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22 June 2010
He was the Bernie Taupin of his time, the lyricist for popular hymns such as ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ and ‘Oh for a Thousand Tongues’ yet a significant part of Charles Wesley’s back catalogue dealt with pain and suffering and after years of popular appeal, dropped out of favour in the 19th Century.
Deakin University historian, Dr Joanna Cruickshank, tracked the reasons why these hymns of suffering were given the silent treatment and how they helped early men and women make sense of the physical, emotional and spiritual pains they experienced.
Her work, published as a new book Pain, Passion and Faith: Revisiting the Place of Charles Wesley in Early Methodism, has led her to conclude that society’s silence about suffering is not healthy.
“Charles Wesley wrote more than 6000 hymns,” she said.
“There were hymns women could sing or recite during childbirth, his wife suffered from smallpox so there were hymns written to comfort smallpox sufferers, he wrote hymns about being executed, there were hymns to help ease suffering.
“While some of the subject matter would be viewed as unpleasant today, you have to see these hymns within the context of the time.
“There was no pain relief.
“Wesley’s hymns said ‘yes there is suffering, it is a constant integral part of life that we endure because the world is a horrible place'.
“His hymns pushed that view, but also out of that suffering comes good.”
Dr Cruickshank said the hymns resonated with people at the time because they were something that people who were illiterate could learn.
“They had rhythm, but they also rhymed, they spoke of theological things but they also spoke of behaviours and experiences that could be modelled,” she said.
“I can’t imagine women singing away during childbirth as such, but if you were a woman, terrified of giving birth, and women at that time were, you could rehearse what is going to happen to you through this hymn.
“You could create a certain comfort, yes it is going to be ok, Jesus suffered, your suffering is going to be meaningful.”
Dr Cruickshank said the hymns became less popular as theological teachings embraced a more benevolent God, there was a better understanding of pain and the invention of pain relief.
“There was generally a new sensitivity to pain, so organisations like the RSPCA emerged and society re-examined its view of capital punishment,” she said.
But Dr Cruickshank believes society lost something by relegating the outpouring on suffering, to silence.
“I think it’s a deeply unhealthy thing that our culture is fixated with happiness and health,” she said.
“Suffering has somehow become associated with silence and shame in society and I think that is a terrible thing because people should not feel ashamed about being sad or sick.”
Pain, Passion and Faith: Revisiting the Place of Charles Wesley in Early Methodism, Scarecrow Press.
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Dr Joanna Cruickshank talks about Charles
Wesley's hymns of suffering and the lessons