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.

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