And Can It Be


CHARLES Wesley has already appeared a couple of times in these columns as the writer of Hark the Herald Angels Sing and O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.

It is hardly surprising that he turns up again with that great song of Resurrection rejoicing, And Can It Be, since he wrote about 9,000 hymns. Some accounts say the figure is 6,000 but I think the discrepancy may arise because many were unpublished at the time of his death.

As I have told before, Wesley (1707-1788) was the eighteenth of nineteen children born to Samuel and Susannah Wesley, though only ten lived to adulthood. Among them was his older brother John, one of the founding fathers of Methodism.

In 1735 Charles took Anglican orders. He and John set off for Georgia, then an English colony in North America, to serve as missionaries. The trip did not turn out well and the brothers returned to England.

Charles began associating with a group of Moravians (a Protestant denomination mainly characterised by its commitment to Christian unity, worship and missions). As a result, although he knew the Bible well, he became convinced of the need to know Jesus personally and to surrender his life completely to the Lord. It was a long struggle.

On May 21, 1738, Wesley was ill in bed at the home of his friend John Bray when he heard a voice saying: ‘In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, arise, and believe, and thou shalt be healed of all thy infirmities.’ (It was probably Bray’s sister.) He wrote in his diary: ‘I laboured, waited and prayed to feel who loved me, and gave himself for me. At midnight I gave myself to Christ, assured that I was safe, whether sleeping or waking. I had the continual experience of His power to overcome all temptation, and I confessed with joy and surprise that He was able to do exceedingly abundantly for me above what I can ask or think. I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoice in hope of loving Christ.’

Two days later he wrote his first hymn, And Can It Be that I Should Gain, in celebration of the ‘amazing love’ he had come to know. He wonders how we who ‘pursued’ Jesus’s death are now graced by it. The fourth verse refers to the miraculous escape from prison of the apostle Peter:

Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains: and the keepers before the door kept the prison.

And, behold, the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison: and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, Arise up quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands. (Acts 12 6-7 King James)

These are the words:

And can it be that I should gain
An int’rest in the Saviour’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain—
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

’Tis myst’ry all: th’ Immortal dies:
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.

He left His Father’s throne above—
So free, so infinite His grace—
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For, O my God, it found out me!

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’ eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

The hymn first appeared in John Wesley’s 1739 hymnal, Hymns and Sacred Poems. In his later edition of 1780, Wesley omitted the fifth verse, perhaps because he considered it too personal.

It is almost always sung to the tune Sagina by Thomas Campbell, about whom next to nothing is known. It is not even certain which of two men by the same name is the writer, but the consensus seems to be that it was Thomas Campbell, born in Sheffield in 1800, died in Sheffield in 1876. In 1825 he published The Bouquet: a collection of tunes composed and adapted to Wesley’s Hymns. It included 23 tunes, all of which were given botanical names. Sagina procumbens is the Latin name for a rather insignificant mossy weed with the common name of pearlwort.

However in legend it is said to be the first plant on which Jesus set his foot when he rose from the dead, so it is obviously most appropriate for this hymn.

Here it is sung by St Michael’s Singers, now the Coventry Cathedral Chorus.

This is a 1954 recording by baritone Hubert Wash.

Here Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band give it their folk treatment.

This beautiful performance is by husband and wife duo Yuriy and Kristin Leonovich.

My favourite is this one by the Friends of Jesus Choir who are based at a Seventh Day Adventist church in Kigali, Rwanda.

This post first appeared in The Conservative Woman on May 1, 2019

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