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History of Hymns: "Forth in Thy Name, O Lord"

“Forth in Thy Name, O Lord”
Charles Wesley
UM Hymnal, No. 438

Charles Wesley

Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go,
My daily labor to pursue;
Thee, only thee, resolved to know
In all I think or speak or do.

For the writer of this hymn, Charles Wesley (1707-1788), the Christian life was all-inclusive. Skimming through the hymns that he wrote, which range from praising God’s grace with surprise to singing of the lowly circumstances of Jesus’ birth, we find conclusive evidence of his total commitment to God.

His brother John Wesley shared this commitment with him. In A Plain Account of Christian Perfection (1777) under the subtitle of “No Half Christians,” John states “. . . I determined, through His grace, to be all devoted to God, to give Him all my soul, my body, and my substance.”

Through this hymn, Charles expressed his dedication to Christian discipleship and service. From stanza one through four, he repeatedly conveys a central theme: devotion to God only in all our work. The six stanzas of the hymn were first published in Hymns and Sacred Poems, Volume I (1749), under the category of “Hymns for Believers” with the heading “Before Work.” Both stanza three and five of the original version, which warn us about the risks of personal ambition and call us to be alert, were omitted in John Wesley’s A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (1780), and also the United Methodist Hymnal (1989).

According to Frank Baker, author of Charles Wesley’s Verse (Epworth Press, 1988), repeating the central theme with different language was a key element in his style of writing. In this hymn, Charles employed the poetic device of tautology, or repeating the same concept in several ways. The exclamation, “Forth in thy name, O Lord I go,” is followed by phrases of total commitment: “Thee, only thee, resolved to know, in all I think, or speak, or do,” “In all my works thy presence find,” and “Thee may I set at my right hand,” all resonating with the same theme.

Baker also noted that Charles incorporated polysyllabic words into the verse to introduce his theme by modulating the verbal music of the poem, but without changing the rhythm of the poetry. The use of adjectives and adverbs like “cheerfully,” “delightfully,” and “closely” are examples.

The Rev. Carlton Young, editor of the UM Hymnal, notes that this hymn is “an expression of the Protestant work ethic.” Church historian, the Rev. S T Kimbrough Jr., states: “Charles Wesley was deeply concerned that the attitudes with which we approach the endeavors of each day reflect our Christian posture and character.”

There is sub-theme for each stanza. In stanza one, Christians work according to God’s teaching; in stanza two, Christians cheerfully fulfill their God-assigned tasks and witness to God’s goodness in their work; in stanza three, Christians always seek God’s guidance while working; and in stanza four, Wesley expands work throughout the course of their lives. Christians apply God’s abundant grace without reservation and walk closely with God in the course of their lives.

The tune used with this hymn is DUKE STREET, attributed to John Hatton (1710-1793). As we sing, we might agree with hymnologist Millar Patrick’s description of the tune, “What vigor you have in it!—what magnificent movement, what superb curves, every line soaring, subsiding, like the flight of a bird!” The music reminds us not to forget our heavenly Father (soaring line) when we pursue our earthly labor (stepwise melodic progression).

For liturgical use, “Forth in Thy Name, O Lord” can be used as a closing hymn during worship or morning prayers, and also for the ordination or commissioning of ministers in the church. If sung as part of our daily devotions or before we go to work, it may lead us “to be all devoted to God,” even in the smallest activities of our lives.

Ms. Ting-Ting Lai, a Methodist from Maylasia, is a student of Dr. Michael Hawn and a candidate for the master of sacred music degree at Perkins School of Theology.