The hymns that evangelicals have sung—songs originating with Charles Wesley, John Newton, William Cowper, Fanny Crosby, African American spirituals, Horatius Bonar, Ira Sankey, and more—come from different eras, classes, and socio-economic conditions. But these hymns, diverse as they are, still share significant commonalities. Noll sees three threads running through classic evangelical hymnody: The scandal of the cross, the ecumenism of the gospel, and a social vision. In short, these hymns reserve their only offense for the cross, not politics or theological minutia. Four words define their message: Jesus Christ Saves Sinners.
I recently read a chapter that left an imprint on me both academically and personally, and I knew it was happening in real-time. It brought together numerous threads in a clear way that helped make sense of various discussions in my research field. But, more importantly, it left me in a spirit of worship as the words that echoed in my mind were not those of the author, but of others you might be familiar with:
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
O what a foretaste of glory divine!
What a Friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear!
Come, Thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set Thy people free,
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee
The chapter was written by historian Mark Noll in Where Shall My Wond’ring Soul Begin? The Landscape of Evangelical Piety and Thought (with the title drawn from a Charles Wesley hymn). As you might have guessed, Noll’s chapter examines the hymns of evangelicalism and the important role they’ve played in articulating the movement’s strengths throughout the centuries.
For those familiar with the challenge of defining evangelicalism, you’ll know that it’s a crowded conversation with various definitions proposed and examined and tossed around. And it’s necessary to do so, as demonstrated in Thomas S. Kidd’s recent Who Is an Evangelical? The name has accumulated unhelpful connotations and it’s important for both those inside and outside the movement to appreciate what is theologically distinctive about these gospel-people.
But Noll does something that I hadn’t come across—he argues that to understand evangelicalism in its purest form, don’t look first at what they say or even what they do. Look at what they sing. Noll writes, “Evangelicalism at its best is the religion displayed in the classic evangelical hymns.”  He thinks modern evangelicalism traces back not to the preaching and revivals of Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield, but to the beloved hymns of Charles Wesley. After all, most of us have more Wesley stored in our hearts through his songs than Whitefield or Edwards through their sermons.