The most important of the many hymn-books published by Wesley, it was extolled by B.L. Manning as comparable with the Book of Psalms, the Book of Common Prayer and the Canon of the Mass. Wesley began work on it in September 1773, when he was confined to the New Room, Bristol by a heavy cold, and took it up again at Tullamore during his Irish tour in 1778. His Preface explains that it was published because of the number of earlier books in use; the most important of these, Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1753) being too small (only 84 hymns).
All but a few of the hymns are by Charles Wesley (with some editing by John Wesley). They are 'carefully arranged under proper heads, according to the experience of real Christians' and so amount, in John Wesley's words to 'a little body of experimental [i.e. experiential] and practical divinity'. The central part of the book is a kind of Methodist 'pilgrim's progress', from spiritual awakening through to full salvation. One result of this is the absence of any hymns for use on the great festivals; Charles Wesley had already written his masterpieces for these, but they were not included until a supplement was added in 1831. A new supplement appeared in 1876 and the Collection was not replaced in WM until the entirely new book of 1904. Meanwhile the MNC, WMA and UMFC had all adopted the 1780 book with variations.
'You may think my language about the hymns extravagant: therefore I repeat it in stronger terms. This little book - some 750 hymns - ranks in Christian literature with the Psalms, the Book of Common Prayer, the Canon of the Mass. In its own way, it is perfect, unapprochable, elemental in its perfection. You cannot alter it except to mar it; it is a work of supreme devotional art by a religious genius. You may compare it with Leonardo's "Last Supper" or King's Chapel; and, as Blackstone said of the English Constitution, the proper attitude to take to it is this: we must venerate where we are not able presently to comprehend.'
Bernard L. Manning, The Hymns of Wesley and Watts,1942, p.14