Although we are worshipping once again beneath our steeple,
it will be awhile longer before congregational singing
is once again part of our Sunday service.
Until such time, continue to visit this page for a weekly hymn-based reflection.


August 23, 2020

This Sunday’s scripture text is the story of Jesus calming the storm (Mark 4:35-41; see sidebar).  Two overarching themes in the passage are fear and trust.  The hymn “How Firm a Foundation” draws attention to these themes, calling us to rise above the fears and trials that life brings and trust in God’s providence and promises.  It is largely based on Isaiah 43:1-5, but stanzas 2-6 are specific paraphrases of Isaiah 41:10, 43:2, Romans 8:3-39, Hebrews 13:5, and Deuteronomy 31:6


The hymn’s origin is something of a puzzle.  It was discovered in 1787 in A Selection of Hymns, compiled and edited by John Rippon.  In that collection, the author was listed simply as “K.”  There is a good deal of controversy as to whom “K” refers.  Although scholars have not reached consensus, many agree that the majority of evidence points to Richard Keen, who was a song leader in the London church that Rippon served as minister.


John Rippon (1751-1836) was a Baptist minister who was called to serve the Baptist church in Carter Lane, London in 1772 as an interim pastor.  Soon after, he was engaged as head pastor and remained for 63 years.  His primary contributions to hymnody are A Selection of Hymns from the Best Authors, Intended As an Appendix to Dr. [Isaac] Watts' Psalms and Hymns (1787) and a second compilation, A Selection of Psalm and Hymn Tunes (1791).  According to The Psalter Hymnal, these publications were popular in both England and America, but “later hymnologists have often been frustrated by Rippon's work because he frequently did not indicate the authors of the hymns and often altered the texts without acknowledging his changes.”


Background information provided in The Psalter Hymnal includes this brief reflection upon the text.

"How Firm a Foundation" is a noble text, full of comfort for God's people whose "foundation" of faith is rooted in the Word (st. 1) and whose lives experience divine protection when they face "deep waters" and "fiery trials" (st. 2-4).  The final stanza clearly moves beyond the text's Old Testament source and proclaims the certainty of redemption in Christ.

There are a few ties to American political figures that are of interest.  The hymn found its way to this country shortly before the Civil War years and was widely sung in both the North and the South.  Robert E. Lee requested that it be sung at his funeral, and there is an anecdote that Andrew Jackson asked for it to be sung as he lay dying at his home near Nashville, TN.  The story goes that he said to the minister who was visiting with him at his bedside, "There is a beautiful hymn on the subject of the great and exceeding precious promises of God to His people. It was a favorite hymn with my dear wife till the day of her death. It commences, ‘How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord.’ I wish you would sing it now."  Visitors who were present at the time attested to the truth of the story.


The hymn was also known to be a favorite of Theodore Roosevelt.  It was sung at his funeral, as well as at Woodrow Wilson’s.  American troops engaged in the Spanish-American War sang it on Christmas morning in 1898.


As noted earlier, the hymn’s origin is something of a mystery.  That applies to the tune, too, although there is one element of certainty.  While the composer is unknown, there is no question that it is an American folk tune.  Called both “Protection” and “Foundation,” it first appears with the hymn text in Joseph Fund’s Genuine Church Music (1832). 


One point of interest regarding the tune: Early hymnals in the United States and England paired the text with the tune “Adeste Fidelis,” which we know as the tune for “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”  Can you imagine?  Sing a verse to yourself and see how it “fits.”  Here’s a little help …




 Listen to a recording of the hymn here.  It is sung by the choir of First Methodist Downtown, Houston, Texas.


How Firm a Foundation
John Rippon


1. How firm a foundation, you saints of the Lord,
is laid for your faith in his excellent Word!
What more can he say than to you he has said,
to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?


2. "Fear not, I am with you, O be not dismayed;
for I am your God, and will still give you aid;
I'll strengthen you, help you, and cause you to stand,
upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.


3. "When through the deep waters I call you to go,
the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
for I will be with you, your troubles to bless,
and sanctify to you your deepest distress.


4. "When through fiery trials your pathway shall lie,
my grace, all-sufficient, shall be your supply;
the flame shall not hurt you; I only design
your dross to consume and your gold to refine.


5. "E'en down to old age all my people shall prove
my sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love;
and when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn,
like lambs they shall still in my bosom be borne.


6. "The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to his foes;
that soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I'll never, no never, no never forsake."


August 16, 2020

“Come, ye thankful people, come” is based on the parables found at Matthew 13:1-9 and Mark 4:26-29 (the first part of today’s scripture text).  Just as these parables use images of crop growth and harvest to teach about the Kingdom of God, so does this hymn.

The hymn was written in 1844 by an English clergyman named Samuel Alford.  He published it under the title, “After the Harvest.”  This in itself points to the underlying message of the text. 

The first stanza focuses on the literal harvest, inviting all to a celebration of thanks for the gifts of the field.  The phrase “harvest home” references an English festival that started with a service of thanksgiving. More about this follows below.

The second stanza begins Alford’s expansion upon the parable.  At first, it draws upon Mark 4:1-9 and Matthew 13 in its reference to wheat and tares before quoting Mark 4:28 (“first the blade, then the ear ...”), and offering a prayer that we might be the “wholesome grain.”

The imagery continues in the third stanza wherein Alford describes the fate of the metaphorical final harvest, when God shall purge the fields and give just reward to “tares” and “fruitful ears.” 

The last stanza is a prayer for the coming of the Kingdom of God – the “final harvest home” – and our presence in it, “forever purified, in [God’s] presence to abide.”

If the hymn was intended to teach about the Kingdom, how did it come to be associated almost exclusively with Thanksgiving?  Its harvest theme certainly sets it up for such an association.  The fact is that Alford wrote it to coincide with an English festival called Harvest Home.  In English churches, Harvest Home was (and still is) usually celebrated during September. The festival begins with a church service during which thanks is given to God for His provision.  Afterwards, the bounty of the harvest is collected and dispensed to the needy. Alford used this festival as the “cover” or “set-up” for his parable-like hymn.

At the time he wrote the hymn, Alford was serving a church in the small village of Wymeswold in England.  This farming community understood the urgency associated with the harvest.  The fruit of a whole year’s work hangs on the harvest, which cannot be accomplished until the crop is ready and which must be accomplished quickly lest it be spoiled by pests or weather.  As many in our congregation know well, farmers work nonstop during harvest season to get the job done.  It is only after the harvest that there is time to celebrate.  Alford knew his people would easily connect the harvest images in the hymn with the scriptural teachings about the Kingdom of God.


Listen to a recording here.  It is sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  The arrangement for choir and orchestra is by Mack Wilberg.



Come, Ye Thankful People, Come
Samuel Alford


1.  Come, ye thankful people, come, 
     raise the song of harvest home; 
     all is safely gathered in, 
     ere the winter storms begin. 
     God our Maker doth provide 
     for our wants to be supplied; 
     come to God's own temple, come, 
     raise the song of harvest home. 


2.  All the world is God's own field, 
     fruit as praise to God we yield; 
     wheat and tares together sown 
     are to joy or sorrow grown; 
     first the blade and then the ear, 
     then the full corn shall appear; 
     Lord of harvest, grant that we 
     wholesome grain and pure may be. 


3.  For the Lord our God shall come,
     and shall take the harvest home; 
     from the field shall in that day 
     all offenses purge away, 
     giving angels charge at last 
     in the fire the tares to cast; 
     but the fruitful ears to store 
     in the garner evermore. 


4.  Even so, Lord, quickly come,
     bring thy final harvest home; 
     gather thou thy people in,
     free from sorrow, free from sin, 
     there, forever purified,
     in thy presence to abide; 
     come, with all thine angels, come,
     raise the glorious harvest home.



August 9, 2020


This Sunday’s hymn is “Open my eyes, that I may see.”  As is the case most every Sunday, it was chosen to support this week’s scripture text, which is Mark 4:21-25 (see sidebar).  This passage continues Mark’s gradual exposition, through a series of parables, of the truths of the Kingdom of God.


The hymn invites us to pray for understanding to see what is revealed of the Kingdom through these parables: Open our eyes that we may see the truth hidden in the parable.  Open our eyes that we may see all that God wishes to reveal to us through sacred Scripture.  Open our eyes that we might know the reality of the Kingdom.


“Open my eyes that I may see” is based on Psalm 119:18: “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.”  The hymn’s words and music were both written by Clara Fiske Scott in 1895.  She was born in Elk Grove, Illinois in 1841 and grew up to be a music teacher at the Ladies’ Seminary in Lyons, Iowa.  She married Henry Clay Scott in 1861


Two years after “Open my eyes” was published, Mrs. Scott was riding through Dubuque, Iowa.  Something spooked the horse that was pulling her carriage, causing it to bolt wildly through the streets.  Mrs. Scott was thrown from the carriage and killed.


Mrs. Scott’s 1882 publication of The Royal Anthem Book marked the first time an anthem collection had been published by a woman.  A subsequent collection of hymns, Happy Songs, Truth in Song for Lov­ers of Truth Ev­er­y­where (1896), included “Open my eyes, that I may see.”


Read more about this hymn here.  Listen to a recording here.  It is sung by the choir of First Methodist Church, Houston.


Open My Eyes, That I May See
Clara Fiske Scott

Open my eyes, that I may see
Glimpses of truth Thou hast for me;
Place in my hands the wonderful key
That shall unclasp and set me free.
Silently now I wait for Thee,
Ready, my God, Thy will to see;
Open my eyes,
illumine me, Spirit Divine!


Open my ears that I may hear
Voices of truth Thou sendest clear;
and while the wavenotes fall on my ear,
Everything false will disappear.
Silently now I wait for Thee,
Ready, my God, Thy will to see;
Open my ears, illumine me, Spirit Divine!


Open my mouth, and let me bear
Gladly the warm truth everywhere;
Open my heart, and let me prepare
Love with Thy children thus to share.
Silently now I wait for Thee,
Ready, my God, Thy will to see;
Open my ears, illumine me, Spirit Divine!


July 26, 2020


This week’s hymn, “It is well with my soul,” was born of family tragedy.


Horatio Spafford (1828-1888) was a successful lawyer and real estate investor who made his home in Chicago with his wife, Anna, and their son and four daughters.  As a faithful member of the Presbyterian Church, he served as an elder and Sunday school teacher, as well as director and trustee for the Presbyterian Theological Seminary of the Northwest in Chicago.  He was also a professor of medical jurisprudence at Lind University (now the Chicago Medical College).  He became acquainted with Dr. Piazza Smith, a Scottish astronomer, and through him became interested in biblical archeology.  Horatio was an avid supporter and friend of evangelists Daniel Whittle and Philip Paul Bliss (also a composer of hymn tunes), and contributed generously to their campaigns, both spiritually and financially.  He would later become a supporter of the great D.L. Moody.  


In 1871, Horatio and Anna’s life took a tragic turn when their son contracted scarlet fever and died.  A short time later, the Great Chicago Fire wiped out most of Horatio’s real estate investments.


Two years later, Horatio had the opportunity to accompany D.L. Moody on an evangelistic campaign in Europe.  Thinking such a trip might uplift his saddened family, he made arrangements for the entire family to set sail.  At the last minute, urgent business matters detained him.  He sent his wife and four daughters on as scheduled, promising to join them as soon as possible.  Several days later, on November 22, their ship collided with the English ship Lochearn at 2:00 a.m.  In less than twelve minutes, all four of the Spaffords' daughters drowned along with more than 200 other passengers.  Mrs. Spafford escaped and was taken to Wales to await her husband.


By this time, Horatio had completed his business affairs and was preparing to join his family.  As he was packing, there was a knock at the door and he was handed a cable from his wife which ready simply, "Saved alone."


Not long after arriving in Wales, Horatio wrote to his friend Philip Paul Bliss.  He related that he had stayed on the deck of the ship hour after hour watching the rolling waves and grieving the loss of his four precious children.  When the ship passed somewhere near the area very likely where the drownings had occurred, some poetic thoughts began to shape themselves in his mind.  He had an overwhelming sense of God's presence about him and felt his soul strangely comforted as he meditated on the redemptive work of Christ and the promise of His return.


Later, he asked Bliss to look over the lines he had written to see if they might lend themselves to a song.  Bliss began working immediately on a tune, all the time praying earnestly that the hymn would be a source of comfort to the Spaffords, as well as to others in their times of stress and grief.  The tune is named for the French ship upon which Horatio’s wife and daughters sailed – Ville du Havre.  Text and tune were published in Gospel Hymns No. 2 (1876), a hymnal compiled by Bliss and Ira D. Sankey (Moody’s music partner in his ministry).


According to Psalter Hymnal Handbook, Horatio and Anna, together with a group of friends, moved to Jerusalem in 1881 and founded an American colony there.  Bertha Spafford Vester, a fifth daughter born to Horatio and Anna in 1879, wrote the Spafford family’s story in Our Jerusalem.


Listen to a recording of the hymn here.  It is an arrangement by Rene Clausen and is sung by the Wartburg Choir of Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. 


Learn More

Read about the ships here.

Read about the collision both here and here.

Read newspaper clippings here. and here  


It is Well with My Soul

Horatio Spafford


When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
"It is well, it is well with my soul."


It is well with my soul;
it is well, it is well with my soul.


Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
let this blest assurance control,
that Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
and has shed his own blood for my soul. [Refrain]


My sin– O the bliss of this glorious thought!–
my sin, not in part, but the whole,
is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more;
praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul! [Refrain]


O Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
the clouds be rolled back as a scroll,
the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend;
"Even so"– it is well with my soul. [Refrain]


July 19, 2020


This week’s sermon looks at 1 Peter 5: 12-14, the final verses of 1 Peter.  As the series on this epistle concludes, “Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart” presents itself as a summary of several points that Peter discusses, particularly: 1 Peter 1:13-19, 1 Peter 2:9-10, 1 Peter 3:10-12, 1 Peter 4:1-2, and 1 Peter 5:6-10.


This hymn, in the form that we have it today, entered the Christian hymn repertoire in 1912, but it is descended from an Irish hymn born in the 8th century.  That hymn was inspired by a tug-of-war between ancient pagan rituals and Christian beliefs that had been newly introduced in Ireland.


The Druids celebrated the spring equinox with a festival called the Feast of Bealtine.  According to tradition, the first night of the festival was known as “fireless night.”  On this night, all fires in the land were to be extinguished and none relit until after the high king had lit the festival fire.  On the Hill of Tara, an enormous bonfire was set ablaze in the high king’s presence to signal the start of the festival.  The tradition was believed to transform the high king into a god-king.  The bonfire symbolized that the god-king ruled over all the seasons, and spring started upon his command.  All festival participants lit a torch from the bonfire and took it home to light their own fires.


Easter usually falls within a few days of the spring equinox, and light and fire are dominant symbols in Easter Eve services.  So it was in 433 A.D. when St. Patrick was a missionary in Ireland.  The story goes that Patrick defied the fireless night tradition.  On Slane Hill in County Meath, about ten miles away from the Hill of Tara, Patrick built his Easter bonfire before King Logaire built his festival fire.  King Logaire could see the fire from his post on the Hill of Tara.  According to the law of the land, he might have ordered Patrick’s execution as penalty for this infraction of the “fireless night” law.  Instead, King Logaire expressed respect for Patrick’s devotion to his faith by allowing him to continue his missionary work.


In the eighth century, 300 years later, an Irish monk named Dallan Forgaill wrote the poem, “Rop tú mo Baile” (Be thou my vision), as an homage to the faith of St. Patrick.  The original poem is found in two Irish manuscripts in the library of the Royal Irish Academy.  Forgaill was martyred by pirates, but his poetry continued to be part of the Irish monastic tradition. 


In 1905, Mary Elizabeth Byrne, an Irish scholar and native of Dublin, made a literal prose translation of the poem in English.  Seven years later, in 1912, Eleanor Hull developed Byrne’s translation into a metrical text that could be easily sung.  Hull, born in Manchester, England, was the founder of the Irish Text Society.  As one might expect, her versification was first published in Ireland.  It was then introduced in several English hymnals before finding its way to the United States after World War II.


In an article about the hymn, Dr. C. Michael Hawn, director of the sacred music program at Perkins School of Theology, quotes Helen Phelan, an Irish liturgy and ritual scholar and lecturer at the University of Limerick, who addressed how the language of the hymn is drawn from traditional Irish culture:


One of the essential characteristics of the text is the use of 'heroic' imagery to describe God. This was very typical of medieval Irish poetry, which cast God as the 'chieftain' or 'High King' (Ard Ri) who provided protection to his people or clan. The lorica is one of the most popular forms of this kind of protection prayer and is very prevalent in texts of this period.”


“Be thou my vision” is Irish through and through: like the poem, the tune – called Slane - is Irish.  It is a folk melody that Welsh composer David Evans discovered in Old Irish Folk Music and Songs: A Collection of 842 Airs and Songs hitherto unpublished (1909) and adapted to Hull’s versification of the hymn text. As you might guess, it was named for Slane Hill, upon which St. Patrick is said to have lit his legendary bonfire.  Its first appearance in a hymnal occurred in the 1927 edition of the Church Hymnary of the Church of Scotland.  It is the only tune that has ever been associated with the hymn.  It is intended to be sung with movement and energy.


Listen to a recording here.  It is sung by The Irish Tenors, a singing trio from Ireland.


Be Thou My Vision
Eleanor Hull

1. Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;
naught be all else to me, save that thou art -
thou my best thought, by day or by night,
waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.


2. Be thou my wisdom, and thou my true word;
I ever with thee and thou with me, Lord;
thou my great Father, I thy true son;
thou in me dwelling, and I with thee one.


3. Be thou my battle shield, sword for my fight;
be thou my dignity, thou my delight,
thou my soul's shelter, thou my high tow'r;
raise thou me heav'n-ward, O Pow'r of my pow'r.


4. Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
thou mine inheritance, now and always:
thou and thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my treasure thou art.


5. High King of heaven, my victory won,
may I reach heaven's joys, O bright heav'n's Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
still be my vision, O Ruler of all.


July 12, 2020

It seems that many of the hymns that speak most deeply to our hearts were born of the author’s personal trials.  Such is the case with this week’s hymn: “What a friend we have in Jesus.”

The hymn was chosen to support this week’s sermon text, 1 Peter 5:8-11 (see sidebar).  Take a few moments to read and reflect upon the scripture passage and hymn text together.

The hymn's author, Joseph Medlicott Scriven (1819-1886), was born in County Down, Ireland to a well-to-do family.  He received a good education at Trinity College in Dublin and was poised to begin a military career.  Poor health brought this dream to an end.  That was his first disappointment of significance. He moved forward with his life, proposed marriage to a woman he had known and loved for many years, and was looking forward to a bright future.  Sadly, on the night before his wedding in 1844, Scriven’s fiancée died in a drowning accident.  Scriven witnessed the accident but was helpless to intervene.  It has been said that this experience opened his awareness of his dependence on Christ.

In an effort to put this heartbreak behind him, Scriven immigrated to Ontario, Canada, where he taught school for about ten years and, at some point, fell in love and became engaged.  In 1855, he once again found himself looking forward to marriage, but his fiancée was stricken with an illness and died.

This last trial caused Scriven to turn inward and retreat from life.  He took a vow of poverty, gave away his worldly goods, and made an oath to devote his life to the sick, widows, and the physically handicapped.

He was an active member of the Plymouth Brethren Church.  He worked menial jobs to earn money for those in need and found shelter in the homes of kindly strangers.   He became recognized by locals as a woodcutter because he cut wood for the destitute and physically handicapped.  Reportedly, those same neighbors shunned him because they feared his eccentricities and resented his work with the underprivileged.  Historian Bert Polman wrote that he “tried to live according to the Sermon on the Mount as literally as possible, giving and sharing all he had and often doing menial tasks for the poor and physically disabled."

Scriven died by drowning at Port Hope on Lake Ontario.  Because he suffered from depression, it is not known whether his death was suicide or an accident.  Two monuments have been erected in his honor. Each has the first stanza of “What a friend we have in Jesus” engraved on it.

According to a first-hand account by Ira D. Sankey, Scriven said he wrote “What a friend we have in Jesus” for his mother, “to comfort her in a time of special sorrow, not intending anyone else should see it.”  (John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology, 1907).  Elsewhere it is written that he did not claim sole ownership of the hymn, commenting that “The Lord and I together wrote the song.”

Dwight L. Moody, the famous American evangelist, is credited with propelling the hymn into widespread popularity.  Moody came across it by happenstance and was moved by it.  He gave it a wide platform by using it at his many revivals.  Participants embraced it and took it home to their congregations, and missionaries took it overseas.  It is thought that Moody’s frequent use of the hymn is what gave the impression that it had been written by an American.

The hymn was first published anonymously in 1865, but Scriven’s authorship was finally acknowledged in Songs of Pilgrimage (1886) and from thence forward.  It has been set to the tune “What a Friend” by Charles C. Converse since 1875.

In editorial remarks about the hymn, the editors of the Psalter Hymnal Handbook wrote, “Scriven's text clearly arises from his own experiences in life.  Although not great poetry, the text has spiritual appeal and an effective repeated phrase, "take it to the Lord in prayer."  Because of its simple encouragement to "pray without ceasing," the text is much loved in many circles of Christendom.”

Richard Neill Donovan wrote, “This hymn has maintained its popularity for a century and a half — probably because a man acquainted with grief — who happened also to be acquainted with faith — helps us to see that faith can triumph over grief."

Scriven wrote 20 hymns.  A collection of his poetry was published in Hymns and Other Verses (1869).

The tune’s composer, Charles C. Converse (1832-1918), was born in Warren, Massachusetts.  He attended college in Germany where he studied law, philosophy, and music theory and composition.  He returned to the United States in 1859 and graduated from law school in Albany, NY two years later.  He practiced law in Erie, Pennsylvania where he also worked at Burdetta Organ Company.  He composed about 50 hymn tunes, as well as larger works.  One of those larger works earned him the offer of an honorary Doctor of Music degree from Cambridge University in England.  He declined the offer.  In 1895, Rutherford College bestowed upon him a Doctor of Law degree.  He died in Highwood, New Jersey.


Listen to the hymn here.  It is sung by the choir of First United Methodist Church, Downtown, Houston, Texas.


What a Friend We have in Jesus
Joseph M. Scriven

1. What a friend we have in Jesus,
all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
ev'rything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
all because we do not carry
ev'rything to God in prayer.

2. Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged:
take it to the Lord in prayer!
Can we find a friend so faithful,
who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our ev'ry weakness–
take it to the Lord in prayer!


3. Are we weak and heavy-laden,
cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge–
take it to the Lord in prayer!
Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?
Take it to the Lord in prayer!
In his arms he'll take and shield thee;
thou wilt find a solace there.



July 5, 2020

It isn’t often that we meet a husband and wife hymn-writing team, but such a pair is behind this Sunday’s hymn.  They also have connections to our region of the country.

The hymn is “God will take care of you.”  It was selected to support this week’s scripture text, 1 Peter 5:5-7 (see sidebar).

Let’s begin with a look at the hymn’s background.  It was written in 1904 by Civilla Martin and the music composed by her husband, Walter Stillman Martin.  The Martins were among those evangelists who traveled to various venues across the country to conduct preaching seminars and revivals – much like the renowned D.L. Moody and his music partner Ira D. Sankey.

When “God will take care of you” came into being, the Martins were guests at the Practical Bible Training School in Lestershire, New York.  Hymnologist Kenneth Osbeck describes the hymn’s origin:

It was composed while the Martins were spending several weeks as guests at the Practical Bible Training School at Lestershire, New York, where Mr. Martin was involved in helping the president of the school, John A. Davis, prepare a songbook. The Reverend W. Stillman Martin, a well-known Baptist evangelist, was invited to preach at a church some distance from the Bible school. That Sunday morning, Mrs. Martin became suddenly ill, making it impossible for her to accompany her husband to his speaking engagement. Mr. Martin seriously considered cancelling his speaking assignment, since it would be needful for him to be gone from her for a considerable time. Just then, however, their young son spoke up and said, "Father, don’t you think that if God wants you to preach today, He will take care of Mother while you are away?"

It was their son’s statement that inspired Civilla to write the hymn, which, by the way, was her first.  Mr. Martin kept his preaching engagement and returned to find his wife much improved and her first hymn ready to share with him. Civilla Martin described it in these words:

"God will take care of you" was written on Sunday afternoon while my husband went to a preaching appointment. When he returned, I gave the words to him. He immediately sat down to his little Bilhorn organ* and wrote the music. That evening, he and two of the teachers sang the completed song. It was then printed in the songbook he was compiling for the school.

By some estimates, the Martins wrote nearly 500 hymns.  Besides “God will take care of you,” one that has stood the test of time is “The blood will never lose its power” (1912).  This is believed to have inspired Andraé Crouch’s 1962 song of the same name.

Civilla Martin also wrote "His Eye Is on the Sparrow." (1905).  This text was set to music not by her husband, but by the well-known gospel song composer Charles Gabriel (1856-1932), and made famous by Ethel Waters (1896-1977) in the play “The Member of the Wedding.”

Various settings of the text “God will take care of you” appear repeatedly in the body of Christian hymnody, particularly during the era in which the Martins lived.  In addition to the Martins, Fanny Crosby (“Blessed Assurance”) and Frances Havergal (“Take my life and let it be”) are two such hymnwriters who were inspired by it.  Its source is 1 Peter 5:7, a portion of the scripture text we will consider this week: “… casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”  In the case of Civilla Martin’s hymn, if one sings all four stanzas and the refrain in between each, he will sing “God will take care of you” 16 times.  Civilla clearly endeavored to ensure that the point of her hymn would find its way into the hearts and minds of all who would sing it.

Civilla Durfee Martin (1866-1948) was born in Nova Scotia, but lived the last 29 years of her life in Atlanta, Georgia.  In 1891, she married a Congregational minister from Coventryvilee, New York named John F. Geddes.  There is no information about their marriage or why it ended.  Civilla taught school for a time before marrying Walter Stillman Martin and joining him in his evangelistic work.  Due to frail health, she did not always accompany him on his travels, but partnered with him through their hymn-writing collaborations.  All of their hymns were written specifically for revival meetings.

Walter Stillman Martin (1862-1935) attended Harvard University and was ordained a Baptist minister, although he and Civilla both joined the Disciples of Christ denomination at some point.  In 1916, he became a professor of Bible studies at Atlantic Christian College in Wilson, North Carolina.  Three years later, he and Civilla moved to Atlanta, Georgia.  This served as the base from which he ran Bible conferences and revival meetings all across the country.  After Martin’s death, Civilla joined Atlanta’s First Christian Church.  Her remains are interred in West View Cemetery.

A recording of the hymn is available here.  It is sung by the Antrim Mennonite Choir of Freeport, Ohio.  Before listening, consider taking a few moments to reflect upon the text in quietness.

* Curious about the Bilhorn organ?  Read and listen here.



1. Be not dismayed whate’er betide,
God will take care of you;
Beneath his wings of love abide,
God will take care of you.

God will take care of you,
Through ev'ry day,
O’er all the way;
He will take care of you,
God will take care of you.

2. Through days of toil when heart does fail,
God will take care of you;
When dangers fierce your path assail,
God will take care of you. [Refrain]

3. All you may need he will provide,
God will take care of you;
Nothing you ask will be denied,
God will take care of you. [Refrain]

4. No matter what may be the test,
God will take care of you;
Lean, weary one, upon his breast,
God will take care of you. [Refrain]


June 28, 2020 

This week’s hymn reflection consists of three elements.

1) A link and music clip for the hymn that Brian referenced in last week’s sermon

2) Background information and music clip for this Sunday’s hymn

3) A renewed invitation to take the hymn homework challenge

Last Sunday, Brian referenced in his sermon Samuel Rutherford and his hymn, “The sands of time are sinking.”  Rutherford’s personal history and the full text of the hymn are both inspiring reading.  Spend a few minutes with both here.  A recording of the hymn is available here

Let us take a look now at this Sunday’s hymn: “O Master, let me walk with thee.”  It is a favorite among church-goers of most mainstream denominations – what one might call a “heart song.”  The pairing of Washington Gladden’s fervent prayer with the contemplative tune MARYTON was a marriage that quickly found its way into the hearts of congregants.  According to hymnologist C. Michael Hawn, professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, it is “one of the most significant devotional hymns of this era.”

Of Gladden’s 11 hymns, one other besides “O Master let me walk with thee” found a lasting place in church hymn repertoire: “Fairest Lord Jesus.”

At first glance, the text of “O Master, let me walk with thee” might suggest an author who is quiet and introspective.  To the contrary, he appears to have been something of a mover and shaker.  Once we consider the direction of his ministry, the text might take on a sense of urgency while giving us a glimpse into his struggle to live out the Gospel as he understood it.

Washington Gladden (1838-1918) was born into a farming family in Pottsgrove, Pennsylvania.  He worked for a local newspaper before attending Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.  Later, he served as religious editor and acting general editor of the New York Independent and made a name for himself when he helped to expose the “Tweed Ring.”  He later served a pastorate in Springfield, Massachusetts and, after that, at First Congregational Church in Columbus, Ohio.  He is remembered as a Congregationalist minister, crusading journalist, author, frequent lecturer, and early advocate of the Social Gospel Movement.  He wrote many influential tracts, as well as 40 books, among them an autobiography titled Recollections (1909).  In his preaching, he is said to have “stressed the simple and direct nature of the Gospel as well as its practicality.”  Outside of the pulpit, he worked for a variety of social justice causes, and advocated for cooperation between labor and management via the establishment of unions.

The Encyclopedia Britannica  describes Gladden as one who “opposed both socialism and classical economic theory and sought to apply Christian law to social problems; some consider him the first American clergyman of note to approve of unionization.”

During his tenure as moderator of the National Council of Congregational Churches, he rejected a $100,000 gift from John D. Rockefeller to the denomination’s foreign missions program on the basis that it was tainted money.   

“O Master, let me walk with thee” was published in 1879 in a magazine called Sunday Afternoon under the title “Walking with God.”  The following year saw its first publication in a hymnal. The hymn’s original second stanza was omitted in that hymnal and rarely appeared in future publications.  It reads:

O Master, let me walk with thee
Before the taunting Pharisee;
Help me to bear the sting of spite,
The hate of men who hide thy light.
The sore distrust of souls sincere
Who cannot read thy judgments clear,
The dullness of the multitude,
Who dimly guess that thou art good.

This stanza points to a weighty issue that Gladden faced.  His advocacy for social justice resulted in some measure of hostility from the public.  Dr. Hawn writes that, “This theme aroused opposition from those who felt the role of a minister was ‘to save souls, not to regulate business.’ Furthermore, he challenged the idea that the Bible was inerrant in matters of science and history.  Hymnologist Albert Bailey notes that ‘he found his fellow-clergymen without courage to follow him, for heresy trials were beginning in the Congregational Church.’ In this context, the meaning of the excised stanza cited above makes sense.” 

Perhaps Gladden’s alleged challenge of the Bible’s inerrancy is the reason the hymn was not included in Trinity Hymnal.

Dr. Hawn presents an interesting opinion in regard to the word “master” as used in the hymn, writing that “the more commonly used reference to Christ, ‘Lord’, indicates a relationship of a feudal noble to a vassal, while ‘Master’ perhaps implies more of a reciprocal respect between a teacher and disciple.”

The text itself, literally a prayer, consists of a series of intercessions or petitions.  As you reflect upon the hymn, look for these petitions.  All are service-oriented, as is this Sunday’s scripture passage (1 Peter 5:1-5; see sidebar).  These petitions might be seen as a response to Peter’s exhortations.

The composer of the hymn tune is Henry Percy Smith.  Smith was born in Malta in 1825 and died in England in 1898.  He was an ordained priest in the Church of England, serving five churches throughout his lifetime.  The tune MARYTON is thought to be the only tune he published.

Click here to listen to a recording of the hymn.  It is sung by the congregation of First Methodist Church, Houston, Texas.

Continue below for a reminder of the suggested “homework assignment.”


O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee
Washington Gladden

1. O Master, let me walk with Thee
in lowly paths of service free;
tell me Thy secret; help me bear
the strain of toil, the fret of care.

2. Help me the slow of heart to move
by some clear, winning word of love;
teach me the wayward feet to stay,
and guide them in the homeward way.

3. Teach me Thy patience, still with Thee
in closer, dearer company,
in work that keeps faith sweet and strong,
in trust that triumphs over wrong.

4. In hope that sends a shining ray
far down the future's broad'ning way;
in peace that only Thou canst give,
with Thee, O Master, let me live.


June 21, 2020


Our hymn this Sunday is “Take up your cross, the Savior said.”  Cathy Peake will sing on our behalf as we continue social distancing practices.


This strong text of exhortation and instruction is based on Mark 8:34-35:  "And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, ‘Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it.’"  It speaks well to this Sunday’s scripture text, which is 1 Peter 4:12-19 (see sidebar).  Bear this passage in mind as you reflect upon the hymn’s text (provided below).


Charles William Everest penned this poem in 1833 under the title, “Visions of Death.”  It was published in two magazines – Episcopal Watchman in the United States and The Tract in the United Kingdom – before being paired with music and published in hymnals.  Its first hymnal appearance was in Union Sabbath-School Hymns (1835).  It was one of only two hymns by American authors to appear in the groundbreaking first edition of the English hymnal, Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861).  Its selection was a recognition of the hymn’s great merit.


As it began appearing in hymnals, many text alterations were made, although it has not been clearly determined who was responsible for those alterations.  It is a common practice among hymnal editors to adapt texts to better suit the language and sensibilities of an era or region, changing theological views, and other factors.   The source believed to contain a version closest to the original – Biggs’ English Hymnology (1873) – is available only for purchase; therefore, a comparison of original to present version cannot be provided here.


Charles William Everest (1814-1877) was born in East Windsor, Connecticut, graduated from Trinity College in Hartford in 1838, and was ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church in 1842.  He served a congregation in Hamden, Connecticut for 31 years, and was also an agent for the Society for the Increase of the Ministry.  He published a collection of poems titled, Visions of Death and Other Poems in which “Take up your cross …” appeared.  It was part of a set in that collection called “Fugitive Poems.”  In addition to Vision of Death (1837), Everest published Babylon, a Poem (1838) and The Poets of Connecticut: With Biographical Sketches (1843). The latter is still available for purchase through


Of Everest’s poems, “Take up your cross …” is the only one to be used as a hymn, but it has stood the test of time and retains a strong standing in the repertoire of Christian hymnody.  Like a goodly number of hymns from the 19th century, Everest’s text focuses upon the importance of faithfulness and suffering as the paths to eternal life.


A recording of the hymn is available here.  It sung to the tune O Waly, Waly.  This is a traditional English folk tune which may be familiar to you as “The Gift of Love” or “The Water is Wide.”


Take Up Your Cross
Charles William Everest 


"Take up your cross," the Savior said,
"if you would my disciple be;
take up your cross with willing heart,
and humbly follow after me."


Take up your cross; let not its weight
fill your weak soul with vain alarm;
Christ’s strength shall bear your spirit up,
and brace your heart and nerve your arm.


Take up your cross; heed not the shame,
and let your foolish pride be still;
the Lord for you accepted death
upon a cross, on Calv'ry's hill.


Take up your cross, then, in His strength,
and calmly ev’ry danger brave;
it guides you to abundant life
and leads to victory o'er the grave.


Take up your cross, and follow on,
nor think till death to lay it down;
for only he who bears the cross
may hope to wear the glorious crown.


June 14, 2020

Our hymn this Sunday is “O breath of life, come sweeping through us.”  Cyndi Eckley will be singing it for us as we continue social distancing practices.

The hymn was written by Elizabeth Ann "Bessie" Porter Head (1850-1936).  Scant information is available about Bessie, but what is known paints a picture of a vibrant, energetic woman who was a devoted witness to the Gospel.  She was the youngest daughter of Tobias Porter, manager of a flour mill in Belfast, Ireland.  She  grew up to become a missionary.  The first documented evidence of her missionary work is of her election in 1894 to serve as secretary of the YWCA in Swansea, Wales.  That led to her work with the South Africa General Mission (SAGM) to found branches of the YWCA in Port Elizabeth, Cape Town, and Johannesburg.

Along with the chairman of the SAGM and a fellow missionary, she toured North America in 1906-1907, after which she was supposed to have returned to South Africa.  Instead, in 1907 at age 57, she married Albert Alfred Head, who was the aforementioned chairman of the SAGM.  Head, like Bessie, was an evangelical Anglican.  He was a wealthy insurance underwriter who had been widowed three years earlier.  It seems he was known for his expansive generosity.

Bessie and Albert continued to serve the SAGM as well as the Keswick Convention.  The Keswick Convention, still in existence, seeks to equip missionaries for the mission field.  It was closely associated with SAGM, which is also still in existence.  Through a series of mergers with similar mission societies, it is now known as SIM (“Serving in Mission”).  Bessie was a sought-after speaker for both organizations and a prolific contributor of spiritual writings and poems to their publications.  After Albert’s death in 1928, she resided at the SAGM house in Wimbledon, London until her death.

A collection of Bessie’s writings, Heavenly Places, & Other Messages, was published in 1920.  Likewise, “O breath of life, come sweeping through us” was published with the tune SPIRITUS VITAE in 1920.

Even less is known of the hymn tune’s composer.  Mary Jane Hammond was born in England in 1878, and died on January 23, 1964 at Hilligdon Nursing Home, St. Albans, Hertfordshire, England.  The tune’s name, SPIRITUS VITAE, translates as “breath of life.”  Though her specific reason for naming it such is unknown, it seems an ideal choice, given the hymn text.

“O breath of life, come sweeping through us” is a profound prayer for renewal, and for strength to do the work of the Gospel to build up the Church of God.  It is first a prayer for renewal within ourselves.  Without the working of the Holy Spirit within us, we cannot sustain our mission … or, more specifically, the Great Commission given us by Jesus before His ascension.  It is then a prayer for renewal throughout the Church.

Take your time as you read the hymn.  Let the words wash over you and swirl around in your mind.  Where in your life is there need for renewal?  What aspects of the Church are in greatest need of renewal?  Make the hymn your prayer.  As you reflect and pray, consider these passages in conjunction with the hymn: Psalm 51:10-12, Romans 12:2, 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 , 2 Corinthians 5:17-20.

A recording of the hymn is available here.  It is sung by participants at the Evangelical Movement of Wales Conference, Aberystwyth.


O Breath of Life
Bessie Head

O Breath of life, come sweeping through us,
revive your Church with life and pow'r.
O Breath of Life, come, cleanse, renew us,
and fit your Church to meet this hour.

O Wind of God, come bend us, break us,
till humbly we confess our need;
then in your tenderness remake us,
revive, restore, for this we plead.

O Breath of love, come breathe within us,
renewing thought and will and heart;
come, Love of Christ, afresh to win us,
revive your Church in every part.

O Heart of Christ, once broken for us,
'tis there we find our strength and rest;
our broken, contrite hearts now solace,
and let your waiting Church be blest.

Revive us, Lord! Is zeal abating
while harvest fields are vast and white?
Revive us, Lord, the world is waiting,
equip your Church to spread the light.


June 7, 2020

This week, the doors of our church will be open for worship for the first time in three months.  Per CDC guidelines, we will not sing as a congregation, but Jane Watson will sing a hymn on our behalf.  Because it might be unfamiliar to some, it is the subject of this week’s hymn reflection.


“Come down, O love divine” is a prayer to the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with the fire of His love.  It was written in the 14th century by an Italian monk named Bianco da Siena.  He wrote over 100 hymns, but only a few have been translated into English and have come into common usage. 


Bianco da Siena (c. 1345-c. 1412) was born in Anciolina, a small hamlet in Tuscany, Italy, but moved to Siena during his early childhood and eventually worked there as a wood carver.  It may be of interest to learn that what little is known of Bianco’s life was reconstructed from his poetry.  An Italian poet and playwright named Feo Belcari (1410-1484) was responsible for undertaking this work.


At some point, Bianco joined a monastery in Cittè di Castello that housed an order of lay monks called the Gesuati.  He is believed to have lived for many years at the monastery.  Unknown circumstances then led him to Venice, where he lived out the remainder of his life.


Bianco wrote in a form known as “laude form.”  Laude (Latin for praise) was a type of sacred song written in the vernacular.  In Bianco’s era, sacred music for use in worship was written in Latin and largely accessible only to clergy and choirs.  Laude songs were sung by the common folk outside of formal worship services.  These were popular into the 19th century.  (“God rest ye, merry gentlemen” is an example of such a song.)


“Come down, O love divine” (Discendi, amor santo) was written in eight stanzas.  The English translation in 1857 by Irish scholar and priest Richard Littledale (1833-1890) retains four of those stanzas, one of which is omitted from most hymnals. 


While the hymn is a quite moving and inspiring prayer, it did not enjoy widespread popularity until its publication in the English Hymnal (1906), one of the most influential hymnals of the 20th century.  The tune paired with it – and which has since become the standard tune for this hymn - was written specifically for it by the famed composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).  The tune was called DOWN AMPNEY in honor of Vaughan Williams’ birthplace.  Dr. C. Michael Hawn writes that it “carries the majesty and mystery of the text beautifully.” 


According to Dr. Hawn, Bianco’s songs can be classified as either doctrinal or mystical, and are inspired by deep religious fervor.  “Come down, O love divine” is an example of the latter.  Dr. Hawn writes, “The text is intense—intensely personal and intensely passionate. Classic images of Pentecost appear throughout the hymn, especially those that relate to fire. The final stanza is a powerful statement of total commitment to love, to ‘create a place/wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling.’”


The oft-omitted third stanza reads:

Let holy charity
Mine outward vesture be,
And lowliness become mine inner clothing;
True lowliness of heart,
Which takes the humbler part,
And o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.


Listen to the hymn here.  It is sung by the congregation of Dunblane Cathedral in Dunblane, Scotland.


Come Down, O Love Divine
Bianco da Siena


1. Come down, O Love divine,
seek thou this soul of mine,
and visit it with thine own ardor glowing;
O Comforter, draw near,
within my heart appear,
and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.

2. O let it freely burn,
till earthly passions turn
to dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
and let thy glorious light
shine ever on my sight,
and clothe me round, the while my path illuming.

3. And so the yearning strong,
with which the soul will long,
shall far outpass the power of human telling;
for none can guess its grace,
till Love create a place
wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling.


May 31, 2020

The 50-day Easter season comes to a close with the observance of the Day of Pentecost.  If we were meeting for worship in the church today, the hanging over the pulpit and the Bible bookmark would be changed from white to red to signify the fire of the Holy Spirit. 


We all know the events of the first Pentecost.  The disciples were in Jerusalem for the celebration of a harvest festival called Shavuot.  This religious festival was held every year on the 50th day after Passover, and all males were required to attend.  The disciples were gathered together “in one place” (Acts 2:1) when the Holy Spirit, in a great gush of wind, descended upon them like tongues of fire.  Filled with the Holy Spirit and emboldened with renewed courage, the disciples were invigorated to fulfill the Great Commission commanded by Jesus to spread the Gospel throughout the world.  Peter started the ball rolling with a stirring sermon that very day.  As recorded in Acts 2:41, this resulted in many converts to the Gospel: “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”   Refresh your memory of the event by reading Acts 2 here.  


Incidentally, do you know that the word “Pentecost” is from the Greek word meaning “fiftieth”?  The day is so named because the events of Holy Spirit’s coming occurred on the 50th day after the resurrection, just as Shavuot – the festival being celebrated on that first Pentecost – is held on the 50th day after Passover.


As a nod to Pentecost, let’s take a look at one of our better-known hymns associated with the gift of the Holy Spirit.  “Breathe on me, breath of God” is a moving prayer for the transformation of one’s life.  There is an undercurrent of urgency running beneath the text that is pushed along by the steadiness of the hymn tune.  The text pleads for the breath of God to “fill me with life anew” until “I am wholly thine.”  It begs that the pray-er might be so filled with the breath of God that he “may love what Thou dost love and do what thou wouldst do.”  Yes, there is an urgency here that touches the soul and draws us into the depth of this profound prayer.


The hymn was written by an Oxford graduate named Edwin Hatch (1835-1889).  After being ordained in the Church of England, he served a congregation in the slums of east London before accepting a teaching post at Trinity College in Quebec, Canada, and later served as rector of Quebec High School.  He continued his academic career back in Oxford, where he served as vice-principal of St. Mary’s Hall, and held several positions as a lecturer.  His specialties included the history of the early Church.


Much like Charles Wesley’s hymns, this hymn of Edwin Hatch draws deeply upon his knowledge of scripture.  We can see reflections of John 20:21-22 (“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even, so send I you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”), Genesis 2:7 (“the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”), and John 3:3-8 (“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’”)

Hatch’s academic background waves to us through the hymn’s original Latin title of “Spiritus Dei” (Spirit of God).  Recall that in Greek, the word for “spirit” and “breath” is one and the same.  Thus, the title, “Spirit of God,” calls to mind the concept of the Holy Spirit being life-giving breath that fills and sustains us.

The hymn’s first publication was private, appearing in a collection by Hatch titled, Between Doubt and Prayer (1878).  Its first publication in a hymnal occurred in The Congregational Psalmist (1886).   It is the only one of Hatch’s twelve hymns that remains in use.

The tune that we are accustomed to singing with the hymn is called TRENTHAM.  It is named for a small village in Staffordshire, England, near the birthplace of the composer, Robert Jackson (1842-1914).  He wrote the tune in 1888 for a hymn by Henry W. Baker called, “O Perfect Love of Life.”  It was later paired with Hatch’s hymn by a hymnal editor.  Jackson was a church organist, composer of hymn tunes, and conductor of two community choirs in Oldham, Lancashire, England.


Two versions of the hymn are offered here for your listening pleasure.  The first is a traditional rendition sung by the congregation of Trinity Church, Gosforth (Newcastle upon Tyne, England).  The second is a more reflective presentation set to the tune ST. COLUMBA and sung by a solo voice.


Breathe on Me, Breath of God
Edwin Hatch 

1. Breathe on me, Breath of God,
fill me with life anew,
that I may love what thou dost love,
and do what thou wouldst do.

2. Breathe on me, Breath of God,
until my heart is pure,
until my will is one with thine,
to do and to endure.

3. Breathe on me, Breath of God,
till I am wholly thine,
until this earthly part of me
glows with thy fire divine.

4. Breathe on me, Breath of God,
so shall I never die,
but live with thee the perfect life
of thine eternity.


May 24, 2020

Well, here we are at the seventh Sunday of the Easter season.  Next week, the worldwide Church marks the Day of Pentecost and the start of the disciples’ mission to spread the good news of the Gospel throughout the world.  Jesus’ beautiful prayer for His disciples, as recorded at John 17:1-11 (see side bar), is among the scripture passages assigned by lectionaries for the seventh Sunday of Easter.  Its placement in the Easter season gives the impression that Jesus prayed it just prior to His ascension, but He actually prayed it after the Last Supper, shortly before He and the disciples left the Upper Room and went to the Garden of Gethsemane. It concludes a series of discourses that begin in John 13.  The prayer is sometimes referred to as Jesus’ farewell address. Of this prayer, Richard Neill Donovan wrote, “Jesus’ concern is not so much for the physical danger that his disciples will face … but for spiritual victory in the face of great trials.” (

Another passage assigned for this Sunday is 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11 (see side bar).  The passage encourages the believer to rejoice in suffering and to “cast all your anxiety” on the Lord.  Peter was addressing Christians in six Roman provinces, all dealing with various forms of persecution common to first century Christians – insults, false accusations, social ostracism, and violence of all sorts.  The purpose of the letter in general was “for the hearers to ‘stand firm’ in faith in the midst of trials and persecutions.” (The Reformation Study Bible).  Although our immediate trial – shared with all humanity the world over – is not the same as that of Peter’s first audience, perhaps the text can apply to us in these unusual and difficult days.

Considering that comfort and assurance might be found in both passages, I gave up trying to decide between the two and offer both texts for reflection, along with accompanying hymns. 

The passage from John called to mind a hymn that is not often heard.  “Thine forever, God of love” was written by Mary Fawler Maude (1819-1913).  Mrs. Maude was born in Middlesex, England, and married in 1841 to Joseph Maude, an Anglican priest. Mrs. Maude's hymns were published in her Twelve Letters on Confirmation (1848) and Memorials of Past Years (1852). "Thine forever, God of love" was the best known of her twelve hymns.  She wrote it for her girls’ Sunday school class of St. Thomas, Newport, Isle of Wight.  The full text and a recording link are provided at the end of this article.

The first hymn that came to mind when reading the passage from 1 Peter was “A mighty fortress is our God.”  Martin Luther is believed to have written both the text and tune of this hymn sometime between 1527 and 1528.  This occurred quite a few years after the 1517 publication of his 95 Theses, a document that is traditionally regarded as the fuel that propelled the start of the Protestant Reformation. While the document addressed specific concerns regarding the Church’s teachings and practices regarding the subject of penance, it was only the beginning of a massive religious, cultural, and political movement that swept through Europe, seeking to reform many beliefs and practices of medieval Christianity.  You can read the list of 95 Theses here, and read about the specific concern the document addressed here.

The first three stanzas of the hymn are based on Psalm 46, while the fourth arose directly from Luther's own experiences of persecution, suffering, and personal tragedy.  It became known as the “battle hymn” of the Reformation. 

In an article about the hymn, Dr. Albert B. Collver wrote:

“These years were some of the darkest in Luther’s life. A heading from a broadsheet (something akin to modern sheet music) of “A Mighty Fortress” published in Augsburg in 1529 reads, “A Hymn of Comfort.” Rather than a battle hymn, Luther intended this hymn, based on Psalm 46, to be one of comfort. While we are not certain what prompted Luther to write the hymn, scholars have suggested a number of events during these dark years.

“In August 1527, a man who followed Luther’s teaching was martyred. In the fall of 1527, a plague broke out in Wittenberg. In December 1527, Luther wrote to a colleague: ‘We are all in good health except for Luther himself, who is physically well, but outwardly the whole world and inwardly the devil and all his angels are making him suffer.’ A few days later, in January 1528, Luther wrote that he was undergoing a period of temptation that was the worst he had experienced in his life.

“When Luther speaks of ‘temptation’, he uses the German word.  While Anfechtung is translated ‘temptation’ or ‘trial’, it refers to anything that causes anxiety, doubt, fear, suffering, or terror in a person’s life.  For instance, in December 1527, Luther’s daughter, Elizabeth, was born sickly. In May 1528, she died.  The six months of wrestling with the Lord in prayer to save his sick daughter was a period of temptation (Anfechtung) for Luther.  He was mentally and spiritually fatigued.  He was under the cross of suffering.  Yet, he took comfort in the Psalms and trusted in the promises of Jesus.

“In stanza 3, the hymn says, ‘Though devils all the world should fill.’  Luther truly believed he was living in the Last Days because the preaching of the Gospel — that we are justified by grace through faith — and the Scriptures were clearly taught, and controversy after controversy arose. The world seemed full of ‘devils’ perverting the Lord’s teaching.

“The hymn concludes by confessing that the Word of the Lord will remain in the world even if people are not thankful for it. In Luther’s day, there was the very real danger that he could lose his life, all his possessions, his reputation, and his family.  Nevertheless, he sings confidently that ‘our victory has been won; the Kingdom ours remaineth.’ Luther’s hymn is one of comfort and hope in the midst of trial and temptation, and strife within the Church.”

The themes of this much-loved hymn apply to all sorts and conditions of persecution and suffering, in all places and times.  It has been adopted as an anthem for many causes, and sought out by countless individuals who, as Dr. Collver describes it, seek “comfort in the midst of trial, suffering, and temptation.”

- Read the article in full at  Dr. Collver is Director of Church Relations/Assistant to the President for The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in St. Louis, Missouri

Listen to “Thine forever, God of love” here.  It is sung by the Choir of King’s College. Unfortunately, only three stanzas are included.  Read the full text below.

Listen to “A mighty fortress is our God” here.  The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge is accompanied by organ, brass, and timpani.   Listen for the music to become darker in the third stanza to reflect the text (“And though this world with devils filled”).  The text is provided below.

I encourage you to read the scripture passages before listening to the hymns.



Thine for ever, God of Love
Mary Fawler Maude

1. Thine for ever! God of love,
hear us from thy throne above;
thine for ever may we be
here and in eternity.

2. Thine for ever! Lord of life,
shield us through our earthly strife;
thou the Life, the Truth, the Way,
guide us to the realms of day.

3. Thine for ever! O how blest
they who find in thee their rest!
Savior, guardian, heavenly friend,
O defend us to the end.

4. Thine for ever! Shepherd, keep
us thy frail and trembling sheep;
safe alone beneath thy care,
let us all thy goodness share.

5. Thine for ever! Thou our guide,
all our wants by thee supplied,
all our sins by thee forgiven,
lead us, Lord, from earth to heaven.

A Mighty Fortress is Our God
Martin Luther

1. A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
our helper he amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
doth seek to work us woe;
his craft and pow'r are great;
and armed with cruel hate,
on earth is not his equal.

2. Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing;
were not the right man on our side,
the man of God's own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he,
Lord Sabaoth his name,
from age to age the same,
and he must win the battle.

3. And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God hath willed
his truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo! his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.

4. That Word above all earthly pow'rs,
no thanks to them, abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours
through him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go,
this mortal life also;
the body they may kill:
God's truth abideth still;
his kingdom is forever.


May 17, 2020

We come now to the sixth Sunday of the Easter season.  One of the scripture readings assigned by lectionaries for this particular Sunday is 1 John 5:1-9 (see side bar).  The hymn I have selected to pair with it is “Stand up, stand up for Jesus.”  This hymn draws our attention particularly to verses 4 and 5 of the scripture text.  I must admit that the idea of using this hymn initially gave me pause.  I was more drawn to “How gentle God’s commands” – a quietly reflective hymn that addresses the first three verses of the scripture passage.  The more I thought about it, though, I came to see “Stand up …” not only as a rallying cry for us as God’s children (1 John 5:2), but as a charge to stand strong and faithfully carry on in the face of the warfare that is Covid 19.

More than once, this virus has been compared to an invading army and our response to it as a war.  I read an article last week in which the official being interviewed suggested that if there were actual armed soldiers standing outside our doors, we would batten down the hatches and stay inside until they retreated.  If we were required to go out and enter into the fray, we would make sure that we were armed to the fullest extent possible.  As we do battle with this virus … this surreal onslaught that has turned the world upside down and inside out … it would be easy to slip into the darkness of despair.  Instead, as the hymn says, we must “put on the Gospel armor” as we continue to rejoice that “Christ is Lord indeed,” always remembering that the “strife will not be long” and, most importantly, that our strength and hope is in Christ.  The passage from 1 John reminds us, “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith.”

As you listen to the hymn and follow the text (see below), try thinking of the words in terms of the pandemic and what our faith-filled response to it might be.  If you are struggling in mind and spirit, can you find encouragement and direction in the hymn’s words?

Before listening, please read on to discover a little bit about the hymn’s background.  There is a Presbyterian connection, and the situation that inspired the hymn is worth the read. 


The following is taken from The Psalter Hymnal Handbook.

"George Duffield, Jr. (b. Carlisle, PA, 1818; d. Bloomfield, NJ, 1888), was inspired to write this text after hearing the dying words of a Presbyterian colleague, Dudley A. Tyng.  Ousted from his own congregation for his strong anti-slavery stance, Tyng preached to large crowds in weekday meetings sponsored by the YMCA.  His work spearheaded an evangelical revival in Philadelphia early in 1858.  At Tyng's deathbed, caused by a farm accident in which he lost an arm, Duffield and others asked if he had any final message.  Tyng replied, 'Tell them to stand up for Jesus!’  At Tyng's memorial service on April 25, 1858, Duffield preached on Ephesians 6:14 and concluded his sermon by reading his new hymn text, "Stand up, stand up for Jesus."  Several lines in that original text referred to Tyng's words and ministry.  The six-stanza text was first distributed in leaflet form and then was published in The Church Psalmist (1859).  … Most hymnals include the original stanzas 1, 3, 4, and 6 with updated language.

"The challenge of "Stand up for Jesus" is proclaimed through the military metaphors Paul uses in Ephesians 6:10-18. Although some decry the warlike imagery, the spiritual battle that Christians must fight is very real.  Christ's victory is assured even if we do not always move "from victory unto victory" in our earthly lives.

"A graduate of Yale College and Union Theological Seminary, Duffield served eight Presbyterian churches in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Michigan.  He was a regent for the University of Michigan for seven years, served as editor of the Presbyterian paper Christian Observer, and promoted evangelistic work with his personal wealth. Duffield's interest in hymnody influenced his son, Samuel W. Duffield, to publish  English Hymns, Their Authors and History  (1886).

"George J. Webb (b. Rushmore Lodge, near Salisbury, Wiltshire, England, 1803; d. Orange, NJ, 1887)  composed  the tune webb (also known as morning light) on a voyage from England to the United States.  The tune was published in The Odeon, a collection of secular music compiled by Webb and Lowell Mason in 1837.  There it was set to "'Tis Dawn, the Lark Is Singing."  [The tune] was used as a hymn tune in The Wesleyan Psalmist (1842), where it was the setting for "The Morning Light Is Breaking" (thus its other title).

"William B. Bradbury paired webb to Duffield's text, an association that appeared in many of Ira D. Sankey's hymnals. Hymnologist Stanley L. Osborne says that this tune "goes with a roar."

"Although his parents had intended that he become a minister, Webb's early skills in music soon pointed toward a career in music.  He studied organ at Salisbury Cathedral and became organist in a church in Falmouth. In 1830, he immigrated to the United States, settled in Boston, and became organist in the Old South Church, a position he held for the next forty years.  In his later years, Webb taught singing in Orange, New Jersey, and New York City and published two books on voice pedagogy.  Working with Lowell Mason on a number of projects, including the publishing of The National Psalmist (1848), Webb also taught music at Mason's Boston Academy of Music and was president of the Handel and Haydn Society.  In 1835, Webb joined the Swedenborgian Church and was influential in shaping its musical service book of 1836 as well as the book's revisions in 1854 and 1876.  He also edited other songbooks such as The Massachusetts Collection of Psalmody (1840), The Psaltery (1845), The Melodist (1850), and Cantica Ecclesiastica (1859)."

Click here to listen to the hymn.  It is sung by the choir and congregation of  First United Methodist Church, Downtown, Houston, Texas.


Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus
George Duffield, Jr. 

1. Stand up, stand up for Jesus,
ye soldiers of the cross;
lift high his royal banner,
it must not suffer loss:
from vict'ry unto vict'ry
his army he shall lead,
till ev'ry foe is vanquished
and Christ is Lord indeed.

2. Stand up, stand up for Jesus,
the trumpet call obey;
forth to the mighty conflict
in this his glorious day:
ye that are men now serve him
against unnumbered foes;
let courage rise with danger,
and strength to strength oppose.

3. Stand up, stand up for Jesus,
stand in his strength alone;
the arm of flesh will fail you,
ye dare not trust your own:
put on the gospel armor,
each piece put on with pray'r;
where duty calls, or danger,
be never wanting there.

4. Stand up, stand up for Jesus,
the strife will not be long;
this day the noise of battle,
the next the victor's song:
to him that overcometh
a crown of life shall be;
he with the King of glory
shall reign eternally.


May 10, 2020

May 10 brings us to the fifth Sunday in the season of Easter.  From the several scripture passages assigned to this particular Sunday, the one selected as a basis for this week’s hymn reflection is 1 John 4:7-21 (see sidebar).  In this exposition on the topic of God’s everlasting love and the responsibilities of those who live in that love, we are reminded both of the incomprehensible gift that is ours through Christ’s death and resurrection,  and of God’s abiding love for us and within us.  Perhaps this assurance is one more truth to sustain us during these days of uncertainty.


It is in this context that we look at “What wondrous love is this, O my soul.”  Before reflecting upon the hymn’s text, let us first take a quick look at its history.  After all, it does have a connection to South Carolina.


The origin of the hymn is unknown, but it is believed to have risen out of oral tradition and to have been passed down through the generations from perhaps the 1600s.  Through the work of scholars and Appalachian folksong collectors, its first appearance in print was discovered to have been in 1811 in a collection titled, General Selection of the Newest and Most Admired Hymns and Spiritual Songs Now in Use.  Most likely, it had been transcribed by a folksong collector who visited the hills of Appalachia.  He would have then submitted it for publication in a hymnal or songbook.


The tune, also anonymous, first appeared in the 1840 edition of The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, which was compiled by a South Carolinian named William Walker.  Walker, who was nicknamed “Singing Billy,” was born in Martin Mills in 1807 and grew up near Spartanburg.  Walker’s The Southern Harmony was a highly influential publication in this era of Shape Note singing.  Shape Note is a system of music notation that indicates pitch by a variety of shapes instead of standard music notation.  It was the teaching method used in the singing schools that were a popular social activity across the country in the 18th century, and that are still active in some regions.  Though the singing style is associated with Appalachia, it began in England in the 17th century as a way to teach church congregations to sing, and then made its way across the Atlantic Ocean to New England.  There it grew into a much-loved secular pastime and then migrated to southern states.  William Walker’s songbooks are integral to this singing style, and continue to be used in today’s singing schools and Shape Note conventions.  His The Southern Harmony is said to have put “What wondrous love is this”  “on the lips of many singers in the antebellum south.”  (If you would like to learn more about Shape Note singing, read the article that appears here.) 


The opening lines of “What wondrous love …” are a prayer in themselves.  Three repetitions of the phrase “What wondrous love is this, O my soul” calls upon us to deeply ponder the inexpressible magnitude of God’s gift of His Son, and of the depth of love that such a gift represents.  In an article about the hymn, Dr. C. Michael Hawn wrote: “This repetition is not the sign of a weak poet who has a narrow range of expression, but a fellow traveler who has experienced profoundly the sacrificial love of Christ and can only express again and again – ‘What wondrous love is this’ … These are not the carefully crafted words of a theologian, but utterances directly from the heart or, even more profoundly, from the soul.” 1


It is akin to the refrain of “And can it be that I should gain”:  "Amazing love! How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?"  We sing those words over and over throughout the hymn, voicing the awe that Charles Wesley expressed when he penned the text … an awe that we, perhaps, share with him.


The first stanza continues: What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the dreadful curse for my soul.  


Based on our understanding that through His death Christ paid the ransom for the sins of all humanity, the phrase “dreadful curse” might reference the corruption of humankind.  Some scholars tweak that interpretation ever so slightly, suggesting that it is a reference to original sin.  As such, it calls to mind the idea of Jesus being the “Second Adam” who redeemed us from the first Adam’s fall.


Note the repetition that occurs at the end of this and every stanza.  These recurring statements of wonder, prayer, and gratitude urgently plead with us to ponder the truth within the words.  In this stanza, the repetition is “for my soul.”  Think upon this, placing emphasis on the word my.  See how doing so shapes this statement for you.


An original second stanza that does not appear in our hymnal speaks with strong imagery to the misery of our sinfulness, and then to the immensity of God’s love, grace, and mercy: 


When I was sinking down . . .
beneath God's righteous frown,
Christ laid aside his crown for my soul.


The next two stanzas practically shout the boundless joy and gratitude with which we expect to raise our voices with all God’s people in one unending song of praise for all eternity.  Can you hear shades of Revelation 5 in these words? 


To God and to the Lamb,
who is the great I AM,
while millions join the theme, I will sing


Can you imagine knowing so completely of God’s sure and certain love for you, that you are able to lift heart and voice without any hint of doubt to fully proclaim such wondrous love?


It would be remiss to omit the fact that hymns from the earliest days of American history often employed repetition.  Hymnals were rare commodities brought from settlers' homelands.  New hymns and songs, such as "What wondrous love," were developed through oral tradition.  By necessity, they were dependant upon repetitive texts in order to be easily taught and remembered.  Let’s not allow that fact to detract from the yearning that is evident in this hymn.  It is not so much a teaching hymn as it is a profound (1) prayer for mercy, (2) prayer of thanksgiving, (3) exclamation of rejoicing, and (4) expression of faith.  Are not our most intense prayers composed of few words?  Cannot the same be said of our deepest rejoicing?


Listen to the hymn here.  It is sung by the Furman Singers Alumni Choir.  The setting is by Robert Shaw and Alice Parker.  Listen to how the arrangement attempts to create the idea of “millions join the theme” in the last two stanzas.


1 Dr. C. Michael Hawn is Distinguished Professor of Church Music at Perkins School of Theology. He is also director of the seminary's sacred music program.


What Wondrous Love Is This

1. What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul,
what wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
to bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
to bear the dreadful curse for my soul!

2. When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down,
when I was sinking down, sinking down;
when I was sinking down beneath God's righteous frown,
Christ laid aside his crown for my soul, for my soul,
Christ laid aside his crown for my soul!

3. To God and to the Lamb, I will sing, I will sing,
to God and to the Lamb, I will sing;
to God and to the Lamb, who is the great I AM,
while millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing,
while millions join the theme, I will sing!

4. And when from death I'm free, I'll sing on, I'll sing on,
and when from death I'm free, I'll sing on;
and when from death I'm free, I'll sing and joyful be,
and through eternity I'll sing on, I'll sing on,
and through eternity I'll sing on!


May 3, 2020

Just as one day slips into the next, the Church calendar rolls along and brings us now to the fourth Sunday of the Easter season.  Among the scripture readings appointed by lectionaries for this day is Psalm 23, a portion of scripture that God’s people turn to time and again for comfort and assurance in days of difficulty or uncertainty.

One of the many hymns based upon this psalm is “The King of Love My Shepherd Is.”  For many Christians, it is the best-loved of all those based on Psalm 23.  It was written by Henry William Baker in 1868 as a paraphrase that merges the words of the psalm with teachings from the New Testament.  This is a technique that was pioneered in the 17th century by Isaac Watts (“Joy to the World,” “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”). 

 In the first stanza, the connection is quite subtle.  Baker points to the eternal relationship between Shepherd and sheep as addressed by Jesus at John 10:28

Subtlety is also his approach in the second stanza.  By using the phrase “streams of living water” instead of David’s “still waters,” Baker recalls for us Jesus’ statement that He is the source of living water (John 4:14 and John 7:37-39). 

 The third stanza is based on the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7), and in the fourth, the phrase “thy cross before to guide me” identifies the shepherd as Jesus. 

Baker completes the merger with the use of “cross” in the fourth stanza; the word  “chalice” in the fifth to transform the table of Psalm 23 into the table of the Lord’s Supper; and, finally, the application of the title of “Good Shepherd” in the last (John 10:11; 14-15).  In this concluding stanza, we are sustained by the reminder of our Shepherd’s unfailing goodness.

In a reflection on Psalm 23, Dr. Rolf Jacobson, professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, wrote of the psalm:  “The promise to the ancient psalmist was simple.  ‘I am with you.’  In response, the psalmist confesses, ‘I fear no evil, for you are with me.’  I may be surrounded by enemies, but ‘you prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies.’ …  The God who drew near to us in Emmanuel is with us still.  In spite of our lack of trust and our failure to follow, Jesus has promised, ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” (Matthew 28:20).   Henry W. Baker’s merger of Old Testament and New in “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” encourages us to this same conclusion.

Henry William Baker earned his place in the history of Christian hymnody by his work as editor-in-chief of the most authoritative hymnal in the hymnology archives.  Published in 1861, Hymns Ancient and Modern was the first compilation of the body of repertoire of Christian hymnody.  It was also the first time that a hymn book included the setting of each hymn to its proper tune.  It organized hymns according to proper usage throughout the Church year, as well as to specific scripture texts and topics.  In its first year of publication, it sold more than 35,000 copies – an impressive number in 1861!  Together with subsequent editions, it has sold more than 200 million copies in its 159- year history.

"The King of Love my Shepherd Is” is in our hymnal, set to the tune Dominus Regit Me.  Because the tune is unfamiliar to our congregation, we have been singing it to the tune called St. Columba.  This tune is named for the Irish saint who “carried the torch of Irish Christianity to Scotland in the sixth century.”  It was one of several Irish melodies collected by George Petrie (1789-1866) and subsequently published in Complete Collection of Irish Music as noted by George Petrie in 1902.  The renowned composer Ralph Vaughan Williams made subtle revisions to the tune before pairing it with Baker’s hymn in 1906.

Listen to a recording of the hymn here.   It is sung by the Cardiff Festival Choir (Wales).  The text is printed below.


The King of Love My Shepherd Is
Henry William Baker 

1. The King of love my Shepherd is,
whose goodness faileth never;
I nothing lack if I am his
and he is mine forever. 

2. Where streams of living water flow
my ransomed soul he leadeth,
and where the verdant pastures grow,
with food celestial feedeth.

3. Perverse and foolish oft I strayed,
but yet in love he sought me,
and on his shoulder gently laid,
and home, rejoicing, brought me. 

4. In death's dark vale I fear no ill
with thee, dear Lord, beside me;
thy rod and staff my comfort still,
thy cross before to guide me.

5. Thou spread'st a table in my sight;
thine unction grace bestoweth;
and O what transport of delight
from thy pure chalice floweth.

6. And so through all the length of days
thy goodness faileth never:
Good Shepherd, may I sing thy praise
within thy house forever.


April 26, 2020

On the Church calendar, April 26 is the third Sunday of the seven-week Easter season.  One of the scripture readings assigned for the day is Luke 24:36-48 (see sidebar), which tells of one of Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances to His disciples.  As you might imagine, any number of Easter hymns would support this text, several of which focus specifically upon the event it describes.  Instead, we will look this week at “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” a hymn that draws attention in a broader scope to the theme of believing without seeing.  It is a hymn that has been quoted often throughout the past six weeks.  When one learns the author’s story, the ability to connect with the text might grow even stronger.

The Rev. Jeff Robinson provides this hymn reflection by way of an article that he wrote on April 24, 2015.  It eloquently connects the despair that William Cowper endured throughout his life with the hymn’s text and the application of both to our lives.

An audio clip of the hymn can be found here.

Jeff Robinson*


“God Moves in a Mysterious Way”
William Cowper, 1774

1. God moves in a mysterious way,
his wonders to perform;
he plants his footsteps in the sea,
and rides upon the storm.

2. Deep in unfathomable mines,
of never-failing skill;
he fashions up his bright designs,
and works his sovereign will. 

3. Ye fearful saints fresh courage take,
the clouds that you much dread,
are big with mercy and will break
in blessings on your head.

4. Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
but trust him for his grace;
behind a frowning providence,
he hides a smiling face.

5. His purposes will ripen fast,
unfolding every hour;
the bud may have a bitter taste,
but sweet will be the flower.

6. Blind unbelief is sure to err,
and scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
and he will make it plain.

I love this hymn for the same reason I love Romans 8 and country music. I’m not talking about modern-day country music, the kind that is slick and well-packaged, the sort that is merely countrified pop music. By country music, I mean Hank (Senior), Cash, Jones, the Hag. Legends, all, whose lives were marked by the profound suffering and searching of which they sang. They were not dime store cowboys and neither was the author of “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” In some ways, the British poet William Cowper is to classic, Reformation-tradition hymnody what Hank Williams was to country music: both men perennially suffered deep, dark depression and anguish of soul. Out of their pain, each man wrote deeply emotional, heart-felt poetry that was set to music. Of course, their biographies part ways there: both diagnosed the illness that drove their angst in a deeply fallen world, but only Cowper found the transformative cure, locating his healing balm in the old rugged cross. Sadly, Hank sought solace in the bottom of a whiskey bottle and died of an overdose of alcohol and pain killers at 29. Hank sang “I Saw the Light,” but never seems to have run to it.

Two bruised reeds, two smoking flaxes, two different outcomes, but two men who were unsentimental about the mysteries of life and God’s providence east of Eden. “God Moves” is my favorite for two fundamental reasons: the story of the man behind the lyrics and the robust theology of Romans 8 that it expresses in unforgettable poetry. Every time I sing it in corporate or family worship (and I love the revised tune by Bob Kauflin and our friends at Sovereign Grace Music), I think of its author, and I am strengthened by the grace of which it speaks.


Embattled Soul

John Calvin referred to fallen humanity and the world in which we live as broken actors performing on a broken down stage. Cowper’s brokenness was as profound as it was palpable. In his excellent biographical essay on the life of William Cowper, John Piper wrote of him, “The battles in this man’s soul were of epic proportions.” Indeed.

Cowper lived from 1731 to 1800, a contemporary to John Wesley and George Whitefield in England and Jonathan Edwards in America. Heartache was his handmaiden virtually from birth. William and his brother John were the only two among seven siblings to survive past infancy. At age 6, his mother died giving birth to John, leaving William deeply distraught. Cowper moved from school to school before landing at Westminster school in 1742 where he was bullied mercilessly by older students. While studying for a career in law as a young adult, he fell in love with his cousin Theodora and sought her hand in marriage. Her father refused to consent to the union and nuptials were never exchanged. Lost love left him crestfallen.

As he progressed into adulthood, things grew appreciably worse. In 1763, he was offered a position as a clerk of journals in the House of Lords, but the specter of the job examination sent him off the rails; he experienced grinding depression that bordered on insanity. Three times he attempted suicide and was sent to an asylum for recovery. The asylum turned out to be a place of grace for Cowper. Dr. Nathaniel Cotton, an evangelical believer, cared for Cowper and showed him the love of Christ. One day at the hospital, Cowper found a Bible and opened it. The pages fell upon Romans 3:25. God opened Cowper’s blind spiritual eyes that day, and he was converted to a saving hope in Jesus Christ. Salvation changed his heart, but not his propensity for melancholy.

In 1767, two years after leaving the asylum, Cowper met the slave-trader-turned-preacher John Newton, author of “Amazing Grace” and curate of the church at Olney. Newton mentored Cowper. He encouraged Cowper and ministered to him. There were numerous additional suicide attempts as the viper of melancholy gripped the poet every ten years, usually every tenth January. Cowper wrote “God Moves” in 1773 at the behest of Newton, who later published it in the Olney Hymnal. Soon after Cowper wrote “God Moves,” the darkness returned, and he attempted suicide by drowning. He died on April 25, 1800, in the throes of depression. The final poem he composed in 1799 was titled “The Castaway,” but by God’s grace that did not describe his eternal state.


Hymn for Rough Weather

Cowper’s story makes this hymn all the more remarkable. Life between the times is full of hurt and pain; we live in what John Bunyan aptly called a vail of tears. Relationships sour. Malignant tumors grow inside our frail bodies. A phone call shatters our dreams. The spring flowers die, and our lush summer lawns turn brown in winter. The only thing consistent in this embittered cosmos is that nothing stays the same. Cowper lived in and wrote out of this reality as much as any figure in church history. “God Moves” was originally titled “Conflict: Light Shining out of Darkness.” Cowper knew first-hand that life is warfare.

This hymn is my favorite for the same reason Romans 8:28-39 is my favorite Bible passage. The final four of the six stanzas are pure gold for suffering saints—that’s all of us on various levels—on pilgrimage through the valley of the shadow of death: “You fearful saints, fresh courage take, the clouds that you now dread, are big with mercy and will break in blessings on your head.” The world is groaning, we are groaning, but God is protecting us, forging our faith on the anvil of affliction because of his love for us and because of a passion for his own glory. Charles Spurgeon once said that God’s sovereignty is a doctrine for rough weather; “God Moves” is a hymn for stormy days, and there are many such days in a fallen world.


Behind a Frowning Providence 

The fourth stanza is the best-known: “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace; behind a frowning providence, he hides a smiling face.” It is easy to hear echoes of Isaiah 55 here: “My ways are higher than your ways, my thoughts than your thoughts.” We are not omniscient. We have a limited ability to exegete our experiences. We face moments when the God who has declared himself good won’t seem so good. Life may seem bad, sometimes, very bad. But we do not find peace in our ability to interpret events but in the God who is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works (Ps. 145:17). The fifth verse is a healing balm: “His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour; the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.”

Cowper concludes the hymn with a reminder for forgetful Christians like me, a reminder I need to hear hourly: “Blind unbelief is sure to err, and scan his work in vain. God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain.” We don’t know the future. We don’t often understand his ways. But we can trust him because he is never late and never gets the wrong address.

I have never suffered anywhere near the level of William Cowper, but I am grateful that he has set to verse the theology that describes his thorny life so that we might be encouraged and equipped for the fight. Cowper may have spent much time in darkness, but he truly saw the light.

*Jeff Robinson (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a senior editor for The Gospel Coalition. A native of Blairsville, Georgia, he also pastors Christ Fellowship Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and serves as senior research and teaching associate for the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies and adjunct professor of church history at Southern Seminary. Prior to entering ministry, he spent nearly 20 years as a newspaper journalist in Georgia, North Carolina, and Kentucky. He is co-author To the Ends of the Earth: Calvin’s Mission Vision and Legacy and co-editor of 15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me (Crossway, 2018).  Jeff and his wife, Lisa, have four children.



April 19, 2020

On this year's Church calendar, April 19 is the second Sunday in the seven-week long Easter season.  Of the scripture readings assigned to that day, one speaks not only to the resurrection but perhaps also to the uncertainty and trials through which we are passing right now.  That passage is 1 Peter 1:3-9 (see sidebar).


The hymn "My Jesus, I Love Thee" supports themes that are woven throughout this passage.  In an article about the hymn, Dr. C. Michael Hawn presents a brief look at its history and draws attention to some of its themes.  After reading about the hymn and considering it in light of 1 Peter 1:3-9, listen to an audio recording of it here


The recording also includes "It is Well with My Soul," a hymn that seems particularly appropriate now.  Readers will recall that Horatio Spafford wrote the hymn in response to the tragic death at sea of his wife and daughters.

C. Michael Hawn

"My Jesus, I Love Thee"
William R. Featherstone, 1864

1. My Jesus, I love thee, I know thou art mine;
For thee all the follies of sin I resign.
My gracious Redeemer, my Savior art thou;
If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

2. I love thee because thou hast first loved me,
and purchased my pardon on Calvary's tree.
I love thee for wearing the thorns on thy brow;
if ever I loved thee, my Jesus, 'tis now.

3. I'll love thee in life, I will love thee in death;
and praise thee as long as thou lendest me breath;
and say, when the death-dew lies cold on my brow:
if ever I loved thee, my Jesus, 'tis now.

4. In mansions of glory and endless delight,
I'll ever adore thee in heaven so bright;
I'll sing with the glittering crown on my brow:
if ever I loved thee, my Jesus, 'tis now.

"The text of this favorite hymn ... was likely written at the conversion of author William Ralph Featherstone (1846-1873) when he was a teenager.  The simplicity and sincerity of the text has resonated with Christians for well over 150 years, particularly as a hymn of invitation or a prayer hymn.

"Featherstone (sometimes spelled “Featherston”) was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada where his parents were members of the Wesleyan Methodist Church. The Rev. Carlton Young, editor of the United Methodist Hymnal, suggests that the hymn was composed sometime between the author’s conversion in 1858 and when it was included in The London Hymn Book (1864). Little else is known of Featherstone.

"Stanzas two, three, and four of the original hymn each include a reference to “brow” as a unifying theme: “wearing thorns on thy brow” (stanza two), “deathdew lies cold on my brow” (stanza three), and “glittering crown on my brow” (stanza four).

"The other unifying theme is the final line of each stanza: “If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.” This focus on the singer’s love of Christ permeates the hymn from the first line. [Throughout the hymn], the words “love” or “loved” appear 10 times.

"Other expressions of affection include “gracious Redeemer” (stanza one) and “ever adore thee” (stanza four). Like many hymns of this era, this one expresses total devotion to Christ in a language of intimacy.

"Composer Adoniram Judson Gordon (1836-1895) — named for the pioneering Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson (1788-1850) who served in India and Burma — discovered the anonymous hymn in the 1870 edition of The London Hymnal.  Gordon, a graduate of Newton Theological Seminary (now Andover Newton), included the text with his tune in The Service of Song for Baptist Churches (1876), edited by Gordon and S.L. Caldwell. The pairing of text and tune has become standard to this day."  *

Dr. C. Michael Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.
This article appears at

* When Featherstone’s hymn was published anonymously in 1870, it was paired with a now forgotten tune.   Upon discovering it, Adoniram Judson Gordon was inspired to compose a new tune.  When he published the hymn with his tune in 1876, it was again done so anonymously. It wasn’t until around 1930 that research established Featherstone as the author.  -


It is Well with My Soul
Horatio Spafford (1873)

1. When peace like a river attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
"It is well, it is well with my soul."

It is well with my soul;
it is well, it is well with my soul.

2. Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
let this blest assurance control:
that Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
and has shed his own blood for my soul. (refrain)

3. My sin oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
my sin, not in part, but the whole,
is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more;
praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul! (refrain)

4. O Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
the clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend;
even so, it is well with my soul. (refrain)


This Sunday’s hymn is “Open my eyes, that I may see.”  As is the case most every Sunday, it was chosen to support this week’s scripture text, which is Mark 4:21-25 (see sidebar).

This passage continues Mark’s gradual exposition, through a series of parables, of the nature of the Kingdom of God.

The hymn invites us to pray for understanding to see what is revealed of the Kingdom through these parables: Open our eyes that we may see the truth hidden in the parable.  Open our eyes that we may see all that God wishes to reveal to us through sacred Scripture.  Open our eyes that we might know the reality of the Kingdom.


“Open my eyes that I may see” is based on Psalm 119:18: “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.  The hymn’s words and music were both written by Clara Fiske Scott in 1895.  She was born in Elk Grove, Illinois in 1841 and grew up to be a music teacher at the Ladies’ Seminary in Lyons, Iowa.  She married Henry Clay Scott in 1861


Two years after “Open my eyes” was published, Mrs. Scott was riding through Dubuque, Iowa.  Something spooked the horse that was pulling her carriage, causing it to bolt wildly through the streets.  Mrs. Scott was thrown from the carriage and killed.


Mrs. Scott’s 1882 publication of The Royal Anthem Book marked the first time an anthem collection had been published by a woman.  A subsequent collection of hymns, Happy Songs, Truth in Song for Lov­ers of Truth Ev­er­y­where (1896), included “Open my eyes, that I may see.”


Read more about this hymn at  Listen to recording at ______________ .  It is sung by the choir of First Methodist Church, Houston.



Open My Eyes, That I May See
Clara Fiske Scott


Open my eyes, that I may see
Glimpses of truth Thou hast for me;
Place in my hands the wonderful key
That shall unclasp and set me free.
Silently now I wait for Thee,
Ready, my God, Thy will to see;
Open my eyes,
illumine me, Spirit Divine!


Open my ears that I may hear
Voices of truth Thou sendest clear;
and while the wavenotes fall on my ear,
Everything false will disappear.
Silently now I wait for Thee,
Ready, my God, Thy will to see;
Open my ears, illumine me, Spirit Divine!


Open my mouth, and let me bear
Gladly the warm truth everywhere;
Open my heart, and let me prepare
Love with Thy children thus to share.
Silently now I wait for Thee,
Ready, my God, Thy will to see;
Open my ears, illumine me, Spirit Divine!