Article

History of Hymns: “What Wondrous Love Is This”

by C. Michael Hawn

"What Wondrous Love Is This"
Anonymous American folk hymn
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 292

C. Michael Hawn

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul,
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this
that caused the Lord of bliss
to bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul.

We have few clues as to the author and composer of this profound hymn of wonder at the love of Christ for all humanity.

"What Wondrous Love Is This" captures our attention right from the beginning with its simplicity and persistence – "What wondrous love is this" sung three times. This repetition is not the sign of a weak poet who has a narrow range of expression, but a fellow traveler who has experienced profoundly the sacrificial love of Christ and can only express again and again – "What wondrous love is this." It is the kind of repetition that sounds trite when spoken, yet gains strength and power through singing. These are not the carefully crafted words of a theologian, but utterances directly from the heart or, even more profoundly, from the soul.

Depending on how one reads the stanza cited above, the entire first stanza is either a statement of pure awe or a profound question. This rhetorical device – the ambiguity of a statement of awe or profound question – is reminiscent of Charles Wesley's "And Can It Be" (United Methodist Hymnal, 363). The first stanza of that hymn ends, "Amazing love! How can it be/that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?"

The sentiments in "Wondrous Love" are almost identical, causing one to speculate if the poet had encountered Wesley's version some decades earlier. Exploring that possibility, however, is academic. Is this not the profound realization of every Christian who reflects on God's love in Christ?

Thanks to the careful work of scholars, we do have some suggestions about the origins of this hymn. According to correspondence with Carlton Young, the text appeared as early as 1811 in a collection by Stith Mead titled General Selection of the Newest and Most Admired Hymns and Spiritual Songs Now in Use (second enlarged edition). William J. Reynolds traced a variant of this text to Hymns and Spiritual Songs, Original and Selected by Starke Dupuy, also published in 1811.

Famous Appalachian folksong collector George Pullen Jackson noted that the structure of the text was very similar to the English ballad "Captain Kidd." Robert Kidd was a pirate who was executed in 1701. All of this suggests a song with its origins in oral tradition sung in several variants, but eventually stabilized by being printed in a widely circulated collection.

Hymnologist Harry Eskew suggests that the tune first appeared in the second edition (1840) of William Walker's shaped-note collection, The Southern Harmony, and Musical Companion (originally 1835). Walker himself (also known as "Singing Billy" Walker) states unambiguously that the song may be attributed to a James Christopher of Spartanburg, South Carolina. Scholars such as Deborah Carlton Loftis find this very suspicious for many musicological and hymnological reasons. We can say, however, that The Southern Harmony put this song on the lips of many singers in the antebellum south.

The text is sometimes attributed to Alexander Means (1801-1883), a physician, professor, President of Emory College (now University) from 1854-1855, and a licensed preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church. While an impressive individual for sure, he would have been only ten years old when the text appeared in 1811 in the collection cited above by Stith Mead.

Perhaps a difficult phrase to sing for many today is found in stanza one:

. . .
What wondrous love is this
that caused the Lord of bliss
to bear the dreadful curse for my soul. . .

 

Perhaps "dreadful curse" is a reference to "original sin" or the sin that all humanity shares as a result of the fall of Adam. A look at this concept through Calvinist eyes adds gravity to the phrase. If the writer was Calvinist in perspective, the "dreadful curse" may reflect the "total depravity of man."

An original second stanza certainly supports this:

When I was sinking down . . .
Beneath God's righteous frown,
Christ laid aside his crown for my soul.

The amended version appears in The United Methodist Hymnal as:

What wondrous love is this . . .
that caused the Lord of Life
to lay aside his crown for my soul.

Certainly the latter is more attuned to grace and mercy.

The six-stanza variant that first appeared in Methodist hymnals is reduced to four in The United Methodist Hymnal. The song of the lone singer takes on cosmic proportions in stanza three as "millions join the theme." In stanza four, we find that this is an unending song of praise as "through eternity, [we'll] sing on."

 

 

 

Dr. Hawn is distinguished professor of church music at Perkins School of Theology. He is also director of the seminary's sacred music program.

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