Up Close: "Love Divine All Loves Excelling"
Editor's Note: This is the second installment in a new series called Behind the Hymns. Dr. Roger D. Duke explores the history behind Christianity's most treasured hymns.
This is the second part of a four-part series that looks at Charles Wesley's hymn “Love Divine All Loves Excelling.” In the first part we sought to identify Charles Wesley for those not familiar with his prominent place in the Church. Secondly, we introduced his life as poet and bard of the Methodist Church. Third, we saw Wesley’s method and discipline of producing such a great body of poems and hymns. Finally, we considered how his talents and gifts gave rise to the first Methodist hymnals. Now we will turn to examine the hymn in a bit more depth.
THE HYMN IN DEPTH
The hymn was first published in 1747 as an entry in Hymns for Those that Seek and Those that Have Redemption in the Blood of Christ. It was written around a progression of thoughts: “(1) our prayers for the Holy Spirit, (2) praying for the return of our Lord through the second coming, and (3) prayers for the finalization of his new creation.” Trinitarian in tone, it “address[es] the work of the Son, the Spirit and the Father in the life of a believer.” Further,
The hymn is really a prayer—a prayer to Jesus, who is “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” It invites Jesus to make his dwelling in us—to visit us with his salvation—to enter our hearts. It invites him to take away our love of sinning—to set our hearts at liberty. It concludes by asking Jesus to finish his new creation . . . so that we might be pure and spotless—perfectly restored—ready for heaven.
Since it was a poem and prayer before becoming a hymn, it is most useful as a meditation.
There are some strange peculiarities to this hymn.
First, notice the enjambment. This is a poetical device where “the last line of every verse[’s] . . . meaning cascades over the line break into the next line of the next verse.”
Secondly, one verse has consistently been omitted. In the official hymnal, “The Wesleyan Hymn Book of 1780 omitted one verse.” This verse concerns the work of the Holy Spirit. When one compares differing stanzas across denominational lines, minor variances have occurred. These occurred generally in single word changes. But, “in the Hymn 1982 (Episcopal) stanza two is omitted.” This is the verse concerning the Holy Spirit. On April 29, 2011 when William wed Kate in Westminster Abbey, “Love Divine” was one of the chosen hymns for the Royal Wedding. Serendipitously verse two was omitted: the verse concerning the Holy Spirit.
Originally, this second stanza expressed the Wesleyan concept of the “second rest.” Charles employed “it specifically . . . to the ‘second birth,’ ‘second blessing,’ ‘second gift.’” These concepts were directed toward achieving a complete personal “sanctification” or “Christian perfection.”
According to holiness teaching, the Christian is to seek a second blessing, also referred to as crisis sanctification. The idea is, as taught by some, that with this second blessing experience the sin nature is not only subdued but eradicated, and it becomes possible to live a sinless life.
This sinless perfection is particular to the second stanza, “(Wesley originally wrote): ‘Let us find that second rest, [and] take away our power of sinning.’” There was, however, some disagreement between the brothers Wesley concerning this teaching: Charles “believed that love was at the heart of the gospel.” Conversely, John “caused controversy for teaching that ‘perfect’ love could be known [as an] instantaneous blessing.” The difference emerges where “Charles emphasized the gradual process whereby a Christian grows in a pilgrimage of faith.”
We invite our fellow pilgrims to read the hymn slowly and meditatively, while letting it sink deep into the soul. Take time. Get alone. And grasp the thought that this hymn was first a poem that sprang from the heart of one loved and worshiped our Lord Christ. We believe that the ethos of “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” could change your life.
Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heav’n, to earth come down, fix in us thy humble dwelling, all thy faithful mercies crown. Jesus, thou art all compassion, pure, unbounded love thou art. Visit us with thy salvation; enter ev'ry trembling heart.
Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit into ev’ry troubled breast. Let us all in thee inherit, let us find the promised rest. Take away the love of sinning; Alpha and Omega be. End of faith, as its beginning, set our hearts at liberty.
Come, Almighty, to deliver, let us all thy life receive. Suddenly return, and never, nevermore they temples leave. Thee we would be always blessing, serve thee as thy hosts above, pray, and praise thee without ceasing, glory in thy perfect love.
Finish, then, thy new creation; true and spotless let us be. Let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee. Changed from glory into glory, till in heav’n we take our place, till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise.
FOOTNOTES  Percy Dearmer, comp., Songs of Praise Discussed: A Handbook to the Best-Known Hymns and to Others Recently Introduced (New York: Oxford University Press, 1952), 304. See also: 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  Mark Beggs, “Love Divine All Loves Excelling.”  Barry Kauffman, “Love Divine All Loves Excelling.”  Richard Niell Donovan, “Hymn Story: Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”  Troy Baucum, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling: The Christian Message in Son,” Truro Anglican (Church), March 22, 2019, http://truroanglican.com/media/publications/tracts/love-divine-all-loves-excelling/  Dearmer, 304.  Ibid.  Leland Ryken observes: “’Love Divine’” is included in so many hymnals (rivaling even ‘Amazing Grace’) that we can safely conclude that it transcends denominational distinctives.” Leland Ryken, 40 Favorite Hymns on the Christian Life: A Closer Look at Their Spiritual and Poetic Meaning (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2019), 62.  Mark Beggs, “Love Divine All Loves Excelling.”  Official Programme of The Royal Wedding, The Marriage of H.R.H. Prince William of Wales, K.G. with Miss Catherine Middleton at Westminster Abbey, 29th April 2011, available on-line https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1381426/Royal-Wedding-Order-Service-Princess-Diana-funeral-hymn-sung.html  Ibid.  Ibid.
 John Zundel, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” Worldwise Hymns: Hymns Their History and Meaning, October 3, 2012, https://wordwisehymns.com/2012/10/03/love-divine-all-loves-excelling/  Ibid.  Jeffrey, W. Barbeau, “All Loves Excelling: How Romance Inspired Charles Wesley’s View of God: The Famous Hymn-Writer’s Understanding of Divine Love Was Reflected in His Mortal Marriage,” Christian History on-line, February 13, 2019, https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2019/february/charles-wesley-romance-love-sally-wesley.html  Ibid.  Ibid.
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.