Friday, July 24, 2015

John Newton

John Newton, hymnwriter, Anglican priest, former slave-trader and later activist against slavery in England, was born today in London in 1725. Later in life he would mark May 10 as the anniversary of his conversion to Christianity in 1748.  He continued in the slave trade for a few years after that day, but tried to ensure that the Africans under his care were treated "humanely."

After giving up his seafaring life, he became surveyor of tides in the port of Liverpool, where he met George Whitefield, a deacon in the Church of England but also an early follower of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Newton was later introduced to Wesley, and it seems likely that his acquaintance with these men influenced not only his desire to be ordained in the Church of England (which finally happened in June 1764 after several years of applying), but also his later hymnwriting career. Hymns were not widely used in the Church of England in Newton's time (and were expressly forbidden by many bishops), but when Newton was established as the rector at the village of Olney he wrote many of his hymns to be sung at his weekly prayer service as a response to his sermon, believing that they were an effective way to reinforce his message (as John and Charles Wesley earlier believed of their Methodist followers).

Today's text is from Newton's Olney Hymns (1779) where it was titled The Lodestone.  It caught my attention because it creatively links our relationship with Christ to the natural phenomenon of magnetism, which I don't recall encountering before.

As needles point towards the pole,
When touched by the magnetic stone;
So faith in Jesus gives the soul
A tendency before unknown.

Till then, by earthly passions led,
In search of fancied good we range;
The paths of disappointment tread,
To nothing fixed, but love of change.

The Holy Spirit then imparts
The knowledge of the Savior’s love;
Our wand’ring, weary, restless hearts,
Are fixed at once, no more to move.

By Love’s sure light we soon perceive
Our noblest bliss, and proper end;
And gladly every idol leave,
To love and serve our Lord and Friend.

John Newton, 1779; alt.
Benjamin Cooke (?), 1794

As of last month, John Newton has the additional distinction of being the first hymnwriter whose most famous hymn has been sung on national television by a President of the United States.  I'm sure most, if not all of you saw President Obama's rendition of Amazing grace at the memorial service on June 26 for the nine people murdered at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

Seven Years Ago: John Newton

Six Years Ago: John Newton

Five Years Ago: John Newton

Four Years Ago: John Newton

Three Years Ago: John Newton

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Our Sure Defense Forever Be

I recently acquired a new (to me) hymnal, pictured here. Hymnal: A Worship Book (1992) was a joint project of the Church of the Brethren, the General Conference Mennonite Church, and the Mennonite Church in North America (it appears that those last two denominations merged in 2002 but I could be wrong).  Anyway, it's an interesting book to me because, in addition to many new hymns of the 1980s and 90s it also has many hymns from earlier days that had not survived in the hymnals of other denominations but which were apparently still being sung.

The hymnal opens with a section of hymns called "Gathering," which caught my eye for some reason, though I'm sure it's not the only hymnal with such a section.  These are suggested for use as the opening hymn in worship, which I've always just thought of as "opening hymns," but "Gathering" sounds much nicer.  Also, it seems like a good theme for summer Sundays here, so even though I have already written about many such hymns before, we'll see some more this year.

Working together, Fanny Crosby and composer William Howard Doane probably collaborated on dozens of songs, including Pass me not, O gentle Savior, Jesus, keep me near the cross, and To God be the glory, but I had never encountered this one, which I like very much.

God of our strength, enthroned above,
The source of life, the fount of love;
O let devotion’s sacred flame
Our souls awake to praise thy name.

God of our strength, we sing to thee,
Our sure defense forever be.

To thee we lift our joyful eyes,
To thee on wings of faith we rise;
Come thou, and let thy courts on earth
Ring out thy praise in holy mirth.

God of our strength, from day to day
Direct our thoughts and guide our way;
O may our hearts united be
In sweet communion here with thee.

God of our strength, on thee we call;
God of our hope, our light, our all,
Thy name we praise, thy love adore,
Our rock, our shield, forevermore.

Fanny Crosby, 1882; alt.
VISION (L.M. with refrain)
William H. Doane, 1883

This hymn was first published in the Baptist Hymnal (1883), for which Doane was the musical editor.  Although the Cyber Hymnal suggests that Doane's tune was written earlier, this appears to have been a new text for Crosby.  At this point she was probably the most famous writer of gospel songs and hymns in her day, having been successful for about fifteen years. Though she lived until 1915, her most popular songs (mostly the ones we still know today) were written in those early years.  By 1883, the songs she was writing did not gain the same traction as the earlier ones and are generally less known, though I have written about several of these as well.   


Friday, July 17, 2015

Isaac Watts

Influential hymnwriter Isaac Watts was born today in 1674. His father was a Nonconformist, or Dissenter, who was twice jailed for not joining the state Church of England, and the son followed in the father's beliefs. Dissatisfied with the psalm paraphrases which were sung in English churches of his day, young Isaac resolved to write better things to sing, and thus became one of the earliest and most prolific writers in English who wrote hymns that were not scriptural paraphrases. His earliest hymns were published in 1707 and 1709. 

In 1719 he published The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, his own psalm paraphrases which brought Jesus into many of the texts. These were not the stricter, complete paraphrases of earlier days; Watts left some of the psalms out, as well as ignoring some long sections of those he did include. To explain these so-called discrepancies, he wrote that 

Where the Psalmist describes religion by the fear of God, I have often joined faith and love to it. Where he speaks of the pardon of sin through the mercies of God, I rather choose to mention the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God. Where He promises abundance of wealth, honor, and long life, I have changed some of these typical blessings for grace, glory and life eternal, which are brought to light by the gospel, and promised in the New Testament.

His hymns and psalm paraphrases were derided by critics as "flights of fancy," or even "Watts's whims," and some churches split over the singing of hymns rather than psalms, but obviously hymns eventually gained greater favor with the general public. The noted essayist Samuel Johnson, a contemporary of Watts, wrote that "He was the first who taught the Dissenters to write and speak like other men, by showing them that elegance might consist with piety." 

In all he wrote nearly eight hundred texts (listed here). Today's hymn of praise is not derived from the Psalms, but some sources suggest that it comes partly from the book of Job, proclaiming the infinite greatness of God.

How wondrous great, how glorious bright
Must our Creator be,
Who dwells amidst the dazzling light
Of vast eternity.

Our soaring spirits upwards rise
to reach the glorious throne.
There would we see the blessed Three
In the Almighty One.

Our reason stretches all its wings,
And climbs above the skies;
But still how far below God's feet
Our mortal knowledge lies!

While all the heavenly powers conspire
Eternal praise to bring,
Let faith in humbler notes adore,
The wondrous Mystery sing.

Isaac Watts, 1707; alt.
Maurice Greene, 18th cent.

Earlier printings of this hymn do not include this final stanza, so I am not sure if it is from another hymn entirely, and perhaps is not even by Watts, but this is the form which more recent hymnals have used.

Isaac Watts never married (his one proposal was rejected) and his health was poor for many years.  He pastored a church in London though many of his duties had to be left to an assistant.  In old age, he once wrote "The business of a Christian is to bear the will of God, as well as to do it. If I were in health, I ought to be doing it; and now it is my duty to bear it." He died on November 25, 1748 and was was buried in Bunhill Fields.

Seven Years Ago: Isaac Watts

Six Years Ago: Isaac Watts

Five Years Ago: Isaac Watts