Those of us who love the hymns of our faith also love the stories behind the hymns. Most of us know and cherish the magnificent story behind “It Is Well with My Soul,” or “O, Little Town of Bethlehem,” or “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus.” But only a student of poetry or of Methodism knows more than a story or two from the roughly 7,000 hymns that Charles Wesley wrote.
Some would say that the numbers rule against it. There can’t always be that much of a story when the songs come by the thousands, and many of them with a dozen or fifteen verses. This is true even after you’ve eliminated the 5,100 hymns that Wesley wrote as devotional studies of Scripture.
Sometimes he wrote from very specific themes, such as “For a Woman in Travail,” or “A Child When Teething,” which is highly practical stuff! And some of us who remember sending off a child to college will wish we had known of Wesley’s “At Sending a Child to Boarding School.” And of course Wesley wrote a number of hymns for particular persons, and sometimes for special circumstances in their lives.
Nevertheless, we wish we knew more exciting stories, particularly the kind we preachers can use to conclude a sermon (especially if we’re not sure the sermon has a conclusion). How come we don’t know more stories about high moments of inspiration, or of circumstances that compelled a new song?
One of Charles Wesley’s biographers tells us simply that Wesley, like Isaac Watts and Fanny Crosby, was “a compulsive hymn writer.” It was Wesley’s habit to write at least one hymn a day; on an occasion when he was thrown from his horse and suffered what was probably a severe concussion, he complained that he couldn’t write a hymn for two whole days.
Why this “compulsion”? Because his soul was full to overflowing. Not that every day was a shouting victory, but that every day was God-possessed. Good weather or bad, welcoming crowds or well-aimed rotten eggs and overripe fruit, always there was a song. As Paul would say, Wesley knew how to be abased and how to abound. He intended, as did his brother John, to live all of life under God’s hand, whatever the circumstances of any given day.
Here’s the secret. Wesley found his hymns in Scripture, and in his relationship to Jesus Christ. It’s hard to find consecutive lines in a Wesley hymn that don’t use a scriptural phrase or make a doctrinal allusion. Mind you, religious experience is woven all through these hymns, because true Methodism is highly experiential. But the experience is passing, while the Scriptures and Christ are now and forever.
So it was that Wesley could write 7,000-plus hymns with tens of thousands of stanzas, because he had a source: the Scriptures — and a theme: the Christ — that were inexhaustible. I suspect there’s a lesson there for us preachers, teachers, and day-by-day believers.