We have been learning new hymns! Look for more new and unfamiliar hymns throughout the year and read about their history here.
What is a “balm in Gilead”? In Genesis, the story of Joseph is told. Joseph’s brothers beat him up and threw him into a pit. Then they sold him to a caravan passing through. The merchants were traveling from Gilead to Egypt with spices, balms, and myrrh. Gilead, the area just east of the Jordan near Galilee, was famous for its medicinal balms.
Later on in the Old Testament, we read of Jeremiah crying out for the healing of his people. “Is there no balm in Gilead?” he asks (8:22, NIV). He was looking for a cure for Israel in Gilead, but he found none. It would be like going to the local drugstore and finding no medicine to treat your illness. Of course, the problem that Israel had was not a physical ailment, but a spiritual one. The disease was sin. We all suffer from “sin-sick souls.” We are unable to live righteous lives in our own strength. This is the human condition.
Fortunately, this song answers Jeremiah’s question with a resounding YES. There is a balm in Gilead, and it is found in the simple truth that Jesus died for all, and that he alone can heal the soul sick with sin. Jesus himself is the Balm of Gilead. (Hymns by William J. & Ardythe Petersen, p. 318)
Come join us each Sunday for great music (including beautiful anthems like this one)! See you Sunday!
It isn’t easy to trace the source of most spirituals, but this one seems to have originated in Virginia sometime around 1750. A Presbyterian named William Davies was preaching there when a slave came up to him and said he wanted to learn more about how to become a Christian. He also wanted to learn more about Jesus Christ and how to live for him. Soon after that, this song appeared and became popular among African Americans in the South. Since the middle of the twentieth century it has been used in churches of all denominations. (Hymns by William J. & Ardythe Petersen, p. 182)
I learned something new today about hymn 402, “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian.” Join us each week for great congregational singing in worship time! See you Sunday!
It was the time of the Civil War, and people were losing hope. The war seemed to be endless, and the casualties were mounting. Joseph Gilmore (1834-1918), pastor of Philadelphia’s First Baptist Church, wanted to bring some hope to his congregation, so he turned to Psalm 23. The important thing, he told his congregation, is to know that God is leading—no matter how or where he leads us.
After the service, he went to a deacon’s home and continued the conversation about how God leads his children. As they were talking, he started scribbling some thoughts, and soon the words of the hymn were written. He gave the hymn to his wife and forgot all about it.
Three years later when he was a pastoral candidate for a church in Rochester, New York, he began leafing through the church hymnal and spotted—his own hymn! What he didn’t know was that his wife had submitted the hymn to a Christian periodical and that it had been set to music. He discovered that when you are led by the Lord, there may be some delightful surprises! (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 395)
Were you “led” to discover the title of this hymn? It is “He Leadeth Me,” number 128 in our hymnal. Join us each Sunday for beautiful singing and praising in worship!
Matthew Bridges (1800-1894) became a convert to Roman Catholicism at the age of forty-eight and published this hymn three years later under the title “The Song of the Seraphs.” Godfrey Thring, an Anglican clergyman, added several stanzas to the hymn about thirty years later, with Bridges’ approval. So a Roman Catholic layman and an Anglican cleric, who probably never met, were coauthors of a hymn about heaven, where Christians of every tribe and tongue and denomination will crown him Lord of all.
One aspect that Godfrey Thring felt was missing in the original hymn was a stanza on the Resurrection, and so he added: “His glories now we sing/Who died and rose on high,/Who died, eternal life to bring,/And lives that death may die.”
At a large gathering at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1905, the Bible Society was celebrating its centennial. Congratulatory messages were read from rulers of many lands, including Great Britain and the United States. Then the moderator of the meeting said, “Now that we have read these addresses from earthly rulers, let us turn our mind to the King of kings.” And then they sung this great hymn! (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 23)
This traditional Easter hymn is one that truly recognizes the King of kings, crowned on Easter and every day, as we “Crown Him with Many Crowns” (page 327 in our hymnal). Join us each Sunday for beautiful singing and praising in worship!
The author of this hymn, Jeannette Threlfall (1821-1880), did not have an ideal childhood by any means. She was left an orphan, was disabled by an accident, and became a permanent invalid. Jeannette spent most of her life in the homes of relatives, yet her poems and hymns show joy and cheerfulness. You could say that her entire life was a cry of hosanna to her victorious Savior.
In this hymn, she emphasizes the praise of little children on Palm Sunday. The crowd following Jesus were waving palms and singing, “Hosanna!” Apparently the children were exuberant in their praise. The leaders asked Jesus to tell the children to stop such singing. “Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked Jesus. “Yes,” Jesus said, quoting Psalm 8:2, “From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise” (NIV). (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 31)
This traditional Palm Sunday opening hymn is one that paints the great picture of children cheering and waving the palm branches (as we do in our Palm Sunday service). This is number 278, “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna.” Join us each Sunday for beautiful singing and praising in worship!
The author of this hymn is anonymous–probably for a good reason. The British national anthem, “God Save Our Gracious King,” had just been written. The anthem quickly became popular throughout England. But the king was not popular among Methodists, who did not want to sing praises to their earthly king.
It is thought that Charles Wesley probably wrote this hymn anonymously to set the priorities straight. It is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords who deserves our ultimate honor and complete allegiance. Presidents, kings, and other ruling officials should be honored and prayed for, but we must keep our priorities straight. There is an almighty King greater than any earthly ruler.
During the Revolutionary War, a company of British soldiers attended a church on Long Island. They demanded that the congregation sing “God Save Our Gracious King” to honor the king of England. The congregation sang the tune, but the words they used were from this hymn! (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 21)
This great hymn of faith is found on Page 61 of our hymnal: “Come, Thou Almighty King.” May we always remember that our allegiance first is not to country or king but to our King of Kings and Lord of Lords! Join us each Sunday for beautiful singing and praising in worship!
Based on Acts 2:5-11, this text by Frederick Morley exhorts the scattered Church to join together to “proclaim to all one message” of the gospel of Jesus. From every nation on the earth, we should come forward to praise “one living Lord” and place our faith in God’s word. Though we speak different languages, we can be one people telling of the redemption we know in Jesus Christ. The final stanza reminds us of Jesus’ prayer (John 17) in which he asked the Father that we may be one. (The Hymns of the United Methodist Hymnal, Diana Sanchez, editor, page 187)
This exciting and challenging hymn is “O Church of God, United,” on page 547 of our hymnal. May we always strive “to bring a single witness, to make the pathway bright, that souls which grope in darkness may find the one true Light.” Join us each Sunday for beautiful singing and praising in worship!
This hymn has always been associated with the Appalachian area. Like most spirituals, it has been passed down through the generations and exists in several different versions. The melody, based on a six-tone scale, sound minor to modern ears and has a haunting effect. The text adds to the effect. This is the question of the ages. What made him do it? What made him do it for me?
Every so often you’ll read about a disaster where someone makes a heroic but fatal effort to save others. A man jumps into icy water to save a drowning victim. He puts the lifeline in the person’s hand, but he himself drowns. We marvel at the selflessness of such a person. What made him do it? Christ bore “the dreadful curse” for our soul, and we can ponder that for the rest of our lives. We can also resolve to devote our lives to him, to please him, and to praise him through all eternity. (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 143)
This beautiful Appalachian spiritual is number 292 in our hymnal, “What Wondrous Love is This.” Join us each Sunday for beautiful singing and praising in worship!
Fanny Crosby wrote more than 8,000 hymns and used more than 200 pen names. Under contract to a music publisher, she wrote three new hymns each week during much of her adult life. The fact that she was blind didn’t diminish her productivity. She would formulate an entire song in her mind and then dictate it to a friend or a secretary.
One of her good friends was Phoebe Palmer Knapp, wife of the founder of Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. One time when Knapp came to Brooklyn to see Crosby, she brought a tune that she had composed. “Play it for me on the organ,” Crosby requested. Knapp did and then asked, “What does this tune say?” She turned to see Crosby knelling in prayer. Knapp played it a second time and then a third. Finally, the blind woman responded with the first line as well as the next line- “O what a foretaste of glory divine!” (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 94)
We all probably need to sing this more often! This is one of Fanny Crosby’s most popular hymns, number 369 in our hymnal: “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine.” Join us each Sunday for beautiful singing and praising in worship!
Robert Robinson (1735-1790) had always been prone to wander. Apprenticed to a barber at 14, he spent more time reading and playing with friends than cutting hair. He became the leader of a notorious gang, and he shamed his family so much that they practically disowned him. As a teen, he went to a George Whitefield meeting, intending to ridicule it, but instead, he almost fell asleep in it. But then the preacher shouted out a Bible verse: “O generation of vipers; who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come” (Matthew 3:7, KJV). That evening Robinson was converted. After his apprenticeship was over, Robinson went into ministry. He wrote this hymn at the age 23 as he served at the Calvinistic Methodist Church in Norfolk, England.
Late in life, Robinson did stray from the faith and drifted far from the Fount of every blessing. One day he was riding in a stagecoach and sitting by a woman who was reading a hymn book. She showed him this hymn, saying how wonderful it was. He tried to change the subject but couldn’t. Finally, he said, “Madam, I am the poor man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds to enjoy the feelings I had then.” (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 371)
This was so beautifully done last week- it was hymn 400, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” Join us each Sunday for beautiful singing and praising in worship!
This hymn was probably the favorite southern gospel song of the twentieth century, yet no one knows who wrote it or when it was written. It became known nationally in the 1930s when African-American churches held huge musical conventions. In the 1940s southern gospel quartets featured it in all-night gospel-singing rallies. In the 1950s Elvis Presley set sales records with it on a 45 RPM single. In the 1960s, Tennessee Ernie Ford made the charts with it. And by the time the 1970s had ended, more than a hundred artists had recorded the song.
Its history probably goes back to an unknown writer in the slave fields of the South before the Civil War. Southern black church choirs kept the hymn alive until World War II.
But while the song is indebted to the African-American experience for its soul, people of every background can identify with it because it presents the humble prayer of every Christian’s heart, and humble prayer is the kind that God honors. (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 570)
For me, this song is most commonly associated with New Orleans street funerals (which always makes me think of Mardi Gras). Did you guess it? “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” (I can hear Elvis singing it now…)
Many of the British hymn writers were children of clergy or from middle-or-upper-class backgrounds. But not Edward Mote. His parents kept a pub in London. Mote said, “My Sundays were spent in the streets; so ignorant was I that I did not know there was a God.” He was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker who took him to church, where he heard the gospel message. Mote became a successful cabinetmaker in a London suburb and was active in his local church.
Mote wrote this hymn while he was working as a cabinetmaker. The chorus came to mind as he was walking to work, and later in the day the stanzas came to him. The following Sunday afternoon, he visited the dying wife of a close friend. Mote didn’t know exactly what to say to her, so he quoted the four verses of the hymn he had just written. At the end of each verse, he repeated what we think of to be the title words (although the actual title is the first line).
Two years later, he published the hymn and entitled it “The Immutable Basis of a Sinner’s Hope.” It is a hymn that combines deep biblical theology with sincere personal experience. (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 112)
Those words that we think of as the title? “On Christ, the solid rock I stand / All other ground is sinking sand.” Our hymnal calls this “My Hope is Built” but most of us know it as “The Solid Rock,” number 368 in our hymnal. Join us as we sing great hymns like this in worship each week- see you Sunday!
You might wonder if Charles Wesley, as author of 6,000 hymns, ever got out of his study. In fact, for most of his life he was a traveling preacher—traveling on horseback. In his pocket he carried little cards on which he scribbled hymns in shorthand as he rode. As soon as he reached an inn, he would rush in and ask for a pen and ink to write down the hymns he had composed. But even that makes it sound easier than it was.
Once, when a horse threw him, he wrote in his journal, “My companion though I had broken my neck; but my leg only was bruised, my hand sprained, and my head stunned, which spoiled my making hymns till the next day.”
Although Charles Wesley had been a classical scholar at Oxford, few of his hymns reveal allusions to the classics. However, this one follows the meter of John Dryden’s “King Arthur,” referring to Camelot: Fairest Isle, all isles excelling, seats of pleasure and love.” King Arthur may have dreamed of Camelot, but as Charles Wesley rode horseback from village to village, his thoughts were on Jesus, the divine love, the joy of heaven. (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 516)
Another one of my favorites (aren’t they all?!??) is “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” number 384 in our hymnal! Join us as we sing great hymns like this in worship each week- see you Sunday.
It may seem strange that such a sedate hymn was written by a feisty, pugnacious man named Augustus Toplady (1740-1778). Converted under a Methodist evangelist while attending the University of Dublin, Toplady decided to prepare for the ministry. Although he was impressed with the spirit of Methodism, Toplady strongly disagreed with the Wesleyan theology and waged a running battle with the Wesleys through tracts, sermons, and even hymns. “Wesley,” said Toplady, “is guilty of Satan’s shamelessness.” Wesley retorted, “I do not fight with chimney sweeps!”
Toplady wrote this hymn to conclude a magazine article in which he emphasized that, just as England could never repay its national debt, so humans through their own efforts could never satisfy the eternal justice of God. He died of tuberculosis and overwork at the age of thirty-eight, two years after he published his own hymnal, in which this hymn and Charles Wesley’s “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” were placed side by side. (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 313)
This great hymn of our faith is number 361, “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me.” See you Sunday and join us in singing God’s praises and lift your worship each week!
Laura Scherer Copenhaver (1868-1940) was a Virginia native who grew up in the United Lutheran Church in America. She taught English literature at Marion (VA) College and wrote widely distributed articles supporting mission causes.
Copenhaver developed a mountain craft industry to provide economic support to mountain families during the Depression. As a young woman she became aware of the poor economic conditions of Virginia sheep farmers, so she devised a method to use the raw products of wool and incorporate them into handicrafts such as rugs, curtains, and quilts that could be sold.
A current website from the Sherwood Anderson Festival (2008) provides more information on Laura Copenhaver’s activities: “Laura Lu Scherer Copenhaver founded Rosemont Craft Industries . . . from her family’s mid-nineteenth century homestead Rosemont in Marion, Virginia. Her father, the Reverend John Jacob Scherer, D.D., was the first president of Marion College and prior to the Depression, Laura, who was a very energetic and talented woman, had been teaching college English and writing.”
Methodist hymnologist and pastor, the Rev. Robert Guy McCutchan (1877-1958) cited the author’s own account of the hymn: “In writing this hymn for one of the Summer Conferences at which I used to lecture, I was moved with a deep sense of unity with the builders of the King’s Highway in far lands, next door to me in America, and even more with those great ones I had known as a child now gone on with the immortals by way of Africa and India. . . . Today in every land Christians are uniting to build a Kingdom which shall have no geographical bounds, no limitation of race, no barriers of caste or class.”
This description of the origins of the hymn clarifies the references to the “King’s commands” and “the highway of the King.” The biblical basis for this highway is drawn directly from Isaiah 40:3: “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’ . . .” (from History of Hymns by Dr. C. Michael Hawn, Professor of Sacred Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU. https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-heralds-hymn-honors-spirit-of-world-mission)
Set to the tune National Hymn, this great hymn of missions and outreach opens our “We Are…” series and is number 567 in our hymnal, “Heralds of Christ.” See you Sunday and join us in singing God’s praises and lift your worship each week!
Stonewall Jackson was a legendary Confederate general in the Civil War. He had a long beard, he rarely combed his hair, his boots were never polished, and he wore and old slouch hat and a faded uniform with missing buttons. But he was a military genius and a wonderful Christian. His men said of him, “When he ain’t a-fightin’, he’s a-prayin’.”
And when he wasn’t fighting or praying, he was singing hymns. But he couldn’t carry a tune. He had no note-sense whatsoever when he was singing his favorite hymn.
One night in 1862, his army bivouacked in the Shenandoah Valley. The soldiers had marched 52 miles that day, and they were exhausted. When they awoke the next morning, they heard a strange sound. They eventually discovered that the sound was Stonewall Jackson singing. There on the hill, the general had watched over his men all night, with his old slouch hat in his hands. But now he was singing his favorite hymn, with his bearded face looking heavenward: “On the Rock of Ages founded, / What can shake thy sure repose? / With salvation’s walls surrounded, / Thou may’st smile at all thy foes.” (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 270)
“Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken” is a wonderful text by John Newton, found on page 731 of our Hymnal, sung to the tune of Joseph Haydn’s “Austrian Hymn.” So, if Stonewall Jackson knew the importance of singing, do you? Join us in singing God’s praises and lift your worship each week!
“Noel” is a French word that may have come either from the Latin “natalis,” meaning “birth,” or from the Latin “novella,” meaning “new.” In one sense “noel” refers to the whole Christmas season; in another it refers to the good news that Jesus Christ has come. The first Noel, this song says, was sung by an angel to poor shepherds. The chorus rings out like a corner paperboy: “News! News! News! Hear all about it! King of Israel born today!”
Early folk carols such as this one often had a memorable chorus and many stanzas, each presenting some new aspect of the story. An individual or group could sing a stanza, perhaps one newly made up, and the whole crowd would join in the refrain. “The First Noel” was first published in its present form by William Sandys in 1833.
It is inspiring to think of “us all” in the last stanza as crossing the boundaries of time. We modern believers join with earlier Christians to praise our Lord, who bought us all with his blood. (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 249)
Yes, this is “The First Noel,” number 245 in our hymnal! Join us we anticipate Christ’s coming—organically!!
In April 1822, James Montgomery (1771-1854) was speaking in Liverpool at a Methodist missionary meeting. It was a time when the British were waking up to foreign missions, and numerous meetings like this one were presenting worldwide needs and commissioning new workers. Montgomery, a noted hymn writer, loved to promote missionary zeal wherever he could.
As the hymn writer spoke, the building suddenly went dark, and a loud crash followed. For a moment it seemed that mass panic might ensue. But then Montgomery resumed speaking. The crowd calmed down, listening in the darkness. Montgomery concluded his words by reciting this newly written hymn, which is really a paraphrase of Psalm 72. (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 223)
I especially like the third verse: “He shall come down like showers upon the fruitful earth; Love, joy, and hope, like flowers spring in in his path to birth. Before him, on the mountains, shall peace, the herald go; And righteousness, in fountains, from hill to valley flow.” This is “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,” number 203 in our hymnal. Join us we anticipate Christ’s coming—organically!!
This hymn is ancient, not only in its text, but also in its music. While the tune used today was not really finalized until the 1800s, it is based on the plainsong, the type of music used in the church during medieval times. The lack of strict rhythmic measure gives the tune a free-flowing style. You can almost imagine the simple intervals echoing through a stone cathedral.
The text developed without the chorus as a series of liturgical phrases used during Advent. Each stanza concentrates on a different biblical name for Christ, making this hymn a rich source for Christian meditation. Jesus is Emmanuel—“God with us,” “Wisdom from on high,” “Desire of nations,” and “Dayspring.” (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 240)
We open every Advent with this hymn: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” number 211 in our hymnal. Please join us each Sunday in Advent as we celebrate the season—organically!
Many Christians are in the habit of giving thanks before meals. It is said that Henry Alford also gave thanks after meals, standing and offering his gratitude to God for the blessings just received. He also did this at the end of the day. Indeed, Alford was one of the “thankful people” that he writes about in this hymn.
But the song isn’t just about a thanksgiving for what God has done. It is also about work completed, a job well done. It is about aching muscles and full barns, sun-reddened faces and meals of plenty. It was written to be used at harvest festivals in villages throughout England. Each village observed a celebration whenever it brought in its harvest, and Alford, one of the leading churchmen in England in the nineteenth century, provided this hymn of thanks. It was originally called “After Harvest.” (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 656)
“Come, Ye Thankful People Come” is our Processional Hymn (number 694) this Sunday- come join us!
No one knows who the author of this hymn was, but we can trace it back to the Netherlands for the first quarter of the seventeenth century. The Dutch were praying for freedom from Spanish oppression. One Dutch city after another had been captured and sacked by the Spanish armies. Many citizens had been exiled.
But a few years later, the Spanish overlords were being driven out. Night was ending; the dawn was coming. This hymn was written to give thanks for the victory that was almost in sight. For these Dutch believers, “the wicked oppressing” were the Spaniards, who would “now cease from distressing.” There was no doubt that God should receive the glory for the victory.
Life is often like that. The victory may still be around the corner, but that should not keep us from giving thanks. For Holland, a golden age of prosperity—of world exploration, of artists like Rembrandt and scientists like Leeuwenhoek—was only a few decades away. And blessings like these are merely a foretaste of what God has for us in the future. (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 662)
This is number 131 in our Hymnal and one that I grew up singing at Thanksgiving: “We Gather Together to Ask the Lord’s Blessing.”
Louisa Stead and her husband were relaxing with their four-year-old daughter on a Long Island beach when they heard a child’s desperate cry. A boy was drowning and Louisa’s husband tried to rescue him. In the process, the boy pulled Mr. Stead under the water, and both drowned as Louisa and her daughter watched.
Louisa Stead was left with no means of support. She and her daughter experienced dire poverty. One morning when she had neither funds nor food for the day, she opened the front door and found that someone had left food and money on her doorstep. That day she wrote this hymn.
Sometimes we mouth platitudes about our Christianity—glibly quoting Scripture and singing songs about trusting Jesus. For Stead, there was nothing glib or superficial about it. Her hymn remains a timeless reminder and comfort to all believers who have experienced this same truth: “Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him! / How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er! / Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus! / O for grace to trust him more!” (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 113)
I hope you recognize this (from those chorus phrases) as “’Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus,” number 462 in our Hymnal.
This hymn was written in 1865 as the processional for a choir festival at Petersborough Cathedral in England. There are hints in the text of a marching quality (“glorious banner,” “as ye go,” “lift your standard,” “march in firm array”). You can see an army of choir members marching down the aisle—this hymn seems to invite the congregation, and perhaps all Christians everywhere, to join in the song. There is a relentless sense of joy here. One observer commented on the “stately simplicity” of this work.
Edward Plumptre was a noted scholar and author in the Church of England. He wrote a major biography of Bishop Thomas Ken (also a famous hymn writer), as well as historical works and poetry. Plumptre was also a Bible scholar and worked on a revision of the King James Version. He wrote this hymn at age 44, somewhere between “bright youth and snow-crowned age.” Perhaps his work as a college professor made him realize that it’s not the magnitude of one’s scholarship that matters, but the purity of one’s heart. (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 69)
This is one of my favorite processional hymns from page 160, “Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart.”
It was hard to discourage Fanny Crosby (1820-1915). Joy was a characteristic of her life. When English hymn-writer Frances Havergal asked someone about Crosby, she received the reply, “She is a blind lady whose heart can see splendidly in the sunshine of God’s love.” Crosby herself acknowledged, “Darkness may throw a shadow over my outer vision, but there is no cloud that can keep the sunlight of hope from a trustful soul.”
Probably written in 1872, this song was taken to England by Ira Sangkey, who led the singing for Dwight L. Moody’s evangelistic campaigns. They immediately became popular in England and remained well-known there. But it was published in only a few American hymnals, so it was relatively unknown in the United States and Canada. During their 1952 British crusade, it was introduced to members of the Billy Graham team and soon became Billy Graham’s British crusade theme hymn. The words, they said, expressed their praise to God, who was doing wondrous things in Britain. A short time later, Graham introduced the hymn in his Nashville crusade, and it became as popular in America as it had been in England. (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 384-385)
We always sing hymn number 98, “To God Be the Glory” with gusto.
As a student in Bremen, Germany, Joachim Neander (1650-1680) lived a godless life. Though both his father and grandfather were Lutheran ministers, Joachim wasted his life in immorality. Then, when Neander was 20 years old, a preacher named Under-Eyke came to Bremen. Neander went to the meeting intending to ridicule the preacher, but instead he was converted.
Four years later he became headmaster of a school in Dusseldorf, and during his time there he wrote more than 60 hymns. Because of his strong Christian views and his evangelistic activities, he displeased the authorities and was eventually removed from his position.
Despite the tensions, he wrote many hymns of praise. He often wandered through the valleys and hills near Dusseldorf, communing with his Lord. After losing his position at the school, he lived for a time in a cave and continued to write hymns. He died very young, at age 30, but he left behind him a legacy of praise to God. (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 66)
Almost 400 years later, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” is still one of our favorite hymns!
P. Scott, a missionary to India, saw an unusual-looking tribesman on the street, and he asked where the man came from. He was told that the man was from a mountain tribe and came only once a year to the major city to trade. Scott also discovered that the gospel had never been taken to that tribe.
After praying about it, he packed up his bags and violin and started in the direction of the mountain village. When Scott told senior missionaries where he was going, they said, “We will never see you again. It is madness for you to go.” But he went anyway.
He traveled for two days and finally found himself in the mountains. Suddenly he was surrounded by spear-carrying tribesmen, and every spear was pointed at him.
Not knowing what else to do, Scott got out his violin and sang and played this great him by Edward Perronet (1726-1792), including the verse, “Let every kindred, every tribe on this terrestrial ball; to Him all majesty ascribe, and crown him Lord of all!”
The spears had now dropped from the men’s hands, and he could see tears in their eyes. He spent the next two-and-a-half years telling them about Jesus and his love for them. When Scott had to leave them because of his health, the tribespeople escorted him forty miles to where he could get other transportation. (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 6)
Did that jog your memory sufficient enough to remember the wonderful hymn “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” number 154, as our opening hymn last week? Hope so!
When you are living the life by the first line of this hymn, you can be secure regardless of the premises. That was certainly true in the life of the author of this hymn, Kelso Carter (1849-1928).
Kelso Carter was a hard man to keep track of because he kept moving around. A star athlete, he returned to college after his graduation to become a professor of chemistry, natural science, civil engineering, and mathematics. Then he moved out west and raised sheep in California. After that, he practiced a different kind of shepherding and was ordained into the Methodist ministry. He spoke frequently in Methodist camp meetings when he wasn’t writing novels or mathematics and science textbooks. Later he returned to his home state of Maryland, studied medicine, and became a practicing physician in Baltimore.
When the Christian and Missionary Alliance asked him to help compile a hymnal for use in their churches, Carter gladly did so, personally contributing more than fifty poems and tunes to the hymnal.
Some people feel insecure when they are thrust into new jobs, new locations, or new circumstances, but not Kelso Carter. Regardless of the premises, he was…” (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 150)
Did you catch the “premises” and “promises” hints? If so, you probably already guessed that this is the story of the great hymn “Standing on the Promises,” number 374 in our hymnal.
Not far from Port Hope, Ontario, stands a monument with this inscription: “Four miles north, in Pengally’s Cemetery, lies the philanthropist and author of this great masterpiece, written at port hope, 1857.” Above the inscription are the words to this beloved hymn. Joseph Scriven (1819-1886), its author, was a man who had experienced the friendship of Jesus through a life filled with personal tragedy.
When Scriven was a young man in Ireland, his fiancée accidentally drowned on the eve of their wedding. Soon after this, he set sail for Canada. He seemed destined to live his life alone, with Jesus as his only close friend. In Canada, he determined to be a friend to those in need, and he became known as the “Good Samaritan of Port Hope.”
Scriven never intended to publish this hymn. He wrote the words to accompany a letter to his mother in Ireland when she became ill. He had no material resources to send her—only a reminder that the most perfect of friends, Jesus himself, was nearby.
Later, when Scriven himself was ill, a visiting friend noticed the hymn scribbled on scratch paper near his bed. “Did you write this?” asked the friend. “Well, not completely,” Scriven answered, “The Lord and I did it between us.” (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 322)
This beautiful hymn is one of my favorites, number 526 in our hymnal, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
Of all the names and titles given to Jesus, perhaps the most beloved is shepherd, one Jesus gave himself in John 10. The Good Shepherd knows his sheep, guards his sheep, and even gives his life for his sheep. Scripture also says that he knows his sheep by name.
On Christmas Eve 1875, Ira Sankey, the gospel singer who accompanied evangelist Dwight L. Moody, was traveling with friends by steamboat up the Delaware River. He was asked to sing for the other passengers, but instead of singing a Christmas carol, he felt he should sing this song in which the verse talks about Jesus leading us as a shepherd, and the chorus rings out: “Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus! Thou hast bought us, Thine we are / Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus!! Thou hast bought us, Thine we are.”
Afterward, another passenger asked him if he had been doing picket duty on a particular night at a particular place during the Civil War. Sankey agreed that he was. The other passenger said, “I, too, was on duty that night; I was serving in the Confederate Army, and I saw you and raised my musket to take aim. And then you began to sing. It was the same hymn you sang tonight. I remembered my mother singing that hymn to me, and I could not shoot you.”
On board the steamboat, Sankey put his arm around the man and introduced him to the Good Shepherd, who gave his life for his sheep. (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 405)
This wonderful story came as a result of Sankey singing “Savior, Like A Shepherd Lead Us,” number 381 in our hymnal.
In 1714, Queen Anne of England lay dying, and she had no son or daughter to succeed her. Who would be the new ruler? All of Britain was concerned. Isaac Watts (1674-1748) had reason to worry. His father had been imprisoned under the previous regime because his views did not please the ruling family. As a young child, Isaac had been carried by his mother to visit his father in jail. Queen Anne had brought a new tolerance and had given freedom to Isaac’s father. But now what?
Isaac Watts turned to Psalm 90 for his answers, and he wrote a hymn about time. God stands above time, and in him all our anxieties can be laid to rest. When the events of the day bring worry and concern, the God of the ages remains our eternal refuge. (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 310)
As the opening verse of this hymn says, God is “our shelter from the stormy blast / and our eternal home! This is “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” number 117 in our hymnal.
Anna Warner and her sister, Susan, grew up near West Point Military Academy, where they became known for leading Sunday school services for the young men there. After the death of their father, a New York lawyer, the sisters supported themselves with their various literary endeavors. Susan became known as a best-selling novelist. Anna also wrote novels and published two collections of poems. She wrote this simple hymn in 1860 to be included in one of her sister’s novels. In the story, it was a poem of comfort spoken to a dying child.
Today millions of voices sing the wonderful chorus of this song. Once, when asked to summarize the essential truths of the Christian faith, the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth gave a very simple answer: the first two lines of this song. This profound yet simple truth is certainly worth singing about. (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 162)
What two lines from a children’s poem express the simple answer from Karl Barth as to the essential truths of Christianity? “Jesus loves me, this I know / For the Bible tells me so.” Now you know the story behind “Jesus Loves Me!”
When it was first printed, this hymn was simply called, “Scripture Promises.” In a 1787 hymnal, the words of 2 Peter 1:4 were printed above the first stanza: “Exceeding great and precious promises” (KJV). Each stanza of the hymn emphasizes a different promise in God’s Word. The second stanza is based on Isaiah 41:10; the third on Isaiah 43:2; the fourth on 2 Corinthians 12:9; and the fifth on Hebrews 13:5, which concludes “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.”
The final lines of this hymn are among the most memorable in the hymnal: “That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake!” If it isn’t clear, you can add a couple more “no nevers” to it! (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 102)
Were you able to remember the title from the last few lines? This is hymn 529 in our Hymnal, “How Firm a Foundation.”
One hundred years after Martin Luther, the Lutheran church in Germany needed a revival, and it came through a Lutheran pastor in Frankfurt, Philip Jacob Spener (1635-1705). He started Bible studies in small groups, and he emphasized the importance of a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as well as a continuing devotional life. The movement was called the Pietist movement.
Johann Schutz, a prominent lawyer and legal authority, helped Spener start the movement. Along with Spener, he was concerned that the orthodoxy of the church had become dead orthodoxy. God wasn’t personal anymore; he seemed far away.
So the lawyer wrote several hymns emphasizing the nearness of God, including this great hymn in 1675. Notice particularly the second stanza: “The Lord is never far away, / But through all grief distressing, / An ever-present help and stay, / Our peace and joy and blessing.” (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 74)
This is hymn 126 in our Hymnal, “Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above.” What a great powerful witness to the God of who loves us as we are! “To God all praise and glory!”
Unless songwriters compose the music themselves, they usually have no control over what music accompanies their texts. The prolific hymn writer Isaac Watts (1675-1748) wrote this hymn and published it in 1707. In 1763, Aaron Williams put it together with a tune called “St. Thomas.” However, in many denominations in the United States, the hymn underwent a transformation. Perhaps because of the popularity of Negro spirituals, gospel songs of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries emphasized a chorus, just as the spirituals did. So the old Watts stanzas were attached to a chorus and set to a rousing gospel tune by Brooklyn clergy man Robert Lowry.
Lowry had a brilliant idea—let the adults sing the complicated hymn stanzas, and let the children join in on the familiar and lilting chorus! So children and their parents were united in worship, led by an innovative reworking of a classic hymn text. (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 372)
In Lowry’s version, the original stanzas of “Come, We That Love the Lord” (the title of the Watts hymn) would be sung by adults, followed by “We’re Marching to Zion” (the title in our hymnal, Page 733) sung by the children! What a great way to connect generations—we just might have to try that in our worship services!
Sir Robert Grant (1779-1838) was acquainted with kings. His father was a member of the British Parliament and later became chairman of the East India Company. Following in his father’s footsteps, young Grant was elected to Parliament and led the fight for civil rights for Jewish people. Then he became a director of the East India Company. In 1834 he was appointed governor of Bombay, and in that position he was greatly loved. A medical college in India was named in his honor.
This hymn by Grant is based on Psalm 104, a psalm of praise. The progression of titles for God in the last line is interesting: “Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend.” We know God first as our Maker, our Creator. Then, even before our conversion, he is our Defender, our Keeper from harm. We know him then as Redeemer, our personal Savior from sin and its penalty. Finally, as we walk day by day with him, as we commune with him and enjoy his fellowship, we know him also as Friend.
Yes, Sir Robert Grant was acquainted with kings, but he treasured most of all his friendship with the King of Kings. (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 58)
“Our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend”—those closing words are from hymn 73, “O Worship the King.” Thanks be to God for glorious reminders of living in and with a gracious Savior!
Henry Van Dyke (1852-1933) was serving as a guest preacher at Williams College in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, when he was so moved by the beauty of God’s creation that he wrote this hymn of joy. The next morning he handed the poem to the college president. “Here is a hymn for you,” he said. “Your mountains were my inspiration. It must be sung to the music of Beethoven’s ‘Hymn of Joy.’” And it has been ever since.
Van Dyke was not only a Presbyterian minister, but he was also the author or many books, including the best-selling, “The Other Wise Man.” He was a professor of literature at Princeton University, navy chaplain during World War I, and an ambassador to Holland and Luxembourg under President Woodrow Wilson.
When Van Dyke published this hymn in 1911, he noted that it was to be sung by people who “are not afraid that any truth of science will destroy their religion or that any revolution on earth will not overthrow the kingdom of heaven.” With such confidence, Christians will have much to rejoice about. (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, Page 43)
This was our opening hymn July 17: “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” number 89 in our hymnal. What a powerful hymn of God’s glory and love!
When Frank Mason North (1850-1935) was asked to write a missionary hymn for the Methodist hymnal, he protested. “I’m not a hymn writer,” he said. He was a New York City man. He had been born there and had served as a pastor there. He knew New York City inside and out, but what did he know about hymn writing?
North was, however, an excellent choice to present a changing missionary picture. In 1903 he was an officer of both the New York City Mission and the Nation City Evangelical Mission, so he knew city missions as few others did.
North realized that the city was a great mission field. Most missionary hymns talked about Greenland’s icy mountains or the heathen who lived in distant lands, but North finally accepted the challenge of presenting the city as a mission field. He decided to write about the city as he saw it, about “haunts of wretchedness” and “shadowed thresholds dark with fears.” He wrote of Wall Street-like paths that “hide the lures of greed.”
North’s stirring words were published first by the Methodist City Missionary Society and later appeared in the Methodist hymnal. (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 197)
This was our closing hymn from July 10, “Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life,” number 427 in our hymnal. If you get a chance, read these words once again as we continue to serve the needs of the mission field in our own cities.
Charles Wesley had strict religious training at home, started “Holy Clubs” in college to promote righteous living, and went as a missionary to Native Americans after college. But he was not converted. Charles had no peace in his heart. In 1738, he met with a group of Moravians in Aldersgate Hall in London, where he came to realize that salvation was by faith alone. In his journal of May 21, he wrote, “At midnight I gave myself to Christ.” His brother John was converted shortly after.
Two days later, he began writing two hymns. Both of them told of his conversion. At first he wasn’t sure he should finish them. He wondered if it was pride to talk about his own experience. But then, he said, “I prayed Christ to stand by me, and finished the hymns.” Yes, it may have described his own experience, but it is also the experience of millions of others who have come by faith to Jesus Christ.
In his lifetime, he wrote 5,000 – 6,000 hymns, but this hymn stands as one of his most powerful and most profound. (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 472)
This is a great, great hymn of Methodism, and, as Alan mentioned one Sunday, was sung almost weekly in Chapel when he attended seminary at Asbury. It is hymn 363, “And Can It Be.” Read through the verses and see the powerful conversion story of Charles Wesley.
According to one account, the author of this hymn was William Walford, a blind preacher and curio shop owner in Coleshill, England. He carved ornaments out of ivory or wood and sold them in his small store. He also wrote poetry. When a local minister stopped at the store, Walford mentioned he had composed a poem in his head and asked the minister to write it down. Three years later, the minister visited the United States and gave the poem to a newspaper editor.
Unfortunately, no one knows what happened to Walford. Researchers found a William Walford, a minister in Homerton, England, who wrote a book on prayer that expresses many of the same thoughts that are given in this poem. That may be the true author.
But the identity of the hymnwriter is not as important as knowing a God who hears and answers prayer. In our hymns, “prayer” is frequently rhymed with “care.” This is appropriate, for whenever we are aware of care, we should be equally aware of prayer. God cares about us, and that motivates us to pray. (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 590)
“In seasons of distress and grief, my soul has often found relief; and oft escaped the tempter’s snare, by thy return, sweet hour of prayer.” Yes, that’s number 496 in our hymnal, “Sweet Hour of Prayer.”
At age 22, Ray Palmer (1808-1887) was having a tough year. He wanted to go into the ministry but was stuck teaching at a girls’ school in New York City. He was lonely, depressed, and sick. One night at his boardinghouse, he wrote a poem in a little morocco-bound notebook to bolster his own courage. Later he recalled, “There was not the slightest thought of writing for another eye, least of all writing a hymn for Christian worship.”
But two years later while visiting Boston, he ran across his friend Lowell Mason, a major figure in American music in the early 1800s who was preparing a new hymnal. When asked if he’d like to contribute anything, Palmer bashfully showed Mason the verses. Mason hurried into a nearby store, got a piece of paper, and copied the poem. When he handed the notebook back to Palmer, he said, “You may live many years and do many good things, but I think you will be best known to posterity as the author of this hymn.” That night Lowell Mason went home and wrote the music for the words that Ray Palmer had held in his pocket for two years. (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, Page 107)
“My faith looks up to thee, thou lamb of Calvary, Savior divine!” This is number 452 in our hymnal, “My Faith Looks Up to Thee.”
At twenty-two, Ray Palmer (1808-1887) was having a tough year. He wanted to go into the ministry but was stuck teaching at a girls’ school in New York City. He was lonely, depressed, and sick. One night at his boardinghouse, he wrote a poem in a little morocco-bound notebook to bolster his own courage. Later he recalled, “There was not the slightest thought of writing for another eye, least of all writing a hymn for Christian worship.”
But two years later, while visiting Boston, he ran across his friend Lowell Mason. Mason, a major figure in American music in the early 1800s, was preparing a new hymnal. He asked Palmer if he’d like to contribute anything. Palmer bashfully showed Mason these verses. Mason hurried into a nearby store, got a piece of paper, and copied the poem. When he handed the notebook back to Palmer, he said, “You may live many years and do many good things, but I think you will be best known to posterity as the author of this hymn.” That night Lowell Mason went home and wrote the music for the words that Ray Palmer had held in his pocket for two years. (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 107)
“My faith looks up to thee, thou lamb of Calvary, Savior divine!” This is number 452 in our hymnal, “My Faith Looks Up to Thee.” Do you have a favorite hymn you’d like to know the story about? Let Ricky know and he will do some checking and use it in one of our future hymn stories.
Windsor on the Thames, with its royal castle, is one of England’s more popular tourist attractions. Samuel John Stone (1839-1900) conducted his ministry here, among the poorer people at the outskirts of town.
Samuel Stone was a fighter. He stood up for what he believed, and he was not afraid to take on the local “toughs” who threatened the neighborhood. In the Church of England, Stone was regarded as a fundamentalist, opposing the liberal theological tendencies of his day.
When he was 27, he wrote a collection of hymns based on the Apostles’ Creed. This hymn is based on the article in the creed regarding the church as the body of Christ.
Two years later, Anglicans from around the world met to discuss the crucial theological issues that were raging in the church. Significantly, they chose Stone’s hymn as the processional hymn for their historic conference. (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 284)
What is this historic hymn of unity? It is on page 545 in our United Methodist Hymnal, the first line of which is the title and theme: “The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.”
This is actually number 616 in our hymnal in the “Communion” section; or is it number 339 in the “Invitation” section of our hymnal? Yes, it is both!
Like so many Charles Wesley hymn poems, this multi-verse setting has two sets of verses, all based on Luke 14:16-24 (the Parable of the Great Supper). Both utilize the same first verse; then the version on page 339 has four more verses inviting listeners to come and find their place with Christ; the verses on page 616 are applied strictly to the Lord’s Supper: “O taste the goodness of our God, and eat his flesh and drink his blood” (from Psalm 34:8 and John 6:48-58). Both hymns use the same tune HURSLEY.
So, unlike several of our hymns that feature different tunes, this hymn features the same tune but different verses for different needs of the church. (from The Hymns for the United Methodist Hymnal: Introduction to the Hymns, Canticles, and Acts of Worship, Diane Sanchez, Editor, pages 122 and 208)
The “Gospel Feast” used in the title of both hymns represents both the feast of the Lord’s Supper and the feast of fellowship with other believers! That’s why “Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast” is one of the great hymns of Communion—and invitation.
Grace is one of the hardest lessons for us to learn about God. Some show their ignorance of God’s grace by working hard to be good enough. They pay lip service to the idea of God’s grace but don’t really understand it. Others display their misunderstanding of God’s grace by concluding it’s inaccessible to them. They know they cannot be good enough for God, so they despair of ever having a relationship with him.
It is this second group that Julia Johnston was writing for. She knew how important it was to understand and experience the simple, yet difficult, truth of God’s gracious forgiveness. Johnston, who lived in Peoria, Illinois, was a Sunday school teacher and became a noted expert in Sunday school curriculum. Though she penned texts for more than five hundred hymns, this is the only one widely known. It powerfully teaches this essential Christian truth: God’s grace is far greater than any sin you have committed. All you have to do is receive it. (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 479)
“Marvelous grace of our loving Lord, grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt!” Yes, this is hymn 365, “Grace Greater than Our Sin.” What a great chorus: “Grace, grace, God’s grace; grace that will pardon and cleanse within/Grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that is greater than all our sin.”
Edwin Hatch (1835-1899), the writer of this hymn, was a learned man. He could string together sentences filled with polysyllabic words. He was a distinguished lecturer in ecclesiastical history at Oxford and a professor of classics at Trinity College in Quebec. His lectures “On the Organization of Early Christian Churches” were translated into German by the noted theologian Harnack. Few other English theologians had won European recognition for original research.
But when it came to expressing his faith, Hatch was “as simple and unaffected as a child.” This hymn is filed with one-syllable words and is a simple, heartfelt prayer.
Hatch knew that, while the words of his hymn were simple, the meaning was profound. At man’s creation, God breathed and man “became a living being” (Genesis 2:7, NIV). At our re-creation through Jesus, the breath of God brings spiritual life and power.” (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 416)
Did you catch the part about “breathed” into man? Edwin Hatch wrote hymn number 420 in our United Methodist Hymnal, “Breathe on Me, Breath of God.”
Henry Tweedy, a congregational pastor and professor at Yale Divinity School, wrote this Pentecost hymn [in 1935] based on the events described in Acts 2. Each stanza deals with an element of the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Church—the element of fire to fill the Church with love, joy, power, righteousness, and peace; the element of wind to blow away the “mists of error, clouds of doubt;” tongues whose speaking allowed all to understand the message at Pentecost. They hymn ends with the affirmation that today’s Church can feel the same power as did the early Church. This is a moving prayer for utterance of “love which speaks loud and clear.” (The Hymns of the United Methodist Hymnal; Introduction to the Hymns, Canticles, and Acts of Worship, Diana Sanchez, Editor, Page 184)
“O Spirit of the Living God,” on Page 539 in our United Methodist Hymnal, is one of the great hymns of the Day of Pentecost!
By training, Alfred Ackley was a cellist who had studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London. But he was also a minister of the gospel, serving Presbyterian churches in Pennsylvania and California.
This great gospel song was written after a question was posed to Ackley by a young Jewish student: Why should I worship a dead Jew?
Ackley answered quickly, “He lives! I tell you he is not dead, but lives here and now! Jesus Christ is more alive today than ever before. I can prove it by my own experience, as well as the testimony of countless thousands.”
Ackley talked to the man further and then went home to reread the Resurrection stories of the Gospels. As he read, the words “He is risen” struck him with new meaning. Then, from the combination of the scriptural evidence, his own heart, and the experience of the innumerable cloud of witnesses, he sat down at the piano and wrote the song. He once said, “The thought of his ever-living presence brought the music promptly and easily.” (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 599)
Yes, the title is right there in the article: It is our United Methodist hymn on Page 310—“He Lives!”
The poet Samuel Coleridge said of Martin Luther, “He did as much for the Reformation by his hymns as he did by his translation of the Bible.”
Martin Luther’s grandest hymn is this one, inspired by the forty-sixth Psalm. It became the battle cry of the Reformation. Martin Luther probably wrote it at a time when evangelical leaders were delivering their protest against the attack on their liberties at the Diet of Speyer. An incidentally, the meaning of the word “protestant” was no doubt derived from that meeting when these leaders delivered their protest.
Martin Luther had posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church in October 1517, about thirteen years earlier. Despite his excommunication from the Roman church, Luther came to know the gracious power of God’s sheltering hand. He faced continual threats to his life and freedom, and times of intense spiritual battle as well. But in the comforting words of Psalm 46, Luther found the inspiration for this great hymn. (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 370)
What was this great Martin Luther hymn of the Reformation? Yes, it’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” on Page 110 in our United Methodist Hymnal!
William M. James (1913-2013) was an African American United Methodist Pastor widely known in New York City for his pioneering multi-ethnic and street ministries. In his sermons he would preach that “every Sunday is a new Easter.” The stanzas here exhort the faithful to sing the Lord’s praises, triumph over every evil foe, and witness to the power of God. The stanzas echo much of Charles Wesley’s “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” Both acknowledge the cosmic connection between heaven and earth. This stirring hymn is sung as a rousing march as voices reach a climax at each “Alleluia! Alleluia!” Yes–the Wesleyan connection is unmistakable in James’ hymn.
The author of more than 50 hymns, James noted, “I wrote hymns for my congregation whenever I needed one. [This particular hymn] is not the greatest hymn I have, but it took better than the others. Most of my hymns have themes around the social gospel.” Originally in five stanzas, our hymnal carries only three, those being one, three, and five.
The triumph of the Resurrection over evil is the theme. In stanza two, James reminds us that the “fear of death” cannot stop us from doing all we can to overcome evil “here below.” The final stanza insists: “Every day to [Christians] is Easter” because our God is one who “rights the wrong.” (Michael C. Hawn,History of Hymns and Diana Sanchez, editor, The Hymns of the United Methodist Hymnal.)
Did you guess (or google) the hymn? “Easter People, Raise Your Voices” was our Processional Hymn to open our worship on April 10, 2016!
It seems strange that such a sedate hymn was written by a feisty, pugnacious man named Augustus Toplady (by the way, Wikipedia gives this away—just google “Augustus Toplady”). Converted under a Methodist evangelist while attending the University of Dublin, Toplady decided to prepare for the ministry. Although he was impressed with the spirit of Methodism, Toplady strongly disagreed with the Wesleyan theology and waged a running battle with the Wesleys through tracts, sermons, and even hymns. “Wesley,” said Toplady, “is guilty of Satan’s shamelessness.” Wesley retorted, “I do not fight with chimney sweeps!”
Toplady wrote this hymn to conclude a magazine article in which he emphasized that, just as England could never repay its national debt, so humans through their own efforts could never satisfy the eternal justice of God– that justice that lets “me hide myself in thee.” He died of tuberculosis and overwork at the age of thirty-eight, two years after he published his own hymnal, in which his hymn and Charles Wesley’s “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” were placed side by side. (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 313-314)
Did you guess (or google) the hymn? “Let me hide myself in thee; let the water and the blood, from thy wounded side which flowed, be of sin the double cure, save from wrath and make me whole.” It’s on page 361 in our United Methodist Hymnal, “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me.”
Thomas Chisholm certainly had his share of disappointments in life. Born in a crude log cabin in Kentucky, he never had a chance to attend high school or college. His health was fragile, forcing him to resign as a Methodist minister after only one year. He began writing, but received more than his share of rejection letters. Even when his poems were published, he seldom received any money for them.
At the age of fifty-seven, he wrote this hymn based on the verses in lamentations that say, “His compassions fail not. They are new every morning. (3:22-23, KJV). Later, when he was asked how he came to write the hymn, he said there were no special circumstances surrounding it, but he simply wrote about God’s faithfulness from studying the Bible. (Hymns, William J. Peterson and Ardythe Peterson, p. 393)
Did you recognize this great Methodist hymn? It’s “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” on page 140 of our hymnal.