John Wesley’s “Directions on Singing” (1761) – and some annotations

I learned these from a hymnology class back in my days at BU, but find myself returning to them again and again.  They’re excellent advice for communities seeking to enhance and invigorate congregational singing – and they can apply to any context of Christian worship. Here they are in annotated form:

1. Learn these tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please.

It is critical that the congregation have an agreed upon canon of songs. To make the songs our songs. Unfortunately for the worship leader, it means repeating songs much more often than I’d like. It is identity forming, and singing together creates a shared experience which builds relationships and (here comes the christian buzzword) community.

2. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.

I can attest to this. Contemporary American hymnody (read: all songs American christians sing – CCM and trad. alike) is fragmented. I absolutely LOVE the re-tune hymn movement, and see more and more great texts being sung by congregations that might otherwise be lost. But I often wonder if it will last. The melodies are most often much less sturdy, much less memorable. Harmonies are indie-rock influenced, which (sorry to say) is a current fashion that might not last. On the other hand, AZMON, HYFRYDOL, and CWM RHONDDA have made it this far – they’re probably are here to stay.

3. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a single degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.

I want to get better at encouraging all people to sing – even if sometimes they don’t feel like it. Our emphasis on authenticity tells us that we should only sing when our heart is behind it. While this is a great sentiment, we must realize that it places the needs and feelings of the individual above the needs and feelings of the community – sound familiar, oh 21st century westerner?  An encouragement: it is certainly true that sometimes our actions can precede our emotions. Take kneeling for example. Sometimes I don’t want to kneel and don’t feel like repentance. Yet time and again, when I do, my heart begins to kneel with my body.

4. 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, then when you sung the songs of Satan.

The best one for sure. I think we should reclaim the adverb lustily. My friend Caleb translates “the songs of satan” to “karaoke with the girls” or “Sweet Caroline at Fenway Park”.  I’m fully aware that 80% of the men in my congregation (and I’m sure a fair share of women) believe their voices are not good enough to lift up. This is infectious. If you don’t sing, the visiting family next to you might not want to sing either. Psh! Sing it out!

5. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.

Not unintentionally placed after #4. When we do sing out, let’s make sure that it is harmonious with the rest of the congregation. How do we get better at this? Just do it. Take a crack at singing a harmony. It will not come automatically for most, but it is something we can work on together as a congregation.

6. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it; but attend close to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can; and take care not to sing to slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.

A warning for young and old alike. Working with choirs of all ages, the natural tendency when singing with others is always to slow down. We wait a fraction of a second to hear someone else’s voice before adding our own. By simply acknowledging this we can nip slow singing in the bud. We don’t just follow, we sing with one voice by singing to one beat.  I teach this to the choir time and time again.

7. 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.

This is a lifelong pursuit and I’ll be the first to admit that we can sing amazing words without thinking twice about what they mean. Worship requires our attention and focus, our minds as well as our hearts. Wesley was aware of our temptation to be ‘swept away’ in a flurry of emotion based on the sounds alone and not the content of the songs.

-From John Wesley’s Select Hymns, 1761

Applicable or Archaic? Let me know in the comments.

postscript: how could I not include this link? Someone set these texts to music for Baritone and piano, incorporating hymn tunes AZMON, HYFRYDOL, and BEATA TERRA.  lol. 

Author: adamkurihara

Minister of Worship Arts at NSCBC in Beverly, MA

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