History of Hymns: 'Jesus! the Name High Over All'
By Victoria Schwarz
“Jesus! the Name High Over All”
by Charles Wesley
The United Methodist Hymnal, 193
Jesus! the name high over all,
in hell or earth or sky;
angels and mortals prostrate fall,
and devils fear and fly.
His only righteousness I show,
his saving truth proclaim;
‘tis all my business here below
to cry, “Behold the Lamb!”
When considering the hymns of Charles Wesley (1707–1788)—author of some 6,500 hymns—it is not always possible to determine the impetus behind each one. Some were written in a short span of time (and even in a day), based on a scriptural or personal inspiration. Others, he composed to fulfill a distinct theological need or as the result of a specific significant event. So, when a possible hymn story arises, it sometimes gets partnered with a hymn, creating a compelling pairing of moment and music.
Such is the case with Wesley’s hymn, “Jesus! the Name High Over All.” Originally published with 22 stanzas in Hymns and Sacred Poems (1749), with the title “After Preaching (in a Church),” the original first stanza sets the tone for much of the hymn:
Jesu, accept the grateful song,
My wisdom and my might,
‘Tis Thou hast loosed the stammering tongue,
And taught my hands to fight. (Wesley, 1749, pp. 307–310)
In this hymn, the spiritual battle that Wesley faced in proclaiming the gospel is told through describing the power of God, proclaiming the Spirit’s empowerment of Wesley, and underlining Wesley’s determination to call out and rely upon Jesus’ name. Passionate statements, such as “Jesus, Thou my mouth hast been the weapons of Thy war” (stanza 2), “The Spirit. . . my soul with strength endued” (stanza 4), and “Thee I shall constantly proclaim. . . before a world of foes” (stanza 8), indicate his resolve as preacher and poet who often drew upon the strength and authority of Christ to bolster its continuance.
Neil Dixon expands on this hymn’s character:
The hymn is a robust proclamation of the Lordship and authority of Christ, in which there are many biblical citations and allusions. Characteristically, Wesley emphasizes the universal nature of the gospel (“O that the world might taste and see,” “all mankind,” “preach him to all”). It is also a hymn of personal devotion and dedication, concluding as it does with a prayer that the singer’s dying words might echo those of John the Baptist, “Behold the Lamb” (John 1:29). (Dixon, Canterbury Dictionary, n.p.)
Wesley certainly experienced oppression in his ministry during 1742–1744, when he was preaching throughout the Midlands and the north of England. In May 1743, several of his journal entries described the opposition—and sometimes violence—with which he was met. In Walsall, he wrote, “The street was full of fierce Ephesian beasts. . . who roared, and shouted, and threw stones incessantly.” In Sheffield, “Hell. . . was moved to oppose us. I gave notice that I should preach out and look the enemy in the face. . . After [the] sermon. . . the devil. . . drew his sword and presented it to my breast.” In Thorpe, “The ambush rose and assaulted us with stones, eggs, and dirt.” (Kimbrough and Newport, 2007, pp. 343, 344–45, 347.)
In an entry dated August 6, 1744, Wesley once again faced opposition during a church service in Cornwall, albeit less violent, and with a more satisfying ending. Wesley wrote:
Between five and six in the evening got to Mr. Bennet’s, and preached in his church on “Repent, and be converted.” Upon my speaking against their drunken revels, one contradicted and blasphemed. I asked, “Who is he that pleads for the devil?” and one answered in those very words, “I am he that pleads for the devil.” I took occasion from hence to show the revellers their champion, and the whole congregation their state by nature. Much good I saw immediately brought out of Satan’s evil. Then I set myself against his avowed advocate, and drove him out of the Christian assembly. Concluded with earnest prayer for him. (Kimbrough and Newport, 2007, p. 415.)
It is prudent, at this point, to mention that the connection of this story with this particular hymn has not been corroborated by evidence from the Wesley brothers’ writings, but the difficult circumstances under which the Wesleys ministered enrich the occasional sermon or hymn study class discussion. Further research may reveal a direct link one day. Such encounters, however, indicate a possible underlying impetus for this poem.
The six stanzas that appear in The United Methodist Hymnal are stanzas 9, 10, 13, 8, 18, and 22 in the original publication of this hymn and closely resemble an earlier revision in which John Wesley (1703–1791) selected six stanzas for the 1780 publication, A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People called Methodists. The hymn in The United Methodist Hymnal is paired with the hymn tune GRÄFENBERG by Lutheran cantor and composer Johann Crüger (1598–1662). The result is an effective, if coincidental, text painting on the words “high over all” through use of an arched melodic contour and then another text painting of “angels and mortals prostrate fall” through descending pitches. Other commonly used tunes include CORONATION by William Holden and LYDIA by Thomas Phillips as well as many others. This widely published hymn has, according to John Telford, “stamped itself deep on the religious life of Methodism” (Telford, 1943, p. 66).
Neil Dixon, “Jesus! the Name High Over All,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology.
Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/j/jesus!-the-name-high-over-all (accessed September 10, 2020).
S T Kimbrough Jr. and Kenneth G. C. Newport, The Manuscript Journal of the Reverend Charles Wesley, M.A.: Volume II. (Nashville, TN: Kingswood Books, An Imprint of Abingdon Press, 2007).
John Telford, The New Methodist Hymn-Book (Epworth Press, 1934), 66.
Charles Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Poems, Vol. 1 (1749), https://divinity.duke.edu/sites/divinity.duke.edu/files/documents/cswt/45_Hymns_and_Sacred_Poems_%281749%29_Vol_1_mod.pdf (accessed September 9, 2020).
Victoria Schwarz is a provisional deacon in the Rio Texas Conference and Minister of Music at Berkeley United Methodist Church in Austin, TX. She is active in the Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts.