Home History of Hymns: "I Want a Principle Within"

History of Hymns: "I Want a Principle Within"

“I Want a Principle Within”
Charles Wesley
UM Hymnal, No. 410

Charles Wesley

I want a principle within
Of watchful godly fear,
A sensibility of sin,
A pain to feel God near.

I want the first approach to feel
Of pride or wrong desire,
To catch the wandering of my will,
And quench the kindling fire.

Could it be that Charles Wesley was more focused on marrying a woman than on publishing quality literature? In the mind of John Wesley, probably so. In the mind of Charles, his carelessness was worth all of John’s frustration if it meant that he could marry Sarah Gwynne.

Had it not been for Charles’ fondness of Sarah and his brother’s obsessive desire to perfect Charles’ writing, this hymn would certainly not have such a rousing history.

“I Want a Principle Within” has had a longstanding presence in Methodism. It was included in Methodist hymnals as early as 1788 and can be traced to its current form in John Wesley’s A Collection of Hymns for the Use of People Called Methodists (1780). The hymn was first published in five stanzas in Charles’ own collection, Hymns and Sacred Poems (1749), titled “For a Tender Conscience.”

The publication of Hymns and Sacred Poems came about because Charles had to prove to Sarah’s mother that he could financially support Sarah as his wife; his salary as a theologian was quite unimpressive. Realizing the potential of Charles’ musical gifts, Mrs. Gwynne finally approved the marriage.

Charles then went about publishing the first collection of his poems, much to the irritation of John, who had no hand in editing his brother’s own volumes. John’s desire to do justice to a few of Charles’ hymns led to his 1780 collection, which perhaps made the hymn famous among Methodists under its current title.

The evolution of this hymn came at a period in Charles Wesley’s life when he was traveling extensively throughout England and Ireland. During these years he suffered both a severe sprain in his leg (1745) and a severe toothache (1748) that added to the strain of his traveling.

Although no sources pinpoint exactly when “I Want a Principle Within” was written, there could be a connection between Charles’ trials and the transformations he asks of God through this hymn. Wesley scholar John Tyson also explains that around the time Hymns and Sacred Poems was published, Charles was “at the mid-point of the development of his doctrine of sanctification,” in which he insisted that Christian perfection could be attained during one’s lifetime.

Taken as a whole, the hymn leads us on a journey from recognizing the darkness of sin to the freeing and uplifting feeling found in the forgiveness of Christ. The tune, by way of its gentle, lilting feel, contrasts with the staid heaviness of the text.

The tune GERALD is attributed to Ludewig “Louis” Spohr (1784-1859), a famous German-born violinist and conductor. It was adapted by James Stimpson (1820-1886), a British-born organist well known for his choral anthems.

The original name of the tune was SPOHR. However, because another tune was known in America by this name, it was changed to GERALD, named in honor of both Fitzgerald Sale Parker (1863-1936), a member of the 1905 and 1935 Methodist hymnal committees, and Geraldine Reid Sherrill, secretary to the editor of the 1935 hymnal.

Since then, the hymn has been adapted and edited by the United Methodist hymnal committee from the version published by John Wesley in 1780.

The reckless nature of Charles’ writing (at least, from John’s perspective) kept John in business as his editor, while Charles’ original version of the hymn solidified his marriage. In the end, both versions were successful endeavors, even if John was a bit frustrated with his brother.

Mr. Miller is a student of C. Michael Hawn and a candidate for the master of sacred music degree at Perkins School of Theology.

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