Tuesday, February 10, 2009

All the Way My Savior Leads Me

Praise for the Lord #22

Words: Fanny J. Crosby, 1875
Music: Robert Lowry, 1875

I still need to write that post about Fanny Crosby. The basic facts of her life are probably familiar, particularly her lifelong blindness and the strong character and positive attitude she showed in dealing with that hardship. I would really like to address instead her body of work, though, and also examine the situation of the female hymn-writers of the 18th century who entered into what had been pretty much a man's world. At the very least I want to respect her self-professed "aversion to being called 'the blind hymn-writer'."(Crosby, 199)

According to Ira Sankey, Fanny Crosby wrote this hymn after receiving "a very unexpected temporal blessing", the nature of which he does not disclose.(Sankey, 360) This apparently caused her to reflect, however, on the providence of God throughout her life. Crosby, a Methodist, sent the text to Robert Lowry, a Northern Baptist minister, poet, and songwriter, to set to music; it would be their first collaboration.(Crosby, 122)

Stanza 1:
All the way my Savior leads me;
What have I to ask beside?
Can I doubt His tender mercy,
Who through life has been my Guide?
Heav’nly peace, divinest comfort,
Here by faith in Him to dwell!
For I know, whate’er befall me,
Jesus doeth all things well;
For I know, whate’er befall me,
Jesus doeth all things well.

Crosby may have begun with Psalm 23 in mind: "He leads me in paths of righteousness... I shall not want."(v.3, v.1) God as the Leader and Guide of our life is a persistent image in the Psalms, perhaps most vividly in Psalm 48:14--"For this is God, our God forever and ever; He will be our Guide even to death [or 'our Guide forever']." God is known for His "tender mercy"(James 5:11), upon which we base our confidence of the forgiveness of sins: "According to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions."(Psalm 51:1)

The "tender mercy" of God also sent Jesus to bring us the good news of salvation, and to die for our sins.(Luke 1:78) Having gone to the grave ahead of us, He will walk with us "through the valley of the shadow of death."(Psalm 23:4) "We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek."(Hebrews 6:19-20)
As we follow Him through life and death, we can be assured that our trust is well placed--"He has done all things well."(Mark 7:37)

Stanza 2:
All the way my Savior leads me,
Cheers each winding path I tread;
Gives me grace for every trial,
Feeds me with the living Bread.
Though my weary steps may falter,
And my soul athirst may be,
Gushing from the Rock before me,
Lo! A spring of joy I see;
Gushing from the Rock before me,
Lo! A spring of joy I see.

We follow some twists and turns in the paths of life. Sometimes we wonder how we ended up where we are; sometimes we wonder where we are going. Often we are forced to admit the truth of Jeremiah 10:23, "It is not in man that walks to direct his steps." Even when we think we know where we want to go, and where we are going, it is not always what comes about. Still, as we look back, we can see that when we walked closely to God, He worked "all things together for good."(Romans 8:28). "But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day."(Proverbs 4:18)

In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul took time to recount many of the trials he had faced in his life, and in particular a "thorn in the flesh" that he often prayed would be removed. God's answer to him is worth our meditation upon: "My grace is sufficient for you."(2 Corinthians 12:9) What God had already provided, was enough to see him through. Sometimes we want God to take us out of a situation, when we need instead to realize that He has given us a way to bear up under it. Reflecting on these things, Paul told the Corinthians that "God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work."(2 Corinthians 9:8)

Toward the end of the stanza Crosby takes a cue from the image of wandering in the wilderness, and introduces the miraculous bread and water by which God sustained Israel during the Exodus. These things were physical necessities to Israel, but they had a spiritual lesson as well; as this multitude of people camped in the wilderness with no visible means of sustenance, the daily manna and the miraculous springs of water were unavoidable object lessons in their dependence upon God. We too are in a spiritual wilderness, and only the "Living Bread that came down from heaven"(John 6:51) and the Water can satisfy the hunger that all souls have but few recognize.
1 Corinthians 10:4 says that "they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ." He alone can give "a spring of water welling up to eternal life."(John 4:14)

Stanza 3:
All the way my Savior leads me
O the fullness of His love!
Perfect rest to me is promised
In my Father’s house above.
When my spirit, clothed immortal,
Wings its flight to realms of day
This my song through endless ages—
Jesus led me all the way;
This my song through endless ages—
Jesus led me all the way.

"Fullness" is a word and concept in the New Testament that is rich in meaning. Its origins lie in the image of a ship, fully manned with sailors, rowers, and soldiers, and packed with merchandise for foreign ports. Then as now, a full ship was a money-making ship (think of, perhaps, the modern airliner), and a ship filled to "fullness" was packed with everything it needed and everything it could possibly hold. Christ had this kind of "fullness" of His Father;(Colossians 1:19) He could not have been any more full of His Father's likeness, power, and character if He had tried. The church, in God's ideal, is to be the "fullness" of Christ.(Ephesians 1:23) Paul wished for every individual Christian "to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God."(Ephesians 3:19). Our God is not a stingy God!

Crosby turns next to God's promises for the hereafter, reminding us that "there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God,"(Hebrews 4:9) where perfect peace, composure, and comfort will be ours. "For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life."(2 Corinthians 5:4) If the fullness of God's love is given to us now, but will overflow even more when we reach our ultimate goal. Truly, "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him."(1 Corinthians 2:9)

And for all eternity, we will know Whom we have to thank--the One who came to a sick, sinful world, showed it the way, took the devil's worst, triumphed over death, and now walks with us as our Shepherd and Guide, to bring us home. "For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their Shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."(Revelation 7:17)

A little bit of criticism:

One aspect of Crosby's writing that usually stands out is her tendency to write in short outbursts of praise of no more than two lines length. These brief thoughts are grouped into stanzas, but do not necessarily make an integrated thought in the course of the stanza. (Not that there is anything wrong with that.) This text is somewhat the exception, especially in the third stanza, where the last three lines are hardly separable:

Perfect rest to me is promised
In my Father's house above;
When my spirit, clothed immortal
Wings its flight to realms of day,
This my song through endless ages,
"Jesus led me all the way!"

There is also a purely technical aspect of this text that lends interest--the odd-numbered lines in each stanza "weak" endings (STRONG SYLLABLE - weak syllable), while the even-number lines have "strong" endings (WEAK SYLLABLE - strong syllable). For example, the odd-numbered lines of the first stanza end on the words "LEADS me", "MER-cy", "COM-fort", and "be-FALL me". The even-numbered lines end on the words "be-SIDE", "my GUIDE", "to DWELL", "ALL things WELL". This gives the text a certain lilt that comes across in Lowry's music as well; the weak endings mean that the phrase ends in the middle of a measure, not on a downbeat, and thus give the music a variety and sense of forward progress.

About the music: Robert Lowry wrote both words & music to "Shall we gather at the river?"(PFTL#570), "Low in the grave He lay"(PFTL#408), and "Nothing but the blood"(PFTL#454). He also wrote the music for "Savior, Thy dying love"(PFTL#565), "I need Thee every hour"(PFTL#288), and "Come we that love the Lord"(PFTL#111). He added the refrains to the last two, as well, bringing them in line with the refrain-happy gospel song style. From this small sampling we see a facility and variety of ideas that are a cut above the typical gospel songwriter of his era.

At least two distinctive features make this tune memorable. First, the repeated C's with the dotted-eighth-note/sixteenth-note rhythm at the beginning ("All the way"), and at the beginning of the third line ("Can I doubt") are in contrast to the straight eighth-note rhythms in the rest of the hymn. After two such beginnings on the odd-numbered phrases, the third pair of phrases ("Heav'nly peace") begins in a contrasting manner. The final pair of phrases begins once again on the pitch C, and we have already a sense of return and completion.

Also, in the third pair of phrases, and going into the final pair, Lowry executes a nice bit of melodic tension-building. In "Heav'nly peace, divinest comfort" the strongest rhythmic stress is on "peace", on the pitch Ab; in "Here by faith in Him to dwell", the stress is on "faith", on the pitch C; and finally in the phrase "For I know, whate'er befall me..." the stress is on "know", which ascends to Eb. The rhythmically stressed words "peace", "faith", and "know" are successively higher, and also build the tonic chord of the key, Ab-C-Eb. It is simple but effective writing, and the similar shape of the three phrases contributes as well to the sense of completion when the high Eb is reached--the highest note in the entire song, and the emotional climax of each stanza.


Strong's Concordance. πλήρωμα. Provided by BlueLetterBible.org. http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G4138&t=ESV

Sankey, Ira D. My life and the story of the Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs and Solos. Harper Brothers, 1906; Kessinger Publishers, 2006.

Crosby, Fanny J. Memories of eighty years. J.H. Earle & Co., 1906. http://books.google.com/books?id=YjcDAAAAYAAJ&printsec=titlepage&source=gbs_summary_r&cad=0

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