Love Divine, All Loves Excelling


TODAY’S choice is another of the 9,000 or so hymns written by Charles Wesley (1707-1798).

I covered the early part of Wesley’s life when I wrote about O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing. We left him in 1739, one year after his renewal of faith, the occasion on which he wrote that hymn.

The same year he and his brother John took to open-air preaching, travelling all over the country and frequently encountering opposition, both verbal and physical.

On a trip to Wales in 1747, when he was 40, he met 20-year-old Sarah Gwynne (1726–1822), known as Sally. She was the daughter of Marmaduke Gwynne, a wealthy Welsh magistrate, and the couple were to marry two years later. Around the time Wesley met his wife-to-be, he wrote Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.

It borrowed from the song Fairest Isle from John Dryden and Henry Purcell’s semi-opera King Arthur (1691).

Dryden’s opening words were:

Fairest Isle, all Isles Excelling,

Seat of Pleasures, and of Loves;

Venus here, will chuse her Dwelling,

And forsake her Cyprian Groves.

Wesley wrote:

Love Divine, all Loves excelling,

Joy of Heaven to Earth come down,

Fix in us thy humble Dwelling,

All thy faithful Mercies crown.

In Dryden’s song, the goddess of love chooses the Isle of Britain over her native Cyprus; in Wesley’s hymn divine love itself is asked to choose the human heart as its residence over its native heaven.

The last verse also borrows from existing material, in this case the Hymn on Gratitude to the Deity by Joseph Addison (1672-1719), an English essayist, poet, playwright and politician.

Addison’s poem begins:

When all thy mercies, O my God,

My rising soul surveys;

Transported with the view, I’m lost

In wonder, love, and praise.

Wesley’s hymn ends:

Till we cast our Crowns before Thee,

Lost in Wonder, Love, and Praise!

Here are the full lyrics (the second verse is sometimes omitted):

1 Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heav’n to earth come down:
fix in us thy humble dwelling,
all thy faithful mercies crown:
Jesus, thou art all compassion,
pure, unbounded love thou art;
visit us with thy salvation,
enter ev’ry trembling heart.

2 Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit
into ev’ry troubled breast;
let us all in thee inherit,
let us find the promised rest:
take away the love of sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its Beginning,
set our hearts at liberty.

3 Come, Almighty to deliver,
let us all thy life receive;
suddenly return, and never,
nevermore thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
serve thee as thy hosts above,
pray and praise thee without ceasing,
glory in thy perfect love.

4 Finish, then, thy new creation;
pure and spotless let us be:
let us see thy great salvation
perfectly restored in thee;
changed from glory into glory,
’til in heav’n we take our place,
’til we cast our crowns before thee,
lost in wonder, love, and praise.

It has been suggested that Wesley’s words were written specifically for the tune by Purcell to which Dryden’s song had been set:

It now has four familiar settings.

The one I know best is Blaenwern, by the Welsh teacher and composer William Penfro Rowlands (1860-1937), and it is the one used at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2011.

Here is a lovely brass band version. According to their website the Woodfalls Band is based in the village of Woodfalls in south Wiltshire within easy reach of M27 junction 1.

This is an unexpected pleasure – on the legendary Wurlitzer organ at the Tower Ballroom, Blackpool.

The second tune is Hyfrydol, also by a Welsh composer, Rowland Huw Prichard (1811-1887):

Here is a lovely guitar version:

The third, Beecher by John Zundel (1815-1882) is used more in America than here. Zundel was born in Germany where he studied violin and organ, and became a music teacher. In 1839, when he was 24, he studied organ building at the renowned firm of Eberhard Friedrich Walcker in Württemberg, and in 1840 he travelled to St Petersburg, Russia, to give a concert on a Walcker organ at the Lutheran Church of St Peter and St Paul. He subsequently became organist at St Anne Lutheran Church in St Petersburg and bandmaster of the Imperial House Guards. He remained in St Petersburg for seven years. In 1847 he emigrated to the US with the aim of giving organ concerts, but when he found there were no suitable instruments he became an organist at the Unitarian Church of Brooklyn, and was then hired by Henry Ward Beecher (after whom the tune is named) in 1850 as music director and organist for Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church. Zundel remained at Plymouth Church a total of 28 years.

It is performed here by the Hong Kong Hymn Society:

Here is a charming father-and-son performance. I imagine it is in America but there is no information.

And how about this country version?

Lastly, this tune, called Love Divine, is by the English composer Sir John Stainer (1840-1901), who was organist at St Paul’s Cathedral from 1872 to 1888.
Here is an organ performance:

And here it is sung by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge:

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