O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing – Audio

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About the Hymn: O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing

Our hymn focus this month is O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing, by Charles Wesley. Charles Wesley was born at Epworth in Lincolnshire, England, on December 18, 1707. He was the third surviving son and eighteenth child of Samuel and Susanna Annesley Wesley. His father was a poverty-stricken Anglican minister, who was the rector at Epworth, and whose ambition was to make scholars and clergymen of his three sons: Samuel, John, and Charles. Their mother, Susannah, who knew Greek, Latin, and French, taught all the siblings each day for up to six hours growing up, and John would eventually go on to be educated at Charterhouse, while the younger Samuel and Charles attended school at Westminster. Charles entered Christ Church, Oxford, in June 1726, and proved to be an excellent scholar and graduated in 1730.

It was during this time that Charles began to have a deep interest in spiritual things. He went off to study at Oxford University next, and to counteract the spiritual lethargy of the school, Charles formed the Holy Club. The “Club” consisted of about three others, including his brother John, who shared his spiritual interest. This Holy Club later was nicknamed by others as “Methodists” because John, a methodical person, wrote out a list of rules and methods for the daily living of club members. Some of the rules included early rising, Bible study, and eventually prison ministry. The purpose of this club was to add a spiritual improvement to their lives, and while it was Charles who formed the club, it was John who eventually became their leader. In 1732 George Whitefield became a member of the Holy Club, and a close friendship developed between Charles and Whitefield.

In May 1735, upon graduation from Oxford, Charles and John were sent to the new colony of Georgia in America by the Anglican Church to help stabilize the religious climate of the Georgia Colonies and to evangelize the Indians. They went as missionaries, and John was appointed Anglican chaplain and Charles was appointed secretary for Governor James Oglethorpe. This proved to be a failure as both John and Charles were not prepared for the conditions and characters that they met. The colony of Georgia was organized by Oglethorpe to give those who had fallen on hard times a new start, and life there was hard for the Wesley’s. Becoming increasingly depressed, Charles echoed John’s sentiments as they decided to return to England the following year:

I went to America to convert the Indians, but, oh, who will convert me?

It turned out to be the Moravians. Even though their missionary work in Georgia might be considered a failure, it was during this experience that the foundation was laid that would soon change their lives. On board the ship to the American colony with John and Charles were 26 German Moravians, a small evangelical group long characterized by missionary concern and enthusiastic hymn singing. The Wesley brothers were impressed with the hymn singing, the preaching, and the spiritual depth of the Moravians, even during some of the fierce Atlantic storms they experienced on the trip. The following account is taken from Charles’ journal on January 25, 1736:

In the midst of the Psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the main sail in pieces, covered the ship and poured in between the decks…. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Moravians looked up, and without intermission calmly sang on, I asked one of them afterwards, ‘Were you not afraid?’ He answered, ‘Thank God, no!’

John and Charles realized for the first time that hymn singing could be a spiritual experience, and they were so impressed with these people that Charles eventually made a detailed study of the Moravian hymnal, and began introducing a number of their hymns into the Anglican services back in England.

Following their short stint in America, the disillusioned Wesleys returned to England, where once again they came under the influence of a group of devout Moravian believers, led by Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, meeting in Aldersgate, London.

Early in 1738, Charles had a severe attack of pleurisy, and it seemed that the only path for him to take at this point was an academic life at Oxford. In April, John and Charles traveled to Oxford where Charles taught English to Peter Böhler, a young Moravian. Bohler wrote to Count Zinzendorf his impressions of the Wesley brothers:

The elder, John, is a good-natured man; he knew he did not properly believe in our Savior, and was willing to be taught. His brother is at present very much distressed in his mind, but does not know how he shall begin to be acquainted with the Savior.

By May 1738, the Wesley brothers were back in London. Charles was still suffering from pleurisy and was being cared for at the house of one of the Moravians, John Bray in Little Britain, just a short distance from Aldersgate. The illness had brought him very low physically and spiritually, and to pass the time, Charles began reading Martin Luther’s volume on Galatians while ill. He wrote in his diary:

I labored, waited, and prayed to feel “who loved me, and gave himself for me.”

He would go on to write:

Sunday, May 21st, 1738. I waked in hope and expectation of His coming. At nine my brother and some friends came, and sang an hymn to the Holy Ghost. My comfort and hope were hereby increased. In about half-an-hour they went: I betook myself to prayer; the substance as follows :–

“Oh Jesus, thou hast said, ‘I will come unto you ; ‘thou hast said, ‘ I will send the Comforter unto you ; thou hast said, ‘My Father and I will come unto you, and make our abode with you.’ Thou art God who canst not lie; I wholly rely upon thy most true promise: accomplish it in thy time and manner.”

Having said this, I was composing myself to sleep, in quietness and peace, when I heard one come in (Mrs. Musgrave, I thought, by the voice) and say, “In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, arise, and believe, and thou shalt be healed of all thy infirmities.” I wondered how it should enter into her head to speak in that manner. The words struck me to the heart. I sighed, and said within myself, “O that Christ would but speak thus to me… of my recovery, soul and body…

I rose and looked into the Scripture. The words that first presented were, “And now, Lord, what is my hope truly my hope is even in thee.” I then cast down my eye, and met, “He hath put a new song in my mouth, even a thanksgiving unto our God. Many shall see it, and fear, and shall put their trust in the Lord.” Afterwards I opened upon Isaiah 40:1: “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God: speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sin.”

I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ…  I saw that by faith I stood; by the continual support of faith, which kept me from falling, though of myself I am ever sinking into sin.

Over the following days Charles’ strength gradually increased, and it was during this time that he began to write the first of his many hymns. He prayed that his brother John would receive the same assurance of faith, and on May 24th this prayer was answered:

Towards ten, my brother was brought in triumph by a troop of our friends, and declared, “I believe.” We sang the hymn with great joy, and parted with prayer.

John found the assurance of his salvation during a meeting at a Moravian mission on Aldersgate Street in London. He also wrote of his account:

I went very unwillingly to a Society in Aldersgate Street where one was reading about Luther’s preface to The Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine whilst he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that He had taken my sin, even mine.

Both of these brothers realized that though they had been zealous in the Church’s ministry, neither had ever really known Christ as Savior, or had known the joy of their religious faith as did their Moravian friends. New vitality came into Charles’ public preaching. He discontinued the practice of reading his sermons, and began preaching extemporaneously. He also found a fruitful arena for ministry at the infamous Newgate Prison, and allowed himself to be locked up with condemned men on nights before their executions, that he might tell them about Jesus during their final hours.

John and Charles’ friend, and fellow Holy Club member, George Whitefield, joined the Wesley brothers in preaching the Gospel wherever they could find an audience. It was actually at Whitefield’s insistence that the Wesley’s “be more vile” and do the unthinkable: preach outside of church buildings. So they preached wherever they could: in open fields, prisons, and to coal miners who did not attend church. It is estimated that they traveled a quarter of a million miles throughout Great Britain, mostly on horseback, while conducting more than 40,000 public services.

In his journal entries from 1739 to 1743, Charles computed the number of those to whom he had preached. Of only those crowds for whom he stated a figure, the total during these five years comes to 149,400. One early Methodist made this comment about Charles:

His preaching at his best was thunder and lightning.

Another, commented after hearing Charles preach at Bristol to a large crowd:

He preached about an hour…in such a manner as I have seldom, if ever heard any minister preach; that is, though I have heard many a finer sermon according to the common taste, yet I have scarcely ever heard any minister discover such evident signs of a vehement desire or labour so earnestly to convince his hearers.

There was another aspect of these early Methodist worship services, and that is the singing. Throughout his adult life, Charles wrote hymns for use in their Methodist meetings. Many of which were set to popular melodies of the day. One observer said this about those early services:

Never did I hear such praying or such singing. Their singing was not only the most harmonious and delightful I ever heard, but they sang “lustily and with a good courage”…If there be such a thing as heavenly music upon earth I heard it there.

It became evident however that Charles’ health would not hold up to the itinerant preaching schedule and constant traveling. He did not have the stamina that John or Whitefield had. He knew that he would have to find a wife and a home. On a trip to Wales, he met Sarah Gwyanne, and they soon were married on April 8, 1749 with John officiating. They settled in Bristol until 1771 when they moved to London.

Charles continued to write hymns, and even while dying, he wrote one last hymn and dedicated it to his wife. He died March 29, 1788. Charles’ greatest gift to Methodism was his hymns, and they are regarded as among the finest ever written. It was once said that you could tell when a Methodist was coming by his singing. Charles’ hymns formed the basis of the Methodist hymnbooks since that time, and they are still sung by Christians all over the world.

O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing was written in 1739 on the occasion of Charles’s first anniversary of his conversion experience. It was written as both as an expression of the necessity of preaching the Gospel, and a celebration of God’s Spirit working within his own life. It is thought to have been inspired by a chance remark by his friend Peter Böhler, who exclaimed:

Had I a thousand tongues, I would praise Christ Jesus with all of them.

That was all Charles needed, as out of that statement, he would go on to write arguably his most popular hymn. It originally had nineteen stanzas, and when published, was entitled, For the Anniversary Day of One’s Conversion. The first stanza began with:

Glory to God, and praise and love be ever, ever given, by saints below and saints above, the church in earth and heaven.

Most of the verses dealt in a very personal way with Charles own conversion experience. He would go on to recommend that everyone sing it “on the anniversary of one’s conversion.” Here are the verses that we will be focusing on:

O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise 
The glories of my God and King, the triumphs of His grace

I felt my Lord’s atoning blood close to my soul applied
Me, me He loved, the Son of God, for me, for me He died

Glory to God, praise and love are forever given
By saints below, saints above, the church in earth and heaven

He speaks, and, listening to His voice, new life the dead receive
His spirit leads us to the choice, and brings us to believe

He breaks the power of cancelled sin, He sets the prisoner free 
His blood can make the foulest clean, His blood availed for me

Look unto Him, you nations, own your God, you fallen race
Look, and be saved through faith alone, be justified by grace

My gracious Master and my God, assist me to proclaim 
To spread throughout the Earth abroad the honors of your name

The hymn was first published in John Wesley’s A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists in 1780. The hymn is commonly sung to Lowell Mason’s 1839 arrangement of the hymn tune AZMON, written by Carl G. Gläser in 1828. Gläser was a German composer and contemporary of Beethoven. Though Charles Wesley’s text has been sung to a number of tunes through the years, AZMON is the most prevalent, and the one we have chosen to sing to.

Charles Wesley was said to have averaged 10 poetic lines a day for 50 years. He wrote 8,989 hymns, 10 times the volume composed by the only other candidate, Isaac Watts, who could conceivably claim to be the world’s greatest hymn writer. He composed some of the most memorable and lasting hymns of the church: Christ the Lord Is Risen Today, Jesus, Lover of My Soul, A Charge to Keep I Have, Depth of Mercy, and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. And yet he is often referred to as the “forgotten Wesley.”

His brother John is considered the organizational genius behind the founding of Methodism. But without the hymns of Charles, the Methodist movement may have gone nowhere. As one historian put it, “The early Methodists were taught and led as much through [Charles’s] hymns as through sermons and [John] Wesley’s pamphlets.”

He produced in his lyrics what brother John called a “distinct and full account of scriptural Christianity.” He was abile to capture universal Christian experiences in memorable verse. In the following century, Henry Ward Beecher declared:

I would rather have written that hymn of Wesley’s, Jesus, Lover of My Soul, than to have the fame of all the kings that ever sat on the earth.

The compiler of the massive Dictionary of Hymnology, John Julian, concluded that, “perhaps, taking quantity and quality into consideration, [Charles Wesley was] the greatest hymn-writer of all ages.”

About this Recording

Executive Producer: Shelby T. Murphy

Engineered and Mixed by: Jeff Carver and David Jackson

Vocals: Megan Clinch and Marla Hershberger

Piano: Kerrissa Richards

Banjo: Nic Clinch

Bass: Shelby T. Murphy

Glockenspiel: William Philips

Drums and Tambourine: Jonathan Tobin

Produced by: Justin Bailey, Jonathan Fuller, and David Jackson

Recorded and Mixed at:


  1. Wow, it’s been out this long, and no comments? All I can say is you guys are my favorite. Thanks very much for giving away the fruit of your labors for God’s glory. I only wish my playlist was more than three songs long. Love your sound, love the hymns, and I love that you’re reintroducing us to the old hymns that haven’t already been redone a million times. More!

    Lord bless you!


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