Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Christ is Precious

Praise for the Lord #92

Words: Eliza Morgan Sherman, 1880
Music: James Henry Fillmore, 1880

Eliza Morgan Sherman was born 2 May 1849 at Suffield, Connecticut, but lived most of her life in Brodhead, Wisconsin. Her father James Taylor Sherman was a deacon of the Congregational Church there for fifty years.(Sherman Genealogy, 336-337) The Shermans were a distinguished Connecticut family of military officers, civil officials, and clergy; Eliza's great-great-grandfather, Roger Sherman, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and was a U.S. senator. General William Tecumseh Sherman was a distant cousin.

Census records show that she remained unmarried, living in Brodhead. (And after seeing pictures of that beautiful rolling farmland, I cannot imagine why she would leave!) She passed away on 13 January 1928.(Green County, 175) Details of her life are sketchy so far; in fact, it is thanks to only one source--Eva Munson Smith's Woman in Sacred Song (1888) that we can identify the hymnwriter with the Eliza M. Sherman of Brodhead.(xxi)

For about the last quarter of the 19th century, Sherman was a prolific writer of hymn texts, poetry, and short stories. A search of reveals about 80 texts under her name, and through the information available in that database I have reconstructed what I can of her career in gospel hymnody.

In 1877 David C. Cook, a Chicago publisher of Sunday School literature and founder of the publishing house that still bears his name, commissioned songwriters to write original gospel songs to accompany each lesson in the Sunday School quarterlies for the upcoming year. The popularity of this feature led him to expand the project in 1878, issuing an open call for original poetry and music. Over 800 poems and 500 musical settings came in, and a panel of judges selected 186 hymns to accompany the lessons in the 1879 quarterlies. The hymns were also published as a group in the International Lesson Hymnal (1878). Staff writers composed music for most of the poems.(Cook, Preface)

The earliest hymns I have found by Eliza M. Sherman appear in this volume, and she was apparently one of the many amateur contributors rather than one of Cook's staff. Her "Art thou waiting on the watch tower?" is listed as the "First Prize Piece" overall, with music by A. J. Abbey (also apparently a contributor), and her "Art thou sitting in the shadow?" is given "First Prize Words" (music by staff composer J. M. Stillman). In fact Eliza Sherman dominated the competition, with no fewer than nine texts included--more than any other single author in the collection except for J. B. Atchison, one of the staff writers.

Sherman's hymn texts also appeared frequently in the 1880 hymnal Fount of Blessing, edited by R. G. Staples and published by Central Book Concern in Chicago. Nine of her works appeared in a book of only 153 hymns, more than any other author except the editor himself. Interestingly, J. B. Atchison, a staff writer for David C. Cook's hymnal, also appears frequently in this book.

This suggests a possible pattern--her works appear set to music by, or in hymnals edited by, a fairly consistent group of well-known names in the Midwestern gospel music houses. Sherman's texts in the International Lesson Hymnal were set to music by staff writers J. M. Stillman, T. Martin Towne, and W. Irving Hartshown. Stillman set two more of her texts to music for Good Will: A collection of New Music for Sabbath Schools and Gospel Meetings, which he co-edited with Towne. This was published by S. W. Straub in 1882; Straub would also be the editor for Living Fountain in 1896, which contained six more Eliza Sherman hymns. Other editors who introduced significant numbers of Sherman's texts over the years were Asa Hull and C. C. Case.

"Christ is Precious" was by far Sherman's most popular hymn, with 27 instances in; the closest contender was her "Soft and sweet the bells are ringing," with only 8 instances. A handful of others have five or six instances. Click here for a complete song list with links to her hymns where available. Sherman's last "new" hymn appears in 1904 (though of course it may have been published earlier in a work unknown to me). Her hymns appear fairly regularly through the 1880s and 1890s, so the sudden drop-off in new works suggests some change in her situation around the turn of the century.

A search of shows that the earliest instance of "Christ is Precious" was in Joy and Gladness, an 1880 publication by Fillmore Brothers of Cincinnati. Over the following two decades it appeared fairly frequently in songbooks from Restoration Movement publishers such as Fillmore, Guide Publishing, and Standard Publishing. By the early 20th century its popularity apparently waned, but when Elmer Jorgenson included it in his influential Great Songs of the Church, it was given a new lease on life and is still around a century later.

Stanza 1:
O the precious love of Jesus,
Growing sweeter day by day,
Tuning all my heart so joyous,
To a heavenly melody.

Christ is precious, Christ is precious;
In life's journey He will lead thee;
Christ is precious, Christ is precious;
He will lead thee all the way.

"Precious" is not a word we throw around casually today; it can even have a slightly negative connotation in the sense of being overly refined and mannered. We probably do not use it as a term of endearment as much as was once common. But words mean things, and even such a simple statement as "Christ is precious" may have an interesting Scriptural background. I believe Miss Sherman refers to the following passage from 1 Peter, chapter 2, verses 4-8:
To Whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious, ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. Wherefore also it is contained in the scripture, Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on Him shall not be confounded.

Unto you therefore which believe He is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner, and a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed.
In the King James Version, Christ is referred to as "precious" three times in these four verses. In the first two instances, it translates the Greek word entimos, meaning "held in honor, prized . . . honorable, noble"(Strong's 1784) It is the word used in Luke 7:2 to describe the centurion's feelings for his sick servant, for whose sake he sought the healing power of Jesus. It is the term Jesus used to describe the more honorable guest, in His parable of the feast in Luke 14. In the passage from 1 Peter both meanings are operative, because the term describes the estimation of Christ the Son by God the Father--Jesus is dear in a personal, emotional sense, and held in the highest honor for His worth.

The third instance of "precious" in this passage, however, translates instead the Greek word timē, and refers to our relationship to Jesus and our understanding of His pre-eminence. It is "the honor of one who outranks others . . . the praise of which one is judged worthy." In the background of this word, too, is its use as "a value at which a price is fixed."(Strong's 5092) How high is that price? "He is the image of the invisible God, the Firstborn of all creation. . . . And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together."(Colossians 1:15,17) Yet here was the price that God was willing to pay for our sins! Precious indeed, and beyond our understanding; but what can we do except honor and value Him the best we know how?

The end of the first stanza speaks of "tuning" the heart for a "heavenly melody." This calls to mind, of course, "making melody to the Lord with your heart,"(Ephesians 5:19) and perhaps also "I will sing and make melody with all my being."(Psalm 108:1) An instrument that is out of tune will sound bad, regardless of the beauty of the melody or even the skill of the player; isn't the same true of our worship, and our lives?

Before a performance, players tune their instruments. This usually involves adjusting the instrument to a standard (for example, the frequency 440 Herz for the note A above middle C). Players also check the consistency of the instrument's tuning throughout its range, usually running through some scales and arpeggios. Additionally, they make sure they are in tune with each other. In the same way, we need to tune our hearts to God's standard of truth, making sure that every area of our lives is consistent with that standard. We also need to work for harmony with other Christians, though always in reference first to God's standard. When we do these things, our lives and our worship will be pleasing to God (and most likely our singing as well). Tying the thought back to Sherman's overall theme, it is Christ's example of honor and excellence that sets the standard, and His sacrificial love that shows us the extent to which we should strive to work harmoniously together in the service of our Father.

Stanza 2:
But we cannot know the fullness
Of the Savior's wondrous love,
Till we see and know His glory,
In the heav'nly home above.


The fullness of Jesus' love is beyond our understanding, because the fullness of Jesus in every aspect is beyond us--"For in Him the whole fullness of Deity dwells bodily."(Colossians 2:9) It is beyond our ability as well; yet we are called to attempt it anyway. "And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God."(Ephesians 5:2) In the most humble and practical roles in life--for example, the husband living with his wife--we are called to this sublime ideal: "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her."(Ephesians 5:25) The love of Christ is not just a warm, fuzzy feeling; "for the love of Christ controls us."(2 Corinthians 5:14)

We are promised the beginnings of this transformation even now, "so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith--that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God."(Ephesians 3:17-20) We will not complete that fullness, however, until we reach our ultimate goal: "Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is."(1 John 3:2) Not that we will ever be His equal; but if we can even hope to comprehend Him, what a fulfillment that will be!

Stanza 3:
Come and taste the love of Jesus,
At His feet thy burdens lay;
Trust Him with thy grief and sorrow,
Bear this joyful song away.


The inspiration for this final stanza is obviously Psalm 34:8, "Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!" It is interesting to see what leads up to this verse in the original context; the superscription of the Psalm says "Of David, when he changed his behavior before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away." The reference is to 1 Samuel 21; David, after being outlawed in his home country by King Saul, had taken refuge for a time with the Philistine king of Gath, called Achish in 1 Samuel. David soon realized that the Philistines did not believe in his defection from Saul, and he feigned insanity in order to divert them from this line of thinking. Though he was humiliated, he escaped with his life.

In reflection on these events, he begins: "I will bless the LORD at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth."(v.1) It would have been easy for David to focus on the problems in his life, which were considerable; but he chose to praise the Lord regardless. "My soul makes its boast in the LORD; let the humble hear and be glad. Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt His name together!"(v.2-3) When David lifted his hurting soul to God, he knew he was not alone; he was in the good company of the faithful and humble servants of the Lord, whether physically present or not. "I sought the LORD, and He answered me and delivered me from all my fears."(v.4) God never promised to shelter us from every hint of trouble in our lives, but He has promised over and over again to be "a present help in time of trouble."(Psalm 46:1)

David concludes from his experience that, "Those who look to Him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed. This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him and saved him out of all his troubles. The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear Him, and delivers them."(v.5-7) It is not just a theoretical faith, but a proven faith; David has seen and experienced God's deliverance. When we have come through such an experience, it should build our faith, and be a blessing to the faith of others. David concludes with the exhortation, "Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!"(v.8)

Sherman may also refer in this stanza to another of David's psalms of endurance: "Cast thy burden upon the LORD, and He shall sustain thee: He shall never suffer the righteous to be moved."(Psalm 55:22) This too was a psalm spoken from a time of trouble, yet rising to a powerful statement of faith. David understood that his burdens were to great for him to bear alone; he trusted God with them, and emerged to rejoice. How much more can we rejoice, who understand the fully revealed gospel of Jesus Christ? We can lay down these burdens and "go on our way rejoicing,"(Acts 8:39) knowing that our faith lies in the One of whom the prophet said,
Behold, I am laying in Zion a Stone, a Cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in Him will not be put to shame.(1 Peter 2:6)
About the music:

James Henry Fillmore, Sr. (1849-1936) was one of the giants of gospel music publishing, not only within the Restoration Movement, but in the industry at large. Son of Augustus Damon Fillmore, a Cincinnati music publisher, James became the head of the family business at a young age and founded Fillmore Brothers Music Company in 1874. He requires a post all to himself--he was one of our most prolific composers, and was at the center of a boom era in gospel music and the American publishing industry in general.

J. H. Fillmore's music for "Christ is Precious," unfortunately, is not really up to his standard. I do not hesitate to criticize him here, because his overall ability is so far above question; in better known works such as "I know that my Redeemer lives, and ever prays for me" and "I am resolved, no longer to linger," I believe he is proven one of the best gospel hymnwriters of the era. But there is something stultifyingly static about the harmony in this piece; perhaps Fillmore should have introduced a different chord at the opening of the chorus (as occurs in a very similar song, "All for Jesus," to very good effect).

The image below is from Songs of Glory no. 2 (Cincinnati: Fillmore, 1881), and is of interest from a pedagogical standpoint. Several systems of teaching the masses to read music were invented in the early years of the United States, the most successful of which was the use of different shapes for note-heads to indicate the step of the scale. But though shape notes were used widely in the earlier part of the 19th century, they fell out of fashion in the Northeast in favor of the European-guided reforms of Lowell Mason and others. They stayed in use in the South, of course, where several living shape-note traditions are still to be found; but the Midwest was more mixed.

Fillmore Brothers, in Cincinnati, were at the hub of this transition in more ways than one. Just to the south and west, Kentucky and southern Indiana were (and still are) part of the shape-note heartland, but the network of emerging industrial cities to the north and east were increasingly influenced by more modern music education methods. Similarly, though the Fillmores were prominent among the more modern and urban wing of the Restoration Movement in the upper Midwest, they were also quite influential among the more conservative congregations in the South. Not surprisingly, the former group was more likely to have access to the new European-styled music education, and the latter was more likely to stick with the old singing-school tradition.

What Fillmore Brothers accomplished in the system used in Songs of Glory was a clever compromise. Musicians accustomed to standard "round-note" notation could doubtless ignore the numbers inside the noteheads much more easily than the differing shapes of note-heads. Shape-note singers trained in the seven-shape system (instead of the older four-note method) could easily figure out the correspondence of the numbers to the familiar shapes and the solfege syllables. I am not sure when or where singing by numbers was actually invented, but it is a widely used alternative in the United States to the familiar DO-RE-MI's.


Sherman, Thomas Townsend. Sherman Genealogy. New York: Tobias A. Wright, 1920.

"Monroe 1900-1929 Obituary Index." Green County Wisconsin Genealogical Society.

Smith, Eva Munson, editor. Woman in Sacred Song. Chicago: Standard Publishing Company, 1888.

Cook, David C. International Lesson Hymnal. Chicago: David C. Cook, 1878.

Strong's 1784.

Strong's 5092.


  1. Greetings from Wordwise Hymns. Got a note from Dick Adams about your post. I commend you for all the research you've done. The memory of these 19th century song writers is worth preserving. My own research, over the past 40 years or so, has focused mainly on hymns in our standard hymn books, so I haven't done any work yet on Eliza Sherman. Maybe eventually.

    God bless. Keep up the good work!

  2. Just as an aside comment for the sake of accuracy, it was not James Henry Fillmore but his brother Frederick Augustus Fillmore who provided the tune for the song which begins, "I know that my Redeemer live, and ever prays for me."

  3. Wayne, thanks for the correction. That's what happens when I rely on memory!