Should New Hymns Meet a Standard of Quality?
It is often said that Charles Wesley took the popular tunes sung in taverns of the 18th century and wrote Christian hymns to be sung to these tunes. A historian of the life and work of Charles Wesley would have to determine whether or not this old claim about his hymns has much truth to it. During his speech at the 2008 Florida Conference, Dr. Randy Maddox, a leading Wesleyan scholar, stated that he was dubious about this claim.
Whatever is the truth to the claim that Charles Wesley used popular bar tunes for his hymns, I do think it is clear that both John and Charles Wesley believed that hymns should meet certain standards of theological and aesthetic quality. They did not approve of hymns just because they might be singable and popular. They had standards for their hymns because they knew that hymns contain the theological vision of the Christian faith and shape people in becoming and living as genuine disciples of Jesus Christ. Since hymns have such an important purpose, there is no room in hymnody for cheapness of any kind. Their main concern was with the theological adequacy and the spiritual reality of the lyrics of hymns; but, maintaining a high quality for the ideas in hymns went hand-in-hand with maintaining high aesthetic quality for the lyrics and music as well. For instance, sentimentality is a bad quality in a hymn because of theological and spiritual reasons, but sentimentality is also unacceptable in any kind of art.
Today we welcome new music that is relevant for our lives and culture. At the same time, not everything that is a part of our culture is fit for use in the worship of the living God. We need to combine openness to the new with a commitment to quality. I think the Wesleys' approach to hymnody provides a model for us which balances the use of new, relevant music with a sense of standards for the use of new music in worship.
While we have all heard the claim about Charles Wesley using tavern tunes, let me quote from John Wesley's preface to A Pocket Hymn Book, for the Use of Christians of all Denominations published in 1787 (Wesley's Works, Reprinted 1979 by Baker Book House Company, Volume XIV, Pp. 343-344).
In his preface, John Wesley explains that this new hymnal contains some new hymns, but omits a large number of hymns that had been in an earlier edition. Wesley wrote:
"First. Out of those two hundred and thirty-two hymns, I have omitted seven-and-thirty. These I did not dare to palm upon the world, because fourteen of them appeared to me very flat and dull; fourteen more, mere prose, tagged with rhyme; and nine more to be grievous doggerel. But a friend tells me, 'Some of these, especially those two that are doggerel double-distilled, namely, 'The despised Nazarene,' and that which begins,--
'A Christ I have; O what a Christ have!'
are hugely admired and continually echoed from Berwick-upon-Tweed to London." If they are, I am sorry for it: It will bring a deep reproach upon the judgment of the Methodists. But I dare not increase that reproach by countenancing, in any degree, such an insult both on religion and common sense. And I earnestly intreat all our Preachers, not only never to give them out, but to discountenance them by all prudent means, both in public and private.
Secondly. I have added a considerable number of the best hymns which we have ever published: Although I am sensible they will not suit the taste of the admirers of doggerel. But I advise them to keep their own counsel, and not betray their want of judgment."