At least we didn’t sing it in a ridiculous reggae style again this year. Still, just listening and looking around the room at our annual conference session last week, it was fairly obvious that there were many who may not have had any true appreciation for the words that we were mouthing, despite the fact that the song has been used to open such conference sessions since the days of John Wesley himself.
It was Mr. Wesley, in fact, who altered his brother’s hymn a bit, stretching it to six verses and making it the first song in a section entitled “For the Society…at Meeting” in the hymnal that he produced in 1780. American Methodists followed his lead and they too began to sing it after organizing a brand new church for a brand new nation here some four years later. For given the circumstances which circumscribed the lives of the early circuit riders, the question which they asked in the opening song of their yearly gathering was far from merely hypothetical at all.
The garb of those pioneer preachers told some of the story, for it amounted to a uniform of sorts– a black round-breasted coat, a long vest with the corners cut off, short breeches and long stockings (later changed to full-length trousers), and a broad-brimmed and low-crowned hat which marked them all for quick identification.
Usually sleeping out in the woods and traveling on foot or horseback, those spiritual riders on the storm went not only town to town thus but also door to door with the most personal kind of spiritual exhortation one could imagine. They even inspired a popular saying of the time that suggested that during any heavy rainstorm that there would be “nobody out tonight except crows and Methodist preachers.”
And so, in turn, due to the rather harsh living conditions which they endured, the average life expectancy of a Methodist circuit rider was only 33 years of age, half of them dying before reaching that benchmark year, much less any imagined “perfect preacher’s age” of 45. Of the first 672 preachers whose records were kept in full, in fact, two-thirds of them perished before being able to render 12 years of service.
Still, by 1828, over 2,500 men had served in what Nathan Hatch has called this “stern fraternity,” led by the indomitable Bishop Francis Asbury who could pretty much outride them all. So when they indeed did gather for their annual conference, as those circuit riders glanced anxiously around the room, searching out for their friends and comrades, this was an all too real question: “And are we yet alive and see each other’s face? Glory and thanks to Jesus give for His Almighty grace!”
The song continued with words with which many in the church can still resonate, I suspect: “What troubles have we seen, what mighty conflicts past, fightings and fears, within, without, since we assembled last!”
And then, after noting the help which the Lord affords us by His love, the hymn concluded with an exhortation that is likewise yet worth remembering: “Let us take up the cross till we the crown obtain, and gladly reckon all things loss so we may Jesus gain.” And can’t you almost hear Samwise Gamgee telling his friend and fellow Hobbit in Tolkein’s classic story Lord of the Rings, “Let it go, Mr. Frodo—let that ring go.”
All things loss indeed. No wonder this song had a power to it that absolutely defied merely mumbling through the verses or sighing them only half self-consciously. What’s more, I think Charles Wesley’s words can still have such an impact if we but take them more seriously, or at least recognize their historical and spiritual significance.
Oh, you probably won’t hear this song in a contemporary worship service, either with or without a steel guitar strumming along in the background. But perhaps you should. After all, we all owe a debt of gratitude to those fiercely faithful young heralds in the broad-brimmed hats who took up the cross disregarding the cost.
Maybe that’s why the longer I have been a pastor, the more powerful this song has become to me, as well. For now when I look around the room at conference sessions, what I can’t help but notice is not just who is there, but who is missing, as well, especially those who have gone on before us, “saved to the uttermost, till we can sin no more.”
And thinking of them, how dare I sing this hymn with anything less than all of my might and maybe even with a few tears in my eyes?