Tabitha/Dorcas (Acts 9:36)
There follow two more poems based on a woman who appears in Acts 9:36. They concern Tabitha, or Dorcas,7 a widow who lived in Joppa and who was known for her good works and acts of charity. The story in Acts 9 tells of her illness, death, and restoration to life. At her death, her charitable works are affirmed by the widows who come to pay tribute to her. As they stand weeping, they show the disciple Peter the garments that Tabitha had made and perhaps had given to them. Wesley understands that these are
Works in the Spirit of Jesus done,
In faith and love to Christ alone. (1:3–4)
Those who dedicate their lives to such “works of genuine righteousness” (2:2) condemn a world of idle dreams and emptiness by their deeds. No words are necessary.
Once again, Wesley lifts up this woman as an example of how to live. He adjures others to live as she lived, to do as she did. Those who are also full of good works, done “in faith and love to Christ alone” (1:4), like Tabitha, lay up treasures “beyond this world.”
Given the evil and torments of eighteenth-century England, be it the exploitation of children in the workplace, the prostitution rampant in workhouses, or the threat of robbery by highwaymen, and the injustices of a legal system fraught with corruption, it is not surprising that Wesley pleads for works of genuine righteousness. He knows that acts of good will and genuine righteousness are the most vital condemnation of life lived as “an idle dream,” or “a useless tale, an empty void” (2:4–5). Therefore, if you wish to know how to live, live as did this woman.
Acts 9:36: “This woman was full of good works, and alms-deeds which she did.”
1. A widow on the poor bestowed
Full of good works, divinely good,
(Works in the Spirit of Jesus done,
In faith and love to Christ alone)
Who not on them, but Christ, relies,
She lays up treasure in the skies.
2. Who thus to God devotes her days
In works of genuine righteousness,
How shall her life the world condemn
Whose life is but an idle dream,
A useless tale, an empty void,
Or all for hell, not heaven, employed!”
It is interesting that in the following poem, which is also based on the story of Tabitha in Acts 9, Wesley focuses first on the outpouring of God’s power to restore “life to the poor. How many widows must he have known in eighteenth-century England who lived on the edge of existence with little of life’s physical resources? He is confident that God hears the cry of the poor and that the sublime divine will is to give restored life to those who least expect it. Hence, Wesley speaks of God with one of the most endearing terms in his vocabulary—“a friend to the poor” (1:8). The widow of Joppa had emulated such friendship during her life. Hence, he calls her a “woman of grace” (2:1).
Secondly, her restored life has more than the singular purpose of personal rejuvenation. It has social implications. Others are changed; others are restored.
There is a powerful message for every age in this little poem, for it affirms that restoring life to the poor is one of the Christian’s most desired and valued vocations, and deeds of charity to the poor endure and have the power to transform. For every life restored, especially among the poor, many more lives will be changed.
Acts 9:41–42: “He presented her alive. And it was known throughout all Joppa; and many believed “believed in the Lord.”
1. God hearkens, and hears
The sorrowful saints
Replies to their tears,
And troubles, and wants;
God’s only good pleasure
“Doth freely restore
An heavenly treasure
A friend to the poor.
2. One woman of grace
To life is restored
That many may praise
And turn to the Lord;
A single believer
From death they receive,
That thousands forever
With Jesus may live.
Praise for May She Have a Word with You?
“S T Kimbrough, Jr. has offered here a gift to all those who love the poetry and lyrics of Charles Wesley, as well as all who are hungry for evidence of the lives and impact of women in the church and wider English society in the eighteenthth century. Carefully gathered and meticulously analyzed, these texts celebrating the labor, witness, and spiritual leadership of these diverse women provide a rare glimpse of the nearly invisible history of women and the imprint their holiness left on those who were privileged to know them.”
—Sondra Wheeler, Wesley Theological Seminary
“If every written prayer preserves a world, then this collection of Charles Wesley by S T Kimbrough presents a veritable constellation of Methodist women and their worlds of prayer. These poems are works of gratitude, grief, faith, and praise in honor of spiritual teachers of the early Methodist movement. Their names may be best known by historians of the Methodist movement, but readers will be able to hear these women’s distinctive voices of faith again.”
—Heather Murray Elkins, Drew Theological School
“Once again S T Kimbrough has gifted us with an instructive selection of Charles Wesley texts (poetry and prose), enriched by his thoughtful commentary. Readers will gain insights both into Wesley’s appreciation for the ‘good death’ and his ideal of the virtuous Methodist woman (a ‘mother in Israel’).”
—Randy L. Maddox, Duke Divinity School
About the Author
S. T. Kimbrough, Jr., holds a PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary and is currently a research fellow of the Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition at Duke Divinity School, Durham, NC. He is author of the following books by Wipf and Stock: The Lyrical Theology of Charles Wesley, Radical Grace: Justice for the Poor and Marginalized, Partakers of the Life Divine: Participation in the Divine Nature in the Writings of Charles Wesley, Why Should a Child Be Born? Poems for Peace and Justice in the Middle East, and has published poetry in the journal Theology Today.