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?


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)

 

 

Shall We Gather At the River | July 9

July 9, 2020

John Morrow, Associate Director of Music Ministries/Principal Organist

Hymn Blog – #723 UMC “Shall We Gather At the River”

“And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb.” ~ Revelation 22:1

The river – this symbol of constancy of purpose, new life, and the simple healing and cleansing of water – flows throughout our faith, is often found in our music. Classic hymns and songs of our faith talk about going “down to the river to pray,” or laying down our burdens to study war no more “down by the riverside.” One of my favorites comes from artist Nina Simone in her beautiful, earnest song, “Take me to the water to be baptized” (more on that later). These songs find company in the 1864 hymn, “Shall We Gather at the River.”

Robert Lowry pastored churches across the East Coast of the United States in the mid-late 1800s. Born in Philadelphia, he frequented West Chester, PA, New York City, and Plainfield, New Jersey, and was bestowed an honorary Doctorate in Divinity in 1875 from the University at Lewisburg in Pennsylvania. Lowry became more popular for his hymns and hymn texts than his preaching, after setting several hymns for Fanny J. Crosby, the beloved hymnodist, including “What can wash away my sins? / Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” He found an artistic colleague and co-author in William H. Doane while serving at a church in Brooklyn, and the duo would go on to create some incredibly popular “Sunday school song collections of [their] day.”

READ: Check out Doane and Lowry’s 1881 “Good as Gold” assembled hymn book, which includes popular hymns of that time as well as their own music. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and click “Full View.” 

Notice: there is no music included, only suggested tunes or sometimes poetic meters. This allowed for broader usage across denominations, and also reminds us that most people could probably recognize a hymn and be ready to sing a new text just by hearing the tune name. If I said the phrase “Ville du Havre,” how many of you would be ready to sing “It Is Well With My Soul”? We might need to plan a study guide and test on tune names for the future … I digress.

Once again, I find that the author of the text, in this case Robert Lowry, left us a fantastic resource for his inspiring message of gathering at the river:

“One afternoon in July, 1864, when I was pastor at Hanson Place Baptist Church, Brooklyn, the weather was oppressively hot, and I was lying on a lounge in a state of physical exhaustion … . My imagination began to take itself wings. Visions of the future passed before me with startling vividness. The imagery of the apocalypse took the form of a tableau. Brightest of all were the throne, the heavenly river, and the gathering of the saints … . I began to wonder why the hymn writers had said so much about the ‘river of death’ and so little about the ‘pure water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and the Lamb.’ As I mused, the words began to construct themselves. They came first as a question of Christian inquiry, ‘Shall we gather?’ Then they broke in chorus, ‘Yes, we’ll gather.’ On this question and answer the hymn developed itself. The music came with the hymn.”

That beautiful language and persuasive imagery was one of Lowry’s hallmarks of writing, both in the language of sermons and poetry. It explains how the hymn has lived on globally; journalist Jim Willard has noted recently that“Lowry not only created a beloved American hymn, it emerged in Sweden in an 1876 hymn as one of the most popular songs of the Swedish revivalist movement. And in Germany, the melody of the piece became a well-known Christmas carol.”

Interestingly, there was an original fourth verse which Lowry replaced and which has been left out of many hymnals:

At the smiling of the river,
Mirror of the Savior’s face,
Saints, whom death will never sever,
Lift their songs of saving grace.

During this moment in time more than most, we must stop and remember those saints, both living and those who have gone on before us.

REFLECT: Stop and reflect on five people today who changed your life. If you’re able to, reach out to them, check on them, and thank them. The dividends of taking some time to express gratitude to others are without equal.

Dr. C. Michael Hawn of Perkins School of Theology has written that the hymn strongly resonates with the remembrance of our baptism. “In rural communities throughout the Southern United States,” Hawn writes, “congregations practice baptism by immersion in a lake or river, ‘At the River’ has often been associated with the sacrament of baptism. Congregations meet by a riverbank and sing this song as they gather at the water. The biblical precedent of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River enriches this ritual.”

May we remember our baptism and the saints of our lives, that speak not only of the river of heaven but of the faith that connects us all across time and space.

Made famous by American composers Charles Ives and Aaron Copland is this edition, simply titled “At the River,” from Copland’s set entitled Old American Songs: 

As we reference and remember our baptism, I feel it necessary to include the “High Priestess of Soul,” Nina Simone, and her original “Take Me to the Water,” premiered in 1966:

Enjoy this stirring rendition of today’s hymn by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir: 


Works Cited

Hawn, C. Michael. “History of Hymns: ‘Shall We Gather at the River.’” Discipleship Ministries, 22 May 2013, https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-apocalyptic-vision-leads-to-famous-19th-century-hymn. Accessed July 9, 2020.

Willard, Jim. “Trivially speaking: ‘Gather at the river’ for the story behind the song.” Loveland Reporter-Herald, 2 April 2020, https://www.reporterherald.com/2020/04/02/trivially-speaking-gather-at-the-river-for-the-story-behind-the-song/. Accessed July 9, 2020.

“Hymns, Canticles, & Acts of Worship.” Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal, Carlton R. Young, Abingdon Press, 1993, pp. 592 -593.

“Shall We Gather at the River?” Then Sings My Soul, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 203, pp. 152 – 153

Lift Every Voice and Sing | June 25

June 25, 2020

John Morrow, Associate Director of Music Ministries/Principal Organist

SHEET MUSIC: #519 “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (UMC Hymnal)

“Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,

Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.   

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

Let us march on ‘til victory is won.”

– Lift Every Voice and Sing, end of Verse 1

What songs do we sing that make you say “I’ve never heard that before!” And when you are unfamiliar with a hymn or its history, how do you react? There are a few options you’re left with, especially in corporate worship:

            1) “I don’t know this new-fangled music that was published in 1900!”  (slams hymnal shut, refuses to participate in worship)

            2) “A new hymn! Interesting, let’s try to learn it together. It’ll probably be a little difficult, but let’s give it a chance. Maybe it will speak new life into the message. I’m sure it was chosen for a reason. Our Bible studies challenge us to new dimensions of faith – why not our hymns?”

            3) “What page are we on?”

Hopefully when we join to sing together, we remain open and willing to learn new songs.  Today’s hymn is found in the United Methodist Hymnal on page 519.  It’s a “two-pager” hymn, so buckle up!

The poet, James Weldon Johnson, puts the history of the hymn and its creation best:

“A group of young men in Jacksonville, Florida, arranged to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday in 1900. My brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and I decided to write a song to be sung at the exercises. I wrote the words and he wrote the music. Our New York publisher, Edward B. Marks, made mimeographed copies for us, and the song was taught to and sung by a chorus of five hundred black school children.

“Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved away from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it; they went off to other schools and sang it; they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country. Today the song, popularly known as the Black National Anthem, is quite generally used. The lines of this song repay me in an elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by black children.”

Can you imagine a “hastily-written composition for an unassuming school assembly” 120 years ago becoming a profound hymn of faith and discernment? James Johnson was asked by one of his hometown school principals to give a short speech to the school in honor of President Lincoln’s birthday. Only 29 years old, he quickly decided that a poem set to his brother John’s music would be the best possible way to express the stirring in his soul at what was, at the time, a segregated school. After all – music is just another way of praying.

Reflect on the act of singing in worship, which we all miss so much at the moment. Why is it so powerful? For one, when groups of people sing together regularly, their heartbeats synchronize to the music (Read Article: Music structures determine heart rate variability of singers). This is a deeper connection that exists in choral groups and congregations of all faiths when they sing together, echoing the truth of expressivity through song that we all know and feel, and positively impacting our neurological state.

Now, take that idea to the next level and meld it with the powerful truth and teachings of Jesus. Music gives us the ability to combine the logical and the philosophical, as John Wesley often reminds us. That’s why this song lives in our hymnals. While James and John Johnson left the song behind when they moved from Jacksonville to New York, its message resonated throughout the South during an era when Jim Crow laws were everywhere. Its popularity never left the Black communities in which it was born, and its truth speaks to us profoundly today of that journey and the journey still to come, lest we forget to learn it.

Its inclusion in the UMC Hymnal was natural, as the Johnson family grew up at Ebenzer UMC in Jacksonville, Florida. Their mother taught them how to read and write music, as she worked as the “first Black female public school teacher in Florida.” 

LISTEN: Lift Every Voice, performed by Exigence Choir, arr. By Joel Thompson and directed by Dr. Eugene Rogers 

The song was pushed further into the fabric of America when endorsed by Booker T. Washington in 1905 and adopted by the NAACP as the organization’s official song. It finally was codified into public sheet music in 1921. English professor Timothy Askew of Clark Atlanta University has said: “Even during days of segregation, there were Southern white churches … who wrote to James Weldon Johnson and who said, ‘We are singing that song you called the black national anthem.’ People in Japan, South America, people around the world, particularly during the ’30s and ’40s, were singing this song.”

Perkins School of Theology Professor of Church Music Dr. C. Michael Hawn writes that “Wendell Whalum, the late choral director at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, often spoke of the progression of the three stanzas as that of praise, lament, and prayer.”

  • Stanza 1: Language of praise and worship, leading to a reminder of the march to eternal victory.
  • Stanza 2: Language of lamenting. Hawn writes that it speaks of the “price of liberty … a string of these words echoing Psalm 130, “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord, hear my voice.”
  • Stanza 3: Language of prayer, leading to the reminder that we must always be kept forever “in the path … true to our God, true to our native land.”

Read: Lift Every Voice and Sing by James Weldon Johnson 

Listen to Aretha Franklin’s rendition, performed at the Fox Theatre in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, in 1993:

Enjoy this more contemporary rendition by the Berklee School of Music Jazz Lab and “We Are The Future” Big Band: 


Bibliography

Hawn, C. Michael. “History of Hymns: ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing.’” Discipleship Ministries, 4 Feb. 2014, www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-lift-every-voice-and-sing.

Johnson, James Weldon. “Lift Every Voice and Sing by James Weldon Johnson.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46549/lift-every-voice-and-sing.

Lindsay-Habermann, Claudette. “Till Victory Is Won: The Staying Power Of ‘Lift Every Voice And Sing.’” NPR, NPR, 16 Aug. 2018, www.npr.org/2018/08/16/638324920/american-anthem-lift-every-voice-and-sing-black-national-anthem.

“Hymns, Canticles, & Acts of Worship.” Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal, by Carlton R. Young, Abingdon Press, 1993, pp. 465–465.

Marching to Zion | June 25

June 25, 2020

John Morrow, Associate Director of Music Ministries/Principal Organist

SHEET MUSIC: #733 Marching To Zion” (UMC Hymnal)

Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God will shine forth.

– Psalm 50:2 (NKJV)

Born on July 17, 1674 in Southampton, England, the solitary yet always faithful Isaac Watts would contribute such prose and music to Christianity through his lifetime that he would become known as the “Father of English Hymnody.” He was a very curious learner from a young age; before he could even put sentences together, Watts would ask for books as gifts. He loved to read and to hear his family tell stories. His father, who had gone to prison several times for his religious leanings, homeschooled Isaac, and by age 13, young Isaac knew Latin, French, Greek, and Hebrew. Apparently, Watts also had “a penchant for rhyming, a talent that drove his father to frustration and exasperation.”

When he moved into a local school, Isaac began moving through grades at a faster rate than most students – so quickly that a doctor in Southampton actually offered to pay for his college education. In keeping with being a strong-willed and independent group of thinkers, the Watts family helped lead the Independent Congregational Church, known as “Dissenters.” They were one of the few groups still allowed to meet that publicly dissented from the Church of England.

The Independent Congregational Church, however, kept the Anglican practice of “metrical psalms, the strict poetic versification of the psalms for congregational singing in worship,” sometimes making it difficult to sing (think of trying to sing a soloistic line of a more contemporary song with a traditional congregation, one that moves up and down quickly, using a lot of irregular text). At age 15, Watts wrote that he was “appalled by the horrendous and lamentable singing in churches …. The singing of God’s praise is the part of worship nighest heaven, and its performance among us is the worst on earth.”

One Sunday while coming home from church, Isaac was sharing his criticism with his father. After listening to his son’s thoughts, he responded: “Give us something better, then, young man.” Thus, Isaac’s love of setting text for worship began. At the time, this was considered revolutionary, due to the restrictions of the Church of England on dissenting churches of thought. To not have songs based on the Psalms of David in the style of the metrical psalter was radical. Nonetheless, Watts’ hymns became beloved by his independent-minded congregation as “hymns of composure.” Watts wrote for the Above Bar Congregational Church for roughly two and a half years, leaving to study further at the age of 20.

Some years later, his poem “Heavenly Joy on Earth,” was published in Watts’ own Hymns and Spiritual Songs, Book II. It was 10 stanzas long, each stanza consisting of four lines.

READ: “Heavenly Joy on Earth,” Isaac Watts, 1707

Interesting note: the second verse rarely is sung in church, but was a direct “gauntlet” thrown down by Watts against the Church of England in the 17th-18th Century:

“The Sorrows of the Mind

Be banish’d from the place;

Religion never was design’d

To make our pleasures less.”

Enter: John Wesley! It so happened that Wesley stumbled upon the poem in the early 18th Century and found its call for a heavenly home on earth unparalleled. He and his brother Charles incorporated it into the Psalms and Hymns, ‘Charlestown’ Collection (1737), one of many books of poems and songs that they helped to publish during their early trips to colonial America.

Two tunes exist in our hymnal today: the first is under the tune name St. Thomas, by Aaron Williams in 1763. Williams, of Wales, was exposed to much of Watts’ poetry. His setting of Watts’ words to a hymn is found on #732 of the UMC Hymnal.

Listen to “Come, We That Love the Lord” as it is sung by the BYU Choirs: 

This iteration of the text “reflects a more stately expression of joy that was typical of British hymn tunes of the time.” It was not until more than 100 years later, in 1867, that a Baptist preacher by the name of Robert Lowry would create a revival-type tune, based on his education in singing schools and Sacred Harp music. Lowry purposefully added repetitive moments of Watts’ original verse (“Join in a song with sweet accord, join in a song with sweet accord, and thus surround the throne, and thus surround the throne”) to make it easier to sing and sway to during revival meetings. Writing during the Civil War to a country in shambles and to hundreds of thousands of freed slaves, Lowry did not mince words in adding his own refrain to the text; this honored Isaac Watts’ vision of “heavenly joy on earth.” Lowry’s music is described by SMU professor Dr. C. Michael Hawn and writer Taylor Vancil as “a proclamation to a community setting out on a journey … the addition of Lowry’s refrain increased the popularity of Watts’ text and enhanced the joyful message of the original text.”

LISTEN to “Marching to Zion” in its early American revival style: 

Watts’ text and Lowry’s music have melded together into one of the most beloved hymns of traditional worship, often recognized outside of the church in pop culture references and appearing in the background of television shows and movies. The Above Bar Congregational Church was destroyed during World War II and the bombing of London – with author Robert J. Morgan noting that the “pastor and caretaker were able to rescue the church records … [and] a bust of Isaac Watts.”

UMC Hymnologist Carlton Young writes that placement of the iterations of the hymn “side by side in our hymnal exemplifies United Methodism’s inured struggle to serve its multiethnic, national, intergenerational, and intercultural constituencies with a single and inclusive worship resource reflecting their diversity of musical taste and worship practices.”

Listen to these further expressions of faith, as told through his remarkable visionary words:

Bishop Carlton Pearson and the AZUSA Mass Choir (skip to minute 2:40 to get to Marching to Zion):

The Davis Sisters’ rendition of this quintessential hymn of our faith: 


Bibliography

Cusic, Don. The Sound of Light: a History of Gospel Music. Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1990. https://rb.gy/uzn66r. Accessed June 12, 2020.

Dawn, C. Michael and Taylor Vancil. “History of Hymns: ‘Come, We That Love the Lord.’” Discipleship Ministries, 05 March 2015, https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-come-we-that-love-the-lord. Accessed June 12, 2020.

“Hymns, Canticles, & Acts of Worship.” Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal, by Carlton R. Young, Abingdon Press, 1993, pp. 302-303.

“We’re Marching to Zion.” Then Sings My Soul, by Robert J. Morgan, Book 2, Thomas Nelson, 2004, pp. 18-19.

Be Thou My Vision | June 9

June 9, 2020

John Morrow, Associate Director of Music Ministries/Principal Organist

SHEET MUSIC: #451 “Be Thou My Vision” (UMC Hymnal)

Thou my best thought, by day or by night –

Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

Too often, it’s possible to relegate the saints and martyrs of our faith to historical anecdotes and forget to remember their stories.  Today we will look at Saint Patrick of Ireland, in conjunction with one of the most beloved hymns in the UMC Hymnal, Be Thou My Vision.

Born in present-day Scotland to a deacon whose father was a priest, Patrick found himself in a family of strong faith. During his adolescence, Patrick’s home was invaded by Saxon pirates, and his entire town was destroyed.  He was enslaved by the pirates, made to be a shepherd in Northern Ireland, and forced into near complete isolation; yet, it was during this time that Patrick gave his life over to God.  He wrote that he prayed 100 times throughout each day and 100 more times every evening. In his words:

            “The Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief…in order that I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God.”

Patrick’s history of faith is historically uncertain at this point: we know that he left behind a series of writings, Confessio, compiled during his six years as a prisoner-shepherd.  The legend of Patrick is that an angel instructed him to search for a ship leaving for his homeland, and that he trekked across 200 miles of land to find his passage home.  Some historians have hypothesized that Patrick may not have ever been kidnapped, but rather was fleeing an appointed position as a Roman tax collector, and chose the life of a sheep-herder instead – meaning that the legend and writings left behind were done so purposefully to paint a much kinder picture of the missionary’s early life.  This makes his future work even more inspiring.

Finally reunited with his family in his old home, Patrick began having visions, including that of an Irish voice calling out in the Gaeilge language: “We beg you, holy [one], to come and walk again among us.”   And thus, Patrick the Missionary was born.  He returned to “the emerald isle,” and became the first Christian missionary among the pagan Druids.  He is credited with the establishment of 200 churches and the baptism of 100,000 people. 

One evening before Easter in what is believed to have been the year 433 CE, the High King Logaire of Tara had issued a proclamation that no fire could be lit before the pagan festival marking the start of spring.  Despite this, St. Patrick lit candles in remembrance of Holy Saturday at his church on Slane Hill– and shockingly, King Logaire allowed him to remain in Ireland, moved by the simple witness of Patrick’s faith.

Fast forward hundreds of year later, to 1880.  Irish literary scholar and poet Mary Byrne translated two 8th Century manuscripts, entitled “Rob tu mo bhoile, a Comdi cride” from Irish Gaelic into English. Byrne published the poem in 1905 for a journal of the School of Irish Learning. Then, in 1912, English-born Irish scholar and poet Eleanor Hull came across the original poem and put it into a 16-stanza couplet.

READ: “A Prayer” Author Unknown; Translated by Mary E. Byrne, 1905; versed by Eleanor H. Hull, 1912

It took only a few years for the hymn to make its way into hymnals of the Irish Church, and in 1919 Hull’s poetic text was wed with the tune Slane, a song commemorating the legend of St. Patrick’s courage to celebrate his faith in the face of the local High King.  The tune comes from Patrick Weston Joyce, composer of the 1909 Old Irish Folk Music and Songs.  As was and is common with Irish sacred songs, most “traditional Irish songs are non-liturgical,” in the words of Dr. Helen Phelan, of the University of Limerick.

LISTEN:  Hear this instrumental arrangement of the tune Slane, with an added Irish reel (dance) improvised after the tune’s introduction:

Post-World War II, England and the United States became familiar with the hymn, with its language of “heroic imagery,” a common aspect of medieval era prose.  Its fate was sealed, and it entered the UMC Hymnal in 1957 with a purposeful selection of the three couplets that would be most honoring of the poem’s original sentiments, and from there edited slightly to maintain nonsexist verses, according to UMC hymnal scholar Carlton Young.

LISTEN: More popular in the Episcopal Church is this rendition of the tune Slane with text that takes the singer through the daily prayers and pleas of a believer – imagine St. Patrick’s hundreds of daily prayers but edited down to four!  Take a listen to “Lord of All Hopefulness:”

God’s vision is not always readily available for humans to access or understand.  This hymn is a “prayer for the vision of God to be sustained throughout [the singer’s] life,” and gives us hope that even though we do not know the future, we know to whom the future belongs, and that through and with God, all things are possible.

LISTEN AND SING ALONG: Find the text to Be Thou My Vision with this stunning imagery of God’s creation: 


Bibliography

Dawn, C. Michael. “History of Hymns: ‘Be Thou My Vision.’” Discipleship Ministries, 26 June 2013, https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-be-thou-my-vision.  Accessed June 9, 2020.

Klein, Christopher.  “St. Patrick: Kidnapped by Pirates and Enslaved at 16.”  History.com, 13 March, 2019, https://www.history.com/news/st-patrick-slavery-pirate-kidnapping-real-facts.  Accessed June 9, 2020.

“Hymns, Canticles, & Acts of Worship.” Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal, by Carlton R. Young, Abingdon Press, 1993, pp. 228 – 229.

“Be Thou My Vision.” Then Sings My Soul, by Robert J. Morgan, Book 1, Thomas Nelson, 2003, pp. 3 – 4.

Leaning On the Everlasting Arms | June 6

June 6, 2020

John Morrow, Associate Director of Music Ministries/Principal Organist

SHEET MUSIC: #133 “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms” (UMC Hymnal)

“The eternal God is thy refuge,

And underneath are the everlasting arms”

– Deuteronomy 33:27, KJV

In the text of poetry that leads our music, God is given new and more relatable names: “blessed assurance … precious name … everlasting arms.” The imagery of God has become more intimate through these phrases; for instance, we sing “King of Kings” when singing Handel’s Messiah or to echo the scriptures on High Holy Days, but on a Sunday in the Ordinary of the Christian year, you’ll almost certainly hear about the “everlasting arms.”

Musician and educator Anthony J. Showalter had studied classical music in Europe and made it his mission work to create and teach in “singing schools” in churches across America. He founded the Showalter Music Company and served as the principal of the Normal Music Institute in Dalton, Georgia. In America’s Reconstruction Era, Showalter sought to work in the church to further music education and the strength of music in churches.

In 1887, Showalter was teaching in a singing school in Alabama when he received two letters. Two of his former students had lost their wives on the same day and were completely stifled with shock and grief. They had written to their former teacher, looking for a song or verse – something to lean on for strength.

Stop for a minute and think: What song or songs mean the most to you? When you’re grieving, what do you sing or listen to on repeat? What are your songs of strength and comfort?

Showalter went to Scripture first, knowing he could find a good word there. He settled on the aforementioned passage from Deuteronomy; but still, there was something left unsaid. It is easy to quote Bible verses and offer a pat on the shoulder, but this educator, like so many amazing and dedicated professionals, knew and felt the pain of his students and their families. In a church setting, he had watched many of them grow up. This was life and death – and he felt there was something more for these students, an offering of hope that would not seem dismissive in the face of each family’s loss.

As he sat in prayer, the words to a chorus drifted down to him:

“Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms;

Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.”

He responded to his former students’ letters, but also wrote to a friend, Elisha A. Hoffman, first editor of the Hope Publishing Company in Chicago, Illinois, and storied hymnwriter and poet. Elisha had served in the Union Army, and then attended Union Theological Seminary, never studying music but having what others called “a God-given talent for it … he wrote over two thousand poems and also the music for many of them.”

He was a prominent and respected preacher as well. His friend and colleague wrote to him:

“Here is the chorus for a good hymn from Deuteronomy 33:27, but I cannot come up with any verses.”

It didn’t take long for Hoffman to respond with three original and intimate verses about God’s steadfast presence. But the music would not come to Showalter; perhaps his emotional tie to the former students kept him looking for an inescapable solitude on their behalf. His nephew, however, hymnologist and 21-year-old composer Samuel Duncan, was in the midst of writing a book of hymns and songs with one of his professors that had been accepted by a publishing company. One of the poems included was Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, and so he set music for it. Years later, Duncan said in an interview for the Church of the Brethren:

“I wrote just a plain, simple tune and it happened to make a hit, because [of] the wonderful words. When you have wonderful words a plain tune is better. We didn’t get it ready in time for our new book but it soon found its way into others. I do not know whether A.J. Showalter knew that I wrote the music. Don’t remember seeing him afterwards. We were busy getting the book published and didn’t think or care about it. I was not even thanked for writing the music for the poem.”

While the tune is named after Showalter, it is unknown if he was aware of his young nephew’s authorship of the music. Nevertheless, the hymn very quickly found its way into publishing books across the country and became a favorite of revival services around the world. Using a simple tune that undoubtedly echoed gospel music, the hymn remains a favorite of faith traditions around the world today. It also appears often in television and movies as a way to connect to a religious ceremony or part of a story.

Here it is in a 1960s episode of “The Andy Griffith Show” being sung by the bluegrass band, The Dillards: 

Listen also to this more complete recording of the hymn in a bluegrass style by Gaither Vocal Band member Marshall Hall: 

It also inspired a great deal of the composition for the 2010 remake of the classic Hollywood western, True Grit, by composer Carter Burwell. Echoes of the hymn are heard scattered throughout the entirety of the movie, used simply with a lone piano, and the song is sung during the film’s credits.

Enjoy this absolutely wonderful recording of the “Queen of Gospel,” Mahalia Jackson, as she sings Leaning on the Everlasting Arms: 

Concerning Sam Duncan’s authorship of the hymn, one author has written that the “rewards of memories and satisfactions … could not be placed in safety deposit boxes … joy brought to untold numbers who had been thrilled, whose faith had been lifted, [who had a] new outlook on life. What is there among life’s material possessions that can compare with that?”


Bibliography

Dawn, C. Michael. “History of Hymns: ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.’” Discipleship Ministries, 18 July 2018, https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-leaning-on-the-everlasting-arms. Accessed June 2, 2020.

Morgan, Robert J. Then Sings my Soul. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003.

“A Musician’s Contribution.” Sidelights on Brethren History, by Freeman Ankrum, Brethren Press, 1962, pp. 168–174. https://archive.org/details/SidelightsOnBrethrenHistory/page/n173/mode/2up. Accessed June 2, 2020

Great Is Thy Faithfulness | June 4

June 2, 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: 


Bibliography

Dawn, C. Michael. “History of Hymns: ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness.’” Discipleship Ministries, 23 August 2013, https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-great-is-thy-faithfulness. Accessed May 31, 2020.

“Great is Thy Faithfulness.” Then Sings My Soul, by Robert J. Morgan, Book 1, Thomas Nelson, 2003, pp. 285.

“Hymns, Canticles, & Acts of Worship.” Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal, by Carlton R. Young, Abingdon Press, 1993, pp. 379-380.