In the words of the Preface to the Methodist Hymn Book (1933), 'Methodism was born in song,' fuelled by Charles Wesley's unparalleled output of hymns. The rise of Methodism followed closely on the transition at the turn of the seventeenth century from metrical psalms to hymns, of which Isaac Watts was the chief catalyst, Charles Wesley the chief heir and the Methodist people the first beneficiaries. John Wesley had learned from his Moravian companions on the way to Georgia the value of hymn-singing as a corporate expression of faith. He translated hymns from the German and published the first of many collections, the Charlestown Hymn-book, while still in America. Charles Wesley's outburst of poetic fervour began at the time of his conversion and was sustained over half a century. Hymns were an essential ingredient of the preaching service, which was intended to supplement, not replace, the worship of the parish church. In the open air they were used to attract a congregation (a technique also used by PM preachers in the next century). There is much testimony to the effectiveness of hymn-singing in both arousing and giving expression to faith as people responded to the preaching of the 'Methodist gospel'. At the same time they were experiencing what John Wesley saw as the essentially social nature of religion and, however unconsciously, were learning what he called 'all the important truths of our most holy religion, whether speculative or practical' - a safeguard, still necessary, against empty emotionalism. In an age when literacy was limited, the practice of 'lining out' prevailed, the words being given out, usually two lines at a time, before being sung. This rather tedious practice died hard: as late as the WM Conference of 1844 there were complaints that whole verses were being given out at a time. Conference expressed its disapproval of this innovation and made further attempts in 1860 and 1877 to maintain the earlier custom, which nevertheless succumbed to the rising tide of popular education and survives only in the custom (rare in Anglican circles) of announcing a hymn by reading out at least the opening line. The first two tune-books issued under John Wesley’s authority, A Collection of Tunes, Set to Music, As They are commonly Sung at the Foundery (1742) Foundery Collectionand Select Hymns with Tunes Annext (1761; known as Sacred Melody from 1765) Select Hymns: with Tunes Annext printed melody lines only. This seems to reflect Wesley’s preference, reinforced in the ‘Directions for Singing’ he included with the 1765 edition of Sacred Melody and in accounts in his journal of his interventions to stop complex part-singing in some of the societies he visited. Another collection of tunes associated with early Methodism, however, Thomas Butts’ Harmonia Sacra (1754) contained harmonised melodies, while John Frederick Lampe’s Lampe, John Frederick twenty-four tunes in Hymns on the Great Festivals and Other Occasions (1746) ''Hymns on the Great Festivals and Other Occasions''were written for solo voice with keyboard accompaniment. These various sources point to an important aspect of hymn-singing in Methodism: while it has been almost omnipresent since the early days of the movement, Methodist musical practice has been characterised by diversity rather than uniformity. Wesley acknowledged the desire for part singing and instrumental accompaniment in his final collection of tunes, Sacred Harmony (1780), as reflected in the volume’s full title: Sacred Harmony, or a choice Collection of Psalms and Hymns, Set to Music in two and three Parts for the Voice, Harpsichord & Organ.Sacred Harmony As Methodist worship increasingly came to take place in dedicated buildings, the use of keyboard instruments to accompany congregational singing grew. Records survive of three organs in Methodist chapels during John Wesley’s lifetime, but well into the nineteenth century their use continued to be contentious. The installation of an organ in the Brunswick chapel in Leeds in 1827Leeds organ case ultimately led to the formation of a breakaway group known as the Protestant Methodists Protestant Methodists, though their dispute with the Wesleyan Connexion extended to more general matters of governance. Many chapels installed either an organ or a harmonium during the nineteenth century; the latter offered a more physically compact and affordable instrument as mass production flourished in the latter part of the century. Choirs formed in many Methodist chapels and were not confined to Wesleyan Methodism. Though their role was ostensibly to lead the congregational singing, some also sang more elaborate choral repertoire, and, in some cases, made use of Anglican chant for the reciting of psalms and canticles. Such changes in musical practice also influenced Methodist architecture in this period, as buildings were designed or adapted to accommodate pipe organs and seating for choirs. Further changes in Methodist musical practice began in the final decades of the twentieth century and have continued into the twenty-first century. While many Methodist churches retained the organ (electronic organs replacing many older pipe organs and harmoniums) as the default instrument for accompanying congregational singing in this period, a growing number of congregations began to make use of an instrumental group or worship band to lead the congregation in modern hymns and songs that bore the stylistic influence of folk and popular music idioms. While many different instruments feature in such ensembles, they are built around instruments the perform discrete roles: a drum-kit provides rhythmic backing, harmony is provided by guitars and keyboards, and a small group of singers and solo instruments (e.g. flute, trumpet) provide the melody. Technological developments have gone hand-in-hand with the growth in popularity of this repertoire, and guitars, singers and other instruments are customarily amplified. Technology has also influenced Methodist hymn-singing in other ways. The mass printing of hymn books and the general rise in literacy ultimately led to the demise of the practice of lining-out described above, and many Methodists owned their own copy of the hymnal. Since the late twentieth century, some churches have invested in technology to project lyrics onto a screen or wall. The desire to install such equipment in older buildings has sometimes presented significant logistical challenges, while the incorporation of such elements into the design of new buildings is further evidence of the relationship between hymn-singing and church architecture. Technology has also been employed to provide musical solutions for congregations whose diminishing membership has resulted in the absence of a regular musician; the authorised hymnal Singing the Faith (2011) is supported by a set of compact discs containing accompaniments for each hymn.

  • Sidney G. Dimond, The Psychology of the Methodist Revival (1926) pp.101-3, 119-24
  • A.S. Gregory, Praises with Understanding, illustrated from the words and music of the Methodist Hymn-Book (1936; revised and enlarged, 1949)
  • Leslie F. Church, More about the Early Methodist People (1949) pp.228-36
  • John Bishop, Methodist Worship in relation to Free Church Worship (1950), pp.138-53
  • J.R. Watson, The English Hymn (Oxford, 1997)
  • Joseph Ritson, The Romance of Primitive Methodism (1909) pp.263-73
  • David M. Chapman, Born in Song: Methodist Worship in Britain (Buxton, 2006), pp.286-309
  • Martin V. Clarke, 'John Wesley's "Directions for Singing": Methodist Hymnody as an expression of Methodist beliefs in thought and practice', in Methodist History, 47:4 (July 2009), pp.196-209
  • Martin V. Clarke, British Methodist Hymnody: Theology, Heritage, and Experience (Abingdon, 2018)
  • Stephen Banfield and Nicholas Temperley (eds), Music and the Wesleys (Urbana, 2010)
  • Nicholas Temperley, ‘Methodist church music’ in Grove Music Online <https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000047533>