Wesley, the Moravian hymnwriter

Almost 2 years ago, I wrote an introduction to the Moravian church, which is interesting knowledge for Methodists because of the Moravian influence on John and Charles Wesley. I intended to continue the discussion, but grad school got the better of me and I never made it back to it.

I’ve been reflecting lately on the early theological development of the Wesley brothers, back when the Methodist movement was just some blokes in Oxford who wanted to be closer to Christ, and how much of an influence the Moravian church was for them. In fact, it’s largely thanks to the Moravians that the modern Methodist church is a singing congregation.

The Moravians

If you don’t know what the Moravian church is, specifically the historical Moravian church, or The Brethren, you should skip back to that previous post for an overview. Essentially, they were a Christian sect devoted to a simplicity of life, they followed strict piety, and they believed strongly in congregational participation in worship. They were the first to publish hymnals (sorry, Martin Luther), and they were on the forefront of some of the doctrinal discussions that we consider established in the church today.

Music, especially, was incredibly important to the tradition in daily personal and corporate worship, and in order to do justice to their devotion to music, I would need another entire post, and probably a book or two! It’s definitely a story for another day. Most people credit the Lutherans for developing hymn singing traditions in worship, but the Moravians are due far more credit than they have gotten over the years. It’s similar to the truth about the Wright brothers: the actual first person in flight was Gustave Whitehead, a German immigrant living in Connecticut who, in the summer of 1901, flew a mile and a half and even made several turns. Whitehead beat the Wright brothers by 2 years, and the Wrights’ little hop in the air pales in comparison to Whitehead’s journey. But the Wright brothers received the credit over an immigrant who didn’t speak English, because they had the foresight to have the press present at the occasion. (It all comes down to PR in the end…)

Was it really Luther….?

Luther was a brilliant theologian, and his work continues to influence and edify Christians today, myself included! He also would have been a higher-profile figure than the Moravians, a sect devoted to piety and simplicity, who also often lived within separate communities consisting only of Moravians in an attempt to limit temptation and to live as Christ-like as possible. And so, the higher-profile Luther is credited with “the first published hymnal” in 1524, containing 8 hymns. In fact, the first Moravian hymnal was published in 1501, followed by one in 1505 and 1519. Each of the Moravian hymnals contained hundreds of hymns; they ironed out much of our common hymnal compilation practices as they were simply trying to manage the massive output of hymnody from their community.

In practice, also, it seems like the Moravians had more of an influence. The Lutheran congregations often kept to themselves as a community of German immigrants, similarly to how the Moravians removed themselves from the general society (but perhaps for different reasons). But it was the Moravians who taught the Wesleys the importance of a tradition of hymnsinging, and the potential of congregational singing to draw the faithful closer to God. And it was the specifically Moravian style of hymn singing that they championed. The influential Wesleys were a force behind the spread of hymnsinging tradition throughout the Methodists, and as we know the practice was adopted by most of the major Protestant denominations during the 18th century’s Great Awakening. The spread of hymn singing had foundational support of the Lutheran church, but I don’t believe it would have become as mainstream with the Wesley’s meeting with the Moravians. German chorales certainly weren’t as attractive as the Moravians’ hymns. And considering that many Roman Catholic churches now also sing hymns, it may not be a stretch to say the Moravians helped to establish the hymn-singing tradition of the modern Christian church.

In order for this all to take place, though, the Wesleys and the Brethren first have to meet.

The Wesleys meet The Brethren

The Holy Club, which was mockingly nicknamed “The Methodists” by classmates, was begin in 1729 while John was at Oxford as a strict pietist club. Like Jan Hus, the founder of the Moravian church, initially John Wesley and his “followers” merely sought reform, by way of a return to the gospel, within the Church of England. Wesley was convinced that the church needed to return to primitive Christianity, and those values and virtues. Unfortunately, the Church of England, like most established churches, has never taken criticism all that well, and these “suggestions” of Wesley were not well-received. (A note: John Wesley truly never wanted to split from the Church of England. He had a great love of the Anglican church, and his intentions were only reformative in nature, though he knew how poor was their reception. It wasn’t until after his death in 1791 that the group called Methodists officially split from the Church of England.)

In 1735, a band of Methodists were traveling to Georgia to preach to the heathen colonists. On the ship, among others, were 13 Methodists and 26 Moravians. The Methodists had brought their Tate & Brady psalmbook, and the Moravians had brought their hymnal, the Gesangbuch.

On January 23, 1736, a storm broke over their ship. All feared death, yet the Moravians “calmly sang on.” Wesley asked the Moravians what on earth they were doing, and all of the Moravians told him they sang because they were unafraid to die. This shocked and dismayed Wesley, as he had indeed been afraid of the storm. Was his faith not as strong as theirs? He left to be by himself, rejoicing to be in the presence of such complete Christians, and yet facing significant insecurity about the strength of his own faith. From his perspective, their behavior was evidence of their closeness to God, a closeness that he so earnestly sought. This perspective confirmed for him the strength of beliefs built on primitive Christianity, and reinforced the direction that Wesley had been striving with his Methodists. It helped also that he witnessed among the Moravians a methodical approach toward achieving the personal relationship with God that they believed marked the true path to salvation, as he was naturally inclined toward a methodical approach as well.

Besides confirming Wesley’s theological inclinations for his “little club”, this encounter was significant in several ways. First: it introduced Wesley to a people who had a practical, profound faith such that they did not fear death. This was certainly not the norm in 18th-century England, where church-going was partly social, partly obligation, but certainly not life-changing.

Secondly: it introduced Wesley to a kind of singing that transformed the soul. The hymns that he heard were so very unlike the stodgy psalms that were permitted in worship. Remember, at this time, the only singing in the Anglican tradition was the stilted, usually awkward, relatively unsingable metrical psalm books that I’ve written about previously. True, Isaac Watts had, by this point, composed a staggering number of hymns already, having been born in 1674 and written his first hymns during grade school. In fact, Watts’ hymn “I’ll Praise My Maker While I’ve Breath” was one of John Wesley’s personal beloved hymns, which he sang in fact with his last breath. But though the tide against the stilted psalm singing in England was trending towards hymnody, there was still resistance and it was as yet not permitted within the Anglican tradition. In fact, the only hymns of Watts that were grudgingly accepted into Dissenting worship to begin with were his scriptural paraphrases, primarily out of his 1719 psalter.

The Moravians, however, were beyond scriptural paraphrases and instead sung texts that fortified the Christian experience. According to one of their prominent leaders, Count Zinzendorf, “The heart may know what the mind cannot understand.” Christian Gregor, known as the Father of Moravian Music, said “the truest language for heart religion is song.” They wrote hymns to give an outlet for and preserve spiritual experiences of the writers, and they wrote to teach theology; hymns are how the Moravians express, confirm and teach their beliefs. Their frank openness about the reality of God’s work in their lives, and this openness as reflected in their singing, affected John Wesley deeply.

John Wesley’s first hymnal

And so in 1736, upon leaving the ship Wesley asked to borrow the Gesangbuch, and he worked to translate it. Using it as a template, he published his first hymnal in Georgia in 1737. Titled A Collection of Psalms and Hymns, it contained 70 hymns from various sources. He adjusted them all to be into 6 basic meters, all iambic, in some combination of 6’s and 8’s. These rules he adopted from the Moravians, who generally used iambic and trochaic meters, with an emphasis on the rising and falling beat (its musical equivalents syncopation and cross rhythms) to create singable melodies.

The hymnal was Wesley’s first effort to blend English and German repertory, and he treated it as an experimental project to see what worked. It’s been described as a “pioneer attempt at grafting hymn-singing on to the Book of Common Prayer.” In fact, it was the first time a hymnal was created for Anglican worship that was intended for worship, and he set basic principles about accessibility of the book, and usefulness/longevity of the hymns.

In 1742, Wesley’s first tune book was published, and it was the first tune book to bring English and German melodies together in a significant way. Included were 15 German tunes, 22 English, 1 secular adaptation, and 4 original to the collection. And the rest, as we know, is history: kicking off several centuries of congregational song within the Methodist church.

Wesley the Moravian

Wesley was so enamored of the Moravians that he fancied himself one for a very short period of time, later recanting and pretending he never had. (Oh, how we regret the follies of youth!) In June of 1738, he traveled to the Moravian settlement in Herrnhut. When asked at the town gate of his intentions, he said he was “going to see the place where the Christians lived.” At the time, he thought of the Moravians “as the only true Christians in the world,” and told his brother 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 this pilgrimage and his time with the Moravians, he constantly found what he was looking for: living proof of faith. (Conveniently for him, this faith was packaged in a tradition of methodical faith practices.)

Shortly after his return to England, Wesley was faced with some fundamental doctrinal differences with the Moravian church and ultimately severed professional ties with them, but he remained close personal friends with Count Zinzendorf and several of his Brethren friends for years to come.

Moravian influence in today’s Methodist church

Those years spent with the Moravians were extraordinarily formative for the early Methodist movement. Many of what we consider iconic, defining traits of the Methodist church, you may not realize came from the Moravians:

  • Using hymns other than the approved metrical psalms; i.e., “compositions… not inspected or authorized by any proper judicature.”
  • Organizing societies for religious fellowship outside of the regular church service. Some call them Covenant groups, most begin with the Wesley question, “How is it with your soul?”
  • Hymn-singing during the Eucharist, or the Great Thanksgiving. The Anglican tradition had music, but it wasn’t congregational.
  • Extemporaneous prayer. The Anglicans, as we know, used The Book of Common Prayer.
  • Using laypersons in worship. For the Methodists, this was a practical concern– there simply weren’t enough ordained Methodists to go around. But using laypeople was a huge thing back in the day.
  • Itinerate preaching and extemporaneous preaching. This also comes from the intellectual Anglican tradition versus the more spiritually-directed pietist Moravian tradition.

John Wesley also adapted some of their policies as well. The preface to 1569 Polish edition of the Brethren’s hymnal reads: “Our fathers have taught us not only to preach the doctrines of religion from the pulpit, but also to frame them in hymns. In this way our songs become homilies.” This became the Wesleyan ethos of “singing what was preached, and preaching what was sung.”

The famous “Rules for Singing” that are included at the preface of every Methodist hymnal (and rightly so!) were also adopted from the Moravian commitment to quality congregational singing:

As a great portion of this service consists in the singing of hymns, they endeavoured to make it uniform and harmonious, by encouraging all to join, but checking any disposition to vociferation in individuals, and have thereby, in some of their settlements, acquired a degree of perfection in congregational singing, which is not attainable where there is no attention to general effect, but where every one is left to suit the strength of his voice, however grating, to the ardour of his feelings, or the vanity of his mind. The organ is directed to accompany the congregation so as not to overpower it, but only to complete and support the harmony of the whole.

In a number of ways, perhaps most especially music and hymn singing, Methodists can consider the Moravian church part of our faith heritage.

What if…?

There were so many factors of the hymn explosion during the Great Awakening that it is impossible to claim a single one was the catalyst. Isaac Watts, the Father of English Hymnody, presented the worshipping church with high-quality English hymnody for the first time in history beginning right near the turn of the 18th century. The Lutherans had established a practice of hymn-singing and were somewhat more well-known than the Moravians, as they didn’t keep to themselves quite as much, though they sang fairly exclusively German chorales. John Rippon was beginning to kick off the Baptist hymn surge in the second half of the 18th century. And in general, the churches of the time were growing weary of the common practices; the educated parishioners were tiring of lining out, which lost all sense of tune and rhythm, but reformers couldn’t be rid of it without an alternative. Essentially, the fields were ripe for change.

However, I believe that had the Wesleys never met the Moravians on that ship in 1736, we may still be singing hymns, but our modern worship would look vastly different. And without this influence, the Methodist church especially would look a lot more similar to the Anglican/Episcopal church than it does today.

Fun activity for you, the next time you’re bored in church (but of course, not during the sermon! 😉 ) flip back in your hymnal to the Index of Composer, Authors, and Sources. Find the hymns filed under “Gesangbuch”: those have come from a German tradition (as that word is German for “Hymnbook”) and most of those listed in the Methodist hymnal are Moravian in origin. Another prominent Moravian in our hymnal is James Montgomery (“Hail to the Lord’s Anointed”, “Prayer is the Soul’s Sincere Desire”, “Stand up and Bless the Lord”). Happy hymnal exploring!


4 thoughts on “Wesley, the Moravian hymnwriter

  1. […] We’ve covered some of the influence that the Moravian Brethren had on the Wesleys during and a…, focusing mostly on what the early Methodists adopted from the Moravian traditions. It’s important not to forget, though, how much of a shock the present and upfront faith of the Moravians was for the Wesley brothers, and how much meeting them forced the Wesleys to rethink their own beliefs. […]

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