The Clouds Drop Fatness: The Liturgically Shaped Wesley

In an appendix to John Wesley’s journal, a witness to the events describes Wesley’s last hours, from February 24 to March 2, 1791. Wesley was then 87 years old. In one section of the narrative, Wesley appears to be in a state of delirium. The witness writes:

Pausing a little, he cried, “The clouds drop fatness!” 

What in the world? Was poor Mr. Wesley was experiencing dementia?

It turns out Wesley wasn’t hallucinating; he was singing. Or at least he was reciting words that he had recited monthly for most of his life. Wesley was quoting Psalm 65:12 as it was written in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer he used as a priest in the Church of England. Psalm 65 is appointed for evening prayer on the 12th day of each month. The words had become so ingrained in Wesley that he turned to them on his death bed.

We know from Wesley’s journal that the daily office was a regular part of his worship. And we know that Wesley’s dying recollection of Psalm 65:12 was related to is related to its liturgical use in the Book of Common Prayer, not simply his memorization of scripture.

The Book of Common prayer reads:

Thou crownest the year with thy goodness : and thy clouds drop fatness. 

Notice the colon: it marks the half verse for singing the psalm.

The King James Version of the Bible authorized for use in the Church of England translates the same verse this way:

Thou crownest the year with thy goodness; and thy paths drop fatness. 

Only in the Book of Common Prayer do clouds drop fatness. The Book of Common Prayer used Myle’s Coverdale’s translation of the Psalms, a remnant of an otherwise forgotten translation dating to 1535. The only place Wesley would have regularly seen Coverdale’s words was in the Book of Common Prayer.

There are other traces of Anglican liturgy in Wesley’s last hours. The same recollection that begins with Wesley crying aloud about clouds dropping fatness concludes this way.

and soon after, “The Lord is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge!”

Wesley is now reciting the words of Psalm 46:11, which are identical in both the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible. Again, Wesley would have used these words liturgically in evening prayer on the 9th of the month.

The witness to John Wesley’s last hours also records that he began to sing:

All glory to God in the sky,
And peace upon earth be restored. 

These are the the opening lines of a hymn by John’s brother Charles. The hymn’s words, too,  are echoes of the Book of Common Prayer. The order for Holy Communion contained the canticle commonly known as the Gloria In Excelsis Deo, which begins.

Glory be to God on high,
and in earth peace, good will towards men.

Wesley sang, I’ll Praise my Maker while I’ve Breath, a hymn by Isaac Watts that John himself altered.

Wesley also began to sing an evangelical doxology:

To Father, Son and Holy Ghost, who sweetly all agree,
to save a world of sinners lost, eternal praises be. 

The witness omits the second line.

Hymns, psalms, canticles, doxologies: these are all part of the church’s liturgical existence. Wesley’s final hours are evidence that the maxim lex orandi lex credendi – the law of praying is the law of believing – played a recognizable role in Wesley’s life. The Book of Common Prayer and the church’s singing shaped Wesley’s experience of worship for 87 years. They imprinted themselves on Wesley’s heart and mind so deeply that their words are what remained when almost everything else was gone.

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