BACK to the indefatigable Charles Wesley for today’s choice, Soldiers of Christ Arise. It’s a rousing battle hymn which may be appropriate for this day and age when Christians all over the globe are being persecuted, while others seem to stand aside.
The last time we saw Wesley was in 1738. He had been converted to Christianity and had written his first hymn And Can It Be – to be followed by about 8,999 others over his lifetime. He was aged 31.
The following year he and his elder brother John started open-air preaching, under the influence of George Whitefield, a friend of both from their Oxford student days. Whitefield had been ordained but instead of being the minister of a single parish he became an itinerant preacher and evangelist. He had been preaching to the coal miners of Bristol (at that time it was a big industry in the area), and suggested that the Wesleys join him. Soon after, Whitefield left for one of his many visits to America, leaving the Wesleys to organise the growing Methodist movement.
With their helpers they began their travelling ministry, covering thousands of miles on horseback over the years throughout England and in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, with London, Bristol, and Newcastle being the main centres of their work.
From 1739 to 1743, Charles noted the larger crowds to whom he preached, producing a total of 149,400.
In Cornwall in 1743 the Wesleys were welcomed by the public, but not by the clergy. Although they asked converts to attend their parish churches, many priests encouraged riots to get them out of town.
Yet the brothers maintained their conviction that the Gospel was for everyone and took it to all who would listen. If John was the one who developed and preached the Methodist theology, Charles was the one who enabled the people to learn it as they sang his hymns. The travelling allowed Charles time for reflection and it was on horseback that he composed the words of many his hymns.
On a trip to Wales in 1747, Charles, now 40 years old, met 20-year-old Sally Gwynne, whom he soon married. They had eight children, only three of whom survived. Their other children, John, Martha Maria, Susannah, Selina and John James died between 1753 and 1768. Their two sons Charles and Samuel went on to become talented musicians and composers in their own right.
During their evangelical careers, both Charles and John Wesley suffered physical abuse as they tried to preach. As a result, in the year that he met his wife, 1747, Charles wrote a poem called The Whole Armour of God, Ephesians VI, derived from Ephesians 6:11: ‘Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil’ (King James Version). It also became known as The Christian’s Bugle Blast because of the military references and the apparent call to arms. It was published as Soldiers of Christ, Arisein 1749 in Hymns and Sacred Poems with 16 verses of eight lines each. You can see it in full here. In 1780, it was published in John Wesley’s A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists with 12 verses. Today the hymn is usually performed with three verses.
1 Soldiers of Christ, arise,
and put your armour on,
strong in the strength which God supplies
thro’ his eternal Son.
Strong in the Lord of hosts,
and in his mighty pow’r,
who in the strength of Jesus trusts
is more than conqueror.
2 Stand then in his great might,
with all his strength endued;
but take, to arm you for the fight,
the panoply of God.
Leave no unguarded place,
no weakness of the soul;
take ev’ry virtue, ev’ry grace,
and fortify the whole.
3 To keep your armour bright,
attend with constant care;
still walking in your Captain’s sight,
and watching unto prayer.
From strength to strength go on;
wrestle and fight and pray;
tread all the pow’rs of darkness down,
and win the well-fought day.
(I must say I love the lines: ‘To keep your armour bright, attend with constant care.’ I have a vision of a soldier working away with the Duraglit.)
Wesley wrote a piece of music entitled Soldiers of Christ for the hymn, but I can’t find a reference to it. There are several tunes in current use. The most popular in Britain is Diademata by George Job Elvey (1816-1893). In 1835, at the age of 19, he became organist of St George’s Chapel, Windsor. From then on he wrote numerous works for royal occasions, none of which I can find on YouTube, and a large amount of church music. Here is a piece called Rejoice in the Lord
and here is his (apparently co-written) setting of Psalm 118:
Elvey had quite a traumatic personal life: his first three wives died, The fourth, whom he married when he was 66, survived him.
Diademata is also the most common setting of Crown Him with Many Crowns, seen here at the Westminster Abbey 50th anniversary celebration of the Queen’s coronation:
And here is a robust American performance of Soldiers of Christ Arise.
Another popular setting is by William Pierson Merrill (1867–1954) an American Presbyterian clergyman, pacifist, author, and hymn writer.
Merrill was named the first president of the Church Peace Union, an organisation of religious, academic, and political leaders aimed at promoting pacifism. His 1914 sermon titled The Making of Peace was hailed by Andrew Carnegie, founder of the CPU, as ‘one of the greatest sermons on peace that he had ever heard’. I have searched in vain for a transcript.
Here is a delightful performance of Merrill’s tune Soldiers of Christ:
I also love this tune, From Strength to Strength, by Edward Naylor (1876-1934), whose father was organist of York Minster. Naylor won a choral scholarship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and after spending several years as organist at London churches he returned to Cambridge in 1898, where he became both the assistant master at The Leys School and organist of Emmanuel College. Naylor lived in Cambridge until his death in 1934.
There are quite a number more but I think three at one sitting is probably enough.