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The Greatest Story Never Told
Revive Us Again
By Leonard Sweet
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The Song of Water
"Lift Up Your Voice with Strength": Holiness and Practice
Our life contains a thousand springs, And dies if one be gone. Strange! that a harp of thousand strings Should keep in tune so long. —Isaac Watts, Hymns (1707)
Bell, Book, and Candle once symbolized exclusion from church. What symbolizes incorporation into it? Table and Font. For Methodists, the sacraments are not magic but mercies of re-membering and membership.
Water is a cleansing ritual, making baptism a sacramental as well as a covenantal ritual for the tribe of Methodists. To be administered by "washing, dipping, or sprinkling," as John Wesley put it himself, "by baptism, we enter into covenant with God, that everlasting covenant ... [and] are admitted into the church, and consequently made members of Christ, ... made children of God. ... By water, then, as a mean, the water of baptism, we are regenerated or born again." No wonder water is a favorite symbol in Wesley hymns.
But water has another meaning for Methodism. Early Methodist preachers followed the water flow, through mountains and across chasms, because that's where the settlements were. Today, we are still following the water flow, this time across oceans and over continents. Four percent of the world's Christians live in the United States, 96 percent do not. You can't know Christianity by the 4 percent. The same is true of Methodism. There are many more non-English-speaking, non- American Methodist churches throughout the world than exist in the United States. The fastest-growing and largest Methodist churches are non-Western and non-English-speaking.
Everything in the water moves by sound and communicates in sound. What brought masses to the Methodist waters was that they heard the reverberation of Christ's voice and the origins of covenantal identity echoing through the waves of aurality. Methodists were a people of sound mind.
We now know what David the psalmist knew first: the healing powers of sound. We now know what David didn't know: that music can change the cellular environment of a body. For good reason Stalin banned the saxophone in the Soviet Union in 1949, fearing jazz music's subversive spirit of free expression and liberation.
The first time I read D. H. Lawrence's reminiscences about the power of the songs he learned in church and Sunday school when he was a boy, I knew what he was talking about (even though it was a Congregationalist chapel and not a Methodist church). In what has been called one of his "most original essays," Lawrence testified to how these old hymns "live and glisten in the depths of [our adult] consciousness in undimmed wonder, because they have not been subjected to any criticism or analysis." Lawrence testifies not only to the shaping power of these songs of our childhood, but to the way in which faith is made real in the imagination, long before any of it has been fully explained or illuminated: "The Lake of Galilee! I don't want to know where it is. I never want to go to Palestine. Galilee is one of those lovely glamorous worlds, not places, that exists in the golden haze of a child's half-formed imagination. And in my man's imagination it is just the same. It has been left untouched."
I was born and bathed in the waters of Methodism. Wesleyan is something I was, not something I belonged to. I entered the faith by the ear-gate. The ears, not the eyes, were the gateways to my soul. My pedigree is about as Methodist as you can get.
I'm a PK. But the preacher in our household was my mother, an Appalachian revivalist named Mabel Velma Boggs, who was ordained in the Pilgrim Holiness Church (I call this tribe the Marine Corps of Methodism). She attended "God's Bible School" in Cincinnati for one year, the same school that educated William Seymour for one year before he went west to start the Azusa Street Revival decades earlier. She left the humbly named school when her favorite professor switched institutions to teach at Allentown Bible College (ABC) in Allentown, Pennsylvania. She graduated from ABC a few years later, and began revival preaching and church planting in the upper regions of the South where "catchers" meant something more than baseball. We buried my preacher-mom at the Wesleyan church in Covington, Virginia, which she had helped plant. She was its first pastor.
While preaching at a revival in Newport News, Virginia, my "single-forever," mid-thirties mother met my Yankee father. At one service, this Army–Air Force sergeant from the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains found his heart "strangely warmed"—but by the preacher as much as the preaching. The shy, quiet Leonard Lucius Sweet, also in his mid-thirties, was assigned to radar operation and stationed at Newport News after the Second World War.
On the Sweet side, I come from a different holiness wing of Wesleyanism. My grandfather Ira Sweet was so committed to the Gloversville (New York) Free Methodist Church that, in lean years, he would personally visit prominent businessmen in town to get donations of coal to heat the church. He was a glove cutter by day. But after long twelve- to sixteen-hour days at Fosdick Gloves, he was a lay theologian by night. His library of texts on Wesley, holiness theology, and apocalyptic literature was the envy of many preachers. When he completed reading each book, he entered the date with some notations of what he had learned and jotted down pages of where he wanted to go back. I have some of his library, and many books have two or three dates and notations. I also have the small chair—hard and un-upholstered to keep him reading for as long as possible—on which he sat while reading into the wee hours of the morning. As he read, Grandfather Sweet was known for humming hymns and rocking his right ankle forward and backward on the lowest rung of the wooden chair, keeping in beat with the music until he wore down the wood with his shoe to a level so paper-thin, it's a wonder it never broke.
My maternal ancestry is mainstream Methodist, with a decidedly southern Appalachian flavor. My West Virginia grandfather, George Lemuel Boggs, was a sawyer, as were four of his brothers, all of whom were Methodist. I still remember an old ditty my grandfather Boggs would sing as he cut down trees or built birdhouses. I memorized it as a kid because Granddad's nose was always running, and it became a game for my brothers and me to see how far into the song he'd get before that little drop that formed on the tip of his nose would drip down onto what he was sawing and hammering:
A Methodist, a Methodist will I be
A Methodist will I die.
I've been baptized in the Methodist way
And I'll live on the Methodist side.
What "genius" of Methodism inspired this kind of love and loyalty in earlier days? What did it mean to be baptized in "the Methodist way" and to live on "the Methodist side"? Most important but most easy to miss, why was he singing his pledge of allegiance to Methodism? I don't ever remember him reciting it as part of some litany, or recounting it as some mission statement he had learned in vacation Bible school or Sunday school. He whistled and hummed it.
Perhaps my favorite book on the history of Methodism is David Hempton's brilliant and beautifully written Methodism. What most readers and reviewers have missed from Hempton's masterful collection, however, is that unlike every other historian, Hempton acknowledges in a long paragraph buried in chapter 3 the acoustical architecture and atmosphere of Methodism. Although a paragraph is not enough, Hempton recognizes that Methodism was largely an oral movement, and he builds on the work of Leigh Eric Schmidt to contend that it is hard for historians whose instruments are primarily written to grasp the oral character of the movement. Our acoustical antennae "are simply not adjusted to hearing the religious sounds of the past the way they were heard at the time." Hempton also might have mentioned that the soundscape of the past was very different from the soundscapes of the twenty-first century—filled as they are now with ringtones and playlists and squeaking traffic. In fact, it was not very long ago that village life was governed by a soundscape largely regulated by religion: the pealing of church bells primarily; although street preachers, organ-grinders, and sidewalk vendors added their hellos and halloos.
Critics of Wesley used the phrase "nonsense and noise" to decry the enthusiasm and emotion associated with Methodists. We should have listened to these cries more carefully in assessing Methodism's success in "making Christianity a mass enterprise." By "rejecting the standard reformed sermon as a read discourse with a stiff theological spine," Nathan Hatch argues, "Methodists crafted sermons that were audience-centered, vernacular, and extemporaneous." One can only wonder if this fundamental reality is something seminary faculties missed in the evolution of Methodist preaching in the twentieth century, as they returned it to a respectable literary discourse rather than an oral experience. John Wesley knew how to strum an audience like an instrument. His sermons communicated at an emotional level beyond words. Get the music right, and you capture the crowd. When the crowd, musician, and music become one, you have a revival.
The secret that unlocks the power of Methodism is its "noise," or what I call its sound theology.
Sound is the primary way of experiencing the divine, and Methodism makes no sense without that word experience. Methodism was built on sound, and Methodists created a soundscape for experiencing the Christian life that has not been equaled, much less excelled.
The legacy of that soundscape is still with us whenever we sing a Wesleyan hymn. Just as Frank Sinatra was known simply as "The Voice," John Wesley was "The Voice" of the Wesleyan movement. But no one today remembers a John Wesley sermon. What we all do remember, however, are Charles Wesley's hymns. We remember musical melodies more than we do prose passages. The human brain is wired for sound.
For his entire life, John kept moving and supporting the movement on horseback. After Charles married, unlike John, he settled down. But Charles, whom some call "the first Methodist," kept moving and supporting the movement in his own way. Charles wrote an astonishing number of hymns (6,500–9,000), equal to the astonishing number of horseback miles his brother racked up (250,000), or the even more astonishing number of sermons John delivered (40,000).
The Wesleys first discovered the power of congregational hymn singing while on a voyage with twenty-six German Moravians to Georgia in 1735. It wasn't the storm that shook Wesley's heart and turned it inside out. Granted, the storm was scary enough. It split the windjammer's mainsail and broke the mast in two. Passengers were running hither and yon, scrambling for cover—except for the Moravians.
They calmly kept on singing. The stronger the winds howled, the louder they sang; and the louder they sang, the stronger their faith. What so moved Wesley was not the fierceness of the storm, but the singing in the storm. Not the song in the storm, but their singing in the storm is what drew him to a deeper faith. Later, at a Moravian meetinghouse in London, he would give himself fully to Jesus.
The immediate result was John Wesley's publication in 1737 of his Collection of Psalms and Hymns, the first hymnal printed in America and the first significant Wesley publication. Between 1738 and 1785, the Wesleys published sixty-four separate collections of hymns, wherein John's chief role was translating songs from German and selecting, editing, and publishing his brother's hymns.
The Wesleys' commitment to hymns was an acknowledgment of the endurance and strength of God's healing song within the turbulence and uncertainties of life. For both John and Charles, that link between faith and life found its roots in a Christ identity that harkened back to the creation itself and found expression in a holistic view of humanness. Good music was good medicine.
John Wesley began his pioneering book of health remedies, Primitive Physick (1747), with a testimony to how God initially created us to be in harmony with our Creator and creation: "So that well might the morning stars sing together, and all the sons of God shout for joy." In Wesley's holistic approach to health, which issued in one of the most popular volumes published in England during the eighteenth century, "salvation" and "health" were identical. The Fall broke that harmony of body, spirit, and soul, in which "all nature sings, and round me rings, the music of the spheres." The rift between Creator and creation led to all kinds of sadness and illness and wickedness that were the result of inharmonious relationships. The song of the body is restored when "chords that were broken will vibrate once more," in the words of Fanny Crosby.
Harry Mark Petrakis (b. 1923) is a Greek American novelist who has written twenty-three novels. One of them, A Dream of Kings, was made into a major motion picture starring Anthony Quinn (1969). In the story, a Greek immigrant named Leonidas Matsoukas lives in Chicago with his wife and three kids and mother-in-law. His son Stavros, whom he loves fiercely, is very sick and hangs on to life by a thread. The doctors tell the family that all the tests reveal Stavros has only months to live. But the father never gives up. He is convinced that if he could only take his son back to his native land and expose him to the Mediterranean sun, he would be healed. One April morning, he speaks to his sleeping, frail son: "The [Chicago] sun has risen but you cannot see or feel it.... It is pale and without strength and beneath it even the weeds wither and die. But soon now, my beloved, we will leave this place of dark and rot, soon you will feel the sun of the old country, the sun of Hellas."
He closes his eyes and whispers, "You have never seen a sun like that.... It warms the flesh, toughens the heart, purifies the blood in its fire. It will make you well, will burn away your weakness with its flame, will heal you with its grace."
This is how the Hebrew prophet Malachi put it about the Messiah: "But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings." Or how it is expressed in the Wesley hymn based on that text, the greatest hymn of the Incarnation ever written, appropriately coming with a platinum pedigree (lyrics by Charles Wesley , arrangement by George Whitefield , tune by Felix Mendelssohn ): "Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! / Hail the Sun of Righteousness! / Light and life to all he brings, / risen with healing in his wings."
Wherever there are Methodists, there is music. Methodism left an acoustic imprint on Christianity that was largely shaped by Charles, who called his hymns "a body of experimental and practical divinity." But others like Isaac Watts (1674-1748), whom John Wesley deemed a genius, deeply influenced Methodism's sound theology—although Isaac Watts maintained that Charles Wesley's "Wrestling Jacob" was worth all of his own 750 hymns. John Wesley's role in hymnody through the songs he selected for his various hymnbooks cannot be minimized.
For Charles Wesley, the two most important languages of humanity, theology and music, were one and the same. In other words, his very theological method was an aesthetics of sound, and his music was the essence of the movement, a feature of Methodism that continued into the nineteenth century with the Wesleyan hymn writer Fanny Crosby (1820–1915) and her eight thousand hymns. The Methodist movement was the product of sound architecture.
Excerpted from The Greatest Story Never Told by Leonard Sweet. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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