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History of Hymns: 'Christ, from Whom All Blessings Flow'

By C. Michael Hawn

Charles wesley
Charles Wesley

“Christ, from Whom All Blessings Flow”
by Charles Wesley
The United Methodist Hymnal, 550

Christ, from whom all blessings flow,
perfecting the saints below,
hear us, who thy nature share,
who thy mystic body are.

For some readers, this is one of the lesser known hymns of Charles Wesley (1707-1788). By the conclusion of this article, I hope to demonstrate that it ranks with his best-known poems in theology, rhetorical skill, and scriptural foundation.

Immediately, one notices the similarity between the first line of Charles Wesley’s hymn and “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow” by Thomas Ken (1637-1711), the penultimate stanza of Ken’s twelve-stanza evening hymn, “Glory to thee, my God this night” (1692), commonly excised in hymnals as the “Doxology.” While Ken’s hymn, undoubtedly known to Charles Wesley, praises the Triune God, Wesley’s hymn focuses on the second part of the Trinity, Christ. Before suggesting that Charles Wesley was plagiarizing, it was a common practice among poets of his day to honor a writer or poet of previous generations by “imitating” the poet’s work. This kind of “imitation” was flattering, not cheating, as the imitated work would be so well known that those singing the more recent hymn would likely recognize the source immediately and appreciate the allusion. Wesley was a master of this rhetorical device. Many will know, for example, that the opening line of one of his most famous hymns, “Love divine, all loves excelling” (1747), harked back to a phrase in a song by Henry Purcell (1659-1695) from his play King Arthur (1691), “Fairest isle, all isles excelling,” for which John Dryden (1631-1700) wrote the libretto.

The six four-line stanzas found in The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) represent only a small portion of this hymn by Charles Wesley (1707-1788), which consisted of thirteen eight-line stanzas when first published in Hymns and Sacred Poems (1740). The hymn as printed in hymnals was the final part of a four-part hymn titled “The Communion of Saints.” Part IV consists of five eight-line stanzas. Our hymn selects stanzas 1, 3, and 5 of the original. When it appeared in the monumental A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (1780), edited by John Wesley (1703-1791), the third and fourth parts of the longer original poem where reduced to fourteen four-line stanzas of 77.77 meter (Wesley, 1780 [1983], pp. 692-694).

If this were not complicated enough, hymnal editors have also made numerous emendations throughout, resulting in the unlikely situation of finding two versions that are exactly alike from one hymnal to another, even among various Methodist traditions. For example, The Hymn Book of the Free Methodist Church (1891) includes four eight-line stanzas of the original. The African Methodist Episcopal Hymn and Tune Book (1898) includes six four-line stanzas, but one differs from those chosen for The United Methodist Hymnal. The British Methodist Hymns and Psalms (1983) includes five four-line stanzas. When this hymn is chosen for hymnals in other Christian traditions, fewer stanzas tend to be selected.

To be fair to hymnal editors, however, it is very difficult to decide which of the stanzas to omit from the original fourth part. The original eight lines of the second stanza follow. Often, the first four lines of this stanza are substituted for another in hymnals, indicating its popularity:

Closer knit to thee our head,
Nourish us, O Christ, and feed,
Let us daily growth receive,
More and more in Jesus live:
Jesu! We thy members are,
Cherish us with kindest care,
Of thy flesh, and of thy bone:
Love, forever love thine own.

The tenderness and compassion of the eight lines of the original fourth stanza are indeed compelling. In addition to echoing verses from I Corinthians 12 (25-26), one cannot help but recall a similar sentiment expressed some four decades later in “Blest be the tie that binds” (1782) by Baptist minister John Fawcett (1740-1817). Is it possible that Fawcett was inspired by Wesley?

Sweetly now we all agree,
Touch’d with softest sympathy,
Kindly for each other care:
Every member feels its share:
Wounded by the grief of one,
All the suffering members groan;
Honor’d if one member is
All partake the common bliss.

As is the case with all Charles Wesley hymns, this hymn is replete with scriptural references. Relevant sections of each passage are italicized. In stanza 1 cited at the beginning of this article, the second line is drawn from Ephesians 4:12, that notes the diversity of gifts of those who make up the church and who are called “For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (KJV). The third line of the opening stanza draws up 2 Peter 1:4, that, according to God’s divine power, “whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust” (KJV). The final line of the first stanza draws upon a favorite Wesleyan concept, the “mystic body.” One of the prominent images of the church in the New Testament was that of the “body of Christ” (cf. Ephesians 1:22-23; Colossians 1:18). Commenting on this, Wesleyan scholar Charles Yrigoyen, Jr. notes:

Wesley was never hesitant to use the terms mystery and mystic in his hymns. Convinced that reason was a gift of God to be received gratefully and used faithfully, . . . Wesley was equally persuaded that reason has it limits. Human reason is incapable of understanding certain aspects of the Christian faith. . .. In [the final line of the first stanza] which speaks of the church as Christ’s “mystic body,” Wesley voices wonder at the mystery that the church is considered the “body of Christ” (Yrigoyen, 2005, pp. 57-58).

Each stanza is just as rich in biblical and theological insight. Examples must suffice. Stanza 2 begins, “Join us, in one spirit join”—an allusion to Ephesians 4:4: “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling” (KJV). Wesley employs a poetic device epanadiplosis—using the same word both at the beginning and end of a poetic line for emphasis, in this case “join”—to emphasize the petitionary quality of the stanza, the emphatic request to Christ to “join” the body of Christ into one.

Stanza 3 incorporates a somewhat idiosyncratic word, an occasional feature of Wesley hymns —“Move, and actuate, and guide. . .”—a three-word imperative statement. To modern ears, “actuate” is not usual poetic terminology, indeed, it often appears as a scientific term in modern English. The second line of the stanza provides, however, the reason for the strong imperative spirit of the first line. Wesley wants the church to live out I Corinthians 12:11, “But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every [person] severally as [each] will” (KJV). Wesley’s poetic reworking of this verse is much cleverer and more memorable than the scriptural reference: “Diverse gifts to each divide.” The play on “diverse” and “divide” has the same quality of epanadiplosis described above since the root words are the same.

I Corinthians continues to be at play in stanza 4, especially in the second line, “needful to each other prove”: And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you” (12:21,KJV). Images from Galatians 3:27-28 come into play in stanza 5. Wesley sums these two verses up in eloquent poetic form:

Many are we now, and one,
We who Jesus have put on;
There is neither bond nor free,
Male or female, Lord, in thee.

The final stanza is of such importance for the Christian community today that it must be cited in its entirety. The first two lines indicate that Wesley would often paraphrase or borrow non-scriptural sources. In this case, he draws upon one of his favorite poems, Solomon (1718), by Matthew Prior (1664-1721) [Dixon, Canterbury Dictionary, n.p.].Prior’s original couplet reads:

Or grant thy passion has these names destroy’d,
That Love, like Death, makes all distinction void. . .
(Solomon, ii, 241-242).

Compare this with Wesley’s opening couplet:

Love, like death, hath all destroyed,
Rendered all distinctions void;
Names and sects and parties fall;
Thou, O Christ, art all in all.

While the divisions of Wesley’s day were, in many ways, different from ours, it is indeed fascinating that our associations with the dividing forces of our age listed in stanza 3 render this stanza just as relevant now as nearly 300 years ago. As Neil Dixon notes, “Wesley’s closing lines transform the hymn from being simply a celebration of the fellowship which like-minded early Methodists shared together into a stirring affirmation of that unity in Christ which transcends all sects and denominations” (Dixon, Canterbury Dictionary, n.p.), to which I add political distinctions.

Sources

Neil Dixon, “Christ, from Whom All Blessings Flow,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press. http://www.hymnology.co.uk/c/christ,-from-whom-all-blessings-flow. Accessed March 6, 2020.

Charles Wesley and John Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Poems (1740). https://divinity.duke.edu/sites/divinity.duke.edu/files/documents/cswt/05_Hymns_and_Sacred_Poems_%281740%29_JW.pdf. Accessed March 6, 2020.

John Wesley, A Collection of Hymns for the Use of The People Called Methodists, Vol. 7, The Works of John Wesley, Eds. Franz Hildebrandt and Oliver A. Beckerlegge (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983).

Carlton R. Young, Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).

Charles Yrigoyen, Jr., Praising the God of Grace: The Theology of Charles Wesley’s Hymns (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005).

C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.

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