History of Hymns: “Blest Be the Dear Uniting Love”
By C. Michael Hawn
Blest Be the Dear Uniting Love
by Charles Wesley
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 566
Blest be the dear uniting love
that will not let us part;
our bodies may far off remove,
we still are one in heart.
This venerable hymn of Christian unity by Charles Wesley (1707-1788) first appeared in Hymns and Sacred Poems (1742), a collection prepared while the Wesleys were studying in Oxford. In many ways, it reflects the most salient features of Wesleyan theology and practice, including a vision for Christian community, the nature of Christian commitment, and a glimpse into the priorities of the people called Methodists.
We examine the hymn stanza-by-stanza. In the first stanza printed above, notice the words “uniting love” in the incipit (opening line of a poem). “Love” is a prevalent theme in the hymns of Charles Wesley. This is “uniting love.” The use of the present participle “uniting” indicates an ongoing activity. “Uniting love” rather than “united love” implies the continual renewal of the Spirit each day on the journey. Furthermore, Charles reminds us that we do not travel this road alone. The point of view from which this hymn is written is not the first person singular, but the first person plural – “we.” Whenever we gather for worship, it is in part to remind ourselves of the fulfillment of our baptismal vows, a commitment that, though made individually, is ultimately fulfilled in community.
Joined in one spirit to our Head,
where he appoints we go,
and still in Jesus’ footsteps tread,
and do his work below.
This stanza seemed to anticipate the evolving systematic appointment of itinerate preachers to various circuits and societies – an appointment not for the faint of heart, as these preachers, much like the Wesleys, were subject to persecution as well as the hardships of travel. A common idiom in Wesleyan hymnody is the term “our Head” – a reference to Christ, not only as the “captain” of this movement, but the one whose life and witness models our journey as we fulfill Christ’s “work below.”
O may we ever walk in him,
and nothing know beside,
nothing desire, nothing esteem,
but Jesus crucified!
This is not just a casual carefree walk with Jesus “In the Garden,” but a journey with the crucified Christ. One may hear echoes of the Wesley Covenant:
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
Historically, following the crucified Christ has many precedents including St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), who established the meditative practice of identifying deeply with the crucified Christ. To add a Wesleyan understanding to this practice, it is in the image of the crucified Christ that we are being shaped, perfected, and sanctified.
An omitted original fourth stanza of the hymn emphasizes the intimacy of our walk with Christ and adds a most important word in the Wesleyan vocabulary – grace:
Closer, and closer let us cleave
to his belov’d embrace,
expect his fullness to receive
and Grace to answer Grace.
In the Wesleyan tradition, grace is abundant – grace piled upon grace!
The omitted original fifth stanza introduces the image of Christ as Light, a theme prevalent throughout the Gospel of John, perhaps most famously John 8:12. This is a Light that unites the Christian community in “fellowship divine”:
While thus we walk with Christ in Light,
who shall our souls disjoin,
souls, which himself vouchsafes t’unite
in fellowship divine!
Returning to the fourth stanza in the hymnal (the sixth original stanza), Wesley continues to strengthen the theme of unity:
We all are one who him receive,
and each with each agree,
in him the One, the Truth, we live;
blest point of unity!
While Christian unity certainly is a key theological point in many of Charles’ hymns, John and Charles may have had a heightened awareness of unity through their association with the Moravians, formally known as Unitas Fratrum (Unity of the Brethren). This was a group whose identity and unity was born out of persecution. The oppressed Moravians sought and received refuge in 1722 on the estate of Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760) in Herrnhut, Germany. The Wesleys encountered the Moravians on the ship as they traveled to America. John learned German from them, and both Wesleys were deeply influenced by the prayerful demeanor of the Moravians on board the ship during a violent storm on Sunday, January 25, 1736. (See the account from John Wesley’s Journal) This encounter left an indelible impression on the Wesleys as they sought to bring unity among the members of the fledgling Society.
Partakers of the Savior’s grace,
the same in mind and heart,
nor joy, nor grief, nor time, nor place,
nor life, nor death can part.
In this original seventh stanza (fifth in the hymnal), Wesley seals his lyrical sermon on Christian unity with an allusion to Romans 8:35-39. A passage that identifies with the persecuted faithful, God’s prevenient grace surrounds us and offers us unity in Christ – a unity from which nothing can separate us. Compare the last two lines of the stanza above with Romans 8:38-39: “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our LORD” (KJV). The literary structure of the hymn is unmistakably linked with this passage, even though Charles Wesley does not quote it – a very effective and ingenious poetic technique of imitation, a common eighteenth- and nineteenth-century poetic device of referring to a classic or famous work without quoting it exactly. In fourteen syllables (the final two lines of the stanza above), Wesley summarizes the two verses of this epistle and manages to do it all within the rigor of iambic meter!
The eighth and final stanza of the original hymn was also omitted in the hymnal. This is the stanza that completes the journey:
Then let us hasten to the day
which shall our flesh restore;
when death shall all be done away,
and bodies part no more.
In a vast majority of his hymns, Charles makes a reference to heaven – the place where we are finally perfected and, in this case, the place where full Christian fellowship – “uniting love” – is ultimately consummated.
C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music and Director of the Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas.