This sermon was a collaboration between Bryan Campbell, Director of Music at Orange Congregational and myself.
If I were to ask you what is your favorite hymn, you could probably name that tune immediately! That’s because sacred music, as does most music, strikes a chord, rings a proverbial bell, reminds us of something or brings us to a place of great joy or homecoming. Music has a way of moving us that spoken words sometimes just don’t. Music moves you in heart and spirit.
Today we will look at three song and lyric writers and the contributions that they have made to hymnody and have been passed down to us through the generations. Truly God inspired them to use their gifts; their musical skills and poetic words to express the profound healing and reconciliatory nature of our beloved God. We are the beneficiaries and the keepers for now of their love and witness to God’s saving grace.
To understand why we love our hymns as we do it might be interesting and fun to understand, briefly, the progression of hymnody by looking at three influential musicians. Lowell Mason, Fanny Crosby, and Horatio Spafford. Their names may not be familiar to you but boy oh boy their contributions will.
As with the Bible, hymnody in its earliest form was solely oral tradition, that is music and words were passed on because people learned the hymns by heart. In the 17th century there came over from the Old World metrical psalmody and what we know as the chorale. This continued for a hundred years or so and then in the 18th century the Harvard educated ministers sought to improve congregational singing by teaching them to read music, so was born singing schools utilizing what was called shape-note hymnody to teach the notes of the scale. Reform was in the air. By the late 18th century singing school textbooks were standardized, this is important because it brought out native composers. [i]
It was during this time that Lowell Mason advocated a seven shape note system based on do-re-me. Lowell was a dominant figure in this reform movement and was one of the top composers of hymn tunes in his day. He was also the one who introduced music instruction to the public school system in Boston. He composed or arranged some 1,600 hymn tunes, tunes such as ANTIOCH, AZMON, BETHANY, HAMBURG, AND OLIVET which later songwriters used for hymns like Joy to the World, O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing, Nearer, My God to Thee, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross , and My Faith Looks Up to Thee. Let us now sing one of his tunes, from the Pilgrim Hymnal Number 348, My Faith Looks Up to Thee. To listen click here!
A good fifty years later after Lowell was Fanny Crosby who once said, “It seemed intended by the blessed providence of God that I should be blind all my life, and I thank him for the dispensation. If perfect earthly sight were offered me tomorrow I would not accept it. I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things about me.”
You see, Fanny was blinded at six weeks of age when her eyes were scarred by an incorrect diagnosis and treatment by an incompetent doctor for inflamed and infected eyelids. She once remarked that, “If I had not lost my sight, I could never have written all of the hymns God gave me. And write she did, Fanny wrote over 8,000 hymn texts in her life time, it is told often six or seven hymns a day. Fanny was a leading poet of the Gospel Hymn movement and a Methodist teacher. She also played the harp, organ, and piano.
The Gospel Hymn movement embraced certain themes: personal salvation, a close relationship with the Savior, the helplessness of lost individuals, security for those who trust in Jesus, a call for Christ likeness, individualism, and heaven the destination of the believer.[ii] The ability of the gospel hymn was its ability to relay the writer’s Christian experience so that many could relate and identify so it’s hard to separate the song from its writer. Fanny lived in the mid 1800’s and left a legacy of hymns including Blessed Assurance. Let’s sing this beloved hymn from the New Century Hymnal Number 473. To listen click here!
Fanny died in Bridgeport, CT in 1915 and is buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport close to PT Barnum and Thom Thumb.
Perhaps one of the most compelling histories of a hymn is that of Horatio Spafford’s, It Is Well With My Soul. Horatio and Anna Spafford lived a good life in Chicago in the 1860’s. They had five children. Horatio was a lawyer and an elder in the Presbyterian Church. He was an active abolitionist and he and Anna lived their faith.
But in 1870 tragedy began to strike the family. Their youngest, Horatio Jr. died of Scarlet Fever, then just a year later the Great Chicago Fire occurred destroying most of their holdings. Their home was left in tact and they used it as a resource to help the poor and homeless. But Anna’s health began to fail and they planned a trip to Europe in 1873. At the last minute Horatio was detained by business so Anna and their four daughters set sail.
On November 22, 1873 the steamer Ville du Havre was struck by a British iron sailing ship, the Lockhearn. Within twelve minutes the ship sank and only 81 of the 307 passengers survived. Anna was one of them. When she was retrieved she sent a cable to her husband, “Saved alone. What shall I do?” He left Chicago immediately and went to get her. It is said that while sailing past the area where the ship had gone down he was informed of the spot. Alone in his cabin Horatio penned the words to his famous hymn, It Is Well With My Soul. He wrote to Anna’s sister, “On Thursday last we passed over the spot where she went down, in mid-ocean, the waters three miles deep. But I do not think of our dear ones there. They are safe, folded, the dear lambs.”[iii] His faith never faltered.[iv]
Let us now sing from the New Century Hymnal Number 438, When Peace, Like a River. To listen click here.
Horatio and Anna Spafford were a witness to the healing power of God and Christ’s gospel. They had three more children, moved to Jerusalem, started the ‘American Colony’ and continued to serve the needy, care for the sick and took in homeless children.
Each one of these people, Mason, Crosby and Spafford gave us so much because they had a song in their heart. Whether that song was born out of a musical gift, a physically altered condition, or a tragic accident their faith was strong and they trusted in God’s great power, and they gave. We now are the recipients of their beautiful legacy.
We should not let this day go by however as just another ‘hymn sing’ Sunday, as fun as it is. Each one of us has a song in our heart. It may not be a musical one like theirs, but there is a melody to your life that is waiting to be sung. If you have not tapped into it yet, find it quick. As the Psalmist says, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord…it is God that has made us….and we are God’s beloved. And that is something to sing about!
[i] Sing With Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Hymnology. Eskew, Harry and McElrath T., Hugh. Broadman Press, Nashville, TN. 1980.
[ii] O For A Thousand Tongues: The History, Nature, and Influcence of Music in the Methodist Tradition. Warren, Jr., James I. Francis Asbury Press, Grand Rapids, MI. 1988.
[iv] Horatio G. Spafford: The Story Behind the Hymn. http://voices.yahoo.com/horatio-g-spafford-story-behind-hymn-is-1620793.html?cat=38.