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Advent hymns, IV

December 23, 2012

The altar of All Saints Cuddesdon, dressed for Advent.

The altar of All Saints, Cuddesdon, dressed for Advent.

ON this, the fourth Sunday in Advent, as we anticipate the yearly remembrance of Christ’s birth, we sing of the long-expected second coming of the Saviour at the last day.

Although attributed to Charles Wesley, a version of the hymn “Lo! he comes with clouds descending” was first written in 1752 by John Cennick, a friend of the Wesleys, itinerant preacher, and member of the early Methodist movement. Through this association, Cennick’s hymn came to the attention of Wesley, who set about re-writing it for his Hymns of Intercession for all Mankind, published in 1758. Wesley transformed the hymn, changing it almost beyond recognition.

What emerged from the rewriting is typical of so many of Wesley’s over 6,500 hymns. Rich in Biblical imagery, it takes as its inspiration words from the Book of Revelation:

Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.1

As the great hymnologist John Ellerton wrote: “Cennick’s hymn is poor stuff compared to that into which Wesley recast it, putting into it at once fire and tunefulness.”2 With his work, Wesley has bequeathed to us a rousing and splendid hymn befitting the final days of Advent. Below, it is sung with great passion by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
once for favored sinners slain;
thousand thousand saints attending,
swell the triumph of His train:
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
God appears on earth to reign.

Every eye shall now behold him,
robed in dreadful majesty;
those who set at nought and sold him,
pierced, and nailed him to the tree,
deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
shall the true Messiah see.

Those dear tokens of his passion
still his dazzling body bears,
cause of endless exultation
to his ransomed worshipers;
with what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture
gaze we on those glorious scars!

Yea, amen! let all adore thee,
high on thine eternal throne;
Saviour, take the power and glory;
claim the kingdom for thine own:
O come quickly! O come quickly! O come quickly!
Hallelujah! Come, Lord, come!

TEXT: Charles Wesley, 1758.
TUNE: Helmsley, English melody, 18th century, harm. Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1906.

1. Revelation 1:7
2. Henry Housman, John Ellerton: being a collection of his writings on hymnology, together with a sketch of his life and works (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1896), 318.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 23, 2012 18:52

    Responsory and “Helmsley” at Advent Lessons & Carols, The Church of the Advent, Boston:

  2. January 7, 2013 10:51

    It is simply astonishing what pitiful tunes this text is subjected to in other churches (or for that matter, the alternate tunes in our own hymnals). Helmsley makes the text at once glorious and terrible; it is among the greatest of Anglican hymns, in my opinion.

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