John Wesley was very particular about the texts his people were to sing, and
how they were to sing them. From the beginning of the movement, Methodists were
famed for their hearty singing. Singing occurred mainly at two types of Methodist meetings: the popular preaching service, which included a hymn before and after the sermon, and the “love-feast,” where several hymns were sung at the conclusion. But it wasn’t only at indoor meetings that Methodist hymn singing was remarked upon. Charles Wesley was known for leading his followers in hearty singing as they walked along public roads between gatherings.
The Methodist leadership made very specific directions on how the people were to sing. In 1746, it suggested the following to its preachers.
- To be careful to choose hymns proper to the congregation.
- To choose hymns of praise or prayer.
- To beware of singing too much – though many Wesleyan hymn texts were very long, no more than 5-6 verses were to be sung at a time.
- To regularly stop the singing and ask the people if they knew the meaning of what they had just sung. This was one of John Wesley’s favorite techniques.
The most valuable comments on Methodist singing come from John Wesley himself in the prefaces to his hymnbooks. The following comments are found in the preface to “Sacred Melody”, the melody portion of Select Hymns (1761).
- Learn these tunes before any others.
- Sing them exactly as they are printed here…If you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.
- Sing All. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can.
- Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.
- Sing modestly.
- Sing in time. Whatever time is sung be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it…
- Above all sing spiritually!