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History of Hymns: 'Where Shall My Wondering Soul Begin'

Charles wesley
Charles Wesley

By Beth R. Holzemer

“Where Shall My Wondering Soul Begin”
By Charles Wesley
The United Methodist Hymnal, 342

Where shall my wondering soul begin?
How shall I all to heaven aspire?
A slave redeemed from death and sin,
a brand plucked from eternal fire,
how shall I equal triumphs raise,
and sing my great deliverer’s praise?

“Where shall my wondering soul begin?” — an apt question to ask when facing the formidable task of presenting, arguably, the greatest hymn writer of our faith, the venerable Charles Wesley (1707-1788). Born in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England to Anglican cleric and poet, Samuel Wesley (1662-1735), and Susanna Wesley (1669-1742), whom many consider the Mother of Methodism, Charles was the eighteenth of nineteen children. He spent many hours at his mother’s knee receiving a classical education along with his siblings. He was later educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford, where he was ordained. While at Oxford, Charles formed a prayer group with fellow students in 1727; his older brother, John, joined them in 1729. Other students ridiculed this “Holy Club” and dubbed them “the Methodists” because they were methodical and disciplined in their Bible study, speech, and lifestyle. The brothers traveled to the United States in 1735, but Charles returned to England the following summer, having been poorly received by the settlers he had been sent to shepherd. No doubt John Wesley spoke for both of them when he wrote in his journal, “I went to America to convert the Indians, but, oh, who shall convert me? Who, what, is he that will deliver me from this evil heart of mischief?” (J. Wesley, Journal, p. 29)

A life-threatening sea voyage provided the answer. A group of Moravians shared passage to America with the Wesleys in January of 1736 when a vicious storm arose. While the English passengers panicked and screamed in terror, the German Moravians remained calm, prayed, and sang and tended to their despairing fellow passengers. So profoundly touched by the living out of their faith was Charles that he experienced an evangelical conversion. On Pentecost Sunday, May 21, 1738, he wrote in his journal, “I have found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in the hope of a loving Christ . . .. I saw that by faith I stood” (C. Wesley Journal, 1738, n.p.). While it cannot be proved with certainty, scholars generally agree that the hymn referred to in the following quotation is “Where Shall My Wondering Soul Begin” (Dudley-Smith, 2013, n.p.). Charles Wesley’s journal entry continues (May 23, 1738):

At nine, I be­gan an hymn up­on my con­ver­sion, but I was per­suad­ed to break off for fear of pride. Mr. [John] Bray, com­ing en­cour­aged me to pro­ceed in spite of Sa­tan. I prayed Christ to stand by me, and fin­ished the hymn. Upon my af­ter­wards show­ing it to Mr. Bray, the de­vil threw in a fiery dart, sug­gest­ing that it was wrong, and I had dis­pleased God. My heart sunk with­in me; when, cast­ing my eye up­on a Pray­er-book, I met with an an­swer for him. “Why boast­est thou thy­self, thou ty­rant, that thou canst do mis­chief?” Up­on this, I clear­ly dis­cerned it was a de­vice of the en­e­my to keep back glo­ry from God (C. Wesley Journal, 1738, n.p.).

“Christ the Friend of Sinner.” John Wesley included it in his Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (1780), omitting the sixth stanza. It has found inclusion in our hymnals of 1836, 1837, 1847, and 1849—with various verses omitted in each iteration. It was then excluded from hymnal publication until its restoration in 1964. The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) includes stanzas 1-3, 5, and 8.

In the rhetorical style of the great hymn writers of the eighteenth century, including Isaac Watts (1674-1748), Charles puts forward six questions within the first three stanzas.

Stanza 3 poses two questions:

And shall I slight my Father’s love,
or basely fear his gifts to own?
Unmindful of his favors prove,
shall I, the hallowed cross to shun,
refuse his righteousness to impart,
by hiding it within my heart?

Stanza 4, omitted in The United Methodist Hymnal, answers these questions dramatically:

No! though the ancient dragon rage,
And call forth all his host to war,
Though earth’s self-righteous sons engage;
Them and their god alike I dare;
Jesus, the sinner’s friend, proclaim;
Jesus, to sinners still the same.

Wesley borrows actual phrases and concepts from this hymn for his more famous, “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” (1739), thought to have been composed on the anniversary of his conversion. Take, for example, the uncommon word “antepast” found at the end of stanza 2 of “Where Shall My Wondering Soul”:

I should be called a child of God!
Should know, should feel my sins forgiven,
blest with this antepast of heaven!

Quite literally, an “antepast” is synonymous with an appetizer, but Wesley uses it here to tantalize us with a foretaste of heaven, the deliciousness of eternal life with God. In earliest hymnal editions, the text includes “An Antepast of Heaven” as a subtitle. Compare this with the final stanza of “O for a Thousand Tongues,” composed a year later (1739), where “antepast” becomes “anticipate,” a more common, but less colorful word:

In Christ, your head, you then shall know,
shall feel your sins forgiven;
anticipate your heaven below,
And know that love is heaven. (The United Methodist Hymnal, 57)

Similarly, in stanza 5, Wesley uses a phrase he would repeat. The stanza begins in “Where Shall My Wondering Soul”:

Outcasts of men, to you I call,
harlots and publicans and thieves;
he spreads his arms to embrace you all,
sinners alone his grace receive.

In “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” (1739), using the same phrase and the theological appeal to the sinner, Wesley reframes the focus from others – “Outcasts of men, to you I call” – to now include himself – “crimes as great as mine.” The following stanza, omitted from many hymnals, appears near Wesley’s original eighteen-stanza hymn:

Harlots and publicans and thieves,
in holy triumph join!
Saved is the sinner that believes
from crimes as great as mine.
(The United Methodist Hymnal, 58)

Wesley extends his list of sinners in “O for a Thousand Tongues” to make a point in the penultimate stanza:

Murderers and all ye hellish crew,
ye sons of lust and pride,
believe the Savior died for you,
for me the Savior died.
(The United Methodist Hymnal, 58)

The original sixth stanza of “Where Shall My Wondering Soul,” omitted from the hymnal, echoes this one with archaic language that is nearly incomprehensible to our ears:

Come all ye Madalins in Lust, [a reference to Mary Magdelene as a prostitute]
Ye Ruffians fell, in Mudres [Murderers] old!
Repent and live: Despair and Trust;
Jesus for you to Death was sold;
Though Hell protest, and Earth repine,
He dy'd for Crimes like yours – and mine.

Charles Wesley minces no words in convicting humanity of the heinous crimes for which Christ sacrificed himself. In fact, from our modern perspective, we might wonder if Wesley’s focus on the various illicit activities of his time might have been an obsession. British Wesleyan hymn scholar J. R. Watson suggests that the mention of “harlots and publicans and thieves” was a reference to problems of crime, prostitution, and unfair taxation in London in 1738. Specifically, “Harlots were something of an obsession in the London of the 1730s . . ..” (Watson, 1997, p. 227). It is in the context of an extensive list of “sinners” that Wesley labels himself the “chief” of sinners in the original first line of the final stanza of “O for a Thousand Tongues”: “With me, your chief, you then shall know. . ..”

Three days, on May 23, after the hymn’s composition, Charles Wesley writes in his journal, “Toward ten, my brother was brought in triumph by a troop of our friends, and declared, ‘I believe.’ We sang the hymn with great joy, and parted with prayer” (C. Wesley Journal, 1738, n.p.). Yes, John Wesley experienced his conversion and a strangely warmed heart a mere three days after his younger brother. And this is the hymn they sang.

The United Methodist Hymnal includes no music or suggested hymn tunes for this text. The Methodist Hymnal (1964), sets the text to FILLMORE, attributed to Jeremiah Ingalls (1764-1838). It may also be sung to SAGINA, the tune now associated with Wesley’s famous “And Can It Be that I Should Gain” (The United Methodist Hymnal, 363), with some adaptation.

Sources and Further Reading:

Timothy Dudley-Smith, “Where Shall My Wond’ring Soul Begin.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed August 12, 2019,

http://www.hymnology.co.uk/w/where-shall-my-wond’ring-soul-begin.

Fred Gealy, Austin C. Lovelace, and Carlton R. Young, eds. Companion to the Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970).

“The Moravians and John Wesley” Christianity Today: Christian History (July/August 2019): christianitytoday.com.

J. R. Watson, The English Hymn: A Critical and Historical Study (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).

“Charles Wesley | English Clergyman,” Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 13 March 2019: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-Wesley.

Charles Wesley, The Journal Of Charles Wesley, The Wesley Center Online: http://wesley.nnu.edu/charles-wesley/the-journal-of-charles-wesley-1707-1788/the-journal-of-charles-wesley-may-1-august-31-1738.

John Wesley, The Journal of John Wesley (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1951), http://www.ntslibrary.com/PDF%20Books/Wesley_Journal.pdf.

John Wesley and Charles Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Poems (Bristol, 1743).


Beth R. Holzemer, M.M., is Director of Traditional Music and Worship at First United Methodist Church, Hopkinsville KY, and a member of the Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts.

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