Article

History of Hymns: “Tis Finished! The Messiah Dies”

by Andrew-John Bethke

"Tis Finished! The Messiah Dies"
Charles Wesley
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 282

'Tis finished! the Messiah dies,
Cut off for sins, but not his own.
Accomplished is the sacrifice,
The great redeeming work is done.

Charles Wesley


One of the great hymns of the Easter triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil) is unmistakably "'Tis Finished! the Messiah Dies" written by Charles Wesley (1707-1788). He was inspired to write the hymn after reading a short passage from the Gospel of John: "When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said 'It is finished'; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit." (John 19:30)
Of the thousands of hymn texts that Wesley wrote, this became one of his favorites. He revised the text numerous times, an unusual practice for Wesley. Three manuscript versions exist - MS Richmond, MS John and MS Trinity. 

Originally the hymn was published as two eight-line stanzas in Short Hymns on Select Passages of Holy Scripture (1762). Twenty-four years later, a substantially revised version, consisting of four four-line stanzas, appeared in A Select Collection of Hymns, Universally Sung in All the Countess of Huntingdon's Chapels (1786). 

Upon his deathbed Wesley completed an eight-stanza version, which was published in several Methodist hymnbooks in Britain during the 19th century. This particular incarnation of the hymn expands the themes first presented in the 1762 publication. Interestingly, the final stanza ensures that "redeemed sinners" are granted entrance to heaven - a common feature of Wesley's hymns. 

Most modern hymnals only use selected stanzas from the eight-stanza version. Stanzas one and three in The UM Hymnal are drawn from the 1762 publication, and stanzas two and four were selected from the Richmond manuscript (written between 1749 and 1751).
Some 70 years after Wesley's death in 1853, William Bradbury (1816 - 1868) wrote the tune OLIVE'S BROW for these words. Bradbury, an American, was a Baptist revival composer who studied with Lowell Mason. His hymn tunes are characteristically uncomplicated harmonically and often have easy-to-remember melodies. 

"'Tis Finished!" is associated with several other tunes as well. WINCHESTER NEW appears in The Methodist Hymnal (1966) with this text. A Collection of Hymns for the people called Methodists (1877) assigns it the tune CATHEDRAL CHANT. This is a regal and dignified tune that captures the enormity and solemnity of the words. More recently, modern tunes (without names) have been composed for contemporary British songbooks. 

"'Tis Finished!" is psalm-like in that each line is a development of its predecessor; for example, "Accomplished is the sacrifice, the great redeeming work is done." Stanzas one, two and four are all narrative. Stanza three is in first person singular, which highlights the hymn's theme of personal justification. 

Wesley intended this hymn to be used on Good Friday. He included a prefix in the original publication: "It is finished - John XIX.30."
The version in The UM Hymnal can also be used as a communion hymn. Wesley wrote the hymn in the present tense to highlight the reality of the crucifixion and the imminence of salvation. 

Each stanza contained in The UM Hymnal expounds a major theological concept: redemption, inclusiveness in the kingdom of heaven, justification and freedom from sin. 

The theological message of the hymn could be summarized as follows: The unblemished Son has died to accomplish our salvation. He has ensured that all who believe in him may enter the eternal kingdom. We no longer need live in guilt because we can be forgiven and renewed. Sin has lost its grip on humanity because of Jesus' death and resurrection. 
 

Mr. Bethke is a master of sacred music candidate at Perkins School of Theology and a student of Dr. Michael Hawn.

Categories: History of Hymns, History of Hymns/Hymn Studies Related to Lent and Easter