[Today’s post is by John H. Parker, co-author of the book, Abide With Me, published by New Leaf Press. This account is from the travels of John and his co-author/photographer, Paul Seawright.]

John and Charles Wesley were two of eighteen children born to their parents, so I suppose finding a way to make yourself stand out was even more of a challenge than with most of us with siblings. Still, they didn’t have much trouble. John’s indomitable will and apparent leadership skills caused him to excel inevitably, especially after he and Charles came to Oxford. The Wesley rooms in Lincoln College breathe his presence.

John also influenced Charles to go on the not-so-successful journey to America for mission work. They didn’t stay long and returned to England. Charles kept on following his brother, though, which led him to settle with John in Bristol and buy a house there for the family. This was not far from New Room, which John built for his school, for worship, and for a meeting place for Methodist ministers.
blog 11-4_img1b

One of the most intriguing features of the large meeting room is the pulpit, or more accurately the pulpits. There are two, one behind and higher than the other. This arrangement allowed both brothers to do what they did best. John preached from the higher one (naturally), but Charles had his opportunity to sing from the lower. Many of the great hymns that he composed (hymns like “A Charge to Keep I Have,” Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” “Hark,! The Herald Angels Sing”) were first led from this pulpit. It’s rare that you can find an exact spot where history was made, but that approximately six feet of space is one of the great places in hymnody.

[Today’s post is by John H.Parker, co-author of the newly released book, Abide With Me, published by New Leaf Press. This account is from the travels of John and his co-author/photographer, Paul Seawright.]

“O God, Our Help in Ages Past” receives a 39 on our ranking of hymns. It is written by Isaac Watts, along with Charles Wesley, the greatest of the English hymn writers. Four times a day the chimes from a tower in the center of Southampton, Watts’ home city, ring out the tune of this great hymn. Even a cursory glance at the lyrics reveals why it is successful.

First, they are stately and dignified. Second, they are composed of simple words: most are one or two syllables. Third, the lyrics follow a logical order: they begin with praise (verses 1-2) and then proceed in the following verses to an account of the order of God’s creation. Finally, there is a return to praise for God’s care of his saints.

The rhythm of the hymn is also simple and easy to follow. Each verse consists of four parts, each part beginning and ending in an obvious and clear fashion. Further, the final word of parts one and three of each verse always rhyme, as do the final words of parts two and four of each verse.

So one of the two most-often-printed hymns of the decade covered is one of the simplest, but one of the grandest and most profound. Often it takes genius to produce that which is simple and profound.

[Today’s post is excerpted from the forthcoming book, Abide With Me, by acclaimed photographer Paul Seawright and Professor of English John Parker. The book and its CD with 20 classic hymns, will be released in April 2009 by New Leaf Press.]

Llanlleonfel Church in the Irfon Valley of Wales dreams quietly of its past. Narrow loophole windows of leaden glass peer down on us as we stroll solemnly through the churchyard filled with lichen-covered tombstones centuries old. Quiet reflection reigns here now.

On April 8, 1749, though, the church originally standing here was filled with eager anticipation as Charles Wesley waited for Miss Sarah Gwynne to walk from nearby Garth House along the path to Llanlleonfel to become his bride. A restless, joyful yearning would characterize Charles all his life, and it would become a major theme in the some 4500 published works that place him at the front of a long list of British hymnwriters.

Born the 18th child of a minister, Charles followed the influence of his older brother, John, and in 1726 joined John at Christ Church in Oxford to prepare to preach. Here the brothers led a group of spiritually committed young men whose discipline was so strict that fellow students taunted them with such names as “Bible Moths,” “the Holy Club,” and finally, “Methodists.” Thus the two brothers unwittingly began a major Protestant denomination.

Ordained an Anglican priest in 1735, Charles joined John on a mission trip to Georgia in the American colonies where he became secretary to General James Oglethorpe. But he was unsuited for the work and, in poor health and restless, returned to Britain the next year. Following an intense religious conversion in 1738, he began a decade of itinerant evangelical preaching throughout England, ever wandering in search of spiritual fulfillment.

Returning from Aemrica, John established himself in Bristol as the powerful and determined leader of the evangelical Methodist movement. Charles, having married Sarah, settled near his brother to support the work there. It was in this house Charles composed hundreds of his famous hymns.

Eventually the Wesleys moved to London and the Wesley Chapel, center of their work for the rest of their lives. Charles, like his brother, was himself a preacher, but his major contribution to Christianity was his prolific output of powerful and touching hymns centering on the grace of Christ and urging us to recognize and joyfully seek it. He produced several thousand songs, many of which have become the most familiar and frequently used in Britain and America.

Beloved for their happy, rejoicing themes, Charles’ hymns include “A Charge to Keep I Have,” “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” the carol, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” and finally, “Love Divine, All Excelling,” a hymn urging Christ to visit us, indicative of Charles’ joyful yearning.