History of Hymns: “See How Great a Flame Aspires”
By Donté Ford
“See How Great a Flame Aspires” by Charles Wesley;
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 541.
See how great a flame aspires,
kindled by a spark of grace.
Jesus’ love the nations fires,
sets the kingdoms on a blaze.
To bring fire on earth he came;
kindled in some hearts it is:
O that all might catch the flame,
All partake the glorious bliss!
Perhaps inspired by the poet’s own Whitsunday (Pentecost) conversion, “See how a great flame aspires” paints a vivid picture of Charles Wesley’s experience of the presence of God. The word “aspire” speaks of a hope and desire to achieve something. It was with aspiration that the disciples waited for the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. And that flame, the Holy Spirit, was kindled, ignited or prompted by an act of grace: God’s unmerited favor in the sign of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, Charles experienced his conversion on Whitsunday, May 21, 1738, after returning from his disappointing mission to America. This hymn may be a rekindling of the spirit of his Pentecost conversion a decade later.
The hymns of Charles Wesley (1707-1788) and his brother John (1703-1791) provide the core of Methodist beliefs. Though it seems that John’s interpretation of God and scripture has become the main point of reference for Methodist teaching today, it should be noted that Charles often differed from John in smaller details. This was most evident in John’s frequent editing of Charles’ texts. Nevertheless, Charles greatly contributed to the wealth and breadth of hymnody and his theological imprint still exists within the fabric of Methodism.
British hymnologist John Julian noted that Charles Wesley was perhaps the greatest hymnologist/poet of his family. Charles Wesley attended the Christ Church College at Oxford University; this is where the “Oxford Methodists” evolved. However, Charles Wesley was and remained loyal to the Church of England. Rev. Wesley received Deacon’s and Priest’s orders on two successive Sundays and spent much of his ministry as an itinerant preacher until 1756. This was due to his respect for authority of the Church of England.
“See how a great flame aspires” was published in Hymns and Sacred Poems (1749). Biographer John Tyson notes that John Wesley had not seen the work before it was published. Tyson states that the 1749 publication was prompted by Charles’ future mother-in-law who demanded that he accumulate £100 before he could marry her daughter. Since its initial publication, this hymn has been published in all subsequent Methodist based hymnals including the Wesleyan Hymn and Tune book (1860) and The Methodist Hymnal (1905). The complete text is maintained except in the Methodist Hymnal (1935) in which the third stanza is omitted. For the text, see http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/s/e/seehowgr.htm.
There have been a few different tunes used as a setting for this text. The most recent tune used in The United Methodist Hymnal is a Welsh hymn melody ARFON ( major) and, according to UM Hymnal Editor, Dr. Carlton Young, the current harmonization was prepared for The Book of Hymns (1966). Whether under the theme of Pentecost or Nature of the Church, one may find this hymn listed in many Methodist hymnals.
The opening quotation from stanza one could be a reference to the day of Pentecost and the promise by Jesus of the Comforter. By the very title, the hymn suggests a theme of Pentecost or renewal. Given that this hymn was written in response to a successful ministry endeavor, this does not seem out of the question. In stanza two, Wesley could be making a reference to Jesus’ ministry in that it started off ‘small’ and grew throughout time:
When he first the work begun,
small and feeble was his day:
now the Word doth swiftly run;
now it wins its widening way;
The entire gospel message rests on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. By Christ being crucified and resurrected, he would conquer sin, hell and the grave: Wesley mentions “sin being overthrown and hell trembling in fear”. In stanza three, it appears that Wesley is referencing the redemptive work of the cross and the grace that results from Christ’s sacrifice. Ultimately it echoes the availability of salvation by grace for all (“the door hath opened wide”) Through Christ alone.
Finally, the fourth stanza provides examples of Charles Wesley’s knowledge of scripture, in this case both the Old and New Testaments. The rhetorical question – “Saw ye not the cloud arise, little as a human hand?” – may be a subtle reference to Daniel 5:5: “In the same hour came forth fingers of a man's hand…” (KJV). It also could be a reference to Exodus 14:19: “And the angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face, and stood behind them.” (KJV); this would be an example of God moving on behalf of his people—perhaps a reference to the Israelites who were led through the wilderness by a cloud: “And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way;” (Exodus 13:21, KJV).
The reference to the “thirsty land” may be a reference to Old Testament prophecy in 1 Kings 17 by the prophet Elijah: “As the Lord God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.” (KJV). Wesley mentions the outpouring of God’s Spirit of love in Acts 2:2: “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.” (KJV) The Spirit of Pentecost imbues the entire hymn. These are but a few of the many possible scripture references throughout the hymn.
Charles Wesley’s language engages the singer, making it accessible so that one might grasp not only the message, but also the energy of the Pentecost event through rich scriptural allusions and vivid description.
Donté Ford is a Master of Sacred Music student at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, and studies hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.