Home History of Hymns: "Jesus, Lover of My Soul"

History of Hymns: "Jesus, Lover of My Soul"

"Jesus, Lover of My Soul"
by Charles Wesley
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 479

Charles Wesley

Jesus, lover of my soul,
Let me to thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll.
While the tempest still is high.
Hide me, O my Savior, hide,
Till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide,
O receive my soul at last.

“Jesus, lover of my soul” is perhaps one of the most personal hymns penned by Charles Wesley (1707-1788). The understanding that Jesus as a “lover” seems to have made many squeamish at the very idea, especially an idea that should be expressed in public worship. Is this hymn better for private devotions? Yet, according to hymnologist Kenneth W. Osbeck, this hymn is considered to be among Wesley’s greatest hymns. It demonstrates, among many other things, Charles Wesley’s vast knowledge of biblical texts, classic literature, and other intellectual sources of his era.

Wesley, always meticulous in drawing upon biblical or classical sources, continued this practice in this hymn. The apocryphal book, The Wisdom of Solomon, 11:23-26, provides the inspiration for this primary theme of this hymn: “But thou hast mercy upon all; for thou canst do all things, and winkest at the sins of men, because they should amend. For thou lovest all the things that are, and abhorrest nothing which thou hast made: for never wouldest thou have made any thing, if thou hadst hated it. And how could any thing have endured, if it had not been thy will? or been preserved, if not called by thee? But thou sparest all: for they are thine, O Lord, thou lover of souls.”

Another possible source is Thomas à Kempis (c. 1380-1471), who often commented on the nature of love. In The Imitation of Christ, for example, he states: “A wise lover values not so much the gift of the lover as the love of the giver.” Another quote also addresses Jesus’ followers as “lovers”: “Jesus has now many lovers of the heavenly kingdom but few bearers of His cross.” Perhaps even more to the point is this statement cited by Dr. Carlton R. Young, editor of The United Methodist Hymnal, in his Companion: “Most mighty God of Israel, zealous Lover of faithful souls.”

The Rev. Young notes that the “hymn was written shortly after Wesley’s conversion” in 1738. English Methodist literary scholar Richard Watson notes, “From the moment of its wonderful opening, ‘Jesu, lover. . .', on which the intimacy of ‘Jesu’ plays such a crucial part, this hymn proclaims itself as a work of unusual intensity.” Examples of this language of intimacy include: “let me to thy bosom fly” (stanza one). In stanza three, the poet states: “Thou, O Christ, art all I want,/more than all in thee I find. . .”.

Professor Watson also notes the role of the psalms and other sources from which Wesley draws: stanza one states: “safe unto the haven guide” (Psalm 107:30); stanza two concludes with “the shadow of thy wing” (Psalm 91:4); in stanza four, Wesley draws upon fountain imagery: “Thou of life the fountain art. . .” (Psalm 36:9). Dr. Watson also credits English poet and diplomat Matthew Prior (1664-1721) with an image in the first stanza:

We weave the Chaplet, and We crown the Bowl;
and smiling see the nearer waters roll;
'Till the strong Gusts of raging Passion rise;
'Till the dire Tempest mingles Earth and Skies; . . .

The poem was first published in Hymns and Sacred Poems (1740) with five stanzas. An omitted stanza further adds to intensity of this hymn:

Wilt thou not regard my call?
Wilt thou not accept my prayer?
Lo! I sing, I faint, I fall!
Lo, on thee I cast my care!
Reach me out thy gracious hand!
While I of thy strength receive,
hoping against hope I stand,
Dying, and behold I live!

This stanza was omitted in later publications such as Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1753). John Wesley failed to include the hymn at all in his greatest compilation, A Collection of Hymns for the use of the People Called Methodists (1780). This omission has led to considerable speculation, but most, according to Professor Watson, suggest that John Wesley “disliked terms of endearment addressed to God.” Indeed, the hymn did not appear in the Collection until the 1797 edition, six years after John Wesley’s death in 1791. Watson disagrees with this thesis and states eloquently, “It is hard to see this as a valid objection: the whole point of the hymn is the tender and loving presence of the Saviour in a world where the sinner feels helpless; and Charles Wesley has not been afraid to give intense expression to that love, and to the life which it brings, so movingly described in the final verse.”

“Jesus, lover of my soul” foreshadows famous hymns on a related theme including “Rock of Ages” (1776) by English Anglican turned Calvinist Augustus M. Toplady, and “Abide with me” (1847) by Scottish Anglican Henry Francis Lyte. Like these hymns, “Jesus, lover of my soul” has attracted a number of stories. Some have tried to connect the sea images in the hymn to the tumultuous voyage of the Wesley brothers to America in 1736.

Rather than focusing on the circumstances surrounding the poem’s composition, there can be no doubt as to its influence and popularity on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1877), the great American preacher, stated: “I would rather have written this hymn of Wesley’s than to have the fame of all the kings that ever sat on earth.” Richard Watson does not doubt the veracity of the “story of the soldier in the American Civil War who was about to shoot a picket from the other side when he heard him singing, ‘Cover my defenseless head/With the shadow of thy wing.'”

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