Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Count Your Blessings

Praise for the Lord #118

Words: Johnson Oatman Jr., 1897
Music: Edwin O. Excell, 1897

What is the origin of the expression "Count your blessings?" It is older than the hymn, at least. John Charles Earle published a sonnet under this title in his 1878 collection The Master's Field, which is the earliest usage I have found, and it was common enough in the 1880s to be considered a proverb. (There is a quote attributed to William Penn that uses this phrase, but I have never seen it sourced, and after hunting through several works by Penn I don't think it really sounds like his era. Regardless of its authorship, it is a great thought: "The secret of happiness is to count your blessings while others are adding up their troubles.")

Whatever the origin of this expression, never was it more prominently featured than in this hymn. The publication history available through shows that beginning in 1899 (just two years after its debut), it appeared in at least a half-dozen new hymnals every year. This average continued for about a decade. It was known in Great Britain as well, where it was quoted in Jay Gee's Collier Jack dating from about 1911. (This book is sometimes dated earlier, but page 13 refers to the 1911 Coal Mines Act.) Some of this was promotion by the composer, Excell, who was a powerful Chicago hymnal publisher; but it was also picked up by the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Disciples publishing houses, as well as by the smaller southern gospel publishers. The song's popularity fell off slightly in the early 1920s, but picked up strongly again by the 1930s. (Was it the influence of the Great Depression?) Publishing in general fell off during the war years, but it was popular again in the 1950s, boom years for gospel music. And though it has slacked in popularity from its heyday, this song is still represented in quite a respectable number of hymnals.

Johnson Oatman, Jr. composed many hymns, a handful of which have etched a place in the American memory. "I'm pressing on the upward way" ("Higher Ground"), "There's not a friend" ("No, not one"), and "If I walk in the pathway of duty" ("The Last Mile of the Way") are arguably as good as the best works of Fanny Crosby. Though there is some reliance on cliche and convention (and what popular songwriter is not guilty of that?), in all of these songs there is a distinctiveness and originality of metaphor, and of the underlying message, that makes them stand out in the older gospel song repertoire. (And like Crosby, Oatman was tremendously helped by good musical settings of his lyrics.)

It is interesting to note that Oatman was a bit of a late bloomer as a hymnwriter. He was ordained a Methodist minister and preached on a fill-in basis, but was never appointed a congregation. He eventually made a career as the second half of the mercantile enterprise Oatman & Son. But in 1892, at the age of 36, he tried his hand at writing hymn lyrics. In the decade that followed he wrote the hymns mentioned above, and continued writing dozens of lyrics a year until his death in 1922.(Bonner) A look at the songs listed on his page at the Cyberhymnal demonstrates the esteem in which his work was held--his lyrics were set to music by such prominent gospel composers as William J. Kirkpatrick, John R. Sweney, and Charles H. Gabriel, in addition to Edwin O. Excell, who wrote the music for "Count your blessings."

Stanza 1:
When upon life's billows you are tempest-tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

This is a song about perspective. It doesn't call for us to be Pollyannas, or even optimists; it simply reminds us not to dismiss the good aspects of our lives that we so easily take for granted. Every day God blesses us all with many things: "He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust."(Matthew 5:45) How sad that so many do not see this, and that so many even of His followers neglect to notice it!

Sometimes a little deprivation is required to make us realize what we have. Last Friday was my day for counting blessings; after nearly a month of illness, I finally felt well again, and eager to get outside to do the yardwork that had been piling up. The temperature was about 95 degrees, but after a few weeks of 100+ temperatures, it didn't seem so bad. And late in the afternoon, as I was sweeping up the front walk, a cool north breeze came up. I stopped and thought, "Thank you, Lord, for that little breeze." (If you have worked outside on a hot day when the air hasn't stirred for hours, you understand just how wonderful that feels!)

These are little things perhaps, but I mention them just to show how many blessings there are to appreciate every day; we just don't think about them until we are deprived of them. The funniest thing about the above is that I really don't enjoy yardwork at all, but I was forced to recognize the blessings that make it possible even to do a chore I don't like!

My children have often heard the saying, "If you have a roof over your head, clothes on your back, and food on the table, be grateful. Many people do not." Many of us in the developed world really have far more than this; we have so much roof over our heads we don't know how to pay for it all, so many clothes we don't have enough closet space, and so much food on the table we have an obesity problem. We run all the more risk of taking it for granted; we also run more risk of failing to realize how many around the world are in need of just the basics of life.

But what does counting your blessings do in the face of "life's billows," when we are "thinking all is lost?" If I may be excused another personal example--of a much more serious nature--I have learned a little about this. One February morning in 2006, I had to take my wife to the emergency room at 2:30 a.m. As the nurse was taking the necessary information, she asked for an emergency contact who lived in the area, and at the time we lived hours away from our closest family members. I said, "I don't have anybody." I will never forget that; it was one of the most foolish things I have ever said.

By the end of that day, several friends from our congregation, and from work, had come by to see if we needed anything. A couple we knew and trusted kept our children overnight. When my wife went into surgery the next day, an elder from our congregation came and sat with me and chatted about history, politics, academia, anything to keep my mind busy. As I was looking out the window of the waiting room that morning, I saw my sister crossing the street--she had flown into town as quickly as possible, and took care of my children until we were able to come home from the hospital. On top of all that, we were in one of the best hospitals in the southeastern U.S., and one of the head surgeons of that facility was on call that weekend for emergency surgeries.

I'm not saying any of us wanted to experience that just to learn how blessed we really were (we will always refer to 2006 as the "Annus horribilis"), but even at the time (even more so in retrospect) we began to see that yes, God was taking care of us. So many things could have been so much worse, and so many things worked out positively, that even though I would have given anything for her not to go through that experience, I still had much for which to be thankful. As Psalm 124:1 says, "If it had not been the LORD who was on our side..."

Count your blessings, name them one by one;
Count your blessings, see what God hath done!
Count your blessings, name them one by one;
Count your many blessings, see what God hath done!

What is the effect of literally tallying up our blessings? Dave Munger in his blog Cognitive Daily reviewed the research on this in "Does 'counting your blessings' really help?" In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, it was found that a test group who were asked to write down five things for which they were thankful, every day for a week, reported a more positive emotional outlook and even better sleep patterns than did a control group. It's interesting to see a scientific approach to this, but the results are hardly surprising!

Psalm 136 is a Scripture example of counting our blessings. In this lengthy psalm, the first half of each couplet tells of something great God has done, and the second half declares "for His steadfast love endures forever!" It begins by detailing the wonders of the natural creation, then the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, the deliverance through the trials of the wilderness, and finally God's protection of Israel in their promised land. It was important to the ancient Hebrews, not just for encouragement, but as a way to remember to Whom they owed their very existence.

So how do we count our blessings? Batsell Barrett Baxter, a great preacher of years gone by, revealed in a sermon how he once tried to list his blessings. He began with the basics: life, food, shelter, and clothing. For each of these, he noted, there are many people involved--the farmer who grows the food, the builder who builds the house, and the textile worker who makes the cloth for the clothing. Next was his family and friends, all the people upon whom we rely for support, and without whom we would feel disoriented and lost. He looked next at the beauty of nature--I could spend a day on this myself! Then he thought about things that made it possible for him to make a living, such as freedom and security protected by the governing authorities, and the opportunity to gain education and skills. Finally, looking to the greatest blessings last, he considered the love of our Father in heaven, the grace and forgiveness brought down by Jesus Christ, the guidance of the Holy Spirit through His Word, and the strength and support of our brothers and sisters in Christ's Church. It's a good list, but like any such attempt, it seems to leave so much out! It would do us all good to try it ourselves.

Stanza 2:
Are you ever burdened with a load of care?
Does the cross seem heavy you are called to bear?
Count your many blessings, every doubt will fly,
And you will be singing as the days go by.


In this stanza Oatman addresses not the dramatic extremes of life, when we are "tempest-tossed" and feel that "all is lost," but rather the day-to-day cares and burdens. A cross is not borne just for a moment, but is carried step by step, day by day. We all have the small burdens of life; some have heavier burdens for a period of time; and some have heavy crosses that they must carry for the rest of their lives.

One of the greatest Scripture passages on daily living, of course, is our Savior's Sermon on the Mount, and at the opening of this discourse He addressed the way that the blessed individual deals with life's troubles. When we are following Christ, even the sorrows of life are blessings! If we are poor in spirit, if we mourn, if we are meek and humble, if we are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, Jesus said we are blessed. If we learn to view the daily hardships of life as things that can bring us closer to that ideal expressed by Jesus, we can add these blessings to our count as well. And remember, if you have a cross to bear, you are in the best of company! Jesus said, "If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me."(Matthew 16:24) If you shoulder that cross every day for Jesus' sake, you are following in the footsteps of the apostles and martyrs, of every noble and godly saint down through the ages, and most of all, the footsteps of Jesus himself.

But will we really be "singing as the days go by?" Sometimes it is hard to sing; sometimes we don't feel up to the enthusiasm expressed in some lyrics. There is a valid principle here, though--it is a long-standing tradition to use song to lighten labors. There are whole categories of folk song associated with different kinds of physical labor, because music helps to occupy our minds and to connect us with others. In taking up that daily cross, try a song and see if does not help! Asaph, King David's chief musician, said this about the usefulness of song:
In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
In the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
My soul refuses to be comforted...
I said, "Let me remember my song in the night;
Let me meditate in my heart."
(Psalm 77:2,6)
Stanza 3:
When you look at others with their lands and gold,
Think that Christ has promised you His wealth untold;
Count your many blessings, money cannot buy
Your reward in Heaven, nor your home on high.


Envy is bad enough by itself, but to make things worse, it almost always brings along its ugly twin: self-pity. I don't think Oatman meant us to indulge in either in this stanza, but still it is a good idea to keep this in perspective. For myself, though I am not considered a wealthy person in my community, this stanza could also read: "When you look at others with their lands and gold, / Think that there are billions of people on this planet who would trade places with you in an instant." But there is always someone who has more, and the devil works hard to make us feel deprived when we don't have it ourselves. This is foolishness, and we do well to take Oatman's advice: "Think that Christ has promised you His wealth untold."

In the beautiful opening paragraphs of the letter to the Ephesians, Paul says, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places."(Ephesians 1:3) I probably should not even begin to try to list these, but here is what comes to mind first:
  • Forgiveness of my sins and removal of guilt.
  • Acceptance even with all my flaws.
  • Guidance to become something better.
  • Purpose in living every day.
  • Steadfast love now and forever.
  • Knowing that I am never alone.
  • Promises of a better life to come.
It's not a great list, but even that little attempt should make the point--what price tag would you put on these things? We could add as well the more tangible blessings of the Christian life:
  • The Scriptures: The world's greatest library, full of history, drama, action, poetry, philosophy, but most of all moral and spiritual guidance and the key to salvation.
  • Prayer: A free unlimited calling plan with worldwide coverage at any time of day; no dropped calls, ever, and extremely easy to use.
  • The Church: The Kingdom of Heaven, a nation with the only perfect Leader I will ever find, and the simplest terms of citizenship. The only known flaws are the other people there, who have on average just as many irritating qualities as I do; but since no one outside that Kingdom is going to help us get where we are trying to go, we work together the best we can.
Another thing great thing to remember about spiritual blessings is that they have no drawbacks! Proverbs 10:22 says, "The blessing of the LORD makes rich, and He adds no sorrow with it." Earthly riches often bring anxiety with them; but our spiritual riches can never be taken away and will never run out. You can revel in them day after day, to your heart's content; they will never do you any harm, in fact, the more you indulge in them, the better they are for you! Let us learn to appreciate how rich we really are, in the things that matter most.

Stanza 4:
So, amid the conflict, whether great or small,
Do not be discouraged, God is over all;
Count your many blessings, angels will attend,
Help and comfort give you to your journey's end.


One of my favorite chapters in Scripture is Genesis 28, which records Jacob's dream at the place he would later name Bethel. On the run from his enraged brother Esau, Jacob is traveling alone and far from home, probably for the first time. "And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep."(Genesis 28:11) He was literally between a rock and a hard place, or at least on top of a rock and a hard place. Apparently there was no habitation nearby where he could seek shelter, or perhaps he was afraid to make himself known to anyone in case Esau was trailing him. As far as he knew, he was more alone than he had ever been.

But God sent that dream of angels descending and ascending back into heaven, and spoke to Jacob about His plans for him. The Lord concluded with these words: "Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."(Genesis 28:15) The next verse tells us that Jacob woke up and made a realization: "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it."(Genesis 28:16)

What Jacob said then is just as true today, and it is just as true about situations and circumstances as it is about geographical locations. When you are surrounded by enemies of the cross of Christ, remember that "the Lord is in this place." When you are bereaved and left alone, remember that "the Lord is in this place." Whatever the circumstance, you are never as alone, and the outlook is never as grim, as it seems to human eyes. Jacob thought he had just a hard night of little sleep ahead of him; instead he had a vision of angels, and received the promise of God's favor throughout his life. That place that seemed so inhospitable at first became a holy place, and was the early home of God's tabernacle when the descendants of Jacob returned from Egypt. Sometimes these hard places in our lives are where we meet God most memorably, and in retrospect we may see them as turning points in our spiritual lives that brought us more closely into God's way.

Another great example of this change of perspective--in a very literal sense--is found in 2 Kings, chapter 6, when the prophet Elisha's city was surrounded by the hostile army of Syria:
When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, "Alas, my master! What shall we do?" He said, "Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them." Then Elisha prayed and said, "O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see." So the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.(2 Kings 6:15-17)
It is easier, somehow, to dwell on the problems and sorrows of life, and there is no sense in denying their reality. But too often we fail to see the good things, as well, that come our way every day. May our eyes be opened to see how we are surrounded by God's blessings!

About the music:

As a songwriter Edwin Othello Excell (1851-1921) would have been little remembered, apart from his setting of "Count your blessings" and the children's song "I'll be a sunbeam." As a publisher, song leader, and promoter, however, he was one of the most prominent men in gospel music at the beginning of the twentieth century. He edited or contributed to at least 90 hymnals, and at his death in 1921 his eponymous publishing house had the highest volume of hymnal printing in the United States.(Wikipedia) His collection of copyrights was even more significant, making him one of the most powerful men in the business.(McCann, 221, footnote 5) One of his trademarks was the use of serial titles, such as Excell's Anthems, Excell's School Songs, and Triumphant Songs, which ran for several volumes each. After his death the E.O. Excell company was acquired by Hope Publishing and became part of that company's rise to national prominence in church music.(Wikipedia)

Excell's melody for "Count your blessings" is unremarkable at first glance, but the longevity and popularity of the song make it worth a second look. First of all, the rhythm and tempo were good choices. If these lyrics had been set to a slow, sentimental, syrupy tune (not uncommon in the era), we might have long since forgotten them. The bright, snappy rhythm of Excell's melody keeps the mood upbeat and downplays any tendency toward self-pity.

In the second place, there is a subtle and effective use of a melodic hook that gives the tune a distinctiveness it would otherwise lack. In the second phrase of the stanza, the 5th note ("dis-COUR-aged" in the 1st stanza) hits the leading tone of the scale ("TI"), then backs down the scale. When you introduce the leading tone at the top of the scale, there is a sense of needing to complete the scale by moving up to the high "DO." That is thwarted here, however, leaving a bit of a question mark and making the melody of the stanza much more interesting. The high "DO" is finally reached in the refrain, on the word "BLESS-ings," linking the resolution of the melodic tension to the resolution of the problem discussed in the lyrics of the stanzas.

The refrain continues to emphasize the high "TI" and "DO." After the appearance of the high "DO" in the first phrase, the second phrase sequences down a step so that the high point is again on "TI." The third phrase hits "DO" again ("COUNT YOUR blessings...") and then "TI" in quick succession ("NAME THEM one by one"). In the final phrase, repeating the same line of text, these two notes occur even closer together: "COUNT YOUR MAN-Y" and "BLESS-ings." Whether this was intentional or not, it happened, and it seems to be the most distinctive and memorable aspect of the music.

An interesting issue of performance practice has crept into this music over the years, involving the interpretation of the ritardando found in most hymnals over the final occurrence of the line "name them one by one." No tempo marking appears at this spot in the original publication of the song in Excell's Songs for Young People, except for the fermata ("bird's-eye") on the last note, which appears in every version of the hymn I have ever seen. The earliest occurrence of a ritardando marking that I have found is in Popular Hymns no. 2, edited by C. C. Cline (St. Louis: Christian Board of Publication, 1901). From that point forward it seems to have been pretty well accepted.   

Ritardando (abbreviated rit.) directs the singer to slow down gradually. But what actually happens, in all my experience with this hymn, is a very sudden slowing down--in fact, it is an exact doubling of the length of the notes relative to the previous tempo (or cutting the tempo in half, depending on how you look at it). The Churches of Christ are not alone in this; the editors of the 2008 Baptist Hymnal actually wrote these notes out in doubled length. (On one occasion I stubbornly tried to lead "Count your blessings" with an actual ritardando instead of doubling the note length. It didn't work, and I haven't done it since.)

There are many, many little changes of this sort that occur in conjunction with congregational singing, because many (probably most) singers will learn by ear rather than by reading the music. Music transmitted in this oral fashion will get little modifications over time according to the collective memory of the singers. An even more obvious change happens in the phrase immediately following the one just discussed--the melody is actually written, "DO-DO-TI-DO-TI-LA-SOL-FA-MI-RE-DO," but I have never heard that final phrase sung any other way than, "DO-DO-DO-SOL-TI-LA," etc. Another such situation is the final phrase of the refrain of "A wonderful Savior," which is written, "LA-SOL-MI-DO-FA-TI-TI-DO" ("And cov-ers me there with His hand") but is often sung, "LA-SOL-MI-DO-MI-TI-RE-DO." In both songs, the oral tradition has smoothed over a more difficult passage to make it more intuitive. Sometimes I think the collective wisdom of singers finds the way the composer should have written it!   


Earle, John Charles. The Master's Field. London, J.W. Kolckmann, 1878.

Bonner, Clint. "A Hymn is Born: Count Your Blessings." Anniston Star (Anniston, Alabama), 12 August 1951, p. 22

"Johnson Oatman, Jr." Cyberhymnal.

Munger, Dave. "Does 'counting your blessings' really help?" Cognitive Daily 14 April 2008.

Baxter, Batsell Barrett. "Count your many blessings." Sermon #599 at

"E. O. Excell." Wikipedia.
(I am natually skeptical of the freewheeling anonymity of Wikipedia, but this article is well referenced and is obviously the work of someone who took considerable pains in his or her research.)

McCann, Forrest. "A History of Great Songs of the Church." Restoration Quarterly 38/4 (1996), 219-228.


  1. [ Hi David. Saw this gem on the net. Enjoy. ]

    by Dave MacPherson

    [quotes are from Vital Quotations by Emerson West]

    ROBERT E. LEE: "In all my perplexities and distresses, the Bible has never failed to give me light and strength." (p. 21)
    DANIEL WEBSTER: "If we abide by the principles taught in the Bible, our country will go on prospering and to prosper." (p. 21)
    JOHN QUINCY ADAMS: "I have made it a practice for several years to read the Bible through in the course of every year." (p. 22)
    ABRAHAM LINCOLN: "I believe the Bible is the best gift God has ever given to man. All the good from the Saviour of the world is communicated to us through this book." (p. 22)
    GEORGE WASHINGTON: "It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible." (p. 22)
    HORACE GREELEY: "It is impossible to mentally or socially enslave a Bible-reading people." (p. 23)
    THOMAS JEFFERSON: "I hold the precepts of Jesus as delivered by himself to be the most pure, benevolent, and sublime which have ever been preached to man. I adhere to the principles of the first age; and consider all subsequent innovations as corruptions of this religion, having no foundation in what came from him." (p. 45)
    THOMAS JEFFERSON: "Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips, the whole civilized world would by now have become Christian." (p. 47)
    BENJAMIN FRANKLIN: "As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, is the best the world ever saw, or is likely to see." (p.49)
    WOODROW WILSON: "The sum of the whole matter is this----that our civilization cannot survive materially unless it be redeemed spiritually. It can only be saved by becoming permeated with the spirit of Christ and being made free and happy by practices which spring out of that spirit." (p. 143)
    PATRICK HENRY: "There is a just God who presides over the destiny of nations." (p. 145)
    THOMAS JEFFERSON: "Material abundance without character is the surest way to destruction." (p. 225)
    THOMAS JEFFERSON: "Of all the systems of morality, ancient or modern, which have come under my observation, none appear to me so pure as that of Jesus." (p. 237)
    GEORGE WASHINGTON: "The foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing is a vice so mean and low, that every person of sense and character detests and despises it." (p. 283)
    BENJAMIN FRANKLIN: "Here is my creed. I believe in one God, the Creator of the universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshiped." (p. 301)
    CALVIN COOLIDGE: "The strength of a country is the strength of its religious convictions." (p. 305)
    GEORGE WASHINGTON: "The perpetuity of this nation depends upon the religious education of the young." (p. 306)

    Prior to our increasingly "Hell-Bound and Happy" era, America's greatest leaders were part of the (gulp) Religious Right! Today we have forgotten God's threat (to abort America) in Psa. 50:22----"Now consider this, ye that forget God, lest I tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver."

  2. I would say that phrase comes from Shakespeare.
    A friar brother tells Romeo to count his blessings.

    1. Thanks, Z, that must be it. So many things we say every day go back to him! I appreciate the correction.

    2. Very welcome, i found out today (I was curious, googled the phrase for a while). And then realized that i just HAVE to remember its origin, since my son's name is Romeo. And that is my fault. ;-)

      Yes. Many great phrases coined by Shakespeare. In Sweden we use this one every day, i think:

      "Upp flyga orden, tanken stilla står"

      "Up fly my words, my thoughts remain below"

      Cheers, gonna read this blog some more. Interesting!


  3. After reading through this blog, I now understand St. Paul's exhortation to Timothy, "Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching." (2 Timothy 4:2). Your word has found fertile ground in my heart. May God bless you.

  4. I'm writing a hymn history, and really appreciate your research.

    I found free access to The Master's Field here:

  5. I know in Islam it is literal. after every prayer (5 times a day) we say 3 things 33 times each on the of our hands between the joints which is 15...we repeat to our self's.

    Abdullah Bin Amru said: "I saw the Prophet (SAW) counting the glorification of his Lord on his right hand".

    Abu Dawud, At-Tirmizi 5/521.

    Subhann-Allah (God is perfect-Glory be to God)×33

    Al-hamdulillah (Thanks to God)x33

    Allahu-Akbar (God is the greatest)x33