Saturday, December 3, 2016

Sing On Ye Joyful Pilgrims – Fanny Crosby

She was so well known and abundantly productive that she decided to become a more shadowy presence in one of her best works. What? It’s reported that Frances Jane Crosby did in fact use a fictitious name when she set about publishing “Sing On Ye Joyful Pilgrims” in the late 19th Century; she passed herself off as Carrie M. Wilson, most likely because she thought her song would have a wider audience if her real name was left out of it. Perhaps she thought the song’s three verses and refrain possessed something too valuable to risk being ignored because of her own notoriety. Did she try out her tune on her friends and acquaintances first (including some at the Cremorne Mission in Manhattan [shown here], one of the missions that she supported at the time), discovering its message of hope and ecstasy had a rare quality? Perhaps it summed up her own life to that point with a focus she wanted to underscore and use to propel herself forward.

 Fanny Crosby is such a notable hymnist, it is hard to exaggerate her musical impact and her broader life’s influence on Christian faith expression. What brought Fanny to the point where she resided in 1866, and what carried her forward, is not a mystery. A 66-year-old who’d already written thousands of words in tunes and poems, both secularly and in Christian circles, could have been content to stand in place. Yet, that was not in Crosby’s character. She was, in her mid-60s, in the midst of a rededication of herself to helping the poor in one of America’s worst slums – New York’s Manhattan. And she didn’t just visit the area and then leave it daily for more comfortable surroundings. She lived there, among those who needed and probably were inspired by her example. So, it’s not difficult to imagine, though the precise circumstances of “Sing On…” are not recorded, that Fanny was communicating something she thought would resonate with her neighbors and fellow believers. We’re all ‘pilgrims’, you can hear her saying in her three verses, and not just struggling, muddling-through pilgrims, but ‘joyful ‘ ones because we can see that light at the opposite end of where we are. Imagine being in a gray, dirty urban area, inhabited by long faces, disease, and day-to-day scuffles just to stay alive. Poverty is a given, and handouts in the various street missions in this pitiable New York borough are absolutely necessary for many. Fanny not only probably helped provide some of the food these people needed, she also gave those who shared her faith a sturdy place to make their stand. It must have made a difference to those in the slum who knew her, and from what perspective she wrote.

She may have been blind, but Fanny Crosby saw just what her neighbors needed. Our neighborhoods are ugly, in multiple ways, and that hasn’t changed in the 100+ years since Fanny wrote her words. She did her part to help those imprisoned there, but not so much by cleaning up things. No, Fanny said look through this garbage-strewn street, as if through a mental telescope, and gaze in wonderment at the sight over there. Let its beauty and certainty for you gird your being. This 66-year old had her own shortcomings, physically, so for her to say ‘It’s gonna be incredible where I’m heading’ was a testimony that spoke to others in the same boat. Which way are you looking?    

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Humble Yourself – Bob Hudson

Someone says ‘He was a kid!’ At least, initially, this would be the first-blush reaction when information surfaces that the words and music to a song are attributed to a boy who was no older than twelve. Was it his only song? Did Bob Hudson write other tunes, other than “Humble Thyself (also known as Humble Yourself) that appeared in print by 1978? What could one surmise from what Bob wrote, and especially so if no other information were known about him? Bob Hudson may be virtually anonymous, but if he’s reached the age of 50 years (as of 2016), surely someone somewhere has discovered, or at least asked him, what transpired in the life of a boy that made “Humble Thyself” the result. Did he maybe look at Saint Humility (pictured here, painted by Lorenzetti in 1341) to gain inspiration for what he wrote?

Bob Hudson may be the same person born in 1966 to whom the song is credited in the one source this blogger found regarding this simple song about humility and a Christian’s core beliefs. Where he was and what he was doing are mysteries, but at least he didn’t leave his fellow believers wondering what he was thinking. We have his words. They have a simplicity that’s elemental to the song’s message. Humbling oneself presupposes that you do not become complex in telling others how you’re doing this – and Bob sticks to his song’s titular directive. Whether he composed the additional verses (two, three, and four) that sum up what a Christian believer does to express himself is also unknown, but if he did, they too say some things powerfully, and yet plainly, about what he thought at the time. It was in perhaps the mid-1970s or a little thereafter, and Bob evidently had a great respect for God, which told him he should hold Him in awe and act humbly as a believer in order to experience His blessing (v 1). He wasn’t a weak, scared, puppy-like creature, but someone whom we could speculate learned his attitude and behavior from adult role models – parents, teachers, or church leaders, perhaps. They would have been the ones to instill in him principles regarding Jesus’ identity, including the life-and-death meaning He holds for the Christian (v.2). Everyone needs what He offers, so amply expressed in Newton’s hymn (Amazing Grace), and paraphrased by Bob (v.3). And, even as a boy, Bob looked forward to eternity (v.4) That’s really all one needs, what Bob had learned by age 12, and what he said in four short verses.      

It would be interesting to meet and know Bob Hudson. And yet, there’s still more that is intriguing about this anonymous fellow that we can deduce from his song, before we meet him. His reverence for God is also suggested in the key signature of “Humble Yourself”. It’s an E-minor chord that Hudson leans upon for his musical foundation. Interesting, huh? That’s not a routine journey for the musician, particularly a juvenile, but maybe it shows he was serious about being truly genuine with his expression – to fear God in his innermost self. What better way musically to accomplish this. Bob was being taught well, and he knew something about honoring his Creator that wasn’t so immature. Jesus said, ‘Let the children come…’ (Luke 18:15-17). Bob may have heard this too.
The following site indicates the author-composer was born in 1966, and the song copyrighted in 1978:

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Count Your Blessings (When Upon Life's Billows) -- Johnson Oatman

This New Jersey businessman (in the Burlington County area – see map) had been engaged in a pretty recently adopted, and semi-serious venture, for about five years near the end of the 19th Century. Johnson Oatman, Jr. must have been thinking some about how his life’s physical benefits so often appeared to be inadequate, and so he tried a different strategy to evaluate himself and his surroundings. Johnson had much that he cherished, though his four verses suggested this calculation was not always clear-cut. Was it only a curiosity, this songwriting that Johnson was practicing that generated “Count Your Blessings” (alternately known as “When Upon Life’s Billows”) in 1897? Certainly by the end of his life, one could say that it didn’t appear that way.  

Johnson Oatman was a well-known name in the Lumberton, New Jersey area, though you might have needed to specify whether it was Junior or Senior you pictured, and thought about how one name fed off the other. Johnson, Senior was reportedly the best singing voice, as well as a reputable businessman in central New Jersey, two attributes that no doubt impacted Johnson, Junior’s life. The younger Johnson followed in his father’s spiritual and business footsteps as an adolescent and young man, being ordained as a minister and taking part as a merchant in his father’s business. He’d apparently been at this up into his mid-30s, when he began to expand into songwriting, and it couldn’t have been long before others took notice, with the prolific output this effort showed. He wrote some 5,000 hymns by the end of his life in 1922, indicating he was composing several per week. That “Count Your Blessings” was published in a songbook for children could suggest he was trying to impart some wisdom to young people regarding how unfair earthly life might seem. He stayed in the business world, rather than completely devoting his life to church ministry, perhaps because of the experience working in commerce that his father had modeled for him. Could that choice have made an impact on his testimony in “Count Your Blessings”? He writes of challenges, as a guy engaged in industry might, in all of his verses. Though apparently successful, he must have winced a few times, seeing the greater success of others (…’lands and gold’, v.3), and noting how his own experience was not without hurdles (…’life’s billows…tempest tossed’, v.1; ‘burdened…load of care’, v.2; and ‘amid the conflict’, v.4). Maybe it was wisdom his own father had first passed along to Johnson, which said to consider the positives when you started to notice the negatives. It sounds like something the younger generation might need to hear from a pair of Johnsons old enough to be their father and grandfather.   

How often does one need to re-examine the columns of checkmarks and ‘x’s? Was it the first time Johnson Oatman, Junior had done so, when he was 41 years old in 1897? I think I had done so countless times by that age, how about you? Perhaps when one begins to pass along some of the good things, you begin to really see their value. An oft-forgotten blessing may need only a little dusting off for a needy individual to welcome its arrival with renewed joy. Can you picture a 40-something fellow, who’d seen his share of blessings? By that time, maybe Johnson had observed others who needed his perspective – challenges, sure, but outranked by those things in his own plus-column. It may have made his own blessings seem new again for him to engage in this accounting exercise. How’s your accounting sheet look today?

See more information on the song story in these sources: The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; 101 Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985; and Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.

Also see this link, showing all four original verses:

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Take the Name of Jesus with You -- Lydia Baxter

It was a time when she felt like giving away some advice, as she lay sick in bed in the New York City area. (Check out the picture here of NYC that the composer may have seen in the mid-1800s on one of her better days.) That might be the best way to describe in one sentence what motivated 61-year old Lydia Baxter to recommend a course of action to those she knew. “Take the Name of Jesus with You”, she said in 1870, just a few years before she went to be with Him. That adds some poignancy to what she wrote, knowing that she may have been sensing the mortality she clung to was near its conclusion. How might she have felt, given that her life had been a long struggle? Was this a gasp of pain that she uttered, a fight that drew others to her side to commiserate with her? Or, was it wisdom from a deep well that few others could access themselves, drawing their curiosity?

From all accounts, it appears that Lydia Baxter had grown accustomed to her physical shortcomings by the time she’d lived three-score years in the New York area. She was used to being flat on her back, a sickly body confining her to a life largely prostrate. But her attitude about this state of affairs was not typical, and perhaps that was what most attracted others to her. Cheerfulness was Lydia’s calling card, or perhaps more accurately what others who called upon her could depend on discovering when they greeted her. Had she discovered some sort of happiness potion? If she was ever so asked directly, she might have answered ‘yes, the potion’s name is Jesus’. Baxter was well-known as a seeker of names, especially Biblical ones that bore some special meaning in the message to God’s people. You think maybe she might have researched her namesake’s impact on others, and responded as that 1st Century Philippian woman did when met by Paul (Acts 16:13-15) – with generosity and thankfulness?  The 19th Century Lydia certainly knew many other names and their significance, but one moniker outranked all the others in her mind. That she wrote four verses about this name to capture what was deep inside her tells us she had not just thrown down gaily what she felt, however. No, it’s said that Lydia often told others that His name was what kept her spirits up when her condition would have otherwise made her dejected. The four verses she composed tell us she had used His name in various ways to gird her spirit. He’s much more than a one-trick God, she implies. This God is worth my endurance, worth my tolerance of bedsores, worth it for me to tediously stare at the same scenery from my bed for many days, over a stretch of 60 years. From Lydia’s vantage point, you think she was casually throwing around Jesus’ name?  

No, just read her words, and one can see Lydia used his name for many powerful reasons. Like anyone whose own body has become the enemy, Lydia used His name when she needed sympathy (v.1) to soothe her misery. But, she got so much more, as well. She warded off wrongdoing (v.2), experienced enthusiasm (v.3), and worshipped in expectation of the next life (v.4). This multifaceted God was more than a hand-holder for Lydia when she felt pathetic. He imputed to her energy, and it showed to the many who visited her. They got something from her when they sat next to her bed. It—or rather, He--was just something she was letting flow through herself to anyone else who bothered to take notice. Have you taken notice of Him, lately?

See more information on the song story in these sources: The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; and 101 More Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985.

Also see this link, showing all four original verses: 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

To Christ Be True -- Elisha A. Hoffman

What was on the mind of a 61-year old minister who’d held several positions and had taken on a new position not too many years earlier, as the 20th century dawned? It shouldn’t have been too surprising that Elisha Albright Hoffman considered what human characteristics someone carries with himself from one place to another, and probably more importantly what he leans upon through difficult circumstances. Hoffman had been through many places and various situations, and so no doubt had concluded that he needed the words of “To Christ Be True” as much as others who would sing its words, as the 1900s developed.   

Many years, songs, churches, and experiences were in Elisha Hoffman’s rearview mirror in 1900, coloring what he would write as his newest ministry effort was developing. He was in Benton Harbor, Michigan at the time, a place on the far southeastern shore of Lake Michigan (see map), where he and his family had been for some five years. The strong sense of duty and loyalty of which he wrote in “To Christ Be True”, as well as the musicality he demonstrated in it, was inbred probably during his upbringing by Christian parents, including his father who was also a minister. Perhaps it was Hoffman’s first evident exhibition of duty and loyalty, albeit a short one, that showed itself when he volunteered in the Union Army in 1863 during the Civil War. His postwar education at Union Seminary was a precursor to his work at the Evangelical Association in Pennsylvania, following loyally in his father’s footsteps. During the next decade, his first wife died, leaving him a widower with three sons. Elisha would remarry and begin the first of four church ministry efforts by 1880; Benton Harbor was the third. Along the way, Hoffman would edit scores of hymnals and write some 2,000 hymns of his own, most of them probably while he was in the Michigan ministry. He must have encountered countless numbers of people in ministry by the time he reached three-score years, worshipped in various churches, and thought about what God wanted from him and fellow believers. How does one endure service in a war, suffer the loss of a young wife and have single-parenthood thrust upon you, and move around to take on new ventures in one’s chosen profession? By the time he reached 61, Elisha must have surmised that God provides. Why wouldn’t some choose to enlist in His army? Though his stint as a private in the Union Army had been brief (about a month, reportedly), perhaps its imprint on Hoffman was one of the most enduring of his life, including as he thought about loyalty to his God. Were those battlefield images still in his thoughts as he wrote about unfurling the Lord’s banner in conquest (v.1), volunteering for service (v.2), and especially about confronting conflict (refrain)? Does God provide difficult experiences so they propel us toward Him, and forward for the rest of life?   

Elisha may have asked himself, as any individual might after three decades, has this been worth it? What other way has a better track record? One might imagine Elisha telling others of his own episodes, and how he managed to come out the other side. He’d had good examples, apparently, including his parents, but he was molded by his own unique set of experiences too. In Benton Harbor, Elisha reflected and realized, probably not for the first time, that he was God’s tool, wielded in various places and despite—or perhaps because of—the challenges he’d met. No one is like me, exactly. But, I have the same God available to me as you. He can meld us all together to Himself, with this glue called Christ-loyalty.

See biography of composer here:

Brief biography and list of composer’s works here:
Site describes where composer was during the time:,_Michigan