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How shall we sing hymns?

January 2, 2013

John WesleyJohn Wesley (1703-1791) was an Anglican minister and theologian. His ministry (and that of his brother Charles Wesley) led to the creation of the Methodist Church, as well as other traditions that have their roots in Wesley: the Wesleyan holiness movement, Pentecostalism, and the Charismatic movement.

Wesley issued seven “Rules for Singing” in 1761. Here are some excerpts:

Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. …If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing.

Sing…with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength…. (AKJ: This is particular pertinent for those services that take place in the morning hours.)

Sing in time. Whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before, not stay behind it; but attend closely to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can;

And take care you sing not too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.

WesleyHymn tempo can be largely a subjective decision–some like it fast, some like it slow. But might singing “all our tunes just as quick” encourage more hearty singing? It seems Wesley thought so.

Regarding the call to “attend closely to the leading voices,” I find it particularly helpful when worshiping congregations have vocal leaders for hymns, especially if members of the congregation are not familiar with a given hymn. This may sound self-evident, but the majority of my hymn-singing experience has been in churches where the organist leads the hymn just from the organ. This works fine in a congregation that knows hymns and sings them well, but I’m not convinced it’s always the  best approach to leading congregational hymns in worship.

Here’s my favorite part of Wesley’s rules:

Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. …[S]ee that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually.

I don’t think having “your heart… carried away with the sound” is mutually exclusive with offering it “to God continually,” but I love Wesley’s call to “have an eye to God in every word you sing.” We sing hymns best when we make them prayers to God, affirmations of our faith, even heartfelt confessions.

The rules in their entirety are here.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. David Bradley permalink
    January 3, 2013 12:54 am

    My dad’s rule for hymn singing as a family when we were young was “no wimp singing in the Bradley family.”

  2. w k wimpenney permalink
    January 3, 2013 2:33 am

    I’ve been called “Wimp” for 72 years. Dad and Grandpa before me. Glad your dad wasn’t in our family. We’d have had problems. Still and all, I lead singing in our church and in a few old folks/ nursing homes. Loud and clear, joyfully prayerfully to our Lord. Best fun I know of.

    Bill Wimpenney

  3. groffmr permalink
    January 3, 2013 1:09 pm

    James Schall, in his little ISI primer titled, “Liberal Learning,” recommends we approach (the literary corpus of) Plato and (resulting commentary by) Aristotle, respectively, as singing and the commentary we pour over for the rest of our lives. What strikes me about this analogy is that music and singing help us access our faith in ways other media (e.g. lectures, books // sermons, scripture) cannot. Really appreciated this entry. Rules for singing with the end goal of spiritual song– freedom by way of a framework? I think so!

    • January 3, 2013 9:34 pm

      :) Thanks, Ryan. I like “freedom by way of a framework.” If we ever need to update “freedom within a framework of faith,” I’m voting for your wording.

      • groffmr permalink
        January 4, 2013 9:44 am

        :)

  4. Steve permalink
    January 3, 2013 1:18 pm

    Love Wesley’s rules; they’ve giving me some measure of peace with the fact that I’m running with the Methodists these days… I’ll go one farther on your point about leading hymns: ditch the organ altogether for anything but instrumental music, non-congregational pieces, and hymns that are extremely familiar in your context. The piano and guitar are easier for a songleader to sing with and for an assembly to follow.

    • January 3, 2013 9:35 pm

      That is radical!

      But seriously… it would require a special songleader (say, a Steve Thorngate-type) to pull that off well.

      Would you still want to do that (if you had the say in a given place) in a context where the organ was pretty entrenched as the go-to for all hymns?

  5. January 4, 2013 1:10 pm

    You know, a little at a time. There are certainly some hymns that sound best on the organ, but there’s no hymn that sounds great on the organ and can’t also work well on the piano. At my old church–which before my time used the organ every week, primarily though not exclusively–I’d just play it periodically for grand old European hymns, when I happened to program them and especially on major feast days. Almost never more than once in a service. (Of course, I’m not much of an organist, so that was a factor, too.) I found that a little went a long way–there were certainly some organ partisans there, but they were grateful for my occasional effort, rather than complaining that it wasn’t enough.

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