"Love Divine All Loves Excelling": Backgrounds and Theological Reflections
Editor's Note: This is the first installment in a new series called Behind the Hymns. Dr. Roger D. Duke explores the history behind Christianity's most treasured hymns.
It has been estimated that Charles Wesley wrote some six thousand hymns over the course of his lifetime. Barry Kauffman believes, “He wrote [a total of] 8,989.” This would mean “he averaged 10 poetic lines a day for 50 years.” Issac Watts was his closest contender in number of hymns written, but Wesley outproduced him tenfold.  This was a great accomplishment, considering he spent a great deal of his lifetime on horseback traveling from one preaching appointment to another.
How could such a great number of hymns come from the pen of a parson who spent so little time in his study? First, Wesley was naturally gifted—in intellect as well as personal discipline. The poetry that welled up in his heart allowed him to express his faith through hymn-writing. Secondly, Wesley organized himself for the task. He developed his own technique and special type of shorthand. This allowed him to jot down ideas that came to him as he rode. Then, “As soon as he reached an inn, he would rush in and ask for a pen and ink to write down the hymn he had composed.” This was his customary method to “transform his rough notes into finished verse.”
According to Mark Beggs, “A substantial number of his writings were completed while riding on horseback.” The whole ordeal sounds easier than it was. In fact, a horse once threw him which interrupted that part of his work. Wesley later recounted, “My companion thought I had broken my neck; but my leg only was bruised, my hand sprained, and my head stunned, which spoiled my making hymns till the next day.” This vignette demonstrates Wesley’s commitment to Christ and the Gospel. “His writings were passionate and well-crafted, conveying the true essence of Christian teaching” even “across denominational lines.” Beggs capsules His essence: “What really set[s] Charles apart from other hymn writers was his effective use of scriptural allusions” which “provided a spiritual roadmap whereby individuals could imagine a Christ-centered life.”
Concerning Wesley’s Use of Hymnals
The Wesleys published their main hymnal for the Methodist movement in 1780. They entitled it, A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists. Most of the hymns were written by Charles but edited by John. To him it was the summation of all the central doctrines pertaining to Methodism. John states in the introduction: “It is large enough to contain all of the important truths of our most holy religion, whether speculative or practical; yea to illustrate them all, and to prove them both by Scripture and reason.”
Why the need for a hymnal? According to Henry Knight, “music teach[es] about God and salvation.” The role of the hymnal was to instruct basic tenets of the Christian faith via song. So, “The Wesleys understood . . . their hymnals to be handbooks of doctrine.” Many might not participate in the catechism; but could learn doctrine by singing godly hymns. The hymnal focused on Biblical theology. It reflected “the doctrine found in . . . [the Wesley’s] Sermons, Minutes, and Notes on the NT [New Testament].” One interesting historical fact: Of all the hymns written, edited, or compiled “more than four hundred of these continue in contemporary Christian hymnals.”
The hymns were carefully organized into pedagogic categories like a catechetical tool would be. John comments, “The hymns are not carelessly jumbled together, but carefully arranged under their proper heads, according to the experiences of real Christians. So this book is in effect a little body of experimental and practical divinity.” “As such, . . . [the] hymn[al] dealt with the full range of Christian life, from prevenient grace to Christian perfection.” Charles viewed “‘all of life as an area of God’s activity,’ and therefore his ‘hymns reflected the emotional challenges of real life.’” The hymnal’s “purpose was not to serve as an ‘official’ doctrinal authority, but to disseminate the theology to the widest possible audience. The hymns were not just for the preachers, but also to serve the people called Methodists.”
Richard Niell Donovan, “Hymn Story: Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” Sermon Writer, copyright 2006, https://www.sermonwriter.com/hymns/hymn-stories/love-divine-loves-excelling/ Barry Kauffman, “Love Divine All Loves Excelling,” Hymns with a Message: An Inspirational Hymn of the Week, Sunday May 21, 2011, https://barryshymns.blogspot.com/2011/05/love-divine-all-loves-excelling.html Ibid. Ibid. Wesley biographer John R. Tyson writes, “He wrote between six thousand and nine thousand hymns and sacred poems (depending upon what one is willing to call a hymn or poem).” John R. Tyson, Assist Me to Proclaim: The Life and Hymns of Charles Wesley (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), vii.  Robert K. Brown and Mark R. Norton, eds. & Devotions Written by William J. Petersen and Randy Petersen, “August 23,” The One Year Book of Hymns: 365 Readings Based on Great Hymns of the Faith (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.). Donovan, “Hymn Story.” Mark Beggs, “Love Divine All Loves Excelling,” History of Hymns: Discipleship Ministry United Methodist Church, March 20, 2019, https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-love-divine-all-loves-excelling Robert K. Brown and Mark R. Norton, “August 23.” Charles Wesley; quoted Robert K. Brown and Mark R. Norton, eds. & Devotions Written by William J. Petersen and Randy Petersen, “August 23,” The One Year Book of Hymns: 365 Readings Based on Great Hymns of the Faith (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.). Beggs, “Love Divine All Loves Excelling.” This thesis will be employed throughout this analysis. Beggs, “Love Divine All Loves Excelling.” Henry H. Knight, III, “Wesley and the Doctrinal Role of Hymnody,” Catalyst: Contemporary Evangelical Perspectives for United Methodists Seminarians, February 1, 2005, https://www.catalystresources.org/consider-wesley-27/ J. Wesley, “Preface,” in F. Baker, ed., Works 7:73-74; quoted in Henry H. Knight, III, “Wesley and the Doctrinal Role of Hymnody,” Catalyst: Contemporary Evangelical Perspectives for United Methodists Seminarians, February 1, 2005, https://www.catalystresources.org/consider-wesley-27/  Henry H. Knight, III, “Wesley and the Doctrinal Role of Hymnody.” Ibid. Ibid. Tyson, vii. Ibid. Ibid. John Tyson. Assist Me to Proclaim: The Life and Hymns of Charles Wesley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, Co.), viii; quoted in Denise Loock, “All Loves Excelling,” Unlocking the Bible, February 16, 2016, https://unlockingthebible.org/2016/02/all-loves-excelling/  Henry H. Knight, III, “Wesley and the Doctrinal Role of Hymnody.”
Dr. Roger D. Duke is an advisory board member and the scholar-in-residence at Stage & Story. Dr. Duke is an ordained Baptist minister and has taught at the college and graduate school levels for over 20 years. Dr. Duke holds graduate degrees from The University of the South’s School of Theology at Sewanee, TN; The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; and Harding University’s Graduate School of Religion. He has written or contributed to more than ten volumes (including works on John Bunyan). Visit his website at www.invertedchristian.com. His published work can be found on his website and his Amazon Author's Page. He has been happily married to Linda Young Duke for nearly 44 years. They have three adult children and four robust grandsons.