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Music expert debunks myth that Wesleys used drinking songs

8/13/2002 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

NOTE: An artist's rendering of John Wesley is available at

A UMNS Feature By Linda Green* By Linda Green*

An oft-heard myth about the Methodist tradition is that founders John and Charles Wesley used drinking and tavern songs as the melodies for hymns.

"The Wesleys did no such thing," says Dean McIntyre, director of music resources at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship in Nashville, Tenn. "Given their aesthetic and theological sense, it would (have been) unthinkable for them to do so."

However, the popular misconception has survived among Methodists, and a similar myth is often heard about Martin Luther, the reformer who was also a musician. The mistaken belief about the Wesleys often arises when people talk about how the brothers proclaimed the gospel in the public places, where people gathered, according to McIntyre. Pastors, musicians, worship leaders, composers and hymn writers continually voice the misconception.

McIntyre decided to set the record straight after returning from this summer's jurisdictional and chapter convocations of the Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts. At each event, someone referred to the "long-held and oft-repeated untruth that John and Charles Wesley made use of tavern or drinking songs as tunes for their texts," he says.

He adds that some people have used the myth as an excuse for importing secular influences into worship.

McIntyre says the legend began when a seminary or music student became confused over the musical term "bar tune" or "bar form" - a medieval pattern for poetry consisting of three or more stanzas - which became the pattern for songwriting. Someone with no knowledge of medieval poetry heard "bar form" in connection with John Wesley, and the songs became tavern songs, he says.

The "bar form" term is still used by songwriters today. The popular "Over the Rainbow" is written in this form, as are all of the classic blues. The bar form is most commonly used in hymns and folk songs, and a number of bar tunes accompanying text written by the Wesleys and Luther are found in the United Methodist Hymnal. Those songs include:

· "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," UMH 110.
· "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty," UMH 139.
· "Come, thou Almighty King," UMH 61.
· "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," UMH 298.
· "Praise the Lord Who Reigns Above," UMH 96.
· "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus," UMH 196.
· "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling," UMH 384.

"I feel called to set the record straight," McIntyre says. "It is not difficult to understand how the musical term 'bar form' also referred to as 'bar tune,' can be confused in an uninformed person's mind with a barroom tune, drinking song, or some other title to indicate music to accompany the drinking of alcoholic beverages."

The Wesleys' instructions for singing their songs are found in the front of the United Methodist Hymnal. The most important, McIntyre says, are passages that admonish singers to "Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of it being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan" and to "Above all, sing spiritually."

"Wesley's aesthetic to above all sing spiritually simply would not allow drinking songs to accompany hymn texts," McIntyre says.

"In no hymn book or other publication of the Wesleys can there be found any example of or encouragement to use drinking songs to sing hymns," he says.

The deeper issue is that people have used the Wesleys as an "excuse for importing the secular music culture into worship," he says.

"Whether Wesley did or didn't use drinking songs is not really the issue," McIntyre says. "Rather, the issue is why Wesley did not did not use them." Noting that Wesley found drinking songs unacceptable, he asks if worshippers today should use music from the local bar for worship. "If Wesley's reasoning for the Methodists of his time remains valid for our own, then the answer is no."

He suggests that those who "justify" the use of secular culture and influences in United Methodist worship by repeating the Wesley legend "should be called to account."

McIntyre delves into the issue in the board's online site at
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*Green is news director of the Nashville, Tenn., office of United Methodist News Service.

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