The words of Charles Wesley will be on the lips of many carol singers this Christmas, especially his ever-popular Christmas hymn ‘Hark! The herald-angels sing’. However, this is but one of many hymns that Wesley wrote to be sung during the seasons of Advent and Christmas. Some remain in common use today, such as ‘Come, thou long-expected Jesus’, and ‘Lo, he comes with clouds descending’.
In 1745, Wesley published Hymns on the Nativity of our Lord, containing 18 hymns. It went through multiple editions during his lifetime and afterwards; the two copies held by the Museum of Methodism date from 1793 and 1797 respectively.
A few of its hymns remain in the repertoire of twenty-first-century Methodism, including ‘Glory be to God on high’, which contains the memorable couplet ‘Being’s source begins to be / And God himself is born!’, and ‘Let earth and heaven combine’, with the vivid phrase ‘Our God contracted to a span, / Incomprehensibly made man.’ Many others have since fallen out of use, but they are all characterised by Wesley’s rich and imaginative use of scriptural language and his emphasis on the personal significance for every reader or singer of the events he describes. The full text of the collection can be found here.
This was not the first time that Wesley had written several hymns focused on this particular period of the year; ‘Hark! The herald-angels sing’ (in its original form, ‘Hark! How all the welkin rings’) had been published in 1739, and a small collection called Hymns for Christmas Day was published in 1744.
Collections such as Hymns on the Nativity of our Lord are a reminder that liturgical hymnody, centred on the seasons and festivals of the church’s year, was an important part of Charles Wesley’s output alongside hymns that powerfully expressed Christian experience and discipleship. Indeed, collections covering both of these aspects appeared in parallel through much of Wesley’s lifetime. Christmas, especially the theological implications of God’s incarnation in Christ, was obviously of particular importance to Wesley, and the continued use of several of his Christmas hymns is testament to his skill in capturing evocatively the mystery, joy, hope, and wonder of the season.
Martin Clarke is a Lecturer in Music at The Open University. His book British Methodist Hymnody: Theology, Heritage, and Experience was published by Routledge in 2017. He tweets @mvclarke.