How shall we sing hymns?
John 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.
Hymn 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.