"LOVE DIVINE, ALL LOVES EXCELLING": AN EXPOSITION OF CHARLES WESLEY'S HYMN
"LOVE DIVINE ALL LOVES EXCELLING"
PART THE FIRST
From our newly released book AMAZING LOVE! HOW CAN IT BE: STUDIES ON HYMNS BY CHARLES WESLEY
By Roger D. Duke & Chris Fenner
In the development of Methodism, John and Charles recognized the importance of using hymns to carry doctrinal messages; their extensive publishing venture was vital in that role. Since congregational singing can be used to teach basic tenets of the Christian faith, “The Wesleys understood . . . their hymnals to be handbooks of doctrine.” In many cases, they published small collections focused on particular themes.
In 1747, the Wesley’s released Hymns for Those that Seek and Those that Have Redemption in the Blood of Jesus Christ, containing 52 hymn texts. Each text referred in some way to matters of salvation. The first 24 hymns were designed to coordinate with the tunes in Hymns on the Great Festivals (1746). One editor of the Wesleys’ hymns, Randy Maddox, described the collection as “the work of [Charles] Wesley as a ‘practical theologian,’ charting a narrative for the spiritual journey of those reading and singing the verse.” Wesley scholar John Tyson saw this collection as also extending the Wesleys’ ongoing concern for holiness, asserting, “these compositions explore what sanctification looks like in everyday life.”
The most enduring of these hymns has been “Love divine, all loves excelling.” As hymn number nine, it was intended to be sung to the tune corresponding to “Jesus, show us thy salvation,” a rather ambitious melody by John Frederick Lampe (1703–1751).
Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven, to earth come down,
Fix in us thy humble dwelling,
All thy faithful mercies crown;
Jesu, Thou are all compassion,
Pure unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with thy salvation,
Enter every trembling heart.
The opening lines of the hymn were an imitation of a song from the opera King Arthur, Act II, Scene 5, words by John Dryden (1631–1700), with music by Henry Purcell (1659–1695):
Fairest Isle, all isles excelling,
Seat of pleasures, and of loves;
Venus here will choose her dwelling,
And forsake her Cyprian groves.
Hymnologist J.R. Watson described the relationship between the two: “Wesley characteristically takes over a classical reference and makes a Christian point: instead of Venus, the goddess of love, leaving Cyprus for the British Isles, Divine Love is to leave heaven and dwell in the human heart.” When this hymn appeared again in Select Hymns with Tunes Annext (1761), the connection to King Arthur was even more deliberate. Instead of being paired with Lampe’s tune from 1746, this text was printed with Purcell’s opera tune.
The first stanza serves as an invocation to the rest of the hymn. It is a five-fold prayer to Christ. Because His divine love excels all other affections humanly known, Wesley called on Christ to “come,” “fix,” “crown,” “visit,” and “enter ev’ry trembling heart.” Without a doubt—based on the Wesleyan body of divinity—Charles longed for this deeper “love divine” relationship with the Master. This love could be known corporately by the church, but Wesley desired for all to experience it personally and intimately. The hymn-prayer has a basis in Christ’s incarnation: when Christ comes experientially, the joy of heaven has come to earth (John 1:14), He has fixed in us His humble home (John 14:23), He has crowned us with His mercies (2 Tim. 4:8), He has visited us with His salvation (Psalm 106:4), and He shall enter every trembling heart (2 Cor. 4:6, Eph. 3:17-19).
Note the descriptors Wesley applied to Christ. He called Him the “joy of heaven,” “all compassion,” and “pure unbounded love.” The call for Christ to make His humble dwelling in us is an appeal to another title, Immanuel, God-with-us (Is. 7:14, Matt. 1:23), another connection to the incarnation. The significance of his description shows a progression of thought and theology: Christ was full of unbounded love, He possessed all compassion, and He brought down the joy of heaven. That joy of heaven was Christ himself! From transcendence to immanence; from the Father’s right hand, to “be made in the likeness of men, He humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:7-8). Christ himself, Christ’s incarnation, Christ come down, Christ’s presence with us is “Love divine, all loves excelling.”
 Henry H. Knight, III, “Wesley and the Doctrinal Role of Hymnody,” Catalyst: Contemporary Evangelical Perspectives for United Methodists Seminarians (1 February 2005), https://www.catalystresources.org/consider-wesley-27/  Randy L. Maddox, Redemption Hymns (1747), Charles Wesley’s Manuscript Verse, https://divinity.duke.edu/initiatives/cswt/charles-published-verse  John R. Tyson, Assist Me to Proclaim: The Life and Hymns of Charles Wesley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), p. 240.  Maddox lists two manuscript precursors of this hymn, MS Shent (MA 1977/554), 94a–94b, and MS Thirty (MA 1977/424), 135–36; both are held at the Methodist Archive and Research Centre, University of Manchester, and they were transcribed for Charles Wesley’s Manuscript Verse: https://divinity.duke.edu/initiatives/cswt/charles-manuscript-verse  Franz Hildebrandt & Olivier A. Beckerlegge, The Works of John Wesley, vol. 7 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983), p. 545: “The original comma rather than a semicolon at the end of the line showed that this was a declaration of faith rather than a prayer, and this was emphasized by the addition of a comma after ‘heaven’ in the 1779 edn. of Redemption H. In the edns. of the Collection the semicolon first appeared in [the 7th edn.], 1791. Wesley’s MS draft, however, 1778, reads: ‘Joy of heaven, to earth come down!’”  J.R. Watson, An Annotated Anthology of Hymns (Oxford: University Press, 2002), p. 196. Watson also sees parallels with Ovid’s Metamorphoses, “because Ovid’s poem deals with change and transformation, … but also because there is a particular story of divinities coming to earth,” in Book VIII.  In Select Hymns with Tunes Annext (1761), no. 128, Purcell’s tune was called WESTMINSTER. It had been adapted as a hymn tune for Methodists seven years earlier in The Divine Musical Miscellany (1754), a tunebook for use with George Whitefield’s Hymns for Social Worship (1753).  Albert Edward Bailey, The Gospel in Hymns: Background and Interpretation (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950), p. 96.  See also James 1:12, 1 Peter 5:4, and Revelation 2:10.  See especially the KJV, “Remember me, O Lord, with the favour that thou bearest unto thy people: O visit me with thy salvation.”