Hymn Stories

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Parts 1 and 2

What is singing all about? Paul tells us in Ephesians 5 to be “filled with the Spirit, speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Since ages past, God’s people have enjoyed singing as a way of expressing their worship and supplications to Him.

There are several songs in the Old Testament that illustrate this. Moses stood on the shore of the Red Sea, looking back at the mighty waters and seeing the Egyptians lying dead on the shore. “Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Lord, and spake, saying, I will sing unto the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea” (Ex 15:1). Deliverance causes one to sing.

Another interesting account is found in Numbers 21:16-18. “And from thence they went to Beer: that is the well whereof the Lord spake unto Moses, Gather the people together, and I will give them water. Then Israel sang this song, Spring up, O well; sing ye unto it: The princes digged the well, the nobles of the people digged it, by the direction of the lawgiver, with their staves.” Here God’s people used song to commemorate a very memorable occasion. The joy brought forth by the water was expressed in song, and the people remembered the event every time they sang it.

God’s people, through faith, can express their hope even before it is experienced. “And they rose early in the morning, and went forth into the wilderness ... and as they went forth, Jehoshaphat stood and said, Hear me, O Judah, and ye inhabitants of Jerusalem; Believe in the Lord your God, so shall ye be established; believe his prophets, so shall ye prosper. And when he had consulted with the people, he appointed singers unto the Lord, and that should praise the beauty of holiness, as they went out before the army, and to say, Praise the Lord; for his mercy endureth for ever. And when they began to sing and to praise, the Lord set ambushments against the children of Ammon, Moab, and mount Seir, which were come against Judah; and they were smitten” (2Chron 20:20-22). These people waited on God and saw His glory revealed in the victory He brought to pass.

What do Christians sing? The verse quoted in the beginning says, “Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” The book of Psalms was the Hebrew songbook, and we still sing some of them today, modified slightly and set to our music, but still the same songs the Children of Israel sang thousands of years ago. That in itself is another point of why we sing. Singing is an excellent way to join in collective worship, not just with our local congregation, but with saints of the ages.

Hymns are songs addressed to God, whether songs of worship, supplication, or thanksgiving. These songs tend to be slower, deeper, and more meditative, with fewer choruses and less repetition. While they are often not as exciting or challenging musically, they are the backbone of our worship in song.
Spiritual songs are songs that talk about God and our relationship with Him. They tend to be lighter and perhaps easier to sing, but a continual use of only this kind of music tends to produce shallow worship experiences with less emphasis on devotion and discipleship.

We mentioned being connected with the worship of the saints of the ages. We sing the song “Shepherd of Tender Youth,” written by Clement of Alexandria in the third century. The “Ambrosian Hymn of Praise” and “O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright” were written by Ambrose of Milan in the fourth century. That these hymns endure today is a testimony to the majesty of their message and the glory of the God they praise.

While Mennonites have produced few prolific songwriters, there are a few hymns that have interesting stories behind them. “I Owe the Lord a Morning Song” was written by a Mennonite minister, Amos Herr. At home one Sunday morning, the roads being snow-covered too deeply to reach church, even on horseback, he spent his time pondering on the goodness of God. We mortals tend to become disturbed when our plans are thwarted; but see how Amos uses words like gratitude, praise, mercies, safe-keeping (he did have a safe, warm house) to express his thanksgiving. The song ends with a prayer, “Keep me, till Thou wilt call me hence.”

John S. Coffman was a leader in the early Mennonite revival movement. He conducted many “protracted meetings,” as they were called. Feeling a need for more evangelistic songs, he penned the words to the invitation song, “Oh, Weary Wanderer Come Home.” One evening at the close of a week of meetings, John saw a young man named Daniel Kauffman in the audience. He knew the young man was under conviction but so far had not responded. At the end of the service, the invitation was given. Daniel sat with bowed head but would not yield. The invitation was over. John waited a few moments and then softly began to sing, “Oh, weary wanderer, come home; thy Savior bids thee come.” As the song neared its end, Daniel found the courage to come forward. Daniel became a prominent leader in the church and edited the book, Doctrines of the Bible.

One of the more touching hymn stories is the one behind the writing of a fairly new song. Young Geoffrey Martin enjoyed music. An acquaintance asked him to write music to a poem he had written, so he did. When Geoffrey was eighteen years old, he was asked to have devotions one Sunday morning. He made several remarks on “Time.” Just a few weeks later he was killed in a car crash. Going through his Bible, his father (John D. Martin) found the notes he had used. Taking them, he wrote the words to the song, “Muse, O My Soul.” The music is the same music Geoffrey had written earlier.

More than a few of the great hymns we sing were born out of great suffering. One of our classic hymns of consecration, “Have Thine Own Way, Lord,” was written by Adelaide Pollard, a forty-some-year-old, single woman. Adelaide had wanted to be a missionary to Africa, and things seemed to moving that direction, when she received word that her financial backing had not materialized and she could not go. Greatly discouraged, she attended a prayer meeting one evening where she heard an elderly lady offer this simple prayer: “It really doesn’t matter where or how, Lord, just have your way with our lives.” Miss Pollard realized that her struggles were because she wanted to have her own way in her life. Surrendering her will to God, she walked home with a much lighter heart. There she opened her Bible to the book of Jeremiah and read the account of the potter and the vessel. As she meditated on this story, she saw herself as that vessel, and before going to bed, she had written the four stanzas of this song. She did become very active in missionary work, and eventually did find her way to Africa, but it was in God’s timing, not hers.

“Now Thank We All Our God” stands as a monument of thanksgiving in the midst of suffering. The city of Eilenburg, Germany, was a walled city; and during the Thirty Years War in the early 1600’s, it attracted many refugees from around the area. Because of severe overcrowding, without sufficient food or medical help, the city became a city of sickness, suffering, and death. Martin Rinkart was the only pastor left alive in the city, but he bravely carried on, ministering and encouraging those about him. In one year, it is said, he buried over 4,000 people, including his wife, conducting as many as forty-five funerals a day. Eventually the dead were buried in mass graves, as there simply wasn’t time or man-power to dig individual ones. Toward the end of the war, the city was overtaken by the Swedish army. When the general demanded an exorbitant ransom, Martin was chosen as the spokesman to explain that there was no way the people could pay, and to plead for mercy. The general was unmoved by Martin’s pleas, whereupon Martin called to his people, “Come my children, we can find no mercy with man, let us take refuge with God.” He then led them in prayer and in the singing of a familiar hymn. When the people arose, the general announced that he would spare them, and he gave them no further trouble. Martin realized, as this hymn expresses, that everything we enjoy is a gift from God, and that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Ironically, some of the songs we sing were written in response to great theological debates of the time. One of the earmarks of the Second Great Awakening was an emphasis on religious fervor. John Greenleaf Whittier was not impressed. As a devout Quaker, he felt that worship was better expressed in quiet meditation and service. He composed a poem called “The Drinking of the Soma,” in which he compared the hysterical emotional fervor of the day with the effects of an intoxicating drink produced in India. Consumed as part of the Hindu’s worship rituals, it produced wild frenzies of excitement and delirium in its drinkers. This poem’s seventeen verses contain the words to our song, “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind,” in which are the words “re-clothe us in our rightful minds, in purer lives Thy service find, in deeper reverence praise.”

“Rock of Ages” was written in the heat of an even fiercer dispute. John and Charles Wesley were preaching the importance of revival and obedience both in expressing our salvation and as the way to being totally sanctified. A young Anglican minister, Augustus Toplady, was at first attracted to their doctrine, but remained strong in his insistence that salvation and sanctification both were only through the work of Christ. As the story goes, Augustus, caught by a sudden thunderstorm while on an afternoon walk, took refuge under a huge rock. There is such a rock, and the story may be true but has never been totally substantiated. Certain it is, however, that Jesus Christ is the Rock of our Salvation, and while under it we are safe, and many have been the weary pilgrims who have found refuge there.

Part 2 of 2
Some of our songs have come to us by a rather interesting route. “How Great Thou Art” was first written in Sweden, translated into German, then into Russian. Stuart Hine, who is credited as the author of the hymn we sing, was an English missionary to the Ukraine, and he used the song with its first three verses quite heavily in his ministry. When World War II broke out, he and his wife returned to Britain, where he worked with the many refugees who fled there. It was their question, “When can we go home?” that led him to compose the fourth verse of this song. Even then, the song did not catch on until 1955, when the Billy Graham crusades started using it. “The song begins on earth and ends in heaven, carrying the worshiper from creation with all its beauty and splendor to the Creator in all His majesty.” It is this uplifting quality of both message and music that has made this hymn a favorite of congregations around the world.

And not all the hymns we love have come to us from sources we would expect. Martin Luther was a
deeply religious man who is credited for starting the Reformation in Germany in 1517. Looking back on his life, we see many failures and even doctrinal errors. Martin never repudiated infant baptism, and also helped to crush the peasant revolts in Germany in the 1500’s. But as a family man, he wrote “Away in a Manger” for his children to sing. He also gave us the song, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” According to Heinrich Heine, this song was sung by Luther and his friends as they entered the Diet of Worms. Whether this story is true or not—there are other versions of how the song came to be—it is certainly inspiring to imagine Luther singing that song, then taking the position he did: “Here I stand, I can do no other. May God help me.”

We sing “Faith of Our Fathers” with a certain air of possessive familiarity, looking back with great appreciation at our martyr Anabaptist heritage. There is one small catch: Frederic Faber, the author, was an English Catholic, and the song was written as he recalled the persecution of his ancestors in England at the hands of the Protestant king, Henry VIII. Regardless of its origin, the challenging message of the song rings clear to us today. Our fathers were willing to die for the faith that we take for granted. Let us rise to the challenge.

Christmas songs are often used merely to retell certain aspects of the birth of Christ. In reality, many of them are quite full of deep, Scriptural truths. Sing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and count the truths of who Christ really is. Christ as Intercessor, the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation, and Redemption are all themes that Charles Wesley has included in this song. Look at songs like “O Word of God Incarnate” or “Thou Didst leave Thy Throne.”

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” was written by Phillip Brooks as a song for the children to sing in a Christmas program at his church. It too is full of meaningful teaching, but the beauty of this song, to a music-lover, lies in its tune. Lewis Redner was the church organist assigned the task of composing a tune for the song. Try as he might, nothing seemed to work. The night before the program, he rose from sleep with a beautiful melody ringing in his head. He quickly got up and wrote the notes down before he forgot them. The next day he composed the harmony and taught the new song to the children, in time for the program!

We often hear expressed the concept that our music should mirror or enhance the words we sing. Did you know that occasionally the words mirror the music? One day a man named William Doane visited Fanny Crosby. William was an old friend who had written music for a number of Fanny’s songs. “Fanny,” he said, “I have a piece of music that needs words.” He sat down at the piano and began to play. “Why!” cried Fanny, “that sounds like ‘Safe in the Arms of Jesus.’” She left the room, returning about thirty minutes later with the completed song in her hands. This song is also an example of music that inspires at multiple levels. While it is clearly describing the refuge we face today in the struggles of life, it is often used as a funeral song to describe the time when these temptations and struggles can no longer reach us. Another interesting feature of many Fanny Crosby songs is her frequent use of the word see. Here she says, “wait till I see the morning break on the golden shore.” There is nothing unusual in this, except that Fanny was blind. Her faith gave her hope for a time when she would see. And what did she most want to see? Her Savior. Read or sing the beautiful song:

When my life work is ended and I cross the swelling tide,
When the bright and glorious morning I shall see;
I shall know my Redeemer when I reach the other side,
And His smile will be the first to welcome me.

One other songwriter needs to be mentioned. Francis Ridley Havergal as a child was obsessed with being “good enough” for Jesus, but as a young woman, she had overcome that fear and enjoyed her relationship with Him, even to the point of turning down several marriage proposals to spend more time in service for Him. One day she stopped in at her teacher’s study and saw on the wall a picture of Jesus with the words under it, “I gave my life for thee, what hast thou done for Me?” This so impressed her that she wrote a poem by that title. Upon its completion, however, being unimpressed with her work, she crumpled the paper and threw it into the fire. The paper hit a log and bounced out onto the floor without burning. She picked it up and showed it to her father, and he encouraged her to have it published. On another occasion, she spent a week visiting with ten of her friends, not all of whom in her opinion were saved, at least not totally committed to Christ. Her prayer that week was that God would use her to lead them to Him. That prayer was answered, and out of this experience came the song, “Take My Life, and Let It Be.”

While many songs do have a dramatic background, some simply come from the daily musings of a dedicated Christian. Carrie Breck was a housewife and mother, too busy to concern herself with much outside her home. In her pocket, however, she kept a piece of paper on which she would scribble pieces of poetry as they occurred to her. Over a period of several days, while doing dishes and laundry, she jotted down a poem expressing her love of and anticipation for Jesus Christ, her Savior. But the story does not stop there. She showed her pieces of poetry to Grant Tullar, an acquaintance who was somewhat a musician. Grant had just finished a piece of music for another poem, but he did not care for the words or the combination. He sat down, and when the tune and the poem were put together, they matched perfectly. Today we sing “Face to Face With Christ, My Savior” in the same spirit of anticipation as could inspire a busy young housewife.

The songs we sing have meaning because so many of them come out of great spiritual struggles, and because they express such great truths. Let none of us ever feel that singing is unsatisfying or unfulfilling. What better way do we have of expressing the truths that mean so much to us?

There is another great aspect of singing that we have saved for last. Revelation 15:2-3 says, “And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire: and them that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name, stand on the sea of glass, having the harps of God. And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, Great and marvelous are thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints.”

What a song service that will be! We do not know who the song leader will be. We don’t know just how large that chorus will be. We do know that there will be no theological debates, no disappointment or sorrow, no homesickness for heaven, only perfect praise—forever. Let us all be there.

~ Myerstown, PA
February 2015