Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: When I take groups to England, a question I often receive is, “Did pub songs of their day lend their tunes to the hymns of Charles or John Wesley?”
While writing a recent devotional book on the Wesleys (its purpose is to help church members understand what the method actually is), I see three important principles about music were part of the “method” of the Wesleyan Movement.
- The Wesleys wanted to not only revive the church, but they also wanted to revive worship songs. Therefore, they encouraged and wrote in more engaging and up-to-date musical styles.
- Though Charles did not write music, only the words, he did borrow melodies from secular orchestral works (music composed for an orchestra), folk tunes and even operatic works. Thus having studied his life I know that Charles utilized popular secular melodies, but did so carefully because worship is a critical and supernatural communication.
- However, I also believe from studying their lives that John or Charles would not borrow the melody of a drinking song and use it as the melodic foundation for a worship song.
To understand more about #3, read this article by Dean McIntyre, director of music resources for the the United Methodist Discipleship Ministries.
Did the Wesleys Really Use Drinking Song Tunes for Their Hymns?
…There is also the deeper issue of whether the importing of secular and drinking songs into the church to accompany congregational singing would be acceptable to the Wesleys. Wesley issued three collections of tunes: the Foundery Collection in 1742, Select Hymns with Tunes Annext (in which first appears his celebrated “Directions for Singing,” reprinted on page vii of The United Methodist Hymnal) in 1761, and his last, Sacred Harmony, in 1780. What we find in these collections yields an important insight into Wesley’s musical aesthetic for hymn tunes. Here we find the simple, traditional psalm tunes and hymn melodies, primarily from Anglican song. A number of these survive in our own 1989 United Methodist Hymnal (nos. 60, 96, 142, 181, 302, 385, 414, 450, 682). However, many of Charles’s texts were in increasing number and complexity of meter and required new sources for tunes to accompany them. John made use of new tunes composed or adapted from folk tunes, sacred and secular oratorio, and even operatic melodies. It should not escape us that whenever Wesley allowed the use of secular music as from oratorio and opera he used music of accepted high standard and almost always from classical rather than popular sources. In no instance did Wesley turn to tavern or drinking songs or other such unseemly sources to carry the sacred texts of songs and hymns.
Another help to understanding what Wesley considered appropriate in hymn tunes is to be found in his “Directions for Singing.” Of particular importance is a portion of his fourth direction: “Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.” It is clear that Wesley intends the “songs of Satan” to no longer be sung. Also important is his seventh direction:
“Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.”
Wesley’s aesthetic to “above all sing spiritually” simply would not allow drinking songs to accompany hymn texts.
Finally, in no hymn book, tune book, or other publication of the Wesleys can there be found any example of or encouragement to use drinking songs for singing hymns.
What About Today?
The question still remains, “What about today? Just because Luther and the Wesleys didn’t use drinking song tunes and other popular music for their hymns, does that mean we shouldn’t?”
Whether Wesley did or didn’t use drinking songs is not really the issue. Rather, the issue is why Wesley did or didn’t use them. Wesley found the close association of hymn text and tune (even commonly referred to as a “wedding”) to be of such importance that the use of tavern songs was beneath consideration. It was never a possibility. That question remains for us to answer today. Do we find it acceptable, appropriate, and commendable to select the music of drunken sailors or the local tavern for our worship? If Wesley’s reasoning for the Methodists of his time remains valid for our own, then the answer is no; and those who choose to use such music in worship should be able to dispute Wesley’s practice convincingly…
For further discussion of this topic, see Dean McIntyre’s article “Debunking the Wesley Tavern Song Myth.”
Download the full article and read more at … https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/did-the-wesleys-really-use-drinking-song-tunes-for-their-hymns
Now, (this is Bob Whitesel again) some people mention that the web is filled with references to John and Charles utilizing pub songs when, as you can see, this is not supported by evidence or the Wesleys’ practical theology.
Some point to an entertaining video by the Christian ‘acapella group Glad (I use this video in class sometimes) where they say the opposite. Watch this entertaining video (and learn about culture from it, but not history) and then read the explanation by Glad former member Bob Kauflin.