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.

1 comment:

  1. Hello David. Thanks for the interesting story here. I'm also a blogger (SongScoops is mine) about hymnody, and appreciate reading some information about Yates here that I did not find anywhere else. Great stuff brother!