Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: "Christ, from Whom All Blessings Flow"

History of Hymns: "Christ, from Whom All Blessings Flow"

By C. Michael Hawn

"Christ, from Whom All Blessings Flow"
Charles Wesley
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 550

Charles Wesley

Christ, from whom all blessings flow,
perfecting the saints below,
hear us, who thy nature share,
who thy mystic body are.

Charles Wesley (1707-1788) was first thought to have written well over 6500 hymns, but more recent scholarship places the number at more than 8900 hymns and poems. If one were to write one hymn a day, it would take more than 24 years to write that many hymns. Originally, the hymn “Christ, from whom all blessings flow” was the fourth section of a longer work called “The Communion of Saints.” A six-part poem that contained 39 eight-line stanzas, “The Communion of Saints” would have been a 78-stanza hymn in today’s hymnals. It would take a typical congregation almost thirty minutes to sing the hymn in its entirety!

Wesley scholar Dr. Ted Campbell reminds us in his Contemporary Studies of Charles Wesley, “only a small group of Charles Wesley’s poems were intended to be sung as hymns. Some of the poetry that we sing as hymns was redacted from longer poems.” After Wesley’s original poem was published in Hymns and Sacred Poems (1740), we find the fourth section, “Christ, from whom all blessings flow,” in The United Methodist Hymnal with only six of its original ten stanzas.

So what could a person possibly use as inspiration for all those hymns? Early twentieth-century hymnologist John Julian wrote that Charles Wesley’s life and times “all furnished occasions for the exercise of his divine gift.” Wesley was ordained a deacon and priest in 1735, but it wasn’t until 1738 in his travels with Moravian missionaries who taught him the reformed understanding of justification by faith that Wesley experienced his conversion. It was this experience that released in Wesley, in the words of English hymn-writer Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith (b. 1926), a “flowing spring of hymn writing, an exuberant, biblical and highly-crafted expression of Christian teaching, discipleship, emotion and response, unparalleled and apparently timeless in its appeal.” In the years directly following this experience, Charles Wesley and his brother John published the first edition of Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739); our hymn appears the second edition (1740).

Wesley primarily quoted and interpreted Scripture in his hymns and poems; his deep love for God, his connection with the Scripture, and his love for the church are evident. United Methodist Hymnal editor Dr. Carlton Young states that all but four books of the Bible are cited in Wesley’s hymns. “Christ, from whom all blessings flow” references at least eight biblical books. Themes from I Corinthians 12 are woven throughout the hymn in reference to the diverse gifts of the spirit and the many members who make up one body. This is seen prominently in stanza three:

Move and actuate and guide,
diverse gifts to each divide;

and stanza four:

Never from thy service move,
needful to each other prove;
use the grace on each bestowed,
tempered by the art of God.

Ephesians 4, Paul’s encouragement to the people of Ephesus to live as people worthy of the vocational call of God in one body and one spirit, is quoted in stanza two:

Join us, in one spirit join,
let us still receive of thine;
still for more on thee we call,
thou who fillest all in all.

In contrast to the Calvinist view of limited atonement for only those whom God chooses, Wesleyan theology incorporates the Armenian view of atonement for all humanity; this theology permeates Wesley’s hymns. Wesley quotes the inclusive ideas of Galatians 3:27-28 in stanza five:

Many are we now, and one,
we who Jesus have put on;
there is neither bond nor free,
male nor female, Lord, in thee.

But Scripture isn’t all that Wesley quoted in his hymns. Consider the opening stanza of the hymn cited at the beginning of this article. The first line quotes Anglican Bishop Thomas Ken’s “doxology” (1709) – “Praise God from whom all blessings flow . . ..” Wesley scholars Franz Hildebrant and Oliver Beckerlegge suggest that the last three lines contain the “definition of the Church – thy saints below – thy nature share – thy mystic body” as seen in the alternate post-Communion prayer found in the Book of Common Prayer. This first stanza also speaks of the Wesleyan doctrine of Christian perfection – perfection not in the sense being perfect in knowledge or being free from mistake, but having complete (perfect) sanctification in Jesus Christ, a process that occurs throughout life by the grace of God through faith in the fullness of Christ.

In addition to Scripture, doctrine, and other religious sources, Wesley quotes one of his favorite poets, Matthew Prior (1664-1721), in this hymn. The late Duke Divinity School professor and Wesley scholar Frank Baker told of one of Wesley’s favorite poems, Solomon, by Matthew Prior. Wesley loved the poem so much that he urged his daughter Sally to memorize it completely. Compare the first half of Wesley’s sixth stanza,

Love, like death, hath all destroyed,
rendered all distinctions void;

to this passage from Prior’s poem, Solomon:

Or grant thy passion has these names destroy’d:
that Love, like Death, makes all distinctions void.

According to Julian, Charles Wesley’s feelings “found their best expression in a hymn.” Drawing upon Scripture, liturgical sources like The Book of Common Prayer, and literary works, he wrote hymns and poems for just about every occasion: special events in his life (his marriage, conversion experience, deaths of friends), current events (earthquakes, invasions, riots), and important Christian themes (doctrine, scenes in scriptural history, hymns for children). Julian expressed that “hymns, which are really good in every respect, flowed from his pen in quick succession, and death alone stopped the course of the perennial stream.”

Kristi Hassell is a Master of Sacred Music student at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. She studies hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.

C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.