History of Hymns: “Ye Servants of God”
“Ye Servants of God”
By Charles Wesley
The United Methodist Hymnal, 181
Ye Servants of God, your Master proclaim,
And publish abroad his wonderful name;
The name all-victorious of Jesus extol,
His kingdom is glorious and rules over all.
Charles Wesley (1707-1788), one of the most prolific hymn writers of all time, crafted more than 8,900 hymns and poems. Although “Ye Servants of God” may seem like a standard hymn of praise to God, there is a deeper theology within it, which Wesley works into all his writing.
This hymn was first published in 1744 in Hymns for Times of Trouble and Persecution and opened the section of “Hymns to Be Sung in a Tumult.” While not as well known as some other hymns by Charles Wesley, “Ye Servants of God” certainly falls in the second tier of hymns by this poet that appear across ecumenical traditions.
During the time of this hymn, Methodist Societies experienced severe persecution by the Church of England. A sect of the Roman Catholic Church known as the Jacobites was trying to restore the Catholic Church as the ruling church in Britain. Some of the Methodists were confused for Jacobites and thus labeled as anti-crown, leading to their persecution. This hymn was published only one year before the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745 when Charles Edward Stuart, grandson of James II, invaded Britain.
The original hymn had six stanzas, as opposed to the four found in modern hymnals. The omitted stanzas, originally stanzas two and three, are as follows:
The waves of the sea have lift up their voice,
Sore troubled that we in Jesus rejoice;
The floods they are roaring, but Jesus is here,
While we are adoring, He always is near.
Men, Devils engage, the billows arise,
And horribly rage, and threaten the skies:
Their fury shall never our steadfastness shock
The weakest believer is built on a rock.
These stanzas deal heavily with the turmoil and chaos these Methodists and the Wesleys were going through, contextualizing the adversity of the Wesleys’ ministry. Charles and John experienced harrowing storms on their American voyage in 1735, so they were familiar with the trouble of being tossed around on the roaring waves of the sea. They also suffered grave persecutions in the 1740s. Among the worst were accusations of treason against the king. John was assaulted by a law officer and mob while preaching in Sheffield in 1743:
“…The stones often struck me in the face. After the sermon I prayed for sinners, as servants of their master, the devil; upon which the Captain ran at me with great fury, threatening revenge for my abusing, as he called, ‘the King his master.’ He forced his way through the brethren, drew his sword, and presented it to my breast… I threw it open, and, fixing mine eye on his, smiled in his face, and calmly said, ‘I fear God, and honor the King.’ His countenance fell in a moment, he fetched a deep sigh, put up his sword and quietly left the place” (The Journal of Charles Wesley, May 17-August 28, 1743).
This hymn gave people a hymn to sing in a tumultuous time.
In The Companion to the Episcopal Hymnal 1982, Raymond F. Glover suggests that these two stanzas were dropped in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century “for the sake of a more general doxological use of the hymn” (Glover, 1994, 999).
Looking at the deeper elements, Wesley was known to have followed a pattern in his hymn writing. His focus is on God, followed by Christ as Savior. Wesley sets up a path that leads to the goal of heaven or the eternal dimension, using words such as “ceaseless” and “infinite,” while always being grounded in love.
Looking at this hymn, one can see the theological motifs and the structure that Wesley consistently uses. The first stanza begins with God and the praise that God’s servants offer to the deity. By the end of the first stanza, the poet mentions the glorious kingdom that “rules over all,” pointing toward heaven. As the hymn progresses, the focus shifts more from God and God’s acts to Christ in the penultimate stanza. Finally, in the last stanza, everyone should adore God because of God’s works and Christ’s sacrifice. In the third line, Wesley describes the “angels above,” ending the stanza with “and thanks never ceasing and infinite love,” describing the eternal dimension. The words “never ceasing” and “infinite” describe God’s love, which is the grounding and route of God’s acts.
Stanzas three and four quote sections of the Book of Revelation. Stanza three, beginning with “Salvation to God, who sits on the throne,” echoes Revelation 7:10-11: “Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb. And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God” (KJV). Stanza four invites us to join the heavenly pantheon and alludes strongly to another passage in the Book of Revelation: “Blessing, and honor, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever” (Revelation 5:13, KJV). The song that we are joining is one of “thanks never ceasing” (I Thessalonians 2:13) “and infinite love.”
Not surprisingly, Charles penned some of his most powerful hymns during the 1740s. Fruits of adversity, these hymns were molded in the “dark night of the soul,” leaving works of exquisite strength and substance. Charles Wesley scholar S T Kimbrough, Jr. makes this connection: “‘Ye servants of God’ is an eighteenth-century cry of the soul against oppression and persecution not unlike the twentieth-century outcry against injustice in the African American freedom song, ‘We Shall Overcome.’ It is a call to courage, to stand and be counted, in a time of adversity” (Kimbrough, 1996, 193).
In “Ye Servants of God,” Wesley provided a way for the persecuted Christians of the time to sing a hymn of praise amidst all the turmoil with the reminder of God’s gift of salvation and love. This hymn provides a source of comfort and fortitude for those struggling and a reminder that God’s never-ceasing and infinite love is the most important thing that will remain in the end.
For Further Reading:
The Journal of Charles Wesley, May 17-August 28, 1743. http://wesley.nnu.edu/charles-wesley/the-journal-of-charles-wesley-1707-1788/the-journal-of-charles-wesley-may-17-august-28-1743
Glover, Raymond F. The Hymnal 1982 Companion. Vol. Three B. New York: Church Hymnal Corp., 1994, 999.
Kimbrough, Jr., S T. A Heart to Praise My God. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996, 193.
Scott Scheetz is a Master of Sacred Music student at Perkins School of Theology, SMU, where he studies hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.