Hymn writer and composer William Lamartine Thompson was born today in 1847 in Smiths Ferry, Pennsylvania, but shortly thereafter his parents moved to East Liverpool, Ohio, where Thompson was to live for most of his life. He graduated from Mount Union College in nearby Alliance, continuing studies in music at the New England Conservatory of Music (not long after its founding by Eben Tourjée, the father of hymn composer Lizzie Tourjée), and later in Leipzig, Germany.
While still studying in Boston, Thompson wrote his first successful song, Gathering Up the Shells at the Seashore, inspired by an excursion to nearby Nahant Beach. While he went on to write many secular and patriotic songs, becoming known as “the Stephen Foster of Ohio,” he would become even better known for writing gospel songs.
Back in East Liverpool after his education, he encountered some obstacles to having his music published so he started the W.L. Thompson Music Company which published and sold sheet music and song collections in addition to selling musical instruments and other supplies. He later opened a similar successful company in Chicago.
Will Thompson wrote many gospel songs that appeared in various hymn and song books between 1875 and 1920. The Cyber Hymnal lists only a few that you can examine, and Hymnary.org lists many more, though only by title. One of his songs stands out above the others, loved and sung by millions. First published by Thompson in Sparkling Gems No. 1 & 2 (1880), it has since appeared in hundreds more collections.
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,
Calling for you and for me;
Patiently Jesus is waiting and watching,
Watching for you and for me.
Come home, come home,
You who are weary, come home;
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling, O wand'rer, come home!
Why should we tarry when Jesus is pleading,
Pleading for you and for me?
Why should we linger and heed not his mercies,
Mercies for you and for me?
O for the wonderful love that is promised,
Promised for you and for me!
Though we have sinned, there is mercy and pardon,
Pardon for you and for me.
Will L. Thompson, 1880; alt.
Tune: THOMPSON (126.96.36.199. with refrain)
You might also remember this song as sung by actress Geraldine Page in her Academy Award-winning performance in The Trip to Bountiful (1985). And if you haven't seen that film, you should.
One anecdote is told in nearly every account of Thompson's life. Evangelist Dwight Moody, who had traveled the world with singer and songwriter Ira Sankey, was on his deathbed when he learned that Thompson had called to see him. Insisting on seeing Thompson, Moody then told him that he would rather have written Softly and tenderly than any of his numerous other accomplishments in life.