History of Hymns: 'Come, Let Us Join Our Friends Above'
By Zach Light-Wells
“Come, Let Us Join Our Friends Above”
by Charles Wesley
The United Methodist Hymnal, 709
Come, let us join our friends above
who have obtained the prize,
and on the eagle wings of love
to joys celestial rise.
Let saints on earth unite to sing
with those to glory gone,
for all the servants of our King
in earth and heaven are one.
One family we dwell in him,
one church above, beneath,
though now divided by the stream,
the narrow stream of death;
one army of the living God,
to his command we bow;
part of his host have crossed the flood,
and part are crossing now.
Ten thousand to their endless home
this solemn moment fly,
and we are to the margin come,
and we expect to die.
E'en now by faith we join our hands
with those that went before,
and greet the blood-besprinkled bands
on the eternal shore.
Our spirits too shall quickly join,
like theirs with glory crowned,
and shout to see our Captain's sign,
to hear this trumpet sound.
O that we now might grasp our Guide!
O that the word were given!
Come, Lord of Hosts, the waves divide,
and land us all in heaven.
Charles Wesley (1707–1788) is a well-known name in the world of Christian hymnody. Producing more than 6,500 hymns, Wesley is considered one of the most prolific hymn writers in the history of the church. The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) contains 65 hymns, poems, or responses composed by Charles Wesley, making Wesley the most represented author within its pages. Aside from his sheer amount of poetic output, Wesley’s work has survived for two other primary reasons: Wesley’s proximity and authority in the early Methodist Society and his unique, innovative poetical convergence of literature, scripture, and culture.
Son of an Anglican priest, Samuel Wesley (1662-1735), and brother of revivalist and spiritual founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley (1703-1791), Charles, too, embraced a familial call to ministry. Like John, Charles was an ordained minister in the Church of England and was educated in Oxford. With classmates, Charles formed a “Holy Club” that methodically studied scriptures. This “Holy Club,” a name given to the group by fellow classmates, became the catalyst for the early Methodist movement. As the movement grew, Charles, along with his brother John, would remain at the center of the revival due to his dramatic and imaginative writings.
Due to the encouragement of his father, Wesley was immersed in scriptural studies at an early age. Wesley’s familiarity with scripture would later be the foundation from which Wesley formulated many of his hymns. In addition to biblical studies, Charles was highly educated in secular literature and prose, having earned a master’s degree in classical literature and language. In Lyrical Theology of Charles Wesley: A Reader, S T Kimbrough argues that the combination of these influences is what makes Wesley’s writing poignant:
[Wesley] possessed an amazing ability to absorb that which he read, reasoned, processed, and experienced, and to articulate these phenomena in eloquent poetical diction. He readily cross-fertilized the seeds of sacred and secular thought because he had a holistic view of creation that did not draw such a sharp distinction (Kimbrough, 91).
It was precisely this cross-fertilization of religion, literary education, and experience that allowed Wesley to author innovative and poignant hymn texts for the early Methodists. Many of Wesley’s hymns were not set to music or performed during his lifetime. A majority of those hymns that were published appeared only in verse without musical accompaniment. This is the case with how “Come, Let Us Join Our Friends Above” was first published, a hymn that illustrates a convergence of faith, literature, and personal experience.
While the hymn was first published in 1759 in Charles Wesley’s hymnbook Funeral Hymns (1759), earlier unpublished versions have since been uncovered. Since the mid-twentieth century, Randy L. and Aileen F. Maddox, researchers at Duke Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition, Duke Divinity School, have transcribed and digitized the earliest extant manuscripts belonging to Charles Wesley.
The earliest version of the hymn appears in the MS Richmond manuscript, Wesley's personal notebook used to sketch out drafts of hymn verses, some of which he would later publish. It is believed Wesley began writing in MS Richmond as early as 1749, near the time of his marriage. (Introduction to MS Richmond, n.p.). Among the 101 poems contained in the collection, an untitled, four-stanza version of “Come, Let Us Join Our Friends Above” appears fourth from the end (MS Richmond, 157).
Because the hymns of MS Richmond are not organized alphabetically or categorized by theme, it is likely that the hymns were entered into the sketchbook chronologically, at the pace of Wesley's own creative mind. This would date the conception of “Come, Let Us Join Our Friends Above” somewhere between 1749 (MS Richmond) and 1759, its first date of publication. This time period was fraught with growing tensions between the military powers of England and France, particularly in the few years leading up to the Seven Years War, and throughout the war itself (1756–1763).
In the same year Funeral Hymns (1759) was published, Wesley published a collection of patriotic hymns titled Thanksgiving Hymns (1759) to be read on Thanksgiving Day, 1759. Amid the Seven Years War and amid an English fear of French naval invasion, these hymns are laden with militaristic imagery, not unlike the symbolism present in “Come, Let Us Join Our Friends Above.” Throughout his life, Wesley’s hymn writing was undoubtedly affected by cultural and national events, as evidenced by his earlier collection of Earthquake Hymns (1750), written in response to the February 1750 earthquakes in London. Likewise, the pervasiveness of militarism, unrest, and nationalism associated with the Seven Years War is unmistakably identifiable in “Come, Let Us Join Our Friends Above.”
Of the Thanksgiving Hymns, Wesley’s “Song of Moses” parallels the naval imagery in “Come, Let Us Join Our Friends Above,” depicting God as “a man of war” who “cast their [enemies’] chosen captains down, / and drowned half their host” (Stanza 3, Thanksgiving Hymns, 28). Additionally, “Song of Moses” uses the image of nautical conquest to signify the death of enemies: “Into the depths they sunk as lead who thee and thine oppos’d, they sunk at once; and o’er their head / the mighty waters clos’d” (Stanza 6, Thanksgiving Hymns, 28).
“Come, Let Us Join Our Friends Above” also depicts God as a militant naval captain and as a guide successfully navigating God’s own army to the coast of the afterlife: “Come, Lord of Hosts, the waves divide, and land us all in heaven” (Stanza 4).
In a portion of a stanza omitted from The United Methodist Hymnal (1989), but found in the original versions of “Come, Let Us Join Our Friends Above” in MS Richmond and Funeral Hymns (1759), Wesley writes:
His militant Imbodied Host
With wishful Looks we stand,
And long to reach that happy Coast,
And grasp that heavenly Land (MS Richmond, 157).
Avoiding the militaristic images and antiquated language in the original, stanza 3 in The United Methodist Hymnal is a composite of stanzas 3:1-4 and 4:5-8 in Funeral Hymns (1759), Hymn 1 (Funeral Hymns, 1-2; Young, 293).
Between the two hymns, Wesley’s imagery of God is noticeably similar, yet God serves two distinct roles. In “Song of Moses,” God is a militant leader who primarily divides the sea to swallow his foes. In “Come, Let Us Join Our Friends Above,” God is a militant leader who divides the sea so that God’s armada may safely voyage to the eternal shore.
Scripturally, “Come, Let Us Join Our Friends Above” parallels the account of Israel being led to a new land across the Jordan (Joshua 1 and 3), a key element of the early Methodist belief of “dying well” (Sanchez, 236-237). Additional imagery may have been drawn from Wesley’s encounters with classical literature, such as Homer’s Iliad, in which captains of ancient vessels hold great significance.
The willingness to incorporate scripture, artistic poetic devices, and contemporary cultural experiences in his hymns is precisely what afforded Wesley the opportunity to write such a large quantity of engaging, innovative hymns: Wesley wrote hymns to both accommodate and challenge the eighteenth-century Church of England. This same cultural engagement and contextualization, however, is what complicates many of Wesley’s hymns for modern Christians.
In 1759, “Come, Let Us Join Our Friends Above” simultaneously spoke to the uncertainty of the Seven Years War and the certainty one could find in the leadership of God, the great captain. In the twenty-first century, militaristic language is often situated within postmodern views on war and military involvement. Many modern influential church leaders, including Brian McLaren, have suggested rewriting or replacing hymns that are now considered “theologically dangerous” due to problematic militaristic imagery (Brumley, n.p.).
However, “Come, Let Us Join Our Friends Above” is ultimately a hymn about God’s faithfulness in our journey toward the afterlife. In congregations comfortable with militaristic imagery, this hymn is appropriately suited for services directly related to the loss of a loved one (funerals, memorials, or All Saints Day). However, the militaristic metaphors stem, in part, from Anglican theology that expresses the church on earth as the Church Militant and the church in heaven as the Church Triumphant. The final stanza of Wesley’s hymn indeed concludes in heaven on a triumphal note where the “Captain” is implored: “Come, Lord of Hosts, the waves divide, and land us all in heaven.”
Just over 100 years later, Anglican Bishop William Walsham How (1823-1897) maintains the use of militaristic metaphors in this same spirit. The third stanza of “For All the Saints” (1864) [The United Methodist Hymnal, 711] references the Church Militant: “thy soldiers faithful, true, and bold, / fight as the saints who nobly fought of old.” In stanza seven, the reference to the Church Triumphant is distinct and vibrant: “But lo! There breaks a yet more glorious day; / the saints triumphant rise in bright array . . ..”
McLaren maintains reservations about escapist language present in hymn texts that are born out of a similar place of strife and uncertainty:
I love the traditional tune [of ‘I’ll Fly Away’], and of course there’s nothing wrong with singing about looking forward to going to be with Jesus beyond this life. But sadly, we have so many songs that say “this world is not my home” right when this world, our home, is in great peril from human abuse (Brumley, n.p.).
Charles Wesley hymn scholar Frank Baker states that “John Wesley and a midlands congregation were singing at the moment of Charles Wesley’s death – ‘Come, let us join our friends above’ [March 29, 1788]” (Baker, 28). United Methodist Hymnal editor and hymnologist Carlton R. Young noted the citation of this hymn at Charles Wesley’s funeral: “The hymn is acclaimed as among Wesley’s finest. John Wesley is said to have had it sung in Dublin, July 12, 1789, when preaching a funeral sermon for his brother, commenting that ‘it was the sweetest hymn his brother ever wrote’” (Young, 293). J. Ernest Rattenbury, a scholar of Wesleyan theology, echoes this sentiment, describing the poem as “this superb hymn which some think his masterpiece” (Rattenbury, 355).
As worship leaders continue to discover how twenty-first-century cultural norms, political, and personal experiences affect the theological understanding of parishioners, we must, like Charles Wesley, continue to choose, compose, and perform hymns that both accommodate and challenge the realities of an ever-changing world.
Additional Reading and Sources
Frank Baker, Charles Wesley’s Verse: An Introduction (London: Epworth Press, 1964, 1988).
Jeff Brumley, “Brian McLaren: It’s Time to Re-Write Pro-War Hymns,” Baptist News Global (2016, February 18), https://baptistnews.com/article/brian-mclaren-time-to-re-write-pro-war-hymns/#.XK-FG1VKiUk.
S T Kimbrough, Lyrical Theology of Charles Wesley: A Reader (Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 2014).
J. Ernest Rattenbury, The Evangelical Doctrines of Charles Wesley’s Hymns (London: Epworth Press, 1941).
Diana Sanchez, The Hymns of the United Methodist Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989). 236–237.
Charles Wesley, MS Funeral Hymns (1759), ed. Frank Baker. Accessed through The Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition, Duke Divinity School, https://divinity.duke.edu/sites/divinity.duke.edu/files/documents/cswt/58_Funeral_Hymns_%281759%29.pdf.
_____, MS Richmond, ed. Frank Baker. Accessed through The Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition, Duke Divinity School,
_____, MS Thanksgiving Hymns (1759), ed. Frank Baker. Accessed through The Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition, Duke Divinity School, https://divinity.duke.edu/sites/divinity.duke.edu/files/documents/cswt/61_Thanksgiving_Hymns_%281759%29.pdf.
Carlton R. Young, Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).
Zach Light-Wells is a graduate of the Master of Sacred Music program (M.S.M. ’19) at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, where he studied hymnology with Dr. Marcell Steuernagel, director of the Sacred Music program. He is associate director of music at Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church in Dallas.