Home History of Hymns: "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing"

History of Hymns: "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing"

“O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”
Charles Wesley
UM Hymnal, No. 57

Charles Wesley

O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of his grace!

Though John Wesley is called the father of Methodism, his brother Charles Wesley (1707-1788) may be called the father of Methodist congregational singing.

Charles disliked the prevalence of the psalms in worship songs of his time. Out of that, he gave Methodism and modern hymnody many original hymn texts, including “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” which he wrote for Sunday, May 21, 1739—the first anniversary of his conversion on Pentecost Sunday, or Whitsunday as it was known then. The conversion had preceded by three days John Wesley’s famous reaffirmation of his faith at Aldersgate Chapel.

The hymn was first published in A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (1780). The significance of this hymn in the Methodist tradition is symbolized by its appearance as the first hymn in the United Methodist Hymnal (1989).

Isaac Watts (1674-1748), an early contemporary of the Wesley brothers, introduced hymn singing as a common experience. Watts bridged the era between rigid metrical psalm singing and the freer expression of hymns, and is often called the father of English hymnody. However, the Wesleys emphasized the nature of human experience within a hymn rather than the more objective perspective of Watts. In this, Charles Wesley reached much further into the emotional realm of human experience.

Wesley’s poetic response to his conversion is replete with literary elegance and beautiful control of language. In the text set in the UM Hymnal, Wesley employs hyperbole right from the start with “O for a thousand tongues to sing,” to heighten the emotional impact of the poem. According to several scholars, this famous opening line may have been inspired by Charles’ spiritual mentor, German-born Moravian missionary Peter Böhler, who said, “Had I a thousand tongues, I would praise him with them all!”

To further heighten the emotional nature of the poem, Wesley punctuates words like “Jesus” and the last words of phrases with an exclamation point. Other poetic devices used to express the incredible nature of salvation include the oxymorons present in stanza six: “Hear him, ye deaf; his praise, ye dumb, your loosened tongues employ; ye blind, behold your savior come, and leap, ye lame, for joy.”

Wesley uses antithesis throughout to contrast the darkness of sin with the light of the atoning blood that heals and humble our hearts, and replaces our fears with the rejoicing for a new life. This contrast underscores the nature of Wesley’s own conversion.

The original hymn had 18 stanzas. The seventh stanza became the first stanza of the hymn that we now know.

Lowell Mason’s (1792-1872) arrangement of the Carl G. Gläser (1784-1829) tune AZMON is used with “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” in the UM Hymnal. Gläser was a German composer and contemporary of Beethoven. Though Charles Wesley’s text has been sung to a number of tunes through the years, AZMON is the dominant choice throughout the hymnody of the mainline denominations.

Though most arrangements are basically the same, there are differences in the number of stanzas used. For example, some hymnals contain just four or five stanzas as opposed to the seven present in the UM Hymnal. More than two centuries after its composition, the hymn still has international appeal, combining Wesley’s 18th-century English sensibility with a sturdy German tune by Gläser and harmonization by Mason, a 19th-century American.

Ms. Sanders is a candidate for the Master of Sacred Music degree, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, and studies hymnology with Dr. Michael Hawn.

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