Words: Eden Reeder Latta, 1878
Music: John Harrison Tenney, 1878
The author of this text offers a first-rate example of the reason so many men of earlier generations went by their initials. Eden Reeder Latta (1839-1915) probably received his unlikely name from the Eden Township in La Grange County, Indiana (not the same as the incorporated community of Eden, Indiana nearer Indianapolis). Eden's grandfather Robert Latta settled in the area in 1832, and with fellow Methodists began the Eden Chapel Society. Eden's father, William James Latta, succeeded his father Robert in this pulpit. Eden thus grew up in a strong Methodist family in which he was expected to bear his part in the work of the church. In an interesting coincidence, this sparsely populated farming region was also home for a time to William A. Ogden (1841-1897), who also wrote many popular gospel songs.(Gingerich)
Eden R. Latta became a school teacher as a young man, and pursued this calling until his retirement. The 1860 U.S. Census finds him teaching in a "common school" in Perry Township, Noble County, Indiana. Shortly after this he moved to the vicinity of Manchester, Iowa, and married Mary E. Wright in 1863. Latta was apparently not in military service during the Civil War, though he was 22 when the conflict began. He preached for the Manchester Methodist Church during the war, and the name "E. R. Latta" turns up in the histories of other Iowa Methodist congregations during this period. Perhaps during wartime he filled various pulpits as a "circuit rider." Latta spent many years in Delaware County, teaching in Manchester (1870 U.S. Census) and later at Colesburg (1880 U.S. Census). By the 1890s the Lattas had moved to Guttenberg, Iowa, on the Mississippi River, where they were also active in the Methodist Church. In the 1900 U.S. Census Latta's occupation is listed as "songwriter," so he may have retired from teaching by that time.
J. H. Hall gives Eden R. Latta a brief chapter in his 1914 Biography of Gospel Song and Hymn Writers, and notes that he wrote lyrics for several major gospel composers, including his childhood friend William A. Ogden, and also James McGranahan, James H. Fillmore, and Edmund S. Lorenz. He wrote more than 1,600 hymn lyrics.(Hall, 173ff.) A search of his name in Hymnary.org shows that his songs were widely popular a century ago, though only a few remain in common use. Besides "Come to Jesus," he is remembered among the Churches of Christ in the U.S. for the lyrics of "Live for Jesus, O my brother." Another of his well-known songs was "Blessed be the fountain (Whiter than snow)," which was in Jorgenson's Great Songs of the Church.
Come to Jesus, He will save you,
Though your sins as crimson glow,
If you give your heart to Jesus,
He will make it white as snow.
Come to Jesus! Come to Jesus!
Come to Jesus! come today!
Come to Jesus! Come to Jesus!
Come to Jesus! come, come today!
This is one of many hymns inspired by the rich prose of Isaiah 1:18,
"Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.As is common to the symbolism of many nations, the ancient Israelites associated red with blood and bloodshed, and thus by extension with sin in general. White was associated with purity; the Mishnah also associated it with joy, which can only be received in its truest sense by a pure heart.(Jewish Encyclopedia)
Red's double association with blood and sin came together in the ancient system of animal sacrifices. God declared in Leviticus 17:11, "For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life." The crimson of the sacrificial blood was in atonement for the crimson stain of sin; what was yet wanted was a perfect Sacrifice that could render the soul white like snow or wool, as though it had never been sullied by sin.
The Hebrew Testament prescribed many rules for outward purification, but also made it clear that the need for a pure heart is the real issue between God and humanity. "Rend your hearts and not your garments," cried the prophet Joel,(2:13) and King David plaintively asked the Lord, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me."(Psalm 51:10) Jesus framed the problem perfectly when He said, "For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander."(Matthew 15:19) The Sermon on the Mount is primarily directed toward this end as well: that we pursue holiness in the inward person as well as in our external behavior.
Excursus: In Defense of the "Invitation Song"
This is a classic "invitation song," sung during the portion of a worship service when those present are invited to come and be baptized into Christ, or if already Christians, to come and confess sins or to present any other need. (Other folks might term this the "altar call.") Churches of Christ in the U.S. typically extend this invitation at the end of a sermon, usually worded by the preacher (though in some older traditions this was done by a separate "exhorter"). The congregation typically stands and sings a song that encourages all present to take whatever steps are needed to get right with God.
The familiarity of long use sometimes breeds contempt, and I some brethren now speak disparagingly of this long-standing practice. I have heard of congregations doing away with it completely; others have separated it from the sermon and extend the invitation at another time in the worship service. Of course the time, place, and manner are matters of convenience and custom; the Lord's invitation stands open at all times, and many Christians (myself included) have been baptized into Christ at some time other than the regular worship assembly. But it should never be taken for granted or treated lightly; the content of that invitation is something both wonderfully beautiful and of the greatest importance.
Among the final thoughts revealed in Scripture are these simple words inviting all to submit to God's will, and to receive His grace:
And the Spirit and the bride say, "Come!" And let him who hears say, "Come!" And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely.(Revelation 22:17)This echoes Jesus' frequent invitations during His ministry, perhaps most fully expressed in Matthew 11:28-30.
Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.Imagine being among the crowds that heard these words for the first time! Moses had given God's laws, which contrasted sin and holiness in high relief. The prophets, down to John the Baptizer, the last of that line, had called the people to repentance from their sins. But when had any prophet or teacher offered rest and relief from this burden? In some of the Psalms there were hints; but what prophet or teacher had ever offered a personal invitation to these delights? It would have been blasphemy, for anyone but God Himself. The invitation is a startling and remarkable thing: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man who was and is the Son of God, offers to take away your sins, restore your relationship to God, and bring you into the blessings of His family.
Just before He returned to heaven, Jesus commissioned His followers to extend this invitation on His behalf. Summing up God's plan of salvation, what the whole of Scripture teaches, He said:
Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.(Luke 24:46-47)When we extend the Lord's invitation, whether at the end of a sermon while standing and singing, or in simple conversation with another person, we are fulfilling Jesus' greatest desire--not to mention one of His most obvious commands.
The sermons recorded in the Acts of the Apostles show that His followers fulfilled this mission and extended the Lord's invitation whenever they could. Christianity is a thinking religion, a feeling religion, but also an acting religion; when the hearers of the first gospel sermon realized their lost condition and asked, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?," Peter gave them an answer:
And Peter said to them, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Himself." And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, "Save yourselves from this crooked generation."(Acts 2:38-40)About three thousand responded to this invitation and were baptized into Christ that day. In Paul's first recorded sermon, given in the synagogue of Salamis on the island of Crete, he concluded with these words of invitation and solemn warning:
Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this Man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by Him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. Beware, therefore, lest what is said in the Prophets should come about: "Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish; for I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you."(Acts 13:38-41)It is true that not every recorded public sermon in Acts contains an invitation as such (some of these sermons, of course, were cut short by violence). But the active responses of so many people to the apostles' preaching is evidence in itself, and the examples we have are certainly sufficient endorsement of the value of our modern custom to extend this invitation at every gathering.
Come to Jesus do not tarry,
Enter in at mercy’s gate,
O delay not till the morrow,
Lest Thy coming be too late.
There are times, perhaps, when delay in obeying the Lord's invitation is necessary. A person who wishes to receive baptism, but does not understand the Scriptural meaning of that act, needs further teaching. Some people desire salvation, but are wrestling with questions of repentance in their lives. Some people are interested but not yet convinced, as we see in the hopeful words of some of Paul's listeners in Athens: "We will hear you again about this."(Acts 17:32)
Sadly, however, the overwhelming majority of delays in obeying the Lord's invitation come from one simple factor: avoidance. The classic case of this in Scripture is Marcus Antonius Felix, the Roman procurator of Judaea before whom the apostle Paul stood trial in Acts 24. Paul, of course, took this as an opportunity to preach the gospel. In the quaint, striking language of the King James Version, we read of Felix's reaction:
And as he [Paul] reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, Felix trembled, and answered, "Go thy way for this time; when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee."(Acts 24:25)Note that Felix was trembling! He really was convicted in his heart, and it made him uncomfortable. He wanted to make that discomfort go away--but he didn't want to obey, either. He wanted a third option, so he delayed. Of course this is no real option at all, because it depends on the uncertain premise that a "convenient season" will come again. In fact, Felix did hear Paul again, several times according to verse 26--but that trembling conviction was gone. By that time Felix's third option had hardened into rejection of the gospel. But the day that he rejected Paul's message could equally likely have been his last. If a person knows what to do, and knows it must be done, there are no good reasons for delay. "And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on His name."(Acts 22:16)
Come to Jesus, dying sinner,
Other Savior there is none,
He will share with you His glory,
When your pilgrimage is done.
The comedian Jerry Clower told the story of a man whose truck ran off a remote mountain road, leaving the vehicle hanging precariously from a ledge over a gorge. Unaccustomed to prayer, he spoke up as best he could: "Is there anybody up there? I need some help!" As the story goes, a voice spoke from the heavens saying, "My son, have faith and jump, and I will see you safely to the ground." After a moment of consideration, the man yelled again, "Hey! Is there anybody else up there I could talk to?"
Jesus summarized this attitude among His Pharisee listeners when He said, "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me that you may have life."(John 5:39-40) The Pharisees still have many descendants today, people who have heard the gospel, accept the fact that they need salvation, but are determined to have it on some other terms.
More than once Jesus described His invitation through telling parables of a great feast. In Matthew 22 it was a wedding feast given by a great king, whose guests refused to come, even abusing the servants sent to deliver the message. The king instead invited whatever people his servants could find, including many commoners who proved perfectly happy to drop whatever they were doing in order to attend the royal event! Jesus wants you to respond to His invitation, but if you refuse He will not force you to come.
In the same parable, verses 11-13, the king encounters a man during the feast who does not have the appropriate wedding garment; this person is forcibly ejected from the feast. This section of the parable is the subject of much debate, but I merely point to the facts that 1) there was a dress code for this feast, 2) the man was not so attired, and 3) he was not allowed to remain. Though the king had very unusually extended his invitation to anyone who wished to attend,(v. 9) they still had to obey the accepted customs, including the wearing of a wedding garment. Some commentators believe that hosts provided these garments as a matter of custom; certainly this would be a fair assumption in this case, given the unexpected and immediate nature of the invitation. We can only suppose, then, that the man had either rejected the garment offered to him, or (more likely) had sneaked in uninvited. In the same fashion, the Lord's invitation is for "whosoever will,"(Revelation 22:17, KJV) but not "howsoever you will." Jesus declared Himself the only way into that great feast: "I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except by me."(John 14:6) And to do that, He says, one must "observe all that I have commanded."(Matthew 28:10)
Every day that dawns means that the Lord's invitation is still open, but the sobering truth is that some day that invitation will be closed. I won't ask you to stand and sing, but if there is something you need to make right with God, please do not delay. "Today is the day of salvation."(2 Corinthians 6:2)
About the music:
"Come to Jesus" is often said to have first appeared in The River of Life, edited by Latta and published in 1878 by Oliver Ditson of Boston. Only the date of this attribution appears to be correct. River of Life was published in 1873, does not contain "Come to Jesus," and makes no mention of Latta's involvement as an editor (though it does contain several of his songs). A copy is available online at Hathitrust.org. A search of WorldCat.org for "Eden Latta" and "E R Latta" reveals several publications of poetry in periodicals, popular songs, and gospel songs found in hymnals edited by others, but I have found no proof that Latta himself ever edited a hymnal.
Some of this confusion, I suspect, came from a simple misunderstanding of one particular passage in Hall's Biography entry on Latta:
In his early career as a hymnwriter, he composed his hymn "Whiter than snow" for Dr. H. S. Perkins, of Chicago, who wrote music to the words, and the song was published in his book, "The River of Life," by Oliver Ditson Company, of Boston.(p. 173)The writer's liberal use of commas, combined with the vaguely referenced pronoun in "his books," could easily lead a reader to believe that Latta was the editor. (If I had not viewed the online copy of River of Life, I would not be sure either.) Adding further puzzlement, "Come to Jesus" is not even mentioned in this entry; the hymn under discussion is Latta's "Blessed be the fountain."
It appears that the first instance of "Come to Jesus" was actually in Spiritual Songs for Gospel Meetings and the Sunday School, edited by Elisha A. Hoffman and John Harrison Tenney (composer of "Come to Jesus"), and published in Cleveland, Ohio by Samuel Barker in 1878. The Hymnary.org listing of this hymnal mistakenly gives this as Edward Hammond's "Come to Jesus," an entirely different text. But Paula Hickner, Music Librarian at the Fine Arts Library of the University of Kentucky, has checked their copy of Spiritual Songs and confirms that this is in fact the "Come to Jesus" by Latta and Tenney.
John Harrison Tenney (1840-1918) was a Massachusetts farmer and shoemaker who was also quite active in hymnal publishing.(Tenney Family, 223) A search in WorldCat.org shows that he edited at least two dozen hymnals, beginning in the early 1870s with Boston publishers Lee & Shepherd and Oliver Ditson. Though he continued the relationship with Ditson throughout his career, by the 1880s he was increasingly working with hymnal publishers from the midwest (Brainard's Sons and R. E. Hudson in Ohio) and the south (Ruebush-Kieffer in Virginia, A. J. Showalter in Georgia). His publishing slowed toward the end of the 1890s.
Though Tenney wrote a few texts, and set several lyrics to music, "Come to Jesus" is by far his best known contribution. (A lesser known tune of his is "Father, in the morning, unto Thee I pray" PFTL #304.) It is a sturdy, singable tune, which is a harder thing to write than it seems. Part of the strength of this tune is the rhythm, which is repetitive enough to appeal to our sense of symmetry, yet varied enough not to be dull. The dotted eighth-sixteenth figure begins each phrase, then the rhythm proceeds in a strident series of quarter notes interrupted by the longer half note. In the chorus this long-short interruption is repeated for the central idea, "Come to JE-sus." To have no variation in rhythm would be dull; too much variation seems chaotic; but a little rhythmic alteration, playing on ideas already presented, is just right.
The pitch aspect of the melody is also similarly confined to easily grasped patterns. The movement from one note to the next is either a step within the scale, or a leap within the tonic triad (DO-MI-SOL). The one exception to this is in the chorus, on the third repeat of "Come to Jesus," which begins on a high E after leaving an F#--an unusual leap of a 7th. This is the highest note in the melody, and stands out somewhat for this reason as well, but it is logically prepared by the high D in the preceding subphrase.
One aspect of this hymn that has made it wear thin on many singers is the frequent repetition of the phrase, "Come to Jesus!" This is at the beginning of each stanza, which makes sense, but is repeated six times in the text of the chorus, adding very little to the stanzas. And though Tenney could not help what Latta wrote, he made himself an accessory to the crime when he made the accompanying parts sing, "Come, come today!," to the rhythm of "rum-tum-te-tum," on the tonic triad. If all three stanzas are sung, it is 18 times in all.
No one seems to know where the phrase "'Come to Jesus' in whole notes" started, but I have heard it since I first started playing in bands. (Example: "You guys couldn't play 'Come to Jesus' in whole notes!") Warren Wernick, a trumpeter and and composer from New York City, has actually written a brass quintet arrangement of "Come to Jesus" in whole notes: http://www.scoreexchange.com/scores/102943.html. I have no idea how Tenney's melody was chosen for this distinction. Another colloquialism referencing this song is "to have a 'Come-to-Jesus' meeting" with someone, or to inform someone that "it's 'Come-to-Jesus' time." Both imply that a confrontation is imminent that will involve frank discussion, usually resulting in a change of behavior by the other party. These certainly attest to the wide usage of this song over the years!
Gingerich, Howard D. "The Hawpatch hymnwriter." Mile 146 (Topeka Historical Society, Topeka, Indiana) 4/2 (April-June 2011). http://topekahistoricalsociety.com/Uploads/May2011Newsletter.pdf
Hall, J. H. Biography of Gospel Song and Hymn Writers. New York: Revell, 1914. http://www.archive.org/stream/biographyofgospe00hall#page/n5/mode/2up
"Color." Jewish Encyclopedia (1906). http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/4557-color
Tenney, M. J. The Tenney Family. Boston: American Printing and Engraving, 1891. http://www.archive.org/stream/tenneyfamilyorde00tenn
"John Harrison Tenney." Cyberhymnal. http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/t/e/n/tenney_jh.htm