Friday, March 4, 2011

Blest Be the Dear, Uniting Love

Praise for the Lord #74

Words: Charles Wesley, 1742
Music: Ephraim Timothy Hildebrand, 1904 (SALEM)

Charles Wesley's enormous importance to the heritage of English-language hymns is discussed in a previous post. This hymn was first published in 1742 in Hymns and Sacred Poems, the third and final collection under that title. John Wesley wrote the preface and a few of the hymns, and it is surmised that Charles Wesley wrote the rest.(Wesley, 159ff.) It appeared in the Wesleys' landmark 1780 hymnal, A Collection of Hymns, with a few textual variations (noted below) and with the omission of two of the fifth and sixth of the original eight stanzas.(Julian, 148)

Stanza 1:
Blest be the dear uniting love
That will not let us part:
Our bodies may far off remove,
We still are one in heart.

(The original text ended with the line, "We still are joined in heart;" this was probably altered to avoid using the word "joined" here, when it also begins the second stanza.)

"Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!"(Psalm 133:1) On the last night before His death, before His agony in Gethsemane, Jesus implored His Father on behalf of the unity of His church:

I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me. The glory that You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one even as We are one, I in them and You in Me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that You sent Me and loved them even as You loved Me.(John 17:20-23)

Paul, even when a prisoner in Rome and under threat of death, was also deeply concerned for the unity and welfare of the church. He told the Ephesians,

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.(Ephesians 4:1-3)

Each passage tells us something different about the unity of God's people. In the prayer of Jesus, unity is between those who "have believed on Me through [the apostles'] word." All throughout the preceding paragraphs of John 17, the word and unity are intertwined:

For I have given them the words that You gave Me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from You; and they have believed that You sent Me.(v.8)

And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to You. Holy Father, keep them in Your name, which You have given Me, that they may be one, even as We are one.(v.11)

I have given them Your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.(v.14)

Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate Myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.(v.17-19)

The same intersection of a singular truth and unity is also explored in the famous "ones" passage that follows the Ephesians quotation above: "There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call--one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all."(Ephesians 4:4-6) Unity is not just declared, it is acheived through a common set of beliefs and practices founded in God's word.

The players on a football team may all be wearing the same jerseys, but if they are not studying out of the same playbook they are in for some trouble! A marching band on parade may look very unified with its identical uniforms, with all the members marching in step; but if they are not all correctly informed as to the next piece they are playing, they will soon find out how little unity they actually have. (This is a highly amusing and memorable experience.) We may be as diverse as we like in all other things, but we must be unified in obedience to God's word!

Paul's appeal for unity at the beginning of Ephesians 4 highlights another necessary quality for unity in the church: the attitude of the heart. It is the "manner" of our walk that he addresses first, appealing to our better angels of "humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love." Can a person teach and practice sound doctrine, but do it in an "unworthy manner?" Turn these qualities around and see if it rings true: are there individuals who believe in and teach God's word, but do it with an attitude of pride, harshness, and impatience toward those who disagree with them? The answer is obvious.

Humility is essential, because if we would lead people to Jesus we must make sure own egos don't get in His way; also, when the occasion comes that our beliefs may be proven incorrect from Scripture, we will find humility a much better place from which to be knocked down than the lofty heights of pride! Gentleness and patience are necessary, because we are not all at the same level of understanding, and we do not all learn and grow at the same speed. Emotions may run strong as well, especially if long-held beliefs are challenged.

Finally, we must "bear with one another" and be "eager" to keep the peace in the church. Some Christians, I am afraid, are like Diotrephes in 3rd John, who was only happy when he had someone to oppose. We cannot always keep peace and unity in the church, because sometimes others will not let us; but our "default setting" should be to seek it at any cost except at the cost of the truth.

Stanza 2:
Joined in one Spirit to our Head,
Where He appoints we go,
And still in Jesus' footsteps tread,
And show His praise below.

(The original text ended this stanza with, "And do His work below." I cannot help but wonder if the Wesleys' concern for avoiding any appearance of "works salvation" may have influenced this choice!)

Wesley's imagery is most likely taken from Ephesians 4:11-16:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

That passage looks at the body beginning with its constituent parts, working up to the directing force of the Head. The topic is introduced, however, in the first chapter, v. 22-23, beginning from Christ and the supreme authority given to Him by the Father: "And He put all things under His feet and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all." Christ is the directing mind and will of His church, and no other has authority so to direct His people. His word is law, and any part of His body that does not obey His will is an abnormality, just as much as if a part of your physical body suddenly stopped responding to commands. (Perhaps an even better comparison is Peter Sellers's maniacal Dr. Strangelove, who is strangled by his own hand!) We would certainly take the situation very seriously in our physical bodies; it is even more serious when a part of Christ's spiritual body, the church, is out of order.

Looking at this from the other side, it is both humbling and exalting that we are able to serve as parts of that body. We are Christ's eyes and ears in this world, to see and hear the physical and spiritual needs of our fellow beings. We are Christ's feet, to take His blessed presence where it is needed. We serve as Christ's mouth when we speak His word; and with such a responsibility, we dare not speak except "as one who speaks oracles of God."(1 Peter 4:11) We are Christ's arms and hands, to lift up the burdens of the weary and hold the hands of the fearful.

Stanza 3:
O may we ever walk in Him,
And nothing know beside,
Nothing desire, nothing esteem,
But Jesus crucified.

(The original wording began this stanza, "O let us ever walk in Him;" it may be that a very careful editor, wary of any possible misinterpretation, decided that "let us" sounded as though there were some question as to whether we have the ability to walk in Christ. It would be a misreading, of course, because it is apparent enough that it is not an appeal addressed to God, but an exhortation to fellow Christians, as is the point of view expressed throughout the hymn.)

Perhaps Wesley had in mind Paul's words to the Corinthians, "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified."(1 Cor. 1:2) This is hyperbole for effect, of course--Paul wrote two letters to the Corinthian church full of various doctrines on salvation, moral living, and the church--but always looking back to the central principle that Christ must be glorified. Knowing Christ was worth everything to Paul, and cost him everything, from a worldly standpoint. But he put it in perspective when he said, "Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ."(Phillipians 3:8)

The centrality of Christ to the life and doctrine of the New Testament Christian does not mean that there is nothing else to preach, or that other doctrines are "lesser" and may be sacrificed for the sake of unity; when Philip "told the good news of Jesus" to the Ethiopian treasurer, apparently somewhere in that message was the doctrine of baptism.(Acts 8:35, cf. v.36) But when Paul wrote what was probably his final letter to his favorite apprentice, Timothy, he imparts this advice above all: "Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel."(2 Tim. 2:8) Nothing is more important, and without this foundation stone(1 Cor. 3:11) nothing else matters.

Stanza 4:
Closer and closer let us cleave
To His beloved embrace,
Expect His fullness to receive,
And grace to answer grace.

The closer we are to Christ, the closer we are to one another: "May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."(Romans 15:5-6) Our marriages will become what they should be, and stay what they should be, to the degree that both husband and wife are genuinely striving to be pleasing to God. Our congregations will be peaceful, to extent that every member seeks first to be pleasing to God, in step with His will, and drawing closer to the example of Christ. And the only hope of the fractured fellowship of Christendom is to seek individually and collectively to grow closer to Christ through obedience to His word.

It was this thought that must have led Wesley to paraphrase, in the last two lines of the stanza, from the first chapter of John: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. ... And from His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace."(v.14,16)

The "fullness" of our God is worth a study on its own; far from the cold, austere character that the world might impute, our God is a God of extravagance and abundance! David understood this, and in the simple language of a herdsman said, "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein."(Ps. 24:1) All good things in the physical realm belong to God. But David knew there was much more: "You make known to me the path of life; in Your presence there is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore."(Ps. 16:11)

Now we are blessed with an even greater understanding of this fact, through the revelation of Christ, "for in Him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily."(Col. 2:9) Christ brought this to us so that we too "might have life, and have it more abundantly."(John 10:10) This life flows to us through becoming a part of his "called-out people," the church, "which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all."(Eph. 1:23) As Wesley points out, this is a continuous process of growth, "until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ."(Eph 4:13) The devil promises more and more pleasures, but ultimately reduces his victims to the state of being unable to enjoy even the simple blessings God gives every day; Christ asks us to give ourselves up more and more to Him, and in return blesses us more abundantly than we can comprehend, with always the promise of more tomorrow.

Wesley's hymn actually has four more verses in its original form:

While thus we walk with Christ in light
Who shall our souls disjoin,
Souls, which himself vouchsafes t’ unite
In fellowship divine!

We all are one who him receive,
And each with each agree,
In him the one, the truth, we live,
Blest point of unity!

Partakers of the Saviour’s grace,
The same in mind and heart,
Nor joy, nor grief, nor time, nor place,
Nor life, nor death can part:

But let us hasten to the day
Which shall our flesh restore,
When death shall all be done away,
And bodies part no more.

May God bless us and help us all to seek the "unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."(Eph. 4:3)

 About the music:

Ephraim Timothy Hildebrand (1866-1932) was raised in a Mennonite family near Bridgewater and Dayton, Virginia. He attended Shenandoah College, associated with the United Brethren Church, and was a member of that body during his adult life.(Gospel Herald) He studied music education at Shenandoah, which at that time was located in Dayton, VA, where he also joined the influential circle of the Ruebush-Kieffer gospel music enterprise. From 1895-99 Hildebrand actually directed the music program at Shenandoah, rather remarkable for such a recent graduate; then beginning in 1899 he did the same at Bridgewater College. In the early 20th century he also pursued a more classical career in New York City, studying under the popular composer George F. Root and singing with the New York Oratorio Society.(Bridgewater) A search of shows that Hildebrand continued to publish primarily in the gospel song genre, however, collaborating with the Fillmore Brothers and even decidedly "Southern gospel" publishers such as James D. Vaughan and Virgil O. Stamps.

For someone who was so active and apparently well-known in his time, it is surprising how few of his works have survived to the present day. The Cyberhymnal has very little information on him, and this tune, SALEM, is the only one of his works with which I am familiar. shows that the text "Blest be the dear, uniting love" appeared in a Hildebrand publication, Pathway of Praise (Cincinnati, Fillmore Bros.), in 1904. This may be the earliest appearance of Hildebrand's tune. It is a surprisingly classical bit of music for someone so associated with the gospel tradition, and shows the breadth of his ability!


Wesley, Charles & John. Hymns and Sacred Poems. London, 1742. From the web site Charles Wesley's Published Verse (Duke Divinity School, Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition).

Julian, John. A Dictionary of Hymnology. New York: Scribner's Sons, 1892.

Wesley, John & Charles. A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodist. London, 1780.

"Gospel Herald obituaries, 1931." MennObits. Goshen, IN: Archives of the Mennonite Church, USA, 1999.

"Ephraim Timothy Hildebrand." Bridgewater College, its Past and Present: a Tribute of the Alumni. Elgin, IL: Brethren Publishing House, 1905, p. 112-113.

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