O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing


BY request of TCW reader ‘Starshiptrooper’, today’s hymn is O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing. This is one of the 8,989 hymns written by Charles Wesley. He lived to the age of 81, and assuming he started composing at 20, it works out at nearly three hymns a week for his whole adult life.

Wesley was the eighteenth of nineteen children born to Samuel and Susannah Wesley, though only ten lived to adulthood. Among them was his older brother John, one of the founding fathers of Methodism.

Charles was born prematurely in 1707 in Epworth, Lincolnshire, and was not expected to live. But he survived to join his brothers and sisters in their studies of Greek, Latin, and French taught for six hours a day by their mother. He went to Westminster School then to Oxford where he earned a master’s degree.

At Oxford Charles and a handful of friends formed a group which other students called the ‘Holy Club’. They observed communion weekly and held themselves to a rigorous schedule of spiritual pursuits that included early rising, Bible study, and prison ministry. Because of this strict, self-imposed schedule, peers began calling them ‘Methodists’.

In 1735 Charles took Anglican orders. He and his brother John set off for Georgia, then an English colony in North America, to serve as missionaries. On board the Wesley brothers’ ship to America were also 26 German Moravians. Both John and Charles were impressed by the hymn singing of these evangelical Christians and realised for the first time that hymn singing could be a spiritual experience.

The Georgia episode was not a success. Charles became ill and stayed for only four months. John stayed on and printed a Collection of Psalms and Hymns for use by his congregations. However the community was not pleased and a grand jury charged John Wesley, among other things, with ‘introducing into the church . . . hymns not authorised’. John hastily fled the colony before his case came to trial.

Back in London, Charles was plagued with doubts about his faith and the fear of death often came into his mind. On Sunday, May 21, 1738, he was ill in bed with pleurisy, and his brother and some friends came in and sang a hymn. After they went out he prayed alone for some time.

In his journal he wrote: ‘I was composing myself to sleep in quietness and peace when I heard one come in and say, In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, arise, and believe, and thou shalt be healed of all thine infirmities. The words struck me to the heart. I lay musing and trembling.

‘With a strange palpitation of heart, I said, yet feared to say, I believe, I believe!’

One year on from the experience, Wesley wrote a poem in commemoration of his renewal of faith. Entitled For the anniversary day of one’s conversion, the opening lines were ‘Glory to God, and praise, and love/Be ever, ever given’ and consisted of 18 stanzas. You can see the full verses here.

Forty years later it appeared in John Wesley’s A Collection of Hymns for the People Called Methodists, by which time the seventh verse had become the first, followed by four or five of the later verses, though versions vary.

In America the hymn is usually sung to a tune called Azmon by German violinist, teacher and composer Carl Gotthilf Glaser (1784-1829). I can’t find many details about him but he wrote the melody in 1828, a year before his death at the early age of 45. It was then arranged by Lowell Mason (1792-1872), the prolific American composer who was also responsible for Joy to the World. Here is a performance from the Together for the Gospel 2008 conference.

With all respect to our wonderful American readers, and I hope Starshiptrooper agrees with me, I don’t think this tune is a patch on the one we usually use, which is called Lyngham. It was written in about 1803 by Thomas Jarman (1776-1861).

Jarman, a tailor by trade, joined the choir of the Baptist Chapel in his home village of Clipston, Northamptonshire, as a youth, and became the choirmaster there. There was also a choir at the parish church, All Saints.

I found this passage from Northamptonshire County Magazine, 1931, by P Kant: Thomas Jarman, a chapter in Clipston History. (P Kant was evidently not a fan of Jarman.)

‘The music and the harmony at Clipston was moiled by the arrival in 1820 of the Rev John Bull, who was appointed master of the grammar school and curate of the parish. He took up residence in the rectory house and advertised for boarders. He had his own views about music in public worship and he promptly abolished the church choir. The affairs were in ferment. Jarman, who prided himself on his ability as a rhymester, though he hardly ever deserved the name, dipped his pen in gall and wrote doggerel against the cleric, and what was worse, set he words to music. Clipston youth eagerly caught the strains and delighted in lusty singing within earshot of the rectory.

‘It became unbearable. Several had to make an appearance before the magistrates and pay the fines imposed on them. Jarman escaped and wrote more verses and more tunes. One set was about Josephus, the clerk, performing the offices of the church choir. The clergyman played the same game. He wrote verses himself and got them published in the Northampton Mercury, conscious that they were immensely better than any Jarman could produce.

‘Jarman retorted in scurrilous verse which the Mercury refused to publish. Consequently others were written and circulated in the village and district, finding fault with the curate’s theology in approved fashion. So the contest wore on until the combatants were worn out, and Mr Bull removed from the village. He died in London in 1852.’

Jarman published an enormous quantity of music, including over six hundred hymn tunes, besides anthems, services, and other pieces, but I am not sure if any besides Lyngham are used today.

Here it is performed by St Michael’s Singers, who are now known as the Coventry Cathedral Chorus, and here is a wonderfully muscular South African rendition.

This one is different.

I love this, by Cornwall music teacher Hannah Hawken, (and while you’re here, do look at this. I believe the instrument is a melodica.)

And this one is my favourite, by the inimitable Maddy Prior, with the Carnival Band.

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