History of Hymns: 'Praise the Lord Who Reigns Above'
By C. Michael Hawn
“Praise the Lord Who Reigns Above”
by Charles Wesley
The United Methodist Hymnal, 96
Praise the Lord who reigns above
and keeps his courts below;
praise the holy God of love
and all his greatness show;
praise him for his noble deeds,
praise him for his matchless power;
him from whom all good proceeds
let earth and heaven adore.
Charles Wesley’s psalm paraphrases are a neglected portion of his poetic works. Like Isaac Watts (1674–1748), a generation before him, Wesley (1707–1788) included psalm paraphrases as a part of his oeuvres. Wesley followed in Watts’ footsteps by expanding congregational singing beyond the psalter’s stranglehold on the people’s song in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. He broadened the range of topics and poetic meters employed by Watts. Henry Fish noted in his edition of Wesley’s psalms: “Though Charles Wesley has not always confined himself to the letter of the Psalms which he versified, yet in every case, he has embodied the spirit, and in many of them he has kept close to the sense of the original” (Fish, 1854, vii–viii).
“Praise the Lord Who Reigns Above,” though not as well-known as many other Wesley’s texts, is a worthy paraphrase of Psalm 150. It first appeared in four, eight-line stanzas in the second edition of A Collection of Psalms and Hymns (1743). In a significant revision of the 1741 edition, John Wesley removed many selections by other hymn writers for the second edition. He replaced them with thirty-seven psalm paraphrases by Charles, almost all previously unpublished. Many of these paraphrases follow a pattern that Watts established—that of Christianizing the psalms. While this paraphrase does not contain direct Christological references, it alludes to several New Testament passages.
Carlton R. Young notes that “this appears to be the only psalm paraphrase by Charles Wesley with sustained use in Methodist hymnals” (Young, 1993, p. 557). The lack of Wesley's psalm paraphrases in today’s hymnals may be due to the changing theological trajectory of Charles’ hymn writing during the last four decades of his life. The monumental A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (1780) did not include psalm paraphrases, focusing more on “experimental and practical divinity” that reflected the existential struggles of the Society. Perhaps their exclusion from this primary source reduced their use by later generations. Furthermore, the psalm paraphrases seem to harken back to an older rhetorical style and, as a result, were less emotive and expressive than his Christological hymns. Finally, some confusion may have existed for a time when Augustus Toplady (1740–1878) included this text in his Psalms and Hymns (1776), resulting in his mistaken authorship in several nineteenth-century hymnals (Fyock, 1996, p. 294).
These observations notwithstanding, Wesley’s paraphrase of Psalm 150, though “reserved, if not commonplace,” according to Young, contains several delightful metaphors and turns of phrase. Stanza 1 (cited above), drawing upon verses 1 and 2 of the psalm, suggests a panoramic majesty in contrast to the terse imperatives (in boldface) of the King James Version translation: “Praise ye the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary: praise him in the firmament of his power. Praise him for his mighty acts: praise him according to his excellent greatness.”
Line 7 echoes James 1:17: “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of light. . .” (KJV). The “holy God of love,” not found in the biblical rendition, balances God’s omnipotent character—“noble deeds”—with “matchless power.” Wesley invites the singer to join in a cosmic (“earth and heaven”) adoration of God.
Stanza 2 expands on Psalm 150:3a—“Praise him with the sound of the trumpet," and 4a—"Praise him with the [timbrel and] dance."
Publish, spread to all around
The great Jehovah’s name,
Let the trumpet’s martial sound
The Lord of hosts proclaim:
Praise him, in the sacred dance,
Harmony’s full concert raise,
Let the virgin-choir advance,
And move but to his praise.
Most recent hymnals, including The United Methodist Hymnal (1989), eliminate this stanza, perhaps because of the reference to “Jehovah” in line 2 and the “virgin-choir” in line 7. While not as imaginative as the other stanzas, the opening line—“Publish, spread to all around”—adds expansive energy to the straightforward, direct imperatives of the biblical psalm. Wesley does not explicitly include the organ (Psalm 150:4b). This instrument would have borne no resemblance to the eighteenth-century instrument. However, he implies its presence in line 6—“Harmony’s full concert raise.”
Stanza 3 develops the essential images of Psalm 150:3b–4:
Celebrate th’ eternal God
With harp and psaltery,
Timbrels soft, and cymbals loud
In his high praise agree:
Praise him every tuneful string,
All the reach of heavenly art,
All the powers of music bring,
The music of the heart
The opening line of this stanza reminds the singer of the purpose of this music-making. The imperative “Celebrate” serves to break up the psalm writer’s relentless use of anaphora—in this case, a series of repetitive commands (“Praise him”), eight times in four verses. The rhetorical apex of the hymn comes in the final three lines. These lines elevate the role of music-making in praise of God to a status reminiscent of Martin Luther’s often cited assertion—“Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise.” Wesley’s emphasis, however, is not on proclaiming the Word of God through music but on moving the singer’s heart toward the adoration of God. “The music of the heart" is a summation of Wesley’s hymn “O for a heart to praise my God” (1742), written at approximately the same time. Carlton R. Young’s book, Music of the Heart: John and Charles Wesley on Music and Musicians (1995), describes the music of the heart as “the embodiment of heartfelt religion in Wesleyan hymns and hymn singing” (Young, 1995, xviii).
Stanzas 2 and 3 have been subject to variations. Editors in the eighteenth century conflated the first quatrain of the original stanza 2 with the last quatrain of stanza 3, removing one stanza by forming a new stanza 2. They eliminated the “sacred dance” and the “virgin choir,” which may have been questionable concepts in some circles. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the first quatrain of stanza 2 excluded mention of Jehovah and the “martial” trumpet:
Publish, spread to all around
The great Immanuel's name:
Let the gospel-trumpet sound,
Him Prince of Peace proclaim.
(A New Selection of Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, 1839)
By the last quarter of the twentieth century, editors deleted the original stanza 2 altogether, publishing the hymn in three stanzas (the original 1, 3, and 4).
Stanza 4 is an expansion of Psalm 150:6: “Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord.”
Him, in whom they move, and live,
Let every creature sing,
Glory to their Maker give,
And homage to their King:
Hallowed be his name beneath,
As in heaven on earth adored:
Praise the Lord in every breath;
Let all things praise the Lord!
Wesley adds fullness to his paraphrase that the psalm writer only implies in the terse commands of the psalm. The opening line alludes to Acts 17:28a: “For in him we live, and move, and have our being.” Lines 5 and 6 directly paraphrase the Lord’s Prayer, Matthew 6:9b–10. Reiterating the image introduced in the final line of the first stanza, Wesley stresses the cosmic dimension of praise to God in line 6 of the final stanza—“in heaven on earth adored.”
The use of AMSTERDAM as the primary tune for this text is both of practical and historical significance. The tune is a practical choice because relatively few tunes were available to the Wesleys that fit the rare poetic meter 126.96.36.199.188.8.131.52, a variation of the more standard 184.108.40.206.D. The choice of AMSTERDAM is of historical significance because John Wesley became acquainted with it in 1735 onboard the ship with the Moravians. They used this tune in their worship (Young, 1993, p. 557). The Moravians brought with them their new hymnbook, Das Gesang-Buch der Gemeine in Herrnhut (1735) and sang from Neues Geist-reiches Gesang-Buch (Halle, 1714), a compilation by German hymn writer and hymnal editor J.A. Freylinghausen (1670–1739). One of six tunes he borrowed from this source, John Wesley included “Amsterdam Tune,” what Young calls a “flawed variant,” in his Foundery Collection (London, 1742, pp. 29–30). S T Kimbrough Jr. and Young suggest that the variant published in the Foundery Collection may be based on John’s memory of the tune he heard sung by the Moravians. The tune’s name honors John Wesley’s trip to Amsterdam made subsequently in June 1738 (Wesley, 1742/2011, p. xxi).
The source of the original tune is in doubt. J.S. Bach contemporary Johann Georg Hille (d. 1744) has been credited with this tune since it appeared in his collection of chorales Einige neue und zur Zeit noch nicht durchgängig bekante Melodeyen zu dem neuen Cöthenischen Gesangbüchlein, dieselbe mit und ohne Generalbass gebrauchen zu können (Glaucha, 1739). However, more recent scholarship indicates that Hille was not the composer of many of these tunes but added continuo parts to melodies from earlier collections without attribution (Buelow, 2001, n.p.). The melody has erroneously and inexplicably been ascribed to eighteenth-century English composer James Nares in some sources. It appeared in a modestly embellished version very close to that found in today’s hymnals in Select Hymns: with Tunes Annext Developed Chiefly for Use of the People Called Methodists (London, 1761), hymn 123. Charles Wesley’s psalm paraphrase is not paired with the tune in any of John Wesley’s musical sources.
The text may be found in USA collections as early as Hymns for the Use of the Society of United Christian Friends (1797). The earliest choice of AMSTERDAM, by far the most preferred tune, is in The American Sabbath School Singing Book (Philadelphia, 1843), edited by the influential Lowell Mason (1792–1872). In addition to Methodist hymnals, this text and tune are found primarily in collections for Baptist and evangelical constituencies in the United States. The Methodist hymnals Hymns and Psalms (1983) and Singing the Faith (2011) in the UK set the text to JOSIAH by Portsmouth shipwright and choirmaster William Arnold (1768–1832) and FLANDERS by Welsh pianist Donald Swann (1923–1994).
Charles Wesley penned another version of Psalm 150:6 in a separate single stanza. He captures the ecstatic possibilities of this verse in his versification:
Breathe in praise of your Creator,
Every soul his honor raise;
Magnify the Lord of nature,
Magnify the God of grace!
Fill the universe with praise! (Fish, 1854, p 282)
George J. Buelow, “Hille, Johann Georg" (January 20, 2001), Grove Music Online, https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.13036 (accessed May 31, 2022).
Henry Fish, A Poetical Version of Nearly the Whole of The Psalms of David by the Rev. Charles Wesley, M.A. (London, John Mason, 1854).
John Fyock, Hymnal Companion (Elgin, IN: Brethren Press, 1996).
John Wesley, John Wesley’s First Tune Book: A Collection of Tunes Set to Music as they are Commonly Sung at the Foundery (1742), Eds. S T Kimbrough Jr. and Carlton R. Young (Madison, NJ: The Charles Wesley Society, 2011).
Carlton R. Young, Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).
_____, Music of the Heart: John and Charles Wesley on Music and Musicians (Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Co., 1996).
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.