Watts, Wesley and the hymns I have ‘by heart’

by Kathy Staudt

A passage from Scripture I’ve come back to a lot is from Matthew 13:52 “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the Kingdom of Heaven is like a householder who takes out of his treasure what is old and what is new.” Having been raised in a United Presbyterian congregation and having chosen the Episcopal Church as a young adult, I recognize that I have been formed in what social scientists are calling the “mainline” Protestant tradition and despite the mainline’s unfortunate and false image of being “God’s frozen people” (Harvey Cox’s phrase, in the 1970s), now in decline, this tradition does have a strong heritage of faith that blends a respect for reason and individuality with a recognition of communal tradition, a sense of mystery and an image of a loving, sustaining God whose purpose for humankind is good, and who calls us to be our very best selves. An important part of my formation was the hymnody of this tradition, and the many hymns I know “by heart” are often the deepest foundation of my prayers and meditations.

I was reminded of this by a recent adult forum teaching assignment that put me back in touch with the poetry of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley. These voices are arguably from the beginning of the “mainline” Protestant tradition that we have come to know in the US.

Watts has been called the “Father of Protestant Hymnody” because he was the first to produce metric psalm settings in English that were actually beautiful and singable – and also among the first to write hymns about personal faith experience. Writing in the 18th century, Watts was a learned man, a man of the both science and faith – in an era before these were considered somehow mutually exclusive choices. Author of a popular textbook entitled Logic, or the Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry after Truth with a variety of Rules to Guard Against Error in the Affairs of Religion and of Human Life, as well as in the Sciences. He was also a Nonconformist pastor, a man of deep faith, and a genius at rhyme. (As a poet, I find myself in awe of the man’s ability to turn a line, to write rhymes that actually work without seeming forced – this is really hard to do in English, as most poets know!) .

Isaac Watts’s hymn O God, Our Help in Ages Past provides us with a God-image, not gendered or culturally limited, that sings down the ages, and certainly speaks to me. God is, for me, “our help. . . our hope. . . our shelter. . . our guide. . . our eternal home. And the poetry of that hymn, recognizing the fleetingness of our lives and the eternity of God, has provided deep reassurance in times of loss and change – including now; (“A thousand ages in thy sight/ are like an evening gone. . . .”) I hope what this hymn assumes is true: that there is a God, who has been carried and known in tradition and who abides with us now – even when language, culture and practice shift. Watts wrote over 600 hymns, some of them a bit baroque and pietistic for modern tastes (“Alas, and Did my Saviour Bleed,” for example, which is in the LEVAS hymnal) – but they continue to speak. I am helped each Lenten season by the invitation to contemplate the Cross as a mystery having to do with love. Watts explores in his hymn “When I survey the Wondrous Cross,” which ends in a beautiful poem of self dedication: “Were the whole realm of nature mine/that were an offering far too small. /Love so amazing, so divine/demands my soul, my life, my all.” It is a gift of grace to come to those moments in life when we really want to offer our whole selves to the Good Thing we hope God is doing in our broken world. Watts’s hymn, which I know by heart now, after so many years, gives me words for those moments.

A generation after Watts comes Charles Wesley, whose hymns come out of a profound “religion of the heart” that has been the strength of evangelical Christianity – a part of the mainline tradition, we often forget. Evangelical in the sense of being a religion of the converted heart, that makes us want to share good news with the world. Wesley wrote over 6000 hymns and many of them just don’t work in modern worship, being too embedded in imperialist ideas of mission from his era, or language that is sexist or militaristic (for example, his Easter hymn, “Christ the Lord is Risen today/ Sons of men and angels say. . . . Love’s redeeming work is done/ fought the fight, the victory won” has been excluded from most of our Protestant hymnals and replaced by the more inclusive poetry of “Jesus Christ is risen today/ Our triumphant holy day”). But Wesley too is the author of some of our deepest prayers. Henry Ward Beecher wrote that he would rather have composed Wesley’s “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” than to be the richest man in New York or to have all the kingdoms of the world. It is a “heart hymn” that speaks to certain times of life: “Hide me, O my Saviour, hide, til the storm of life be past/ safe into the haven guide. . . . “All my hope in thee I’ve found. All my trust to thee I bring. Cover my defenseless head/in the shadow of thy wing. “

I would echo Beecher’s admiration when I think of Wesley’s great hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” which celebrates the deepest good news, that God’s love is never finished with us – that there is always a better way to be for humanity, drawing us toward a “perfect love” that we can hardly imagine and that God is helping us with that, “perfecting” us in ways we cannot do for ourselves. There is more to learn, more to celebrate, as we become God’s “new Creation.” The life eternal begins now and carries forward – changing us as we are called to be transformative agents in the world around us And so for me the last verse of Wesley’s hymn sums up with some meditative depth the spirituality that has formed me – a spirituality I hope we as a church can continue to claim even as our language and liturgy and cultural expressions shift. Wesley’s words bring together a vision for our best selves and for the reign of God:

“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 Heaven we take our place

Til we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise.

I am very aware that our hymns are one of the things that feel like obstacles to seekers not raised in the church – we hear a lot about the problem of “classical music” just not being accessible to modern seekers. A challenge for me, and for those like me who have been formed in this hymnody, is to stay in touch with the deeper spirituality that is carried in the best of our hymn tradition, both in the music and the poetry – and perhaps to find new expressions of that spirituality. Our best hymns remind us of a basic and healthy spirituality: We believe in a God who ”has us,” in the mystery of Incarnation and the love of Christ as there for us, even in the hardest moments of human suffering and despair. We experience the Holy Spirit at work in the world, past, present and future, to heal, shape and transform. We see a continuity between this life and the world to come. These are spiritual values to continue discerning and carrying forward. We can fiddle with words that simply don’t work for contemporary public worship, but we need to keep track of the deeper spirituality that we come to “know by heart” in this tradition, and find ways to carry it forward. Another invitation to “take from our treasure what is old and what is new. “

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph. She works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area and is the author of two books of poetry: “Annunciations, Poems out of Scripture” and “Waving Back:Poems of mothering life”, as well as a scholarly study of the modern artist and poet David Jones.

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