History of Hymns: 'Jesus, Lord, We Look to Thee'
By C. Michael Hawn
“Jesus, Lord, We Look to Thee”
by Charles Wesley
The United Methodist Hymnal, 562
Jesus, Lord, we look to thee;
let us in thy name agree;
show thyself the Prince of Peace;
bid our strife forever cease.
Christian unity is one of the richest themes developed in the hymns of Charles Wesley (1707–1788). The language of “Jesus, Lord, We Look to Thee” is modest in its choice of words and straightforward in its message. British hymn scholar J. Richard Watson noted that “This is a hymn of touching simplicity: its appeal for peace and unity has appealed to many. . .” (Watson, Canterbury Dictionary, n.p.).
Charles Wesley included the six stanzas (126.96.36.199) of the hymn in Part II of Hymns and Sacred Poems (1749), volume 1, as Hymn 34 in the section on “Hymns for Believers” with the particular ascription, “For a Family.” This significant collection consists of hymns gathered and composed by Charles. The forty-three hymns in this section of the collection also includes the well-known Wesley hymns “Soldiers of Christ, Arise” (No. 28) [The United Methodist Hymnal, 513], “Thou Hidden Source of Calm Repose” (No. 31) [The UM Hymnal, 153], and “Forth in Thy Name, O Lord, I Go” (No. 32) (The UM Hymnal, 438). The hymns in this section form a compendium that supports the life, witness, and work of believers. The two parts of volume 1 consist of 332 hymns, making this one of the larger collections. Additionally, this hymn was published in the Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (1780), edited by John Wesley (1703–1791), under the section “For the Society, Praying.”
The primary reason for the publication of Hymns and Sacred Poems in two volumes was to prove to the parents of his future wife Sarah (Sally) Gwynne (1726–1882) that Charles Wesley could support her. Sally was the first subscriber to the two volumes. Historical documents include a copy of Charles’ proposal and an invoice for Sally’s subscription in a letter to her dated December 27, 1748 (Maddox, 2018, n.p). All turned out well, as Charles and Sally, twenty years his junior, were married on April 8, 1749, a happy commitment that lasted until he died in 1788.
John Wesley (1703–1791) understood the theme of unity, in the broadest sense, as a “catholic spirit” and in the more provincial sense as unity among the members of the Methodist Society. He expressed his understanding of catholicity (universal love) in a sermon Catholic Spirit:
… his heart is enlarged toward all mankind, those he knows and those he does not; he embraces with strong and cordial affection neighbours and strangers, friends and enemies. This is catholic or universal love. And he that has this is of a catholic spirit. For love alone gives the title to this character — catholic love is a catholic spirit (Stover, 2019, n.p.).
“Blest Be the Dear Uniting Love” (The UM Hymnal, 566) is perhaps best read as a hymn of Christian fellowship, primarily aimed toward the Methodist Society. “Jesus, Lord, We Look to Thee” seems to bridge the space between Christian fellowship and universal love for humanity. Charles Wesley scholar S T Kimbrough, Jr. summarizes the hymn as follows:
The hymn provides an excellent picture of living as Christians in family stressing Christ as the mediator of peace, living in love and unity, caring for one another, freedom from strife and anger, holiness, how to live and how to die (Kimbrough cited in Young, 1993, p. 441).
Wesley and the Christian community have understood the reference to “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6) in stanza 1 as a title that points directly to Jesus as Messiah. The source of all peace in human relationships begins then with the Prince of Peace.
In stanza 2, the Prince of Peace brings “reconciling love” that mends personal relationships—“each to each unite.” Stanza 3 describes the attributes of those who manifest “reconciling peace.” They are “gentle, courteous, and kind, / lowly, meek, in thought and word.” The original text included “pitiful” in the list, a word, in this case, meaning to show pity. As we become more like Christ—Imago Christi—we will assume these characteristics.
Stanza 4 extends this Christlike example to each other—“each the other’s burdens bear”—and as a witness of the church to the world—“show how true believers live.” Stanza 5 expresses the dimensions of an expansive love by those that “in God abide.” This is a love that encompasses “all the depths of love express, / all the height of holiness.”
The final stanza takes us to heaven, the place where so many Charles Wesley hymns end. The community that assumes these attributes joins the “family above.” The eschatological imagery expressed in this stanza is as endearing as in any of Wesley’s hymns:
Let us then with joy remove
to the family above,
on the wings of angels fly,
show how true believers die.
The minimal changes in language for today reflect the substitution of more transparent words for today’s singers, modern spellings, and more inclusive terms.
The origins of the tune SAVANNAH are Moravian, according to some sources in a manuscript dated around 1735. John Wesley included it in his Foundery Collection (1742) as the “Herrnhuth Tune.” The refugees of the Bohemian Brethren founded Herrnhut (modern spelling) in the early eighteenth century in the Saxony region of Germany. The Unitas Fratrem (United Brethren), also known as the Moravians, found safety on the estate of Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700–1760), a community that still thrives as a Moravian stronghold today. It is appropriate that a tune used in a community founded on unity (Unitas Fratrem) should carry a text based on that theme. The bond between the Wesleys and the Moravians is well known. The following picture is taken from the museum adjacent to the Moravian Church in Herrnhut.
Randy L. Maddox, Editorial Introduction to Hymns and Sacred Poems (1749), Vol. 1 (Durham: Duke Divinity School), https://divinity.duke.edu/sites/divinity.duke.edu/files/documents/cswt/45_Hymns_and_Sacred_Poems_%281749%29_Vol_1.pdf (accessed June 3, 2020).
Greg Stover, “Love, Unity and Catholic Spirit: What Does Wesley Say?” Wesleyan Covenant Association (February 9, 2019), https://wesleyancovenant.org/2019/02/07/love-unity-and-catholic-spirit-what-does-wesley-say/ (accessed June 3, 2020).
J. Richard Watson, “Jesus, Lord, We Look to Thee,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/j/jesus,-lord,-we-look-to-thee, (accessed June 3, 2020).
Carlton R. Young, Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).
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.