This was the title of Charles Wesley’s “O for a thousand tongues to sing” when he first published it in his Hymns and Sacred Poems in 1740. Later, it was chosen by his brother John to be the first hymn in A Collection of Hymns for Use of the People Called Methodists (1780), the first true Methodist hymnal.
For this reason it is has generally been placed at the beginning of the hymnals of the United Methodist church and its forerunner Methodist denominations in this country (with the exception of the 1932 Methodist Hymnal, which led off with ‘Holy, holy holy’). Methodists in the UK, however, do not attach the same significance; their hymnals tend begin with a paraphrases of Psalm 100 (either ‘Before Jehovah’s awful throne’ or ‘All people that on earth do dwell’).
In American hymnals, “O for a thousand tongues” almost always appears with the familiar hymntune Azmon. Azmon is a sturdy melody in triple time by Carl Gotthilf Gläser (1784-1824), a provincial German composer and teacher that had been a boy chorister at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. It is interesting to note, again, that Brits do not hold to any such strict monogamy between texts and tunes, particularly in this case. One can see in the illustration above that Wesley indicated ‘Birstal Tune’ was the tune for this text, but that did not catch on either. In a quick glance through my modest hymnal collection, I found this hymn paired with no fewer than twelve different tunes. This might seem bewildering, but it isn’t actually that surprising—because of the straightforward meter of the poetry, this hymn can be sung to a wide variety of tunes (including the themes to The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’sIsland).
My favorite tune for this him, the one we sang when I was at university in Wales, is an early 19th-century fuguing tune by Thomas Jarman called Lyngham:
Lyngham has a sprightly melody with several repetitions of the text and lots of interplay between the parts; it has a very similar musical character as Azmon, actually, but is a much longer and more elaborate tune.
As with many of the hymns we sing, this one is excerpted from a much longer poem. Wesley’s original has 18 stanzas beginning with the text ‘Glory to God, and praise and love.’ The part we know begins at stanza 7. The number of stanzas that editors tend to include in hymnals varies between five and eight, with as many as ten in Wesley’s original 1780 collection. As often as not, stanza 1 will be appended to the end of the hymn as a sort of summing up—this is the case in Thy Hymnal 1982.
There is a companion volume to the hymnal that has background and commentary on all the hymns. The entry on this hymn observes that “this important text by Charles Wesley has suffered at the hands of past Revision Committees of the Hymnal.” Well, I’m sorry to say that the suffering continued at the hands of Revision Committee for the present hymnal. I am talking about what they did in stanza 5: “Hear him, he deaf: his praise, ye dumb / your loosened tongues employ.” Now in fairness, I have to admit that “dumb” is considered a bad word by my pre-school aged sons, but I really fail to see who else but a six year old could misunderstand or take offence to its use in the context. The solution that the committee put forward is typically vapid: “Hear him, he deaf: ye voiceless ones / your loosened tongues employ.” Being voiceless (hoarse? shy? victim of political repression?) does not pack the punch of being dumb–physically unable to talk. Also, changing the end of the first line from “dumb” to “ones” necessitated changing the end of the third line from “come” to “comes,” and even at that they don’t rhyme. To me the thing is just…well, dumb.
Finally, in the interest of full disclosure, here is the full eighteen stanzas of Wesley’s original hymn. The harlots, publicans, and sons of lust in the later stanzas can be read as eighteenth-century “quaint,” but the penultimate stanza contains an image so shocking to modern ears that it would be completely unusable in any worship context –it was omitted in the “full” version of the text in the current United Methodist hymnal.
Glory to God, and praise and love
Be ever, ever given,
By saints below and saints above,
The church in earth and heaven.
On this glad day the glorious Sun
Of Righteousness arose;
on my benighted soul he shone
and filled it with repose.
Sudden expired the legal strife,
’twas then I ceased to grieve;
My second, real, living life
I then began to live.
Then with my heart I first believed,
Believed with faith divine,
Power with the Holy Ghost received
to call the Savior mine.
I felt my Lord’s atoning blood
Close to my soul applied;
me, me he loved, the Son of God,
for me, for me he died!
I found and owned his promise true,
Ascertained of my part,
My pardon passed in heaven I knew
When written on my heart.
O for a thousand tongues to sing
my dear Redeemer’s praise!
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of his grace.
My gracious Master and my God,
Assist me to proclaim,
To spread through all the earth abroad
The honors of thy name.
Jesus! the name that charms our fears,
That bids our sorrows cease;
’tis music in the sinner’s ears,
’tis life, and health, and peace!
He breaks the power of canceled sin,
he sets the prisoner free;
his blood can make the foulest clean;
his blood availed for me.
He speaks, and listening to his voice
New life the dead receive;
The mournful, broken hearts rejoice,
The humble poor believe.
Hear him, ye deaf, his praise, ye dumb,
Your loosened tongues employ;
Ye blind, behold your Savior come,
And leap, ye lame, for joy.
Look unto him, ye nations, own
Your God, ye fallen race!
Look, and be saved through faith alone,
Be justified by grace!
See ally our sins on Jesus laid;
The Lamb of God was slain,
His soul was once an offering made
For every soul of man.
Harlot sand publicans and thieves,
in holy triumph join!
Saved is the sinner that believes
From crimes as great as mine.
Murderers and all ye hellish crew,
ye sons of lust and pride,
believe the Savior died for you;
for me the Savior died.
Awake from guilty nature’s sleep,
And Christ shall give you light,
Cast all your sins into the deep,
And wash the Ethiop white.
With me, your chief, you then shall know,
Shall feel your sins forgiven;
Anticipate your heaven below
and own that love is heaven.
Charles Wesley (1707-1788), gesturing for the altos to sing just a bit more softly