In the Sweet By and By

Now you may be in a more modern church that has done away with paper hymnals but I like my song book in hand.  I play at the piano and my meager skills have been used from time to time in various churches from which I’ve collected a number of books.  It’s funny the difference in songs from one edition to another and I’m often saddened by missing favorites.

Well as you know this blog largely springs from research for my fiction-writing and I’m very serious about historical accuracy – which was what I was thinking about as I noticed the dates of tunes and lyrics this past Sunday.  Did it ever occur to you if you stepped back in time to your very own church 50 or 100 or even 150 years ago what they might be singing?

My pastor mentioned a song recently – which I’d sung my whole life – that was a “modern” hymn.  I thought, “Huh?”  Modern isn’t an adjective I like applied to the good ole’ hymns I know and love.  But compared to Martin Luther’s A Mighty Fortress which he wrote in 1529, The Old Rugged Cross is quite modern, being penned in 1913. 

If you arrived this Sunday into 1850, you would not be singing Jesus Loves Me – it would be another decade before that song is available.  Nor would you enjoy What a Friend we have in Jesus which was written in 1855.  You would be able to sing At the Cross (1707) and Amazing Grace (1779).  If you enjoy I Shall not be Moved that song was probably available in 1850, but it was an African American Spiritual, the exact date of its origin is unknown.  Since there were few desegregated congregations in 1850, there would have been lots of churches that would not have included that one on their weekly program.

Fast forward fifty years and the song book has grown.  By then How Great thou Art (1886), At Clavary (1895) and Count Your Many Blessings (1897) would have been added.

But you’ll have to wait well into the twentieth century to begin singing some of my personal favorites: I’ll Fly Away (1932), Jesus Hold My Hand (1933) and Victory in Jesus (1939).  Who ever thought of those songs as “modern”?

The stories around songs are fascinating too and we often sing them for years without knowing their history.  I guess a hymn can minister in two ways, by its lyrics and by its story.  I enjoy Mine Eyes have seen the Glory which was written in 1861 by Julia Ward Howe.  The original printing is “by the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments” and includes a verse “I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel”.    The tune was originally set to “John Brown’s Body Lies a’moulding in the Grave” and eulogizes “John Brown was a hero” and “his truth still marches on”.

It is Well with my Soul was written in 1873 by Horatio Spafford following the tragic deaths of his four daughters in a shipwreck.  He had already suffered the loss of a 2 year old son and economic ruin following the Great Chicago Fire.  Still, as he traveled across the Atlantic to meet his grieving wife he was inspired to pen lines that I can barely hear without a tear springing to my eyes.  “When sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, ‘It is well, it is well with my soul’”.

And perhaps the most famous backstory to a hymn is Amazing Grace – all the more well known after the 2006 film.  John Newton had captained a slave ship before he came to know The Lord and he was later inspired to write a number of hymns.  Amazing Grace was picked up in America by the Second Great Awakening and has touched an untold number of souls in the past 238 years.