Sunday, March 11, 2012

Come Unto Me

Praise for the Lord #107
Words: Franklin E. Belden, 1895
Music: Franklin E. Belden, 1895; arr. Ellis J. Crum, 1959

Franklin Edson Belden (1858-1945) has been described as "the most prolific writer of hymn tunes, gospel songs, and related texts in the early years of the Seventh-day Adventist Church."(IAMA) A nephew of Ellen White herself, he was close to the inner circle of Adventist leadership, and used his considerable talents in songwriting and editing in service of the Review and Herald Publishing House in Battle Creek, Michigan.(Land, 39) He was quickly recognized as the rising star among Adventist songwriters, and co-edited the 1886 Hymns and Tunes, contributing more than 80 songs. Christ in Song (1900) was a project conceived and carried out on his own, and has been called "the most popular songbook ever published by the [Seventh-Day Adventist] church."(IAMA)

Belden's career among the Seventh-Day Adventists ended abruptly, however, in the midst of a complicated controversy. Land's entry on Belden in the Historical Dictionary of Seventh-Day Adventists says that he left that church in 1907 over a royalties dispute.(39) According to the biography on the web site of the International Adventist Musicians Association, Belden relinquished copyright on his songs for use in the Adventist hymnals at a time when all royalties went to mission work, and objected when this policy was later changed.(IAMA)

There was considerably more to this story, however; Belden was actually among a large number of Seventh-Day Adventists who were expelled from that fellowship in the summer of 1907, branded as "apostates" and "heretics" for lack of faith in the inspiration of Ellen White.(Cass City Chronicle, 17 July 1907) Belden's real position on Seventh-Day Adventism and his aunt's prophecies is still disputed. Following this break, Belden wrote songs for the evangelical revivalist Billy Sunday.

In "Come unto me," Belden takes his chorus directly from the words of Christ in Matthew 11:28-29 (King James Version), a beautiful invitation that is all the more powerful taken in context of the entire discourse. Toward the beginning of the chapter, Jesus received two disciples of John who brought word from that prophet, then bound in Herod's prison, who asked, "Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?"(v.3) Opinions vary on why John asked this question, but the most obvious answer seems to be a certain amount of doubt mixed with some frustration as Jesus pursued a path far different from what anyone expected of the Messiah. Jesus' reply is terse:
The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. And blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.(v.5-6)
But then Jesus strongly defended His cousin, contrasting John's faithfulness (in spite of doubts) to the fickleness of the crowds who had come to hear, first the herald, and then the Messiah Himself.(v.7-8,16-17) This leads into a series of "woes" pronounced on places where Jesus had worked extensively, specifically the Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum.

"I would believe in God if He personally revealed Himself to me." Have you ever heard someone express this? The people of those Galilean cities and villages, in that generation, had just that opportunity--but relatively few believed. "No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him,"(v.27) and Jesus had done just that; but the seemingly "wise and prudent" of His own people rejected Him.(v.25) He fulfilled the words of the prophets, revealed the Father, and preached the gospel of grace and peace. What more could He have done? No wonder His comparisons are so harsh--Tyre and Sidon, the proud seacoast cities that were utterly destroyed according to prophecy, and Sodom, which is still a byword for sin.

Yet after these reflections on His own rejection, and on the coming condemnation of those who turned away from Him, come some of the most beautiful words ever to cross His lips.
Come unto Me, all you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.(v.28-30)
Even in the face of rejection, persecution, and His coming passion, Jesus held out the hope of forgiveness. "The Lord . . . is longsuffering toward us, not willing [i.e., desiring, DRH] that any should perish but that all should come to repentance."(2 Peter 3:9) We have a hard time understanding that kind of forgiveness. Perhaps the closest we can see, in human terms, is the longsuffering patience of parents; even toward a child who has hurt them, there is a nearly unquenchable desire to restore the relationship. God's love is far greater even than this love, thus the indescribable beauty of His grace as seen in Jesus' words.

Stanza 1:
O heart bowed down with sorrow!
O eyes that long for sight!
There's gladness in believing,
In Jesus there is light.

The "heart bowed down with sorrow" was a fairly common cliche of Victorian prose and poetry, as a phrase search of Google Books reveals, but I believe Belden was referencing a Scriptural expression: "The LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous.(Psa 146:8) This was fulfilled literally in the miracles of Jesus, as His message to John in Matthew 11:5 made clear. Luke 13:11-12 tells of Jesus' healing of a woman who was "bent over [KJV 'bowed together'] and could in no way raise herself up." Jesus also restored sight to the blind on several occasions, most famously when He gave sight to the man born blind (John 9).

But as wonderful as these physical, outward miracles were, Jesus grieved all the more over the spiritual hurts that people would not let Him heal. He saw people "burdened with sins" (2 Timothy 3:6), and misled by erring spiritual leaders who "tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger."(Matthew 23:4) He saw multitudes turn away from His message, fulfilling the word that, "seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand."(Isaiah 6:9, Luke 8:10) How much more Jesus rejoiced to straighten up the spiritually "bowed down," and offer sight to the spiritually blind!

"Come unto me,
All ye that labor,
And are heavy laden,
And I will give you rest.

Take My yoke upon you,
And learn of Me;
For I am meek and lowly in heart:
And ye shall find rest unto your souls."

There are many famous revolutionary speeches in history, rallying people around a leader and a cause. The Jews of the 1st century had heard a few themselves. But instead of promising glory and honor, riches and lands, or freedom from political oppression, Jesus called His followers to something no earthly leader could offer--rest and relief of the spirit. The world could not understand this kind of revolution, because, as Jesus tried to explain to Pontius Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world."(John 18:36) It is an inward overthrow of servitude to sin, and restoration of God to His rightful place in our lives. As Jesus told His confused hearers, "The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, 'See here!' or 'See there!' For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you."(Luke 17:20-21)

The outcome of this revolution is also far different from that of most human political upsets. From ancient times up to this morning's news report, we have ample evidence that many revolutions just end up changing one kind of tyranny for another. By contrast, Jesus promises that His "yoke is easy." The yoke, a frame used to harness plow animals for work, was a symbol of servitude to another, stretching back to the book of Genesis. Christ's revolution does not free us from all service; Bob Dylan was right when he claimed, "Gotta serve somebody." But the yoke of obedience laid on us by Christ is for our good, not our exploitation, and leads us to joy and rest.

Finally, Christ's credentials are in stark contrast to those heroes of human history who led revolutions. He did not ask people to come to Him because of His power, or authority, or ability to confound the political, military, and religious leadership of His day; He claimed instead, "For I am meek and lowly in heart." Few politicians would run on that campaign platform (if only they would!), and few revolutions, if any, hinge on the humility of their instigator. But this kind of revolution could not work in any other way. If we can come to truly understand the
humility of Christ, the revolution has begun within us.

Earth's fleeting gain and pleasure
Can never satisfy:
'Tis love our joy doth measure,
For love can never die.


In Belden's original this is the second of four stanzas, but the Churches of Christ in the U.S. have used two different three-stanza versions over the years. "Come unto me" appears in the Gospel Advocate Co.'s Christian Hymns (1935) with all four, but the original second stanza (above) is retained and the original third stanza (below) is omitted in Christian Hymns no. 2. That three-stanza version was followed by the hymnals from Firm Foundation (Majestic Hymnal) and Howard Publishing (Songs of the Church). The Great Songs of the Church series, however, did just the opposite, omitting the original second stanza and retaining the original third stanza. This was followed, as usual, in Praise for the Lord. The reasons for some of these editorial decisions may become apparent below.

The stanza above might have been inspired in part by the description of Moses in the great 11th chapter of Hebrews:
By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter; choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompense of the reward.(24-26)
Even if riches and pleasures of the world do not keep a person out of the kingdom (and the kingdom out of the person), they can stunt the believers' growth to the point of futility: "as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature."(Luke 8:14) Moses in his day was tempted with the best the world had to offer, and chose instead the greater riches of faithful service to his God. He chose to trust instead in the steadfast love and mercy of God, which endures forever.(Psalm 136)

Stanza 2:
Divinest consolation
Doth Christ the Healer give;
Art thou in condemnation?
Believe, repent and live.


"And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel . . ."(Luke 2:25) One of the attributes of the Messiah was this "consolation," comforting hurts and righting wrongs, bringing about a joyous and cheerful situation for the people of Israel. Jesus brought this in a greater sense than even faithful Simeon could have hoped, offering us a "strong"(Hebrews 6:18) and "everlasting"(2 Thessalonians 2:16) consolation that "abounds."(2 Corinthians 1:5) The Greek word here is παράκλησις (paraklēsis), related to the Lord's name "Comforter" for the Holy Spirit.(John 14-17) Both are rooted in the idea of "calling to the side (of another)."(Thayer, 137) This is, in a sense, exactly what the gospel offers: to be called to the side of the Father from whom we once were separated by sin.

Christ as the Healer is a favorite image to many of us, and has inspired many great hymns. Rather than a warrior-king bringing death and destruction, He came as the Great Physician to heal a hurting world. David knew this side of God when he said of his Lord, "He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds."(Psalm 147:3) Faithful Jews such as Simeon thrilled to the promise in the closing chapter of the Hebrew Testament, "But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings."(Malachi 4:2) When Jesus came working the signs of the Messiah, the majority of them were just such acts of healing. But the greatest work of healing of all was when the Healer gave up His own life to save the patient: "Who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—-by whose stripes you were healed."(1 Peter 2:24, cf. Isaiah 53:5)

The last line of this stanza, "Repent, believe, and live," may be the reason it was dropped from many of the hymnals used among Churches of Christ; we are so used to having to defend the essentiality of baptism in salvation, that we are quick to suspect any omission of its mention. It is clear from their official doctrinal statements that the Seventh-Day Adventist position on salvation (like that of many other religious groups) is that belief and repentance are all that is required to be born again; baptism is treated quite separately as a public confession of one's committment to Christ and desire to be recognized in the church.("Fundamental beliefs") There is every reason to believe that Belden held the same view, and would have considered "believe, repent, and live" to be a sufficient answer to the question, "What must I do to be saved?"

By contrast, the Acts of the Apostles, which is nothing less than a record of evangelism and conversions under the inspired teaching of those men, presents baptism as the immediate response for a believer desiring salvation. Other more theological passages connect it directly to the spiritual regeneration of the new birth: "He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit."(Titus 3:5) And when Peter said, "Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you,"(1 Peter 3:21) he placed that act on a par with faith and repentance as an essential part of salvation. (For an interesting article on this topic, I recommend Wayne Jackson's Acts 2:38--not so tough!")

But must every song that mentions the subject give a thorough step-by-step treatment of the plan of salvation? Very few of our "invitation songs" do. I suggest this is something that has to be determined case by case, and according to the best judgment of elders, song leaders, and individual Christians. I remember a good sister objecting to the line "Thou savest those that on Thee call" in the hymn "Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts." She felt that it was teaching a faith-only or "sinner's prayer" salvation that omitted baptism. That line, of course, is a paraphrase of Romans 10:13, "For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved." Given the discussion of baptism in the preceding 6th chapter of the same letter, it is gross error to take this single verse as a full statement of Paul's teaching on how to be saved! Besides, Paul himself gave a commentary on "calling on the name of the Lord" when he retold the words he had heard from Ananias, "And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord."(Acts 22:16)

But to that particular sister, it was a problem, and I took her advice respectfully and promised to give it thought. Certainly if there is one song that causes honest concerns on the part of some members (and she was a gracious, spiritual lady who was not a chronic fault-finder!), there are plenty of other songs in the book. The decision to omit this stanza of "Come unto Me" in many hymnals may have been wise, and I too have generally avoided using this stanza simply because of the assumptions that some might make about the meaning of that final line. Error is so rampant on the subject that I would not want to give an "uncertain sound."(1 Corinthians 14:8)

Stanza 3:
His peace is like a river,
His love is like a song;
His yoke's a burden never;
'Tis easy all day long.


The phrase "peace like a river" is common to several hymns, old and new, but is traceable back to two statements recorded by the prophet Isaiah. The first is spoken in woe: "Oh that you had paid attention to My commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea."(Isaiah 48:18) But the second is spoken in reassurance of the future:
For thus says the LORD: "Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip, and bounced upon her knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.(Isaiah 66:12-13)
A large river is a thing of beauty and power, and inspires awe when we give it consideration. Slow-moving and calm as it may appear, it has an inexorable force that can move massive burdens in shipping and turn generators that light our cities. The peace Jesus offers is far more powerful, of course, and just as surely can sweep away the burdens of sin and bring new light and life to our lives!

But is Christ's yoke really "easy all day long?" He said it was "easy" and "light," and that of course is enough. It is not, however, nonexistent; and perhaps His words are best understood in comparison to the alternative. Which is harder to bear, a heavy load on direct journey to a known destination, or an even heavier load carried in circles without purpose? Jesus also said, "If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me."(Matthew 16:24) Whatever our cross may be, it is a burden; but like the far greater cross borne by our Savior, it is not carried without purpose! There is rest and peace, a resolution of purpose, to be found in this path of the cross.

About the music:

"Come unto me" is one of the finest gospel songs of its type that I have encountered, and even a brief glance at Belden's other works reveals an intriguing variety in both texts and music. "I cannot drive the nails again", "The Passover", "God shall be first", and "Hallelujahs to Jesus", to name just a few, show an unusual imagination. This raises an interesting question: where did Belden receive his musical training? Latter-Day Saints sources say that he received most of his education at Battle Creek College, but did not begin composing until his family moved to California for a missionary sojourn in about 1876.("We Know Not the Hour") Battle Creek College did not have a music teacher on staff at its founding in 1874,(Lawrence, 47) so the logical supposition is that Belden studied in California (though there were music teachers of course in Battle Creek at the time).

A search of for "Adventists" shows they were particularly active in Oakland about 1874-1876, and at Placerville in 1879; these are the only locations in California where they are mentioned in the 1870s. Bishop's Oakland Directory for 1876-1877 places "Frank E. Belden" in Oakland as a mailing agent for Signs of the Times, an Adventist newspaper, during this very period, confirming the received history of his movements.

Where might he have studied music in Oakland during the late 1870s? The fledgling University of California was located there, on what is today the Berkeley campus, but in 1876 it was strictly a professional school with no arts faculty. In fairness, few universities in the U.S. offered advanced studies in music at this time; the traditional route for a professional musician was through a conservatory or independent studies. An exception to this rule, however, was Mills Seminary (now Mills College), a women's college that strongly emphasized the integration of the arts across the curriculum. The Department of Music in 1876 had a faculty of eight, including some names well known in their time. Ernst von Hartmann (1840-1894) was actually a graduate of the famed Leipzig Conservatory, and has been called "one of San Francisco's first teachers of standing and reputation."(Frederica) The vocal instructor, Alfred Kelleher, was a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music in London.(Pankey)

If you listen the music of this hymn by itself, and try to separate it from the spiritual association formed by long familiarity with the text, it really has a great deal of that trait called bel canto ("beautiful song") for which Italian singing has so long been famous. "Come unto Me" sounds like it could have been a lost aria from an early Romantic opera, or perhaps one of those Neapolitan songs that cross the line between classical and popular song. Compare, for example, Enrico Caruso's classic recording of "Santa Lucia":

I'm not suggesting we sing "Come unto me" in this style, but only to point out that Belden's setting is really a very beautiful piece of music on its own merits. Imagine Caruso singing the chorus of "Come unto Me," or maybe one of the Italian crooners, and I think you'll see what I mean.

In Praise for the Lord and a few other hymnals, Belden's original soprano-alto duet is harmonized in the standard a cappella SATB format. The editors note that this arrangement came from Ellis J. Crum's Sacred Selections, a hymnal that is famous for the editor's penchant for making changes to texts, and occasionally to the music. (I greatly respect Brother Crum's desire for our singing to be in accord with Scripture, but I am sometimes baffled by his decisions.) Why would Crum have added the bass and tenor parts to the original duet by the women's voices?

I have known at least one person who objected to any song in which the women's parts were featured alone in this fashion, because it theoretically gave the women of the church a teaching position over the men. (Not surprisingly, this person had a lot of unusual ideas.) He resolved this problem by singing along with all the soprano-alto duets, which of course any man is welcome to do anyway in the free-wheeling atmosphere of congregational singing. I did wonder, of course, why he didn't object to the sopranos being given the melody all the time, since that could technically be viewed as usurping authority over the tenors and basses.

I do not know if this objection had anything at all to do with Crum's decision. He might simply have thought that the singing would be better served by keeping all the parts in. This song was meant to have instrumental accompaniment under the women's voices, and though they are quite beautiful without it, I have noticed a tendency for these soprano-alto duets to drag even more than congregational singing naturally does. (There must be some corollary between congregational a cappella singing and Newton's Law of Inertia, but I have not finalized this theory.) The editors of Praise for the Lord also opted for fully harmonized versions of all the songs that originally featured soprano-alto duets.


"Franklin Edson Belden." International Adventist Musicians Association web site.

Land, Gary. Historical Dictionary of  Seventh-Day Adventists. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2005.

"Adventists fired." Cass City Chronicle (Cass City, Michigan), 2/12 (12 July 1907)

Thayer, Joseph Henry. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, revised and enlarged. Boston: H. L. Hastings, 1896.

"Fundamental beliefs." The Official Site of the Seventh-Day Adventist World Church.

"We Know Not the Hour." Suggested Materials for use on Heritage Sabbath, October 20, 2001. Ellen G. White Estate, 2001.

Lawrence, Henry H. "Select Michigan Counties." Pure Michigan.

Bishop's Oakland Directory for 1876-1877. Oakland, California: B. C. Vandall, 1876.

Fredericka, Jessica M. California Composers California Federations of Music Clubs, San Francisco, 1934. Quoted in A San Francisco Songster, 1849-1939. San Francisco: Works Progress Administration, 1939, p. 134

Pankey, Marilyn R. "Alfred Kelleher." 2004.

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