Monday, December 13, 2010

Edwin Othello Excell

Edwin Othello Excell, born today in 1851, was the son of a German Reformed minster in Uniontown, Ohio, though I might guess that the father was also a Shakespeare enthusiast.

Excell began leading singing schools as a young man which led him to leading music at Methodist Episcopal revival meetings. He was converted at one such meeting and decided to pursue his musical interests as well as his newfound religion as a career. In 1877 he enrolled in the music school of George Root where he learned about composition while also studying voice with Root's son Frederick.

He decided to go into the songbook publishing business and compiled his first collection, Sacred Echoes in 1880. After completing his studies with the Roots he moved to Chicago in 1883, where he started his own publishing firm. Over the next forty years he was involved with the production of nearly ninety gospel song collections, many edited my him alone, such as the Triumphant Songs series (5 volumes), with others, such as Make Christ King (1912), and even some for other publishers, such as Joy to the World (1914) which was issued by Hope Publishing (and was not a Christmas collection as you might imagine). All of these books contained several of his own compositions; he not only wrote and arranged tunes, he also wrote texts as well. It's estimated that more than two thousand songs were credited in one way or another to Excell (only a small fraction can be seen and heard at the Cyber Hymnal site).

In his collection Make His Praise Glorious (1900) his most enduring composition was first published, a harmonization of the American folk tune NEW BRITAIN, paired with Amazing grace by John Newton. Excell's arrangement became the one most often used in American hymnals of the twentieth century, which means that most of you have sung it, played it, or heard it whether you realized it or not.

Today's song is not quite so well known, but it is certainly second on Excell's list. A catchy tune composed for a text by Johnson Oatman, Jr., it appeared in Excell's Songs for Young People (1897).

When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what your God has done.

Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God has done!
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your many blessings; see what God has done.

Are you ever burdened with a load of care?
Does the cross seem heavy you are called to bear?
Count your many blessings, every doubt will fly,
And you will keep singing as the days go by.

When you look at others with their lands and gold,
Think that Christ has promised you a wealth untold;
Count your many blessings; wealth can never buy
Your reward in heaven, nor your home on high.

So, amid the conflict whether great or small,
Do not be disheartened, God is over all;
Count your many blessings, angels will attend,
Help and comfort give you to your journey’s end.

Johnson Oatman, Jr., 1897; alt.
Edwin O. Excell, 1897

In addition to his writing, composing, editing and publishing career, Excell became involved with Sunday school music though a friendship with Methodist Episcopal minister (later Bishop) John Heyl Vincent. Vincent we have encountered before, as the founder of the Chautauqua Institution, where hymnwriter Mary Lathbury and composer William Fisk Sherwin were very involved (Excell also sang on occasion at Chautauqua). Many of the song collections published by Excell were aimed at Sunday schools, and he also worked with the International Sunday School Association for many years.

He continued to lead choirs and sing at revival services during all this time as well. In 1921 he became ill while serving as music director for British evangelist Rodney "Gipsy" Smith's revival tour and died shortly after. A tribute written after his death said that no one "was more capable than he in directing great audiences in singing. He was never known to lose his temper or his smile in his endeavor to make the people sing."

Two Years Ago: William Walsham How


AuntE said...

This time of year, with all its hustle and hectic pace is a good time to be reminded to count our blessings. Thanks, CWS!

C.W.S. said...

I hadn't thought of that angle but it's certainly true.