Archive: Unpacking “O For A Thousand Tongues”

By Riley B. Case
March/April 1989
Good News

If there were a hymn that might claim the title “The Methodist National Anthem” it would be “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” For two hundred years this hymn has been the first in the Methodist hymnal.

“O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” was based on a remark by Peter Bohler, a friend of the Wesleys, who commented one day, “If I had a thousand tongues I’d praise Christ with them all.”

The resulting hymn was written by Charles Wesley with eighteen verses. In the interest of brevity, recently hymnals have carried only six verses. However, because of the potency of the hymn’s message, the new 1989 hymnal has printed nearly all of the original verses. To sing the hymn is to worship the living God and give testimony to the heritage United Methodists hold as precious.

My gracious master, and my God,
assist me to proclaim,
to spread thro’ all the earth abroad
the honours of Thy name.

Charles Wesley wrote “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” in May 1739. The original title was: “For the Anniversary Day of One’s Conversion.” A year earlier, in May 1738, both John and Charles Wesley had come by faith to a relationship with Jesus Christ.

John’s was a dramatic conversion. After a strict religious upbringing, a disciplined devotional life, ordination as a priest in the Church of England, and a trip to America to save the Indians, he realized he did not have the faith about which he preached. A Moravian friend, Peter Bohler, helped Wesley realize salvation depends on the merits of Christ alone.

On May 24, 1738, while attending a small group in a room off Aldersgate Street in London, John Wesley felt his heart “strangely warmed.” He knew the assurance of salvation for the first time.

On this glad day the glorious Son
of Righteousness arose,
on my benighted Soul He shone,
and fill’d it with repose (vs. 2).

John’s record of his Aldersgate experience is found in his journal for May 24, 1738: “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Sudden expir’d the legal strife,
‘twas then I ceas’d to grieve,
my second, real, living life
I then began to live (vs. 3).

Charles Wesley’s conversion, though not so dramatic, was no less real. Like John, Charles had had a strict, religious upbringing; had belonged to the same rigidly-disciplined “Holy Club”; had been ordained a priest in the Church of England and had gone to America as a missionary. And just as with John, Charles came first to a commitment to the doctrine of salvation by faith. He wrote in his journal for Wednesday, May 17, 1738:

“Who would believe our church had been founded on this important article of justification by faith alone? I am astonished I should ever think this a new doctrine; especially while our Articles and Homilies stand unrepealed …. From this time I endeavored to ground as many of our friends as came into this fundamental truth, salvation by faith alone.”

A few days later Charles came to a living faith.

Then with my heart I first believ’d,
believ’d with faith divine,
power with the Holy Ghost receiv’d
to call the Savior mine. (vs. 4)

In the year following the conversions of John and Charles Wesley, the Methodist revival began to spread. The Wesleys’ message centered on Jesus Christ.

Jesus! The name that charms our fears,
that bids our sorrows cease,
‘tis music in the sinners ears,
‘tis life, and health, and peace (w. 9).

This Jesus-centered message was in contrast to the deism, rationalism, and sacramentalism (which stressed the sacraments) that characterized the religious thinking of much of 18th century England. Methodism’s evangelical message centered on the Reformation doctrine of salvation by faith alone.

Look unto Him, ye nations, own
your God, ye fallen race!
Look, and be sav’d, thro’ faith alone;
be justified by grace (vs. 13).

In contrast to confessionalism (a form of Protestant scholasticism which stresses creeds and right beliefs), Methodism’s evangelical message stressed a new birth that could be experienced personally. 

I felt my Lord’s atoning blood
close to my soul applied;
Me, me He lov’d – the Son of God
for me, for me He died (vs. 5)!

In contrast to the deadness which characterized the church of Wesley’s day, Methodism’s evangelical message spoke of power and joy.

Hear Him ye deaf, His praise ye dumb
your loosen’d tongues employ,
the blind, behold your Savior come,
and leap, ye lame, for joy (vs. 12).

The Methodist movement defined the word evangelical as the understanding of Christianity being centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ, particularly (in the words of the Abingdon Catechism) His “incarnate life, atoning death, and glorious resurrection.” But evangelicalism was more than an “understanding.” It was a message preached and lived: salvation by faith, the new birth, holy living and a desire to reach the lost.

He breaks the power of cancell’d sin,
He sets the prisoner free:
His blood can make the foulest clean;
His blood avail’d for me (vs.10)

Whenever he could, John Wesley preached this salvation message in the established churches of England. But because his message was thought to be controversial, invitations to preach were often withdrawn. In such instances Wesley joined his friend George Whitefield to preach in the open air.

It was there, among miners, poor people and common people, that the revival began to spread around England. The journals of both John and Charles are filled with reference to hundreds crying to God for mercy.

“O For a Thousand Tongues Sing” became a reflection on the conversion of many Methodists. And the hymns of Wesley were often the testimonies, the teachings, and even the altar calls of the revival from which Methodism was born.

See all your sins on Jesus laid;
the Lamb of God was slain,
His soul was once an offering made
for every soul of man (vs.14).

To appreciate “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” it is helpful to ask three questions.

1.What is the hymn about? Often we sing “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” as an opening hymn of praise in worship. But the hymn is about more than praise to God. It is about specific praise to Jesus for what has been accomplished on the cross and for the new life in Christ available to us. This is followed by a compassionate appeal to the unsaved to believe in Jesus Christ. Actually, this is song is about the gospel.

2. Who is speaking? We, of course, think church attenders are speaking. For Wesley, however, church attenders were Christians at some point on their Christian journeys.

In “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” we celebrate the new-found joy of salvation (the hymn, remember, was originally titled, “For the Anniversary Day of One’s Conversion”). And from the vantage point of a new convert, we follow the new believer’s testimony through several stages on the way to salvation: sin (vs. 2 ), justification (vs. 3), free grace (vs. 4), assurance (vs. 5) and regeneration (vs. 5).

3. Who is being addressed? Prior to Wesley many of the hymns in the hymnal were addressed to the Church or the worshiping community. Wesley hymns introduce an additional feature: verses are addressed to sinners; that is, the lost outside the saving grace of Christ. By addressing sinners Wesley introduced to the evangelical world the invitation hymn.

Without sounding judgmental these hymns, in an unusually compassionate tone, beckon the broken heart to “come,” which has become one of the most precious words in the evangelical faith. The following familiar verse is an example.

 

Come, O my guilty brethren come,
groaning beneath your load of sin!
His bleeding heart shall make you room;
His open side shall take you in.
He calls you now, invites you home:
Come, O my guilty brethren, come!

With Methodist societies singing this invitation across the fields and in the homes of 18th-century England, it is easy to understand why there was revival.

“O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” actually addresses several audiences: the triune God addressed in praise (verse 1 ); the congregation (or the world) addressed with the testimony of salvation (verse 2); Jesus addressed in petition (verse 8); the congregation (or the world) addressed with the gospel message (verses 9-11); the spiritually deaf, blind, and lame invited to believe (verse 12); the nations invited to believe (verses 13-14); harlots, publicans and thieves invited to believe (verse 15); murderers and sons of lust and pride invited to believe (verse 16).

Recognizing its diversified audience, we can understand how “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” was used of God to bring about revival.

Riley B. Case is district superintendent in the North Indiana Conference, a Good News board member and author of Understanding Our New United Methodist Hymnal.

 

 

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