Thursday, May 14, 2009

Beyond this Land of Parting

Praise for the Lord #55

Words: Mary B.C. Slade, 1876
Music: Asa B. Everett, 1876

Mary Slade and Asa Everett produced a number of fine gospel songs that have remained in use in the traditional repertoire. They also co-wrote "Footprints of Jesus"(PFTL#153), "Hark! The gentle voice of Jesus"(PFTL#207), "There's a fountain free"(PFTL#655), and "Who at the door is standing?"(PFTL#767). It is unclear whether this was an active partnership, or whether Everett simply chose to set several texts by Slade. I have seen a reference (which I stupidly did not take down at the time and have been unable to find again) that indicates a correspondence between Slade and Rigdon McIntosh, Everett's protege (of whom more later), and indicating that Slade was at least familiar with some of Everett's music.

Mary Bridges Canedy Slade (1826-1882) was a native of Fall River, Massachusetts, a schoolteacher and an associate editor of the New England Journal of Education.("Slade") She edited a children's magazine, Wide Awake,(Ninde,367) and published books of educational activities for bother Sunday School and primary school. She and her husband, Albion K. Slade, were operatives of the Underground Railroad.(Snodgrass)

Stanza 1:
Beyond this land of parting, losing and leaving,
Far beyond the losses darkening this,
And far beyond the taking and the bereaving
Lies the summer land of bliss.

We cannot deny the truth of this assessment--this life involves much of departures and of loss. Friends and family who were once near us may move away, and our day-to-day association may never be the same again. Friends and family move on from this life to the next, and we know we will never see them again in this life. Now the Christian has an assurance and a comfort that the world cannot know--first, that our God is the "God of all comfort",(2 Corinthians 1:3) and second, that our loved ones in Christ are always in His care, in this life and in the next. But the pain of parting is still real.

I have known preachers who questioned whether a true believer should mourn when a fellow Christian dies--whether this is evidence of lack of faith. I respectfully disagree, and I believe the Bible gives us an example to consider: when Stephen was martyred, "Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him."(Acts 8:2) Did they mourn him because they thought they would never see him again? Certainly not! A man could hardly die with more assurance of his eternal destiny than did Stephen, who said "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God."(Acts 7:56) But they mourned, because Stephen's departure from this life was a loss to them personally and to the church as a whole. Were they criticized for this emotional outpouring? The only judgment offered of their character is that they were "devout", and no less so for their justified mourning of a dear brother and fellow-worker.

There are also the temporary separations of this life, which are all the more painful because of life's uncertainty. When Paul took his leave from the elders of the church in Ephesus, "there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship."(Acts 20:37-38) There is always more we want to say, and yet cannot say, at these times; and there is the desire to make time stand still, to keep these moments of fellowship from ending. Was this part of the reason that the church at Troas was willing to listen to Paul preach all night long, knowing that he would leave in the morning and might not return?(Acts 20:7)

But the message of this song is also about what lies ahead--a land where these separations are no more. There is a "hope laid up for you in heaven"(1 Corinthians 1:5), where there will be a reunion of those who have lived and died in Christ:

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.(1 Thessalonians 4:16-18)

Land beyond, so fair and bright!
Land beyond, where is no night!
Summer land, God is its Light,
O happy summer land of bliss.

Nowhere can I find a Scripture reference to the climate of heaven, nor can we be sure this is a relevant question. The following passage, though, certainly precludes the deadness of winter or the decline and decay of fall:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.(Revelation 22:1-2)

The absence of night in heaven was one of my favorite aspects of the subject when I was a child, being rather afraid of the dark. John's description of heaven assures as that "night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light."(Revelation 22:5) From a symbolic standpoint this is even more meaningful: in this life the sun is our life-giving source of light and heat, and even it is obscured for half the day. In heaven our source of life will be the One who created the sun, and He will never be taken away from our sight.

Stanza 2:
Beyond this land of toiling, sowing and reaping,
Far beyond the shadows, darkening this,
And far beyond the sighing, moaning and weeping,
Lies the summer land of bliss.

One cannot help but be reminded of the ending of Psalm 126,

Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.(Psalm 126:5-6)

Some of my favorite childhood memories are of gardening with my father, and I well remember going out the next morning to check on seeds I had planted the day before, just to see if there were any progress. Sowing doesn't work that way, of course. Any farmer can tell you that planting is a calculated risk, literally "betting the farm" that your weeks and months of labor, all day long and often into the night, will yield a crop that will keep your head above water, financially, for another season. The hard work is the only part that is certain. But when a good harvest comes in, it is a thing of beauty, and the satisfaction (and gratitude to God) the farmer feels are well justified.

Sowing seed is an act of faith that the death of one thing will lead to the new life of another. Jesus said in John 12:24-25: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life." The Christian life is much like the farmer's work; we must put in for the long haul and wait for the harvest. Paul gave up his life as an upwardly mobile young Pharisee to be an outcast from his people, but said, "Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ." The work we do in the Christian life, as well, requires sacrifice that does not immediately show benefit; but Paul advised that we should "be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain."(1 Corinthians 15:58)

The following stanza is often omitted in modern hymnals:

Beyond this land of sinning, fainting and failing,
Far beyond the doubtings, darkening this,
And far beyond the griefs and dangers befalling,
Lies the summer land of bliss.

I like this hymn, and I like the Slade-Everett hymns as a group; but I have to admit that this particular stanza is no great loss. It seems to bring up an interesting subject--the degree to which our own sins and doubts are trials in themselves--but does not develop it enough to make it clear. The questionable rhyme of "failing" and "befalling" is no help, either.

Stanza 3:
Beyond this land of waiting, seeking and sighing,
Far beyond the sorrows, darkening this,
And far beyond the pain and sickness and dying
Lies the summer land of bliss.

Perhaps Mrs. Slade was thinking of the following passage, which has so often been a comfort in time of grief:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. And He who was seated on the throne said, "Behold, I am making all things new."(Revelation 21:3-5)

There is more here than just the absence of suffering, just as light is more than the absence of darkness. Death, mourning, crying, and pain will be "no more"--they will not just be abated, they will actually no longer be part of our existence in that sphere. These are "former things" that have "passed away", like unpleasant dreams that are already half-forgotten as we rouse ourselves to the reality of a new day begun. What that new day will be, we cannot be certain--no doubt it is beyond our understanding in our present state--but we can be assured it is far better than anything we have ever known.

About the music: This is a case where the right music made the hymn. Slade's text, taken as poetry, is rather dark (although altogether true). It talks of a better land to come, but it also spends a good deal of time describing death and bereavement in this world. Everett's upbeat, hopeful tune tips the balance toward the emphasis of the former. Even as we are singing the somewhat melancholy words, the music helps us not mind them so much. There are times when a mismatch of text and music seems to be simply oversight or naivete on the part of the composer; but in this case, I think Everett may have done this quite deliberately.

Asa Brooks Everett (1828-1875), a native Virginian, was one of the most able composers and teachers in the antebellum south. Though his father meant for him to be a physician, Asa followed his older brother's pursuit of ministry and eventually both both brothers found their niche as church musicians, songwriters, publishers, and music educators. During this era in the United States there were few options for a formal education in music, and the brothers went to Boston (Lowell Mason's sphere of influence) to benefit from what was available. Asa Everett took his studies a large step further by traveling to Leipzig, Germany, where he studied composition for four years.(Hall,97ff.)

This was a common story for an American classical composer of that era, when a "prophet was without honor in his own country" and had to earn success in Europe (typically Germany) before being taken seriously by his own countrymen. Everett is often listed as "Dr. A.B. Everett" in hymnals, and it was not unusual for a musician with any kind of European training to adopt the honorific "Doctor" when setting up shop in 19th-century America. With Everett's nearly eight years of training, it was no doubt deserved. (I have found no evidence that he was ever a medical doctor.) What is puzzling and fascinating to me is that a man with this degree of classical training could write such simple and unaffected gospel song tunes. It suggests a sensitivity to the stylistic and cultural aspects of classical and indigenous musics that was not common at the time; many classical musicians (Lowell Mason, for example, most of the time) considered the folk hymn traditions beneath contempt. It would be interesting to look at some of Everett's classical compositions for a comparison, but so far I have been unable to find any.

Everett was mentor and friend to the young Methodist musician Rigdon McIntosh, who later bought the Everett copyrights.(Hall,99) Wayne S. Walker (who has been doing hymn studies for some time) has come to the conclusion that McIntosh's influence may account for the number of Slade-Everett hymns that became well-known among the Churches of Christ in the southern United States. McIntosh was the music editor of the 1889 Christian Hymns, the first hymnal published by Gospel Advocate and the first hymnal developed specifically for the fellowship of congregations that became known as the Churches of Christ.(Walker) Hall seems to confirm this, stating that "the Everetts' music, including hymn tunes, anthems, and gospel songs, have occupied a permanent place in all the collections edited by him."(99)


"Mary Bridges Canedy Slade." Cyberhymnal.

Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Underground Railroad: an Encyclopedia of People, Places, and Events. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2008. (Citation from table of contents data provided by Library of Congress at

Hall, Jacob Henry. Biography of Gospel Song and Hymn Writers. New York: Revell, 1914. Online version by Internet Archive,

Walker, Wayne S. "Hark the gentle voice." Defender of Truth.

Ninde, Edward S. The Story of the American Hymn. New York: Abindgon Press, 1921.

No comments:

Post a Comment