Thursday, October 31, 2013

Far Away in the Depths (Wonderful Peace)

Praise for the Lord #135

Words: Warren D. Cornell, 1889
Music: W. George Cooper, 1889

Warren D. Cornell (1858-1930s?) was born in Whiteford, Michigan, and in 1877--at the ripe old age of 19 years--went to Texas, where he spent a year teaching in the "colored" department of the newly formed Dallas Public Schools. Licensed by the Southern Methodist conference in 1879, he was appointed to preach in Denton and Gainesville, both of the North Texas area, for a year each. It would be interesting to know what caused this young man to go so far from home; but in 1881 he removed to the vicinity of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where he spent the majority of his preaching career. After serving various Methodist congregations in Waupaca and Outagamie counties, he was appointed on a more permanent basis to the Methodist church in Berlin, Wisconsin, where he preached at the time this song was written (Portrait, 696).

In 1894 Cornell was engaged as the minister of the People's Christian Association, which met in the Fond du Lac opera hall (Centralia Enterprise And Tribune, 24 November 1894, p. 20). This congregation met for about 10 years, then seems to have disbanded ("Old landmark"). By 1905 Cornell was described as a resident of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and "former pastor of the Christian Church in that city" (Janesville Daily Gazette, 31 May 1905, p. 5). The 1905 state census of Wisconsin gives his occupation as "real estate." I have found no reference to him holding a full-time ministerial position after that year; his interests led him in other directions.

Cornell seems to have had an attraction to political and social issues from early days, serving in the 1880s as the secretary of the locally powerful Paving Cutter's Union (Portrait, 697). In the 1890s, however, he came to widespread attention as the leader of the "Anti-Tramp Society." As Todd Wiebe discusses in his blog post on this movement, the Panic of 1873 and the successive failures of multiple industries put many men out of work and on the move, creating a serious social crisis. It was a problem deserving attention; but language such as "utterly wiping out the tramp evil" was hardly the most Christian approach! Cornell's efforts were met with mixed reactions; one journalist commented, "Unless he makes more of an impression in most places than he made in Eau Claire, his conventions will not be productive of great results" (Morning Telegram (Eau Claire, Wisc.) 26 May 1896). And as for the following news item, I can only conclude that it was a clever bit of satire: "W. D. Cornell, of Fond du Lac, who has offered to rid Kansas of prairie dogs for $100,000, has thus far received no reply to his proposition" (Daily Northwestern (Oshkosh), 20 November 1901).

During the early decades of the 20th century Cornell took to the lecture circuit, and by 1920 was at the center of another controversy. Though it is more remembered today for the progressive populism of Senator Bob La Follette, it was during this period that Wisconsin elected Victor Berger, the first Socialist Party member of the U.S. Congress (Biographical Directory). Cornell was a founding member of Wisconsin's anti-socialist Constitutional Defense League (New York Times, 22 January 1922), and spent much of his time in this cause. Newspaper coverage noted that he was no longer a member of clergy, but had been a touring lecturer for some years (Sheboygan Press 23 September 1920, p. 1). By 1925 Cornell and his family had moved to New York (New York state census, 1925), and in 1930 William Titus wrote that Cornell was "spending the evening of his life in New York" (Titus II:513). The U.S. census of 1940 shows his wife, Jennie, as a widow living with her daughter Florence, but I have not been able to determine the exact date of Warren Cornell's death.

The earliest instance of "Wonderful peace" that I can find is in W. G. Cooper's Pearls of Paradise (Chicago: McCabe, 1891). Since this volume is called "abridged," there was presumably an earlier edition from 1889 or 1890. Interestingly, in 1901 Cooper's Pearls of Paradise was reprinted by the Nashville-based publishing arm of the National Baptist Convention, an African American denomination ( "Wonderful peace" may have been introduced to the South in that publication, and it certainly became a favorite in African American hymnals down through the years. An early scan of the song is available from Honey out of the Rock (Chicago: Meyer & Brother, 1892), where it carries a dedication to the Methodist Episcopal Church of West Bend, Wisconsin (Honey, no. 31).

According to William A. Titus, a local historian who was contemporary to Cornell, "Wonderful Peace" was written in July of 1892, at the close of a camp meeting Cornell held with the Methodist church in West Bend, Wisconsin. Titus also claimed that the fourth stanza and the musical setting were the work of W. G. Cooper, minister of the West Bend congregation, and that the song was sold for a mere five dollars (II:512-513). Titus's date is probably incorrect; though Cooper did serve at the West Bend Methodist church in 1889 (Minutes, 42nd session, 43rd session), which most other sources give as the date of composition of this song, there is evidence that Cooper was living in Jefferson, Wisconsin in 1892 (Title Entries, 18, etc.). The other details from Titus seem to be generally accurate; the reprint in Honey out of the Rock gives the annotation "alt." after Cornell's name, and there is a fifth stanza (not the fourth as Titus claims) that does not seem all of a piece with the others. Perhaps it was this stanza that Cooper added, to give the song a more directly evangelical appeal at the end. Later press accounts add the detail that Cornell wrote the lyrics on the back of an advertising folder (Sheboygan (Wisconsin) Press, 11 March 1939, p. 2).

Stanza 1:
Far away in the depths of my spirit tonight
Rolls a melody sweeter than psalm;
In celestial-like strains it unceasingly falls
O'er my soul like an infinite calm.

Long ago an aged king wrote, "I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind" (Ecc 1:14). He went on to explain how he reached that conclusion: with the vast wealth and power at his command, he had exhausted every human means imaginable in his search for meaning. He had every physical pleasure at his beck and call. He accumulated vast wealth in both treasure and land. He exercised political power, and brought his nation to a new stature in world affairs. He oversaw great building projects, and had outstanding personal accomplishments in the arts and sciences. He was every inch the king of a golden age--but he looked back on it all and said again, "I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind" (Ecc 2:17).

Many people have followed in his footsteps, though without his resources, and have proven the scalability of his experiment. Whether you are Solomon on his golden throne, or an unknown soul clutching a bottle in a dark corner, the search remains the same. So what did a comparatively obscure Wisconsin poet know, to inspire the lyrics above? He spoke of a calm in his soul, in the "depths of the spirit," that is unceasing and infinite. The worldly pursuit of contentment, we find, has been looking in all the wrong directions.

Peace, peace, wonderful peace
Coming down from the Father above!
Sweep over my spirit forever, I pray,
In fathomless billows of love.

A Biblical understanding of peace begins with the Hebrew expression שָׁלוֹם (shalom), a word as rich in meaning as it is lovely in sound. In English we generally think of "peace" in terms of what it is not--as an absence of conflict, or confusion, or struggle. But shalom is defined positively, as the presence of certain qualities, such as "completeness," "soundness," and "wellness" (Brown, 1022). In this sense it was (and still is) used in Hebrew as an all-purpose greeting and farewell (Jewish Encyclopedia). With this in view, it becomes apparent that even when shalom is used in our sense of "peace"--the opposite of war--it is more a state of mind than of situation. One might have shalom even in the midst of all sorts of external stresses and conflicts; it is not dependent on the actions of others.

The Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures favored the Greek word εἰρήνη (eirēnē) to render this idea, and it is this word that the New Testament writers used in expressing the same concept. Peter does so in quoting Psalm 32, emphasizing the active, positive nature of Biblical peace: "let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it" (1Peter 3:11). It is one of the fruits of the Spirit for which the Christian labors (Galatians 5:22). It was so ubiquitous in the greetings and well-wishing of the early saints that it may be found at the beginning of every one of Paul's letters in the typical formulation, "Grace and peace." Most importantly, it was a particular promise of our Lord Jesus Christ: "Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid" (John 14:27). He expressed the internal rather than external nature of this peace a little later in the same conversation: "I have said these things to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).

The second line of Cornell's refrain points out an equally important Biblical concept: true shalom is the result of a life in tune with God. Isaiah 32:17 says, "The work of righteousness will be peace." Psalm 119:165 advises, "Great peace have those who love Your law; nothing can make them stumble." And Isaiah says again, "You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You" (Isaiah 26:3). But though we are to seek this peace actively, it is clear that God is the initiator of this blessing. Psalm 85:8 declares, "Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for He will speak peace to His people." The Hebrew Testament puts special emphasis on the peacemaking work of the Messiah; the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia notes that, "Among the blessings that Israel looks forward to in Messianic times the blessing of peace stands forth most prominently." One of the best-known passages on this subject, of course, is from the great Messianic prophet Isaiah:
For to us a Child is born, to us a Son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder, and His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over His kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of Hosts will do this (Isaiah 9:6-7).
The extent of this peacemaking is probed further in the famous 53rd chapter of that prophet's writings (which so puzzled the Ethiopian treasurer in Acts chapter 8): "But He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed" (Isaiah 53:5).

It was only through Him that we could have true peace, because shalom begins with peace between the individual and God. This was a frequent theme in the letters of Paul, as seen in the climax of his argument in the early part of the book of Romans: "Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:1). No wonder, then, that Jesus' arrival was heralded by the angel chorus in these terms: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!" (Luke 2:14). And when His saving work was done, it was the "good news of peace" that was broadcast to the world (Acts 10:36). Here is truly a peace that "comes down from the Father above." It could come from no other source!

Stanza 2:
What a treasure I have in this wonderful peace,
Buried deep in the heart of my soul,
So secure that no power can mine it away,
While the years of eternity roll!


People treasure many things in this world, sometimes inexplicably so. In Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, the protagonist has fallen from wealth into bankruptcy, and in so doing learned the false nature of the society he once enjoyed. Having fled civilization for the solace of the wilderness, he is digging for edible roots one day when he discovers the last thing he now wants--a hoard of gold. His lament is all too familiar:
Gold? yellow, glittering, precious gold? No, gods,
I am no idle votarist: roots, you clear heavens!
Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair,
Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant.
Ha, you gods! why this? what this, you gods? Why, this
Will lug your priests and servants from your sides,
Pluck stout men's pillows from below their heads:
This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions, bless the accursed,
Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves
And give them title, knee and approbation
With senators on the bench . . .
(Act IV, Scene 3, lines 1690-1701)
How different is the treasure offered to us in the peace that comes through our Lord Jesus Christ!
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21).
Jesus offers us a treasure--citizenship in His kingdom, and peace with God--that is worth more than all the wealth this world can offer. Like the man who finds a hidden treasure trove in a field, or the merchant seeking the perfect pearl, if we realize what we He is offering we will give up everything else in order to secure that prize (Matthew 13:44-46).

Another theme of this stanza is the security of that peace offered by Christ, "So secure that no power can mine it away." This is also the subject of the third stanza, so it seems convenient to consider them together.

Stanza 3:
I am resting tonight in this wonderful peace,
Resting sweetly in Jesus' control;
For I'm kept from all danger by night and by day,
And His glory is flooding my soul.


There is a truism associated with the purchase of products, or the contracting of construction or repair services: the warranty is only as good as the person behind it. Satisfaction of a warranty depends in part on the provider's ability to make good on the promises given; a lifetime warranty is of little use if the provider has gone into bankruptcy. It also depends on the warrantor's inclination and interest in fulfilling the terms. A locally owned small business has more at stake in the fulfillment of a warranty than does an international enterprise, because its success is so closely tied to its reputation in the community.

When we consider the peace that comes from God, "looking at the warranty" (if you will permit the comparison), we see that these qualifications are met and surpassed beyond any doubt. Our warrantor is so closely associated with the fulfillment of this promise that He is frequently called "the God of peace" (Romans 15:33, 2 Corinthians 13:11, 1 Thessalonians 5:23). An earthly business might advertise its competence in some product or service with phrases such as, "We wrote the book on X," or "X is our middle name;" but in God's case this is no hyperbole. There is no question about His long-term ability to meet His promises; though even the soundest of earthly businesses may come to an end someday, our God is the one "with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning" (James 1:17).

Neither should we be concerned about God's desire or interest in giving and sustaining this peace in our souls. Even to the rebellious city of Jerusalem, which in a few days time would crucify Him, the Son of God said, "How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" (Luke 13:34). In spite of their sinful rejection of Him, it was still God's desire to make peace with them; and in spite of our rejection of Him through our own sins, it is God's desire today. By the saving work of His Son, He still seeks "through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross" (Colossians 1:20). If there is any way to lose this peace once it is found, it will not be on God's account! There is a passage from Joshua's farewell speech to Israel that sums up the reliability of God's promises:
And now I am about to go the way of all the earth, and you know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things that the LORD your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed. (Joshua 23:14)
But what of our part? There is an implication I catch in Cornell's lyrics--though perhaps I imagine it--that suggests a belief in what the theologians speak of as "the impossibility of apostasy" or the "perseverance of the saints," and the rest of us speak of as "once saved, always saved." I hesitate to bring this up, because it may be that Cornell did not intend this at all, and one certainly can sing these lyrics without that intent. The closest they come to suggesting this doctrine is in the line from stanza 3, "So secure that no power can mine it away," and perhaps the 4th stanza line, "I'm kept from all danger by night and by day." Taken precisely literally, this might suggest that it is impossible for the Christian, having acquired this peace, to ever lose it.

The problem with this doctrine is that the same inspired writers who tell us of the surpassing peace of God, tell us also of their own concern that they could lose this peace through willful departure from the faith, or even through neglect. Paul, whom I have already quoted many times, told the Corinthians, "I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified" (1 Corinthians 9:27). Common sense demands an answer to the question, "Disqualified from what?" The same apostle warned,
This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith (1 Timothy 1:19).
Some might quibble about the meaning of "shipwreck" here, but for myself, I have no intention of "crossing the bar" with anything less than a seaworthy faith!

Perhaps Cornell did not mean this, however, and intended only to express that security that every faithful Christian should feel in his or her salvation. Those who try to "walk in the light" as their manner of life are promised that the saving blood of Jesus "cleanses us from all sin" (1 John 1:7). We will still sin, even as we walk in the light--as John immediately points out in the following verses!--but we have ongoing access to that forgiveness, so long as the habit and direction of our lives remains that of "walking in the light." The trust we should have in this fact is famously expressed in the climax of the rich and powerful 8th chapter of Romans,
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).
Nothing, of course, except a willful decision to turn one's back on that love. But let us determine that we will not do so, and instead,
Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful (Hebrews 10:22-23).
Stanza 4:
And I think when I rise to that city of peace,
Where the Author of peace I shall see,
That one strain of the song which the ransomed will sing
In that heavenly kingdom will be:


The worship of heaven is an interesting topic all its own, and deserves a deep and thoughtful study. But as a mere introduction to the theme taken up in the final stanza of Cornell's hymn, observe the centrality of song in the scene described in the 14th chapter of the Revelation. Following the rampage of the beast in chapter 13, the Lamb and His faithful appear on the scene like the proverbial cavalry coming to the rescue:
Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with Him 144,000 who had His name and His Father's name written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth (Revelation 14:1-3).
This passage treats the songs of heaven as holy things, to be revealed only to that fellowship of the redeemed. The hymns we make here on earth, even at their best, are pale shadows of what we will sing in that realm. And though the songs (or possible songs) in the Revelation are almost entirely given over to praise instead of to reflection on the singer's own feelings, there is no question of the peace, fulfillment, and contentment that will forever be ours in that great chorus. One such passage reflects on this in particular:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!" And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen."
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?" I said to him, "Sir, you know." And he said to me, "These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their Shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Revelation 7:9-17).
As Cornell points out in his lyrics, we are looking forward to a "city of peace"--a New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:2) that is literally (according to the Hebrew etymology) a house or dwelling of shalom. There we will be forever in the presence of the "Author of peace," as He is so frequently described in Scripture. It is an interesting thought that, in that blessed condition, there will be a subtle shift in the meaning of shalom. No longer will it have its distinction as a peculiarly inward quality; all will be shalom, both inside and out. 

About the music:

William Gustin Cooper (1861-1939) was a Wisconsin native and fellow Methodist minister with Cornell in the Lake Winnebago region. He is known to have ministered to a Baptist congregation in the late 1890s, however, and seems to have spent the rest of his life in that fellowship instead. He wrote a large number of lyrics, but apparently only a few musical settings (Cyberhymnal). Ironically, his setting of "Wonderful peace" is by far his best known work!

Besides the Pearls of Paradise hymnal already mentioned, Cooper is known to have co-edited Our Church and Revival Songs (Tullahoma, Tenn.: Gospel Winchester Co., 1911) and Robinson's Gospel Voices Consolidated (Charlotte, N.C.: Robinson, 19--?). All of these projects were in cooperation with David Elijah Dortch, a Tennessee native (Cyberhymnal). In the interest of sharing information on this little-known composer, here is the obituary for W. G. Cooper from the Sheboygan (Wisconsin) Press, 11 March 1939, p. 2.
Word Of Death Of Rev. W. G. Cooper Is Received Here
Miss Almeda Goodell, 902 Swift avenue, has received word of the recent death of the Rev. W. G. Cooper, 77, composer of the sacred hymn, "Wonderful Peace," who was minister of several churches in this vicinity a number of years ago, which occurred at Canton, Maine. Burial was made there.
Mr. Cooper, who was a retired minister in the first Baptist church, was formerly connected with the Methodist Episcopal church and served in West Bend, Palmyra, Hartford, Byron and other nearby communities. Mr. Cooper wrote the music to "Wonderful Peace" and the words were written, in part, by the Rev. W. D. Cornell on the back of an advertising folder at a camp meeting, Miss Goodell says. The deceased pastor also wrote many other gospel songs. He is survived by his widow and three daughters. Many old-time residents in the vicinity of Hingham, Waldo and Cascade will remember the Rev. Cooper.
Cooper's music for "Wonderful peace" is a model of simplicity. It has a purely pentatonic melody, ranging from low SOL to high SOL. It uses tonic, subdominant, and dominant harmonies, with only a handful of departures by way of chromatic inflections. The stanza is in a parallel period of four phrases with the repetition scheme abab', and though the refrain has more contrast, it echoes the endings of the b phrases from the stanza.

Much of this description would be true of a large number of gospel songs, of course; but what makes this tune stand out, I think, is a recurring melodic figure that has a pleasant congruity to the topic and tone of the lyrics. There is frequent reference to this descending pattern: MI-DO-RE-DO-LA-SOL. The combination of leaps and steps in this pentatonic scale passage has a charming, skipping sound, like water splashing over rocks. The relaxing sound of this melodic idea is an excellent fit with the calm, soothing tone of the lyrics.


"Berger, Victor Luitpold." Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.

Brown, Francis. The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Genesius Hebrew and English Lexicon. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1979.

Catalog of Title Entries, July 4-9, 1892. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Copyright Office.

"David Elijah Dortch." Cyberhymnal

Honey out of the Rock, ed. W. S. Nickle, F. A. Hardin, John B. Shaw. Chicago: Meyer & Brother, 1892.

Minutes of the Annual Conference of the Wisconsin Methodist Episcopal Church, 38th-43rd sessions, 1889.

"New York, State Census, 1925," FamilySearch. ( : accessed 16 Oct 2013), D Warren Cornell, 1925.

News item. Morning Telegram (Eau Claire, Wis.) 26 May 1896.

"Old landmark is fast disappearing." Daily Commonwealth (Fond du Lac, Wisconsin) 26 July 1912, p. 5.

"Orator of the people." Daily Northwestern (Oshkosh) 30 May 1904.

"Peace ()." Jewish Encylopedia

Portrait And Biographical Album of Green Lake, Marquette And Waushara Counties, Wisconsin. Chicago: Acme publishing co., 1890.

"Soap-box orators to fight socialists." New York Times, 22 January 1922.

"State news." Daily Northwestern (Oshkosh) 20 November 1901.

"Street corner speaker here this evening." Sheboygan Press 23 September 1920, p. 1.

"Those at rest in silent city." Janesville (Wisconsin) Daily Gazette, 31 May 1905, p. 5.

Titus, William A. History of the Fox River Valley, Lake Winnebago, And the Green Bay Region. Chicago: S.J. Clarke Pub. Co., 1930.

"United States Census, 1940," index and images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 22 Oct 2013), Jenny Cornell in household of Laurence Gomme, Assembly District 10, Manhattan, New York City, New York, New York, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) 31-860, sheet 14B, family 63, NARA digital publication of T627, roll 2644.

"Warren Donald Cornell." Cyberhymnal

Wiebe, Todd. "Tramps, anti-tramps, and anti-anti-tramps." Political History of Homelessness in America. Hope College, 1 August 2013, viewed 21 October 2013.

"William Gustin Cooper." Cyberhymnal

"Wisconsin news." Centralia (Wisconsin) Enterprise And Tribune, 24 November 1894, p. 20.

Wisconsin State Census, 1905. FamilySearch ( : accessed 16 Oct 2013), Warren D Cornell, 1905.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Faith is the Victory

Praise for the Lord #134

Words: John Henry Yates, 1891
Music: Ira Sankey, 1891

John Henry Yates (1837-1900) was a lay minister in the Methodist Church and author of several popular poems and hymn lyrics. (Not to be confused with the African American minister of the same name, a near contemporary and a prominent Missionary Baptist leader in Houston.) The son of English immigrants, Yates lived and died in the community of Batavia, New York, where his house still stands at the corner of Washington & State Street. Safford North's history of Genesee County relates that Yates was educated in local schools to the age of 18, then entered the family business, a shoe store, in order to support his parents (pt. 3, 70).

Yates's literary efforts first appeared in the local newspapers, and for a time he served as an editor for the Progressive Batavian in addition to his other employment (North pt. 3, 70). His work was reprinted quite widely, and even appeared in Harper's Weekly, one of the most influential news magazines in the U.S. (Hopkins 232). Ironically, while still a young man, he became famous for a series of lyrics called the "old man" songs (Hopkins 232). Alphonso Hopkins's interesting 1879 literary compilation Waifs and Their Authors gave a section to Yates with discussion of these poems reflecting the concerns and viewpoints of the older generation of his time.

Yates was first licensed to preach by the Methodist Church as a young man, and continued in that denomination for many years (Hopkins 228). During the 1890s, however, he preached full-time for the Free Will Baptist Church at West Bethany, New York (North pt. 3, 70). To the best I can determine, this is the same Baptist congregation that still meets at the intersection of West Bethany and Brown Road in rural Genesee County.

Sankey apparently came into contact with Yates's writing through a reprint of his popular sentimental poem "The Model Church," one of his "old man" songs in which the protagonist describes his joy in finding a modern church with the old-time religion. Sankey turned this into a solo, which he published in Gospel Hymns no. 5 in 1887. This song was so successful that at their first face-to-face meeting, in Buffalo, Sankey encouraged Yates to write hymn lyrics (Sankey 303). Yates began sending these directly to Sankey (Sankey 301), and according to North, the men had an understanding that Yates would write hymn lyrics exclusively for Sankey's publications (pt. 3, 71). In reality, though most were used by Sankey and the Biglow & Main company, some of Yates's hymns were set to music by other composers, including M. L. McPhail of Hope Publishing in Chicago. All of Yates's hymn lyrics listed at apparently date from the 1890s, the last decade of his life (excluding poems such as "The Model Church" that were adapted as song lyrics but not originally written as such). An item in the Buffalo Evening News claimed that Yates had resigned as editor of the Progressive Batavian "to devote all his time to writing hymns for Evangelist Sankey" (19 June 1895, p. 5, Old Fulton NY).

In his memoir, My Life and the Story of the Gospel Hymns, Sankey recalled "Faith is the Victory" being published in the 1894 Christian Endeavor Hymns (303). That is correct, but it was also published three years earlier in his Gospel Hymns no. 6 of 1891, and bears that copyright date. With instances in 166 different hymnals in the database, it is by far Yates's most successful gospel song, and is one of the most successful of all Sankey's compositions as well. It appears to have had a lasting popularity in Baptist circles generally, and has been a  long-standing staple of the Baptist Hymnal published among the Southern Baptists. It is still quite popular among the Churches of Christ, at least here in the U.S., having been introduced at least as early as the 1921 Great Songs of the Church.

Stanza 1:
Encamped along the hills of light,
Ye Christian soldiers, rise.
And press the battle ere the night
Shall veil the glowing skies.
Against the foe in vales below
Let all our strength be hurled.
Faith is the victory, we know,
That overcomes the world.

Faith is the victory! Faith is the victory!
O glorious victory, that overcomes the world.

As with any U.S. citizen of his age, John Yates's young adulthood was shaped by the Civil War. Safford North's book on Genesee County, New York has a lengthy section devoted to the participation of the men of that county in that conflict. Yates was apparently not in that number, being lame in one foot because of a severe injury received in childhood (Progressive Batavian, 20 March 1874, Old Fulton NY). He certainly would have seen the troops mustering and drilling, however, and the marching songs of the day were no doubt familiar to his ears. Songs written for enlistment rallies were also common, and this kind of music expressed itself in the gospel music of the following decades, such as the militaristic "There's a royal banner," written by Civil War veteran Daniel Whittle.

The expression "hills of light" was used at least as early as Watts's hymn "When strangers stand and hear me tell," where the second stanza begins, "My best beloved keeps His throne / On hills of light in worlds unknown" (Watts Hymns Bk. 1 no. 76). Charles Spurgeon also used the trope of "hills of light" in describing the Christian's hope of eternal victory in heaven:
Looking further yet, the believer's soul can see Death's river passed, the gloomy stream forded; he can behold the hills of light on which stands the celestial city; he sees himself enter within the pearly gates, hailed as more than a conqueror--crowned by the hand of Christ, embraced in the arms of Jesus, glorified with him, made to sit together with him on his throne, even as he has overcome and has sat down with the Father upon his throne (Spurgeon, "Prayer answered").
And perhaps more pertinent to Yates's use of this word-picture, Henry Ward Beecher spoke of the "hills of light" that Christians enjoy even in this life, whenever we are gathered together in God's presence:
Through the week we go down into the valleys of care and shadow. Our Sabbaths should be hills of light and joy in God's presence; and so, as time rolls by, we shall go on from mountain top to mountain top, till at last we catch the glory of the gate and enter in to go no more out for ever (Life Thoughts 49). 
There is something here too, perhaps, of the "Delectable Mountains" in Pilgrim's Progress. In that story the allegorical traveler Christian rejoices at reaching the "Delectable Mountains" where Immanuel's flocks are tended, and from which he can see the distant Mount Zion. But there is an inherent danger in living in the "hills of light," as Bunyan's pilgrim discovers--an enchanted sleep of forgetfulness. It is this meaning, I believe, that lies behind Yates's poetry. We rejoice in the "mountaintop" spiritual experiences of life, as we should; but we cannot stay on the mountaintops in our "tents of ease" (3rd stanza) throughout our journey. There are valleys through which we must fight as well.

Another great theme of this hymn is the urgency to engage. In the days before radio communication and night vision technology, fighting needed to be finished by nightfall. In Joshua chapter 10, the leader of God's people even appealed for a miraculous extension of daylight so that he could pursue the defeat of the Amorites to a decisive conclusion. Yates and his neighbors had examples from recent memory, such as the Battle of Gettysburg, of engagements in which the failure to reach victory before nightfall on the first day meant a loss of momentum that was never regained. On a spiritual level, the devil is just as happy to delay us as to defeat us; all our best intentions are perfectly fine with him, so long as they are never put into action.

The simple refrain drives home the point: "Faith is the victory." Yates quotes here from 1 John 5:4, "For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world--our faith." Sincere faith motivates obedience to God in all things, "obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls" (1 Peter 1:9). In Paul's list of the "Christian armor" (Ephesians 6), faith is the shield; it is what continues to preserve us through the struggles of this life, "who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time" (1 Peter 1:5).

Stanza 2:
His banner over us is love,
Our sword the Word of God.
We tread the road the saints above
With shouts of triumph trod.
By faith, they like a whirlwind’s breath,
Swept on o’er every field.
The faith by which they conquered death
Is still our shining shield.


The banner spoken of here is the Hebrew דֶּגֶל (degel), a military standard used as a rallying point (Blue Letter Bible). In Numbers chapter 2, for example, such a banner designated the location of each tribe in Israel's camp in the wilderness. In Yates's era the equivalent was the regimental flag, which kept the men together and allowed generals to locate forces on the battlefield. This standard was also a prized symbol of the regiment and the communities from which it was raised; my great-great-grandfather's regiment, the 8th Missouri Volunteer Infantry (U.S.), had a bright green flag with a gold harp, symbolizing the Irish ancestry of most of the troops.

The standard referenced in this hymn, however, comes from a surprising source--the Song of Solomon, chapter 2, verse 4: "He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love." Yates takes the fairly typical Christian approach of treating this book as an allegory of Christ and the church as bridegroom and bride (cf. Eph. 5:31-32). In the case of this verse, then, it is Christ's love that is the rallying point for His followers; Christ's love is our reference point and marker, showing us where we are to stand and which way to go. During the confusion of spiritual battle, it is this standard we must keep in sight in order to know we are heading in the right direction.

The "Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God" (Ephesians 6:17), is the only weapon the Christian is given to use in this fight, and the only one needed. In keeping with a "kingdom not of this world" (John 18:36), we do not advance the borders of Christ's realm through physical force, but through the force of truth spoken in love (Ephesians 4:15). This spiritual weapon is "living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12). Because of its power, we need to learn to "rightly handle the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15). Soldiers in the armies of this world are thoroughly trained to use their weapons correctly, and to maintain them properly even under difficult circumstances. There are bragging rights, even, for who can field-strip and reassemble a weapon the fastest. I am not sure what the equivalent would be in Bible study, but the urgency needs to be the same. We need to know our spiritual weapon--our souls depend on it.

The remainder of the stanza references those that have gone before us in the faith, and the encouragement that should give us. Learning from the great examples of the past is one of the great blessings Scripture can give us; as Paul says in Romans 15:4, "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope." When Yates begins the second half of this stanza with the phrase, "By faith," it seems calculated to call to mind the "Faith Hall of Fame" in Hebrews chapter 11, where this construction begins no fewer than eighteen verses. Yates calls on us to carry on in their footsteps, as the Hebrews writer says: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us" (Hebrews 12:1).

Essential to their success and ours, however, is that faith that acts as our "shining shield." Here is a reference to the spiritual armor Paul details in Ephesians 6, in particular the "shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one" (v. 16). The Greek term θυρεός (thyreos) refers to the tall, oblong shield originally used by the Greek heavy infantry and later adopted by the Roman legions (Blue Letter Bible). As seen in the photograph below, it was large enough to cover most of the body, and is not all that different from some shields used by modern police forces in riot situations. An injured soldier could ground his shield and use it for support while defending himself, and a rank of soldiers with shields side by side were like a moving wall. The spiritual applications are obvious!

File:Roman legion at attack.jpg
Reenactors portray 1st-century Roman legionaries with the thyreos shield.
Photo by Matthias Kabel, used by permission.

Stanza 3:
On every hand the foe we find
Drawn up in dread array.
Let tents of ease be left behind,
And onward to the fray.
Salvation’s helmet on each head,
With truth all girt about,
The earth shall tremble ’neath our tread,
And echo with our shout.


In these sad times of so much violence in the name of religion, it is all the more important to keep our language clear when we use the military metaphors found in Scripture. We start as always with the example and words or our Lord Jesus Christ, speaking to the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate:
My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But My kingdom is not from the world (John 18:36).
There is a clear statement, and when people have gone to war in the name of Christ (to the extent that this was actually the case, and not just a pretext for the usual reasons for going to war), they have done so in spite of the plain teaching of the One in whose name they claim to fight. Paul, who uses the military metaphor more than any other New Testament writer, gives an equally forthright explanation of the limits of his meaning:
For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).
In this spiritual warfare the old adage is especially true, "the pen is mightier than the sword!" You may frighten people into obedience with physical weapons, but you will never have their loyalty; and someday when your back is turned, you will find that out. But when a soul is won for Christ, it is not captured, but rather liberated. Religion spread by the sword scatters the seeds of its own destruction, eventually consuming itself through sectarian infighting. Religion spread by persuasion, "speaking the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15), carries along with it the ability to self-correct and renew itself with each new ally gained.

Stanza 4:
To him that overcomes the foe,
White raiment shall be giv’n.
Before the angels he shall know
His name confessed in Heav’n.
Then onward from the hills of light,
Our hearts with love aflame,
We’ll vanquish all the hosts of night,
In Jesus’ conqu’ring name.


In the final stanza Yates returns to the inspiration of the refrain and the title of this hymn, 1 John 5:4, and ties it to Jesus' language to the seven churches of Asia in Revelation chapters 2-3. The same expression, "overcome," is the Lord's admonition at the end of each message. Yates borrows in particular the words of Revelation 3:5, addressed to the church at Sardis: "He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels."

Pure white clothing was used as a symbol of heavenly purity in the Scriptures, perhaps simply because it was difficult to produce and (just as today!) difficult to keep clean. Mark's account of Christ's Transfiguration notes this fact: "His clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them" (Mark 9:3). Such heavenly clothing is seen in Daniel's vision of the Ancient of Days, portrayed with "clothing white as snow" (Daniel 7:9). When angels' clothing is described, it is also white, though less overwhelming (John 20:12). White garments were also associated with festive occasions, as seen in Ecclesiastes 9:8, "Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head" (Cole).

The white garments promised to the saints in heaven also represent purification from sin. This is most memorably stated in the famous statement in 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." We make a change of garments, so to speak, when we obey the gospel command "to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness" (Ephesians 4:22-24). But our spiritual garments do not stay in this pristine condition; Jesus spoke in His letter to Sardis of those whose garments had become soiled (Revelation 3:4). There were even Christians in Laodicea whom He described as spiritually naked, and warned to clothe themselves anew in the white garments of salvation (Revelation 3:18). Despite our best efforts to live holy and pure lives, we will never compare in this world to what we will attain in heaven, when we will "be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life" (2 Corinthians 5:4).

The other promise from Revelation 3:5, which Yates recounts in the second line of this stanza, is that Jesus will "confess" the name of the faithful Christian "before My Father and before His angels." The meaning of the word rendered "confess," the Greek ὁμολογέω (homologeo), is plain enough from its roots. It is "same-speaking," as when a witness to a legal proceeding affirms the truth of a stated matter, either by verbal testimony or by signature. This is the fulfillment of Christ's words in Matthew 10:32, "Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven." "With the mouth one confesses and is saved" (Romans 10:10), and we might say as well, with the life one continues to confess Christ. And in the end, He will confess us, attesting to the fact that we are His and are under His protection.

It is a sobering thought, awful in the literal sense of that word, that we will someday stand before God in judgment. But it is just as sobering, and wonderful in the literal sense of that word, that the Prince of Heaven will stand up for us and attest before His Father and the host of heaven that we are among the saved. May we continue to "wage the good warfare" of faith (1 Timothy 1:18), and "let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful" (Hebrews 10:23).

About the music:

Ira David Sankey (1840-1908) was undoubtedly a key figure in the history of gospel music; it would be hard to find even the briefest history of the subject that does not mention him. But in spite of that renown, he was hardly among the most published songwriters of his day, and few of his songs have held their own in modern hymnals. Consulting the indexes at, it becomes obvious that even Sankey's most successful works received far fewer reprints than the more popular lyrics of Fanny Crosby, or the widely used musical settings by Philip Bliss. It is not that Sankey's work is sub-par, but he was overshadowed by greater talents.

In part this was of his own doing, and here I believe lies the secret of his enduring fame. He was the song-leading partner of Dwight Lyman Moody, and together they established the model of urban revivalism that swept the U.S. and U.K. during the last three decades of the 19th century. Sankey's powerful delivery as a soloist and ability to engage crowds of thousands in congregational song was widely recognized as a coequal arm of the evangelistic efforts. Ever the organizers, Moody and Sankey replicated their teamwork in many other evangelistic duos, such as Daniel W. Whittle and Philip Bliss, bringing the latter's songwriting talents into the limelight. Sankey also had a keen ear for "what works" musically in the setting of a mass revival, and began the compilation of two famous hymnals, Sacred Songs and Solos and the Gospel Hymns (which eventually ran to six volumes). Along the way he secured the editorial and songwriting talents of Bliss and later James McGranahan. Though his own songwriting was less successful by comparison, he was an editor and promoter of extraordinary ability.

One of Sankey's most popular tunes, "Faith is the victory" takes third place among his works in the number of instances found at (The first and second most common are his settings of "O safe to the Rock" and "For you I am praying".) Of the three, however, "Faith is the victory" is certainly the most musically interesting. It has the character of a 6/8 military march, similar to the light-hearted marches of Sankey's contemporary, John Philip Sousa. For a point of comparison, I hope you will enjoy the video below of a recording of one of Sousa's popular marches, recorded on an Edison cylinder around the same time that Sankey wrote "Faith is the victory."

Washington Post March (1889) by John Philip Sousa
Recorded by the Sousa Band in 1892(?)


Beecher, Henry Ward. Life Thoughts, 1st & 2nd Series. London: James Blackwood, 1858.

Cole, R. Dennis. "Cloth, Clothing." Holman Bible Dictionary.
Hopkins, Alphonso Alva. Waifs and Their Authors. Boston: D. Lothrop, 1879.

North, Safford E. Our County and its People: A Descriptive and Biographical Records of Genesee County, New York. Boston: Boston History Company, 1899.

Old New York State Historical Newspapers. Old Fulton NY Post Cards.

Sankey, Ira David. My Life and the Story of the Gospel Hymns. Philadelphia: Ziegler, 1907.

Spurgeon, Charles. "Prayer answered, love nourished." Sermon, 27 February 1859. The Spurgeon Series, 1859-1860: Unabridged Sermons in Modern Language. Attic Books, 2012.

Watts, Isaac. Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts. Christian Classics Ethereal Library.