Thursday, February 24, 2011

"Concerning hymns"
by Jessie Brown Pounds

Dr. Robert E. Hooper, a historian of the Restoration Movement, once suggested to me that the Churches of Christ have never produced a full-fledged philosophy of church music--that our discussions of it have been entirely consumed with the single issue of instrumental music in worship, to the neglect of any other facet of the subject. Though I certainly don't claim to have encyclopedic knowledge of Restoration Movement literature, I could not counter his claim. I would like to introduce here the occasional review of authors and works in this vein when I find them.

Jessie Brown Hunter Pounds is best known as the lyricist of several well-known hymns, such as "Anywhere with Jesus" and "Beautiful isle of somewhere," but in addition was a significant author of regional fiction and editor of popular religious journals. She also wrote a group of essays on the subject of church music, found in the Memorial Selections published in 1921 (I have not been able to determine their date of composition). Though she was of a fairly liberal persuasion within the Christian Church and certainly had no problems with the use of instruments in worship, her point of view on other matters in church music is at least in the same ballpark as mine, and her perspective as a woman hymn-writer in the 19th and early 20th centuries is especially interesting. Her essay "Concerning hymns" (read the full text here) was written between 1913 and her death in 1920.

She writes:

The Christian world has suddenly become concerned because our hymnbook is not as good as it should be. ... The indication is a good one. ... Now they have begun to examine it with some intelligence, and to ask concerning it many pertinent and interesting questions.

One of these questions is, Why is our hymn-book the product, for the most part, of writers practically unknown in literature. In other words, Why have not the great English poets given us our English hymns? ...

This is hard to dispute. Very, very few of the writers of hymns will ever be found in a college anthology of English or American literature. Even those few hymns that we have from prominent authors, such as "Dear Lord and Father of mankind" by John Greenleaf Whittier, are typically excerpted and adapted to that end, rather than written for the purpose of singing in church.

There are several reasons why the poems of these masters are not sung. One of them is, no doubt, the limitation of form which the hymn imposes. A hymn must first of all be singable. ... If the thought of the poet obstructs the rhythm of the musician, the work is doomed. Emphasis, in the hymn, is in the music, and is gained by stress and recurrence rather than by cumulative thought. The form of verse must be simple, there must be but three or four stanzas, and the thought must lend itself to the repetition of the strain in each successive stanza.

Here is a strong argument, and it is no insult to hymns to say what is obviously true. If a congregation--a group of untrained singers--is going to sing a hymn together, there are only two practical options. Either they will sing a relatively short text to a relatively short melody, or they will sing a longer text broken up into stanzas, each stanza sung to the same relatively short melody. The option of a lengthy through-composed work (in which the music does not repeat), such as the great choral works of the classical tradition, is just not likely ever to succeed in this context.

A short text that can be sung whole, without breaking up into stanzas, can be as irregular as you wish. The excellent little Scripture hymn, "The steadfast love of the Lord," is a good example. Since the music will not be repeated to another stanza, it can follow the irregularities of the text in an interesting diversity of rhythms, and one does not even notice that the poetry is unrhymed and unmeasured. But with a text that will be sung in stanzas, repeating the same melody, there is an inherent limitation for both the poet and the composer--the melody has to fit the words in every stanza, and the words have to be written in exactly the same rhythm in each stanza (or very nearly so).

On the musical side, there is a level of complexity that a hymn tune cannot exceed and still be successful in congregational singing. Folk tunes are called so for a reason--they are the tunes that "folks" naturally acquire and sing, not just trained musicians. Folk tunes tend to have a balance, repetition, and form that give them a natural cohesion. Consider the immortal childhood anthem, "Found a peanut." Its questionable theological assumptions aside, this song is a classic of folksong form, with balanced phrases, repetition yet variation of melodic ideas, and an arch-form structure of departure and return.

Hymn tunes do not have to be as simple as this, but they need to be easily taught and easily remembered, especially since we will likely never see the day when musical literacy is anywhere close to common. Also, the simplicity and ease of a good hymn tune doesn't get in the way of the words, but instead helps us to commit them to memory. (Imagine trying to remember multiple stanzas of a hymn set to the tune of "The steadfast love of the Lord!") And if this approach sounds condescending to the congregation's ability, it should be noted that folk song has frequently infused the best compositions of the classical genres--in fact the Classic Era of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven was built to a great extent on the simple, natural phrasing of folk song.

But though I agree with Pounds overall, there are assumptions here that I don't accept. On a purely technical point, I do not see why a hymn must have a refrain repeated after every stanza. If the text does not "lend itself to the repetition," then leave off the refrain! On a more substantive issue, I disagree that "emphasis ... is in the music, and is gained by stress and recurrence rather than by cumulative thought." The music of some hymns may be more impressive than the words, and many a song survives on this basis, but that does not mean we should embrace that fact!

If we are guided by God's will, we must look to what Scripture has said about our singing in worship; and what Scripture says to the New Testament Christian deals almost exclusively with our interaction with the words. We are to sing with "the spirit" and "the understanding,"(1 Cor. 14:15) and "speaking to one another," "making melody in your hearts," "giving thanks,"(Eph. 5:19-20) and "teaching and admonishing one another," "singing with grace in your hearts."(Col. 3:16) These verses tell us that our singing involves both the heart and the head, and poetry does just that--but music (I dread stepping into this subject!) communicates primarily, with most people, on an emotional level. (There are people, and I am one, who admire certain music primarily for its structure and form, as if it were architecture; the counterpoint of Bach is a good example.)

At the very least, melody alone can hardly "teach or admonish;" and I would venture to say that whatever music communicates on its own is received so subjectively that it could not be certain what had been said. A simple example might suffice: the august melody of "O sacred head now wounded" was originally written for the lyric, "Mein Gemüth ist mir verwirret, das macht ein Jungfrau zart" ("My mind is all confused, because of a sweet young lady"). In our own time, Paul Simon recast the same music as "American tune," a folk ballad about 1970s cultural malaise. Which meaning does the melody communicate? I love music for its own sake more than most, but from a Scriptural standpoint I think it is clear that in church music, God means for the emphasis to be on the words.

Finally, I don't agree with the idea that the necessary simplicity of the music demands an equivalent simplicity of the text. "Stress and recurrence" are good rhetorical devices, but do not preclude the development of "cumulative thought." It almost seems that Pounds was locked into a mode of thought that took the revival gospel song as the inevitable standard. The fine old Watts hymn, "When I survey the wondrous cross," is an excellent example of "cumulative thought," so much so that it would make a sermon outline. Even in the gospel-song-with-refrain form, Eugene Bartlett's "Victory in Jesus" is a fine example of a progression of thoughts through the stanzas, and gives a good thumbnail sketch of the plan of salvation, to boot!

Beyond the limitation of form, however, is the much more confining limitation of thought. The great poet speaks for himself and for a small circle of cultured minds. He does not expect the multitude to go with him. He is therefore free to express the high poetic mood, to speak that which comparatively few can understand. Not so the hymn-writer. He speaks for the great body of Christian worshippers. He must seek to lift them up to their highest spiritual possibilities, while never for a moment forgetting the intellectual limitations of the least among them all. 

Here Pounds shows an elitism not uncommon to the educated classes in 19th-century America; there was a firm belief in rules of taste and style, and American elites were particularly self-conscious of the failings of their fellow citizens in this sphere, at least when compared to Europe. (This thinking is so far out of favor today that one can scarcely carry on a conversation about "good" and "bad" in the arts without offending democratic sensibilities--a situation not a great deal better.) Particularly concerning to me, however, is Pounds's belief that  the "great" poetry is for "a small circle of cultured minds," not for the "multitude." There is a threshold of understanding to be reached in any art form--but is Shakespeare inherently unintelligible? Didn't he have just as much a following among the groundlings as among those in the box seats?

The hymn belongs to the whole congregation and ... no set of persons have a right to monopolize it. For this reason, not only must the language be intelligible to the great body of worshippers, but the language must express emotions and convictions common or at least possible to all. ...

Here is a fine point, surprisingly egalitarian after the preceding statements, but then it is built upon a more certain foundation than just human opinion. The Scripture passages quoted above clearly address a congregation and its communal service of worship, praising God and edifying one another. It is a thing done by the people as a community, not by a select few on their behalf, and those who select the hymns do well to remember that. A "good" worship service is one that does what God meant it to do, and "good" hymns are those that enable a congregation to worship God as He has asked.

As a young man, when once I began to probe the frontiers of hymns outside the usual repertoire of my upbringing, I was forever finding a new hymn that I was certain was the best ever written. I just knew that if I led it often enough and enthusiastically enough, everyone else would love it too. I am still finding them, but I am less certain that I can convince a congregation to love them. Sometimes they catch on and sometimes they don't. And frankly, if I programmed only the songs I want to sing in worship, we would move into the "high-church" territory of the Lutheran chorales and the medieval gems of the Oxford Movement, and stay there a while. But I don't have the right, as the person choosing hymns for my Sundays, to impose my personal tastes on the worship of the congregation. I admit that there are times when I throw in the "new" classical hymn just because I think it has merit and would be worth getting to know; but this is by far the exception. My first responsibility, in my role as service planner and song leader, is to facilitate the congregation's worshipping of God in a way that is pleasing to Him and beneficial to them.

An argument that is often introduced here is, "Shouldn't we offer God our best?" Of course we should, but this statement needs to be examined carefully in light of what God has said about singing in New Testament worship. I don't see any way to avoid qualifying the phrase, "our best," as "the best that we can offer." We cannot offer God in song, for example, a hymn with music that is too difficult for us to sing. We certainly cannot offer God a hymn that we do not understand. Shouldn't we try to increase in our understanding, and in our ability? Of course this is a healthy practice, in hymns as in any other sphere; but we must worship in the mean time as well.

Also, I have to ask, "our best what?" Our best literature? Our best musical compositions? Or our best worship in spirit and truth on a given Sunday? Yes, I would like to have all three agree, but I know which is most important, and I will aim for that one first and do what I can for the other two. Creating cultural and generational conflict and even resentment is not conducive to that aim. Finally, I would note that when we speak of "our best," we have to remember that it is "our best" in the plural, not in the separate singular. We have to come together where we can, and worship God. If we can expand that meeting place through inclusive use of a variety of hymns, and learn to give and take between our different tastes, so much the better, but our unity in worship is non-negotiable.

The birthplace of a great hymn is the soul rather than the mind. The hymn is the child of spiritual experience, rather than of the creative imagination. Perhaps this is the chief reason why the great hymns of the church have been written by humble men and women otherwise unknown to fame.

In both Ephesians 5 and its parallel in Colossians 3, the passages on singing in worship are preceded by a significant idea that is easily overlooked: "be filled with the Spirit," and "let the word of Christ dwell in you richly." Anyone desiring to write good hymns, to worship God in hymns, or to lead others in worship of God in hymns, is well advised to begin right here! Scripture is clear on this from Genesis to Revelation--though God expects His external forms of worship to be honored, the first step in obedient worship is a sincere heart, exhibited in a godly life. This being the case, a person of modest literary talents but a deep knowledge of God and His word may produce a hymn that resonates with true worshipers of God just as greatly as the product of any poet laureate.

Another question frequently asked is, Why are the best hymns the old, old hymns? Whay are none of the very best being written now? Well, possibly the best of the old hymns were not recognized as super-excellent when they appeared. ... Possibly among the hymns of modern evangelism may be found some that will live, and outlive the criticism of its own age. ... We must not forget, however, that while the great hymns of the past have lived and have become more precious to each generation than they were to the one before, that the poor hymns of the past have been forgotten as the poor hymns of our own day will be. ... A hundred years from now no one will sing the cheap and trivial songs which appear in our own time. But those who come after us will sing, "My Jesus, I Love Thee," and "O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go," and "Safe in the Arms of Jesus." Each generation gathers from the mass of productions the few destined for immortality, and passes them on to the age that comes after. The years are faithful, and can be trusted to do their work. ...

I don't have Pounds's unqualified trust in the editorial process of the passage of time; I have seen too many fine hymns that simply fell out of favor, or didn't make the jump from one generation or location to another. Some of these are arguably better, in spiritual, literary, and musical terms, than some of those still in use. (It is ironic to see Pounds's own examples of songs that would stand the test of time!) But in general this principle is true: the older songs we sing are more likely the best of their era, because much of the chaff has been winnowed out, but the great new songs of today are still jumbled up with the mediocre and the awful. I hesitate to speculate what will stand the test of time, because a century from now I will probably be just as off the mark as was Pounds; but certainly there are some newer "praise songs" that are of more lasting value than some older songs in more traditional styles.

There is another side to this point, however: if the process of time has preserved a body of hymns that multiple generations have found to be useful vehicles for their worship, certainly it is a tragedy to jettison this heritage, as some are doing, in favor of a steady stream of contemporary songs that contains a great deal of "chaff." It seems risky to so limit the spiritual diet of the congregation, when there is a treasury of songs that have proven ability to speak to people in many different times, places, and cultures. It is naivety at the least, self-centered arrogance at the worst, to suppose that our time and place is so fundamentally new and different that generations past have nothing relevant to tell us.

Even more tragic is the spectacle of division over the passing fancies of musical styles. I wonder how the Greeks, Romans, and Jews of 1st-century congregations dealt with their musical differences? We know that the synagogue tradition of psalm-singing played a major part, but the Oxyrhynchos hymn from the 2nd century shows that the Greek tradition of hymn-singing to their gods was soon turned to the service of praising Christ. Did they have separate services? Did congregations split over the issue? The early church music traditions of the Orthodox and Catholic churches suggest that there was instead a synergy between these different styles.

The hymns of the church are a priceless treasure. In them are preserved for us the victories of the kingdom and the vital experiences of its heroes. He who would add to or take from this treasure must reckon with the laws of time and truth, as well as with the kindlier influences of memory and affection.

Pounds closes with a profound thought, well worth our remembering and putting into practice. In my occasional role as worship planner, I am unashamedly greedy--I want it all. I refuse to choose between one musical tradition and another. There are excellent classical hymns, excellent gospel songs, and excellent contemporary praise songs, and they are all our heritage; I will "bring out of my treasure things new and old."(Matthew 15:32)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Beyond the Sunset's Radiant Glow

Praise for the Lord #73

Words: Josephine Pollard, 1871
Music: William O. Perkins, 1897

This is a pretty little hymn that has long suffered from a (somewhat unfair) comparison to Brock's "Beyond the sunset." This is the earlier of the two hymns, of course, and is evidence that the phrase "beyond the sunset" was around before the later song was written. There is no reason to doubt, of course, Brock's own account of his song's origin; and even if he did use a phrase from the common stock of gospel hymn language, he made a better song of it. Both the lyrics and music of the later song have more originality, springing as they did simultaneously from a feverish evening of creative work. Nonetheless, this earlier hymn has its own kind of quiet calm and reassurance, and is refreshingly unprepossessing.

Josephine Pollard (1834-1892) was a prolific author of children's literature. Her biographies of George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant "in words of one syllable," and her exciting tales of the Boston Tea Party or the voyages of Columbus, neither talked over the child's head nor down to it in tones of condescension. She also wrote simple introductions to the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the life of Christ, using the same "words of one syllable" approach. A Presbyterian herself, she worked for the Methodist Book Concern in her native New York City, and edited a Methodist journal for African Americans.(NYT) Interestingly, Pollard's children's books have enjoyed a renaissance in the Christian home-schooling movement, where their religious and patriotic themes, aimed at an early reader's level, are still appreciated.(Pfitzer)

The earliest instance of this text in, and likely its first publication, is in The Amaranth, edited by A. G. Haygood and Rigdon M. McIntosh, published by the Southern Methodist Publishing House in Nashville, Tennessee, 1871.

Stanza 1:
Beyond the sunset's radiant glow
There is a brighter world, I know,
Where golden glories ever shine,--
Beyond the thought of day's decline.

The final line of this stanza taps into a theme common to all humanity, regardless of era, culture, or creed--"man goeth to his long home."(Ecclesiastes 12:5) There is no question that life's day is passing; the question is rather how we will respond to this fact. "So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom."(Psalm 90:12) When the sun sets on our lives, what will we have done with the time given us, and to what can we look forward? We all know the satisfaction of completing a hard day's work, and realizing that we have made good use of that day. May God help us to live so that we look back on our lives in the same fashion. As Paul said, knowing that he was near his death,
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved His appearing.(2 Timothy 4:7-8)
If we carry the hope of heaven in our hearts, though death unnerves us it will not undo us. 

Beyond the sunset's radiant glow
There is a brighter world, I know
Beyond the sunset I may spend
Delightful days that never end.

In the genealogical table of Genesis chapter 5 we read,
And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years . . . And all the days of Seth were nine hundred and twelve years . . . And all the days of Enos were nine hundred and five years . . . And all the days of Cainan were nine hundred and ten years . . . And all the days of Mahalaleel were eight hundred ninety and five years . . . And all the days of Jared were nine hundred sixty and two years . . . And all the days of Enoch were three hundred sixty and five years . . . And all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty and nine years . . .
But as remarkable as was the longevity of these worthies, it is more important to note that each of these verses (with the unique exception of Enoch!) ends in the same words: "and he died." No matter what the number of days allotted, "it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment."(Hebrews 9:27) Psalm 90 rightly says, "Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom."(v. 12)

Enoch, of course was the exception of that proved the rule: "Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him."(Genesis 5:24) And though we cannot expect to bypass death in this way, it is a charming reminder that those who walk faithfully with God have the same assurance that our existence on this earth will end, not in a period, but with a comma. "And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever."(1 John 2:17)

Stanza 2:
Beyond the sunset's purple rim,--
Beyond the twilight, deep and dim
Where clouds and darkness never come,
My soul shall find my heavenly home.


"Home is the place," said Robert Frost, "where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." Some are blessed with a better relationship to home than that; some, of course, have no home at all. At the best of times, home is a transitory thing in this life--even if you stay put there your whole life, it will change around you, not always for the best. Much as we may love them, our homes in this world are not to be clung to as if we can keep them.

Abraham understood this, and,
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose Designer and Builder is God.(Hebrews 11:8-10)
The above passage also says a good deal, by implication, about the faith of Sarah!  The Psalmists, too, had an innate sense of the impermanence of earthly homes, and a longing for the one to come:
How lovely is Your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in Your house, ever singing Your praise!(Psalm 84:1-4)
If you find yourself without a home, or with a home that does not seem like a home, take heart; many godly persons felt the same. Jesus himself said, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head."(Luke 9:58)

Paul expanded on this idea in Second Corinthians. He had given up a home and a promising future in Jerusalem to become practically a vagabond. But he still could say,
For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. . . . Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please Him.(5:1,8-9)
There is a practical approach to the matter, to make the best of whatever home this life gives us, by keeping our focus on a much better and more certain home to come.

Stanza 3:
Beyond this desert, dark and drear,
The golden city will appear;
And morning's lovely beams arise
Upon my mansion in the skies.


No matter where you live, the emptiness and futility of earthly life can make it seem a desert; "I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind."(Ecclesiastes 1:14) But God has always brought great things from the desert experiences of His people. Moses was shepherding his father-in-law's flocks in, as the King James Version so picturesquely puts it, "the backside of the desert"(Exodus 3:1) when He heard the voice of God from the burning bush. The desert experience of the Israelites was foundational to their understanding of who they were: "[God] found [Israel] in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness; He encircled him, He cared for him, He kept him as the apple of His eye."(Deuteronomy 32:10) Elijah lived often in the wilderness, and his New Testament counterpart John did the same.

If this life is often a barren desert, it is a desert we must cross to get to the other side. Remember, the same Jesus who had no home of His own promises us,
Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in Me. In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to Myself, that where I am you may be also.(John 14:1-3)
About the music:

William Oscar Perkins (1831-1902) was the oldest sibling in a rather prominent family of New England musicians. His brother, Henry Southwick Perkins, was also a composer, conductor, and music editor, but his most lasting work was as co-founder of the Music Teacher's National Association.("H.S. Perkins," Cyberhymnal) A younger brother, Jules Edson Perkins, was the most promising operatic bass to hail from the U.S. up to that time; he sang at La Scala in Milan, and was a regular with the Royal Opera in London, before his premature death at the age of 30.(Rust, 182)

W. O. Perkins followed the path of many an American composer of the 19th century, pursuing conservatory studies abroad in London and Italy afer his initial education in Boston. He then returned to Boston and spent his most productive years there, publishing no fewer than 33 hymnals, glee books, and other collections.("W.O. Perkins," Cyberhymnal) His best known hymn tune is for "Did you think to pray?" (PFTL#124), which shows to be included in 108 different hymnals, as opposed to 16 for "Beyond the sunset's radiant glow." (The hymnal index at is of course far from complete, but is the best such resource available, and shows at least the trends in relative popularity.) He is also frequently attributed the music for "Here we are but straying pilgrims" (PFTL #247), a fine gospel song that is still popular among the Churches of Christ in the U.S.

Though 1897 is usually given as the date for this music, I have discovered that the first publication of the hymn--in The Amaranth, 1871, mentioned above--set the lyrics to this same tune. I owe a huge thanks in this to Melissa at the James P. Boyce Centennial Library, of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. She confirmed my suspicion by comparing "Beyond the sunset" in their copy of The Amaranth to the version in Praise for the Lord. The 1871 original has the same tune, but the harmonization is apparently for keyboard, rather than for SATB voices. Perhaps 1897 refers instead to the date of the arrangement of the music for congregational singing.


Obituary of Josephine Pollard. New York Times. 16 August 1892.

Pfitzer, Gregory M. "'History repeating itself': the republication phenomenon and Josephine Pollard's monosyllabic histories for children." 125th annual meeting of the American Historical Society (Boston, 6-9 Jan 2011). Abstract:

"Henry Southwick Perkins." Cyberhymnal.

Rust, Albert Dexter. Record of the Rust Family. Waco, Tex.: pub. by the author, 1891.

"William Oscar Perkins." Cyberhymnal.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Beyond the Sunset

Praise for the Lord #71

Words: Virgil P. Brock, 1936
Music: Blanche Kerr Brock, 1936

The origin of this song is so unique, and so well documented by the author, that it is worth looking at in full.

The song was born during a conversation at the dinner table one evening in 1936. We had been watching a very unusual sunset at Winona Lake, Indiana, with a blind guest, my cousin Horace Burr, and his wife Grace. A large area of the water appeared ablaze with the glory of God, yet there were threatening storm clouds gathering overhead. Our blind guest excitedly remarked, "I've just never seen a more beautiful sunset." I responded, "People are always amazed when you talk about seeing, Horace." "I can see," he replied. "I see through other people's eyes, and I think I can see more clearly because I see beyond the sunset." 
The phrase "beyond the sunset" and the inflection of his voice struck me so forcibly. ...I began singing the first few measures. "That's beautiful," his wife interrupted. "Virgil, please go to the piano and sing that phrase again." We went to the piano and soon completed the first verse. Then our guests urged, "Now you should try a verse about the storm clouds." And the words for this verse came quickly as well. Recalling how for so many years our guests had walked hand in hand together due to his blindness, the third verse was soon added. Before the evening meal was finished, all four stanzas had been written, and we sang the entire song together.(Osbeck, 25-26)

The writer's attention to the beauty of nature, his empathy for the positive example set by the Burrs in the face of hardship, and his quick ear for a profound and arresting turn of phrase, gave us this song that has been a source of comfort to untold numbers. Though it is an appropriate meditation for any time, it has of course been a traditional favorite at funeral services for many years.

Stanza 1:
Beyond the sunset, O blissful morning,
When with our Saviour heaven's begun;
Earth's toiling ended, O glorious dawning,
Beyond the sunset when day is done.

The sunset, of course, has long been associated with the end of life. Jesus used this image in John 9:4, "We must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work." Paul uses that implication of day's inevitable end in 2 Corinthians 6:2, "Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation." In the same fashion, the writer of Hebrews warns of that coming sunset of life, "But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called 'today,' that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin."(Hebrews 3:13)

But if there is a sunset of life, Christianity certainly teaches that there is a new dawn beyond it. It is the end of one thing, but the beginning of another, infinitely more glorious. The apostles eagerly pointed us toward that sunrise as a means of encouragement, as is said so beautifully in 2 Peter 1:19, "And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the Morning Star rises in your hearts." Thinking on that eternal morning also can increase our determination and faithfulness, as Paul said in Romans 13:12: "The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light."

Stanza 2:
Beyond the sunset, no clouds will gather;
No storms will threaten, no fears annoy.
O day of gladness, O day unending!
Beyond the sunset--eternal joy.

"And fearing that we might run on the rocks, they let down four anchors from the stern and prayed for day to come."(Acts 27:29) So Paul describes the fearful night before his shipwreck at the island of Malta. Have you been through a night like that, when you prayed for day to come? I can remember some nights on the road, driving through thunderstorms, when just the least bit of morning light would make all the difference. Far worse was a 2-o'clock-in-the-morning drive to the emergency room, which came out well in the end but was at the time utterly unnerving in a far more profound sense.

Though there are beautiful nights, full of calm, restful contemplation, we have a natural preference for the day. Predators (of the four- and two-legged variety) stalk at night, because darkness conceals their actions. Honest folk are apprehensive about night, then, because it holds real dangers. But Revelation 22:5 promises of heaven that, "night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever." The prophetic words of Isaiah promise a coming day of rest for God's people: "O afflicted one, storm-tossed and not comforted, behold, I will set your stones in antimony, and lay your foundations with sapphires."(54:11)

Storms likewise are a source of fear (or at least considerable concern!) in this life. Of course, we may admire them as well, from a certain perspective, realizing that God's "way is in whirlwind and storm."(Nahum 1:3) They do serve to remind us of His power and authority, and of our abject helplessness in the face even of the power of His creation, much less His own sovereign might. But we are glad to see them pass! What a comfort to know that "He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed."(Psalm 107:29) The tumult and danger of the storms of this life, literal and figurative, will someday be calmed forever by the same Lord who told the Sea of Galilee, "Peace, be still!"(Mark 4:39)

Stanza 3:
Beyond the sunset, a hand will guide me
To God the Father whom I adore.
His glorious presence, His words of welcome,
Will be my portion on that fair shore.

"Hold my hand!" If you have had charge of a small child, you have said that more times than you can count; if you were a small child yourself, you heard it at least as many times. When the child is big enough to walk, but not big enough to make wise choices in where it goes, there is a long period when an adult's trusted hand is the lifeline of safety in a complicated world of unrecognized dangers. Years have passed, and now my teenage son would find this quite awkward, and my teenage daughter has found that she would rather hold the hand of a certain young gentleman instead; but I remember with some satisfaction those days when the touch of my hand and the reach of my arm placed them within a sphere of freedom, yet safety, from which they surveyed the world with growing confidence.

Though the "right hand of God" is frequently unleashed in judgment in the imagery of the Old Testament prophets, the Psalmist frequently spoke of God's hand in the tender terms of a guiding Parent. "Nevertheless, I am continually with You; You hold my right hand."(Psalm 73:23) There is the same sense of dependence: "My soul clings to You; Your right hand upholds me."(Psalm 63:8) There is also the sense of reassurance and guarantee of safety in a dangerous world: "The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in His way; though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong, for the Lord upholds his hand."(Psalm 37:23-24)

The hands of Jesus were the same hands of love, protection, healing, and guidance. Jesus' hands touched the untouchable, as when a leper asked for healing, "and Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, saying, 'I will; be clean.' And immediately his leprosy was cleansed."(Matthew 8:3) Jesus' hands reach out to save; when Peter tried to walk on the waters of Galilee, but found his faith failing, "Jesus immediately reached out His hand and took hold of him."(Matthew 14:31a) His hands tenderly brought a young girl back from death to life; "but when the crowd had been put outside, He went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose."(Matthew 9:25) These hands will likewise tenderly reach down to wake us on the last day, and guide us to our home in heaven.

Stanza 4:
Beyond the sunset, O glad reunion,
With our dear loved ones who've gone before;
In that fair homeland we'll know no parting,
Beyond the sunset forever more.

One of the most comforting and encouraging passages in Scripture falls at the end of the 4th chapter of Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians. These good Christians, living at the dawn of the gospel era, expected the return of Christ at any moment (a wise way to live in any age!), but were concerned that those who had preceded them in death would miss out on the glory of His coming. Paul unfolded a greater revelation of these mysteries:

But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep.  
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.(1 Thessalonians 4:13-17)
No better reassurance, or greater anticipation of reward, could be imagined. Paul concludes the thought with the instruction, "Therefore comfort one another with these words."(v. 18) These are words of comfort, and encouragement as well. "Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us."(Hebrews 12:1)

About the music:

The relationship between lyricists and composers, when they actually work together in real time, is often a complex dynamic. The comic operas of Mozart and Da Ponte, or of Gilbert and Sullivan, might never have clicked without that particular chemistry. The American stage has given us similar combinations--the Gershwin brothers, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and others--that simply become more than the sum of their parts. Hymn-writing teams sometimes fall into such patterns as well, as we have already seen with Thomas O. Chisholm's collaborations with Lloyd O. Sanderson. But a husband-wife songwriting team is a truly interesting relationship. Long before the Gaithers came along, the Brocks were an inseparable team that produced a large crop of successful gospel songs.

Virgil Prentiss Brock (1887-1978) was a minister in the Christian Church, but was best known for his musical activities in connection with the conservative evangelical community around Winona Lake, Indiana, which included evangelist Billy Sunday and songwriter/publisher Homer Rodeheaver. Most of his songs were written with his wife, Blanche Kerr Brock (1888-1958), a conservatory-trained pianist.(Cyberhymnal) Though Virgil composed the lyrics and melodies, he confessed that "after Blanche had notated the melody of my song and supplied the necessary harmony, I couldn't even read the notes."(Osbeck, 25) It was a fortunate combination of his intuitive musicianship and natural gift for melody, and her classical training in music theory. There is really no reason for these to ever be in conflict.

(WARNING: MUSIC THEORY CONTENT) The genius of this melody is in the first five notes, underlying the words that gave the song birth. First, it is a striking melodic profile--an upward leap of a 4th, B-flat to E-flat (SOL-DO), then an upward leap of a major 3rd, E-flat to G (DO-MI), and yet another upward leap of a 4th, G to C (MI-LA)--covering the distance of a major 9th, an octave plus one step, in the words, "Be-yond the sun-." Then, in resolution into a tonic harmony (the DO-MI-SOL chord), the final note relaxes down one step to B-flat (SOL). This resolves the slight dissonance created by the preceding note C (on "sun-"), which falls outside the tonic chord. 

This particular use of melodic dissonance against the harmony is an "appoggiatura," in which the melody leaps one note further than it should (as it were), then moves by step into the "correct" note for the given harmony. Typically this is done on a strong beat in the measure, with the resolution on a weaker beat. In "Beyond the sunset" this technique is used to good effect, in the following spots:

Beyond the SUN-set, O blissful MORN-ing,
When with our SAV-iour heaven's begun;
Earth's toiling END-ed, O glorious DAWN*-ing,
Beyond the sunset when day is done. 

"DAWN-ing" is not technically an appoggiatura but a suspension, since it is approached not by leap but by repetition of the same note; still the effect is the same, especially since it occurs in the same spot in the phrase. Having used these little dissonances so consistently, we expect perhaps to hear one at the final "SUN-set" in the fourth line, but instead the melody emerges triumphantly on the tonic note, right in line with the harmony, on the strong beat and at the top of the scale. It is an excellent musical picture of building anticipation and a final, satisfying resolution, perfectly in line with the message of the text.


Osbeck, Kenneth W. Beyond the Sunset: 25 Hymn Stories Celebrating the Hope of Heaven. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2001.

"Virgil Prentiss Brock." Cyberhymnal.

"Blanche Kerr Brock." Cyberhymnal.