History of Hymns: “Depth of Mercy”
Depth of Mercy
by Charles Wesley
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 355; Worship & Song, No. 3097
Depth of mercy! Can there be
Mercy still reserved for me?
Can my God his wrath forbear,
Me, the chief of sinners spare?
Questions to ponder:
- Have you ever felt as if you have committed an unforgivable sin?
- Have you ever felt as if you’ve committed sins of commission or omission that created a spiritual distance between you and the Creator?
- Have you ever felt as if you were beyond the reach of God due to your sin?
If you’ve answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you understand the importance of God’s mercy.
Through this hymn, we have a connection with Charles Wesley (1707-1788), an eighteenth-century Christian, who faced many of the same trials that we encounter in the twenty-first century. Although the nature of our trials may be different, there’s no doubt that we all feel hurt and pain. We all need God’s mercy to endure. Dr. Carlton Young, editor of the Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal, tells us that this hymn may be viewed as the “spiritual autobiography” of Charles Wesley, voicing his personal “prayer for repentance, acceptance, and assurance” (Young, 1993, 319). Charles Wesley guides us through his spiritual journey stanza by stanza. The hymn begins with a strong sense of penitence and concludes with an act of cleansing and repentance.
The hymn first appeared in Hymns and Sacred Poems (1740) under the title “After a Relapse into Sin.” In its original form, the hymn consists of thirteen four-line stanzas. In the monumental 1780 Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists, the hymn underwent some consolidating modifications made by John Wesley (1703-1791). The hymn appears first in Part III, Section III, under the heading “For persons convinced of backsliding.” The revised version of the hymn contains six eight-line stanzas. Stanzas of the later version are conflated by the merging of two original stanzas (e.g., 1 and 2, 4 and 8, etc.). Stanza three is omitted, and the eighth is added to the fourth.
There are many punctuation changes; for example, many of the original exclamation marks were either omitted or changed into question marks, indicating the use of the rhetorical question, a common poetic device of this era. The current 1989 United Methodist Hymnal employs five of the original stanzas (1, 2, 3, 9, and 13). The text is paired with CANTERBURY, a popular hymn tune adapted from a melody by English Tudor composer Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) in 1623. It is an easily learned and memorable hymn tune.
British Methodist hymnologist J. Richard Watson states in The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology (2013) that “Depth of Mercy” is an intensely dramatic hymn. “Depth of Mercy” fits beautifully into the gathered worship experience at the point of confession and pardon. As an element of worship, the stanzas certainly speak powerfully to the human condition. Stanza one (see above) begins with a petition in the form of two rhetorical questions; the singer voices her/his own petition to God through this hymn.
Stanzas two and three confess our wrongdoing and shame.
“I have long withstood his grace . . .” [stanza two]
“I my Master have denied . . .” [stanza three]
Voicing a dialogue between the sinner and the merciful God, the hymn then moves toward the use of vivid imagery (hypotyposis) in stanza four as the crucified Christ appears in mercy and forgiveness for the singer:
There for me the Savior stands,
shows his wounds and spreads his hands.
God is love! I know, I feel;
Jesus weeps and loves me still.
After a full confession by the singer, the proclamation “God is love!” appears as the “good news” for both the believer and unbeliever – indeed, a word of holistic evangelism for all. “Depth of Mercy” provides a ministry of forgiveness and spiritual healing for one who reads it as a part of personal devotions or sings it in gathered worship. Certainly, many will deeply relate with the power of the testimony in stanza one, find comfort, and assuredly obtain spiritual and emotional sustenance by the end of the hymn.
The final stanza is a full and complete assurance of pardon:
Now incline me to repent,
let me now my sins lament,
now my foul revolt deplore
weep, believe, and sin no more.
Charles Wesley employs poetic devices that are typical of a skilled eighteenth-century poet. In addition to the use of vivid imagery portraying the suffering Christ in stanza four, he places two seemingly contrasting ideas side-by-side (antithesis): “Jesus weeps and loves me still.” This juxtaposition of a suffering Christ performing a joyous act of forgiveness speaks to the essence of our faith. Stanza five completes the process of absolution or forgiveness: “. . . repent, let me now my sins lament.” The hymn reaches its climax with a series of powerful imperative verbs: “weep, believe, and sin no more.”
Though “Depth of Mercy” expresses an act of worship found across the ecumenical spectrum – confession and pardon – the hymn appears in relatively few hymnals in comparison with many other hymns by Charles Wesley. This is lamentable, given the importance of confession and forgiveness in gathered worship. Furthermore, it would seem that most hymnal editors who do include the hymn misunderstand its movement, concluding it with stanza four above – focusing on the suffering Christ who offers God’s love and omitting the complete assurance of pardon in stanza five, “weep, believe, and sin no more.”
For further reading:
Young Carlton R. Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.
The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, https://hymnology.hymnsam.co.uk/
Ronnie Wilson is a master of sacred music student at Perkins School of Theology, SMU. He studied hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.