History of Hymns: Wesley hymn speaks language of the heart
O for a heart to praise my God,
A heart from sin set free,
A heart that always feels thy blood
So freely shed for me.
Charles Wesley (1707-1788) wrote this hymn in the years immediately following his disastrous mission trip to America in 1735, his subsequent illness upon his return, and then the unbridled enthusiasm of his conversion on Whitsunday (Pentecost Sunday), May 21, 1738.
This is a hymn of total commitment to God, a prayer for pureness of heart, a plea for Christian perfection.
“O For a Heart to Praise My God” was introduced in the book Hymns and Sacred Poems in 1742, published by John Wesley, originally with eight stanzas. The scriptural basis was Psalm 51:10, thus the heading to the hymn, “Make me a Clean Heart, O GOD, and renew a right Spirit within me.” Thirty-eight years later, the eight-stanza hymn was included in a slightly altered form in the monumental Wesley hymnal, A Collection of Hymns: For the Use of the People Called Methodists (1780) under the category “For Believers Groaning for Full Redemption.”
Wesley scholar James I. Warren Jr. describes this hymn as “Seeking Perfection in Love.” In the first stanza, the sinner yearns for her or his heart to be cleansed. Throughout the successive stanzas, the believer then pleads to God to keep her or his heart pure, growing to be more like Christ.
Each stanza explores the nature of the heart. In every stanza, Wesley employs the technique of synecdoche, in which a part—in this case the heart—substitutes for the whole. In the first stanza, the poet yearns for a heart to praise God for God’s redemption and love, and to personally feel God’s presence. The only stanza that does not mention the heart is the penultimate stanza, where the writer focuses on the Redeemer’s “lips.”
As the Christian’s heart becomes more Christ-like, the Christian is moving toward perfection. The language of stanza one is passionate: “. . . a heart that always feels thy blood/so freely shed for me.”
In stanza two, Wesley uses the rhetorical devise of tautology—repetition of the same idea in different words. “Resign’d, submissive, meek” are all different expressions for the same idea. This was Wesley’s way of emphasizing the importance of the sinner’s role in coming to Christ for help.
In the third stanza, Wesley incorporates tautology again with the words “humble,” “lowly” and “contrite,” along with “Believing, true, and clean” to reiterate that the humble sinner who comes to Christ will have her or his heart renewed.
Again, Charles Wesley uses tautology in the last half of stanza four—“perfect and right and pure and good, a copy”—to call attention to Christ’s perfection and how Christians should strive to be like their Savior.
Finally, Wesley penned the following words in the 1742 collection:
Thy Nature, dearest LORD, impart,
Come quickly from above,
Write Thy New Name upon my Heart,
Thy New, Best Name of Love.
The word “heart,” not used in the previous stanza, reappears. Wesley employs personification—the believer pleads for “Love” (an image of Christ) to be written on the heart.
“O For a Heart to Praise My God” appears in the UM Hymnal (1989) in the section, “Sanctifying and Perfecting Grace,” in five stanzas (stanzas one through four and eight of the original). The hymn is paired with the tune, RICHMOND, composed by Thomas Haweis (1734-1820) for a friend named Leigh Richmond, who was a rector at Turvey, Bedfordshire. According to the hymnal’s editor, the Rev. Carlton Young, “RICHMOND entered our hymnals in 1966. The tune along with the text is seldom sung, though many think it easy to sing.”
Charles Wesley’s hymns often not only employ the theme of the heart, but also speak the language of the heart or, as a hymn from the same era says—“the music of the heart” (“Praise the Lord Who Reigns Above,” No. 96, stanza two).