Wesley used shorthand for hymns

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 26, 2014

Can you imagine Charles Wesley, the great hymn writer, sitting on a trotting horse, scribbling the words to one of his hymns in shorthand? It might have happened. At least that is what I read in a book titled, “The Gospel in Hymns,” written by Albert Edward Bailey.

Both Charles Wesley and his brother, John Wesley, studied shorthand under the very person who invented shorthand in the 18th century. Charles Wesley’s mastery of shorthand was such that he kept journals of his ministry in shorthand. He even composed most of his hymns, perhaps “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “Praise the Lord Who Reigns Above,” “The Hidden Source of Calm Repose,” and Blow Ye the Trumpet Blow,” using shorthand. To me, that is even more proof that he received holy inspiration to pen those words of adoration and thanksgiving.

John Byrom, an English poet, invented the shorthand the Wesleys used. It was taught at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. The Clerk of the House of Lords even used it. Charles Wesley, while serving as secretary to Gov. Oglethorpe in Georgia, took down the governor’s conferences with the Indians in shorthand.

In addition to his poetry, Byrom tried his hand at writing hymns. A manuscript of his poems was published after his death. He composed some for special church days. One from that manuscript was “Christians Awake, Salute the Happy Morn,” which he wrote in 1749. His daughter found the poem beside her breakfast plate that year on Christmas, which he had inscribed with the words, “Christmas Day for Dolly.” An organist, John Wainwright, composed the tune for it. The following year, Byrom and his family were aroused on Christmas morning to the sound of music. A choir stood below their windows, singing the hymn.

According to World Book Encyclopedia, hundreds of shorthand systems were devised after Byrom’s. One was Gregg’s Shorthand, invented by an Irish born American educator. His shorthand book was published in 1888 in England.

Gregg shorthand was the method I learned in high school. I had no idea when my parents insisted I include it in my studies how much it would benefit me in later years. I used it briefly in my first job, but many years later, I turned to it as a reporter. It was one of my favorite subjects and I surprised myself as it all came back to me as I took notes covering meetings and during interviews for feature stories. With all the electronic devices these days, I suspect shorthand is out of date and probably not offered in school anymore.

Perhaps now when you have your hymnbook open during a worship service, your eyes might stray to the top of the page to note who wrote the hymn in front of you. If it is either John or Charles Wesley, you might wonder as I do, if it is a hymn composed and scribbled in shorthand from the back of a horse.