Words: Austin Taylor, 1911
Music: Austin Taylor, 1911
Austin Taylor (1881-1973) was born in Morgantown, Kentucky, but grew up in north and central Texas. He taught singing school for more than seven decades, and was a founder of the Texas Normal Singing School, the oldest such institution affiliated with the Churches of Christ that is still in existence.(Finley, 465ff.) Taylor was equally important as a songwriter and editor; his first songbook was Gospel Messenger (1905), self-published in Sherman, Texas. The majority of his music publishing, however, would be with the Firm Foundation Publishing House, where he worked closely with George H. P. Showalter (1870-1954), the editor of the Firm Foundation religious journal for nearly 50 years. From The New Gospel Song Book of 1914 to the close of the 1920s, the pair would produce 10 songbooks. They teamed up one final time in 1953 and produced the first edition of the Majestic Hymnal, Firm Foundation's most successful hymnal.
Austin Taylor's hymn "Closer to Thee" was one of the first songs by the "Texas school" of songwriters to be included in a hymnal produced by the Churches of Christ east of the Mississippi. Lloyd O. Sanderson included it in Christian Hymns "no. 1" (Nashville, Tennessee: Gospel Advocate, 1935), along with a few songs by Texas songwriter Tillit S. Teddlie. It can be found in most of the major hymnals produced among the Churches of Christ since that time. For more on Austin Taylor's career, please see my recent post on the Firm Foundation hymnals.
The year 1911 was an interesting time in Taylor's life. He married Augusta Barbara Jerger, a daughter of German immigrants, in about 1907.(1930 U.S. Census) The Lord blessed the couple with their first child, Dorcas Geneva Taylor, on the 8th of February, 1911.(Texas Birth Certificates via Familysearch.org) I was a year older than Taylor when my first child, also a daughter, was born. She was also a February baby, and an ice storm shut down the college where I worked the day after we brought her home. With my unexpected day off I sat in the quiet house with my wife and mother-in-law, all of us watching this new soul that was part of us, yet completely apart. Not for the last time, I approached God in prayer to ask, "How do I do this?" It was one thing to discuss parenting in the Marriage & Christian Family course in college; it was another to be a parent, knowing that my actions would affect this person for the rest of her life, and for eternity.
Perhaps something like this ran through Austin Taylor's mind as he wrote this hymn in 1911. If a man takes fatherhood seriously, it will drive him closer to God. Becoming responsible for the spiritual welfare of another soul, at least for the years it is under his care, makes a man realize just how much he needs to grow up himself. It is true of all of us, I suppose, parents or not; but the demands of that particular job reveal our weaknesses to us in high relief. (If they don't become apparent to us on our own, our children will gladly point them out as they get older.) And no matter what our age, situation, or level of spiritual maturity, we all need to get closer to God.
Closer to Thee, near to Thy side,
Closer dear Lord, I would abide;
Hold me in Thy embrace,
'Neath every smile of grace,
Grant me, O Lord, a place
Closer to Thee.
Psalm 65:4 sings forth, "Blessed is the one You choose and bring near, to dwell in your courts! We shall be satisfied with the goodness of Your house, the holiness of Your temple!" People place a high value on being close to famous and important people; even in our cynical times, it is quite the honor to be invited to visit the President or Governor, or to be seated at a dinner with a celebrity athlete. That proximity implies a familiarity and privilege not accessible to just anyone; we get the chance to see the "real person," and to be seen by them as an individual, not just a part of the crowd.
It's funny--and sad--that more people don't place the same value on being close to God. People will stand in line for hours to meet an athlete who makes his living throwing, hitting, kicking, bouncing, or running with a ball. People will brag for the rest of their lives that they got to shake hands with a political figure who, at best, is only one of many that will come and go in our lifetimes. But the Ancient of Days, the Great Maker of all things, has invited us to be His personal friends, and how many people place value on that? He seeks us out, and wants to lavish that familiarity and privilege on us, that comes from being His friend. He wants us to see the "real Him," and came down to this earth among us in order to make that happen. He wants us to know that He cares about each of us individually; He knows your name, and wants to hear from you.
The ancient Israelite could think of drawing close to God in a very literal way, by coming to the temple where God's presence was revealed. The closer you were to that place, the better. But we don't have a temple like that today; Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, in John 4:21-23,
Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. . . . But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship Him.The Hebrew Scriptures gave plenty of hints that this attitude was at the heart of the relationship all along: "Surely His salvation is near to those who fear Him, that glory may dwell in our land."(Psalm 85:9) "The LORD is near to all who call on Him, to all who call on Him in truth."(Psalm 145:18) But the New Testament took away the importance of physical place entirely; now the "temple of God" is within us, both individually (1 Corinthians 6:19) and collectively as God's church (Ephesians 2:19-22).
The letter to the Hebrews speaks of this "drawing near" frequently, playing on the cultural understanding of Israel's historic relationship to God. In the former days, it had been a matter of physical birth and physical location; "but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God."(Hebrews 7:19) This hope is our personal relationship with God's Son, whose sacrifice enabled us to have a new level of access unimagined in earlier dispensations. "Consequently, He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them."(Hebrews 7:25) The foundation of this drawing near is faith and trust, because, "without faith it is impossible to please Him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him."(Hebrews 11:6) And as always, a saving faith in the Bible sense is a faith made complete through submissive obedience: "Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water."(Hebrews 10:22)
Getting to this place, closer to God, is worth whatever effort or sacrifice it requires. Brother Taylor describes the superlative nature of the goal as the "embrace" of God, where we are favored with His "smile of grace." Moses, in his final speech to the Israelites, reassured them that "The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms."(Deuteronomy 33:27) We see the embrace of God once more in the gospels, when Jesus called the children to Him, "and He took them up in His arms, put His hands upon them, and blessed them."(Mark 10:16) Who would not want to be in that number, who were so blessed by His touch and His words?
Closer to Thee, near to Thy breast,
Closer to Thee, Lord, let me rest;
Guide me when I would stray,
Keep me from sin each day,
Draw me, dear Lord, I pray,
Closer to Thee.
In the second stanza, Brother Taylor speaks to our need to stay close to God. It is sadly true that many who have once drawn near to God through obedience to His Son "have fallen away from grace."(Galatians 5:4) This was a problem of the ancient Hebrews as well, because it is a problem of the human heart. It was the message of the prophets, such as Isaiah, who delivered God's pointed message that, "these people draw near with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, while their hearts are far from Me."(Isaiah 29:13) The letter of James gives the antidote, for ancient times, New Testament times, and all times: "Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded."(James 4:8)
The possibility of straying is not taught in order to keep us on pins and needles, in constant fear of our salvation. The apostle John assures us of a better salvation than that! "My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous."(1 John 2:1) But that same Advocate warns us, "Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak."(Matthew 26:41) And John's reassurance is predicated on our own salvation through obedience to Christ, with a subsequent effort to "walk in the light, as He is in the light."(1 John 1:7)
There is a line from the early Medieval prayer known as the Te Deum that has become a favorite phrase of mine: "Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this day without sin." Just as walking down a physical road depends on taking each individual step within the boundaries of that path, so walking in the light is a series of decisions made every day, that we will make our best effort to do what God would have us do, and avoid what He would not have us do. And like that physical path, we are less likely to stray outside the borders if we draw closer to the One who walks before us.
Closer to Thee, happy and free,
Grant me, O Lord, ever to be;
Hear me in ev'ry cry,
Stand near when I must die,
Then take me home on high,
Closer to Thee.
The chief reason to seek a closer relationship to God is because we love Him and want to know Him better, "for the Father is seeking such people to worship him."(John 4:23) But it is equally true that there are great benefits to be had from this relationship. There are times when, sad to say, there are people who mean us harm. No matter how hard we try to "live peaceably with all," we can only control what "depends on [us]."(Romans 12:18) With some people it will not be enough. What a blessing to know that if we are close to God, we have a protector who will always be with us, and whose word is our steady support!
They draw near who persecute me with evil purpose;Even without the active persecution of enemies, life can be hard enough. There will be struggles and sometimes losses, and times will come when we need someone to lean on. It is unfortunately true that in some of these times, even the best of family and friends will let us down. Sometimes they are doing their best to support us, but simply do not know how to help. Some suffering is hard for us even to express, much less for another to understand.
They are far from Your law.
But You are near, O LORD,
And all Your commandments are true.
How comforting to know that, "The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit."(Psalm 34:18) When we are close to God, we have the attention of the Father, the advocacy of the Son, and the interceding help of the Holy Spirit:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.(Romans 8:26)We have all sometimes felt that no one understood the depth of sorrow we suffered, or the fear and worry under which we labored. If we have lived long on this earth, we can relate to the old spiritual, "Nobody knows the trouble I've seen." But always remember the next line! "Nobody knows, but Jesus." If it is the pain of rejection, He knows that. If it is the pain of physical suffering, He knows that. If it is the pain of disappointment in those we love, He knows that. If it is the fear of that "undiscovered country" of death, He knows that too. Jesus experienced the range of human suffering firsthand.
God knows our troubles, and He hears our prayers. "For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their prayer."(1 Peter 3:12) "Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need."(Hebrews 4:16)
About the music:
Several aspects of the music show Taylor's lifelong involvement with quartet singing. The distinctive "hook" of the song is heard in the first two phrases with the chromatic downward slide of the soprano and alto. In each case the chromatic chord that falls on the second syllable is (technically) a C#-E-[G]-Bb, or a C#dim7 with the G omitted; but instead of having a leading-tone function (e.g., C#dim7 to Dmin), it is just chromatic decoration. The Bb is held through from the preceding chord and on into the following chord, giving this technique the name "common-tone diminished 7th" in some theory textbooks. In my own classes (which were oriented toward classical music theory) I jokingly referred to this as the "barbershop diminished 7th" because of its prominence in the American male quartet tradition. (Part of the fun of barbershop harmony is holding a note through in one part while changing the others to create a new and unexpected chord!) Taylor does the same chord in both of the two-measure sub-phrases that open the song, but with a voice swap that flips the harmony roles of the soprano and alto. It is a classic case of "same but different" that makes a musical idea memorable, and I daresay this is the part of this song that sticks in a person's head the longest.
Another example of quartet harmony is found in the 7th measure, in the last two notes of the bar. The first is a C9 chord (C-E-[G]-Bb-D), and the final note of the bar is an honest-to-goodness flat 9th chord, C-E-[G]-Bb-Db. (If there are other flat 9th chords in this hymnal, I cannot remember where.) As is common in four-part writing of these five-note chords, the 5th of the chord (G) is omitted. The root of the chord (C) is in the bass--this harmony is best heard when presented in root position, with the bass holding it together. The E-natural, the 3rd of the chord, is necessary to distinguish the quality of the chord (major), and the Bb, the 7th of the chord, serves as a bridge to the 9th (D, then Db) above it; if the Bb were omitted rather than the G, the D and Db would sound much less integrated into the overall sound. The resolution of the flat 9th is typical here, moving down a half-step (Db-C), but Taylor heightens the chromatic tension by moving this in parallel with E-natural to Eb in the alto. The E-natural is the leading tone of the C9 harmony, and by all rights should have moved up to the F in the next chord. Moving it down to Eb, the 7th of the F7 chord, is against the grain in classical theory, but is a trademark of the American quartet sound.
The form of the melody in this hymn is unusual, with a syllable pattern of 88.666.4 in 16 measures. The first eight measures are fairly conventional, with two-measure subphrases repeating the same rhythmic pattern and leading up to a strong half-cadence on "a-BIDE." The second half begins exactly like the opening measure (compare "Clos-er to" to "Hold me in"), but then spins off in a series of expansive 6-syllable lines, each building on the one before without a break, and piling up momentum toward the end. This forward motion is brought to rest in the final two measures, which return to the more staid rhythm of the first 8 measures. It is a simple enough technique, but effective. Some songs can manage the same rhythm throughout, of course, but think how dull this song would have been if Taylor had staid with the same 2-bar rhythmic pattern in the second half! The combination of repetition, variation, and contrast gives the music "singability" without becoming tedious; it is a characteristic found in good music of many sorts.
Finley, Gene C., ed. Our Garden of Song. West Monroe, La.: Howard Publishing, 1980.