Two facts for you today:
1. Charles Wesley wrote over 6,500 hymns yet never heard one sung in a service in his own church.
2. Elvis Presley was nominated for 14 Grammy awards but only won three—all for his gospel work, and two of them for different versions of “How Great Thou Art”.
It’s not just the Summer of 2022 that connects these seemingly random tidbits; it’s a fundamental truth about the nature of spiritual music. Summer 2022 helps though, as Pastor Nathan is taking us through a series of sermons on hymns and Elvis is once again filling theaters. Consider the nature of both of these “rebels”.
Charles Wesley helped to propel the Methodist movement through song. An ordained Anglican minister like his brother John, Charles was moved to an evangelism that was not well received inside the Church of England. Scandalously, the Wesley brothers joined other evangelical leaders and took the Gospel to the people, engaging in open air preaching to the masses. Both brothers were preachers and songwriters, but Charles was a composer of almost unimaginable prolificity. Those 6,500 hymns are the equivalent of two fully composed hymns a week—every week—for fifty years. I think if you gave me fifty years, I might come up with one decent verse.
Wesley understood that song and hymnody resonate deep in the soul. It can do as much to impart Gospel truths as any sermon. And honestly, when have you ever caught someone absentmindedly repeating a sermon? I don’t even need to play one note and you can hear “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” or “Love Divine All Loves Excelling” or “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”. Your singing some part of them right now, aren’t you? That’s the power of song.
Like his brother, Charles never intended to split from the Church of England. In fact, he publicly criticized John for the latter’s ordination of ministers to the Americas. It’s the very fact that he considered himself to be a devout Anglican that leads to our “Believe it or Not” fact of the day. One of the greatest hymn writers of any age lived and died without ever seeing his work accepted by his church. Charles died in 1788. The Church of England did not officially sanction the singing of hymns as part of the worship service until 1820.
Fast forward 160-odd years later and almost 4,500 miles west, and we arrive in Memphis in the 1950s. Completely different type of rebels were upsetting the social order. Sam Phillips’ Sun Records stable was putting a serious backbeat to the roots, gospel, and rhythm and blues music. The result was Rock and Roll and the undisputed leader of the new sound was Elvis Presley. He had the voice; he had the moves; he had the look; and he had that other thing, a magnetism that made him impossible to ignore.
For all the trouble that Elvis stirred up—I didn’t know whether to go with the “If you’re looking for trouble” or the “T-R-O-U-B-L-E” reference here—hymns were deeply embedded in his sound and his love of music. The last song Elvis performed on his Ed Sullivan run was “Peace in the Valley”. The fifth album he released was “His Hand in Mine,” an all gospel album.
For all the groundbreaking, earth shaking, on your feet in the aisles dancing that Elvis created, he would only ever win three awards at the Grammys for his gospel work. Some of this is due to timing (the first Grammy awards were given out two years after Elvis mania swept the globe); some is due to the eccentricities of the voting body (you can look it up, Bob Newhart’s standup album beat the Beatles one year); but if you’ve heard the live version of “How Great Thou Art” from 1974 you understand that even the Grammy voters couldn’t look away from a spirit-channeled tour de force.
Elvis has sold over one billion records—one BILLION. Charles Wesley wrote 6,500 hymns. It took a while for the music of both to be fully accepted inside the houses of worship, but both point to the power of song to open the doors of the soul.