Friday, January 31, 2014

Far and Near

Praise for the Lord #139

Words: John O. Thompson, 1885
Music: J. B. O. Clemm, 1885

"Far and near" first appeared in The Epworth Hymnal (New York: Hunt & Eaton, 1885), a Methodist hymnal named for the town of Epworth in Lincolnshire, where John and Charles Wesley were born (Epworth Hymnal 2). It was not connected to the Epworth League, the Methodist young people's association founded around the same time, though there were hymnals associated with that organization.

J. O. Thompson in 1903
The author of "Far and near" was James Oren Thompson (1834-1917), a Methodist preacher and newspaperman from Maine who saw quite a few "fields" of different kinds during his life. He was a lieutenant in the 17th Maine Infantry that held the center in the infamous "Wheatfield" engagement in the Battle of Gettysburg, forever preserved in Timothy O'Sullivan's photograph titled "Harvest of Death" (17th Maine at Gettysburg, p. 30). Thompson received a medical discharge for unspecified reasons near the end of the war, and seems to have suffered from poor health for the remainder of his life. After the war he attended the Methodist Biblical Institute at Concord, New Hampshire, just prior to its re-chartering as Boston University (Men of West Virginia). His relatively brief career as a full-time preacher included appointments in Elliot, Maine; Woodford's Corner, Maine; and Compton, Rhode Island (Obituary). Poor health forced his retirement from the pulpit in 1883; but then, odd as it seems for a man who had grown up with the sea, he moved to Keyser, West Virginia, where he edited The Mountain Echo for nearly two decades.

It was during this period of his life, after his health forced him to give up regular preaching, that he wrote his great evangelistic hymn "Far and near". Perhaps that is a lesson for us not to assume we are used up or useless when our circumstances thwart our original plans; like the church in Thyatira, Thompson's "latter works exceeded the first" (Revelation 2:19). Ironically, Thompson's later career involved writing on harvests of the literal kind; his administrative and communication skills next brought him to the attention of the West Virginia State Board of Agriculture, which elected him its Secretary in 1901 (Men of West Virginia). He resigned from this position in 1905, again because of health, and moved to St. Petersburg, Florida (Biennial Report, p. 20). There he associated with the First Avenue Methodist Church (today Christ United Methodist) as a pastor emeritus until his death (Obituary).

As a hymnwriter James Oren Thompson was yet another "one-hit wonder"--I cannot find another hymn written by him, though he must have written other verse--but what a hit it was! One of the features at is the ability to generate graphs showing the inclusion of a hymn over time in the hymnals indexed in that database. The page for James O. Thompson shows a remarkable exception to the usual rule: instead of gradually declining in popularity over the years, his "Far and near" has steadily gained ground. There may be several factors at play in that circumstance. First, it is a song about evangelism, which is a smaller category than most, and thus gives editors fewer hymns from which to choose. Second, it has a very good tune, simple and folklike, which wears well over the years and does not appear markedly outdated. But third--and most importantly--it is thoroughly grounded in and inspired by Scripture, which automatically gives it an edge.

Stanza 1:
Far and near the fields are teeming
With the waves of ripened grain;
Far and near their gold is gleaming
O'er the sunny slope and plain.

The first stanza and refrain, which set forth the basic premise of the opportunity and need for evangelism, are based respectively on two significant statements on that subject by Jesus. The first of these is in the fourth chapter of John's gospel account, when Jesus met with the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well and found a more receptive audience than He would find among most of His Jewish brethren. It seems no mere coincidence that John related this event immediately after Jesus' interview with Nicodemus, who, good man though he was at heart, reflected the closed-minded attitudes that led to Jesus' rejection by the Jewish leadership.

Not only was the Samaritan woman willing to listen and believe, she was willing to tell others; in John 4:29 her words are recorded, "Can this be the Christ?" Something about her words and her manner (or perhaps the fact that this message was coming from a woman not known for being overly religious) stirred up her entire community with curiosity about this Man at the well. Imperfect as their understanding was, they believed that "Messiah is coming," and that "when He comes, He will tell us all things" (John 4:25). In this they were at least looking for a spiritual leader, and not a political or military leader as were so many others. The disciples of Jesus, upon returning, were all too typically thinking of short-range, earthly matters (in other words, acting just like me) when Jesus told them to look again:
Do you not say, "There are yet four months, then comes the harvest"? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, "One sows and another reaps." I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor (John 4:35-38)
John 4:30 tells us that at that very moment, the Samaritans "went out of the town and were coming to Him." Many have noted that the sight of the crowd coming down the road, turbans and head-scarves bobbing as they walked, probably in animated conversation, may have suggested the image of a field of ripe grain waving in the wind. John goes on to recount what followed:
Many Samaritans from that town believed in Him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me all that I ever did." So when the Samaritans came to Him, they asked Him to stay with them, and He stayed there two days. And many more believed because of His word. (Jhn 4:39-41)
Jesus would later upbraid the cities of Galilee for their lack of response to His preaching (Matthew 11:20-24); yet here among the Samaritans, who had every reason to reject a Jewish teacher, was a city full of people ready to listen, many of whom believed in His message. When the evangelist Philip went to Samaria some years later, the people listened to the gospel message "with one accord" (Acts 8:6). Perhaps some of those Samaritans who obeyed the gospel at the preaching of Philip, had first heard the good news from the lips of Jesus Himself; many more, no doubt, had heard of Jesus because of the earlier incident at Jacob's Well. Philip's evangelistic success in Samaria, the first outside of Jerusalem, was a case of entering into the labors of others (John 4:41).

The lessons for us in this incident are many, and James O. Johnson did not miss them in his hymn. First of all, the fields are ripe both "far and near." Why did Jesus take His disciples into Samaria? John 4:4 gives us only the cryptic statement, "He had to pass through Samaria." From a practical standpoint, of course, this was not the case; He could have taken the Roman road along the coast, or the roads east of the Jordan, without setting foot in Samaria. Some Jews actually did that, and from the reception Jesus and His disciples received in Luke 9:52-53, some Samaritans preferred to keep it that way. Something else made Jesus go through Samaria. Certainly it was for the benefit of the Samaritans; but perhaps it was also for the benefit of His disciples. They needed to see that opportunity for spreading the gospel was not only for those near at hand, but "for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Himself" (Act 2:39).

The distance between the Jews and Samaritans was not merely one of geography; in fact, that was the least of the things that divided them. They held each other at arm's length as a matter of habit, and part of Jesus' lesson to His disciples was that receptiveness to the gospel is, like its Author, "no respecter of persons" (Acts 10:34). Certainly we need to do our best to understand the different worldviews of people to whom we would introduce Jesus; but we should not be overly daunted by that fact, and should never let it become an excuse. Deep down we are all children of God, who "made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, . . . that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward Him and find Him" (Act 17:26-27).

Second, we see that sometimes we, like Jesus' disciples, are poor judges of the harvest opportunities around us. Paul was very discouraged after his early efforts in Corinth, but the Lord revealed to him in a dream, "I have many people in this city" (Acts 18:10). In time it became one of the great congregations of the early church, and despite its problems, had a large impact for good. And certainly Paul and Silas must have been surprised when, after being arrested, beaten, and put in jail in Philippi, they ended up converting their jailer to Christ! From such difficult beginnings grew one of Paul's most beloved congregations, and another center of the early church's strength (Acts 16).

Opportunities are sometimes where we might least expect them. In my father's work with Glenpool Prison Ministries, one of the courses of study begins with a simple essay question for the inmate to answer: "How did I get here?" It really is a question we should all ask ourselves, but sometimes it is those who have "hit bottom" in life who are the most ready to be honest in their answers. People who know their lives are broken, and who have tried just about everything else, may be ready to turn it over to Jesus--and many do.

I once heard mentioned a peculiarity of the parable of the sower (Matthew 13), that I had never noticed before: didn't the sower waste a lot of seed, spreading it over so much soil that was unlikely to produce? This is not the intended lesson of the parable, of course, so it is a little beside the point to begin with. But for what it is worth: Did the sower know what each soil was going to produce? And was it his job to choose the soil? All we know is that he sowed the seed, and it was up to condition of the soils to do the rest. Perhaps there is something there for us to consider--should we not cast the seed as "far and near" as we can? There is a time for focusing our efforts, of course, but we should always be ready to share our faith (1 Peter 3:15).

Lord of Harvest, send forth reapers!
Hear us, Lord, to Thee we cry;
Send them now the sheaves to gather,
Ere the harvest time pass by.

Thompson's refrain takes its theme from another major statement by Jesus on the need for evangelism:
And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When He saw the crowds, He had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest." (Matthew 9:35-38; cf. Luke 10:2)
The words of Jesus are so vivid and arresting that it is easy to overlook a significant point revealed even before He speaks. Verse 36 gives us the motivation behind His words: "When He saw the crowds, He had compassion for them." First, He really saw the people around Him. This was characteristic of Jesus, and should be characteristic of those who follow Him. The Samaritan woman did not expect to be seen as a person; being a Samaritan, and being a woman, were each reason enough for a Jewish man of her time to ignore her very existence. She was surprised that He asked her for a drink of water (John 4:9); how much more surprised she must have been when He spoke to her kindly, and listened to her questions, treating her as a person worth His time?

Second, Jesus had compassion for the lost souls He saw around Him (Matthew 9:36). Even on the cross, when temptation would be at its greatest to think only of Himself, Jesus heard the plea of the penitent thief crucified next to Him (Luke 23:42). He even looked on those who were putting Him to death and said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). I do not think I could have done that; I am afraid my thoughts would instead run along the lines of, "Father, be sure to give them what they have coming to them!" But Jesus calls us to look on others with compassion, and the more we do, the more we will seek opportunities to bless them with the knowledge of Jesus' love for them.

The plea, "Lord of Harvest, send forth reapers!" is a response to Jesus' own command for us to pray for more workers in evangelism. We need more missionaries, and more gospel preachers. But at the same time, let us ask ourselves if we have done all we can ourselves. If a local congregation fails to even attempt to evangelize, it isn't the Lord's fault. He gave us the gospel, "the power of God for salvation" (Romans 1:16). He died on the cross to put that power into it, and handed that truth down through the inspired writers of Scripture. The power is still there. Why has the Bible so often been banned and burned down through history (as it is even in some places today)? Because the enemies of that gospel--whether they realize it or not--fear its power. Have we taken advantage of that "power to save" in our own circles of influence?

The refrain of this hymn also reminds us of the urgency of the case: we need more reapers, "Ere the harvest time pass by." This too is found in the language of Jesus, whose parable of the wheat and tares concluded with, "Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, 'Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn'"(Matthew 13:30). Lest we misunderstand, Jesus later explained this to His disciples:
The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear (Matthew 13:39b-43).
It is a sobering, awful picture, but these too are the words of Jesus. The day will come when the harvest is ended, and it will be too late to send more reapers.

Stanza 2:
Send them forth with morn's first beaming,
Send them in the noontide's glare;
When the sun's last rays are gleaming,
Bid them gather everywhere.


The second stanza may reference another of Jesus' parables about harvesting, this time set in a vineyard rather than a grain field:
For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, "You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you." So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, "Why do you stand here idle all day?" They said to him, "Because no one has hired us." He said to them, "You go into the vineyard too." (Matthew 20:1-7)
The point of this parable, as Jesus makes clear in the verses that follow, is the equal standing of the laborers in the sight of the master, for they all received the same daily wage at sunset. Concluding with the maxim, "So the last shall be first, and the first last" (v. 16), it reminds us that whether we give a lifetime of labor or an hour of labor in God's kingdom, the final reward--our salvation--is the result of the Master's grace, not our deserving (v. 14).

But even though it is not the main point of the parable, it is hard not to be struck by the urgency of the master's efforts to find more workers. He went to the marketplace, where unemployed men gathered to make themselves available for day labor, and hired as many as he could. Again and again he went out; he could never find enough. When he found men still waiting for work at the eleventh hour, his exclamation says it all: "Why do you stand here idle all day?" In their defense, of course, they had only just heard his offer; but does Jesus ever say that about those of us already in His vineyard? There will never be enough workers compared to the size of the task; and the old saying is true, "No one can do everything, but everyone can do something."

Stanza 3:
O thou, whom thy Lord is sending,
Gather now the sheaves of gold;
Heav'nward then at evening wending,
Thou shalt come with joy untold.


One the greatest examples of a faithful worker in the Lord's harvest was the apostle Paul. He used this agricultural metaphor himself, speaking to the Christians in the city of Rome:
I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. (Romans 1:13-15 ESV)
As busy as he was, Paul was always thinking ahead to a new work. At the time he wrote to Rome, he had not yet been to the great capital city, but already planned to visit there. (Little did he know that in a few years he would in fact go there, with all expenses paid, courtesy of Caesar!) His earlier letters are full of references to travel plans, and from 13th chapter on--more than half of the book--the Acts of the Apostles becomes essentially the Acts of Paul. In that second half, in fact, Luke's account of Paul's journeys gives us one of the best Mediterranean travelogues to come down to us from that era. To the Corinthians Paul would write, "For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!" (1 Corinthians 9:16).

When he was arrested in Jerusalem and held for years without a trial, it must have frustrated Paul enormously to see his reach so shortened. But we know he preached where he could; even when he was supposed to be arguing his own defense in court, he preached the gospel instead. He made no inroads, so far as we know, with the jaded officials who heard his appeals; but it was not for lack of trying. He even said before the amazed king Agrippa, "I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am--except for these chains." (Act 26:29)

While in prison in Rome, Paul continued his efforts, writing to the churches and to individuals, and directing the efforts of his protégés such as Timothy and Titus. He was always one to look for what he could do, instead of lamenting what he could not. He wrote to the church at Philippi, for example:
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear (Philippians 1:12-14).
Most of us would consider it a terrible situation to be under round-the-clock watch, sometimes even chained to a guard; Paul considered it a captive audience. And if Paul's enemies thought that locking him up would silence him, they must never have read his letters; indeed, very little in inspired Scripture, except for the words of the Lord Himself, reaches the grandeur and power of Paul's writings from prison. He would say to Timothy, late in his life and facing death, "I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the Word of God is not bound!" (2 Timothy 2:9).

Looking at Paul's example, we should respond as did his brethren in Rome described in the passage above, who became bolder in their preaching because of Paul's chains. Now, certainly there was nothing about seeing a brother in Christ put in prison for preaching, that would cause them to be less concerned about their own safety; but rather, their resolve was stiffened by seeing Paul's brave service under his circumstances. If Paul continued to serve under his conditions, they must have reasoned, surely the rest of us can!

We will never earn our salvation by our service in the kingdom of Christ; but just the same, we should remember that we were "bought at a price" from bondage to sin, and now serve a new Master (1 Corinthians 6:20). The harvest is passing by, day by day, and His barns are not yet full. Every day, really, we are sowing and reaping a harvest of one sort or another, based on how we spend our time and effort: "For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life" (Galatians 6:9). Will we "lift up our eyes" to the Lord's harvest, and answer His "Call for Reapers"? "Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up." (Galatians 6:9)

About the music:

James B. O. Clemm (1855-1927) was the town recorder in Keyser, West Virginia in the 1880s, and would certainly have been well known to Thompson, the newsman (U.S. Census, 1880). He was the son of the well-known Methodist preacher William T. D. Clemm (J.B.O. Clemm will), and was a cousin of Virginia Eliza Clemm, the wife of Edgar Allan Poe (Cyberhymnal). His father, in fact, preached Poe's funeral (W.T.D. Clemm obituary). James Clemm was probably born in Cumberland, Maryland where his father was assigned to preach during 1854-1855 (General Minutes 328, 499). Keyser, West Virginia is a little over 20 miles to the southwest, just across the Potomac River. Though his father returned to Baltimore by the 1870s (as evidenced by his presence in city directories), James apparently returned to the area of his birth and lived his adult life in Keyser. He was buried in the family plot in Mt. Olivet Cemetery of Baltimore (J.B.O. Clemm will).

Clemm wrote music for a few other hymns during the 1880s and 1890s, none of which caught on. Musically they are on a par with "Call for Reapers", written with a facile "singability". The melodies are logical and even catchy, the harmonies are easily learned, and if they are not especially memorable, they are a good deal better than the work of many other composers. The stanza of "Call for Reapers" is set in four phrases, with the familiar pattern: a b a b' (the 1st & 3rd phrases are identical, and the 2nd & 4th phrases differ only as much as is necessary to make the final cadences). The four-phrase refrain begins at a much higher pitch, corresponding with the dramatic plea, "Lord of Harvest! Send forth reapers!" The last two phrases of the refrain are the same as the last two phrases of the stanza, giving an overall form: a b a b' / c d a b'.


"Aged minister goes to reward." St. Petersburg Evening Independent 29 August 1917, p. 5.

Biennial Report of the State Board of Agriculture of West Virginia, 1905-1906. Charleston, West Va.: Tribune Printing Co., 1906.

"Death of the Rev. W. T. D. Clemm." New York Times, 14 February 1895.

The Epworth Hymnal: containing standard hymns of the Church, songs for the Sunday-School, songs for social services, songs for the home circle, songs for special occasions. New York: Hunt & Eaton, 1885.

General Minutes of the Annual Conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church (1852-1855). New York: Carlton & Phillips, 1852-1855.

"Hon. J. O. Thompson." Men of West Virginia, 2 vols. Chicago: Biographical Publishing Company, 1903, vol. 1, p. 360-361.

"James Oren Thompson." Cyberhymnal

"James Oren Thompson." Hymnary.org

"J. B. O. Clemm, U.S. Census, 1880." Familysearch.org

"James B. O. Clemm, Maryland Probate Estate and Guardianship Files, 1796-1940." Familysearch.org

"James Bowman Overton Clemm." Cyberhymnal

Seventeenth Maine Regiment at Gettysburg. Published 1880.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Study and Selection of Hymns by J.W. McGarvey

File:McGarvey 1904.png
On the rare occasions when I have encountered the label "Campbellite" used to describe my approach to New Testament Christianity, I have always been able to counter that Alexander Campbell--worthy man though he was--has had little direct influence on me. If someone were to call me a "McGarveyite," however, it would be much harder to deny. It is only a joke to say, when asked my opinion of a difficult Bible question, "I agree with whatever McGarvey said on that." But the humor of the joke lies in the permeating influence of his writings in my life, first through my father (who had his Commentary on Acts and Four-Fold Gospel as textbooks in his ministerial training) and later through my own reading. I do not always agree with McGarvey, but I generally do, and he is always worth a hearing.

The following is an examination of the eighth of McGarvey's Chapel Talks, delivered at the College of the Bible (today the Lexington Theological Seminary) during the 1910-1911 school year, the last year of McGarvey's life. Fortunately someone took these down, and the manuscripts were rediscovered some years later by an attentive librarian at Lexington.


I have said a few words to you on a number of occasions, about the importance of studying hymns and the proper selection of hymns to suit occasions. Sometimes an improper selection of a hymn leads to very deplorable results. I was informed of one instance in which, on a funeral occasion, the selection of the hymns was left to the young man who led the singing. He selected one that started right, but just as the pallbearers started off with the corpse they sang, "Believing we rejoice to see the curse removed." That service ended with more tittering than tears.

That hymn is no. 142 from the second book of Isaac Watts's Hymns and Spiritual Songs of 1707, with the opening line "Not all the blood of beasts". It is a better hymn than it sounds from the title; Watts takes up the great theme of the 9th and 10th chapters of the letter to the Hebrews, declaring the superiority of Christ's sacrifice to the limited sacrificial economy of the Hebrew Testament. But the inappropriateness of that theme at the particular moment McGarvey mentioned could certainly cause distraction! Whether the incident described actually happened is open to question, but the point is well taken. I have personally experienced, as described in the very funny but most likely apocryphal story of the battle of the preacher and the songleader, a Sunday morning worship service at which the preacher made a plea for unbelievers to come obey the gospel, and the songleader stood up and led "O why not tonight?" In the real-life case it was accidental, not deliberate sabotage, but the effect was the same.

Of course those who select and lead hymns need to think through them carefully, well in advance. The process deserves enough time for prayer and a thoughtful consideration of the options. I cannot deny that I have picked out songs at the last minute on some occasions (often by necessity), but it is no way to operate on a regular basis. It is a disservice to treat the musical portion of our worship with the attitude that seems to say, "Any old song will do." Few congregations would tolerate a preacher who put so little thought into his lessons!

In order that you may make appropriate selections you must know your hymn book--not only the first stanza of every hymn that is worth singing, but the whole of it. You must know all those that are worth singing if you would make your selections wisely.

In the pursuit of excellence in any skill, we should learn from the experiences of others as well as from our own. A professional athlete, or a professional musician, spends a lot of time in solitary practice; but he or she will also take time to observe the performance of others, with the intent to imitate the good and avoid the bad. If you encounter a person who is this deeply involved in a skill, and it is not an interest you share, you are likely to be bored to tears by their discussion of it. What is the value of that knowledge, you may wonder? It is from that breadth and depth of knowledge that the skilled practitioner teases out the underlying principles that lead to success. Larry McWilliams, a beloved brother in Christ and former pitcher in the major leagues, once told me of the "eephus," an obscure pitch used by a handful of National League pitchers. It is a slow, high-arcing pitch that should be easy to hit, but almost always catches the batter off guard because it is so different from the normal fast pitches he is trained to expect. In his 446 at-bats over 13 years, Larry never once faced the fabled eephus--but like any National Leaguer, he knew very well which pitchers used it, and had practiced against it in preparation for that possibility.

There is an equivalent activity for the songleader--get to know all the hymns in your hymnal (or PowerPoint files, or whatever you use), so that you are able to make the best use of every resource at your disposal. If you cannot read music, listen to recordings; better yet, take piano lessons so that you will learn to read music, and will be able to pick out a tune at a keyboard for your own learning. The web site also has graded lessons in the fundamentals of music reading. When you find an unfamiliar hymnal at a bookstore, or if one is offered you, learn from it as well. There are so many resources available on the Internet, of course, that it would be impossible to list even the major ones; but at least be familiar with the Cyberhymnal (the real one, at old domain was hijacked for profit a few years ago) and There are many others, but these seem to be the most extensive and useful.

In addition to knowing hymns, learn how to use them well. Pay attention to other songleaders, and cultivate the acquaintance of those who take their work seriously. Talk with them about hymns, worship, and leading worship. Sift through the advice you receive, and learn from the examples of others. I have been blessed to know many good songleaders through the years, a few of whom have had a profound impact on my own thinking about this role of service. One, of course, was the man who taught me to lead singing as a young teen; but another is a man with whom I worked for just a few months, not that long ago, when I was already into my 40s. Never think that you have learned everything you need to know! If you do, you have closed yourself off from the blessings that may yet lie in store for the diligent student.

The elements of a good hymn may be stated thus: First, and most important of all, its sentiments must be scriptural. There is a hymn in one of our church hymnals which has been sung a great deal, the second stanza of which confidently looks forward to the time when that old boatman familiar in Greek mythology who used to row people across the river Styx, will safely row the Christian across the river of death. Now that is heathenish, but it is in a Christian hymn book. First, then, let me say again, and emphasize it, see to it that the sentiments of every hymn you select to sing in the church are scriptural.

McGarvey is probably referring to Johnson Oatmans "We'll all meet at home", the second stanza of which reads:
There death cannot enter to spread his alarms,
Our dear ones of earth are not torn from our arms;
No more the pale boatman will sail o’er the foam
To bear us away, when we all meet at home.
This was not even the most glaring example from Oatman's oeuvre; in his "Crossing one by one", we are told to look forward to being assisted across the "mystic river" (presumably not the one in Boston) by the "boatman grim and pale." Of course we use the river metaphor in many other songs, but usually we make it clear that we are referring to Jordan, and that we expect to cross it by the help of God. (In Pilgrim's Progress, that masterpiece of Christian metaphors, the only person who takes a boat across the river of death is the lad named Ignorance, who gets on a boat piloted by a gentleman named Vain Hope--to predictable results.) I have to agree with McGarvey that this language is jarringly inappropriate. It is a good example of how a text can be true in a sense--the inevitable and impersonal nature of death is duly noted--but still ring false in its associations and suggestions. I am reminded of a brother's statement regarding poetic license: "Some poets' licenses should be revoked."

Second, a good hymn is good poetry. Those of you who have gone pretty well along in the course of English, ought to know what good poetry is. You have been taught what it is. But it will require on your part a good deal of thought and study in addition to what you get from your professor, in order to give you that fine taste which will enable you to see the fine elements of poetry in a hymn.

Here is an example of why I love J.W. McGarvey. You can find a number of brethren who will make the first point, and I am glad to join them in it. If a hymn is not Scriptural, it is not fit for the worship of God, and there is no need to pursue the question further. But the mere fact that it is Scriptural does not make it a good hymn! McGarvey wanted more, and I wish more of us would dare, like Oliver Twist, to ask for more. I wish more of us even knew that there is more for which to ask! McGarvey was a well-educated man, but he was not necessarily considered a great orator or writer by all his peers. J. T. Moore said of him, in fact, "He has very little imagination, relying exclusively on facts for effect." (This is probably why he is still so readable, compared to many other scholars of his era.) But even an average education in those days included a study of poetry and rhetoric that is sadly lacking in most schools. If you are a person with what is humorously called a "higher education" today, and need a thoroughgoing humiliation, read a few of the older Christian scholars and note how often you become completely lost in their historical and literary references, not to mention the occasional sprinkling of Latin, Greek, German, and French.

The answer to this, I believe, is to commit some of that time spent watching television, or on Facebook, or doing whatever else, to reading some challenging literature that will stretch our abilities. This goes along with the earlier point about becoming familiar with a broader range of hymns. Get some older hymnals, or look up some older hymns on the Internet, and read them carefully. Notice the time period and nationality of the author. Isaac Watts is not the same as Fanny Crosby, just because they are both old. Isaac Watts is not even the same as Charles Wesley, or John Newton, or William Cowper, who wrote in the same century and were of the same nationality. Read through several hymns from a single author, to see what the person's range of expression is like. And it wouldn't even hurt to get a beginning book on poetry, to learn some of the technical aspects. Remember, no one can give you a grade on it now, or a final exam! If you get partway in and don't want to read any further, put it aside and move on to something else, but keep on learning.

I do not think that there is one of the hymns that have become permanently popular that is not good poetry. Not only is good poetry essential, but there is a sentiment among uncultivated people that demands it. Some hymns acquire popularity and usefulness for a short time by means of the fine music set to them, even though they are only a jingle of rhymes: but they soon pass away.

McGarvey's reasoning here is interesting. It is not for the sake of appealing to those who are refined and cultured that he would put a premium on good poetry, but for the sake of those who are not. The "sentiment among uncultivated people" is not always an accurate barometer, but over time it will generally filter out the merely faddish of both the popular and cultivated traditions. There are plenty of hymns with lousy poetry that have become popular for a season, both from the current crop of contemporary worship songs and from the hymns and gospel songs of generations past. But the "permanently popular," as McGarvey puts it, have something that transcends the style and taste of their generation--a Scriptural message that matters, and, typically, poetry that conveys the ideas effectively without letting technique (or lack of it) distract from the message.

I firmly believe that many more people would appreciate the great old hymns if they were given more of a chance to hear them. Likewise, I believe that there are great hymns from our own time that many more people would appreciate if they would give them a fair hearing. And in both cases, if we think more critically about what we sing--what it is saying and why it appeals to us--we will be more likely to find the "treasures new and old," if I may borrow the Lord's phrase from Matthew 13:52.

When, then a hymn is found to contain scripture sentiment and good poetry, in order to be effective as a hymn it must be sung to appropriate music, music that expresses finely the sentiments of the hymn. 

An example of ignoring this principle--though the songs has been very popular in spite of it--is the Stamps-Baxter collaboration "He bore it all." Read the lyrics without thinking of the music, if you can:
My precious Savior suffered pain and agony;
He bore it all that I might live.
He broke the bonds of sin and set the captive free;
He bore it all that I might live.
Like many hymns, it isn't Shakespeare, or Milton, but it will do. The thoughts are Scriptural and worthy of the mind's attention during Christian worship. If you had never heard the music that goes with it, you might have a very different concept of what kind of gospel hymn it might be. But I cannot read the words without hearing Virgil Stamps's music, especially that barrelhouse bass lead in the last line. The fault is not in the text, or the music, but in this text coupled with this music.

A more positive example, at least in its end result, is Henry Francis Lyte's "Abide with me". There is another text on a similar theme, "Abide with me; 'tis eventide", written by Martin Lowrie Hofford in the 1880s, that has never achieved the popularity of the former. It is a nice hymn, though not so well known; but it does not have the power of Lyte's lyrics. But what if Lyte's "Abide with me" had never found the right tune? Lyte himself wrote a tune for his own text, with which it was originally published, and the kindest thing I can say is that he was a far better poet than composer. If it had ended there we might never have known this hymn; but enter William Monk, with the familiar tune we know today, and a classic is born. The worldwide popularity of this hymn, and its use in popular culture, are proof that the right words and the right music are necessary to achieve that "permanently popular" status of which McGarvey speaks.

Now no man can be successful in the selection of hymns to suit occasions from day to day and from week to week, who does not devote a great deal of attention and careful study to hymns. There are hymns which, instead of being good poetry, are nothing but lines of prose with a rhyme at the end of them, and not always good rhyme at that. I will read you a couple of instances of this kind. Number 526 in our hymnal: the second stanza: "Thrice blest is he to whom is given the instinct that can tell / That God is on the field, when He is most invisi-" --bell, it ought to be. 

The hymn to which McGarvey refers seems to be "Workman of God, O lose not heart". (Despite having the hymn number given, I am unable to identify the hymnal, but this does have the same second stanza to which McGarvey refers.) It is excerpted from Frederick Faber's longer poem "The right must win". Now, Faber was a fine hymn poet--remember "Faith of our Fathers"--but we all have bad days. I have sounded out those lines in every accent I can imagine, and I can't get these words to rhyme.

There are other hymns, of course, that have varying shades of this problem. One that comes to mind is Edwin Hatch's "Breathe on me, Breath of God," in the final stanza:
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
So shall I never die,
But live with Thee the perfect life
Of Thine eternity.
In this case, there may be (or may have been) some accent of English that could make "never die" and "eternity" work together. Hatch at least had the approval of John Donne, who ended his famous "Death be not proud" with the same rhyme. But such a jarring hitch in the rhyme or rhythm of a hymn is almost the kiss of death; it will immediately distract the mind from what is being sung. Unless the hymn is really of such a quality that it is worth forgiving a few such quirks, it will probably fall by the wayside.

If it be true as was said a long time ago by some wise man and repeated again and again by others, that, if you will allow a man of good judgement to select the songs of a people, he may care very little who makes their laws, then it can not be a matter of minor importance to select wisely the songs of the church. There are a great many people, and especially children, who obtain their religious sentiments more from the hymns they are taught to sing than from the Scripture which they read or hear from the pulpit. And when sentiments are thus formed, whether just right or just wrong, it is almost impossible in later years to eradicate them. This is another indication of the importance of the careful study of hymns.

Book 3 of Plato's Republic is a classic text on the influence of music on the development of habits and character; and though it is rather extreme in its views, it shows the high view the ancients had of music's power. Reflecting the Greeks' belief that specific types of scales corresponded to certain emotions, he judged that only a few were appropriate to the education of the guardians of the state:
Of the harmonies I know nothing, but I want to have one warlike, to sound the note or accent which a brave man utters in the hour of danger and stern resolve, . . . and another to be used by him in times of peace and freedom of action, . . . which represents him when by prudent conduct he has attained his end, not carried away by his success, but acting moderately and wisely under the circumstances, and acquiescing in the event.
These two harmonies I ask you to leave; the strain of necessity and the strain of freedom, the strain of the unfortunate and the strain of the fortunate, the strain of courage, and the strain of temperance; these, I say, leave.
(I cannot read that passage without noting that Plato--like some others I have met--is almost proud of his ignorance of music, yet perfectly willing to tell others how it should be done.)

These ideas were stated in a more positive fashion by the 4th-century Christian writer Basil of Caesarea, in his commentary on the 1st Psalm:
When, indeed the Holy Spirit saw that the human race was guided only with difficulty toward virtue, and that, because of our inclination toward pleasure, we were neglectful of an upright life, what did He do? The delight of melody He mingled with the doctrines so that by the pleasantness and softness of the sound heard we might receive without perceiving it the benefit of the words, just as wise physicians who, when giving the fastidious rather bitter drugs to drink, frequently smear the cup with honey. Therefore, He devised for us these harmonious melodies of the psalms, that they who are children in age or even those who are youthful in disposition might to all appearances chant but, in reality, become trained in soul.
We can see the same from our own experiences today. Children learn the alphabet set to music, and many of us adults still use a certain little jingle to remember the order of the books of the New Testament. Music seems to engage an additional part of the mind in connection to that which handles the words, helping us remember them; but it is more than that. The emotional content of music--though its effects vary somewhat from person to person--adds a layer of meaning to the words that is beyond the verbal. I have the privilege of singing hymns with the residents of some of our local nursing homes a couple of times a month, and can vouch for the lasting influence of hymns. It never fails that someone who seems to be completely disengaged from his or her surroundings, suddenly joins at the singing of a certain hymn. Something in that hymn stuck in the individual's mind years ago, and is still there to be recalled by the stimulus of music.

That being the case, those who have charge of choosing the hymns for worship owe it to the church to help fill their heads and hearts with good hymns. From the earliest days of the church there has been a concern for hymns to be Scriptural; even Gnosticism, the first of the major departures from New Testament Christianity, had its hymns pushing its particular doctrine. In the era of the Reformation, leaders such as Calvin and Knox went to the extreme of limiting church music to the texts of Scripture itself, to avoid the risk of unscriptural ideas being transmitted through song. Though there are doctrinal problems with some popular religious songs today, I suggest that the greatest risk in our time is feeding a congregation only a pablum of bland feel-good songs. To paraphrase Plato, we need hymns for times of peace and joy, but we need hymns as well for "the hour of danger and stern resolve." We need hymns that will "comfort the afflicted," but we also need hymns that will, as the old saw goes, "afflict the comfortable." At least, I know I need all of those things. A hymn is not a substitute for Scripture and sound doctrinal teaching, but at its best it can become a shorthand for doctrine, a rule of thumb that comes quickly to mind.

I have said that those hymns which have been long popular, and have had strong hold upon the minds and hearts of the people, have, all of them, been characterized by those qualities of a good hymn which I have mentioned. For example, that one which Matthew Arnold pronounces the finest hymn in the English language:
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
Save in the death of Christ, my Lord;
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

See, from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
I do not know that Matthew Arnold was correct in thinking that the finest hymn in the English language, but certainly it has in it all the elements of a good hymn.

For Matthew Arnold to make such a statement about a hymn of Isaac Watts shows the power of truth garbed in simple language. Arnold was a titan of literary criticism, well able to point out the technical shortcomings of the amateur Watts; but Arnold could see the point of Watts's effort. "When I survey the wondrous cross" was not meant to be a great work of literature. It was meant to convey in memorable words the gist of Paul's message to the Philippians--compared to the Christ on the cross, nothing else matters.

Take as another example that old hymn that should have made the name of its author immortal. Mrs. Julia Ward Howe, who died a few days ago, made her name famous by the composition of one song that has attained the name of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. We have a battle hymn.
Am I a soldier of the cross,
A follower of the Lamb,
And shall I fear to own His cause,
Or blush to speak His name?
You all know the rest of it. 

I am not sure what McGarvey meant about making "the name of its author immortal" because this is a Watts text--and Isaac Watts has easily had far more impact than Howe! This hymn is "shorthand" for all the military metaphors used by Paul. My favorite stanza of this hymn, though, is the one that ends, "Is this vile world a friend to grace / To help me on to God?" It jogs my memory of James 4:4, "friendship with the world is enmity with God," and helps me to remember what that does and does not mean.

Then there is another hymn, not sung so often, but equally fine, which might be called the Christian's call to arms.
Soldiers of Christ arise,
And put your armor on,
Strong in the strength which God supplies,
Through His eternal Son.

Strong in the Lord of Hosts,
And in His mighty power,
Who in the strength of Jesus trusts,
Is more than conqueror.

Stand, then, in His great might,
With all His strength endued,
And take to arm you for the fight,
The panoply of God.

Leave no unguarded place,
No weakness of the soul,
Take every virtue, every grace,
And fortify the whole.

That having all things done,
And all your conflicts past,
You may o'ercome through Christ alone
And stand entire at last.
Such hymns as these two arouse all the energy and courage that is in the soul of a man who loves the Lord.

Here is the music for the "hour of danger and stern resolve!" Charles Wesley took up the theme of the Christian armor from Ephesians chapter 6, where Paul made the familiar figure of the Roman legionary a metaphor for the fully equipped Christian soldier. The strength of the Roman army was its discipline, organization and preparation, and Paul methodically goes through the tried-and-true battle kit of the soldiers that had conquered much of the ancient world. Wesley does not go through the individual elements--he assumes we are familiar with them--but instead remarks on the Christian soldier's true source of strength. We are called to be attentive to our duty, but we are also to remember that our trust is "in the strength that God supplies." We stand "with all His strength endued," and in case we did not get the point already, the final stanza tells us that we will overcome "through Christ alone." In a simple, rousing text, Wesley not only reminds us of Paul's foreground theme of spiritual readiness ("take every virtue, every grace") but also our absolute dependence on God for success in the fight.

Then, we have our marching hymns; not one, but many; especially that one which we sing so often in this chapel:

Come we that love the Lord,
And let our joys be known,
Join in the song with sweet accord,
And thus surround the throne.

Let those refuse to sing,
Who never knew our God;
But children of the heavenly king,
May speak their joys abroad.

The hill of Zion yields,
A thousand sacred sweets,
Before we reach the heavenly fields,
Or walk the golden streets.

Then let our songs abound,
And every tear be dry:
We're marching through Immanuel's ground,
To fairer worlds on high.
That hymn is a fine piece of poetry and it is sung to the music of a very fine march. I wonder that some composer has not taken it in hand and made of it a grand march for a brass band. I think it would be a good thing right now for us to rise and sing it.

From McGarvey's description of "a grand march for a brass band," I believe he must be referring to Lowry's setting, which in America at least was rapidly overtaking the older tunes to which Watts's text was sung. The nature of a march is to keep a group of soldiers in step, and to encourage their esprit de corps. Watts's text is bright and sunny, with a bit of swagger; Lowry's march-style music suits it well, at least for Americans, whose school band tradition has kept this style in the cultural memory.

But there are times that come over the disciples of Christ quite different from these indicated in these exulting stanzas. They are times of gloom and tears, when we need the tenderest words of divine sympathy. Our hymn writers have not left us without comfort in times like these. What is more consoling than the lines in which we sing our Lord's own invitation to the weary and heavy laden, beginning with the stanza,
Come unto me when shadows darkly gather,
When the sad heart is weary and distressed
Seeking for comfort from your heavenly Father,
Come unto me, and I will give you rest.
"Come unto me" is a once-popular hymn by Catherine Waterman Esling (1812-1897), which faded from general use a generation or so ago. Esling's text is not speaking of some petty discontent; in later stanzas it becomes clear that it is a song speaking to those grieving the loss of loved ones. In this context, her quote of Jesus' words from Matthew 11:28 is especially poignant: "Come unto Me, all you who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest." There are depths of grief from which even the brief respite of a night's sleep is a treasured blessing.

Job's friends did better when they simply sat with him in silence than when they tried to address his grief, and it is possible that the constant cheerfulness and bravado of the majority of hymns used in worship may strike the grieving just as false as the words of Job's comforters. There is more to the Christian life than joy and praise; grief and mourning have their place as well. We mourn over losses and heartaches, of course; we should also mourn our sins, and the state of the sinful world, far more than is typical today. Jesus, Peter, and Paul did not always send their listeners away with happy thoughts.

Our hymn language was not always so one-sided; at one time many hymnals included Charles Wesley's hymn that begins with the simple question,
And am I born to die?
The hymn disappeared during the 20th century. The question, of course, did not--unless one subscribes to the toddler's logic of closing one's eyes in order to make something go away.

We love to sing of our final triumph over death and the grave, and some of our best hymns are devoted to this inspiring theme. I wish we could bring back into general use that inimitable composition in which the resurrection of our Lord and our own resurrection are so beautifully and triumphantly set forth that it should hold a place, as it once did, in every hymn book:
The angels that watched round the tomb
Where low the Redeemer was laid,
When deep in mortality's gloom,
He hid for a season his head,
That veiled their fair face while he slept,
And ceased their harps to employ.
(Is there anything more beautiful than this?)
Have witnessed His rising and swept
Their chords with the triumphs of joy.

...Though dreary the empire of night,
I soon shall emerge from its gloom,
And see immortality's light
Arise on the shades of the tomb.

Then welcome the last rending sighs,
When these aching heart-strings shall break,
When death shall extinguish these eyes,
And moisten with dew the pale cheek.
No terror the prospect begets,
I am not mortality's slave;
The sunbeam of life, as it sets,
Leaves a halo of peace on the grave.
"The angels that watched round the tomb" is from an 1812 publication by William Bengo Collyer. Based on the number of instances at, this was not one of Collyer's more popular hymns, but it was included in Alexander Campbell's early hymnal, Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, and appeared more frequently in hymnals of the Restoration Movement groups than anywhere else. McGarvey quotes the older, longer version of the text, as it had been sung in his youth.

This is not likely to be argued as the "finest hymn in the English language," but it is Scripturally sound. It embodies the ideas of Paul's famous passage in 1 Corinthians 15,
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom He did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a Man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at His coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1Cr 15:17-26 ESV)
Where Paul addresses the issue through logical argumentation from the greater to the lesser, Collyer tells a story through a series of mental pictures. Angels witnessed the agony, death, and burial of Christ. Angels also witnessed His Resurrection. We know that story, and however we may (rightly) grieve over its tragedy, we cannot conceal the ending from ourselves. We know that we need only turn the page, and our Friend will be there again, spreading joy (and fear), turning the world upside down in His wonderful way. Now, with that in mind, Collyer shows us our own approaching appointment with death and the grave. Sobering? Certainly it is. But we know the end of our story as well, and can look with anticipation to the turn of another page, when Jesus returns.

It is worth remembering that when Brother McGarvey spoke the words above, and ended his chapel talk by quoting that hymn, he was less than a year away from his own death. He lies today in a quiet spot in the Lexington National Cemetery in Kentucky, awaiting the fulfillment of the promise taught by Paul, and embodied in Collyer's hymn. Let us be thankful for those hymns that can strengthen and comfort us in that last hour--those are the ones that matter. And let us encourage the learning of good hymns, old and new, that will deepen our relationship with our God, and encourage and sustain the Christian life that we all wish to lead.

Photo from Scott Harp's Restoration Movement site.