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Saint John’s hymn of the month for December will be the tune Helmsley with the words to “Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending”, which we often use during communion and Advent. Helmsley, however, is a lesser-known tune than Picardy (the tune for “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”), the alternate tune for this hymn.

The words to “Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending” were written by Charles Wesley sometime prior to 1758. Wesley penned over 6,000 hymns. Nine of them are included in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod’s most recent hymnal, the Lutheran Service Book. The words to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” were both written by Wesley. He is considered one of the greatest hymn writers of all time.

Charles Wesley was the last of eighteen children born to Samuel and Susanna Wesley on December 18, 1707, in Lincolnshire, England. In 1730, Charles Wesley received a Master of Arts degree from Christ Church College in Oxford. He was an Oxford Methodist, tutored at the college, and was ordained in 1735. Charles then came to America, where he worked as a missionary in Georgia for several months. He returned to London and after a short time there and joined his brother, John, as an itinerant preacher. The two brothers believed strongly in congregational singing and were quoted as saying they wrote hymns to “arouse sinners, encourage saints and to educate all in the mysteries of the Christian faith.” Charles married in 1749, and his wife Sarah joined him as he traveled. The family settled in Bristol, then London, where they worked for Methodist Societies. Charles died in London in 1788, as a proud member of the Church of England.

The tune “Helmsley” is credited to Thomas Olivers, who was born in 1725 in Wales. Thomas was orphaned at age four and grew up with little support or education. He worked as an apprentice to a shoemaker and kept that career his entire life. Thomas traveled after age eighteen and eventually heard the preacher George Whitefield. He then joined the Methodist Society and eventually came to work as an evangelist with John Wesley as his mentor. When Wesley died, Olivers continued his work in England and Ireland. He died in March of 1799 and was buried in Wesley’s tomb.

Helmsley was believed to be adapted from a common folk tune Thomas Olivers had heard, and is similar to the tune “Thomas and Sally.” The tune was called “Olivers” in John Wesley’s Sacred Melody publication of 1765. It apeared in its present form, with the name Helmsley, in that publication's 1769 edition. It should be noted that Thomas Olivers also penned the words to “The God of Abraham Praise”, which we featured as hymn of the month during the previous church year!

While Helmsley is not a simple tune, it is majestic and befits the beauty of Charles Wesley’s words.

The words of the verses reference Revelation 1:7, John 20:24–31 and Revelation 7:9–12.

Enjoy more information about new hymns or the hymns you already love as we explore the Lutheran hymnody. Use this month’s hymn in your devotions and get to know the tune. We’ll be singing it a few times in worship over the next month or so and adding it to our growing congregational repertoire! Information for this article came from The Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship (Augsburg Fortress Press) and the Hymn Stories series (Kregel Press).