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Missions 101

Charles Wesley's Spirituality and Hymnody

Jan. 28, 2013By: Evan Burns

"O, For A Thousand Tongues to Sing" (1739)

Historical Context

Apparently there is no universal agreement as to historical occasion of the origin of this hymn.  However, at the end of the nineteenth century the English hymnologist, Dr. John Julian, maintained that “O for a thousand tongues to sing” was inspired by an expression of Peter Bohler[1] in response to Charles Wesley’s inquiry about praising Christ.  Bohler apparently exclaimed, “Had I a thousand tongues, I would praise Him with them all.”[2] This hymn could also be inspired by the declaration of Acts 2:11, “Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues, the wonderful works of God.”  Wesley likely penned this hymn on May 21, 1739, which was one year after his conversion.[3]

Biblical Allusions[4]

1:1.  O for a thousand tongues to sing

Ps 119:172—My tongue will sing of your word, for all your commandments are right.

1:3.  The glories of my God and King

Ps 145:1—I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever.

2:3.  To spread through all the earth abroad

Matt 9:31—But they, when they were departed, spread abroad his fame in all the that country.

2:4.  The honours of thy name

Ps 66:2—sing the honor of his name; give to him glorious praise!

4:2.  He sets prisoners free

Isa 61:1—The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.

4:3.  His blood can make the foulest clean

Isa 1:18—“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

4:4.  His blood availed for me

Gal 2:20—I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.  And the life I know live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of god, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Eph 1:7—In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.

 5:1.  Hear Him ye deaf; his praise, ye dumb

Matt 11:4-5—And Jesus answered them, “God and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.

Mk 7:37—And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

5:3.  Ye blind, behold your Saviour come

Isa 35:5-6—Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.

5:4.  And leap, ye lame for joy

Acts 3:8—And leaping up he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.

6:1.  Look unto him, ye nations, own

Isa 45:22—Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth.  For I am God, and there is no other.

6:3.  Look, and be saved through faith alone

Eph 2:8—For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.

7:1.  See all your sins on Jesus laid

Isa 53:6—All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

7:2.  The Lamb of God was slain

Jn 1:29—The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

Rev 5:6—And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.

7:3.  His soul once an offering made

Isa 53:10—Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief, when his souls makes an offering for guild, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.

8:2.  And Christ shall give you light

Eph 5:14—for anything that becomes visible is light.  Therefore it says, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

8:3.  Cast all your sins into the deep

Micah 7:19—He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot.  You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.

8:4.  And wash the Ehtiop white[5]

Jer 13:23—Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?  Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.

9:1.  With me, your chief, ye then shall know

1 Tim 1:15—The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.


This hymn is a snapshot of the Evangelical fire at its brightest and hottest.  As the hymn begins, it celebrates the Christian’s evangelical conversion, and as it progresses past the eighth verse, there is a distinct shift of praise to God for personal salvation to an appeal for the salvation of sinners.  Common to Wesleyan piety, this hymn demonstrates evangelistic doxology.  Wesley’s doxology was soaked in gospel doctrine.  As demonstrated above, the meter is 8x6x8x6, and nearly every verse has references Scripture, whether by allusion or by quotation.  The theology of this hymn exults in the saving power of Christ to save the lost souls both near and far.  There is no one outside the reach of the saving power of God Almighty.  The flood of salvation runs through all races, ages, nations, and kinds of sinners.  Demonstrating the rich thoughtfulness of Wesley’s theology is the following verse: “He breaks the power of canceled sin.”  This verse shows how Wesley viewed the fight of faith and the need for progressive salvation.  Though we are justified, we are still sinful.  And though our sin has been canceled on the cross, it still has power to tempt us throughout our lives.  But the hymn does not leave us to despair of our depravity; rather, we are encouraged to rejoice in the miracle of deliverance and the new birth.  We are called upon to proclaim the good news of the freeness and fullness of God’s grace.



[1]Bohler (1712-1775) was a minister among the Moravians in Germany alongside Count Nicholaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf.  He was visiting England after John and Charles Wesley had returned from a missionary journey in Georgia.  Bohler influenced them in their personal, evangelical renewals.  

[2]John Julian (ed.), A Dictionary of Hymnology, 2nd ed., rev. (London: John Murray, 1907; rpt. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1957), 1:428, quoted in Samuel J. Rogald, O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing, The History of Christian Hymnody, vol. 10, Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2010: 5.

[3]“Unknown, most likely, to the majority of those who rise from their seats in the pews to sing ‘O For a thousand tongues,’ Chrales Wesley’s noted hymn does not stand alone as a poem unto itself.  Depending upon the number of stanzas included in a specific hymnal, it represents, in the most recent books, but between four and seven verses from the original poem, ‘For the Anniversary Day of One’s Conversion,’ in eighteen four-line verses—written in 1739, exactly one year following the poet’s evangelical conversion at London on Sunday, 21 May 1738, and published, initially, in Part II of the Wesleys’ Hymns and Sacred Poems (London: William Strahan, 1740).”   Rogald, O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing, 5.

[4] Rogald claims that “in thirty-six lines of hymnodic verse one finds no less than twenty-one distinct references to the Holy Scriptures, which, in turn, can be translated to reveal the fact that fifty-eight percent of the hymn derives from the Bible.”  Ibid., 16.

[5]This reference is a sign of heathen conversion, which would have been inoffensive in that era.

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