on the upper-left-hand of the page. Hymns of Justifying Grace can be found in The United Methodist Hymnal pages 361-381. Hymns of Sanctifying and Perfecting Grace can be found in The United Methodist Hymnal pages 382-536. The concept of grace is often found in Eucharistic hymns too on pages 612-641 of the hymnal. UMC Hymnal

Hymn Text and Tune Options

We can’t know for sure what tunes were used for the Wesley hymns originally.  Many people think that contemporary songs from the tavern or pubs were used, but that isn’t true.

To select a tune today for a hymn what you can do is take the poetic meter of the hymn text and find a tune that has the same number of syllables per line.  Then you can sing the hymn to that tune.

If you look in The United Methodist Hymnal one of the indexes in the back of the book is for hymn tunes indicating the number of syllables per line. You can simply choose a hymn tune to sing. However, you should also look carefully at how the text matches the rise and fall of the melody.  Consider the musical high and low pitches, if ‘unimportant’ words such as the articles “a, an, or the” fall on longer notes, notice how the whole melody ascends or descend, where odd or insignificant words might fall in a more significant portion of the melody (look at the length of time for the note or its pitch within the melodic phrase).  You need to carefully evaluate the melody to assure that the tune you choose really fits the text.  For example, you don’t want a text that talks about climbing the heights to glory and yet the tune has descending notes for that part of the hymn.

If you look in the back of The United Methodist Hymnal you will find several indexes.  One is for metrical settings, another is hymn tune names.  These become important if you’re trying to set a text to a new tune.  If you know the hymn tune by name, such as “Hyferdol” you can look up what the metrical setting is to see if it matches the text you have in mind.

Or, if you ascertain the number of syllables per line of a poem, for example, 98.98 you can find a hymn tune with the same meter.  The first line of a 98.98 song will have 9 syllables, followed by a line with 8 syllables.  For example, UMH 624 “Bread of the World”.

Bread of the world in mercy broken, wine of the soul n mercy shed,  (9 syllables)
by whom the words of life were spoken, and in whose death our sins are dead. (8 syllables)

We could use the hymn tune “Eucharistic Hymn” as seen in UMH 624;
or “Beginnings” as in UMH 383.

Notes from Hymns on the Lord’s Supper – John and Charles Wesley

Notes from Hymns on the Lord’s Supper written by John and Charles Wesley. First published in Bristol, England in 1745 by Felix Farley. Copyright 1995, The Charles Wesley Society, Madison.

Hymns of the Lord’s Supper were written for three purposes: (Wainwright, Introduction, xii). 1). Catechetical 2). Liturgical 3). Devotional

As the number of new Christians grew in response to the imperial adoption of Christianity, they ceased to receive communion as often as before. John and Charles Wesley, however, made a point of serving communion every Sunday and holidays and John did so while visiting the sick (Wainwright, v).

In writing the hymns John Wesley taught people the significance and benefits of the Lord’s Supper. The songs contributed to the singing repertoire during communion; as well as provided a resource for meditative preparation before, and recollection after, the sacrament (Wainwright, vi).

In writing the preface to the hymn book, John Wesley extracted material from Daniel Brevint’s treatise On the Christian Sacrament and Sacrifice (1672) which he and Charles studied and applied in their hymn writing. Shared common motifs include using Old Testaments figures and events as foreshadowing the work of Christ and Christian sacraments and a Eucharistic reference to blood and water flowing from Christ’s side while on the cross. The blood was intended for justification and the water for sanctification (Wainwright, x-xi).

Brevint’s thoughts about the Lord’s Supper: 1). a sacrament to past suffering – a memorial 2). a way to convey the ‘first fruits’ of that suffering – grace 3). an assurance of glory to come – a pledge