BACK to Charles Wesley for this week’s hymn, Jesus, Lover of My Soul, which is often written and sung as Jesu, Lover of My Soul. Wesley wrote it as a poem in 1738, within months his conversion, which I wrote about here. He called it In Temptation.

Jesus, lover of my soul,
Let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high!
Hide me, O my Saviour, hide,
Till the storm of life be past;
Safe into the haven guide,
Oh, receive my soul at last!

Other refuge have I none,
Hangs my helpless soul on Thee;
Leave, ah! leave me not alone,
Still support and comfort me!
All my trust on Thee is stayed,
All my help from Thee I bring;
Cover my defenceless head
With the shadow of Thy wing.

Wilt Thou not regard my call?
Wilt Thou not accept my prayer?
Lo! I sink, I faint, I fall—
Lo! on Thee I cast my care:
Reach me out Thy gracious hand!
While I of Thy strength receive,
Hoping against hope I stand,
Dying, and, behold, I live!

Thou, O Christ, art all I want;
More than all in Thee I find:
Raise the fallen, cheer the faint,
Heal the sick, and lead the blind.
Just and holy is Thy name;
I am all unrighteousness:
False and full of sin I am;
Thou art full of truth and grace.

Plenteous grace with Thee is found,
Grace to cover all my sin;
Let the healing streams abound,
Make and keep me pure within.
Thou of life the fountain art
Freely let me take of Thee:
Spring Thou up within my heart,
Rise to all eternity!

Although the poem was published in 1740, Wesley’s brother John did not pair it with a tune or include it in his 1780 compilation, A Collection of Hymns for the use of the People Called Methodists. Some have speculated that John Wesley ‘disliked terms of endearment addressed to God’. Hymnologist Professor Richard Watson disagrees: ‘It is hard to see this as a valid objection: the whole point of the hymn is the tender and loving presence of the Saviour in a world where the sinner feels helpless; and Charles Wesley has not been afraid to give intense expression to that love, and to the life which it brings, so movingly described in the final verse.’

Nevertheless the hymn (minus the third verse) did not appear in the Collection until the 1797 edition, six years after John Wesley’s death in 1791 and nine years after Charles died in 1788. From that point it snowballed in popularity and is now thought to have been included in more than 2,600 hymnals. The renowned American preacher Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1877) said: ‘I would rather have written this hymn of Wesley’s than to have the fame of all the kings that ever sat on earth.’

There is a legend repeated as fact ad infinitum on the internet about how the hymn came to be written. This is how it is told, word for word, on every site:

Mrs Mary Hoo­ver, of Belle­fonte, Penn­syl­van­ia, whose grand­mo­ther was the her­o­ine of the sto­ry, has re­lat­ed to her pas­tor this fam­i­ly tra­di­tion: Charles Wesley was preach­ing in the fields of the par­ish of Killy­leagh, Coun­ty Down, Ire­land, when he was at­tacked by men who did not ap­prove of his doc­trines. He sought re­fuge in a house lo­cat­ed on what was known as the Is­land Barn Farm. The far­mer’s wife, Jane Low­rie Moore, told him to hide in the milk­house, down in the gar­den. Soon the mob came and de­mand­ed the fu­gi­tive. She tried to qui­et them by of­fer­ing them re­fresh­ments. Go­ing down to the milk­house, she di­rect­ed Mr Wesley to get through the rear win­dow and hide un­der the hedge, by which ran a lit­tle brook. In that hid­ing-place, with the cries of his pur­su­ers all about him, he wrote this im­mor­tal hymn. De­scend­ants of Mrs Moore still live in the house, which is much the same as it was in Wes­ley’s time.

It’s a good story except that Wesley never visited the north of Ireland. He did go to Dublin, but not until 1747, nine years after the hymn was written.

Another account suggests that the hymn was written after a terrified small bird, pursued by a hawk, flew into Wesley’s window and found refuge in the folds of his coat.

A story is told of this hymn in connection with the Civil War. In a group of old soldiers from the Union and Confederate armies, a former Confederate was telling how he had been detailed one night to shoot a sentry of the opposing army. He had crept near and was taking aim when the sentry began to sing Jesus, Lover of my Soul. When he came to the words

Cover my defenceless head
With the shadow of Thy wing

the hidden Confederate lowered his gun and stole away. ‘I can’t kill that man,’ he said, ‘though he were ten times my enemy.’

In the company was an old Union soldier who asked: ‘Was that in the Atlanta campaign of ’64?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then I was the Union sentry!’

He told how that night he knew he was in great danger and to keep up his courage had sung that hymn.

It is usually sung to the mournful tune Aberystwyth by Joseph Parry (1841-1903). He is probably best known as the composer of the song Myfanwy, published in 1875 with Welsh words by Richard Davies. Here it is sung by Pendyrus Male Voice Choir.

Parry’s life was an astonishing success story. He was born in Merthyr Tydfil, the seventh of eight children of Daniel and Elizabeth Parry. The family was musically inclined, with all family members singing in the chapel choir. Joseph left school at nine to work in a coal mine, doing a 56-hour week for the equivalent of twelve and a half pence. At 12, Parry was working at the puddling furnaces of the Cyfarthfa Ironworks, where his father also worked.

Parry’s father, Daniel, emigrated to the United States in 1853; the rest of the family followed in 1854. Like his father and brother, Parry became a worker at the Rough and Ready Iron Works in Danville, Pennsylvania, where there was a large Welsh community. Joseph attended the Congregational Chapel and the Sunday school.

Parry had no music lessons until he was 17 when his iron works closed down temporarily. Other workers who were musicians taught him harmony as well as reading and writing. Soon he was composing. In 1861, he married Jane Thomas, the daughter of Welsh immigrants. They had five children, two of whom died very young.

In 1865, when he was 24 and with a growing reputation, Parry returned to Wales to give concerts of his own works. He was offered a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music but turned it down since he had his family to support in America. A fund was established to finance the family, however, and Parry began a three-year course at the Academy. During his last year there he appeared before Queen Victoria three times, each time by her request. In 1871 he entered Cambridge University, becoming the first Welshman to take both the Mus.B. and Mus.D. there. He and his family returned to Danville, where he operated a school of music for the next three years. When Aberystwyth University established a chair for music, it was offered to Parry and the family moved back to Wales. He was Professor of Music at Aberystwyth from 1874 to 1881, and it was in his last few years there that he wrote the tune by the same name, possibly inspired by the rolling waves on the shore. It was published in 1879 and then paired with Charles Wesley’s words, Jesus, Lover of My Soul. It was first sung at the English Congregational Church in Portland Street in Aberystwyth, where Parry was organist.

Later he was Professor of Music at Cardiff University. His other works included Blodwen, the first opera in the Welsh language, premiered in Aberystwyth’s Temperance Hall on 21 May 1878. Many girls were later named Blodwen after the heroine (according to Wikipedia, the name was not recorded before that time, but I have my doubts about that) and boys were named Hywel after the hero.

Here is a duet from the opera.

The Welsh poet and artist David Jones (1895-1974) served in the Royal Welch Fusiliers in the First World War. In his epic poem In Parenthesis (1937) he describes the build-up to the Mametz Wood engagement in the first Battle of the Somme in July 1916, as the troops prepared for combat:

Riders on pale horses loosed
and vials irreparably broken
an’ Wat price bleedin’ glory
Glory
Glory Hallelujah
and the Royal Welch sing:
Jesu’
Lover of me soul… to Aberystwyth.

Over the five days of the engagement the 38th (Welsh) Division was reduced to a fifth of its strength, with 565 killed, 585 reported as missing (mostly killed) and 2,893 wounded.

Here Aled Jones sings Jesus Lover of My Soul to the tune Aberystwyth:

There are several other tunes to which the hymn is sung. One is
Martyn by Simeon Butler Marsh (1798–1875), an American music teacher and journalist. Here is a wonderful 1911 recording:

Another is Hollingside, by John Bacchus Dykes (1823-1876), who among many other works wrote the tune for Eternal Father Strong to Save, which I wrote about here.

This performance is by the Bath Chorus:

A fourth is Refuge, by American composer Joseph P Holbrook (1822-1888). It is performed here by a choir from Brigham Young University.

And I could not resist this version of Refuge on a musical box. What a joy!

PS: A reader has drawn my attention to this wonderful video on YouTube from August 2014. A working men’s club in Tonyrefail, South Wales, falls silent when member Malcolm Buck starts to sing Myfanwy.

Towards the end a male voice choir visiting the club that evening join in. It’s a unique moment.

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