Hymn of the Week: May 2
by Robert Lehman,
Organist and Choirmaster
The Church of St. Michael & St. George, Clayton
Hymn 704: O thou who camest from above
Words: Charles Wesley (1707-1788), alt.
Music: Hereford; Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-1876)
The words and music of this hymn are in the public domain.
The great hymn writer Charles Wesley, the youngest of eighteen children, bore the surname of the family that stands out as central to the English ecclesiastical movement. Educated at Christ Church, Oxford, he received his degree in 1729 and became a college tutor. It was at this time that his deep religious impressions were deepened and he became one of the first of the Oxford Methodists. Ordained a deacon and priest – on two successive Sundays – Wesley set out, with his brother John, for America in 1735. The pair landed in Georgia where Charles remained for just a year before returning to England.
Upon his return to his homeland, Wesley fell under the influence of the Moravians who had played a large role in the theological formation of his brother, John. After a short tenure as a parish curate, he was forbidden to preach by the vicar in response to the opposition of the churchwardens to his appointment. His work was now so identified with that of his brother, that he became an indefatigable itinerant preacher. Charles Wesley died in London, March 29, 1788, and was buried in Marylebone churchyard. His brother John was deeply grieved because Charles would not consent to be interred in the burial-ground of the City Road Chapel, where he had prepared a grave for himself. Always true to his Anglican ordination, Charles said, “I have lived, and I die, in the Communion of the Church of England, and I will be buried in the yard of my parish church.”
As a hymn writer, Charles Wesley’s hymns number about 6,500. No other hymn writer has ever penned such a vast number of hymns and it is astonishing how many of them rise to the highest pinnacle of excellence. The text O thou who camest from above is from the author’s collection of Short Hymns on Selected Passages of Holy Scripture. The biblical pretext of the hymn is Leviticus 6:13: “The fire shall ever be burning upon the altar; it shall never go out.”
The composer of the hymn tune Hereford was Samuel Sebastian Wesley, the grandson of the hymn’s author. A towering figure in English cathedral music, S. S. Wesley made it his life’s work to raise the standards of liturgical music in England. In 1832 he became organist at Hereford Cathedral (hence the hymn tune name), then on to Exeter Cathedral, Leeds Parish Church, Winchester Cathedral, and Gloucester Cathedral. He never remained in a post long because of his dissatisfaction with the quality of the services that were offered at the hands of the clergy. In pursuit of his mission, he penned a book, A Few Words on Cathedral Music and the Musical System of the Church with a Plan of Reform, which should be required reading for all clergy and church musicians. According to his wishes, S. S. Wesley is buried at Exeter.
O thou who camest from above
the fire celestial to impart,
kindle a flame of sacred love
upon the altar of my heart.
There let it for thy glory burn
with ever bright, undying blaze,
and trembling to its source return
in humble prayer and fervent praise.
Jesus, confirm my heart's desire
to work, and speak, and think for thee;
still let me guard the holy fire,
and still stir up the gift in me.
Still let me prove thy perfect will,
my acts of faith and love repeat,
till death thy endless mercies seal,
and make the sacrifice complete.