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Way of Life Literature

Publisher of Bible Study Materials

Way of Life Bible College
Did the Wesleys Use Tavern Music?
January 7, 2020 (first published November 24, 2002)
Way of Life Literature, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061
The following is from the United Methodist News Service, September 30, 2002. It was written by Dean McIntyre, director of worship resources at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship. We are picking this up from Foundation magazine, November-December 2002. While we certainly do not support the United Methodist Church, the following is an accurate and important debunking of a popular myth and we are thankful to Mr. McIntyre for taking this stand:
Did the Wesleys really use drinking song tunes for their hymns? 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 laity.

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. …

I feel quite comfortable casting my lot with … 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. …

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.

End of article by Dean McIntyre.

Contemporary Christian Music is founded upon an unscriptural premise, that music is neutral or amoral and that any music can be used to glorify the Lord. Nothing could be farther from the truth. God is holy, while this world system is sinful and demonic. Music that glorifies and feeds the sinful flesh and drives the wicked, demonic rock scene can never be pleasing to a thrice holy God. It is true today as in the days of old, when Israel was apostate:

“Her priests have violated my law, and have profaned mine holy things: they have put no difference between the holy and profane, neither have they shewed difference between the unclean and the clean, and have hid their eyes from my sabbaths, and I am profaned among them” (Ezekiel 22:26).

copyright 2013, Way of Life Literature

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