Friday, July 24, 2015

John Newton

John Newton, hymnwriter, Anglican priest, former slave-trader and later activist against slavery in England, was born today in London in 1725. Later in life he would mark May 10 as the anniversary of his conversion to Christianity in 1748.  He continued in the slave trade for a few years after that day, but tried to ensure that the Africans under his care were treated "humanely."

After giving up his seafaring life, he became surveyor of tides in the port of Liverpool, where he met George Whitefield, a deacon in the Church of England but also an early follower of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Newton was later introduced to Wesley, and it seems likely that his acquaintance with these men influenced not only his desire to be ordained in the Church of England (which finally happened in June 1764 after several years of applying), but also his later hymnwriting career. Hymns were not widely used in the Church of England in Newton's time (and were expressly forbidden by many bishops), but when Newton was established as the rector at the village of Olney he wrote many of his hymns to be sung at his weekly prayer service as a response to his sermon, believing that they were an effective way to reinforce his message (as John and Charles Wesley earlier believed of their Methodist followers).

Today's text is from Newton's Olney Hymns (1779) where it was titled The Lodestone.  It caught my attention because it creatively links our relationship with Christ to the natural phenomenon of magnetism, which I don't recall encountering before.

As needles point towards the pole,
When touched by the magnetic stone;
So faith in Jesus gives the soul
A tendency before unknown.

Till then, by earthly passions led,
In search of fancied good we range;
The paths of disappointment tread,
To nothing fixed, but love of change.

The Holy Spirit then imparts
The knowledge of the Savior’s love;
Our wand’ring, weary, restless hearts,
Are fixed at once, no more to move.

By Love’s sure light we soon perceive
Our noblest bliss, and proper end;
And gladly every idol leave,
To love and serve our Lord and Friend.

John Newton, 1779; alt.
Benjamin Cooke (?), 1794

As of last month, John Newton has the additional distinction of being the first hymnwriter whose most famous hymn has been sung on national television by a President of the United States.  I'm sure most, if not all of you saw President Obama's rendition of Amazing grace at the memorial service on June 26 for the nine people murdered at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

Seven Years Ago: John Newton

Six Years Ago: John Newton

Five Years Ago: John Newton

Four Years Ago: John Newton

Three Years Ago: John Newton

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Our Sure Defense Forever Be

I recently acquired a new (to me) hymnal, pictured here. Hymnal: A Worship Book (1992) was a joint project of the Church of the Brethren, the General Conference Mennonite Church, and the Mennonite Church in North America (it appears that those last two denominations merged in 2002 but I could be wrong).  Anyway, it's an interesting book to me because, in addition to many new hymns of the 1980s and 90s it also has many hymns from earlier days that had not survived in the hymnals of other denominations but which were apparently still being sung.

The hymnal opens with a section of hymns called "Gathering," which caught my eye for some reason, though I'm sure it's not the only hymnal with such a section.  These are suggested for use as the opening hymn in worship, which I've always just thought of as "opening hymns," but "Gathering" sounds much nicer.  Also, it seems like a good theme for summer Sundays here, so even though I have already written about many such hymns before, we'll see some more this year.

Working together, Fanny Crosby and composer William Howard Doane probably collaborated on dozens of songs, including Pass me not, O gentle Savior, Jesus, keep me near the cross, and To God be the glory, but I had never encountered this one, which I like very much.

God of our strength, enthroned above,
The source of life, the fount of love;
O let devotion’s sacred flame
Our souls awake to praise thy name.

God of our strength, we sing to thee,
Our sure defense forever be.

To thee we lift our joyful eyes,
To thee on wings of faith we rise;
Come thou, and let thy courts on earth
Ring out thy praise in holy mirth.

God of our strength, from day to day
Direct our thoughts and guide our way;
O may our hearts united be
In sweet communion here with thee.

God of our strength, on thee we call;
God of our hope, our light, our all,
Thy name we praise, thy love adore,
Our rock, our shield, forevermore.

Fanny Crosby, 1882; alt.
VISION (L.M. with refrain)
William H. Doane, 1883

This hymn was first published in the Baptist Hymnal (1883), for which Doane was the musical editor.  Although the Cyber Hymnal suggests that Doane's tune was written earlier, this appears to have been a new text for Crosby.  At this point she was probably the most famous writer of gospel songs and hymns in her day, having been successful for about fifteen years. Though she lived until 1915, her most popular songs (mostly the ones we still know today) were written in those early years.  By 1883, the songs she was writing did not gain the same traction as the earlier ones and are generally less known, though I have written about several of these as well.   


Friday, July 17, 2015

Isaac Watts

Influential hymnwriter Isaac Watts was born today in 1674. His father was a Nonconformist, or Dissenter, who was twice jailed for not joining the state Church of England, and the son followed in the father's beliefs. Dissatisfied with the psalm paraphrases which were sung in English churches of his day, young Isaac resolved to write better things to sing, and thus became one of the earliest and most prolific writers in English who wrote hymns that were not scriptural paraphrases. His earliest hymns were published in 1707 and 1709. 

In 1719 he published The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, his own psalm paraphrases which brought Jesus into many of the texts. These were not the stricter, complete paraphrases of earlier days; Watts left some of the psalms out, as well as ignoring some long sections of those he did include. To explain these so-called discrepancies, he wrote that 

Where the Psalmist describes religion by the fear of God, I have often joined faith and love to it. Where he speaks of the pardon of sin through the mercies of God, I rather choose to mention the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God. Where He promises abundance of wealth, honor, and long life, I have changed some of these typical blessings for grace, glory and life eternal, which are brought to light by the gospel, and promised in the New Testament.

His hymns and psalm paraphrases were derided by critics as "flights of fancy," or even "Watts's whims," and some churches split over the singing of hymns rather than psalms, but obviously hymns eventually gained greater favor with the general public. The noted essayist Samuel Johnson, a contemporary of Watts, wrote that "He was the first who taught the Dissenters to write and speak like other men, by showing them that elegance might consist with piety." 

In all he wrote nearly eight hundred texts (listed here). Today's hymn of praise is not derived from the Psalms, but some sources suggest that it comes partly from the book of Job, proclaiming the infinite greatness of God.

How wondrous great, how glorious bright
Must our Creator be,
Who dwells amidst the dazzling light
Of vast eternity.

Our soaring spirits upwards rise
to reach the glorious throne.
There would we see the blessed Three
In the Almighty One.

Our reason stretches all its wings,
And climbs above the skies;
But still how far below God's feet
Our mortal knowledge lies!

While all the heavenly powers conspire
Eternal praise to bring,
Let faith in humbler notes adore,
The wondrous Mystery sing.

Isaac Watts, 1707; alt.
Maurice Greene, 18th cent.

Earlier printings of this hymn do not include this final stanza, so I am not sure if it is from another hymn entirely, and perhaps is not even by Watts, but this is the form which more recent hymnals have used.

Isaac Watts never married (his one proposal was rejected) and his health was poor for many years.  He pastored a church in London though many of his duties had to be left to an assistant.  In old age, he once wrote "The business of a Christian is to bear the will of God, as well as to do it. If I were in health, I ought to be doing it; and now it is my duty to bear it." He died on November 25, 1748 and was was buried in Bunhill Fields.

Seven Years Ago: Isaac Watts

Six Years Ago: Isaac Watts

Five Years Ago: Isaac Watts

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Feast of Corpus Christi

The Feast of Corpus Christi is celebrated on this day in some churches, transferred from its true position on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. It is a day set aside to pay tribute to the Real Presence of Christ, the Body and Blood in the Communion meal.

Saint Juliana of Liege (1193-1258) was the first champion of such a feast day; she wanted a commemoration for the Eucharist that would fall outside the season of Lent and outside Holy Week. She convinced her local bishop, Robert de Thorete, of the usefulness of such an occasion and he declared the first celebration of the feast in 1246.  From there it eventually spread to the whole Catholic Church, decreed by Pope Urban in 1264. Other churches, particularly some Anglo-Catholic churches in the Anglican Communion also mark the day. Historically, it was often a very elaborate celebration, with an outdoor procession conveying the elements of the Eucharist.

The well-known Latin text Ave verum corpus dates from the fourteenth century and is attributed to Pope Innocent IV, written for this feast day. It has been set to music by many composers, perhaps most notably by Mozart and William Byrd.

This is a setting I particularly like, by Camille Saint-Saens, sung by the Handel Choir of Baltimore, Maryland.

P.S. - The art above is by the fifteenth-century Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini, depicting a Corpus Christi procession in Venice's St. Mark's Square.

Seven Years Ago: Here, O my God, I see thee face to face

Three Years Ago: Sweet Sacrament divine 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Trinity Sunday

Sound aloud our highest praises,
Tell abroad God's wondrous Name;
Heaven the ceaseless anthem raises,
Let the earth its God proclaim:
God, the hope of every nation,
God, the source of consolation,
Holy, blessèd Trinity!

This the Name from ancient ages
Hidden in its dazzling light;
This the Name that saints and sages,
Prayed and strove to know aright,
Through God's wondrous Incarnation,
Now revealed the world's salvation,
Ever blessèd Trinity!

Still the Name o’er earth and ocean
Shall be carried, God is Love,
Whispered by the heart’s devotion,
Echoed by the choirs above,
Hallowed through all worlds forever,
Lord of life the only giver,
Blessèd, glorious Trinity!

Henry A. Martin, 1870; alt.
Tune: FIDES (
Clement Cottevill Scholefield, 1874

Seven Years Ago: Lead us, great Creator, lead us

Six Years Ago: Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord God Almighty!

Five Years Ago: I bind unto myself today

Four Years Ago: O Trinity of blessèd light

Two Years Ago: Mighty Creator, merciful and tender

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Feast of Pentecost

Come, O come, thou quick'ning Spirit,
God from all eternity!
May thy power never fail us;
Dwell within us constantly.
Then shall truth and life and light
Banish all the gloom of night.

Grant our hearts in fullest measure
Wisdom, counsel, purity,
That we ever may be seeking
Fuller faith as found in thee.
Let thy knowledge spread and grow,
Working error's overthrow.

If our souls can find no comfort
And despondency grows strong
That our hearts cry out in anguish:
"O my God, how long, how long?"
Comfort then each aching breast,
Grant us courage, patience, rest.

Holy Spirit, strong and mighty,
Thou who makest all things new,
Make thy work within us perfect,
All constraining pow'rs subdue.
Grant us victory in the strife
And with gladness crown our life.

Heinrich Held, c.1664; tr. Charles W. Schaeffer, 1866; alt.
Robert Prescott Stewart, 1868

Seven Years Ago: Joy, because the circling year

Six Years Ago: O prophet souls of all the years

Five Years Ago: Above the starry spheres

Four Years Ago: Hail thee, festival day

Three Years Ago: O God, the Holy Ghost

Two Years Ago: Hail festal day, through every age

One Year Ago: Spirit of grace and health and pow'r

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Phebe Hanaford

Phebe Hanaford, born today in 1829, was not only the fourth woman ordained in the United States (in the Universalist Church) but was also an author, activist, poet and hymnwriter.

Born into a Quaker family, she was aware from a young age that women in that tradition were allowed to preach during services, but she tried to put those ideas aside when she married Joseph Hanaford in 1849 and agreed to worship in his Baptist church.  A few years later she learned that Lucy Stone, a prominent activist for abolition and women's rights, was speaking at a local church.  Knowing that her husband would not approve of her attending the lecture, she stayed outside the church but managed to listen anyway.

Following her ordination in 1868, she led churches in the Massachusetts towns of Hingham and Waltham, but when she was called to a Universalist congregation in New Haven, Connecticut, her husband refused to go with her and they separated.  Ellen Miles, a Sabbath school teacher in Phebe's Waltham congregation, accompanied her to New Haven and throughout the rest of her long career, often being called the "minister's wife."

Today's hymn, probably written in the 1860s, not long before Phebe decided to pursue ordination, takes its theme from Exodus 15:20-21, the Song of Miriam, which follows the story of the deliverance of the people of Israel from Egypt. It's not quite a paraphrase of that passage, but takes it as a springboard of sorts.

Miriam’s song we’ll echo now,
Singing praises to the Lord;
Who has triumphed gloriously,
Shout the victory of our God!

Sound the timbrel! Loud and high!
Let the song of praise ascend!
Sound the timbrel, far and nigh!
God is our unchanging friend!

When the Red Sea tide o’erwhelmed
Israel’s foes in that great hour
While they sought the promised land,
Then was seen th’Almighty’s power.

Ever thus shall righteousness
Over wrong victorious be,
And the Lord shall be proclaimed
Ruler over land and sea.

Phebe Hanaford. c.1866; alt.
Tune: EVELYN (
Emma L. Ashford, 1905

Poor health and the loss of Ellen Miles, her companion of more than forty years, prevented Phebe from remaining active in her causes in the final years of her life.  She was living unhappily with her granddaughter's family in rural upstate New York, far from the cities and organizations she had loved and led.  Though she had worked for years in the cause of women's suffrage, there is no evidence in local voting records that she cast a vote in 1920, the first national election following the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.  At age 91, she was unable to travel to the polls on her own. Fortunately, New York State allowed women to vote a few years earlier, and she did take advantage of that limited opportunity.

She died on June 2, 1921, one month after her 92nd birthday, and was buried in an unmarked grave next to her daughter Florence Hanaford Warner.  There were some attempts over the years to have a headstone erected for her, but that did not happen until 1998, when the headstone (pictured below) was funded by the Unitarian Universalist Women's Heritage Society.

P.S. - As we were discussing Abraham Lincoln's funeral services two days ago, it should be noted that Hanaford also wrote a hymn for an ecumenical memorial service for the President at the Old South Congregational Church in Reading, Massachusetts.  This is the first stanza:

Hushed today are sounds of gladness
From the mountains to the sea;
And the plaintive voice of sadness
Rises, mighty God, to thee.

Combined choirs from the Congregational, Baptist and Universalist churches sang Phebe's hymn to the tune MOUNT VERNON by Lowell Mason (finally, a historical record of a tune!).  She later published it in the closing chapter of her best-selling biography of Lincoln.

Six Years Ago: Phebe Hanaford

Five Years Ago: Phebe Hanaford

Three Years Ago: Phebe Hanaford

Monday, May 4, 2015

Rest, Noble Martyr!

On this day in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was buried in Springfield, Illinois, 19 days after he died on the morning of April 19. It was the culmination of a grand commemoration of the murdered leader that began with the informal procession of mourning that accompanied his body from the boardinghouse (across from Ford's Theater) where he died, back to the White House. Hundreds followed along the streets of Washington on that day, and in the weeks to come thousands would come to see the funeral train that traveled from the capital to Springfield, and to pay homage as they filed past the body that lay in state in several cities along the route.

There were many musical tributes along the way, including some original works.  On this last day 150 years ago, the ceremonies around the interment included the hymn Children of the heavenly King (perhaps not including all those stanzas listed at the Cyber Hymnal), an anthem with words set to the Dead March from Handel's oratorio Saul, and a chorus from Mendelssohn's oratorio St. Paul. George Root composed another funeral anthem: Farewell, Father and Friend.  The final hymn sung was also an original text written for the occasion by the Reverend Dr. Phineas D. Gurley, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, where the Lincolns worshipped.

Rest, noble Martyr! rest in peace;
Rest with the true and brave,
Who, like thee, fell in Freedom's cause,
The nation's life to save.

Thy name shall live while time endures
And men shall say of thee,
"He saved his country from its foes,
And bade the slave be free."

These deeds shall be thy monument,
Better than brass or stone;
They leave thy name in glory's light,
Unrivaled and alone.

This consecrated spot shall be
To Freedom ever dear;
And Freedom's sons of every race
Shall weep and worship here.

O God! before whom we, in tears,
Our fallen Chief deplore;
Grant that the cause for which he died
May live forevermore.

Phineas D. Gurley, 1865
Tune: DUNDEE (C.M.)
Scottish Psalter, 1615

The hymn was concluded with a generic doxology stanza, presumably in the same meter. I have yet to find any reference to the specific tune that was sung, even in a recent doctoral thesis entitled The Mystic Chords of Memory: Musical Memorials for Abraham Lincoln. The information may exist in a contemporaneous newspaper account, but history often records only the titles of hymns sung at historic occasions without telling us the tune.  The text was certainly published in newpapers at the time and so the hymn may have been sung in other places

Dr. Gurley was not, apparently, a close friend of Abraham Lincoln, but he was the President's pastor, and had assisted at the funeral of the Lincolns' son Willie in 1862. He was among the people at the President's bedside when he died, he conducted the White House funeral on April 19th, and accompanied Lincoln's casket along the funeral train route to take part in the Springfield ceremonies, including the final benediction after his hymn was sung.  Some time after the end of the initial mourning period he publicly admitted that he thought it unfortunate that Lincoln had gone to the theater on Good Friday to see a comedy.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

All Will Then Be Well

It's already the second Sunday in Lent and you may find that the hymns in your church this season are a little more dreary.  Not all hymns for the season are like that but many are, especially, it seems, the Lenten hymns that have survived in most hymnals.

Some churches choose to emphasize the example of Christ's whole life on earth, his teaching and his acts of mercy and healing, during Lent rather than on the stricter themes of penitence and sacrifice.  Of course, there are many hymns that go along with these ideas.  I found today's hymn in the Lenten section of an Episcopal children's collection, Hymnal with Music for Children (1887) and tracked down a more complete version of the text, choosing five of the several stanzas.

Sing of Jesus, sing forever
Of the love that changes never;
Who, or what from Christ can sever
Those he makes his own?

Jesus, with his love has bought us;
When we knew him not, he sought us,
And from all our wand’rings brought us;
His the praise alone.

Though we pass through tribulation,
Christ will be our consolation,
Ours will be a full salvation;
All will then be well.

Through the desert Jesus leads us,
With the bread of heaven feeds us,
And through all the way he speeds us
To our home above.

There the saints have lasting treasure,
There they sing with endless pleasure,
There their joy will know no measure,
In that final day.

Thomas Kelly, 1814; alt.
German melody, 19th cent.

Four Years Ago: Saint David

Six Years Ago: Thirsting for a living spring

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Conversion of Saint Paul

By all your saints still striving,
For all your saints at rest,
Your holy name, O Jesus,
Forevermore be blessed!
For those passed on before us,
We sing our praise anew
And, walking in their footsteps,
Would live our lives for you.

Praise for the light from heaven,
Praise for the voice of awe;
Praise for the radiant glory
The persecutor saw.
And, God, for his conversion
We magnify your Name;
So change our misconceptions
With your true Spirit's ray..

We pray for saints we know not,
For saints still yet to be,
For grace to bear true witness
And serve you faithfully,
Till all the ransomed number
Who stand before the throne
Ascribe all power and glory
And praise to God alone.

Horatio Bolton Nelson, 1864; alt.
Tune: NYLAND (

Finnish melody

Six Years Ago: We sing the glorious conquest

Four Years Ago: The great Apostle, called by grace