McFarlin Hymn Blog

Welcome to our new McFarlin Music Ministries Hymn Blog! Each week we will discuss the history of one of the hymns we’ll sing for the coming Sunday.

The”Tips for Studying Hymns” (found below) breaks down all the important information on each page of the hymn and (more important) how to understand it. Use it as a companion guide for studying the hymns!

Tips for Studying Hymns *click to expand*

A “Note” about Hymns and Tunes (…get it?)

Quick Tip:

On the sheet music for hymns, notice the bottom of the page. There’s a wealth of information crammed into the bottom of each page:

    • the authors of the text
    • the tune name for that hymn
    • often an alternate hymn with the same melody
    • related hymns on a similar topic

Organist geek-out time:

A tune name, as we’ll learn about later, was assigned a word related to the text of the hymn.

For example,

    • #369 “Blessed Assurance” has the simple tune name of “Assurance”
    • #157 “Jesus Shall Reign” has a tune name of “Duke Street,” the street on which the composer lived.

The letters or numbers underneath the tune name indicate all of the hymns with which that text can be sung, based on the poetic meter of the text.

An example would be the text of #117 “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” being sung to the tune of #378 “Amazing Grace,” as they both fall under the CM Index (Common Meter, 86.86, meaning eight syllables-six syllables followed by eight syllables-six syllables).

Who Knew?

Well, church musicians, for one. Maybe some of you, as well!

We rarely have a chance to talk about this kind of stuff – so, in-between forgetting what day it is and your next Netflix binge, why not learn a little about the music of our faith?


Oct. 15, 2020

John Morrow, Associate Director of Music Ministries/Principal Organist

SHEET MUSIC: #140 “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” (UMC Hymnal)

21 This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope.

22 It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.

23 They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.

24 The Lord is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him.

– Lamentations 3: 21-24, KJV

Do you ever sing or hum to yourself around the house or at work? Perhaps your music comes out in the form of half-scribbled poetry that you write to yourself on a piece of notebook paper. Though we don’t know for a fact that Thomas O. Chisholm was a musician, we know that he was a poet and writer. He was born in Franklin, Kentucky, and his family lived in an old-fashioned log cabin. He didn’t have the means or the connections to obtain a formal education – yet, Tom loved to write. Wise in thought and speech, he became a paid member of the Franklin Advocate newspaper staff after turning 21 years old.

By 1893, at the age of 27, Thomas had been reached by the evangelical teachings and revivals of Henry Clay Morrison, who had helped begin Kentucky’s Asbury College and Seminary. It was Morrison who helped Thomas move to Louisville, Kentucky, and land a job as editor of the Pentecostal Herald news. Yet, what we know of Thomas is that he remained drawn into the ministry further, and he graduated seminary in 1903 to be ordained as a pastor in the Methodist Church.

The storms of life, though, are unpredictable. We cannot prepare for tragedy, and we know it doesn’t come from God. After his first appointment in Scottsville, Kentucky, Thomas became deathly ill. While there is no exact description of his illness, we can imagine that it may have been something that was recurring and that continued to aggravate his immune system time and time again. Advised to take a different profession and spend some time recovering from his illnesses, he moved with his family to Winona Lake, Indiana, where he did nothing but rest and write poetry and essays. In 1916, Thomas was offered the opportunity to support his family as an insurance salesman in New Jersey, and he took that job for the rest of his life, all the while writing in his spare time.

It would seem then that Chisholm’s ministry was over. He had served briefly and that was all. His life reached no other consequence and affected no other change. So, now we’ve reached the end of the story. Thanks for tuning in and see you on Thursday!

That is never how the story ends, even if it’s all that we can see at the moment. God works, even in times of anguish, in mysterious ways that we could never fathom. God’s love is a wonderful mystery that we only just begin to behold in this life.

As it would turn out, Thomas Chisholm had a friend who was a musician and who lived in Chicago, Illinois, William Runyan. Runyan worked with both the Moody Bible Institute and Hope Publishing Company, one of the global publishers of Christian sacred music. Thomas sent him the text to one of his poems, which he called “Great is thy faithfulness.” Runyan wrote back to Chisholm that:

“This particular poem held such an appeal that I prayed most earnestly that my tune might carry over its message in a worthy way, and the subsequent history of its use indicates that God answered prayer. It was written in Baldwin, Kansas, in 1923, and was first published in my private song pamphlets.”

One of Runyan’s private song pamphlets, Songs of Salvation and Service (1923), was used in Chapel services at the Moody Bible Institute. “It went rather slowly for several years,” Thomas wrote of the hymn. He heard nothing of its usage, or of any other songs of his. Several years later, the president of the school, Dr. Willard H. Houghton, began to incorporate it more frequently into the Institute’s services, often saying, “Well, I think we shall have to sing ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness.’” That’s how hundreds of graduates would become acquainted with the song, and it would become the “unofficial school hymn” of the Institute.

Another young musician studying at the Houghton College in New York, George Beverly Shea, learned the song at school and incorporated it into his touring with Rev. Billy Graham and the Billy Graham Crusades of the 20th Century (We’ll cover a lot more about Graham, Shea, and their impact on Methodism in a future post on “How Great Thou Art.”). The hymn was first sung by Shea in 1954 in England and quickly became a hit of the crusades, which helped take the piece across the world.

Here is a recording of Shea crooning out the hymn:

The hymn remains a favorite in England to this day – here is a recording of it being presented in a cathedral service in 2010: 

Would Thomas Chisholm ever have imagined his hymn essentially “going viral” some 31 years after he sent it to Dr. Runyan? Several other hymns by Chisholm (O To Be Like Thee and Living For Jesus, both of which are in UMC musical publications) would go on to be incorporated into the hymns of our faith.

While the former Evangelical United Brethren Church had published it in their hymnals, the Methodists had not formally claimed the hymn in their official hymnal. As the United Methodist Hymnal committee revised and updated our hymnal at the end of the 20th Century, Great is Thy Faithfulness was the second-most requested hymn to be included in the updated hymnal, second only to In the Garden. A Discipleship Ministries survey in 2000 found that it “remains one of the favorite hymns among United Methodists,” and surely it has a word to offer to each of us.

As noted by author William J. Reynolds, a different translation of James 1:17c reads:

“Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation due to a shadow of turning.”

We are creatures of habit. Many of us probably have a morning routine – isn’t it interesting how we often grow weary after a long day, and the next day may seem even longer? Or the days in which a small change in your routine seems to cause everything about the day to go downhill? This hymn, the scriptures upon which it is based, and the life of Thomas Chisholm, remind us of some consistent truths: God is with us, always, through every circumstance; God’s will never tires; and the hope and light that come from above will forever pour into our humanity — it is persistent, through every season of life, our one enduring peace.

Enjoy Cece Winans’ delicate and yet powerful rendition of today’s hymn, sung in this beautiful duet with her mother, Delores “Mom” Winans: 


Take My Life, and Let it Be | Sept. 17

Sept. 17 | Take My Life, and Let it Be

John Morrow, Associate Director of Music Ministries/Principal Organist

Sheet Music: #399 Take My Life, and Let it Be (UMC Hymnal)

“So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”

            Romans 12: 1-2, The Message translation by Eugene Peterson

The author and poet Frances Ridely Havergal had a personal witness to this idea of being changed from the inside out – she began memorizing Biblical passages at the age of four and writing and composing her own stories and verses at the age of seven.  Born in 1836 in the English countryside, her life would see the reign of Queen Victoria, the “last large-scale armed rebellion against authority in mainland Britain,” and the call for universal suffrage across the United Kingdom (not to mention the French Revolution, the war for independence of Mexico, the United States Civil War, and the height of the British Eat India Company’s reign, just to name a few important historical guideposts).  The incredibly slow but ever present march toward justice and equity for all men and women would give Frances a voice in hymnody, which is (still) an incredibly male dominated field. 

Raised by a clergyperson within the Anglican church, she grew up hearing and learning about music and sacred writings before she began memorizing them at such a young age.  She learned “several modern languages as well as Hebrew and Greek….[and] she was a singer of some note and known as an accomplished pianist.”  In her own words from a journal in December 1873, we hear the account of our hymn today:

“I went for a little visit of five days [to Areley House]. There were ten persons in the house, some unconverted and long prayed for, some converted, but not rejoicing Christians. He gave me the prayer, “Lord, give me all in this house!” And He just did. Before I left the house every one had got a blessing. The last night of my visit after I had retired, the governess asked me to go to the two daughters. They were crying, etc.; then and there both of them trusted and rejoiced; it was nearly midnight. I was too happy to sleep, and passed most of the night in praise and renewal of my own consecration; and these little couplets formed themselves, and chimed in my heart one after another till they finished with ‘Ever, Only, ALL for Thee!'”

Frances continued in her description of her hymn process, saying that “hymn-writing is praying…for I never seem to write even a verse by myself, and I feel like a little child writing: you know a child would look up at every sentence and say, ‘And what shall I say next.’”

Carlton Young of the United Methodist Church Hymnal Revision Committee shared that the hymn was always a favorite of the church of his childhood (of which his father was a pastor).  He remembers the particular text, “Take my silver and my gold; not a mite would I withhold,” being sung often at the end of the fiscal year, as early commitment Sundays began to take form. 

McFarlin celebrates this commitment on All-Saint Day, as we remember the history and steadfast support that they have given to McFarlin in efforts to change lives that change the world through and with Christ’s love. 

“Take My Life and Let it Be” became a part of the UMC Hymnal in 1881, and was edited down to three verses in the 1905 Hymnal Revision.  The original verses, set to a slightly shorter hymn tune, repeated the last part of the verse; the hymnal revision committee extended the tune slightly (set by Louis J.F. Herold and arranged by George Kingsley in 1839, and called Messiah).  They combined verses, so verse one in our hymnal is actually Frances’ verses one and two; but, they did a great job of ensuring that we still got all of the original text, even if in a slightly different format.

Havergal wrote to a friend in 1878 “The Lord has shown me another little step, and, of course, I have taken it with extreme delight.  ‘Take my silver and my gold’ now means shipping off all my ornaments to the church Missionary House…I don’t think I ever packed a box with such pleasure.”  Frances earned the informal title of the “consecration poet,” as she “attempted to live a life fully consecrated to Christ and to those she saw in any physical or spiritual need.”  We are grateful for her continued legacy today.

Read some of Frances’ sacred poems here:

Listen to some of the renditions of “Take My Life, and Let it Be” below:

The Traditional Rendition of the hymn, as found in the UMC Hymnal, sung and played at First Methodist Houston, Downtown Campus:

 

A more contemporary arrangement of the text set to a different tune from the UMC Hymnal (we know it from the hymn “Ask Ye What Great Thing I Know”): 

 

A slightly different hymn tune, more common in the Episcopal Church, as sung in service at Washington National Cathedral:

 

An arrangement for Mixed Choir:

Thanks for reading, and see you next week!

Here I Am, Lord | Sept. 10

Sept. 10 | Here I Am, Lord

John Morrow, Associate Director of Music Ministries/Principal Organist

Sheet Music: #593 Here I Am, Lord (UMC Hymnal)

“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying,

‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’

And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’”

Isaiah 6:8

Today’s hymn is the memorable Here I Am, Lord, with text and music by composer Daniel L. Schutte.  Schutte studied in St. Louis and earned both a Masters in Divinity degree at the Jesuit School of Theology and Graduate Theological Union Seminary in Berkeley, California.  He had certainly crossed paths with John Foley, author of One Bread, One Body, and the music arising from this era, and out of Second Vatican Council.  This group of composers from St. Louis were responding musically to Vatican II, hoping to “promote cultural awareness” in the Catholic Church and coming out of the Counterculture movements during and after the 20th Century Civil Rights Movement, the Watergate Scandal, the horrors of World War II, assassinations of prominent leaders, and the Vietnam War.  From these unthinkable events, all happening within roughly the same 35 year time span, the Church Universal found itself unable to coherently respond.  Vatican II helped shape not only the Roman Catholic Church response, but that of almost all mainline traditions and faiths. 

As we learned earlier in the summer:

“This new focus on the things that unite Christian denominations – and extending that unity to other faiths, as well – led to the creation of such groups as the St. Louis Jesuits (Jesuit composers who had studied together or crossed paths in St. Louis). This focus appeared in musical form primarily in two ways. One was stylistically, in form of simple melodies refrains with sing-able rhythms and texts. The second was instrumentation, which had more use of percussion and guitars, reflecting a modern sound on ancient and sacred notions.”

Schutte wrote Here I Am, Lord in 1981, and it was adapted in our hymnal by UMC Hymnologist Carlton Young in 1988 for inclusion in the 1989 hymnal, becoming “one of the most popular hymns” included in this new collection.  The song also goes by its first line as a title (I, the Lord of Sea and Sky).

Young writes that Schutte’s arrangement of the text:

“contrasts the Hebrew psalmic transcendent characterization of God…with compelling prophetic and pietistic themes of the caring God who is intimately involved in the struggles of the poor and oppressed and is concerned for the well-being of each member of the human family – the witness of that struggle and concern being those, like Isaiah, who positively respond to the call.”

The hymn shifts between the verse – “I, the Lord of sea and sky” – in which we hear the voice of God in the first person singular, to the voice of the refrain – “Here I Am, Lord; is it I, Lord?” – the voices of the congregation and God’s people.  Writer C. Michael Hawn points out that in the hymn, “…each stanza reflects a paradox. The powerful God, creator of “sea and sky,” “snow and rain” and “wind and flame” is also the God who hears the “people cry,” bears the “people’s pain” and “tend[s] the poor and lame.”

The “transformation” of the people who walked in darkness seeing a great light; the melting of “heart of stone” through the act of love; and a reference to feeding and providing for the hungry – not only physically, but spiritually through the ritual of Communion. Hawn also notes:

“Each stanza ends with the question, ‘Whom shall I send?’ Rhetorical questions are very common poetical devices in Christian hymnody, but this is not one of them. The refrain immediately offers the response, ‘Here I am, Lord.’”

In the Methodist Church, we use it as a song of commitment and sending forth.  It can have “light folk or pop rhythmic accompaniment” added, and have a variation of who is singing verses (cantor, soloist, women, men, etc.) and the entire congregation singing together on the refrain.  It is a fantastic hymn that connects believers across faiths and generations, through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in song.

Enjoy these renditions of the hymn, and sing along from home on Sunday while we join together in worship.  It might seem hard to sing from home without the congregation – but in all actuality, it’s not that scary.  A hymn is a prayer or expression of praise with rhythm and pitch.

National Youth Choir of Scotland:

The composer, Daniel Schutte, accompanied by strings, piano, and chorus: 

Open My Eyes That I May See | Sept. 4

Sept. 4 | Open My Eyes That I May See

John Morrow, Associate Director of Music Ministries/Principal Organist

Sheet Music: #454 Open My Eyes that I May See (UMC Hymnal)

“Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things from Your law.” – Psalm 119:18

“The Lord opens the eyes of the blind; the Lord raises those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous.” – Psalm 146:8

Clara H. Scott, born 1841, has a strong legacy of hymn writing and composition.  She attended the first C.M Cady Music Institute in Chicago in 1856, and taught music at a “Ladies’ Seminary” in Lyons, Iowa (I believe that would just be called “seminary.”)  Clara wrote for the 1882 publication The Royal Anthem Book, which was the “first volume of choir anthems published by a woman.”

A famed church musician of his day, Horatio Palmer encouraged Clara to keep writing, despite living in a world in which female composers are given far less attention and recognition than they are due.  Through his connections, he ensured that three of her collections of original hymns were published in Chicago.  Clara Scott’s life ended far too early – in 1897, a “runaway horse caused a buggy accident…[leading to her untimely death]” while visiting friends and family in the “Mississippi town of Dubuque, Iowa.”

Our hymn today came to Clara in 1895, two years before that accident.  Each verse of Open My Eyes That I May See reveals a different sense – eyes, ears, mouth, and mind.  Interestingly, there is a fourth verse that is left out of the UMC Hymnal:

“Open my mind that I may read More of Thy love in word and deed.

What shall I fear while yet Thou dost lead?  Only for light from Thee I plead.

Silently now I wait for Thee, Ready, my God, Thy will to see.

Open my mind, illumine me, Spirit divine!”

To put a spin on one of our Methodist slogans – open hearts and open minds are the keys to opening doors.  This hymn speaks to that imagery.  C. Michael Hawn comments on the images of open eyes, ears, mouth, and heart:

“The image of open eyes I common in the Bible…Christ’s healing power, as when Jesus gave sight to the blind man at the pool of Siloam…[and closed eyes] could be matephor for avoiding the truth… “He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart…Matthew often reprises the theme “Who hath ears to hear, let him hear” …[and] the mouth has the capacity to project.” 

Hawn also quotes Psalm 51:15: “O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall show forth thy praise.”  Finally, Jesus reminds us that the heart “has the capacity for purity: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God’ (Matthew 5:8).”

I agree with Dr. Hawn that the “gentle 6/8 meter…provides a subtle sense of dancing in tune with the Spirit.”  Scott’s hymn books, Truth in Song for Lovers of Truth and her unfinished Short Anthems have echoed her ability to write hymns well for her time, and to provide several that have lived on through the years and found their way into our hymnal.  The UMC Hymnal Revision Committee of 1966 renamed the tune “Scott,” in honor of the composer and author of the text. 

Here is a Barbershop Quartet version of the hymn, with added harmonies and interludes, by “The Heralds”:

An almost “romanticized” (in terms of style) arrangement with full orchestra: 

Finally, a more traditional setting of the hymn with organ (note their non-use of the fermatas, or “holding” of a note longer than normal at the end of the verse.  The fermata looks like a bird’s eye, and you can find it in our hymnals at the end of each verse and two bars before the end of the chorus.  That’s why we always hold those notes out a bit, in case you have ever wondered!  Listen for it this Sunday during the Sanctuary Service online.) : 

O Worship the King | Aug. 26

Aug. 26, 2020 | O Worship the King

John Morrow, Associate Director of Music Ministries/Principal Organist

Sheet Music: #73 “O Worship the King” (UMC Hymnal)

“Bless the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent, you set the beams of your chambers on the waters, you make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind, you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers. You set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never be shaken. You cover it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. At your rebuke they flee; at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.”

Psalm 104: 1-7

Composer and poet Robert Grant grew up in present day Mumbai, India, where he served as a member of Parliament, a judge, and a governor.  His family from Scotland, Grant’s father Charles was a “leader in the evangelical wing of the Church of England and also played an active civic role with William Wilberforce in the emancipation of African slaves in the British Empire.”  He did not write many hymns, but his words here are greatly influenced by the influential writers of the day. 

First appearing in 1833, O Worship the King serves as a “good example of the impact on hymnody of the new search for poetic standards which [Reginald] Heber so strongly promoted,” according to English hymnologist Erik Routley.  Heber is famous for his mission work and serving as Bishop of Calcutta (now Kolkata) for the Church of England, but also for his style of poetic texts in hymns, such as with “Creator of the Stars of Night” and, most famously, the beloved text for Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty.  His style typified the Romanticism found in the early 19th Century.

Robert Grant’s final edition of today’s hymn appeared in the book Sacred Poems, which was compiled by his brother Glenelg in 1839.  Hymnologist Carlton Young points out the hymns strikes a balance between “King” and language that shifted “his” to “God’s,” and the “nonsexist deity metaphors, ‘Shield,’ ‘Ancient of Days,’ ‘Maker,’ ‘Defender,’ ‘Redeemer,’ and ‘Friend.’…[the Methodist hymnal] includes the first five of the original six stanzas.”

The music is attributed by British hymn scholar and composer William Gardiner as “Subject Haydn,” leading to speculation of whether the tune originated off of a theme of Franz Joseph Haydn or his brother, Johann Michael Haydn.  It was first seen in Gardiner’s 1815 edition of Sacred Melodies from Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, accompanying the hymn “O Praise ye the Lord, Prepare a new song.”  Before long, the tune existed in hymnals and sacred songbooks in the United States, one in 1818 and one in 1822, attributed to early American hymnodists Oliver Shaw and Lowell Mason.  The UMC 1878 hymnal first combined Grant’s text with this music, to great success.

The sixth stanza by Grant, left out of our hymnal for being somewhat musically difficult to sing and several instances of archaic language, reads:

“Oh measureless Might – Ineffable Love;

While angels delight – to hymn Thee above,

The humbler creation, tho’ feebler their lays,

With true adoration shall [sing] thy praise.”

The original intent of the final phrase by Grant should read as “to pronounce imperfectly” – we will try our best to produce worship fitting of the Almighty, even through our imperfection and mistakes.  We are reminded yet again to strive for perfection in our worship and our daily walk with God, while at the same time giving ourselves the grace that God so freely shares with all.

Listen to the following examples of O Worship the King, and feel free to sing along from home:

This edition, from the Pilgrim Mennonite Mission Choir: 

A mix of folk and contemporary styles by the Collingsworth Family:

This less-traditional arrangement by Chris Tomlin:

And, this performance of the hymn text with a different musical tune, Hanover This is from the BBC’s production of “Songs of Praise,” a long-standing musical series they produced on favorite hymns: 

I Want To Walk As A Child of Light | Aug. 20

Aug. 20, 2020

John Morrow, Associate Director of Music Ministries/Principal Organist

#206 “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light (UMC Hymnal)

“I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations.” Isaiah 42:6

This week’s hymn may strike you as a surprising choice for song at the end of the summer – this is a hymn traditionally of the Advent season – but really, the text is not prohibitive for use in any one season.  Kathleen Thomerson was born in 1934 in Tennessee, and wrote the hymn I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light in 1966 while visiting the Church of the Redeemer in Houston, Texas (this is honored in the tune name for the hymn, HOUSTON).  The hymn first came to be published in the Episcopal Hymnal supplement Songs of Celebration (1980).  Russell Schulz-Widmar, an editor of the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 Companion, listed the hymn as one of “contemporary folk-music – the kind of music that evolved in the 1960s and 1970s.”  It was praised by all faiths, and continues to be lifted up as a song that stands apart of the newer volume of hymns that are being written in contemporary culture.  Another editor wrote in the same edition that it is “a good example of the heights to which [contemporary folk-music hymns] can be brought….It has a tender pathos and loveliness that has made it a popular addition to the repertoire.”

An accomplished musician, Thomerson studied music professionally across the U.S. and at the Flemish Royal Conservatory as an organist and composer.  She served as an organist for many universities and churches across the Christian faith, from Lutherans to Episcopalians to Methodists.

Part of the popularity and appreciation for such a folk hymn is its simplicity – the chorus is by nature repetitive, but Thomerson has written the verse to be very similar (the first and third stanzas are almost identical, adding only a note because of an added word to the phrase).  A song’s “singability” is important in a culture where it is easier to put in the headphones and not participate actively in the music.  Music should be the great communicator, a uniting force across cultures and time periods, styles and languages – and Thomerson has given us just that in this American folk hymn.

Another key factor to this hymn is its linguistic references and placement.  Her scriptural usage is abounding; besides the aforementioned scripture from Isaiah, we also have references to the following, as referenced by Dr. Carlton Young:

“But for you who revere my name and the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing it its wings” – Malachi 4:2

“And let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us” – Hebrews 12:1b

“For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.  Live as children of light.” – Ephesians 5:8b-9a

“And there will be no night there…They need no light of lamp or sun.” – Revelation 21:25b & 22:5b

Infusing scripture with the first person language of “I/we” creates an automatic sense of active involvement from the opening lines of the hymn (“I want to follow…I want to look…I want to be with Jesus”).  The text serves as a prayer for each person who hopes to “walk in the ways that lead to life” and in the light of God.

It’s an easily over-used phrase – to talk about being the “light,” but accompany that phrase with zero actual change in our day to day lives – so it is important to remember daily that “Sun of Righteousness” that shows us “the way to the Father.”  The warmth that you feel when you close your eyes and, among the silence of another summer day, feel the rays of the sun shine upon your face?  That metaphor is strikingly beautiful – the only eyes that ever truly see and understand us, like those rays upon our skin, are the eyes of Jesus.  Being the active “Light of the World” is a sacred, serious privilege, and like anything, it takes work.  We will undoubtedly make mistakes.  But in doing the work, we are making the conscious decision to try our best to stay on the path and walk into the light.

Dr. C. Michael Hawn of Perkins School of Theology at SMU puts it this way:

“The simplicity of the music and text does not imply a simplistic faith. “I want to walk as a child” reminds us of one of the paradoxes of our faith, that we need to become as a child to fully understand the realm of God (Matthew 18:2-4).”

Enjoy this rendition of our hymn today, and remember that we start “The Walk” with McFarlin this Sunday:

This is not our hymn today, but it is an absolutely crucial hymn to listen to when we talk and sing about walking in the light.  Enjoy “Walk in the Light” by The Gaither Homecoming Choir and soloists Jessy Dixon and Guy Penrod, as well as a separate edition by Aretha Franklin:

 

Come Thou Fount | Aug. 6

Aug. 6, 2020

John Morrow, Associate Director of Music Ministries/Principal Organist

#400 “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” Sheet Music

“Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah, and named it Ebenezer; for he said, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” 1 Samuel 7:12

The plans in store for Robert Robinson were far from what he could have imagined as a young man.  At a young age, his father passed away, and in the inescapable grief that followed, Robinson’s mother sent him to England to attend a boarding school and eventually work as an apprentice to a barber.  He fell in with a crowd of people that hymnologists Kenneth Osbeck and C. Michael Hawn report as being “a notorious gang of hoodlums…[living] a debauched life,” falling into a circle of heavy drinking.  At the age of 17, he and a group of friends went to a fortune-teller, and whatever was said at the meeting scared Robinson into contemplating his eternal fate.  It rattled him enough that he was able to talk his friends into attending a revival meeting of the legendary Anglican Priest turned evangelical Methodist, Rev. George Whitefield.  Whitefield was a close friend of Charles and John Wesley at the University of Oxford, and it was their combined efforts that would of course launch the denomination of Methodism.

As Robert and his friends listened to the charismatic Whitefield, he first quoted Matthew 3:7:

“But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘Brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’” Whitefield suddenly burst into tears, screaming, “Oh, my hearers!  The wrath to come!  The wrath to come!

Sufficiently scarred, Robinson felt as if Whitefield was preaching directly to something within his spirit, and kept the memory of that event in his mind for several years.  In 1755, he professed a faith in Christianity, and entered the ministry in the Calvinist Methodist Church of Norfolk, England.  On Pentecost Sunday in 1758, Robert sought to find the words for an original hymn to share with his congregation, one that would serve as a “prayer that the Holy Spirit flood into our hearts with His streams of mercy.”  The words came to him through study and prayer, and he penned the quintessential hymn of our faith, Come, Thou Fount

Some of the language is archaic (Ebenezer = Hebrew word for “Stone of Help,” raised to signify God’s guidance for the Israelites; fetter = a chain used to bind prisoners) The United Methodist Hymnal Revision committee for the 1989 Hymnal tried their best to find words to replace some of this language and remain true to Robinson’s initial meaning, but simply could not find the words.  My own opinion has shifted on this from several years ago – why not take the opportunity to learn what these words mean?  After all, young rabbis in the days of Jesus would have to memorize the Torah and commentaries on the Torah, and have full interpretations of the text to share with their teachers and mentors. Perhaps we can learn a few new words each week.

Robinson’s words are auto-biographical, but also written in the midst of great cultural upheaval in England and around the world.  The newest English colonies across the Atlantic were beginning to show the earliest signs of resistance from the Crown; and the Church of England was feeling a resistance of those leaving for Methodist, Calvinist, and Baptist denominations.  “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love” is a cry for God’s will to ultimately reign supreme in each of our hearts, not that of the individual or even of a particular sacred or secular organization.

As was common with many “new” Methodist and Baptist hymns at the time, they first came to widespread publication and recognition in the many tent-revivals of the era.  The supplemental songbooks printed during these times would meld together familiar folk and cultural melodies of the people being proselytized to, and the credit for Come, Thou Fount has gone to Ahasel Nettleton, though there is not evidence to prove whether he or another composer he worked with was responsible for this folk-like tune.  It first appears in John Wyeth’s 1813 Repository of Sacred Music, Part Second.

Carlton Young, in his UMC Hymnal Companion, writes that it was common at the time for the folios to leave out a verse to keep hymns somewhat concise (at revivals, many hymns were sung and the preaching could go on for hours).  He “laments the omission” of Robinson’s final verse, as he feels that “it eliminates the apocalyptic climax of the author’s invitatory prayer to the Holy Spirit.”  For reference, here is Robinson’s final verse:

O that Day when freed from sinning,
I shall see thy lovely Face;
Clothed then in blood-washed Linnen [sic]
How I’ll sing thy sovereign grace;
Come, my Lord, no longer tarry,
Take my ransom’d Soul away;
Send thine Angels now to carry
Me to realms of endless Day.

 Enjoy each of these versions of Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing!

A traditional choral-orchestral offering of Come, Thou Fount, arranged by Mack Wilberg and performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  This is one of the most beloved arrangements of Wilberg, a longtime director for the “MoTab” Choir: 

An upbeat, contemporary arrangement by worship leader Charlie Hall and his colleagues.  I love the imagery and personal connection of people gathering to sing around the table, and he’s written a catchy, repetitive chorus to start the piece, as well as moving the hymn into a lilting 6/8 time signature (instead of the typical 3/4) : 

An acoustic, simple arrangement by Americana folk musician Sufjan Stevens: 

Will the Circle Be Unbroken? | July 27

July 23, 2020

John Morrow, Associate Director of Music Ministries/Principal Organist

Hymn Blog – “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”

You remember songs of heaven

Which you sang with childish voice.

Do you love the hymns they taught you,

Or are songs of earth your choice?

“McFarlin began a new tradition two years ago to celebrate hymns of many denominations not published in the United Methodist Hymnal, provoking a “Sunday evening revival” sentiment during worship.  There was one song I distinctly remember having trouble finding – “What hymnal is Will the Circle Be Unbroken even in?”

I’m glad you asked!

Although history is somewhat scarce on details of their meeting and collaboration, our song today comes from Ada Habershon and Charles Gabriel.  Poet and hymn writer Ruth Ada Habershon worked in close circles with Charles Spurgeon during his Northeast revival tour, and the esteemed musician Charles H. Gabriel penned the music for hymns like His Eye Is On the Sparrow, I Stand Amazed in the Presence, and Away in a Manger.  At some point in the first decade of the 20th Century, they met – whether via letter correspondence or at one of the many religious revival meetings sweeping the country – to put together the song Will the Circle Be Unbroken.  It was published in 1907 in a hymn folio that was used in many types of religious services, similar to our McFarlin Summer Hymnals.  There is a similarity in the language of the hymn to what is referenced through liturgical and ritual Shaker round dances and many Native American tribes’ view of the natural world: the imagery of connection through the continuity of the circle.

The song quickly became well loved across tent-revival meetings and church services for its gospel style and relatable message of mourning those we have lost.  It’s popularity began in the heartland of the country, as Gabriel was based in Iowa, and the Northeast, where Habershon was located.

Here is the text that Habershon wrote for Gabriel’s tune (also located in the hymn PDF):

There are loved ones in the glory
Whose dear forms you often miss.
When you close your earthly story,
Will you join them in their bliss?

CHORUS:
Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, by and by?
Is a better home awaiting
In the sky, in the sky?

In the joyous days of childhood
Oft they told of wondrous love
Pointed to the dying Saviour;
Now they dwell with Him above.

(Chorus)

You remember songs of heaven
Which you sang with childish voice.
Do you love the hymns they taught you,
Or are songs of earth your choice?

(Chorus)

You can picture happy gath’rings
Round the fireside long ago,
And you think of tearful partings
When they left you here below.

(Chorus)

One by one their seats were emptied.
One by one they went away.
Now the family is parted.
Will it be complete one day?

(Chorus)

At this point, you may be thinking – those aren’t the correct words!  Hang on…we’re getting to that.

The extraordinarily talented Carter Family, led by A.P. and Sara Carter, traveled the country in the early 20th Century to share American folk music:

“A.P. Carter traveled around collecting and adapting gospel numbers, old-time ballads and sentimental songs, and brought them back to his wife Sara and her cousin Maybelle.  Sara played autoharp, Maybelle combined melody and rhythm on guitar and both sang, with A.P. occasionally chiming in. When they put their spin on a hymn called “Can the Circle Be Unbroken,” the record was their biggest seller of 1935.”

The Carter Family noticeably changed the verse text of the song to tell a specific, relatable story through their rendition of the song.  They also have a couple of meter changes, where you feel the words and music shift quickly (ex. V.1 “hearse come rolling for to” or the first chorus “home a-waiting in the sky” – you can hear these in the recording below).  Here is their text:

I was standing by the window
On one cold and cloudy day
And I saw the hearse come rolling
For to carry my mother away

CHORUS:

Can the circle be unbroken
By and by, Lord, by and by
There’s a better home a-waiting
In the sky, Lord, in the sky

Lord, I told the undertaker
Undertaker, please drive slow
For this body you are hauling Lord
I hate to see her go

(Chorus)

I followed close behind her
Tried to hold up and be brave
But I could not hide my sorrow
When they laid her in the grave

(Chorus)

Went back home
Lord, my home was lonesome
Miss my mother she was gone
All my brothers, sisters crying
What a home so sad and lone

(Chorus)

Here’s the original 1927 Recording of the Carter Family trio’s rendition:

Carlene Carter, daughter of June Carter Cash, wrote that the song’s meaning changes for everyone over time.  For her, the song began as more “celebratory” – until the death of her mother; now, she says that she feels “closer to my people and to my legacy of family when I sing that song.”

The song quickly became a force and message of protest – will the “circle” of inequality and mistreatment of any one of God’s people be “unbroken,” or will it be met with forming the challenge of the “better home a-waiting”?  In the midst of the Civil Rights movement, the song was sung in marches, meetings, and churches across the country.  It was noted in one oral history of the movement as being sung from “from the murder of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi in 1955 to the battle of Selma, Alabama ten years later.”  In 1960, it was recorded by notable R&B group and family The Staple Singers.  Listen to them here:

In the 1970s, the hymn again found itself in a new environment when it was adopted by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a young group of the “country-rock community” that emerged in Southern California in 1966.  During one of their tour concerts in Nashville, famed bluegrass musician Earl Scruggs came backstage to meet the band after their concert, and helped connect them further to musicians that would join the band in recording their first studio album, like Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, Doc Watson, Roy Acuff, Emmylou Harris, Jimmy Martin, Ricky Skaggs, and John Denver.

Founding member of the band Jeff Hanna said the music brought together not only generations of musicians collaborating and creating old music in a new way, but it brought people together:

“The war was raging in Vietnam right then,” he recalls, “and there was a lot of peace marches going on — the hippies versus the rednecks. There was a lot of these sides that just did not trust each other. Hearing folks tell us stories like, ‘I hadn’t talked to my dad in years, and we sat down and this record became a bonding point for us’…That’s deep stuff. “

Here is the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s performance of the song, in this recording joined by members of the Gaither Vocal Band:

In 1988, American folk singers Cathy Winter, Betsy Rose, Marcia Taylor, and Terry Dash wrote a new set of lyrics to the tune, published in Rise Up Singing: The Group Singing Songbook, in the spirit of the song and its history:

I was born down in the valley where the sun refused to shine
but now I’m climbing – up to the highlands – Gonna make all those mountains mine.

Will the circle be unbroken, by and by Lord by and by.
There’s a better way to live now, we can have it if we try.

That sentiment is unique – instead of just stating “by and by, in the sky,” we are challenged with the idea of what Wesley might have referenced alongside his justifying grace: we are saved by faith, through grace – and, in Wesley’s words, “…is it not incumbent on all that are justified to be ‘zealous of good works?”  The work of the church is to change lives that change the world – to work every day in order to bring about the kingdom of God to the earth.  The mothers and fathers of the song text are biological, adopted, and spiritual: what legacy do you leave on the lives of others?  This song reminds us of our charge to keep the circle unbroken for future generations through the perfect, unending reaches of God’s grace, connecting each of us to the saints who have gone on before us.

Today, we might add:

Every day I hear my mother,
There, my father, I can see,
Friends and loved ones, draw the circle –
Sing for you, and sing for me.

One Bread, One Body | July 30

July 30, 2020

John Morrow, Associate Director of Music Ministries/Principal Organist

#620 “One Bread, One Body”

“3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.” ~ Romans 12: 3-8

This week, we turn to a wonderful example of a modern hymn that has begun to stand the test of time. Written in 1978 by Dr. John B. Foley, One Bread, One Body became a popular hymn for cross-cultural ecumenical services, a reminder that Christian denominations represent the same faith. Foley was a Jesuit priest who wrote a good deal of newly composed Catholic liturgical music in the late 20th century. He was a member of what became known as the “St. Louis Jesuits,” which was a group of composers within Catholicism from 1970-1985, the purpose of which was to provide a contemporary musical response to the Second Vatican Council.

In that very spirit of ecumenism, let’s take a moment to remember that the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) was announced by Pope John XXIII to promote a cultural awareness by the Catholic Church in the middle of a global cultural shift and at the conclusion of the horrors of the Holocaust and the Second World War. Rev. John W. O’Malley of Georgetown University stated that a key point of the council was reconciling actions of the past with the modern era; for example, a decree cancelling the excommunications that created the Great Schism between the Roman and Orthodox churches in 1054. O’Malley said that the Council “ … allowed for Catholics to pray with other Christian denominations, encouraged friendship with other non-Christian faiths, and opened the door for languages besides Latin to be used during Mass. Other new positions concerned education, the media, and divine revelation.”

This new focus on the things that unite Christian denominations – and extending that unity to other faiths, as well – led to the creation of such groups as the St. Louis Jesuits. This focus appeared in musical form primarily in two ways. One was stylistically, in form of simple melodies refrains with sing-able rhythms and texts. The second was instrumentation, which had more use of percussion and guitars, reflecting a modern sound on ancient and sacred notions. Another classic hymn born of this movement was the 1981 ecumenical hymn “Here I Am, Lord,” #593 in the UMC Hymnal, another up-and-coming favorite of the 21st Century Methodist Church.

Listen to it here, sung by the National Youth Choir of Scotland:

First appearing in the collection of new music Wood Hath Hope of 1978, Foley used for inspiration the text of Romans above, alongside several other examples:

  • 1 Corinthians 10: 16-17: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”
  • Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
  • The whole of 1 Corinthians 12 is a discussion of the members of the body, and the important individuality of each member coupled with the power of gathering as the body of Christ.
  • Dr. C. Michael Hawn of Perkins’ School of Theology points out that the third verse somewhat quotes the early writings of the Christian Didache (The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles), of 50-120 C.E., believed to have originated in the Church of Antioch, Syria. This influence comes from Chapter 9:4 of the Didache:
    • “We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You made known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom.”
    • (Side note: UMC Hymns #563 and #565 are inspired by this same poetic paraphrase: “Father, We Thank You.”)

In these ways, we are drawn not only into communion of the bread and the juice, but also into the communion of saints and believers as part of a communal and ceremonial ritual. Melding the “folk-like melodies and memorable refrain” of the era, with a simple poetic interpretation of the aforementioned biblical and theological texts, has led to a new and lasting hymn. The author, John Foley, said that the hymn has two great strengths:

“One Bread has been so popular, I think, because it expresses the unity of Christians through the ages and throughout the world. This unity is founded, of course, on Jesus’ directive to eat his body and drink his blood — a startling concept, but a deep symbol of unity. The other reason, it would seem, is the pace of the music, which matches the walking speed of people on the way to and from Communion.”

Episcopal priest Rev. Carl P. Daw Jr. was the Executive Director of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada from 1996 to 2009, and Curator of the Hymnological Collections in the School of Theology Library at Boston University. He has written that the hymn stands the test of time due to its continued relevance in the face of constant division:

“All these biblical allusions combine to support the hymn’s central affirmation that the Lord’s Supper symbolizes and effects Christian unity despite the diversity of the church’s members. This is a radical and countercultural proclamation in the midst of social and political pressures to distinguish and solidify affinity groups along lines of race ethnicity, gender and income” (Daw, 2016, 529, Correspondence with C. Michael Hawn).

Listen to the initial ballad rendition of One Bread, One Body here (before you snicker, remember, it was the 80s!): 

This communion song, Psalm 34 (Taste and See), is sung by the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. It is a new and strophic form (repetitive text on the same music) of musical response, which doesn’t live in any hymnals – yet. Remember, that’s what was said about One Bread, One Body in 1977. Try to sing the chorus, which is repeated several times (estimate: 400). “Magnify the Lord with me; come exalt his name forever.”

THOUGHT FOR CONSIDERATION: What songs are in your hymnal? What songs would you add to our communal worship books? I’d absolutely love to hear from you; email jmorrow@mcfarlinumc.org and share with us favorite hymns/new additions that help carry you through times of distress (perhaps in the time of a pandemic, for instance).

Thanks for reading, and see you next week for Come Thou Fount!

Will the Circle Be Unbroken? | July 23

July 23, 2020

John Morrow, Associate Director of Music Ministries/Principal Organist

Hymn Blog – “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”

You remember songs of heaven

Which you sang with childish voice.

Do you love the hymns they taught you,

Or are songs of earth your choice?

“McFarlin began a new tradition two years ago to celebrate hymns of many denominations not published in the United Methodist Hymnal, provoking a “Sunday evening revival” sentiment during worship.  There was one song I distinctly remember having trouble finding – “What hymnal is Will the Circle Be Unbroken even in?”

I’m glad you asked!

Although history is somewhat scarce on details of their meeting and collaboration, our song today comes from Ada Habershon and Charles Gabriel.  Poet and hymn writer Ruth Ada Habershon worked in close circles with Charles Spurgeon during his Northeast revival tour, and the esteemed musician Charles H. Gabriel penned the music for hymns like His Eye Is On the Sparrow, I Stand Amazed in the Presence, and Away in a Manger.  At some point in the first decade of the 20th Century, they met – whether via letter correspondence or at one of the many religious revival meetings sweeping the country – to put together the song Will the Circle Be Unbroken.  It was published in 1907 in a hymn folio that was used in many types of religious services, similar to our McFarlin Summer Hymnals.  There is a similarity in the language of the hymn to what is referenced through liturgical and ritual Shaker round dances and many Native American tribes’ view of the natural world: the imagery of connection through the continuity of the circle.

The song quickly became well loved across tent-revival meetings and church services for its gospel style and relatable message of mourning those we have lost.  It’s popularity began in the heartland of the country, as Gabriel was based in Iowa, and the Northeast, where Habershon was located.

Here is the text that Habershon wrote for Gabriel’s tune (also located in the hymn PDF):

There are loved ones in the glory
Whose dear forms you often miss.
When you close your earthly story,
Will you join them in their bliss?

CHORUS:
Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, by and by?
Is a better home awaiting
In the sky, in the sky?

In the joyous days of childhood
Oft they told of wondrous love
Pointed to the dying Saviour;
Now they dwell with Him above.

(Chorus)

You remember songs of heaven
Which you sang with childish voice.
Do you love the hymns they taught you,
Or are songs of earth your choice?

(Chorus)

You can picture happy gath’rings
Round the fireside long ago,
And you think of tearful partings
When they left you here below.

(Chorus)

One by one their seats were emptied.
One by one they went away.
Now the family is parted.
Will it be complete one day?

(Chorus)

At this point, you may be thinking – those aren’t the correct words!  Hang on…we’re getting to that.

The extraordinarily talented Carter Family, led by A.P. and Sara Carter, traveled the country in the early 20th Century to share American folk music:

“A.P. Carter traveled around collecting and adapting gospel numbers, old-time ballads and sentimental songs, and brought them back to his wife Sara and her cousin Maybelle.  Sara played autoharp, Maybelle combined melody and rhythm on guitar and both sang, with A.P. occasionally chiming in. When they put their spin on a hymn called “Can the Circle Be Unbroken,” the record was their biggest seller of 1935.”

The Carter Family noticeably changed the verse text of the song to tell a specific, relatable story through their rendition of the song.  They also have a couple of meter changes, where you feel the words and music shift quickly (ex. V.1 “hearse come rolling for to” or the first chorus “home a-waiting in the sky” – you can hear these in the recording below).  Here is their text:

I was standing by the window
On one cold and cloudy day
And I saw the hearse come rolling
For to carry my mother away

CHORUS:

Can the circle be unbroken
By and by, Lord, by and by
There’s a better home a-waiting
In the sky, Lord, in the sky

Lord, I told the undertaker
Undertaker, please drive slow
For this body you are hauling Lord
I hate to see her go

(Chorus)

I followed close behind her
Tried to hold up and be brave
But I could not hide my sorrow
When they laid her in the grave

(Chorus)

Went back home
Lord, my home was lonesome
Miss my mother she was gone
All my brothers, sisters crying
What a home so sad and lone

(Chorus)

Here’s the original 1927 Recording of the Carter Family trio’s rendition:

Carlene Carter, daughter of June Carter Cash, wrote that the song’s meaning changes for everyone over time.  For her, the song began as more “celebratory” – until the death of her mother; now, she says that she feels “closer to my people and to my legacy of family when I sing that song.”

The song quickly became a force and message of protest – will the “circle” of inequality and mistreatment of any one of God’s people be “unbroken,” or will it be met with forming the challenge of the “better home a-waiting”?  In the midst of the Civil Rights movement, the song was sung in marches, meetings, and churches across the country.  It was noted in one oral history of the movement as being sung from “from the murder of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi in 1955 to the battle of Selma, Alabama ten years later.”  In 1960, it was recorded by notable R&B group and family The Staple Singers.  Listen to them here:

In the 1970s, the hymn again found itself in a new environment when it was adopted by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a young group of the “country-rock community” that emerged in Southern California in 1966.  During one of their tour concerts in Nashville, famed bluegrass musician Earl Scruggs came backstage to meet the band after their concert, and helped connect them further to musicians that would join the band in recording their first studio album, like Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, Doc Watson, Roy Acuff, Emmylou Harris, Jimmy Martin, Ricky Skaggs, and John Denver.

Founding member of the band Jeff Hanna said the music brought together not only generations of musicians collaborating and creating old music in a new way, but it brought people together:

“The war was raging in Vietnam right then,” he recalls, “and there was a lot of peace marches going on — the hippies versus the rednecks. There was a lot of these sides that just did not trust each other. Hearing folks tell us stories like, ‘I hadn’t talked to my dad in years, and we sat down and this record became a bonding point for us’…That’s deep stuff. “

Here is the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s performance of the song, in this recording joined by members of the Gaither Vocal Band:

In 1988, American folk singers Cathy Winter, Betsy Rose, Marcia Taylor, and Terry Dash wrote a new set of lyrics to the tune, published in Rise Up Singing: The Group Singing Songbook, in the spirit of the song and its history:

I was born down in the valley where the sun refused to shine
but now I’m climbing – up to the highlands – Gonna make all those mountains mine.

Will the circle be unbroken, by and by Lord by and by.
There’s a better way to live now, we can have it if we try.

That sentiment is unique – instead of just stating “by and by, in the sky,” we are challenged with the idea of what Wesley might have referenced alongside his justifying grace: we are saved by faith, through grace – and, in Wesley’s words, “…is it not incumbent on all that are justified to be ‘zealous of good works?”  The work of the church is to change lives that change the world – to work every day in order to bring about the kingdom of God to the earth.  The mothers and fathers of the song text are biological, adopted, and spiritual: what legacy do you leave on the lives of others?  This song reminds us of our charge to keep the circle unbroken for future generations through the perfect, unending reaches of God’s grace, connecting each of us to the saints who have gone on before us.

Today, we might add:

Every day I hear my mother,
There, my father, I can see,
Friends and loved ones, draw the circle –
Sing for you, and sing for me.

Amazing Grace | July 16

July 16, 2020

John Morrow, Associate Director of Music Ministries/Principal Organist

#378 UMC “Amazing Grace”

Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
was blind, but now I see.

In the entire history of modern hymnody, there is perhaps one hymn that receives a universal recognition from backgrounds and cultures of all kinds, and that hymn is Amazing Grace.

The author, Anglican pastor John Newton, worked as a slave trader for England, which speaks to the depravity of the human condition at this time. He was converted into the church, and in so doing, became an ardent abolitionist, now putting his own life into the public sphere in order to restore justice to the lives of enslaved Africans. Although it is found in the hymnal “On the Progress and Changes of the Spiritual Life,” which Newton co-authored with English poet William Cowper, the powerful combination of words and music was written by Newton for a New Year’s Day service on January 1, 1773.

READ: Newton’s own notes from the sermon that day are available for perusal (thank you to C. Michael Hawn for sharing)

He wrote about himself, asking who he was as a human being: “Miserable … rebellious … undeserving … . What just cause of admiration, that he (God) should appoint such salvation, in such a way in favour of such helpless, worthless creatures.”  It is evident that the “wretch” in our hymn today was Newton himself, and all of humanity – what kind of God would be willing to love and save those who have committed such horrendous acts of cruelty to another one of God’s creatures?

Every week, Newton wrote his sermons up in his attic, in the quiet stillness. He almost weekly penned a hymn or poem in order to “amplify the message of his sermons.” Author Steve Turner writes that when Newton “put the internal rhyme ‘amazing grace’ together, it wasn’t purely for poetic reasons.  He [personally] understood grace to mean God’s unmerited favor to lost souls.” 

LISTEN: Singer Judy Collins’ version of Amazing Grace.  It starts so simply, and eventually adds a resounding chorus of voices.

That familiar tune, listed as “New Britain” underneath the hymn, comes to us by way of a voice instructor from South Carolina in 1835. A leading musician of the shape-note movement, William Walker published and authored the beloved Southern Harmony, in which “the tune that we now sing … was married to the words of John Newton.” Referencing the research of Steve Turner in Amazing Grace: The Story of American’s Most Beloved Song, we see that the spread of American “religious revivalism” in the 1800s helped popularize the hymn across the entire country. It was referenced in Uncle Tom’s Cabin by abolitionist and author Harriet Beecher Stowe as “an indictment of plantation life and slavery … the collective trauma of the Civil War helped to solidify the song’s popularity.”

LISTEN as R. Carlos Nakai of the Navajo-Ute tribe plays the melody on Native American flute. Note the mellow and calming tones of the flute: 

Alphonse Vinh, reference librarian for National Public Radio, writes that gospel singers such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson sang the song to “affirm the Christian faith – and it became a fixture at funeral services … [then] in the turbulent 60s, folk singers such as Joan Baez and Pete Seeger attached it to the civil rights movement … and Judy Collins’ and Aretha Franklin’s efforts turned it into a successful pop standard.”  The song has been recorded over 1,100 times so far – and will live on for ages to come. 

Turner wrote in his 2001 history of the hymn:

“I was well into the writing stage on September 11, 2001, after which “Amazing Grace” became the song that people turned to most often to express their faith, hope, and solidarity. One of the most poignant images of the shock and grief was that of people of all ages joining hands or linking arms and softly singing the words … . The song was used at church services, memorial gatherings, tribute concerts, and funerals. It was played on Manhattan’s Fourteenth Street by a Salvation Army ensemble as volunteers loaded trucks and supplies for helpers at Ground Zero. Pipers from the NYPD piped it at the commencement of the Prayer for America service held at Yankee Stadium. Red Cross workers sang it at the site at Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where United Airlines Flight 93 had plunged into a field after its hijackers were apparently overwhelmed by courageous passengers” (Turner, xxvii).

Music has that gift to define a feeling in ways that words will always fall short. The meaning behind Amazing Grace is powerful in that way – for each of us, it is a reminder of how far we have come on the human journey, and how connected we are through the mystical combination of the text and tune.  We are divided and disgraced, barraged by human suffering and striving to respond in appropriate, responsible ways.

Conversations and communication have been replaced with Facebook scrolling and “a lot of people are saying” kind-of talk. Only grace – God’s prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying work through the Holy Spirit – will lead us “home.” My prayer is that this song strangely warms our hearts, and opens each of us to a further call to love in action.

WATCH and LISTEN to the singer Andrea Bocelli, blind from the age of 12, sing on the steps of Duomo Cathedral, Milan on Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020 as the world was only entering the first few months of the ongoing global pandemic:

LISTEN as the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, only 29 years old, returns to the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in 1972, where she recorded a gospel album against the advice and wishes of her recording studio, successfully incorporating the prevalent call-and-response style of an African-American church choir. She sings here with the Rev. James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir: (Read more about the history of that recording and its re-premiere in 2019)