Saturday, October 20, 2018

Jesus Paid It All -- Elvina M. Hall

She must have been moved in some way that morning, but was it really okay that this songwriting episode transpired while she was apparently ignoring an ongoing sermon? This was the question that most troubled Elvina M. Hall when she shared with the minister later in a Baltimore church the details of “Jesus Paid It All”. Someone might say she had also desecrated church property – a hymnal -- while scribbling the words for the poem that came to her spontaneously. Well, at least Elvina hadn’t slept during the minister’s message! The words she penned also could have been her best defense, for they seem to indicate she’d engaged in a conversation with the One above, while forgoing the minister’s message. So, with whom would you rather converse, the usher or the homeowner? Perhaps that’s what Elvina calculated was the correct question for her to answer.      

Elvina Hall was evidently not the only person in that Baltimore church engaged in the birth of “Jesus Paid It All” in 1865. The organist, John Grape, unbeknownst to Elvina, had composed some music that he had yet to tie to any words, though he had shared it with the minister. Thus, the same minister who’d bored Elvina one Sunday morning had also been Grape’s musical sounding board! Was it just a coincidence or was some other force at work to consummate the union of Elvina’s poetry and John’s tune, via the minister with whom they’d both served at the church? Since Elvina had scrawled her words on a blank page of a hymnal in the choir attic, one wonders if the three of them might have concluded that the poetry was providentially destined for a piece of music to complete the loop for a newborn hymn. “Jesus Paid It All” would be one of only a handful of poems that Elvina would ever craft, and the only tune we know that is attributed to John, making this episode especially remarkable for the both of them. Elvina imagined Jesus reassuring her that her own human frailty would not matter when He entered the equation (v.1). And, that would be just the beginning, for the rest of her thoughts envision the Divine nurture he would provide, the completion of her walk, and the inheritance that she trusted He would bestow on her. In her 40s when she penned the words, Elvina would spend some 40 years in that Baltimore church (Monument Street Methodist Church). She was closer to the starting line than the finish line, she may have realized, so she listened and heard what He said could follow over the next few decades. All she needed to do one morning in the top of that church was allow Her dialogue with Him to flow through her hand onto a blank page.   

 How many other Sundays did Elvina sit pondering in the choir loft during the sermon, after she wrote “Jesus Paid It All”? Perhaps she did many times, though only two other hymn poems are ascribed to her. The six verses of “Jesus Paid It All” may have been enough for her to contemplate for some time, as they ultimately foresee one scene that will matter most for any of us – meeting Him. Elvina must have sensed that at that moment, who could pay for her eternal home would be paramount. My home mortgage is just about as much financial liability as I want. What’s the mortgage on a mansion in heaven (John 14:2)? Have you got that creditor lined up to pay for you?

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 More 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 six original verses, and a brief recitation of the development of the  tune, which was then paired with the author’s poem to create the song:

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Jesus, I Come -- William True Sleeper

He was a missionary at heart, seeking and coaxing those who were outside to come inside. And, that’s just what William True Sleeper said with the words in the song poem “Jesus, I Come” that he wrote in the latter decades of 19th Century America. (The song may also be known by the first words of the first verse, ‘Out of My Bondage’.) He stayed in the American Northeast, in Massachusetts and Maine, to conduct his work in people’s homes and also to establish permanent churches, so it’s not entirely certain where he was when he first sang to Jesus that he was coming (since he ministered at the Worcester Congregational Church in Massachusetts for 30 years, we’ll assume he might have been there). But, does the earthly location really matter to one such as William? Home is wherever Jesus lives.

William Sleeper had a name that belied how he approached his mission on earth. In short, he wasn’t content to slumber and drift along. One of his great-nephews has written of him (see blog link below), a reputed hardy individual well-suited for the work he chose to pursue in 19th Century northern Maine, as well as Massachusetts. His schooling in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts also reflected this lifestyle, as he garnered a higher education while refusing to be stopped, despite few financial resources to accomplish this. He had a way with people, rallying many to a cause (church building, for instance), while personally charming others with his singing voice. William’s missionary character flowed easily, to put it simply. Perhaps his longest stint anywhere was in Worcester, Massachusetts, where one can imagine he drew many to belief during his three decades of ministry there. It’s said he wrote the words for ‘Jesus, I Come’, sending them to his friend George Stebbins for the accompanying music. It wasn’t the first time the two had collaborated – Stebbins had asked Sleeper some years earlier for words to match a tune he had in mind to invite seekers to commit to God. So, when William had the same idea years later (perhaps when he was in his late 60s), he knew who had the God-given talent to bring his poem to fruition in a song. William was still inviting people to come inside, out of many things obstructing their lives – the message we can imagine he spoke and then underscored in song.

What hinders people, according to William Sleeper? Bondage, sickness, poverty (v.1), and lots of other things in between that are bracketed by sin and ‘dread of the tomb’ (v.4). William recommended an exchange be made – Jesus, instead of all of those earth-born mishaps. While the precise circumstance that brought William these words is not known, understanding the nature of the author tells one all that’s really necessary. He sought out people, much as himself, who’d felt the want of life. Yet, he’d found the answer, and that’s all a missionary is – a discoverer who has found a better offer. Have you found a better one today?               

Information on the song was obtained from The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
See biography of composer here:
See also here for the four verses of the hymn:

See here a more thorough rendition of the author’s biography when he was in Maine, as well as some tangential information on the song:

Monday, October 8, 2018

I Bring My Sins to Thee -- Frances Ridley Havergal

She had a life that was well-tuned to her Creator, but still felt the need to vocalize her commitment to him when she was 34 years old. Was there something in 1870 that compelled the Englishwoman Frances Ridley Havergal to declare “I Bring My Sins to Thee”? Was it an especially close loss, either recent or soon-expected, that stirred her poetic spirit to write about four parts of her life that she offered to give to the ultimate Giver? Perhaps she felt that all things were from Him anyway, so why not be willing to relinquish all that her life was currently possessing? These included the adverse issues, as well as those at the opposite end of the spectrum. Take all of them, because whether good or ill, they compose me, and make me unique. That was indeed true of Frances.

Frances Havergal had experienced her share of heartache and joy by the time “I Bring My Sins to Thee” gestated in her spirit in 1870. Raised in an Anglican minister’s home, Frances showed the same poetic and hymn-writing traits as her father, William Henry Havergal. A brother, Henry, was a priest and played the organ. Although her mother died when Frances was just 11 years old, it may have been this mother’s deathbed words to the Havergals’ youngest daughter that impacted her most deeply – words urging her to be totally committed to God, to be His vessel. With these stimuli, Frances did indeed follow a path that would have undoubtedly pleased her mother, while using the gift most evident in her father. This very bright, highly educated young girl (she studied six languages) was also affected by her father’s ill health, forcing the family to move, including at least once as he took on ministry in a smaller church. Frances was likewise occasionally plagued by illness as a young woman, eventually succumbing to an infection at age 42. Eight years earlier, was her father’s death in 1870 a precipitating factor in her composition of “I Bring …”, perhaps? She mentions four broad facets of her life – anyone’s life – that she offered to the One she worshipped. Could these have been occupying her mind in the wake of her father’s death, or alternately, as she watched him decline? ‘Sins’ (v.1), ‘Grief’ (v.2), ‘Joys’ (v.3), and ‘Life’ (v.4) were all parts of herself that she wanted to surrender to Him.  Understandably, the offerings she made in the first two verses one could speculate are easier – who wants to hang onto sin and grief, after all? But, what about joy and life itself? What would a 34-year old’s vantage point look like, that would make her say this? Perhaps she’d surmised by this time that one had to accept that good and evil coexist. Would her poem have been more aptly entitled ‘I Bring It All to Thee”?       

Frances was looking at her own experience broadly, probably not for the first time, but maybe in sharper relief, as death was becoming all too real yet again for herself and those to whom she was closest. Is there an escape hatch? Though still a relatively young woman, even negative events had prospered Frances Havergal – her mother’s dying words inspired her, and conceivably it was her other parent’s mortality that helped spawn “I Give…” over 20 years later. I don’t welcome the negative. Nobody does. Yet, somebody once said something about a seed dying and giving new life. Who was that?

See this site for information on the composer:

See all four original verses of the song here:

Read the composer’s obituary here: