by Bob Whitesel D.Min., Ph.D., 12/23/19, Biblical Leadership Magazine.
Most people are familiar with the classic and oft sung Christmas carol: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” Fewer people may realize that it was Charles Wesley who wrote the words to this tune. Still fewer people may know that Charles Wesley had an important leadership principle in mind when he penned his Christmas classic.
Charles, and his more well-known brother John, were the practical and theological leaders of the Wesleyan Movement, which today has grown into many varieties of Methodism, including the United Methodist Church, African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Church of God in Christ, Free Methodist, Freewill Baptists, Church of the Nazarene, Assemblies of God, Seventh-day Adventists, Church of Christ, Foursquare Church, Calvary Chapels, Vineyard Churches, Salvation Army, many others and, of course, Wesleyans.
In fact, a sizable 26% of all Christian denominations can trace their history back to the Wesleyan revival.
And music was an important leadership principle in that revival. Charles wrote between 5,000 and 8,000 hymns (it depends upon who you ask). He wrote the lyrics, putting them to carefully selected tunes by composers of the day. In fact, it is said that Charles dictated to his wife his final hymns from his death bed.
Charles’ motivation was because he realized that good biblical leadership required hymns to meet the needs of the congregants who sung them. And, in part his hymns were written to address an important need.
Most of Charles’ listeners where were biblically illiterate and many were functionally illiterate too. Therefore, Charles wrote hymns with clear theology, but in memorable phrases. His goal was to help those singing remember biblical truths that they could not read.
Who cannot forget memorable refrains, such as:
Hail the Heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and Life to All he brings,
Ris’n with Healing in his Wings.
Mild he lays his Glory by,
Born—that Man no more may die,
Born—to raise the Sons of Earth,
Born—to give them Second Birth.
Even in the time of the Wesleys, the religious story behind Christmas was being discarded in favor of rampant commercialism. Only a year after his conversion Charles Wesley penned these words to educate people to the unimaginable sacrifice that God took by sending his son to earth as a newborn infant.
John Wesley even said that Charles Wesley’s hymn book was the best theological book in existence.
Leaders should understand those they lead. And for Charles this meant using seasonal celebrations combined with poetry and finely crafted theology to educate those who knew little of God’s Good News.
I’ve observed that church leaders usually spend a great deal of time selecting the right music for Sunday services. And they should. But, I’ve also noticed that some music, both traditional and contemporary, tends to be weak in theology and message. Perhaps such songs are utilized because of the catchy music attached, rather than the principles embraced.
Today Christian leaders often worry about a decreasing knowledge of Christianity amid the rampant commercialism of Christmas. Charles saw a solution (which has survived almost 300 years). He wrote finely crafted and theologically powerful songs, set to memorable tunes by contemporary composers.
In an increasingly biblically unaware world the Christmas Carol, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” can serve as an example of how Charles Wesley wrote lyrics that educated while they inspired. So the next time you hear the Christmas Carol, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” make up your mind to follow Charles’s example by picking or crafting songs that not only inspire, but also enlighten.
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