It’s interesting to speculate as to which hymns and songs we sing today will still be in use in the decades and centuries to come. This is the kind of question that can’t really be answered until the hymns and songs in question have stood the test of time. One way to think about it is to look back on hymns from the past that are no longer in use today.
Here’s an interesting one from Charles Wesley, called “Ah, lovely appearance of death.” We don’t sing about death too much these days. We don’t even like to talk about it, actually – we avoid the topic of death at all costs. But it was not always so. In much of human history, death was a much less “avoidable” topic – it was simply a part of every day life.
The early Methodists believed in “holy dying” as well as “holy living.” That is, they thought a holy life needed to be crowned by a holy death, and therefore they spent significant time reflecting on what it meant to die well. Methodist publications would frequently include death-bed stories, as examples to other believers about how death was to be faced.
Reading this hymn today seems almost comical – there’s just no way you’d get away with singing about the delight of surveying a corpse in today’s Church. Still, though we might not sing it, there could be a lesson here for us: this hymn reminds us that as Christians, we ought to be able to talk freely about our mortality. We don’t need to fear death – but we shouldn’t avoid talking about it either.
Any suggestions as to good hymn tunes for this gem?
Ah, lovely appearance of death!
What sight upon earth is so fair?
Not all the gay pageants that breathe
Can with a dead body compare.
With solemn delight I survey
The corpse when the spirit is fled,
In love with the beautiful clay,
And longing to lie in its stead.
How blest is our brother, bereft
Of all that could burden his mind;
How easy the soul that has left
This wearisome body behind!
Of evil incapable thou,
Whose relics with envy I see,
No longer in misery now,
No longer a sinner like me.
This earth is afflicted no more
With sickness, or shaken with pain;
The war in the members is o’er,
And never shall vex him again;
No anger henceforward, or shame,
Shall redden this innocent clay;
Extinct is the animal flame,
And passion is vanished away.
This languishing head is at rest,
Its thinking and aching are o’er;
This quiet immovable breast
Is heaved by affliction no more;
This heart is no longer the seat
Of trouble and torturing pain;
It ceases to flutter and beat,
It never shall flutter again.
The lids he seldom could close,
By sorrow forbidden to sleep,
Sealed up in eternal repose,
Have strangely forgotten to weep;
The fountains can yield no supplies,
These hollows from water are free,
The tears are all wiped from these eyes,
And evil they never shall see.
While bound in a prison I breathe,
And still for deliverance pine,
And press to the issues of death.
What now with my tears I bedew
O might I this moment become,
My spirit created anew,
My flesh be consigned to the tomb!
#47 in A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (1780).