Words & music: Barney E. Warren, 1911
Barney Elliott Warren (1867-1951) began his musical career as a bass singer in a group that accompanied revivalist Daniel Warner, the leading light in the early years of the Church of God movement centered around Anderson, Indiana. Warren later became a minister in this fellowship, and edited hymnals for the Gospel Trumpet publishing house.(Cyberhymnal) Warren wrote music for Warner's lyrics on more than one occasion, including "His yoke is easy" (PFTL #236) and "My name is in the book of life" (PFTL #430).
Hymnary.org lists 355 lyrics and 288 tunes by Warren (most are works in which he wrote both), but in scanning these I recognized no other titles. His "Hallelujah! What a thought" and "I have found His grace is all complete" were published in numerous Church of God hymnals a few generations ago, but do not seem to have crossed over into more general use.(Hymnary) Ironically, what would definitely have been his best known song cannot be attributed with any certainty. The perennial "Farther along" (PFTL #138) first appeared in Warren's Select Hymns for Christian Worship and General Gospel Service (Anderson, Ind.: Gospel Trumpet, 1911), attributed to W. B. Stevens (who is also credited with the music); but Warren is often given credit for the lyrics in other publications, and in truth both men may have been working with folk materials already in existence.
"Beautiful robes" is one of the class of songs about heaven that pays a great deal of attention to the physical details described in John's Revelation. At times these songs reach the point of a materialistic view of "heavenly treasures" bordering on greed, but a careful reading of Warren's text shows that he sticks to the spiritual and emblematic importance of these elements.
Likewise, his poetry is, though unschooled, more deft than it may appear. He makes consistent use of internal rhyme, drawing attention to the short phrases, but he has an overall stanza structure as well--aabb (or aaaabbbb following the internal divisions)--which works quite well except for the slip in the 3rd stanza, which is abab. His choice of words shows a sensitivity to what Robert Louis Stevenson called the "ring of words," especially in the opening stanza and the chorus: "white," "light," "bright," "no night," and "band of might" have a crisp clarity and lift (from the rising "i" vowel and the explosive "t" consonant) that seem particularly appropriate to the dazzling images of heaven given by John. The frequent rhymes on "air" ("wear," "there," "fair," "care," "prayer") also have a breathiness and freedom that fits the anticipated release from this world.
Beautiful robes so white, beautiful land of light,
Beautiful home so bright, where there shall come no night;
Beautiful crown I'll wear, shining and bright o'er there,
Yonder in mansions fair, gather us there.
Robes figure rather prominently in the Bible. It was a special robe that honored Joseph above his brothers.(Gen. 37:3) A detailed description of the robe of the high priest takes up much of Exodus chapters 28, 29, and 39. An even more poignant image is seen in the parable of the prodigal son: the forgiving father replaces the son's clothing, no doubt tattered and stained, with "the best robe."(Luke 15:22)
A white robe was even more special, simply because it is the hardest to keep clean; remember that at the Transfiguration Jesus' clothes appeared, in Mark's words, "radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth can bleach them."(Mark 9:3) The figure of white robes appears several times in the Revelation, sometimes clothing heavenly beings and sometimes the translated saints. The metaphor is explained most clearly in chapter 3, verse 4, when Jesus gives His assessment of the church in Sardis: "Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy." The desire to wear a white robe in heaven is no mere pretty picture--it respresents a striving for moral purity and worthiness that should be the goal of every follower of Christ.
Beautiful robes (of white), beautiful land (of light),
Beautiful home (so bright), beautiful band (of might),
Beautiful crown (beautiful crown), shining so fair (yes, shining so fair),
Beautiful mansion bright, gather us there (yes, gather us there).
The refrain references the main points of the first stanza--the robe, the crown, and the home. The "band of might" doubtless refers to the white-robed residents of heaven: the twenty-four elders,(Rev. 4:4) the holy martyrs,(Rev. 6:11) the "great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,"(Rev. 7:9) and the "armies of heaven."(Rev. 19:14)
As for the crown, we can leave aside the question of whether it will be golden, as some songs assert (though only the crown of Jesus is so represented, Rev. 14:14), or whether it will have stars (a figure used only in connection with the "woman" of Revelation 12). We may be certain of this: it is a crown of life,(James 1:12, Rev. 2:10) it is a crown of righteousness,(2 Tim. 4:8) and it is a crown that is incorruptible, never fading away.(1 Cor. 9:25, 1 Pet. 5:4) A "beautiful crown," indeed!
Beautiful thought to me, we shall forever be
Thine in eternity when from this world we're free;
Free from its toil and care, heavenly joys to share,
Let me cross over there; this is my prayer.
Christ came to bring us freedom from sin and futility: "For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death."(Romans 8:2) But in another sense we are still in bondage while we remain in this world:
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.(Romans 8:20-23)
Paul felt this pull strongly, as he related to the Philippians:
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.(Philippians 1:21-24)
One of the reasons Paul could keep his rejoicing spirit, writing from a Roman prison, was that he had become "untouchable:" the only thing that really mattered was the one thing that no man could take away. The enemies of Christ thought that the worst thing they could do to Paul was to take away his life (which history indicates they did), but even in that they were only giving him the thing he desired most, a little earlier than otherwise planned.
Can we say these words with Paul? Are we ready to go, and do we long for our true home? I think it is naturally more difficult for younger people to see this; I know that I did not feel this way nearly to the extent then, that I do now in middle age. And I have been with older Christians, who have accomplished what they could in this life and are ready to go, waiting for the day with a quiet contentment. God help us all to make ready, and to grow in faith as the day draws nearer.
Beautiful things on high, over in yonder sky,
Thus I shall leave this shore, counting my treasures o'er;
Where we shall never die, carry me by and by,
Never to sorrow more, heavenly store.
Just from a standpoint of poetic structure, this stanza might have been better had Warren kept the rhyme scheme consistent with that of the other stanzas (aabb), which would have worked:
Beautiful things on high, over in yonder sky,
Where we shall never die, carry me by and by;
Thus I shall leave this shore, counting my treasures o'er,
Never to sorrow more, heavenly store.
But I have to admit, I have sung this song many times and never noticed the inconsistency until now.
The "heavenly store" expression has puzzled me at times, and no doubt has called up some amusing images in the minds of children over the years. But in context, I believe I understand Warren's meaning, and may even be able to point to the Scripture reference that inspired him:
Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; that they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate [i.e., to share]; laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.(1 Timothy 6:17-19)
As the old saying goes, "You can't take it with you." But there is an equally valid corollary: "You can, however, send it on ahead." There are many investment advisers in this world, of course, and some of theme have now gone broke--but there is one piece of investment advice, given two thousand years ago, that still rings true: "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal."(Matthew 6:19-20) What a world this would be, if even a fraction of the concern and effort that is spent on storing up earthly wealth were spent on building up that "heavenly store" of good deeds!
About the music:
In my experience of congregational singing, this song tends to drag. I think it is a combination of factors, but I am pretty sure which one is the biggest problem. To take a breath during a song, you obviously either cheat a little off the length of one of the notes, or stretch the beat momentarily while you take a breath. If you do the latter, it naturally creates a gradual slowing down of the tempo, so I strongly advise the former practice.
But to do the former (cutting off a little of the length of the last note in the phrase to stick in a breath), you need a long enough note at the end of the line that the disruption won't be obvious. The last line of each stanza in "Beautiful robes," for example, ends with a long note that takes up the first three beats of a measure (or first 9 eighth notes of the 12/8 bar, but I'm counting dotted quarter notes as the beat). The last beat of the measure (or the 10th, 11th, and 12th eighth notes) is the pickup to the refrain, on the word "Beau- ti- ful." It is easy to catch a breath here--just sing the last note of the stanza (e.g. "there" at the end of the 1st stanza) up to just the beginning of the third beat (or the 7th eighth note), then take a breath, and you will have plenty of time to come in on the pickup to the refrain. There will be no slowing of the tempo, and it is barely noticeable; as long as we hear the beginning of the last beat of the note, we tend not to notice when it was released. (I have to credit Dr. Steve Rhodes, the band director at Lipscomb University, for pointing out this principle in his rehearsals.)
Now to the problem at hand. In "Beautiful robes," you need to catch a breath at the end of the first, second, and third lines as well, but there is no long note to chop off. Instead, the last measure of each line has three words, one on each beat; so if you are trying to chop off part of the 3rd beat to take a breath, you are doing that on a word that just started. To make it even more challenging, the 1st and 2nd lines of the first stanza conclude with words that end in the complex explosive consonant "t;" it's just a little more challenging to get these words out in a brief space, take a quick breath, and come back in on the pickup of the next line without losing time.
This is not a criticism of Warren's writing, just a caveat to songleaders: be aware of the tendency of the song to drag, and understand where and why it is happening. I think it is probably most effective to lead the song, not too fast, but at the tempo that one naturally says the word "beautiful," and somewhat lightly, not emphasizing each word in the final measure of each line. This tends to minimize the problem.
Cyberhymnal. "Barney Elliott Warren." http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/w/a/r/warren_be.htm
Hymnary.org. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Christian Classics Ethereal Library ; Calvin Institute for Christian Worship, 2007- . http://www.hymnary.org/