Wesley used shorthand in writing hymns

Published 7:30 am Saturday, March 19, 2022

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Guess who used shorthand when composing hymns? Actually there were several, including John Wesley, who founded Methodism and his brother, Charles Wesley. I learned this when I was thumbing through “The Gospel in Hymns,” a book by Albert Edward Bailey. He said that a poet named John Byron developed a method in the 18th Century which played an important part in hymn writing.

It was taught at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Even the Clerk of the House of Lords used it.

Although I know shorthand has fallen by the wayside in these modern times, I studied it when I was in high school. I had a teacher who scared the wits out of me which might have been the reason I worked so hard learning it. I did not use it until years and years after I graduated. I was surprised when I was able to pick it up if I needed it as a newspaper staff writer.

Charles Wesley, who once served as secretary to Governor Oglethorpe in Georgia, He took down the governor’s conferences with the Indians in shorthand. His mastery of shorthand was such that he kept journals of his ministry in shorthand and used it to compost most of his hymns. Now, note this: he often wrote them while he traveled by horseback. Can you imagine this talented songwriter scribbling the lines of “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “Praise the lord Who Reigns Above,” “The Hidden Source of Calm Repose,” “Blow Ye the Trumpet Blow,” while he trotted along on horseback? I believe that it was proof that he was given holy inspiration to pen works of thanksgiving and inspiration under such circumstances.

Byrom, a doctor and surgeon as well as shorthand developer, also tried his hand at writing hymns. Upon his passing, he left a manuscript of poems that were later published. Some were hymns for different days. One of them was “Christian Awake, Salute the Happy Morn,” written in His daughter had asked him to write her something for Christmas, with the inscription “Christmas Day for Dolly.” Organist John Wainwright composed the tune for it. A year later, the family was awakened on Christmas morning by a choir singing it as they stood below the Byrom windows.

After learning about Byrom’s shorthand invention, I turned to an encyclopedia to see if the origin of shorthand was mentioned and discovered that hundreds of shorthand systems have been devised. The one I learned in high school was the Gregg method, invented by an Irish educator. It was first published in England in 1888. It served me well.

Sometimes when I join in congregational singing, my eyes drift to the top left corner to see who the hymn writer is. If it was Charles Wesley, I wonder if it might have been one he composed in shorthand as he trotted along on horseback.