Thursday, 12 February 2015

A hymn for Dawkins, for Isis and for us.

A favourite hymn 

Ye servants of God,
your Master proclaim,
and publish abroad
his wonderful Name;
the Name all-victorious
of Jesus extol:
his kingdom is glorious;
he rules over all.

2 God ruleth on high,
almighty to save;
and still he is nigh:
his presence we have.
The great congregation
his triumph shall sing,
ascribing salvation
to Jesus our King.

3 Salvation to God
who sits on the throne!
Let all cry aloud,
and honour the Son.
The praises of Jesus
the angels proclaim,
fall down on their faces,
and worship the Lamb.

4 Then let us adore,
and give him his right:
All glory and power,
all wisdom and might,
all honor and blessing,
with angels above,
and thanks never ceasing
and infinite love.

This hymn, by Charles Wesley, has long been a favourite. I love its deceptive simplicity - it is a hymn of praise to Jesus which sneaks a lot of doctrine in by the back door! Or to be fair, it is a hymn of praise from a poet with a light touch but a deep grounding in essential Christian doctrine. I love its internal logic: the way verses 1 and 2 and 3 interconnect to make massive statements about the deity of Christ. I have put those connections down to Charles Wesley's genius. 

But I may have been wrong. As I started to write about the hymn, and researching its original text, I had some surprises. The version with which we are familiar is shorter than the original, and leaves out two (or thirteen - see below) verses. The first of my much-loved  Christological connections just doesn't happen the same way when the current verses 1 and 2 are distanced by two others. 

It is the missing material which locates the hymn specifically in its historical context. It was 1744, a year of considerable turmoil and fear of a French invasion, and the Methodist societies were being, rather oddly to us, accused of being disguised Roman Catholics, or at least of being Jacobites - supporters of the exiled pretender to the throne, James Edward Stuart. In fact, the Wesleys' older brother Samuel had indeed shown some support for the Stuarts, but Charles and John were vocal supporters of King George and the Hanoverian line. If anything, Charles was even more painstaking than John in distancing himself from any semblance of rebellion; on Tuesday, 6 March, he wrote to his brother urging him not even to use the name Methodist, but strictly to emphasise that the movement was faithful to the Church of England. 

Throughout this period there were public demonstrations against the Methodists, with a serious level of violence to contend with on an almost daily basis; stones thrown in the street and drunken trouble-makers frequently entering meetings to hurt and disrupt. In addition, there were dangers inherent in the movement itself; at Leeds on 14th March the floor of the upper room in which Charles was preaching gave way under the mass of hearers. Although everyone escaped with their lives, there were some serious injuries. 

Something of the flavour of the times can be seen in, for example, John Wesley's journal entry for 23 and 30 January:

"On Monday, January 23, a great mob gathered together at Darlaston, a mile from Wednesbury. They fell upon a few people who were going to Wednesbury, and among the rest, on Joshua Constable's wife, of Darlaston. Some of them threw her down, and five or six held her down, that another might force her. But she continued to resist, till they changed their purpose, beat her much, and went away. 
Mon. 30.—The mob gathered again, broke into Joshua Constable's house, pulled part of it down, broke some of his goods in pieces, and carried the rest away; particularly all his shop goods, to a considerable value. But not satisfied with this, they sought for him and his wife, swearing they would knock their brains out. Their little children meantime, as well as themselves, wandered up and down, no one daring to relieve or take them in, lest they should hazard their own lives. 

Against the backdrop of such tension and violence, the Wesleys issued a pamphlet of hymns under the title, Hymns for Times of Trouble and Persecution. Several hymns were prayers for the king, a purposeful demonstration of loyalty. Just to take one example:

1 SOVEREIGN of all! whose will ordains
The powers on earth that be,
By whom our rightful Monarch reigns,
Subject to none but thee:

2 Stir up thy power, appear, appear,
And for thy servant fight;
Support thy great vicegerent here,
And vindicate his right.

The first edition of the pamphlet was published on 1st March, when the French had made a first unsuccessful invasion attempt, thwarted by storm force winds in the channel. Ye servants of God was issued in the second version of the pamphlet, which came out around a month later. It was the first hymn in a new section entitled Hymns to be sung in a tumult, and it is likely that Charles Wesley had both the recent weather and the political and spiritual turmoil of the country in mind. 

It is interesting to look at the original text, which has three sections. 

Part 1 

1 Ye servants of God, 
your Master proclaim,
And publish abroad 
his wonderful name,
The name all-victorious 
of Jesus extoll;
His kingdom is glorious, 
and rules over all.

2 The waves of the sea 
have lift up their voice,
Sore troubled that we 
in Jesus rejoice;
The floods they are roaring, 
but Jesus is here,
While we are adoring, 
he always is near.

3 Men, devils engage, 
the billows arise,
And horribly rage, 
and threaten the skies:
Their fury shall never 
our stedfastness shock,
The weakest believer 
is built on a Rock.

4 God ruleth on high, 
almighty to save,
And still he is nigh, 
his presence we have;
The great congregation 
his triumph shall sing,
Ascribing salvation 
to Jesus our King.

5 Salvation to God 
who sits on the throne!
Let all cry aloud, 
and honour the Son!
Our Jesus’s praises 
the angels proclaim,
Fall down on their faces, 
and worship the Lamb.

6 Then let us adore, 
and give him his right,
All glory, and power, 
and wisdom, and might,
All honour, and blessing, 
with angels above,
And thanks never ceasing, 
and infinite love.

This section contains all of the hymn we know, but the two additional verses shift the emphasis solidly to the rule of God and of his Christ over a world of human and demonic persecution. There is a sub-theme of Christ's presence "in the praises of his people".  

Part 2

1 Omnipotent King, 
who reignest on high,
Thy mercy we sing, 
thy haters defy,
We give thee thy glory, 
tho’ Satan oppose,
And gladly adore thee, 
in sight of thy foes.

2 The reprobates dare 
their master proclaim,
And loudly declare 
their sin and their shame;
Presumptuous in evil, 
their god they avow,
Their father the devil; 
and worship him now.

3 And shall we not sing 
our Master and Lord,
Our Maker and King, 
by angels ador’d,
Our merciful Saviour, 
who brought us to God,
And purchas’d us favour 
by shedding his blood.

4 Yes, Lord we adore, 
tho’ all men deny,
And tell of thy power, 
triumphantly nigh:
O Jesu, we bless thee, 
our Jesus proclaim,
And gladly confess thee, 
for ever the same.

5 In tumult and noise, 
we sing of thy grace,
More mighty our joys, 
more hearty our praise,
Our triumphs are higher, 
and warmer our zeal,
And thee ever nigher 
than Satan we feel.

6 The sinners we see, 
who Satan obey,
Much happier we, 
much wiser than they,
Our Master is greater, 
he makes us his heirs,
And O! How much better 
our wages than theirs!

7 Our Jesus is near, 
whenever we sing,
Among us we hear 
the shout of a King;
Our voices are stronger 
than theirs who blaspheme,
And surely we longer 
shall triumph than them.

This section takes up more directly the nature of the opposition. It is satanic, and it is doomed. This should encourage believers to boldness in praise and boldness in proclamation. Once again the fact of Christ's presence with those who sing his praises us affirmed. 

Part 3

1 All conquering Lord, 
whom sinners adore,
Remember thy word, 
and stir up thy power,
Drive Satan before thee, 
his advocates chase:
Or let them adore thee, 
or yield to thy grace.

2 O pity, and spare, 
and save them from death,
Pluck’d out of his snare, 
snatch’d out of his teeth;
Almighty Redeemer, 
to whom all things bow,
Cast down the blasphemer, 
and rescue them now.

3 O why should he take 
thy purchase away?
Thy fury awake, 
and fly on the prey;
Thy purchase recover, 
that Satan may feel,
Thy kingdom is over 
earth, heaven, and hell.

4 O answer the prayer 
of prevalent faith,
In mercy forbear 
these children of wrath,
And give them repentance, 
let mercy take place,
Reverse the sad sentence, 
and save them by grace.

If the middle section appears in any way to be simply gloating in the certainty of ultimate triumph, the last section gives the hymn it's real goal. As many rise in hate against the gospel and gospel people, Wesley is not simply certain of their downfall at the end of time: he is praying for their much swifter capitulation to the power of the gospel. His argument at the heart of the section is based in his understanding of Christ's atonement: Jesus died for these people, how can that redemptive price be wasted? The aggression in the language is fantastic - calling on Christ to "fly on the prey" is not language for the faint-hearted!


If you start to look into something, be prepared to go where your research takes you, and be ready to let go of your initial ideas! In my case, a fascination with the Christological affirmations in the hymn as we know it has led to a totally different view of it as seen in its original form. 

Having said which... the editorial genius behind the version we know cannot be overestimated. I am now trying to check this, but I think, given the earliness of the edit, that it was probably John Wesley himself who, not for the last time, had a happy ability to abbreviate one of his brother's hymns  and thus create a text of universal appeal and usefulness. The logic links I have loved ARE there, and someone spotted them. They are still worth laying hold of as you sing the hymn. Jesus is God! God's reign is Jesus' reign! The salvation Jesus achieved is God's salvation! 

But the unedited version is worth discovering. As we ourselves head into a time of uncertainty and rising persecution, as we hear terrible news of violence against Christians and churches, the certainty and hope of this hymn should encourage us. It is a song to strengthen the faint-hearted. It is a song to put backbone into the spineless. We may not need to sing all 17 verses, but we need their spirit. 

That is especially so of the final section. The Wesleys ministered at a time not simply of persecution, but of persecution because the Evangelical Societies were seen as dangerous to the country. The established church had, by and large, slipped into Deism - a religion that stressed the otherness and distance of God to the point that any call for repentance or action based on His presence and power was seen as rather threatening and even "unEnglish". It is not hard to imagine how the early Methodists' radical call might be heard as "contrary to British values" today. Nor is it hard to see the present slide into post-modern vagueness within the church as an echo of the Middle-of-the-roadness of  Deism. The crying need of the church in general and of the Salvation Army in particular today is not to embrace ever more fully the "spirit of the age" as the 18th century Anglicans did, but to regain the fire and fervour of our Methodist forebears. 

The sheer evangelical aggressiveness of the final section of the original hymn is breathtaking. This is surely how we should be praying for Dawkins, for the government, for Isis, for our pagan neighbours. This is not the church on the back foot, cowering in the corner. This is fighting talk, and it is based in the certainty of Christ's victory. 

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