My great-grandfather’s conversion to Methodism, which happened at Christmas 1905, meant membership of a new community, the Primitive Methodists of Newbiggin-on-Lune, Westmorland.
One of the distinctives of this community was its singing. It has often been said that Methodism was ‘born in song’.
I know that Tom Robinson loved to sing. It was said that if the chapel door was left open, his voice could be heard at the other end of the village.
This week I’ve been doing some research on the hymn books that my great-grandfather might have known.
He would probably have used the Primitive Methodist Hymnal of 1887. This contains over a thousand hymns. Of these, 300 were by the Wesleys (Charles and John) and 62 by Isaac Watts.
Hymns by both Charles Wesley (‘I know that my redeemer lives’) and Isaac Watts (‘Give me the wings of faith to fly’) were sung at Tom Robinson’s funeral, so were evidently favourites of his.
Isaac Watts (1674-1748) predated Charles Wesley and is perhaps lesser known today but he wrote some of the most famous hymns in the English language, including ‘O God our help in ages past’ and the Christmas favourite, ‘Joy to the world’. Watts’ hymns represent a new development in English hymnody. Before him, hymn writers had drawn on the poetry of the Bible, mostly the Psalms.
Watts brought something new. He wrote about personal, spiritual experience. This can be clearly seen in the first verse of one of his most famous works:
‘When I survey the wondrous cross/On which the Prince of Glory died/My richest gain I count but loss/And pour contempt on all my pride’.
Charles Wesley reportedly said that he would have given up all his other hymns to have written that one. Watts influence on Wesley can be seen in one of his most well-known hymns, ‘And can it be?’, which I’ve quoted from in my title for this piece. It describes a conversion experience:
‘Long my imprisoned spirit lay/Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;/Thine eye diffused a quickening ray/I woke, the dungeon flamed with light/My chains fell off/My heart was free/I rose, went forth and followed thee …’
One wonders if Tom Robinson sang this in January 1906.
It is not surprising that these hymns were so popular amongst Methodists. They not only expressed what they believed, but also offered an emotional outlet. Studying the hymns known and sung by our ancestors can give us a valuable insight into their worlds.