It would be hard to find a hymn that has made such an imprint on the heart of the Christian church as Charles Wesley’s “Jesus, Lover of My Soul.” From the time Wesley put pen to paper until today it has been treasured by Christians the world over—that is, by all but his brother John. It seems that John Wesley, who served as the editor of Charles’ hymns, felt that the imagery in this hymn was too intimate for use in mixed congregations, so it wasn’t included in the Methodist Hymnbook until nine years after John’s death. In light of the hymn’s overwhelming popularity it may seem that his assessment was too harsh, but Charles trusted John to sort the wheat from the chaff of his 6500 hymns.
This hymn originally bore the heading “In Times of Danger and Temptation,” which leads many to believe that it was inspired by Charles’ near shipwreck on his return from America, where he spent a discouraging year as secretary to Governor Oglethorpe of Georgia. Other spurious stories exist about how the text came to be, like the one that says a sparrow being chased by a hawk sought refuge by flying into Wesley’s coat, making him think about the way we seek refuge in God. Another tells of the night the Wesleys were chased from a revival meeting by an angry mob; while they were hiding, Charles sharpened a piece of lead into a pencil and wrote down the immortal verses.
Though this hymn text has appeared in over 2500 hymnals, it has never settled down with one tune. Of the dozens of tunes that have appeared with it over the years, most modern hymnals use either Joseph Parry’s dignified minor key tune, ABERYSTWYTH (as in the grey Psalter Hymnal) or Simeon B. Marsh’s serene MARTYN (as in the Lift Up Your Hearts hymnal). This Lent COS will have the opportunity to sing the text with a variety of tunes. This is not only an exercise in hymn geekery; it is a way for the congregation to experience the different nuances that each tune draws out of this rich hymn text. Our Lenten meditations will surely be enriched by singing
Plenteous grace with thee is found,
grace to cover all my sin;
let the healing streams abound;
make and keep me pure within.
preparing us for Easter’s resurrection
Thou of life the fountain art;
freely let me take of thee;
spring thou up within my heart,
rise to all eternity.
Can’t tell a hymn tune from her song? Contact Greg Scheer (firstname.lastname@example.org).
From Amos R. Well’s A Treasury of Hymn Stories:
Another beautiful story is told of this hymn in connection with the Civil War. In a company of old soldiers, from the Union and Confederate armies, a former Confederate was telling how he had been detailed one night to shoot a certain exposed sentry of the opposing army. He had crept near and was about to fire with deadly aim when the sentry began to sing, “Jesus, Lover of My Soul.” He came to the words,
Cover my defenseless head
With the shadow of Thy wing.
The hidden Confederate lowered his gun and stole away. “I can’t kill that man,” said he, “though he were ten times my enemy.”
In the company was an old Union soldier who asked quickly,
“Was that in the Atlanta campaign of ‘64?”
“Then I was the Union sentry!”
And he went on to tell how, on that night, knowing the danger of his post, he had been greatly depressed, and, to keep up his courage, had begun to hum that hymn. By the time he had finished, he was entirely calm and fearless. Through the song God had spoken to two souls.