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.
To mourn and to suffer is mine,
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).
15 thoughts on “Hymns that didn’t last: “Ah, Lovely Appearance of Death””
That’s messed! ha ha.
Music for this hymn appeared in “Hymns on the Great Festivals and Other Occasions”, 1746, by John Frederick Lampe, according to Gilbert Chase’s “America’s Music” (which has that music). I became fascinated with this hymn when it was included in the novel “Band of Angels” by Robert Penn Warren, used to show the morbid state of mind of the protagonist. Chase notes that a version of this song was included in “Our Singing Country” by John Avery Lomax & Alan Lomax. Some sources indicate that the hymn was written by George Whitefield, but I have never seen an authoritative and definitive statement of authorship. Do you have one? I found music (just the melody) for this hymn, as recorded by Hally Wood, years ago and devised chords for it and include it in my repertoire. It’s a wild song! If one is a Christian (I am not), if you truly believe in your heart of hearts that there is a next world of joy and rapture etc., then could not one identify with the sentiment in this hymn?
Thanks for your comment. I am glad to hear that someone does actually use this text! It is indeed fascinating, and a stark contrast to our typical avoidance of the topic.
Regarding authorship, Volume 7 of The Works of John Wesley is a critical edition of A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (1780). This hymn is #47 in that collection, and the footnote identifies Charles Wesley as the author, noting that it may have been written in response to the death of a friend. It provides a reference from Charles’ Journal from August 14, 1744: “We sang a song of victory for our deceased friend, then went to the house, and rejoiced and gave thanks; and rejoiced again with singing over him. The spirit at its departure had left marks of its happiness on the clay. No sight upon earth, in my eyes, is half so lovely.”
The fact that it was included in A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists means it was probably sung, because that hymnal was the definitive Methodist hymnal for quite some time, and the hymns chosen by John Wesley for inclusion in the collection would have been hymns that were used often.
Again, according to this footnote, the hymn originally appeared in Funeral Hymns, which was published by John and Charles Wesley in 1746.
Regarding your question at the end, yes, I do indeed identify with the sentiment, though it is expressed in a way that is perhaps a bit too blunt for my taste. However, I think we could take a lesson from this hymn, and be more willing to discuss human mortality and the hope that Christians have for everlasting life.
This is Hymn V in Charles Wesley’s Funeral Hymns, titled “(On Sight of a Corpse)”. It’s never been a widely used text, but William Billings’ setting “Savannah” (1778) has been durable — it’s going into a new tunebook to be called Shenandoah Harmony. (Billings’ tune has been used with other words as well, though.) But shapenote singers are used to morbid texts like Isaac Watts’ “Broad is the road to death, And thousands walk together there; ” or his “Death, like an overflowing stream, Sweeps us away; our life’s a dream, an empty tale, a morning flow’r, Cut down and wither’d in an hour.” Or Vermonter Selah Gridley’s “Hail ye sighing sons of sorrow; Learn with me, your certain doom; Learn with me your fate tomorrow — Dead, perhaps, laid in the tomb! See all nature fading, dying, silent, all things seem to mourn; Life from vegetation flying, calls to mind the mouldr’ng urn.” (We sing that one briskly, albeit in a minor key.)
Thanks for the tip on the tune, John, and glad to know the tune is still in use. I also enjoyed the other examples of hymn texts dealing with death. When I read “Death, like an overflowing stream, Sweeps us away” I was of course reminded of a line from one of Watts’ better-known hymns: “Time like an ever rolling stream / Bears all its sons away.” Your additional examples demonstrate that the Wesley hymn I quoted should be located within a broader tradition of frank singing about death – which we have mostly forgotten today.
Here is a video recording from this past summer at a singing from the Shenandoah Harmony- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2l4BH-s0YdM
Wow…what a powerful sound! Thanks for sharing, Bethany.
It’s sung to the tune “deliverance” in harmonia sacra: http://harmoniasacra.org/201.html
See http://harmoniasacra.org/201.html in harmonia sacra. There are still regular sings out of that book in the Shenandoah valley.
Thanks – great to know of a tune to sing it to, and that it is still sung!
I don’t recall that one being sung, but I will request it next sing …. Stream of Death (another light uplifting toe tapper … not !) Is sung occasionally http://harmoniasacra.org/276.html
Wow, that one is a keeper as well! So stark, but ends on a hopeful note.
Well 2019, and far from not lasting:
(the original is a bit longer)
Thanks for the lyrics!
It’s quite moving actually,especially after suffering a loss recently.
Great song by efdemin. I’m looking for similar songs based on hymns please post if anyone finds any. Thanks.