Friday, August 31, 2012

Day is Dying in the West

Praise for the Lord #119

Words: Mary A. Lathbury, 1877, 1890
Music: William F. Sherwin, 1877

"Day is dying in the west" is one of the most beautiful evening hymns written in the gospel tradition, and is particularly unusual in that it is an evening call to worship. Worship at sunset (sometimes called Vespers, or Evensong) has a long tradition; just as it is natural to turn to God in prayer at the beginning of our day, so there is an impulse to turn again to Him at the end of a day's labor. It is an opportunity to offer thanks for a good day, or to forget about a bad one.

The sternwheel steamboat Chautauqua Belle
crossing Lake Chautauqua at sunset. For many
years this was the most common way to reach
the lakeside campground.
This hymn had its origin in the evening assemblies of the famous educational programs held on the shore of Lake Chautauqua in western New York. These seminars originated in 1874 to train Sunday School teachers for the Methodist Church, but were essentially ecumenical and soon expanded to include many secular subjects as well. The Chautauqua phenomenon fed on the growing desire for secondary education among the middle classes, and included applied studies in literature and the fine arts as well as lectures on history, science, and politics (it was a natural stage for populists such as William Jennings Bryan). Satellite programs appeared in other places, and at one time a network of touring "chautauquas" blanketed the nation with lecturers and performers making a full-time career of educating the masses.(Chautauqua: An American Narrative)

One of the co-founders of the original institution in Chautauqua, New York was the Methodist bishop John H. Vincent, also the editor for the publishing arm of the Methodist Sunday School Union. That same year he hired Mary Artemisia Lathbury as assistant editor for children's publications. Lathbury was better known as an artist and book illustrator, but also published verse and prose. During this time she became a beloved writer and illustrator of religious materials for children, and soon left Vincent's employ to pursue a free-lance career.(Beede, 36) I am sure I recognize the illustrations in her Child's Story of the Bible from my old Sunday school quarterlies! (For an example of her literary work for adults, however, see her illustrated poem cycle, Out of Darkness into Light.)

Vincent asked Lathbury to write a few songs for the second Chautauqua event in 1875, which turned out to be a pivotal year for the movement--it was visited by the U.S. President, Ulysses S. Grant, bringing it to the attention of the nation. For the following years working for Vincent, Lathbury often wrote songs specifically for the Chautauquas, leading to her honorary title as the "poet laureate of Chautauqua."(Beede, 35) It was the songs written for the 1877 session, however, that produced her two most lasting hymns: "Break Thou the bread of life" and "Day is dying in the west." Both of these were published that year in The Chatauqua Carols (Chatauqua, New York: Chatauqua Sunday School Assembly, 1877).(; see also Beede, 38)

"Day is dying in the west" had only the first two stanzas in its original form; according to her nephew, Vincent Beede, Lathbury wrote the additional stanzas in about 1890 at the request of Dr. C. S. Harrower, a Methodist minister in New York City.(Beede, 38) The date of publication of these later stanzas is disputed in various sources, as is that of the hymn as a whole. But a search of the scanned hymnals available at confirms that this hymn did appear with only two stanzas at first, and gives no example of the four-stanza version prior to the 1890s. The original two-stanza version still appeared in a few hymnals in the early 20th century, which also suggests that the 3rd and 4th stanzas were relatively recent additions. (The scanned collection at is just a small sample, of course, compared to all the hymnals that were published in these years, but I can think of no more practical way to find this information.)

Stanza 1:
Day is dying in the west;
Heaven is touching earth with rest;
Wait and worship while the night
Sets her evening lamps alight
Through all the sky.

An acquaintance of mine from New York City once commented on the stark barrenness (as she saw it) of the Great Plains. "Yes, it's flat," I admitted, "but that gives us the best sunsets in the world." When the clouds are just right, the colors are almost overwhelming in their vividness. Dr. Bill Jones, a Bible professor at Oklahoma Christian who passed to his reward just a few months ago, used to say that a beautiful sunset is God's way of wishing us a good night of rest, and telling us that He loves us and is watching over us. In Psalm 50, verse 1, the great singer Asaph agrees: "The Mighty One, God the LORD, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting."

The sunset also told our ancestors, who did not have the dubious benefit of electric light and the resulting ability to work around the clock, that it was time to quit the day's labor. Once again we see God's blessing in the sunset, "touching earth with rest." "He gives His beloved sleep," writes the author of Psalm 127; and though Solomon's Proverbs also warn against an excess of rest, he noted that "the sleep of the laboring man is sweet."(Ecclesiastes 5:12) There is a time to rest, and at the end of the day, what better way to refresh ourselves than through worship of God? Jesus told His disciples in Mark 6:31, "Come away by yourselves to a secluded place, and rest a while." He knew they needed it, and we do too. Fortunately His invitation is still open, and through Bible study and prayer we can still "rest a while" in the company of our Lord after a day's labors.

When the sunset is over, an equally dramatic show of God's glory begins (at least if you are far enough from the city lights). From the Chautauqua Institute's location on the western shore of the lake, attendees of outdoor evening services had an excellent view to the east as the skies darkened and the stars became visible. From the earliest days of the human race, the stars have fascinated and delighted us; we look at them and wonder how many there are, what they might be like, and what is their relation to us. The Lord told Abraham, "Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them."(Genesis 15:5) The ancients counted the stars visible to the naked eye at around 1,000, but from the time Galileo first pointed his crude telescope at the night sky, we have had to revise that figure several times. The most recent estimate I have found is 300 sextillion, or 300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars, in the observable universe.(CBS News) What lies beyond that, of course, is anybody's guess.

It is hard not to wonder why God created such a mind-boggling number of stars, many of which, we are now told, have their own planetary systems. Did He create intelligent life on other planets? I can't really answer that question. But I am fairly certain of at least one purpose of this amazing universe: the more our capability to explore and understand it expands, the more humbling it becomes. In the face of 300 sextillion stars, how can I not agree with David's statement in Psalm 8?
When I look at Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have set in place,
What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You care for him?
(Psalm 8:3-4)
Yet however much the heavens remind us of our ignorance in the face of God's creation, we who believe on Him are comforted by the fact that, "He determines the number of the stars; He gives to all of them their names." And how marvelous also to realize that the same God knows the number of hairs on my head!(Matthew 10:30)

Holy, holy, holy,
Lord God of Hosts!
Heav'n and earth are full of Thee;
Heav'n and earth are praising Thee,
O Lord Most High!

The refrain is an adaptation of the traditional Sanctus text, which is based on Isaiah 6:3 and has been elaborated in various ways over the centuries. Lathbury used the version found in standard Methodist Episcopal liturgical guides of her time,(Ritual, 46) which had the older wording from the Book of Common Prayer:

Holy, holy, holy,
Lord God of Hosts,
Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory.
Glory be to Thee, O Lord most high.

"Holy" is one of the most important words to understand in Scripture. There are entire books (Leviticus) that detail how to treat holy things. There are calls for us to be holy ourselves: "Be therefore holy, for I am holy."(Leviticus 11:45, 1 Peter 1:15-16) But when we speak of the holiness of God, it is a different subject altogether. We are sinners who are striving, by God's help, to increase in that "holiness, without which no one will see the Lord."(Hebrews 12:14) But at best, all our righteousness is "filthy rags"(Isaiah 64:6) compared to the holiness of God. He never has been anything else. The holiness of God is a separateness, not just of behavior, but of essence.

This is part of what lies behind the impact of the vision in Isaiah chapter 6. It was not lost on the prophet, whose first reaction is not praise but rather fear and self-reproach: "Woe is me! I am undone!"(Isaiah 6:5) The gods created by human imagination are exalted, exaggerated humans; but our Lord God is different. The absoluteness of His qualities is both wonderful and terrifying, summed up in the simple name: I AM. When the six-winged beings shout "Holy! Holy! Holy!" it is a scene of literally unearthly glory.

That glory spills over into the beings who serve Him in the heavenly realm. "LORD God of Hosts" ("Sabaoth" is a Latin equivalent used in the KJV) was a favorite phrase of the Hebrew prophets, who continually advised their kings not to trust in their own armies, or to fear those of other nations. The "armies of the Lord" were the true defense of God's people, as seen in the invisible forces that protected Elisha's village from the Syrians in 2 Kings 6:8-23. Just one of God's emissaries was all that was required to destroy the Assyrian army at the gates of Jerusalem.(2 Kings 19:35) No wonder that the visit of an angel inspired fear at first, even when it brought news of joy! And the scenes of worship found in the Revelation, of course, give mere hints of the glories of those beings that dwell in the very presence of God.

But the glory of God overflows from the heavenly realm into His natural creation as well: "Heaven and earth are full of Thee." "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork."(Psalm 19:1) The most hardened skeptic is filled with awe at the wonders of this universe, even if he does not know why. And looking at the earth around us, who cannot realize the lavish beauty with which God filled it? Consider the majestic rise of a mountain peak, the sobering expanse of a desert, the warm embrace of wooded hills and fertile plains; or, look at the fearful beauty of a tiger, the dignity and serenity of a whale, or the clever efficiency of an ant. We even see the glory of God filling that most troublesome portion of His creation, us. Despite our fallen sinfulness, God's glory still shines through in acts of compassion, valor, faithfulness, and selflessness.

How can we but return this glory to its Source in the form of praise? God does not need our praise, of course, any more than the sun needs the moon to reflect its light. But like the moon, we who bask in the light of God's glory cannot help but reflect that glory back to its origin, at the same time providing a little of that reflected light to the part of the earth still in darkness.

Stanza 2:
Lord of life, beneath the dome
Of the universe, Thy home,
Gather us who seek Thy face
To the fold of Thy embrace,
For Thou art nigh.


The opening two lines of this stanza reference the outdoor worship setting where this hymn was first sung, but they also remind us that wherever we are, we are under God's skies and upon His earth. King David phrased this beautifully in the 139th Psalm:
Where shall I go from Your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, You are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.
(Psalm 139:7-10)
This sentiment underlies a phrase found frequently in the Psalms: "the LORD, who made heaven and earth." Because He made heaven and earth, He has authority over it and all that is in it. For this reason, He is our protection against physical danger (Psalm 122) and from enemies (Psalm 124). He is the source of all blessings.(Psalm 134) God's position as Creator also makes Him the ultimate authority to whom we must answer. "'Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him?' declares the LORD. 'Do I not fill heaven and earth?' declares the LORD."(Jeremiah 23:24) How much better to stand forgiven by His grace, able to rejoice in that presence!

There are a couple of problematic things in the wording in these lines, however, though I appreciate the sentiment expressed. One, of course, is the grammatical gymnastics forced by the line break in the middle of the clause, "beneath the dome / Of the universe, Thy home." This works fine in poetry that is read, but not necessarily when it is sung; I think the force of the cadence that closes the musical phrase on "dome" creates too much of a break for this to flow naturally. But this is a minor flaw.

A more serious question is whether it is appropriate to speak of the "dome of the universe" as God's "home." Describing the universe as a "dome" is allowable poetic license; the ancients thought the stars were set in a literal dome over the earth, but even though we know better now, we still don't know exactly what the universe is. We have never found an edge, of course; the best guesses right now seem to indicate a sphere, which is close enough to a dome from a poetic point of view. But should we call the universe God's "home?"

Our universe, as best we can describe it, is a place in which there is space, time, matter, energy, and certain predictable laws. God exists beyond the bounds of all these things. He created the universe, but is not subject to its limitations, as He has often demonstrated in the history recorded in Scripture. So if God created it, before that time He must have been in what we call heaven, which is located... somewhere else? Whatever that place may be that God inhabits--if "place" is even a relevant term--it seems clear enough that it is not some physical location within our universe. Lathbury's language in this stanza seems to limit God's existence in a way that doesn't jibe with His role as Creator.

But I can accept Lathbury's wording in the sense that God "fills heaven and earth"(Jeremiah 23:24) with His presence, and in the sense that His glory is seen in His handiwork. She also references another great Scripture passage in the final line, "for Thou art nigh," which ties the presence of God in His creation to our worship of Him--the overall theme of the hymn. The line is quoted from Paul's sermon to the Athenians:
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward Him and find Him. Yet He is actually not far from each one of us, for "In Him we live and move and have our being;" as even some of your own poets have said, "For we are indeed His offspring."(Acts 17:24-28)
God is "not far" because He sustains everything around us! The old Deist notion of a clockwork universe, set in motion and then essentially abandoned, has not stood the test of time. The newest ideas in quantum physics--to the extent that I understand them, from popular documentaries and magazines--suggest that the universe is a lot weirder than anyone imagined. If a man can talk with a straight face about particles "popping in and out of existence," where is the difficulty in accepting the idea of a God who sustains it all, moment by moment, through His power?

Stanza 3:
While the deep'ning shadows fall,
Heart of love, enfolding all,
Through the glory and the grace
Of the stars that veil Thy face
Our hearts ascend.


As mentioned above, the 3rd and 4th stanzas were written some years after the original two, and though they draw on many of the same ideas they are also a little different. Lathbury was a more experienced writer by that time, and the 3rd stanza especially shows a more ambitious literary tone. On the other hand, these stanzas may not have quite the spontaneity of the original pair.

Here the writer continues the sunset process begun several years earlier. After the setting of the sun and the stars coming out in the first two stanzas, the 3rd stanza follows the "deep'ning shadows" as the last of the daylight fades. As a literary allusion, gathering darkness at day's end more often has a negative connotation, but Lathbury compares the darkness of those lakeside summer evenings to the embrace of God, "Heart of love, enfolding all."

Looking to the stars once again (an image that appears in each stanza), Miss Lathbury amends the possible implications of the 2nd stanza as to the relationship of God to this universe. Before, the emphasis was on God in His creation, the "dome of the universe." Now, as we seek to know Him more clearly, we realize that the "stars veil [His] face."

It is in the nature of humanity to seek God. Some will certainly argue against that statement, because many do not seem to do so, or even insist that they do not. But how many people could honestly say that they do not seek any higher meaning in their lives, beyond an animal existence? The desire to seek our Creator is still there, even if diverted to lesser ends. "God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes."(Ecclesiastes 7:29) And really, most people do believe in something greater than themselves and beyond the confines of this material world. Multitudes are looking, "in the hope that they might feel their way toward Him and find Him."(Acts 17:27)

From the beginning of His relationship with the Hebrews, the Lord was clear that they were to seek actively for a relationship with Him. "You will seek the LORD your God and you will find Him, if you search after Him with all your heart and with all your soul."(Deuteronomy 4:29) King David, who also spent many nights in his youth looking up at the stars, wrote beautifully of this human longing:
One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after:
That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
To gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in His temple. . .
Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud;
Be gracious to me and answer me!
You have said, "Seek My face."
My heart says to You,
"Your face, LORD, do I seek."
(Psalm 27:4,7-8)
Jesus also emphasized the need to "seek first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness."(Matthew 6:33) This knowledge of God is worth everything to those who truly experience it--Paul said, "Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord."(Philippians 3:8) And coming into the Lord's presence, learning to know Him better, will leave us changed for the better. "And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another."(2 Corinthians 3:18) Moses saw the glory of the Lord at Sinai, and the change to his appearance was such that he had to veil his face before the people.(Exodus 34) Worship is something we give to God, but when we give ourselves fully to this task, we will find ourselves blessed as well.

Stanza 4:
When forever from our sight
Pass the stars, the day, the night,
Lord of angels, on our eyes
Let eternal morning rise,
And shadows end.


I'm not always sure about the sudden references to death inserted in the final stanzas of so many hymns; of course we need to talk about the topic, but it doesn't always need to be brought front and center. In this case--and this is just a minor example, not really a criticism at all--the 4th stanza shifts the focus a little toward our own experiences, and away from the contemplation of God. The next time I lead this hymn I might leave this stanza off, in order to close the hymn with the focus still on approaching God in worship.

That said, the stanza is well written and ties in well with the rest of the hymn. Having witnessed the close of day, the coming of night, and the beauty of God's universe, we consider the fact that the day will come when "the sun, and the light, and the moon, and the stars, are darkened" to us, because "man goes to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets."(Ecclesiastes 12:2,5) Even these seemingly limitless wonders of the material universe will not last forever: "But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up."(2 Peter 3:10) Some translations render "elements" as the "heavenly bodies," and some readings of the end of this verse have the earth and its works "laid bare" or "exposed," but the end result is the same. Whether we leave this existence behind through death, or live to witness its end, for all of us the time is coming when these things will be no more.

But the Creator whom we sought will go on, as will our relationship with Him. In that heavenly realm, He will "make all things new."(Revelation 21:5) Our gathering for worship will not be limited by our physicality, or our dullness of spirit. John said, "And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb."(Revelation 21:22) "His servants will worship Him. They will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads."(Revelation 22:3-4) We will have seen our last sunset, but instead will be forever in that golden hour of the sunrise of "eternal morning." God help us to learn better to worship Him here, that we may be preparing for that new dawn!

About the music:

William F. Sherwin (1826-1888) was a student of Lowell Mason, and for a time taught in the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music. As he became more involved with church music publishing, however, he moved to New York City where he edited hymnals for the Biglow & Main company, associating with many of the leading gospel music figures of the day. In the course of this work he wrote music to several of Fanny Crosby's lyrics, and was generally known more for his music writing than for his original lyrics. One song for which he wrote both words and music, however, has remained in some use: "Sound the Battle Cry," which is found in several hymnals among the Churches of Christ.

Sherwin was the first music director at Chautauqua, and inaugurated a summer music program for young classical musicians that is still one of the best known features of the Chautauqua Institute. In the early days, of course, he was the music program. He typically accompanied the worship services, and not surprisingly wrote the music for Mary Lathbury's famous Chautauqua hymns, "Day is Dying in the West" and "Break Thou the Bread of Life."(Cyberhymnal) Below is a scanned copy of the 1878 Chautauqua Carols, edited by Sherwin along with Howard Doane and Robert Lowry.

"Day is Dying in the West" is #132, titled "Evening Praise." (Interestingly, Lathbury and Sherwin also wrote a "Morning Praise"(#131) which never caught on.) There are quite a few other hymns in this book with music by Sherwin; of particular note are "Break Thou the Bread of Life"(#70) and "Beautiful Valley of Eden"(#83), a particularly lovely tune. There are also a number of Lathbury/Sherwin collaborations, notably "The Shrine of the Singer"(#141) written in memory of the recently deceased gospel songwriter Philip Paul Bliss.

I have always wondered what tempo best suits "Day is Dying in the West." I suspect that with a large number of people singing outdoors, it was probably sung pretty slowly (maybe 60 beats per minute?) in its original context. Following my rule of thumb that a cappella congregational singing should be a little faster than accompanied singing, because there is nothing filling the pauses, I have usually tried to pick the tempo up to a moderate walking pace (about 78 bpm at least). It can be sung faster, of course, but that seems to get in the way of the grandeur expressed in the lyrics.


Chautauqua: An American Narrative. (Web site for documentary film.) Buffalo, New York: WNED, 2012.

Chautauqua Carols. Chautauqua, New York: Chautauqua Sunday School Assembly, 1877.

"Day is dying in the west." Cyberhymnal.

Beede, Vincent Van Marter. "Mary Lathbury: Her Life and Lyrics." Chautauquan 30/1 (October 1899), 35-40.

"Universe's star count could triple." CBS News 1 December 2010.

Ritual of the Methodist Episcopal Church. New York: Nelson & Philips, 1872.

"William Fiske Sherwin." Cyberhymnal.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Count Your Blessings

Praise for the Lord #118

Words: Johnson Oatman Jr., 1897
Music: Edwin O. Excell, 1897

What is the origin of the expression "Count your blessings?" It is older than the hymn, at least. John Charles Earle published a sonnet under this title in his 1878 collection The Master's Field, which is the earliest usage I have found, and it was common enough in the 1880s to be considered a proverb. (There is a quote attributed to William Penn that uses this phrase, but I have never seen it sourced, and after hunting through several works by Penn I don't think it really sounds like his era. Regardless of its authorship, it is a great thought: "The secret of happiness is to count your blessings while others are adding up their troubles.")

Whatever the origin of this expression, never was it more prominently featured than in this hymn. The publication history available through shows that beginning in 1899 (just two years after its debut), it appeared in at least a half-dozen new hymnals every year. This average continued for about a decade. It was known in Great Britain as well, where it was quoted in Jay Gee's Collier Jack dating from about 1911. (This book is sometimes dated earlier, but page 13 refers to the 1911 Coal Mines Act.) Some of this was promotion by the composer, Excell, who was a powerful Chicago hymnal publisher; but it was also picked up by the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Disciples publishing houses, as well as by the smaller southern gospel publishers. The song's popularity fell off slightly in the early 1920s, but picked up strongly again by the 1930s. (Was it the influence of the Great Depression?) Publishing in general fell off during the war years, but it was popular again in the 1950s, boom years for gospel music. And though it has slacked in popularity from its heyday, this song is still represented in quite a respectable number of hymnals.

Johnson Oatman, Jr. composed many hymns, a handful of which have etched a place in the American memory. "I'm pressing on the upward way" ("Higher Ground"), "There's not a friend" ("No, not one"), and "If I walk in the pathway of duty" ("The Last Mile of the Way") are arguably as good as the best works of Fanny Crosby. Though there is some reliance on cliche and convention (and what popular songwriter is not guilty of that?), in all of these songs there is a distinctiveness and originality of metaphor, and of the underlying message, that makes them stand out in the older gospel song repertoire. (And like Crosby, Oatman was tremendously helped by good musical settings of his lyrics.)

It is interesting to note that Oatman was a bit of a late bloomer as a hymnwriter. He was ordained a Methodist minister and preached on a fill-in basis, but was never appointed a congregation. He eventually made a career as the second half of the mercantile enterprise Oatman & Son. But in 1892, at the age of 36, he tried his hand at writing hymn lyrics. In the decade that followed he wrote the hymns mentioned above, and continued writing dozens of lyrics a year until his death in 1922.(Bonner) A look at the songs listed on his page at the Cyberhymnal demonstrates the esteem in which his work was held--his lyrics were set to music by such prominent gospel composers as William J. Kirkpatrick, John R. Sweney, and Charles H. Gabriel, in addition to Edwin O. Excell, who wrote the music for "Count your blessings."

Stanza 1:
When upon life's billows you are tempest-tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

This is a song about perspective. It doesn't call for us to be Pollyannas, or even optimists; it simply reminds us not to dismiss the good aspects of our lives that we so easily take for granted. Every day God blesses us all with many things: "He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust."(Matthew 5:45) How sad that so many do not see this, and that so many even of His followers neglect to notice it!

Sometimes a little deprivation is required to make us realize what we have. Last Friday was my day for counting blessings; after nearly a month of illness, I finally felt well again, and eager to get outside to do the yardwork that had been piling up. The temperature was about 95 degrees, but after a few weeks of 100+ temperatures, it didn't seem so bad. And late in the afternoon, as I was sweeping up the front walk, a cool north breeze came up. I stopped and thought, "Thank you, Lord, for that little breeze." (If you have worked outside on a hot day when the air hasn't stirred for hours, you understand just how wonderful that feels!)

These are little things perhaps, but I mention them just to show how many blessings there are to appreciate every day; we just don't think about them until we are deprived of them. The funniest thing about the above is that I really don't enjoy yardwork at all, but I was forced to recognize the blessings that make it possible even to do a chore I don't like!

My children have often heard the saying, "If you have a roof over your head, clothes on your back, and food on the table, be grateful. Many people do not." Many of us in the developed world really have far more than this; we have so much roof over our heads we don't know how to pay for it all, so many clothes we don't have enough closet space, and so much food on the table we have an obesity problem. We run all the more risk of taking it for granted; we also run more risk of failing to realize how many around the world are in need of just the basics of life.

But what does counting your blessings do in the face of "life's billows," when we are "thinking all is lost?" If I may be excused another personal example--of a much more serious nature--I have learned a little about this. One February morning in 2006, I had to take my wife to the emergency room at 2:30 a.m. As the nurse was taking the necessary information, she asked for an emergency contact who lived in the area, and at the time we lived hours away from our closest family members. I said, "I don't have anybody." I will never forget that; it was one of the most foolish things I have ever said.

By the end of that day, several friends from our congregation, and from work, had come by to see if we needed anything. A couple we knew and trusted kept our children overnight. When my wife went into surgery the next day, an elder from our congregation came and sat with me and chatted about history, politics, academia, anything to keep my mind busy. As I was looking out the window of the waiting room that morning, I saw my sister crossing the street--she had flown into town as quickly as possible, and took care of my children until we were able to come home from the hospital. On top of all that, we were in one of the best hospitals in the southeastern U.S., and one of the head surgeons of that facility was on call that weekend for emergency surgeries.

I'm not saying any of us wanted to experience that just to learn how blessed we really were (we will always refer to 2006 as the "Annus horribilis"), but even at the time (even more so in retrospect) we began to see that yes, God was taking care of us. So many things could have been so much worse, and so many things worked out positively, that even though I would have given anything for her not to go through that experience, I still had much for which to be thankful. As Psalm 124:1 says, "If it had not been the LORD who was on our side..."

Count your blessings, name them one by one;
Count your blessings, see what God hath done!
Count your blessings, name them one by one;
Count your many blessings, see what God hath done!

What is the effect of literally tallying up our blessings? Dave Munger in his blog Cognitive Daily reviewed the research on this in "Does 'counting your blessings' really help?" In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, it was found that a test group who were asked to write down five things for which they were thankful, every day for a week, reported a more positive emotional outlook and even better sleep patterns than did a control group. It's interesting to see a scientific approach to this, but the results are hardly surprising!

Psalm 136 is a Scripture example of counting our blessings. In this lengthy psalm, the first half of each couplet tells of something great God has done, and the second half declares "for His steadfast love endures forever!" It begins by detailing the wonders of the natural creation, then the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, the deliverance through the trials of the wilderness, and finally God's protection of Israel in their promised land. It was important to the ancient Hebrews, not just for encouragement, but as a way to remember to Whom they owed their very existence.

So how do we count our blessings? Batsell Barrett Baxter, a great preacher of years gone by, revealed in a sermon how he once tried to list his blessings. He began with the basics: life, food, shelter, and clothing. For each of these, he noted, there are many people involved--the farmer who grows the food, the builder who builds the house, and the textile worker who makes the cloth for the clothing. Next was his family and friends, all the people upon whom we rely for support, and without whom we would feel disoriented and lost. He looked next at the beauty of nature--I could spend a day on this myself! Then he thought about things that made it possible for him to make a living, such as freedom and security protected by the governing authorities, and the opportunity to gain education and skills. Finally, looking to the greatest blessings last, he considered the love of our Father in heaven, the grace and forgiveness brought down by Jesus Christ, the guidance of the Holy Spirit through His Word, and the strength and support of our brothers and sisters in Christ's Church. It's a good list, but like any such attempt, it seems to leave so much out! It would do us all good to try it ourselves.

Stanza 2:
Are you ever burdened with a load of care?
Does the cross seem heavy you are called to bear?
Count your many blessings, every doubt will fly,
And you will be singing as the days go by.


In this stanza Oatman addresses not the dramatic extremes of life, when we are "tempest-tossed" and feel that "all is lost," but rather the day-to-day cares and burdens. A cross is not borne just for a moment, but is carried step by step, day by day. We all have the small burdens of life; some have heavier burdens for a period of time; and some have heavy crosses that they must carry for the rest of their lives.

One of the greatest Scripture passages on daily living, of course, is our Savior's Sermon on the Mount, and at the opening of this discourse He addressed the way that the blessed individual deals with life's troubles. When we are following Christ, even the sorrows of life are blessings! If we are poor in spirit, if we mourn, if we are meek and humble, if we are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, Jesus said we are blessed. If we learn to view the daily hardships of life as things that can bring us closer to that ideal expressed by Jesus, we can add these blessings to our count as well. And remember, if you have a cross to bear, you are in the best of company! Jesus said, "If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me."(Matthew 16:24) If you shoulder that cross every day for Jesus' sake, you are following in the footsteps of the apostles and martyrs, of every noble and godly saint down through the ages, and most of all, the footsteps of Jesus himself.

But will we really be "singing as the days go by?" Sometimes it is hard to sing; sometimes we don't feel up to the enthusiasm expressed in some lyrics. There is a valid principle here, though--it is a long-standing tradition to use song to lighten labors. There are whole categories of folk song associated with different kinds of physical labor, because music helps to occupy our minds and to connect us with others. In taking up that daily cross, try a song and see if does not help! Asaph, King David's chief musician, said this about the usefulness of song:
In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
In the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
My soul refuses to be comforted...
I said, "Let me remember my song in the night;
Let me meditate in my heart."
(Psalm 77:2,6)
Stanza 3:
When you look at others with their lands and gold,
Think that Christ has promised you His wealth untold;
Count your many blessings, money cannot buy
Your reward in Heaven, nor your home on high.


Envy is bad enough by itself, but to make things worse, it almost always brings along its ugly twin: self-pity. I don't think Oatman meant us to indulge in either in this stanza, but still it is a good idea to keep this in perspective. For myself, though I am not considered a wealthy person in my community, this stanza could also read: "When you look at others with their lands and gold, / Think that there are billions of people on this planet who would trade places with you in an instant." But there is always someone who has more, and the devil works hard to make us feel deprived when we don't have it ourselves. This is foolishness, and we do well to take Oatman's advice: "Think that Christ has promised you His wealth untold."

In the beautiful opening paragraphs of the letter to the Ephesians, Paul says, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places."(Ephesians 1:3) I probably should not even begin to try to list these, but here is what comes to mind first:
  • Forgiveness of my sins and removal of guilt.
  • Acceptance even with all my flaws.
  • Guidance to become something better.
  • Purpose in living every day.
  • Steadfast love now and forever.
  • Knowing that I am never alone.
  • Promises of a better life to come.
It's not a great list, but even that little attempt should make the point--what price tag would you put on these things? We could add as well the more tangible blessings of the Christian life:
  • The Scriptures: The world's greatest library, full of history, drama, action, poetry, philosophy, but most of all moral and spiritual guidance and the key to salvation.
  • Prayer: A free unlimited calling plan with worldwide coverage at any time of day; no dropped calls, ever, and extremely easy to use.
  • The Church: The Kingdom of Heaven, a nation with the only perfect Leader I will ever find, and the simplest terms of citizenship. The only known flaws are the other people there, who have on average just as many irritating qualities as I do; but since no one outside that Kingdom is going to help us get where we are trying to go, we work together the best we can.
Another thing great thing to remember about spiritual blessings is that they have no drawbacks! Proverbs 10:22 says, "The blessing of the LORD makes rich, and He adds no sorrow with it." Earthly riches often bring anxiety with them; but our spiritual riches can never be taken away and will never run out. You can revel in them day after day, to your heart's content; they will never do you any harm, in fact, the more you indulge in them, the better they are for you! Let us learn to appreciate how rich we really are, in the things that matter most.

Stanza 4:
So, amid the conflict, whether great or small,
Do not be discouraged, God is over all;
Count your many blessings, angels will attend,
Help and comfort give you to your journey's end.


One of my favorite chapters in Scripture is Genesis 28, which records Jacob's dream at the place he would later name Bethel. On the run from his enraged brother Esau, Jacob is traveling alone and far from home, probably for the first time. "And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep."(Genesis 28:11) He was literally between a rock and a hard place, or at least on top of a rock and a hard place. Apparently there was no habitation nearby where he could seek shelter, or perhaps he was afraid to make himself known to anyone in case Esau was trailing him. As far as he knew, he was more alone than he had ever been.

But God sent that dream of angels descending and ascending back into heaven, and spoke to Jacob about His plans for him. The Lord concluded with these words: "Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."(Genesis 28:15) The next verse tells us that Jacob woke up and made a realization: "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it."(Genesis 28:16)

What Jacob said then is just as true today, and it is just as true about situations and circumstances as it is about geographical locations. When you are surrounded by enemies of the cross of Christ, remember that "the Lord is in this place." When you are bereaved and left alone, remember that "the Lord is in this place." Whatever the circumstance, you are never as alone, and the outlook is never as grim, as it seems to human eyes. Jacob thought he had just a hard night of little sleep ahead of him; instead he had a vision of angels, and received the promise of God's favor throughout his life. That place that seemed so inhospitable at first became a holy place, and was the early home of God's tabernacle when the descendants of Jacob returned from Egypt. Sometimes these hard places in our lives are where we meet God most memorably, and in retrospect we may see them as turning points in our spiritual lives that brought us more closely into God's way.

Another great example of this change of perspective--in a very literal sense--is found in 2 Kings, chapter 6, when the prophet Elisha's city was surrounded by the hostile army of Syria:
When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, "Alas, my master! What shall we do?" He said, "Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them." Then Elisha prayed and said, "O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see." So the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.(2 Kings 6:15-17)
It is easier, somehow, to dwell on the problems and sorrows of life, and there is no sense in denying their reality. But too often we fail to see the good things, as well, that come our way every day. May our eyes be opened to see how we are surrounded by God's blessings!

About the music:

As a songwriter Edwin Othello Excell (1851-1921) would have been little remembered, apart from his setting of "Count your blessings" and the children's song "I'll be a sunbeam." As a publisher, song leader, and promoter, however, he was one of the most prominent men in gospel music at the beginning of the twentieth century. He edited or contributed to at least 90 hymnals, and at his death in 1921 his eponymous publishing house had the highest volume of hymnal printing in the United States.(Wikipedia) His collection of copyrights was even more significant, making him one of the most powerful men in the business.(McCann, 221, footnote 5) One of his trademarks was the use of serial titles, such as Excell's Anthems, Excell's School Songs, and Triumphant Songs, which ran for several volumes each. After his death the E.O. Excell company was acquired by Hope Publishing and became part of that company's rise to national prominence in church music.(Wikipedia)

Excell's melody for "Count your blessings" is unremarkable at first glance, but the longevity and popularity of the song make it worth a second look. First of all, the rhythm and tempo were good choices. If these lyrics had been set to a slow, sentimental, syrupy tune (not uncommon in the era), we might have long since forgotten them. The bright, snappy rhythm of Excell's melody keeps the mood upbeat and downplays any tendency toward self-pity.

In the second place, there is a subtle and effective use of a melodic hook that gives the tune a distinctiveness it would otherwise lack. In the second phrase of the stanza, the 5th note ("dis-COUR-aged" in the 1st stanza) hits the leading tone of the scale ("TI"), then backs down the scale. When you introduce the leading tone at the top of the scale, there is a sense of needing to complete the scale by moving up to the high "DO." That is thwarted here, however, leaving a bit of a question mark and making the melody of the stanza much more interesting. The high "DO" is finally reached in the refrain, on the word "BLESS-ings," linking the resolution of the melodic tension to the resolution of the problem discussed in the lyrics of the stanzas.

The refrain continues to emphasize the high "TI" and "DO." After the appearance of the high "DO" in the first phrase, the second phrase sequences down a step so that the high point is again on "TI." The third phrase hits "DO" again ("COUNT YOUR blessings...") and then "TI" in quick succession ("NAME THEM one by one"). In the final phrase, repeating the same line of text, these two notes occur even closer together: "COUNT YOUR MAN-Y" and "BLESS-ings." Whether this was intentional or not, it happened, and it seems to be the most distinctive and memorable aspect of the music.

An interesting issue of performance practice has crept into this music over the years, involving the interpretation of the ritardando found in most hymnals over the final occurrence of the line "name them one by one." No tempo marking appears at this spot in the original publication of the song in Excell's Songs for Young People, except for the fermata ("bird's-eye") on the last note, which appears in every version of the hymn I have ever seen. The earliest occurrence of a ritardando marking that I have found is in Popular Hymns no. 2, edited by C. C. Cline (St. Louis: Christian Board of Publication, 1901). From that point forward it seems to have been pretty well accepted.   

Ritardando (abbreviated rit.) directs the singer to slow down gradually. But what actually happens, in all my experience with this hymn, is a very sudden slowing down--in fact, it is an exact doubling of the length of the notes relative to the previous tempo (or cutting the tempo in half, depending on how you look at it). The Churches of Christ are not alone in this; the editors of the 2008 Baptist Hymnal actually wrote these notes out in doubled length. (On one occasion I stubbornly tried to lead "Count your blessings" with an actual ritardando instead of doubling the note length. It didn't work, and I haven't done it since.)

There are many, many little changes of this sort that occur in conjunction with congregational singing, because many (probably most) singers will learn by ear rather than by reading the music. Music transmitted in this oral fashion will get little modifications over time according to the collective memory of the singers. An even more obvious change happens in the phrase immediately following the one just discussed--the melody is actually written, "DO-DO-TI-DO-TI-LA-SOL-FA-MI-RE-DO," but I have never heard that final phrase sung any other way than, "DO-DO-DO-SOL-TI-LA," etc. Another such situation is the final phrase of the refrain of "A wonderful Savior," which is written, "LA-SOL-MI-DO-FA-TI-TI-DO" ("And cov-ers me there with His hand") but is often sung, "LA-SOL-MI-DO-MI-TI-RE-DO." In both songs, the oral tradition has smoothed over a more difficult passage to make it more intuitive. Sometimes I think the collective wisdom of singers finds the way the composer should have written it!   


Earle, John Charles. The Master's Field. London, J.W. Kolckmann, 1878.

Bonner, Clint. "A Hymn is Born: Count Your Blessings." Anniston Star (Anniston, Alabama), 12 August 1951, p. 22

"Johnson Oatman, Jr." Cyberhymnal.

Munger, Dave. "Does 'counting your blessings' really help?" Cognitive Daily 14 April 2008.

Baxter, Batsell Barrett. "Count your many blessings." Sermon #599 at

"E. O. Excell." Wikipedia.
(I am natually skeptical of the freewheeling anonymity of Wikipedia, but this article is well referenced and is obviously the work of someone who took considerable pains in his or her research.)

McCann, Forrest. "A History of Great Songs of the Church." Restoration Quarterly 38/4 (1996), 219-228.