Sacred Harmony (1781, second edition 1790) was the most substantial collection of hymn tunes published during John Wesley’s lifetime. The selection of tunes it contained was very similar to the earlier Sacred Melody (1761, 1765), with a few additions. However, its appearance in 1781 represented two significant changes from the earlier collection. First, the change from ‘Melody’ to ‘Harmony’ in the title is an important acknowledgment of the practice of singing in parts that was commonplace in eighteenth-century Methodism. Second, the publication of the substantial Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People called Methodists in 1780 marked a major milestone in Methodist hymnody, to which Sacred Harmony can be understood as a musical response.
Part-singing in congregational hymns is often regarded as a notable feature of Methodism’s musical practice and heritage. Popular nineteenth-century tunes, such as Sagina for ‘And can it be’, have become synonymous with Methodist hymnody, yet many of the most cherished pairings of words and music date from many years after the Wesleys’ lifetimes. John Wesley himself seemed to prefer his followers to sing in unison, and both Sacred Melody and the earlier Foundery Collection were published in melody-only format. He also records his displeasure at some of the part singing he encountered on his travels, arguing that it could prevent full congregational participation. Nonetheless, Sacred Harmony reveals that common practice prevailed. Furthermore, Methodism’s gradual move to more fixed meeting places increased opportunities for the use of musical instruments; the book’s subtitle points out that it is designed for use at the harpsichord or organ, as well as for voices. Sacred Harmony can therefore be seen as a bridge between the earliest hymnals and musical practices of Methodism and those that became firmly established in the nineteenth century.
The connection between Sacred Harmony and A Collection of Hymns is also important. The latter’s compendious nature in dealing with the Christian life of discipleship indicated the Wesleys’ deep-seated belief in hymnody’s pedagogical and devotional power. Key to its success was the lived experience of hymn singing, that is, bringing a hymn to life through the combination of words and music. Within a few short years, edition of A Collection of Hymns were published with cross-references to tunes in Sacred Harmony, which helped to promote consistency of practice. In this way, too, both collections also point forwards to the nineteenth century, when the now standard practice of publishing words and music together in a single volume, with a set tune for each hymn text, became established.
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.