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Words: Charles Wesley (b. Dec. 18, 1707; d. Mar. 29, 1788)
Music: Calvary, by T. Turvey (no other data available)
Note: Usually, we think of John Wesley as the preacher, and his brother Charles as the hymn writer. While that was often true, Charles was a fine preacher too, and John occasionally wrote or translated hymns. The present hymn is not on the superlative level of Jesus, Lover of My Soul, or Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, but it fit the situation that inspired it well.
Earthquakes are fearful things. And apart from the injury, death and destruction caused, the experience of the event can be a nightmare. When planet earth itself seems to turn against its inhabitants, when there’s no secure place to stand, when those around us panic and run, it brings a helpless panic beyond comprehension.
Occasional quakes occur here in Canada’s prairie provinces, but we’ve so far escaped the ones of greater force that strike the west coast. When it’s a sudden brief jarring some may not even notice, a seismic shudder that cracks no wall and breaks no crockery, that’s far from the upheaval some have endured.
In China, in January of 1556, the deadliest earthquake of all time struck. The magnitude 8.0 quake killed 830,000, which was 60% of the population of that area. In May of 1960, the world’s most powerful quake occurred in Chile. Six thousand deaths were reported, and the magnitude 9.5 shock at the epicentre was equal to a thousand atom bombs all being exploded at once!
Psalm 46 assures us of the help of God, as it describes an earthly upheaval that sounds very much like an earthquake.
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, even though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea” (Ps. 46:1-2).
That passage was brought to the mind of hymn writer Charles Wesley by what happened in London in 1750. A powerful earthquake struck the city on February 8th, causing widespread alarm. But it was followed by an even more devastating quake on March 8th. People ran into the streets in terror, not knowing where to turn. To make matters even worse, and spread further panic, a deranged soldier predicted the entire city would be swallowed up on April 4th.
It was on March 8th, at 5:15 a.m. that Charles Wesley stood to preach at the Foundry Meeting House, when the building was suddenly shaken so violently that all in attendance feared the roof was about to fall on their heads. Women screamed, children began to cry. Wesley had just given out the text of his sermon, but he quickly calmed the congregation, changed his text, and preached on Psalm 46:2, quoted above.
Charles Wesley’s ability to handle a chaotic situation, and instantly switch to a text appropriate to it, illustrates how amazingly the Lord had gifted these men. And times have certainly changed. I wonder how many families today, parents and children, would attend a church service at five o’clock in the morning!
The alarm of the people of London provided the Wesleys with some wonderful opportunities to preach the gospel, calling on sinners to get right with God. Charles preached one sermon with the intriguing title, “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes.” He also wrote some nineteen hymns during those days, with stern reminders of the frail and passing nature of this life, and the need to prepare for eternity. One of these was How Weak the Thoughts and Vain. See how he makes use of the earthquakes to deliver a powerful message.
CH-1) How weak the thoughts, and vain,
Of self-deluding men!
Men who, fixed to earth alone,
Think their houses shall endure,
Fondly call their lands their own,
To their distant heirs secure.
CH-2) How happy then are we,
Who build, O Lord, on Thee;
What can our foundation shock?
Though the shattered earth remove,
Stands our city on a rock,
On the Rock of heavenly love.
Turning from the trembling earth, Charles Wesley pointed to the security of our heavenly home being prepared by Christ (Jn. 14:2-3).
CH-3) A house we call our own
Which cannot be o’erthrown;
In the general ruin sure,
Storms and earthquakes it defies;
Built immovably secure,
Built eternal in the skies.
1) Have you ever been in a frightening situation such as an earthquake? How did you handle it? (Did your faith in God make a difference?)
2) How would you advise a person to prepare spiritually for an unexpected catastrophic event?