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By Pastor Cory Swinderman
Charles Wesley was a prolific hymn writer. He penned over 6,000 hymns in a span of 53 years. You’ve probably heard his best-known hymn, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, many times in the past month.
During Wesley’s life, people would often use his hymns in their own books. Sometimes they would give him credit for writing the songs they reproduced, and sometimes they would not give him credit. The lack of credit did not seem to bother him too much. Yet, when people began changing the words to his songs, that bothered him a great deal.
Wesley once wrote: “But I desire they would not attempt to mend (the hymns), for they are really not able to. None of them is able to mend either the sense or the verse.”
I can understand his sentiment. If I had spent the time writing a song, I wouldn’t want my words changed either. I would want to control the message of my song.
We often seek to control those things which are most valuable to us. Whether it is a song like Wesley’s, or it’s our families, our relationships, our churches or our organizations. We’ve put time and energy into them, and we often don’t want them to be changed. We see our own perspective and our own vision as it relates to these things, and we can feel that fresh ideas would only threaten the good that currently exists.
Fourteen years after Wesley wrote Hark! the Herald Angels Sing, the evangelist George Whitfield put it in his own book of hymns. He gave Wesley credit for writing it, but, against Wesley’s guidance from the quote above, Whitfield changed the words of Wesley’s song. Whitfield believed Wesley’s words weren’t quite right for the hymn, even though Wesley was the author. Whitfield began thoroughly changing the song, starting with the first line. Whitfield wrote, “Hark! The Herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King…’”
You might wonder what Wesley’s original words were which Whitfield replaced. After all, Wesley was under the impression that his hymns didn’t need mended. Wesley originally started his song with these words: “Hark, how all the welkin rings, ‘Glory to the King of kings.’” (story shared on page 49, Then Sings My Soul by Robert Morgan)
Whitfield’s version is the version that we sing today. It’s hard to imagine Charlie Brown singing Wesley’s original version of the song, and it’s hard to imagine any of us listening to it without grabbing a dictionary to look up the word “welkin.” (Thank you, George Whitfield. Your changes were needed.)
In Wesley’s song, change was needed, and it took someone outside of Charles Wesley to see the need for change and make the changes necessary.
No one likes change. Faced with change, we often reach for control. But what if our stubborn need to control might be leaving our families, our churches, or our organizations with “welkin rings”?
What if, in 2023, we were to replace our need for control with the following 3 things?
1) Prayer – Prayer is our ability to release our own control to the one who is actually in control. In scripture, God never calls any human being to a place of control, not even the kings of Israel. God was ALWAYS to remain in control, and the kings were asked to call upon Him in prayer for wisdom, strength, and the ability to lead. When the kings sought the control that was to be God’s alone, they forfeited God’s blessings and their ability to lead well.
2) Discernment – Discernment is essential in 2023. We are not to change for the sake of change, and God warns us about the dangers of following popular opinion (of which there is no end to opinions in 2023). Yet discernment is never to be a license to remain stationary or a trump card to get our own way. Discernment would allow Wesley to see that though Whitfield’s words were different, his point was the same. Discernment is gained on our knees and in the company of fellow believers. Discernment that is led by the Holy Spirit, in line with God’s Word, and shared among others can result in a vision that God can use to greatly bless the world in the months and years to come.
3) Humility – Humility is the ability to see ourselves as God sees us. We are not God, nor does our opinion have the same weight as God’s. We might be misguided or shortsighted, but we might be the last person to realize it. We confess this, and it causes us to lean on the collective wisdom of others. We enter our conversations with two working ears and one mouth.
Despite the hymn alteration, George Whitfield and Charles Wesley remained good friends till death parted them. Later in George Whitfield’s journal he wrote: “Blessed be God for what has been done here since I left London, by my honoured friend and fellow-labourer, Mr. Charles Wesley. Surely, we can see the fruits of our labours. All love, all glory be to God, for giving so great an increase!” (Whitfield, Journals).
Oh! that a similar increase might come in 2023 through us, as we learn to release our hard-fought control to God and humbly move forward together in the light he provides.