Sunday, December 22, 2013

Farther Along

Praise for the Lord #138

Words: Warren's Select Hymns for Christian Worship, 1911
Music: Stamps's & Baxter's Starlit Crown, 1937, arr. J.R. Baxter Jr.

"Farther along" is an interesting example of just how easily a published song can work its way into oral tradition. It has been a popular song for many years, obviously, and is part of the fabric of America's gospel, folk, and country music genres. When a song is this popular, it can become "folk music" even after publication, sometimes even during the life of its author, propagated by word of mouth and stored in the collective memory. And once the link to its origins is lost in this way, it can become nearly impossible to ascertain the truth of the matter in later years.

At least four different men have been credited with writing this song (whether words, or music, or both, is not always clear). None of them is without evidence in his favor, and three of them have descendants today who loyally defend their respective claims. I beg the patience of all these, and assure them that I am not casting doubt on the veracity of anyone living or dead. (Anyone who has done genealogical research will know, however, that veracity and accuracy are not the same thing. I have in mind a supposed eyewitness account of the writing of "Farther along," given by a person who was only one year old when the song first appeared in print.) But for all I know, all four men may have had some hand in the development of this song; it almost seems that this song appeared like Melchizedek, "without mother or father." What I wish to contribute is a review of the evidence, from the earliest and most disinterested sources I can find.

The Paper Trail

Select Hymns for Christian Worship (1911)
This material is in the public domain
The earliest known instance of "Farther along" (or "Further along," originally) is in Select Hymns for Christian Worship and General Gospel Service (Anderson, Ind.: Gospel Trumpet, 1911). (I have seen references to earlier versions from the 1800s, but all of these that I have been able to examine are actually a totally different hymn titled "Tempted and Tried," written by Frances Ridley Havergal.) Zac Thorp, Digital Resources Librarian at Phillips Theological Seminary, has provided a scan of the 1911 version of "Further along", which differs considerably from the Stamps-Baxter version used in most hymnals today. The lyrics, which were published without any music, are simply attributed, "arr. B.E.W." (Barney E. Warren, one of the hymnal's editors).

Barney Elliott Warren was a minister of the Church of God fellowship headquartered in Anderson, Indiana (Cyberhymnal), and Select Hymns was published by that group's flagship journal, Gospel Trumpet. If one of the candidates for authorship proved to have been a minister in that fellowship, that would add a little circumstantial evidence to his claim. But unfortunately, though the Church of God (Anderson) is quite distinct historically and doctrinally from the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) and other Holiness groups, census takers and newspaper reporters are not always so careful of such distinctions. Three of the four men who may have been involved in writing the song are identified at some point simply as "Holiness preachers," which is an interesting coincidence but not specific enough to give one more credence than another.

The next instance of the song is in Harmonic Chimes (Morristown, Tenn.: Harmonic Pub. Co., 1916). According to the page for this songbook, W. B. Stevens is given credit for the lyrics alongside Warren. The only copy of this hymnal listed in OCLC's WorldCat is held by Brown University, but is currently inaccessible because of ongoing renovations to the library building that houses special collections. It should be available again in the fall of 2014, and I hope then to find what evidence it does or does not give about the authorship question. I have explored the feasibility of an illegal entry into the Hay Library (in the style of Mission: Impossible) but have concluded that I had better just wait.

"Farther along" appears under the title "We'll know all about it" in Eureka Sacred Carols (Mena, Ark.: Eureka Music Co., 1921), which I was able to examine at the Bowld Music Library of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This version credits the words and melody to a W.E. Lindsay. The music in this version is arranged by G.C. Adams, one of the editors of the hymnal. The lyrics are nearly identical to those in the 1911 version. The music (discussed more fully below) is distinct from the Stamps-Baxter version, but still close enough that there is almost certainly some relationship between the two.

Eureka Sacred Carols (1921)
This material is in the public domain.

The version of "Farther along" found in most modern hymnals, however, first appeared in the Stamps-Baxter publication Starlit Crown in 1937. A WorldCat record for this book shows that the attribution was simply to the "Burnette Sisters." Another 1937 Stamps-Baxter songbook, Favorite Radio Songs, remarks, "As sung by the Burnette Sisters." The song's inclusion in Favorite Radio Songs is particularly telling, since the contents of that book were selected by asking listeners of Dallas station KRLD to send in their 10 favorite radio gospel songs (Mason 275). The attribution to the Burnette Sisters (whom I have not been able to identify) most likely reflected the popularity that the song gained through radio performances. From the 1938 Gospel Quartets onward, however, Stamps-Baxter usually attributed the words and music to W.B. Stevens, with the music arranged by J.R. Baxter, Jr. (The latter two books were examined at the Southwestern Baptist music library.)

William B. Stevens: Missouri Tent Preacher

Most hymnals for the last half-century have followed the Stamps-Baxter attribution to William B. Stevens (b. 1862-d. after 1940), a Church of God preacher in Schuyler County, Missouri (U.S. Census 1930). If anyone had a motivation to write such a song, it was Stevens; he was a truly Job-like figure who outlived all six of his children, many of them dying in childhood (Findagrave). According to Davidson's biographical sketch of Stevens, he was a prolific songwriter and even published a few songbooks (Davidson, repr. Schuyler Co. Times). In the preface of the compilation, The Best of W.B. Stevens, Richard E. Payne states that his wife's grandparents, John D. and Sylvia Hodges Speak, sang in a quartet with Stevens; an additional note by the late Emma Perkins Johnson, a longtime resident of the area, recalled Stevens sometimes serving as songleader for gospel meetings instead of minister.

If Stevens was the songwriter, he received very little benefit from such a popular song--nor did any of the other potential claimants. Stevens claimed to have learned of his song's success in a rather unexpected fashion, years after it was written. The story was related by J.R. Barkley in the Moulton, Iowa Weekly Tribune, 5 May 1938, page 2:
Not long ago [Stevens] was listening to the singing of a fine religious quartet, at the station at Del Rio, Texas, when he heard one of his songs that he had composed years ago. He wrote the Stamps quartet which was singing it and told them of publishing it. The Stamps Brothers own and publish a musical paper at Dallas, Texas. They wrote him and asked him to send them a brief sketch of his life, which he did. Finding that he was without a stated income they mentioned it on the air, and a collection of over $150.00 was raised and sent to him with more to follow. This song was one of the most popular songs ever sung over the station and was entitled, "Farther Along." He said he was sitting at the organ running his fingers aimlessly over the keys. His luck had been against him and he was feeling blue, but somehow he struck a chord which came right out of the the organ like the "Lost Chord" of Sir Arthur Sullivan. Who knows but what it might have been the same lost chord which Sir Arthur never found. Who knows that music may not be inspired from the spirit world. Any way he did not lose it this time but wrote it down, and put his thoughts into meter in "Farther Along."
The claim of W.B. Stevens seems to be considerably helped by the discovery of the above newspaper article. The authenticity of Barkley's story rests on two strong points: 1) He was personally acquainted with Stevens, and thus had a first-hand account; and, 2) He wrote this in 1938, shortly after the events described. The "Del Rio" radio station would have been the old XERA, a high-wattage "border blaster" based just inside Mexico that reached across the U.S. into Canada from 1935-1939 (Wikipedia). (This was the predecessor of the more famous rock'n'roll station that featured Wolfman Jack.) The Stamps-Baxter Quartet, capitalizing on its popularity from the KRLD broadcasts, was naturally eager to be heard on this international stage as well (Mason 274). After 1938, when their rendition of "Farther along" had been broadcast to a national audience, the Stamps-Baxter publications began to attribute the song to W.B. Stevens. This matches the story reported by Barkley, and shows the apparent desire of Stamps-Baxter to attribute the song properly (so far as they knew the facts).

W.A. Fletcher: Strangers on a Train?

But what of the other candidates for authorship? There is a story endlessly repeated on the Internet that "Farther along" was written by a different preacher, W.A. Fletcher. The fullest version of this account is found in the Wikipedia article for "Farther along," which has been marked by another Wikipedia editor as desperately in need of citations. Fletcher is said to have written the song in 1911 while traveling between gospel meetings in Indian Territory. He was supposedly inspired by his frustration at having to leave his pregnant wife Catherine back in Texas. Because of his preaching engagements, Fletcher would miss the birth of his first child.

The popular form of this story is problematic. There was no "Indian Territory" in 1911, four years after Oklahoma was admitted to statehood. I am also suspicious of the story of Fletcher meeting J.R. Baxter and selling him "Farther along" at that time. Baxter, a native of Alabama, was still working for A.J. Showalter in the Southeastern U.S., and did not move West until the 1940s (Tribe). Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but I can find no reference to Baxter or the Showalter Music Company in Oklahoma during that era. And can anyone believe that Baxter, who was such a shrewd judge of songs, would have waited more than 25 years to publish "Farther along"?

But even a story that has become garbled and embellished (thanks again, Internet!) may be founded on real events. There was, in fact, a Holiness preacher named William A. Fletcher, who lived in Sulphur, Oklahoma, in 1910 (U.S. Census, 1910, Oklahoma). He was single at that time, but later census records reveal the following events: 1) Fletcher married a woman named Catherine, a native of Texas, and, 2) the couple had their first child in 1911 (January 1912 at the latest). This was a daughter named Willamine, born in Oklahoma (U.S. Census, 1920, Nebraska). So at least this much of the story is proved: there was a Holiness preacher named W.A. Fletcher in Oklahoma during the early 1910s, with a wife named Catherine who very likely would have spent time with her family in Texas if she were pregnant and he was on the road, and they were expecting a child in 1911. It doesn't prove that he wrote the song, of course, but it shows the story cannot be dismissed as legend.

W.E. Lindsay: Man of Mystery

In the Eureka Sacred Carols, as mentioned above, words and melody are both attributed to a W. E. Lindsay. I can find nothing about this person, though a search of the Newspaper Archive reveals that there was a Free Will Baptist preacher by that name in Ada, Oklahoma around that time, and a Methodist preacher named "W.A. Lindsey" in Prairie Grove, Arkansas. Ironically, Lindsay has the earliest documented claim (that I have found so far!) to the authorship of "Farther along", but is the most obscure of the four men who vie for that honor, and the only one without modern descendants backing his story.

W.P. Jay: The Arkansas Traveler

W.P. Jay's claim to authorship has probably been spread most by the attribution "words and music adapted from W.P. Jay" found in the 1960s folk music magazine Sing Out! ( This is interesting, but not convincing; Pete Seeger, who popularized this version of "Farther along", was not a musicologist but a performer (his musicologist father, Charles Seeger, would have been a more reliable source). The 1932 Catalog of Copyright Entries from the U.S. Copyright office, however, carries considerably more weight, and here we find a "smoking gun" that is still at least smoldering a little: "Farther along; hymn, m W. P. Jay, arr. of w and m Haldor Lillenas. (c) May 1, 1932" (Musical Compositions 1932, p. 513). This is six years prior to the Stamps-Baxter publication, and credits Jay with the music. So far as I have seen, this is the earliest copyright claimed for the song; the 1921 Eureka Sacred Carols version, shown above, has a place for a copyright at the bottom, but no date.

W. P. Jay, a preacher for the Church of the Nazarene, roved from his home state of Arkansas, through the "Arklatex" region, and as far away as Idaho in his evangelistic meetings. In a search of the Newspaper Archive I could not seem to find reference to him in the same place more than once! He also seems to have been a colorful and energetic individual who knew how to use music to augment his message. I would dearly love to hear the song titled, "Don't Use a Submarine, But Use a Flying Airship", performed in an evangelistic meeting in Ardmore, Oklahoma, during the 1940s (Daily Ardmoreite (Oklahoma), 17 October 1940, p. 8). One newspaper reporter noted that "an interesting feature of the meetings is the musical program put on by Rev. and Mrs. Jay, both of whom are talented musicians, many of whose songs are their own compositions" (Twin Falls Daily News (Idaho), 29 March 1932, p. 8). Coincidentally, the newspaper reports in an item on the same page that the Jays sang "Farther along" at a local funeral service.

The Curious Nature of Authorship

The competing claims raise an interesting question--are we sure the same man wrote both words and music? The Barkley article quoted above emphasizes the music, stating that Stevens "composed" the song while at the organ. Though many songwriters write lyrics and music together, this could also possibly describe composing a tune to existing lyrics. And though Barkley says Stevens "put his thoughts down in meter," the description of this moment of revelation is entirely focused on the power of the music. What if Fletcher (or someone else) wrote the lyrics published by Warren in 1911, and Stevens (or someone else) wrote the music that combined with these lyrics to make the gospel song we know today? (Now I really wish I could see what the Harmonic Chimes book from 1916 says about authorship!) Even so, the claims of W.E. Lindsay and W.P. Jay are on the music, which (given the statements in the Barkley article above) Stevens clearly claimed to have written.

Because of the peculiarly collaborative nature of songwriting, "writing a song" with another person is a complex question. In speaking of operas or musicals, most people think of the composer of the music first, and the lyricist as an afterthought--it's Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, even though the lyrics were written by the equally famous Stephen Sondheim. In the classical hymn genre, it is the opposite; Julian's famous dictionary is about words, not music, and the tendency to think of "hymns" as the lyrics alone is reflected structurally in sites such as Folk and popular music add the complicating factor of the performer, seen in the "as sung by" statement in the earlier Stamps-Baxter publications of "Farther along."

All this is to say that the statement "X wrote this song" (or should it be "W" in this case, since all of these men have the same first initial?) does not always mean what we think it means. The author of the lyrics could make this claim. The composer of the music could make this claim. The person who took a song that was floating around anonymously in the folk gospel repertoire, and set down the words and arranged the music in a fixed form, could make that claim to a certain extent. The person who learned the song from the same folk gospel repertoire, and popularized a certain version of it through performance, could claim it as "his" or "her" song to a certain extent. Once again, I have no doubt of the honesty of any of the competing claims about this song; but as I have found out in my own family history, even essentially true stories are often misunderstood in the process of transmission. I would be glad to hear from anyone who has further evidence to contribute toward solving this mystery!

Finally, the Song Itself

I admit that I have not always appreciated this song as much as many of my brothers and sisters do. The stanzas, at least, are complaining about our lot in this life--something I am loath to do when I consider how much more fortunate I am than most people living on this earth. I have a roof over my head, food on my table, clothes on my back, and a reasonable expectation of security in my person and property. Though I am probably considered lower middle class in the context of my own culture, I live like a king compared to most of the world, and compared to my ancestors. I am uncomfortable singing songs that cast me in the role of the poor and downtrodden.

A closer reading of the text, however, shows that the author's mind is not primarily on material hardships, but on the misfortunes of life. The first stanza compares the speaker's lot to that of the wicked, who are "never molested" or harmed, presumably by the vicissitudes of "time and chance" (Ecclesiastes 9:11). The second stanza (in the modern version of the text) speaks of the loss of loved ones, especially those who are taken from us unexpectedly soon. In the original second stanza from the earliest form of the text (see above), there is one reference to material hardships--the speaker must "go in the rain, the cold, and the snow," compared to the worldly who are "living in comfort." A following stanza in the original speaks of facing false accusations and persecution, even from family members. These thoughts emphasize the trials Christians face because of our choice to serve Jesus.

Stanza 1:
Tempted and tried, we're oft made to wonder,
Why it should be thus all the day long;
While there are others living about us,
Never molested, though in the wrong.

Before we judge these statements as mere complaining, we should remember that this was the cry of Job: "They spend their days in prosperity, and in peace they go down to Sheol" (Job 21:13). It was the accusation of Jeremiah: "Righteous are You, O LORD, when I complain to You; yet I would plead my case before You. Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?" (Jeremiah 12:1). And Habakkuk was even more forward with God, saying, "Why do You make me see iniquity, and why do You idly look at wrong?" (Habakkuk 1:3a). It is an exaggeration to say that those "in the wrong" are never troubled by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune; but if we find ourselves saying so, we are in the company of some righteous and faithful men. The statements of Jeremiah and Habbakkuk are really more extreme than anything in the lyrics of this song!

What is the lesson, then, of Job, Jeremiah, and Habakkuk? I believe there are two points to consider: 1) it is permissible and understandable for a faithful follower of God to sometimes feel that life is unfair; but, 2) we are generally mistaken in how we perceive that unfairness. Job was oblivious to the spiritual warfare raging over his soul, and at the end he admitted, "I have uttered what I did not understand" (Job 42:3). Jeremiah lived to see the proud and wicked of his nation overthrown. And the Lord told Habakkuk, "I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if it were told you" (Hab 1:5).

Is it wrong, then, to sing words that may reflect an imperfect understanding of God's dealing with sin, and the problem of suffering? My brothers at (an excellent and useful site!) suggest that "we as Christians living this side of the cross have the answer to that question now, and don't need to wait until we are farther along to understand why" ("Problem songs"). It is worth noting, however, that the ancient Hebrews were also given a strong word of advice on the topic: "Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb" (Psalm 37:1-2). This may not have been known to Job, but it would certainly have been in the Scriptures read by Jeremiah and Habakkuk. The problem is not knowing the answer, but emotionally accepting the answer. We know that the temporal prosperity of some of the wicked is nothing to envy, but we are "tempted and tried" to fall into this kind of thinking in spite of ourselves. We are "made to wonder" (stanza 2). I believe this is a valid understanding of "Farther along"--even though we know better than to think like this, we are sometimes tempted to do so, and for that reason we exhort one another to push on until the better day dawns when our sight will be more clear.

Farther along, we'll know all about it;
Farther along, we'll understand why.
Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine;
We'll understand it all by and by.

This is not unlike the advice of David in the 37th Psalm:
Trust in the LORD, and do good;
Dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.
Delight yourself in the LORD,
And He will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the LORD;
Trust in Him, and He will act.
He will bring forth your righteousness as the light,
And your justice as the noonday. 
Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for Him;
Fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way,
Over the man who carries out evil devices!
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!
Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.
(Psalm 37:3-8)
But will we "know all about it" in the life to come? We are curious by nature--God made us that way, so that we would seek to know Him (Acts 17:27). Perhaps it is natural for us to assume that part of the state of heavenly bliss will be the satisfaction of that curiosity with all the answers we have sought in this life. But will it be so? One suspects that many of the questions that trouble us now will be of little importance then. There was only one thing, in the mind of Paul, really worth knowing:
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (Philippians 3:8).
For this knowledge of Christ, Paul had already sacrificed his personal accomplishments and future career as a Jewish teacher; he was currently sacrificing personal safety and comfort; and he would in time sacrifice his very life. In comparison to all else, Paul said, "But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:13-14). I do not know what would be the first words to tumble from the lips of Paul, on that great day; but I suspect it would not be to question why the road had been so long that brought him there.

Whatever one's view of that question, the attitude expressed in this refrain is admirable. It recalls Paul's perspective on his own suffering, far greater than most of us will ever see:
I was appointed a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles. For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day" (2 Timothy 1:12).
Paul understood what we all need to understand, and what "Farther along" tries to teach as well: our current situation, however difficult it may be, is not our final situation. There is an old story, repeated by Abraham Lincoln, but dating back to the ancient Persian philosophers:
It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: "And this, too, shall pass away." How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!
Whatever challenges we are facing in this life, they will be over soon. Some will be over very quickly; others may be with us for a lifetime; but even in the case of the latter, we still have hope for a point in the future when these trials will be over. We can say with the sons of Korah, "Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him, my salvation and my God" (Psalm 42:11).

Stanza 2:
When death has come and taken our loved ones,
It leaves our home so lonely and drear;
Then do we wonder why others prosper,
Living so wicked year after year.


This is one of the harshest, and most honest, stanzas we will find in a hymnal. It may not be the most Christian sentiment, but I believe one would be hard pressed to find a Christian who has not thought this once or twice. Job asked the same thing: "Why do the wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power? Their offspring are established in their presence, and their descendants before their eyes" (Job 21:7-8). Asaph, one of David's chief musicians, explored this theme at length in the 73rd Psalm. In an interesting preface, he admits from the outset that his reasoning was faulty and even tending toward sin:
Truly God is good to Israel,
To those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled,
My steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant
When I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
(v. 1-3)
It would have been a misstep to envy the wicked, but the incongruity of the prosperity of the wicked with the suffering of the righteous is no less maddening. Asaph describes the behavior of the wicked in detail:
For they have no pangs until death;
Their bodies are fat and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
They are not stricken like the rest of mankind.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
Violence covers them as a garment.
Their eyes swell out through fatness;
Their hearts overflow with follies.
They scoff and speak with malice;
Loftily they threaten oppression.
They set their mouths against the heavens,
And their tongue struts through the earth.
(v. 4-9)
They seem immune to the misfortunes of life. They do everything the godly person tries not to do, and not only do they get away with it, they profit from it. The casual observer is led to conclude that wickedness pays, and godliness is a fool's choice.
Therefore his people turn back to them,
And find no fault in them.
And they say, “How can God know?
Is there knowledge in the Most High?”
Behold, these are the wicked;
Always at ease, they increase in riches.
All in vain have I kept my heart clean
And washed my hands in innocence.
For all the day long I have been stricken
And rebuked every morning.
(v. 10-14)
The "God is dead" movement was not just a phenomenon of the 1960s. People in Asaph's time questioned whether God was there, or if He were, whether He was paying attention. Asaph's frustration is palpable. He had tried to live the right way; and this was his reward? But then his account takes a dramatic turn:
If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
I would have betrayed the generation of Your children.
But when I thought how to understand this,
It seemed to me a wearisome task,
Until I went into the sanctuary of God;
Then I discerned their end.
(v. 15-17; emphasis added, DRH)
Asaph did what every God-fearing person at the end of his or her rope should do: he went to the house of the Lord. He sought the guidance of God in worship, study, meditation, and prayer. And upon reflection, he realized that we see only part of the story in this life. Our natural inclination to envy tends to exaggerate the good things we see others enjoying, in comparison to our own. (If you do not believe there is a natural inclination toward envy, just try dividing a dessert evenly between two siblings.) And the pride of the ungodly will cause them to exaggerate as well, downplaying the negatives of their choice in lifestyle. Most of those "living so wicked year after year" are not nearly as happy as they would have you think, even when they are riding high. But of course the "end" Asaph is really talking about is something else:
Truly You set them in slippery places;
You make them fall to ruin.
How they are destroyed in a moment,
Swept away utterly by terrors!
Like a dream when one awakes,
O Lord, when You rouse yourself,
You despise them as phantoms.
(v. 18-20)
We should not rejoice in the doom of the wicked, but rather take sober warning from it (Proverbs 24:17). Knowledge of this reality helps us to keep the right perspective when we are faced with the temptations Asaph illustrates. We know the answer to the question posed in Psalm 73:11--yes, God does know, and "He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, He will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury" (Rom 2:6-8).

And when we consider the loss of a righteous loved one, especially in an untimely fashion, we can remember that the real measure of a life is not its length, but its quality. One of the saddest statements in Scripture (though darkly comical as well) is the summary of the reign of Jehoram given in the Chronicles: "Jehoram was thirty-two years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem eight years. He passed away, to no one's regret, and was buried in the City of David, but not in the tombs of the kings" (2 Chronicles 21:20; emphasis added, DRH). When the death of an individual is deeply regretted, it is because that person meant something to other people. Acts 8:2 tells us that after Stephen's stoning, "devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him (Act 8:2). They did not "grieve as others do who have no hope" (1 Thessalonians 4:13), but they mourned the untimely death of a beloved brother, "a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit" (Acts 6:5). Had Stephen not lived such a life, his loss would not have been felt so keenly.

Finally, we must consider that there are questions about providence that we simply do not have answered in this life. Not too many years after the death of Stephen, the apostle James, son of Zebedee, was martyred by the sword at the command of Herod. Seeing the pleasing effect this had on his popularity polls, the king next imprisoned Peter. No doubt Herod had the same fate planned for this apostle as well, but Peter was delivered from prison by an angel and continued his ministry for many more years. F.F. Bruce rightly called it "a mystery of divine providence" that one apostle was martyred and the other delivered. No doubt the apostle John, the surviving son of Zebedee, thought so as well. Perhaps he wondered as well why the wicked ruler who executed his brother went on living, even profiting by the act; but if John did wonder, he did not wonder long. The same 12th chapter of Acts tells us that Herod met a particularly nasty end; and between James and Herod, whose fate was the more desirable? We will always wonder why things work out the way they do, and like Peter, we sometimes ask, "Lord, what about this man?" (John 21:21). But we need to remember the answer that Jesus gave Peter: "What is that to you? Follow Me" (John 21:22).

Stanza 3:
"Faithful till death," said our loving Master,
A few more days to labor and wait;
Toils of the road will then seem as nothing,
As we sweep through the beautiful gate.


Here the lyricist quotes from Jesus' message to the church at Smyrna, one of only two of the seven churches of Asia mentioned in the Revelation to receive no criticism at all from the Lord:
I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death (Revelation 2:9-11).
It was a timely warning. The early Christian historian Eusebius relates in his Church History (4th century) the contents of a letter said to have come from the church at Smyrna, telling of a severe persecution that befell them during the 2nd century. Most famous among the martyrs of Smyrna was Polycarp, reportedly a student of the apostle John. According to the account, his fellow Christians tried to persuade him to flee the city; but when he learned that others were being tortured into giving up his whereabouts, Polycarp surrendered himself to the authorities. When the day of the trial came and the magistrate demanded that he revile Christ and swear to Caesar, Polycarp is reported to have said, "Fourscore and six years have I been serving Him, and He has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?" Polycarp is said to have met his death by burning at the stake (Book IV, Chapter 15). For the Christians at Smyrna, "Faithful till death" did not only mean "up to the time of death," but also "even to the point of dying." God help those Christians, even today, who face such persecution; God help us Christians who do not, to show such faithfulness in our lesser trials!

Stanza 4:
When we see Jesus coming in glory,
When He comes from His home in the sky,
Then we shall meet Him in that bright mansion;
We'll understand it all by and by.


Like Job in ancient times, our modern world still faces the problem of the existence of evil, with all its attendant questions about God's providence and what it means in the lives of His followers. Unlike Job, however, we have a far better understanding of what it is all about in the end. We are "waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:13). And Paul assures us that, "When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory" (Col 3:4).

From this perspective, we can look at the trials of this life and say along with that longsuffering apostle,
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed ... So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2Cr 4:8-9,16-18)
The songwriter concludes, "We'll understand it all by and by." Whether we have specific answers to specific questions about the events of this life, I do not know; but I am certain that we will understand why it was worth whatever we may have suffered to get there.

About the music:

One of the most interesting finds in the process of researching this song was the version from the Eureka Sacred Carols (Mena, Ark.: Eureka Music Pub., 1921), reproduced in the image above. This predates the J.R. Baxter arrangement by 16 years, and shows us a snapshot of at least one form of the melody and harmony prior to that better known arrangement, which has since become standard. Since the original publication of the "Farther along" text in 1911 had lyrics only, the music we know today (whenever it was composed!) was apparently passed around by ear.

The image below compares the 1921 and 1937 melodies. (I have transposed the 1937 Stamps-Baxter version to the key of A-flat major for sake of comparison, though I have most often seen it in F major.) The most obvious correspondence--so obvious it is easily overlooked!--is the rhythm, which is identical except for Baxter's occasional use of a dotted triplet (long-LONG-short) instead of even triplets. That rhythmic feature is so widely ignored in actual practice, it is hardly worth mentioning. The highlighted areas show points at which the pitches are identical between the two versions--37 notes out of 76 total, just short of half the melody. But the locations of these points of correspondence are even more important than the percentage; the versions show the most similarity at the beginnings and endings of phrases.

Even in the portions that are not identical, there are strong similarities in the directions the melody moves. In the first phrase of the refrain, for example, the 1937 Baxter version moves up one more step on "Far-ther A-" (C, E-flat, F) where the 1921 version repeats the E-flat (C, E-flat, E-flat). Both versions move down into the next pitch (on "-long"), but the 1937 version comes down from an F to an E-flat, where the 1921 version comes down from an E-flat to a C. Both versions skip down through notes of the tonic chord, and end up the same at the end of the phrase.

Another striking area of similarity is the harmony in each version. Once again I have transposed Baxter's 1937 arrangement to the same key as Lindsay's 1921 version from Eureka Sacred Carols.

Far-ther a-long
know all a-
bout it,

Far-ther a-long
Ab     (Ddim)

Cheer up my bro-
live in the

We’ll un-der-stand

all by and
The basic structure of the phrases is the same: the 1st and 3rd phrases move from A-flat to D-flat, then back; the 2nd phrase cadences to the dominant chord, E-flat; and the final phrase closes the period with a strong cadence to the tonic, A-flat. Even the differences are telling; in the 1st and 3rd phrases, the subdominant chord (D-flat) is set up by an inversion of the tonic in the 1921 version, so that the bass steps up from C to D-flat, where the 1937 version adds the 7th in the alto voice to make the Ab7 chord, leaning down into the D-flat chord. It is two different ways of accomplishing the same goal. Approaching the half cadence at the end of the 2nd phrase, the 1921 version uses a secondary dominant, Bb7, which serves to emphasize the E-flat harmony at the end of the phrase. Baxter's 1937 version instead emphasizes the final chord of the phrase by walking the bass down from the tonic to the dominant ("un-der-stand why"); but for a fleeting moment on the syllable "-stand" there is a diminished chord that provides the leading tone to the following chord, briefly suggesting the same secondary dominant harmony (Bb7) seen in the 1921 version.

The most notable difference in these harmonizations is the use of the F minor chord (submediant, or vi chord) in the 1921 version, which is not found in Baxter's version. But in the video below from the Harlem Church of Christ, you can hear this same minor harmony inserted before the endings of the stanza and of the refrain. I do not know whether this is a perpetuation of an earlier version than Baxter's, or simply a matter of singers making the same harmonic choices because they sound good. (It is my understanding that the Harlem congregation sings from Sacred Selections, which has the 1937 Baxter arrangement of this song.)

The case of "Farther along" reminds us that when it comes to older gospel music, what ends up the printed page is often just a snapshot of one person's version of the song!


Barkley, J. R. "Around about America." The Weekly Tribune (Moulton, Iowa) 5 May 1938 p. 2.

"Barney Elliott Warren." Cyberhymnal

Bruce, F. F. Commentary on the Book of the Acts. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1964.

Davidson, Ellen K. "Rev. W. B. Stevens: Brief biography." Community at Large. Marceline, Mo.: Walsworth Publishing Co., 1993. Reprinted in the Schuyler County Times 16 July 2013.

Eusebius. Church History. Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

"Farther along." Wikipedia
N.B. There are significant problems with this article, particularly lack of citations.

Foreman, Marilyn. "The Churches of Schuyler Co., Missouri."

"Large congregations attend revival here." Twin Falls Daily News (Idaho), 29 March 1932, p. 8.

"Life of Jacob is discussed." The Daily Ardmoreite (Oklahoma), 17 October 1940, p. 8.

Lincoln, Abraham. Address to the Wisconsin State Agriculture Society, Milwaukee, 30 September 1859.

"Many attend services for former resident." Twin Falls Daily News (Idaho), 29 March 1932, p. 8.

Mason, Richard J. "Singing people are happy people: a brief look at convention gospel music." Corners of Texas, ed. Francis Edward Abernathy. Nacogdoches, Tex.: Texas Folklore Society, 1993.

"Problem songs." ThyWordIsTruth.com

Stevens, W.B. The Best of W.B. Stevens, ed. Richard E. Payne. Kirksville, Mo.: Richard E. Payne, 2000?

"Tempted and tried, we're oft made to wonder."

Tribe, Ivan M. "J.R. Baxter Jr." Encyclopedia of American Gospel Music. New York: Routledge, 2005, p. 32.

U.S. Copyright Office. Catalog of Copyright Entries: Musical Compositions 1932.

Walker, Wayne S. "Farther Along." hymnstudiesblog.

"XERA-AM." Wikipedia


  1. I am a many times removed descendant of Stevens and I never knew that there were other people who were credited with writing this song. The family story was that he had gotten word, while on one of his preaching trips, that his child(ren) had died. In his despair he stopped by the side of the road and wrote the song. I have NO idea of the validity of that story, and we all know how family stories can get stretched and changed over the years. I guess we'll only know the truth of who wrote it and why "farther along".

  2. I ran across this as I was preparing a lesson based on "Farther Along." By far, this is the best research done on the history of the song. I really appreciate that you documented your finds. The write up on the biblical meaning of the song was helpful. I started my own lesson because it seemed odd to me that so many others did not connect Psalms 37 and 73 as sources for the lyrics. You reminded me of other passages as well. Well done! (Jeff Hamilton, La Vista Church of Christ)

  3. Thank you so much for the detailed discussion and insight of this hymn. It has impact on my life in many ways. As my mother was dying of cancer, our family sang for hours hymns from Stamps Baxter that had been integral to our life. However, we didn't sing this one, though it was a favorite. After a week of unconsciousness, Mother, in a miraculous way revived to share with us how "God had taken her through all the phases of death, and she had no more fear. He's allowed me to see how all the things in my life are to be used for His glory...All the songs you sang to me were written for this time and purpose...I know this is hard for you to understand, but you will by and by." Her words are a testimony to 2 Cor 4:16-18. This has been 18 years ago, and God has been faithful to reveal "understanding by and by." I know my understanding is not complete, but as His presence is revealed more in my life, and my understanding of His Ways deepens, so does my understanding of Mother's testimony. The verse beginning "Faithful til death says our loving Master, just a few days to labor and wait..." This was a testimony of my mothers life-a life filled with abuses and trials, but ones that, with God's grace, did not weaken her joy and love of God and life. To me, this song is a prayer of surrender. A confession that "Lord, I believe, help my unbelief." An expression of trust when the flesh wants to focus on grief, regret, and loss. It is a song that amidst those flesh struggles, chooses to posture spiritual senses on God's purpose for the difficulty.

  4. Thank you for posting your research on this song's origins. Those origins are even muddier today, as Google is crediting both Brad Paisley and Evil Presley with authorship (when I perform the search "lyrics to farther along"):*&duf3=0,duf3-2-0

  5. William Buel Stevens was born in 1862. His father Buel was serving w,it’s the 21st Missouri Volunteer Infantry at the time and fought at the battle of Shilo. Shortly after the battle many in the unit were accused of mutiny and arrested. A superior officer said the men could not be held without court martial and four were singled out to be tried. One being 1st sergeant Buel Stevens. He spent six months in prison at Alton Il. Prison until his appeal overturned his conviction. His brother in law Jerry Hamilton became the new 1st seargeant, lieutenant, and then capt of his company. Jerry died of sudden death heart disease at age 48, and one of his sons died at 17 from this same thing. These were things w b Stevens would have seen as a young man along with his own families losses. I have been told the children died from TB. But I know heart failed leads to breathing issues and wonder if there is a correlation. I have seen hymn books with a picture of w b Stevens on the cover. All the songs in the book were written by him. A poem and hymn called brighter and better has been attributed to him on the church of god holiness web site. It is a poem about dying and what u will experience after death.

    1. Kerry, thanks for this great background on Stevens' father. My great-great-grandfather David McMannis was in the 8th Missouri at Shiloh, but they were in Lew Wallace's division and didn't get to the battle until the end of the first day. The 21st was in the thick of it both days, I believe.