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John Wesley's Earliest Translations

The earliest of the hymns of Methodism were written during John Wesley's residence in America. One of the most interesting passages in the first volume of the Standard Edition of Wesley's Journal is that in which we are given a page from Wesley's Diary for 1736, containing the text of four of his hymns. Hitherto the only knowledge we have had as to any hymn written in that year has been the reference in the Plain Account of Christian Perfection, where Wesley wrote ‘We embarked for America in the latter end of 1735. It was the next year, while I was at Savannah, that I wrote the following lines:

Is there a thing beneath the sun

That strives with Thee my heart to share?

Ah! tear it thence, and reign alone,

The Lord of every motion there!’

It was in 1736, therefore, that he made his great version of Tersteegen's Verborgne Gottes Liebe du, ‘Thou hidden love of God, whose height,’ which Emerson declared to be the greatest hymn in the language. Now we have to add the four hymns from the Diary for that year. ‘We 7 do not know the date of the writing,’ remarks Mr. Curnock, ‘but it must have been some weeks earlier than December, 1736.’ These five hymns are the earliest of the hymns of Methodism: they are all translations from the German, they are all the work of John Wesley, and they all date from the first year of his sojourn in Georgia. Not only are these the first hymns of which we have any knowledge, but it is almost certain that they are the very first that John Wesley ever wrote. He began to learn German at the beginning of the voyage, on October 17, 1735, and the Diary for 1736 has many entries such as ‘German,’ ‘verses,’ ‘translated German,’ ‘made verses.’ These entries, which show that he was working at German hymns, begin in May, 1736, and these hymns date from the next few months. The hymns in the Diary (except the first) have numbers attached--a valuable detail--and three of the four were previously known to be translations from Freylinghausen, Richter, and Zinzendorf. The fourth had never been published before, and there was some doubt as to whether it was a translation or an original hymn of Wesley's, until the present writer discovered, in searching through Knapp's Evangelischer Liederschatz, that it was a version of Paul Gerhardt's Ich singe dir mit Herz und Mund. The first lines of these hymns and the numbers, as given in the Diary, are as follows:

O Jesu, Source of calm repose.’
124 ‘My soul before Thee prostrate lies.’
215 ‘Jesu, to Thee my heart I bow.’
306 ‘To Thee with heart and mouth I sing.’

Mr. Curnock suggested in a note that these numbers prefixed to the hymns might possibly give a clue to the ‘original source whence they were drawn before translation.’

The German Source

Some time ago, the writer became the happy possessor of a copy of the 1737 edition of Das Gesang-Buch der Gemeine in Herrn-Huth--the hymnal of the Moravians at Herrnhut. This, except for a few corrections and an appendix, is an exact reprint of the first edition of 1735. On looking for the originals of the hymns in the Diary, it appeared that the numbers were the numbers of the pages in this book. On p. 724 (the printed number, 124, is a very natural mistake, due to Wesley's faded writing) is Hier legt mein Sinn sich vor dir nieder, on p. 215 Reiner Bräut'gam meiner Seele, and on p. 306 Ich singe dir mit Herz und Mund.

There are no tunes in the Herrnhut Gesangbuch, but the names of familiar chorales are put at the head of some of the hymns, and at the beginning of the book there is a table in which the hymns are grouped according to metre, some of the sections having an asterisked number at their head. This number, as the preface explains, refers to the page of the Halle Gesangbuch where 9 a suitable melody may be found. What is meant by the Halle Gesangbuch is evidently Freylinghausen's hymnal, the accepted collection of the Pietists, whose head quarters were at Halle. In the Library of Richmond College are Wesley's copies of the Herrnhut Gesangbuch and of Freylinghausen's Gesangbuch. We now know that Wesley had both books in his possession in Georgia in 1736, or, at any rate, had access to them there, for under the date, Sunday, November 21, in that year, there is an entry in his Diary: ‘Freylinghausen's Gesangbuch with Delamotte,’ and the numbered hymns in the Diary prove that he used the Herrnhut Gesangbuch then. Most of those who were aware that Wesley possessed both books seem to have thought that these were merely two different hymnals, without any special relation, and it has been suggested that he drew upon each of them for his translations. But the unquestionable fact is that his copy of Freylinghausen's Gesangbuch was Wesley's tune-book: it was simply the musical companion of the Herrnhut hymnal. There remains no possible doubt about this. All the thirty-three hymns that Wesley translated are found in the Herrnhut Gesangbuch, many of them are found nowhere else, and--as we have seen--where he attached a number it was that of the page in this book, despite the fact that two of the three numbered hymns are found in Freylinghausen also. It is plain that he did not use 10 Freylinghausen for the hymns which the book contained, but merely for the tunes.

Seven of the hymns that Wesley translated are by Zinzendorf; four by Gerhardt; four by Scheffler; two by Tersteegen; two by Freylinghausen; two by C. F. Richter; one each by Ernst Lange, Joachim Lange, W. C. Dessler, J. J. Winckler, J. A. Rothe, Anna Dober, Maria Böhmer, Gottfried Arnold, Sigismund Gmelin, L. A. Gotter, and A. G. Spangenberg; and one is a cento from four hymns by Zinzendorf, Johann Nitschmann, and Anna Nitschmann.66See Appendix I. for a complete list of the German hymns and their writers.

Pietists and Moravians

It should be noted that the bulk of these writers are Pietists and Moravians. Freylinghausen (1670-1739) was the son-in-law and successor of A. H. Francke, the founder of the Orphan House at Halle. C. F. Richter (1676-1711) was the physician of the Orphan House. Joachim Lange (1670-1744) was Professor of Divinity at Halle. J. J. Winckler (1670-1722) was a Pietist clergyman. Gottfried Arnold (1666-1714), a distinguished ecclesiastical historian, was a disciple of Spener, the founder of Pietism. Ludwig Andreas Gotter (1661-1735), who was Hofrat at Gotha, had relations with Pietism. Sigismund Christian Gmelin (1679-1707) was a Separatist who had a variegated career, but was in touch with 11 Pietists all his life. Maria Magdalena Böhmer (167?-1743) was a Pietist who contributed three hymns to Freylinghausen's collection.

Then, in addition to Zinzendorf, there are three other Moravians whose hymns Wesley translated. J. A. Rothe (1688-1758) was appointed by the Count to the pastorate of Berthelsdorf, the parish in which Herrnhut was situated, Anna Dober (1713-39) (nèe Schindler) was the wife of Leonhard J. Dober, one of the bishops of the Brethren, and A. G. Spangenberg (1704-1792), who had been Assistant Professor of Divinity at Halle, was the most learned and lovable of the Moravians, and became also one of their bishops.

Thus, excepting the classical hymns of Gerhardt (1607-1676), Scheffler (1624-1677), and Tersteegen (1697-1769), practically all the rest of the hymns that Wesley translated were the product of the two great and closely related spiritual movements that had their head quarters at Halle and at Herrnhut.

The translations from the German were all published between 1737 and 1742. They were probably all written by 1739.

John Wesley and the German Language

Apparently Wesley disused German after his breach with the Moravians in 1740. In November, 1745, when many German troops were encamped on the Town Moor at Newcastle-on-Tyne, in consequence of the Rebellion, he wrote in his Journal: ‘I observed many Germans standing 12 disconsolate at the skirts of the congregation. To these I was constrained (though I had discontinued it so long) to speak a few words in their own language. Immediately they gathered up close together, and drank in every word.’ This, of course, refers to disuse of the spoken language, but it is significant that no German books are mentioned in the Journal after the earliest period, while French books are often referred to. Yet, on the other hand, he read Bengel's Erklärte Offenbarung Johannis as late as 1754, for use in his Notes on the New Testament. It is probable, however, that this was merely a case of furbishing up his German to read a book of which he was in special need. In his knowledge of German, as in so much else, Wesley was a pioneer. It was not until the end of the eighteenth century, at the time when the fame of Goethe and Schiller was filtering through into England, that Englishmen began to regard German as a language worth learning. It would be possible to count on the fingers of one hand the distinguished Englishmen who knew German in 1740.

Translated Hymns

John Wesley's versions of German hymns are amongst the very finest examples of translated verse in the language. They stand the supreme test of a translator's art, for they are as vigorous and as poetical as the originals. They read as if they 13 had been written in English. His own standard of translation varied. Sometimes his version is as literal as it could be, to retain freedom of poetical movement, as, for example, in the stanza:

O Love, Thou bottomless abyss!

My sins are swallowed up in Thee.

Covered is my unrighteousness,

Nor spot of guilt remains on me,

While Jesu's blood, through earth and skies

Mercy, free, boundless mercy, cries!

which renders the German verse:

O Abgrund, weicher alle Sünden

Durch Christi Tod verschlungen hat!

Das heisst die Wunde recht verbinden,

Da findet kein Verdammen statt,

Weil Christi Blut beständig schreit,

Barmherzigkeit! Barmherzigkeit!

In other hymns, again, the English does little more than express the central thought of the German, as in the lines:

Through Thy rich grace, in Jesu's blood

Blessing, redemption, life we find.

Our souls washed in this cleansing flood,

No stain of guilt remains behind.

Who can Thy mercy's stores express?

Unfathomable, numberless!

which are a version of the German stanza:

Du segnest uns in ihm, dem Herm,

Mit überschwenglich reichem Segen,

Und gehest unser Armut gern

Mit deiner theurern Gnad’ entgegen,

Was sind wir doch, du allerschönstes Gut,

Dass deine Lieb’ so Grosses an uns thut?


John Wesley learned some Spanish while in Georgia, in order to minister to a few Spanish Jews who were in the colony. He translated one Spanish hymn, ‘O God, my God, my all Thou art!’--a fine version of Psalm 68. The Spanish source has never been traced.

Charles Wesley's Earliest Hymns

The earliest of Charles Wesley's hymns appear to have been those entitled ‘A Hymn for Midnight’ (‘While midnight shades the earth o'erspread’), ‘Written in the Beginning of a Recovery from Sickness’ (‘Peace, fluttering soul! the storm is o'er’), and ‘After a Recovery from Sickness’ (‘And live I yet by power divine?’). The first of these probably dates from the early months of 1738; the others were certainly written during that period. But the real beginning of Charles Wesley's work as the poet of Methodism came with the wonderful experience of May 21, 1738. Immediately thereafter he wrote three hymns which have a new accent. ‘Where shall my wondering soul begin?’ is almost certainly the hymn referred to in the entry in his Journal for May 24, ‘Toward ten my brother was brought in triumph by a troop of our friends, and declared, “I believe!” We sang the hymn with great joy.’ ‘And can it be that I should gain’ is colored throughout by reminiscences of a passage in Luther's Galatians that be had read on May 17. ‘What morn on thee with sweeter ray’ is entitled 15 ‘Congratulations to a Friend on believing in Christ,’ and was unquestionably addressed to his brother at this time.

These hymns, the firstfruits of Charles Wesley's genius, were all first published in the Hymns and Sacred Poems of 1739. From that year onward his hymns appeared in a stream of publications that only ceased in 1785--three years before his death.

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