Jesus, United By Thy Grace

Here’s a hymn that’s somewhat less well-known than many in our Methodist hymnals. UMH #561: Jesus, United By Thy Grace.

Jesus, united by your grace,
and each to each endeared,
with confidence we seek your face,
and know our prayer is heard.

This hymn of Christian unity was written by Charles Wesley, and just six of the original twenty-nine stanzas (!!!) are present in our modern hymnal. It first appeared in the collection Hymns and Sacred Poems, published by John and Charles Wesley in 1742.

Can you imagine singing a 29-stanza-ed (yes, that’s totally a word) hymn at church next Sunday?

One of the interesting things I’ve learned about the Wesleys as I’ve studied their hymnody more closely is the theological development that you can trace in their published hymns, and how it mirrors the theological development within the Methodist movement, and within the personal faith of the Wesleys themselves.

In 1736, on their way to evangelize to the American colonies, the Wesley brothers met a group of Moravians, a Christian sect from Germany and Moravia known for their pious behavior, peaceful communal living, and heritage of extraordinary musical talent: the first published Moravian hymnal predates Martin Luther’s famed first hymnal by several decades. (I’ve mentioned them before on this blog.) In this encounter in 1736, the Moravians showed the Wesleys the power of quality congregational singing in worship, and lent John Wesley their hymnal, the Gesangbuch. John and Charles learned all they could from the Moravians’ musical practices, adopting the Moravian value of hymn-singing into the burgeoning Methodist movement. They published their first Collection of Psalms and Hymns the following year with translated texts from the Moravian hymnal as well as original texts of their own.

Hymns that come from the late 1730s and early 1740s in the years immediately folllowing this meeting are in many ways very similar to the Moravians’ hymns, because the brothers were learning directly from the source, patterning what the Moravians did before branching out on their own. In Wesley hymns from this era, you can see the Moravian influence both in textual themes:

– focus on poetic texts, which was a departure from the strict scripture/psalm paraphrasing that had been acceptable in the Anglican church at the time
– texts tended to be introspective
– themes of meditation and prayer
– focused on the community
– grace, love, and peace are frequent topics

and in musical techniques:

– alternating iambic and trochaic meters
– valuing beauty and melodic lines
– Chorale singing, as opposed to the Anglican tradition at the time of lining out

You can see these in some examples that are still part of our Methodist hymnal today:
#363: “And can it be that I should gain,” 1739– one of the most beautiful melodies that we almost never get to sing in church
#422: “Jesus, Thine all victorious love,” 1740– Gorgeous, poetic language: “Refining fire, go through my heart, Illuminate my soul; Scatter Thy life through every part and sanctify the whole.”
#339: “Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast,” 1747– this is one of my favorite calls to both communion and to ministry; and the tune in our hymnal actually comes from the Wesley adaptation of a tune from the Moravian Gesangbuch.

I could go on, but there are really too many to name…

In addition, at this point early in their ministry, the Wesleys were still trying to figure out what this whole Methodist movement was going to be, if it was even going to be anything outside of the Bible study they had arranged at Oxford. The Moravians pushed them to deal with thorny theological issues about faith, moments of conversion, Calvinism/predestination, the place for music in the church, and so much more, and for a few months John Wesley came very close to actually identifying with the Moravians. When he went to Herrhut to visit them in 1738, he was asked at the gate who he was going to see, and he replied that he was “going to see the place where the Christians lived.” He thought of the Moravians “as the only true Christians in the world,” and told his brother Charles that he was “with a Church whose conversation is in heaven in which is the mind that was in Christ and who so walked as he walked.”

During his visit at Herrnhut, a child died and was buried. After the service Wesley asked the father how he was, and he said, “Praised be to the Lord, never better. He has taken the soul of my child to himself. I have seen, according to my desire, his body committed to holy ground. And I know when it is raised again, both he and I shall be ever with the Lord.”

At that point in John Wesley’s life, he was looking for a living proof of faith. He found it with the Moravians at Herrnhut. It’s no wonder the Methodist movement was so influenced by these faithful, pious Christians.

A few years later, he had some fundamental differences with the Moravians about how their faith translated into the world, but during these early years, both Wesleys were very close with many Moravians, and the legacy of this influence on the music of the Methodists can still be seen in our hymnals today.

Next time you’re at church (but NOT during the sermon 😉 ) flip to the index at the back of your hymnal, and check out the published dates on the Wesley hymns. It’s possible to trace the Wesley brothers’ theology through the decades by tracing what their hymns were about, and it’s a fascinating exercise that has taught me a lot about who the Wesleys were. Maybe that’ll be a topic on here sometime… once I finish writing my thesis. 🙂

In the meantime, see if you can see the Moravian influence in the remaining verses of today’s hymn:

Help us to see in each a friend,
each other’s cross to bear,
let all their friendly aid extend,
and feel the other’s care.

Up into you, our living head,
let us in all things grow,
till you have made us free indeed
and faithful here below.

Drawn by the lodestone of your love,
let all our hearts unite;
let us toward each other move,
and move toward your light.

Sources: divinity.duke.edu, Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal, Young, hymnary.org
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