Ryan N. Danker introduces the Eucharistic hymns of John and Charles Wesley
I would be loath to call John and Charles Wesley Thomists, but I once insinuated something along those lines during a meeting of the United States Methodist and Catholic ecumenical dialogue. I serve on the dialogue, one of the oldest ecumenical dialogues in the States stretching back now over 50 years. And while our focus in the latest round of talks was not the Eucharist, it was during conversations over dinner or drinks – the sort of conversations where protocol allows leniency – where we talked about the Wesleys’ Eucharistic theology. These talks sometimes led to the chagrin of the Methodists and to the amazement of the Catholics. One of Charles Wesley’s hymns on the Eucharist, published in a 1747 collection, as I told the dialogue, sounds much like the Dominican Doctor himself:
See him set forth before your eyes;
Behold the bleeding sacrifice;
His offered love, make haste to embrace,
And freely now be saved by grace.
It has too often been overlooked that the Wesleyan Revival – a part of the larger trans-Atlantic Evangelical Revival – that swept across Britain and the American colonies in the eighteenth century was two-pronged in its approach. First, it was a revival of “experiential divinity” or the firm insistence that the promises of Scripture are not simply to be believed but are actually meant to be experienced. Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection is a prime example of this. The holy love of God is to become the reigning attribute of the heart (cleanse the thoughts of our hearts, by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we might perfectly love thee…), subsequent to the new birth, both experiences of God’s transforming power. But in addition to this experiential divinity, the Wesley brothers – as part of a larger high church restorationist movement of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in Britain – argued for the necessity of the means of the grace, and in particular the Eucharist as the “grand channel” of God’s transforming work. Their love for the early church and the church fathers drove them to this Feast of feasts.
There are many examples that highlight the sacramental nature of the Wesleys’ work. One example is the West Street Chapel in London. The chapel had been a Huguenot church – and thus a consecrated space recognized by the Church of England – that Wesley leased beginning in 1743. It was here that he preached and administered the Eucharist to hundreds, if not thousands of people, sometimes with the assistance of fellow clergyman, George Whitefield. Wesley’s journal account for Trinity Sunday, 1743, is indicative of the true nature of the Revival as emphasizing both experiential divinity and sacramental renewal:
I preached on the Gospel for the day, part of the third chapter of St. John, and afterwards administered the Lord’s Supper to some hundreds of communicants. I was a little afraid at first that my strength would not suffice for the business of the day, when a service of five hours (for it lasted from ten to three) was added to my usual employment. But God looked to that.
He followed this five-hour service with another sermon elsewhere on ‘Ye must born again,’ followed by meetings with Methodists leaders and then meetings with Methodist accountability groups called ‘bands.” When he went to bed that night he wrote, ‘At ten at night I was less weary than at six in the morning.’ Wesley indicates that over 600 persons came to the chapel the next Sunday for the Eucharist so that he had to ‘divide the congregation into three parts, that we might not have six hundred at once.’ From a high church perspective, it’s important to note the emphasis that Wesley placed on the Eucharist, but also his desire to celebrate in a consecrated space, and only with fellow clergymen.
Wesley’s emphasis on the Eucharist didn’t always lead to high church results, however, and the brothers argued vehemently during the 1750s over whether or not the Methodists were beginning to move toward Dissent, in part because some of the lay preachers were clamoring for ordination at Wesley’s hand. In the American context, the Eucharist drove Wesley’s irregular establishment of the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) in 1784. After the War of Independence the lack of clergy made the former colonies a Eucharistic desert. Wesley, following a liberal Anglican ecclesiology, established the MEC in order to provide that need. But as American Methodism became more a revivalistic denomination, the Eucharist took second place to what Charles Finney would develop as “the altar call,” a crisis moment of conversion or decision to follow Christ. As Methodism moved further west, the revivalistic message was easily transportable. Wesley’s own dedication to the Eucharist and to the prayer book tradition of the Church of England fell off the horse, you could say.
But in the writings of the Wesleys, both John and Charles, we can see a highly developed and beautifully rich tradition of Eucharistic piety and a thoroughly Anglican understanding of Christ’s presence made known to us in the Eucharistic feast. This was not entirely devoid in evangelical circles in the eighteenth century, but even still the Wesleys were unique in their embrace of the Eucharist as central to the Christian life and a means by which God Himself meets the believer.
Following the practices of the early church and of Anglican piety at the time the theological writings of the Wesleys is found in sermons, hymns, and liturgies. The sources of an authentic Wesleyan understanding of the Eucharist are found primarily in two of John Wesley’s sermons: ‘The Means of Grace’ and ‘The Duty of Constant Communion’. Additionally, it can be found in his abridgement of Daniel Brevint’s Christian Sacrament and Sacrifice, which he published together with a collection of hymns by Charles Wesley – and edited by his brother – called Hymns on the Lord’s Supper. All subsequent hymns in this article are from the collection and marked with the original hymn number in the collection for easy reference.
The Eucharistic hymns of Charles Wesley are one of the great treasures of Anglicanism and I highly recommend them. The Hymns on the Lord’s Supper was published in 1745, inspired by the after-effects of the Stillness Controversies of 1739-1740 between the Wesleys and the English Moravians who argued that one should refrain from all the means of grace until a full assurance of faith had been granted. The Wesleys rejected this form of stillness, instead leaning on the Catholic tradition. They hinted at this debate with the words,
Still in His Instituted Ways
He bids us ask the Power (#60)
Or in the words of Brevint in Wesley’s extraction, ‘I want and seek the Saviour Himself, and I haste to this Sacrament for the same Purpose, that St. Peter and John hasted to his Sepulchre: because I hope to find him there.’ If God has said that He would meet you, the only response that we should have is to run and meet Him where He has promised to meet us.
The hymn texts are rich in biblical allusion, both Old and New Testament, the prayer book heritage, and the church fathers. God is not a distant actor, or one who simply calls us to remember a past event, but an active agent who makes available to the believer the saving benefits of Christ’s one and final sacrifice. He offers His very life now, to fill us and make us whole. The hymns celebrate this intimate relationship with the God, who saves his creation and in the process uses physical elements to communicate Himself.
The 166 Eucharistic hymns are divided into the similar categories used in Brevint, the largest section focused on the Sacrament as a means of grace:
1. As it is a Memorial of the Sufferings and Death of Christ (1-27)
2. As it is a Means of Grace (28-92)
3. The Sacrament a Pledge of Heaven (93-115)
4. The Holy Eucharist as it implies a Sacrifice (116-127)
5. Concerning the Sacrifice of our Persons (128-157)
6. After the Sacrament (158-166)
The collection begins with hymns recalling the establishment of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Avoiding the memorialism of many later evangelicals, the hymns are grounded in the institution narratives of the gospel and Christ’s last days leading up to Calvary.
He suffers both from man and God,
He bears the universal load
Of guilt and misery;
He suffers to reverse our doom;
And lo! my Lord is here become
The Bread of Life to me. (#2)
In the section on the ‘Sacrament as a Means of Grace’, there is particular emphasis on receiving the very life of God. Grace for the Wesleys, as for Anglicans generally, was understood to be the power of the Holy Spirit (see the Collect for Grace in Evening Prayer), a dynamic repercussion of God’s presence, but here the emphasis is even more intimate:
Now, Lord, on us Thy flesh bestow,
And let us drink Thy blood,
Till all our souls are fill’d below
With all the life of God. (#30)
Hymn 44, not unlike many of the hymns, includes distinct allusions to the Old Testament, and in particular to the Exodus narrative. In it, the Wesleys view the Eucharist as the new manna of God and Christ Himself is the Passover lamb. Christ redeems us from the bondage and slavery of sin, taking us out of typological Egypt.
Our Passover for us is slain,
The tokens of his death remain,
On these authentic signs imprest:
By Jesus out of Egypt fled,
Still on the Paschal Lamb we feed,
And keep the sacramental feast.
Thy flesh for our support is given,
Thou art the Bread sent down from heaven,
That all mankind by Thee might live;
O that we evermore may prove
The manna of Thy quickening love,
And all Thy life of grace receive!
In hymn 57, the Wesleys lay out a narrative argument for the reality of God’s presence in the Eucharist as a mystery beyond human, or even angelic, comprehension. The image of angels around our Eucharistic altars searching to find how the very life and love of God is manifest is particularly memorable.
O the depth of love Divine,
Who shall say how bread and wine
God into man conveys!
How the bread His flesh imparts,
How the wine transmits His blood,
Fills His faithful people’s hearts
With all the life of God!
How can heavenly spirits rise,
By earthly matter fed,
Drink herewith Divine supplies,
And eat immortal bread?
Ask the Father’s Wisdom how;
Him that did the means ordain!
Angels round our altars bow
To search it out in vain.
In the section on the ‘Sacrament as a Pledge of Heaven’, Wesley not only employs eschatological references to the heavenly feast described in the book of Revelation, but he also includes hymns that speak of how the Eucharist in which we partake now, is also a foreshadowing of the ultimate feast and at the same time a participation in the worship of God that eternally surrounds the throne. The hymns in this section reveal a theological depth in the Wesleyan hymns outside of a distinctly soteriological framework describing the way of salvation. I would highly recommend the work of Geoffrey Wainwright and in particular his book Eucharist and Eschatology where he explores, among other things, the hymns in this particular section. One hymn from the section highlights its richness:
How glorious is the life above,
Which in this ordinance we taste;
That fullness of celestial love,
That joy which shall for ever last!
The light of life eternal darts
Into our souls a dazzling ray,
A drop of heaven o’erflows our hearts,
And deluges the house of clay. (#101)
The Wesleys embraced a view of sacrifice in line with most Protestant thinkers of the time. The one, final, and full sacrifice had been made by Christ on the cross. But that sacrifice once offered is now re-presented to the Father. The section on ‘The Holy Eucharist as it implies a Sacrifice’ includes the following hymn where this can be seen clearly:
All hail, Redeemer of mankind!
Thy life on Calvary resign’d
Did fully once for all atone;
Thy blood hath paid our utmost price,
Thine all-sufficient sacrifice
Remains eternally alone:
Yet may we celebrate below,
And daily thus Thine offering show
Exposed before Thy Father’s eyes;
In this tremendous mystery
Present Thee bleeding on a tree,
Our everlasting Sacrifice (#124)
Echoing the Eucharistic prayer of the Prayer Book, and St. Paul, where the celebrant declares “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto thee…” the second to the last section, ‘Concerning the Sacrifice of our Persons’,
On Him, who all our burdens bears,
We cast our praises and our prayers,
Ourselves we offer up to God,
Implunged in His atoning blood. (#137)
Finally, the collection concludes with a section of hymns meant to be sung after receiving the Sacrament. As such, they are full of joy at having encountered the Risen Christ at the altar. Some have argued that since hymns were not sung in church when these hymns were written that the entire collection was for home use after having received. As such, this final section summarized many of the early theological emphases of the collection. A selection of hymn 158 will suffice:
All praise to God above,
In whom we have believed,
The tokens of whose dying love
We have evern now received.
Have with His flesh been fed,
And drank His precious blood:
His precious blood is drink indeed,
His flesh immortal food.
O what a taste is this,
Which now in Christ we know,
An earnest of our glorious bliss,
Our heaven begun below!
When He the table spreads,
How royal is the cheer!
With rapture we life up our heads,
And own that God is here.
It is right to say that the Wesley brothers believed in the Real Presence of Christ made available to the faithful in the Eucharist, a holy mystery, and an effectual sign to communicate God’s very self. As such, they follow the patterns and language of the Early Church, echoing Ignatius of Antioch, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Basil the Great, among others. This work can still be used today. Because of their commitment to scriptural language, the church fathers and to the Anglican heritage, the work of the Wesley brothers on the Eucharist can serve multiple constituencies within Anglicanism and beyond, and even serve as a means for dialogue with Methodists. Hopefully, however, the Wesley’s work in poetic form, whether read or sung by a congregation, will serve primarily to point to Christ, the One offered for the life of the world, that we might partake of His life, and look to Him to be made whole, even perfectly.
Dr. Ryan N. Danker is President of the Charles Wesley Society