It is already the Second Sunday of Advent and the Winter Holiday Music Festival has not yet featured a seasonal hymn. We aim to fix that today with one of the loveliest of the Advent carols, Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus featuring words by the prolific hymnist Charles Wesley.
Although Americans tend to believe that the Christmas Season begins as soon as the Thanksgiving dishes are washed, Catholics and most Protestants are clear that Christmastide does not begin until December 25 and continues for 12 days until the Feast of the Epiphany on January. Before that a distinct season of waiting and anticipation—Advent—is observed over the four Sundays before Christmas Day. The songs and hymns used in worship services were distinct for each season.
For most of us O Come, O Come Emanuel is the recognizable Advent song, but there are hundreds more, often embodying Biblical passages predicting or foreshadowing the coming of a Messiah as the basis for the lyrics. Ave Maria is a Catholic Advent hymn. Ev’ry Valley Shall be Exalted from Handel’s Messiah is also an Advent song. Scores of Advent hymns can be found in Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran and other Protestant hymnals.
|Perhaps the most prolific hymnist of all time, Charles Wesley.|
Charles Wesley was born in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England on December 17, 1707 the son of Anglican cleric and poet and Samuel Wesley and was a younger brother of Methodist founder John Wesley. He attended college at Oxford where he joined the Holy Club in 1827 with other students including his brother future charismatic evangelist George Whitefield. The group became the core of the Methodist movement within Anglicanism.
Samuel followed his father and brother into the Anglican priesthood in 1735. The same year he sailed with John to the Colonies where he was Secretary of Indian Affairs for the Royal Governor of Georgia, James Oglethorpe and as chaplain to the garrison and settlement at Fort Frederica, on St. Simon’s Island. But perhaps because his extreme piety got on the nerves of the colonists, Samuel returned to England the next year.
Back in London in 1738 Charles experienced the thunderbolt of a conversion experience. Just four days later brother John would have his own second birth in Christ. Together they would follow George Whitehead in direct preaching across the country. Charles also began to write the poems which would become the hymns of the movement. Eventually he penned more than 6000, many of which became the core of the Methodist hymnal. More than 150 of them were included in the Methodist hymn book Hymns and Psalms, including Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.
Ill health forced Charles to retire from active evangelism in 1756 but continued to write at a furious pace. In 1778 he moved his family to London where he died on March 29, 1788 at the age of 80. At his request he was laid to rest in the churchyard of St. Marylebone Parish Church.
Unlike his brother John, Charles remained loyal to the Church of England until his death, rejecting the establishment of a dissenting denomination. Because of this he is venerated in both Churches.
|Welsh composer of Hyfrydol, Rowland Hugh Prichard.|
Charles’s hymn Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus was written in 1744 at the height of his powers and published it in his Hymns for the Nativity of our Lord. It has been set to various melodies, most commonly Stuttgart by Christian Friedrich Witt which had been written in 1716 and Hyfrydol, a Welsh tune written in 1844 by the Welsh composer Rowland Hugh Prichard, which is also used for Wesley’s “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” While Stuttgart is somewhat stodgy and turbid, Hyfrydol has a lovely, appealing lilt to it that makes it a pleasure to listen to and sing.
Unitarian Universalists and other fans of contemporary spiritual singer/songwriter Peter Mayer will recognize the melody from his signature song Blue Boat Home.