The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing

For Christmas

Words: Charles Wesley

Music: Birstal, Azmon
Meter: CM (86 86)

Source: John Wesley, A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (Baltimore: From the Diamond Street Press, 1814), p. 1.
First American [Edition], From the Eighteenth London Edition

Part I. Containing Introductory Hymns. Section I. Exhorting Sinners to return to God.”

Hymn 1.

1. O for a thousand tongues to sing
My dear Redeemer’s praise!
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of His grace!

2. My gracious Master, and my God,
Assist me to proclaim,
To spread thro' all the earth abroad
The honors of Thy name.

3. Jesus, the name that charms our fears,
That bids our sorrows cease:
‘Tis music in the sinner’s ears;
‘Tis life, and health, and peace.

4. He breaks the power of cancell’d sin,
He sets the prisoner free:
His blood can make the foulest clean:
His blood avail’d for me.

5. He speaks – and listening to his voice,
New life the dead receive;
The mournful, broken hearts rejoice;
The humble poor believe.

6. Hear him, ye deaf; his praise, ye dumb,
Your loosen’d tongues employ:
Ye blind, behold your Saviour come,
And leap ye lame for joy!

7. Look unto him ye nations; own
Your God ye fallen race;
Look and be sav'd through faith alone,
Be justifi'd by grace.

8. See all your sins on Jesus laid:
The Lamb of God was slain,
His soul was once an offering made
For every soul of man.

9. Awake from guilty nature’s sleep;
And Christ shall give you light;
Cast all your sins into the deep,
And wash the Æthiop white:

10. With me, your chief, you then shall know,
Shall feel your sins forgiven;
Anticipate your heaven below,
And own that love is heaven.

Sheet Music “Azmon” by Carl G. Glaser from The Methodist Hymnal (New York: The Methodist Book Concern, 1905), Hymn 1, p. 1.

Sheet Music "Antioch," CM, for the carol Joy to the World, from Henry Date, et al., ed., Pentecostal Hymns (Chicago: Hope Publishing Co., 1894), #214. Because it is is also Common Meter, this hymn could also be sung to "Antioch." Also on the same page was #216, All Hail the Power, to the tune of Coronation, C.M.

The tune "Birstal" is most often mentioned as a setting for this hymn in older histories, however, I had no luck in finding such a setting among the many Baptist hymnals that I checked (most were text only). Since the 1870s, the tune most frequently used for the setting of this hymn is "Azmon," above. I did find one other setting, "Green" by R. M. McIntosh in Silas H. Durand and P. G. Lester, Hymn and Tune Book for Use in Old School or Primitive Baptist Churches. Fifth Edition. (Greenfield, Ind.: D. H. Goble, 1886), #390, p. 158.


Thus is an excerpt from a longer, 18-stanza hymn titled "Glory to God, and Praise and Love."

In many hymnals, fewer verses are reproduced. In The Book of Christmas Hymns, for example, there are only five of these ten, being verses 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 (The Book of Christmas Hymns. London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1868, pp. 82-83).

The original hymn contained 18 verses. These ten are verses 7-14 and 17-18 from the original. Verses 15 and 16 from the original that are excluded from this excerpt are:

15. Harlots, and publicans, and thieves
In holy triumph join;
Saved is the sinner that believes
From crimes as great as mine.

16. Murderers, and all ye hellish crew,
Ye sons of lust and pride,
Believe the Saviour died for you;
For me the Saviour died.

The longer poem was written on the one year anniversary of a crisis in faith experienced by John Wesley. An outline of the circumstances of that hymn, and this excerpt, are from John Julian, The Dictionary of Hymnology (1892, 1907):

Glory to God, and praise and love. Charles Wesley. [Praise for Salvation.] Written by Charles Wesley on the first anniversary of the great spiritual change which he underwent on Sunday, May 21, 1738, details of which are given under that date in his Journal. In 1740 it was included in Hymns and Sacred Poems, in 18 stanzas of 4 lines, and headed, " For the Anniversary Day of one's Conversion." (Poetical Works, 1868-72, vol. i. p. 299.)

One of the first to make use of the hymn for congregational purposes was R. Conyers, who gave a cento therefrom in his Psalms And Hymns, 1767, beginning, " O for a thousand tongues to sing," and consisting of stanzas vii., ix.-xii.

  • Richard Conyers, ed., A Collection of Psalms and Hymns (London: J and W Oliver, 1774), Hymn 96, pp 93-94. Verses 1, 3, 4, 5, 6 of above.

This was followed by other centos (all beginning with the same stanza), in the collections of De Courcy, 1775 ; Toplady, 1776; and many others.

  • Richard De Courcy, ed., A Collection of Psalms and Hymns (Shrewsbury: T. Wood, 1775). Not found.

  • Augustus Toplady, Psalms and Hymns (London: T. Bensley, 1794), #346, pp. 350-351.  Six verses: verses 1, 3, 4, 5 of the above, plus 15 in the original, and finally verse 10 above, altered.

The most widely known cento is that by John Wesley, in the Wesleyan Hymn Book, 1780, No. 1, in 10 stanzas, "O for a thousand tongues to sing." This is not only the opening hymn of the Wesleyan Hymn Book, but also of most collections of the Methodist bodies in all English-speaking countries. To this cause much of its popularity may be traced. Stevenson's annotations thereon in his Methodist Hymn Book Notes, 1883, are of more than usual interest. Another cento, " Look unto Christ, ye nations; own," is in the American Methodist Episcopal Hymns, 1849.

The opening line of the cento, "O for a thousand tongues to sing," is supposed to have had its origin in an expression of Peter Bohler, the Moravian, who, when consulted by C. Wesley about praising Christ, replied, "Had I a thousand tongues, I would praise Him with them all." The well-known line, "He breaks, the power of cancelled sin," has given offence to a few, from the Taylor and Jones Psalms & Hymns, London, 1777, where it read, " He breaks the power of death and sin," to the American Manual of Praise, Oberlin, Ohio, 1880, where it reads, "He breaks the power of reigning sin." These changes, however, are limited in their use, the original text being usually retained.

Source: John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology, (1892, 1907).

Josiah Miller, Singers and Songs of the Church (Longmans, Green, 1869), p. 190 noted that the hymn "O, for a thousand tongues to sing," occurs in the following collections:

294 G. Bapt.; 226 Bick.; 86 Hall; 332 Harland; 130 Kemble; 263 Leeds; 103 Mercer; 330 N. Cong.; 1 Meth. N.; 270 S. P. C. K., etc.

In the above note from Julian, he recommended the commentary by George John Stevenson, The Methodist Hymn Book (London: S.W. Partridge, 1883), pp. 11-17, which follows. I found it a profitable read, and hope that you do as well.

Hymn I.—"Oh for a thousand tongues to sing."— For the Anniversary Day of One's Conversion.

TUNE, Birstal, 1761.

A memorable and deeply interesting history belongs to this hymn. It is one of the very early ones written by its author, and it originated under circumstances which had a most important influence on the history of Methodism. At the time of his conversion, Whitsunday, 21st May, 1738, Charles Wesley was confined by a severe attack of pleurisy to his room, in the house of Thomas Bray, brazier, Little Britain. After many years of diligent and careful inquiry, the exact position of Mr. Bray's residence in Little Britain was ascertained towards the close of the year 1881. The exact spot where the great change in his life took place has excited a spirit of inquiry in the minds of very many earnest Methodists.

The event itself is thus described by Charles Wesley in his Journal :—

The Day of Pentecost. — "Sunday, 21st May, 1738.—I waked in hope and expectation of His coming. At nine my brother and some friends came and sang a hymn to the Holy Ghost (probably that written by his brother Samuel). My comfort and hope were hereby increased. In about half-an-hour they went. I betook myself to prayer ; the substance as follows :— " O 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 and say, ' In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, arise, and believe, and thou shalt be healed of all thine infirmities.' The words struck me to the heart. I lay musing and trembling. With a strange palpitation of heart, I said, yet feared to say, ' I believe, I believe!'"

Mr. Bray told Mr. Wesley that his sister, Mrs. Turner, had been ordered by Christ to say those words to him. By degrees the darkness of his unbelief was cleared away ; and immediately he was thoroughly convinced, he fell to intercession. Looking into the Scriptures, he read, " And now, Lord, what is my hope? Truly my hope is even in Thee. " And again, " He hath put a new song in my mouth, even a thanksgiving unto our God. " Mr. Charles Wesley adds, " I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ."

On the first anniversary of this happy event, the hymn was written which is now placed first in the Methodist Hymn Book.  It is the first also in the collections used by other sections of the Methodist family.

The original hymn extends to eighteen verses, the first of which commences thus—
     " Glory to God, and praise, and love,
     Be ever, ever given; "
and the author proceeds to say, " on that glad day the glorious Sun of Righteousness arose " on his benighted soul, " and filled it with repose. " The doctrine of present and instant salvation is plainly stated, and was fully demonstrated in his subsequent life. The first six stanzas of the original hymn, and the fifteenth and sixteenth, were omitted by John Wesley when he selected the hymn with which he commenced his collection. The fact of its being the first hymn in the book has caused it to be as widely known as any hymn which was ever written. It forms an appropriate introductory hymn ; and it occupies a prominent place in other collections besides Mr. Wesley's.

The whole composition reads like a sketch of the Christian career of a new-born soul; it is full of Christ, and glowing with the desire to commend His love to sinners. When the poet consulted Peter Bohler about praising Christ, Bohler replied, " Had I a thousand tongues, I would praise Him with them all. " This memorable utterance of the pious Moravian, Charles Wesley has enshrined in this glorious hymn ; and the same sentiment is embodied in some German hymns, as well as in one by the Rev. H. F. Lyte. In this hymn, as also in most of the other instances in which Mr. John Wesley abridged his brother's compositions, we observe, once for all, that the best verses are selected.

Objection has been taken to one line in this hymn as being, from its extreme condensation, somewhat obscure—
     " He breaks the power of cancelled sin."
Considered in the light of Wesleyan theology, a writer in the "Methodist Recorder" thus explains : " Salvation consists of two acts, identical indeed in point of time, but distinct in nature and successive in our conception of them—namely justification, or pardon from the guilt of sin ; and regeneration or a deliverance from its power. To effect the sinner's salvation, then, not only must the guilt of sin be pardoned, but the power of sin must be broken ; not only must the ransom price be paid, but the victim must be forcibly wrested from the hands of his captors ; and it is as accomplishing both these ends that Christ is presented to the world as its Saviour. By the atoning efficacy of His sacrifice He cancels the guilt of sin, and by the renewing influence of His Spirit He abolishes its power. Now the line under discussion appears to be intended to express, in tersest language, this twofold act of Christ as the world's great Redeemer, and in this view every word is weighty.

In the year 1837, Mr. John Lawson, a devout local preacher in the Leeds Circuit, was conducting the Sabbath morning service. Soon after entering the pulpit he became unwell, and called on a friend to give out a hymn. Some delay arose, during which Mr. Lawson called out, " The first hymn—
     ' Oh for a thousand tongues to sing.' "
Before the last verse was sung, the dying Christian soldier fell in the pulpit, and in doing so he cried out, " Sing, John, sing! " and an hour afterwards he entered Paradise, to sing there.

Alexander Mather, who was sent out by Mr. Wesley to travel at the Conference of 1757, during the same year visited a poor condemned malefactor in Nottingham Gaol, who had been so hardened that he was resolved to be a devil. Mr. Mather was himself a young convert, and his zeal in trying to rescue this poor criminal was signally owned of God. On the morning of execution he accompanied the wretched man to the scaffold, erected at the outskirts of the town, "Where," writes Mr. Mather, " we sung part of a hymn—
     ' Oh for a thousand tongues to sing.' "
During the first three verses he seemed lifted up, but when he came to the words in the fourth verse—
     ' His blood can make the foulest clean,
     His blood avail'd for me,'
then he rejoiced with joy unspeakable and full of glory."

Mrs. Green, of Southport, formerly of Bolton, was a member of the Methodist Society fifty-three years, and she remembered with lively gratitude the good she received under a sermon preached by the Rev. John Wesley, in Bolton. During the protracted affliction which preceded her death, she frequently prayed, " Come, Lord Jesus; come quickly." On the day previous to her departure she repeated with peculiar delight the verse—
     " Oh for a thousand tongues to sing," &c.
Mrs. Clarkson, of Cheetham Hill, wife of James Clarkson, Esq., was a member of the Methodist Society more than forty years, but owing to the extreme weakness of her faith was unable to realise a clear sense of her acceptance with God till within a few hours of her death. When she obtained the blessing, she called on all around her bed to join her in celebrating redeeming love in the verse commencing—
     " Oh for a thousand tongues to sing," &c.
Her end was peace.

Margaret Cargill, wife of the Rev. David Cargill, one of the pioneer missionaries to Fiji, was born at Aberdeen in 1809, and died at Rewa, Fiji, in June, 1840. Shortly before she died, at midnight she repeated with a cheerful voice—

     " Oh for a thousand tongues to sing
     My great Redeemer's praise."
Her Strength failed, her voice faltered, but she added in feebler tones—
     " The glories of my God and King,
     The triumphs of His grace."
After a pause, with a smiling countenance, she closed her testimony on earth with the couplet—
     " My Jesus to know, and feel His blood flow,
'Tis life everlasting, 'tis heaven below."

Mrs. Mary Day, of Whitefield Street, London North Circuit, feared the Lord from her youth. She bore a long affliction with patient resignation. As the closing scene drew nigh, her faith and hope increased, and with emphasis she repeated the lines—
     "Jesus, the name that charms our fears,
     That bids our sorrows cease," &c.
Her last words were, "Jesus is precious."

Anthony Trififit, of Stillingfleet, near York, was convinced of sin whilst hearing a local preacher declare the truth as it is in Jesus. At a love-feast held in York soon afterwards, he found peace with God whilst the congregation was singing the lines—
     " He breaks the power of cancell'd sin,
     He sets the prisoner free," &c.
He became a useful local preacher, and was transferred into the separated ministry, in which he laboured with acceptance for fifty years. Among his last words were, " Blessed Jesus."

Thomas Molineux was born in 1789. Having a pious mother, he was early taught the way to heaven, and at the age of ten years enjoyed a clear sense of the pardon of sin. As a youth he was appointed to lead a class, and at that time regularly attended, at Madeley, Mrs. Fletcher's Sunday morning meeting, and at her request made his first attempt to preach the Gospel in 1815. He was an earnest, industrious, godly man; meeting in class every Sunday at five o'clock in the morning. Throughout life and in death, he manifested entire submission to the will of God. On the verge of mortality, he said to a friend, who asked how he felt, " Free from grief; free from care ; free from sin." To one of his daughters, shortly before his death, he replied—
     " His blood can make the foulest clean,
     His blood avails for me," &c.
With a countenance beaming with hope and joy he fell asleep in Jesus, 3rcl November, 1854, aged 66 years.

Peter Bentley was born at Helmsley, 25th February, 1787. He was blest with godly parents, who early led him to associate with the Methodists, and to meet in class. Whilst attending this blessed means of grace, and the lines were being sung—
     " He breaks the power of cancell'd sin,
     He sets the prisoner free," &c.
his chains fell off, and he broke forth in prayer and praise. As an exciseman, he lived in the fear of God, and peacefully changed mortality for life, at Baldersly, near Thirsk, 24th April, 1859.

Few preachers ever quoted hymns with better effect on the audience than the late " Billy Dawson," the Barnbow lay-preacher. On one occasion when preaching his celebrated sermon on " Death on the white horse," he gave out the first hymn, and the congregation, singing with enthusiasm, on coming to the eighth verse, the preacher paused, and said— " See," —what ? — " come and see," — what ? I do not ask you to come and see the preacher, or to hear the voice of thunder, but to come and see yourselves—your sins—and your Saviour.
     " See all your sins on Jesus laid !"
The effect was magical, attention was fixed, riveted, and the singing solemn and impressive. Many hearts were reached, and that incident did more good than many a formal sermon.

The Germans have a hymn which commences in a similar way to this. Madam Perthes, writing to her daughter remarks, "You, too, must help us to thank God: let us with united voices sing : Oh for a thousand tongues to praise — this sweet hymn always revives me when I know not what to say on reviewing my past years."

The Rev. Nathaniel Turner, pioneer Wesleyan missionary in New Zealand, on his arrival at Sydney in 1846, preached in York Street church the first Sabbath evening to a crowded audience. He began the service with the first hymn, which was sung to "Ebenezer New," and went with such zest and freedom, that he asked the congregation to sing the whole eleven verses, and it was hard to say which most enjoyed the hearty song of praise, the preacher or the people. That service was long remembered there.

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