From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Commentary: Wesleys used secular tunes, but not drinking songs

From NewsDesk <NewsDesk@UMCOM.ORG>
Date Mon, 30 Sep 2002 15:03:08 -0500

Sept. 30, 2002 Contact: Linda Green7(615)742-54707Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: A head-and-shoulders photograph of Dean McIntyre is available at A related commentary, UMNS #436, is
available. For an earlier story on this topic, see UMNS #365.

A UMNS Commentary
By Dean McIntyre*

This short article is written in response to numerous messages and questions
that have come from readers of the first article to appear on this topic,
"Did the Wesleys Really Use Drinking Song Tunes for Their Hymns?". 

Some may question the use of the term "debunking," but it is used here
intentionally. To debunk is to expose the falseness or exaggerated claims of
something in order to get at the truth. This drinking tune myth pervades our
denomination and has attained the status of truth in many people's minds,
including pastors, musicians, professors, writers, students, and our general

Of particular importance is the distinction between the use of secular music
as hymn tunes - a practice that the Wesleys did occasionally use - and the
use of drinking tunes or saloon songs as hymn tunes - a practice that they
did not use.
The Wesleys did not use tavern or drinking songs to carry their texts. Their
theology as well as their sense of aesthetics would have made such an
occurrence unthinkable. There are no such examples in their collections.
There are no suggestions or recommendations that others do so in any of
their writings. 

The oft-repeated legend results from some poor, misinformed person who
confused the medieval literary bar form, also sometimes known as bar tune,
with tavern song. Once spoken out of ignorance, the confused version took on
a life of its own and seemingly grows with each repetition. 

The legend is now repeated by those who advocate this very practice in the
church's worship and music today. They use the "fact" that the Wesleys did
it as justification for their argument that we should also do it. I want to
argue that those who wish to commend this practice to the church should not
be allowed to appeal to an historical inaccuracy or lie as their
justification. They should be able to argue the position on its own merits. 

The Wesleys did, indeed, make use of secular music as hymn tunes - rarely.
And when they did, the music always was from sources of recognizable beauty
and excellence, such as an original composition by the great composer Handel
as a tune for "Rejoice, the Lord Is King." Other secular sources used by the
Wesleys included the classical music of their day, a few opera tunes, and
perhaps a folk song or two. But in every case where they made use of secular
music for their hymns, it was always of the very highest caliber, never a
little ditty, jingle or disposable contemporary pop tune of the day that
would be cast aside as soon as the next one was penned. 

This is consistent with the earlier practice of taking exceptional secular
tunes for hymn tunes. The German composer Hans Leo Hassler adapted an
earlier medieval love song for his own secular love song, "Confused Are All
My Feelings," in 1601. This tune was in turn used by the composer Johann
Crueger to accompany the "O Sacred Head Now Wounded" text in a 1656
publication. This same tune, in an arrangement from J.S. Bach's "St. Matthew
Passion" of 1729, still accompanies this text in our United Methodist
Hymnal. One must ask how long such a tune can remain known as a "secular"
tune, given that it has now existed far longer as a sacred hymn tune than it
ever did as a secular love song. Bach's extensive use of the tune in his
"St. Matthew Passion" should have settled the issue long ago. 

I feel quite comfortable casting my lot with Crueger, Bach and the Wesleys
in this matter. I'm happy for us to "redeem" and use secular music in our
worship if it is appropriate (and legal) and if the result is something we
need not be ashamed of in offering back to God. Use of the music must not
put us in association with activities, lifestyles and behaviors that are
inconsistent with a life of love in Christ. 

One example of this is the use of the British folk tune O WALY WALY as the
hymn tune for several songs in The United Methodist Hymnal and The Faith We
Sing, including Hal Hopson's "Gift of Love." I have personally used the pop
song tune "Scarlet Ribbons" to accompany the text of "What a Friend We Have
in Jesus." These are a few examples, but they have no similarity to using
tavern songs as hymn tunes. 

The legend has a seductive quality to it. How can anyone argue against the
kind of evangelical zeal demonstrated by one who would go out into the bars
and taverns of our communities in search of lost souls, and who would be
willing to make use of that culture's music to attempt to appeal to them to
hear our message? It is that very appealing evangelistic zeal that makes us
today repeat the story again and again, even if it isn't true. We want to
think of the Wesleys as having done that, even if they didn't. 

The truth is, while they quite likely preached to the lost, including a fair
share of drunks and alcoholics, in many venues, they did not and would not
have used the music associated with that sinful behavior in their hymn
singing. They certainly did not use it in their hymnal publishing or in
their journal or letter writing. 
# # #
*McIntyre is director of worship resources at the United Methodist Board of
Discipleship. This article is a slightly different version of the piece he
wrote for the board's Web site.

Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service do not necessarily
represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United Methodist Church. 

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