History of Hymns: “Spirit of Faith, Come Down”
Spirit of Faith, Come Down
by Charles Wesley
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 332
Spirit of faith, come down,
reveal the things of God,
and make to us the Godhead known,
and witness with the blood.
'Tis thine the blood to apply
and give us eyes to see,
who did for every sinner die
hath surely died for me.
Exploring the hymns of Charles Wesley (1707-1788) is like examining a trove of treasures excavated from the pages of his writings. While the church has preserved many of these treasures intact within its hymnals, sometimes a single gem is lost or forgotten. When such a jewel is recovered, it provides fresh color to the hymn as newly shed light streams through it and dances across the page. One such gem is the excised third stanza of “Spirit of Faith Come Down.”
“Spirit of Faith Come Down” by Charles Wesley was first published in Hymns of Petition and Thanksgiving for the Promise of the Father (1746) and is also found in the collection Whitsunday [Pentecost] Hymns (1746). The original hymn is composed of five stanzas, though in most hymnals today, there are only four, sometimes three, stanzas. This is due to the long lasting editorial change made by John Wesley when he included the hymn in his famous Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (1780). As observed by Carlton Young in the Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal, John Wesley removed the original third stanza and slightly altered the second line of the original fourth stanza (Young, 1993, 603). This editorial decision will be examined in greater detail and, hopefully, will contribute to a new appreciation for a stanza long unappreciated for centuries.
The remaining stanzas, as found in The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) are as follows:
No one can truly say
that Jesus is the Lord,
unless thou take the veil away
and breathe the living Word.
Then, only then, we feel
our interest in his blood,
and cry with joy unspeakable,
“Thou are my Lord, my God!”
O that the world might know
the all atoning Lamb!
Spirit of faith, descent and show
the virtue of his name;
the grace which all may find,
the saving power, impart,
and testify to humankind,
and speak in every heart.
Inspire the living faith
(which whosoe’er receive,
the witness in themselves they have
and consciously believe),
the faith that conquers all,
and doth the mountain move,
and saves whoe’er on Jesus call,
and perfects them in love.
The hymn is filled with references to Scripture. Wesley directly quotes both 1 Corinthians 12:3 and John 20:28 in the second stanza. His construction of this stanza makes it clear, using Scripture as the basis, that one desperately needs the Spirit to have the faith required to fully accept Jesus and redemption through him.
Wesley’s theology of atonement also plays a key role in the text of this hymn, infusing the entirety of the hymn. The first stanza quickly delivers a statement of the ongoing process of redemption, pleading (possibly demanding) that the “Spirit of faith come down” to “reveal the things of God” so to “give us eyes to see who did for every sinner die, hath surely died for me.” In their Companion to Hymns and Psalms, Richard Watson and Kenneth Trickett note that Wesley often uses the expression, “Tis thine the blood to apply,” as he does in the first stanza, fifth line (Watson and Trickett, 1988, 211). This phrase is a poetic manifestation of Charles Wesley’s belief that the Spirit’s mission is to the individual person. Salvation is encountered through the Spirit and is delivered as an intimate gift, given through faith. This first stanza is a condensed teaching of Wesleyan redemption. Indeed, the entire hymn is written as a proclamation on the extraordinarily active and vital role the Spirit plays in giving, sustaining, and nurturing faith so one might believe and accept Jesus as the Redeemer.
While the hymn as we know it contains the Wesleyan standard of attention to Scripture and theological depth, the words of the original third stanza enrich the hymn as a whole and fulfill a role that stanzas currently available cannot hope to do. The text of the individual stanza as it appears in the original 1746 hymnal is as follows:
I know my Savior lives,
He lives who died for me,
My inmost Soul his Voice receives
Who hangs on yonder Tree:
Set forth before my Eyes
Ev’n Now I see Him bleed,
And hear his Mortal Groans and Cries
While suffering in my stead.
Here, in the original third stanza, is a vivid depiction of Jesus’ act of redemption and victory over death. The stanza opens with a paradox of life and death and then moves on to a brutally vivid and deeply personal vision of the crucifixion. This stanza brings greater attention to John Wesley’s second, and seemingly insignificant, edit of the current third stanza and its second line. This line, as it has been since 1780, reads “The all atoning Lamb!” whereas the original text is “My dear Atoning Lamb!” It could be speculated that John Wesley (1703-1791) may have made the change to form an argument against George Whitefield’s (1714-1770) Calvinist belief of limited atonement. While the edit in this light is an appropriate adjustment, did referring to Jesus as “My dear Atoning Lamb” communicate something of equal importance?
In light of the vivid scene (known by the poetic device, hypotyposis) just painted in the original third stanza, to claim Jesus’ redemption as deeply personal gives a rather stirring and evocative opening statement. The words do not inspire a general claim or reality, but one that is intimately personal, which a person cannot help but share with the world. By omitting the third stanza, the hymn loses a key turning point in the journey through the hymn as well as a climactic follow up to the second stanza. The second stanza ends, “Thou art my Lord, my God,” and then the third stanza depicts in a shockingly graphic manner the one whom the individual is claiming as Lord and God. Stanza four then affirms that indeed, the one who is “my Lord and God…who hangs on yonder tree” truly and surely is “My dear atoning Lamb.”
For Further Reading:
Watson, Richard and Kenneth Trickett, and Norman P. Goldhawk. Companion to Hymns and
Psalms. Peterborough: Methodist Publishing House, 1988.
Young, Carlton. Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.
Simon Hill is a Master of Sacred Music student at Perkins School of Theology, SMU. He studies hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.