Saturday, June 16, 2018

In the Land of Fadeless Day -- John R. Clements

This 32-year old would be prolific in more than one way in his faith expression, but he was probably just getting started, as one century neared its conclusion and another one was about to commence. John Ralston Clements made his home in the Binghampton, New York area, and may have spent much of his time in a classroom (perhaps similar to the one shown here – in what was known as Lestershire [now Johnson City], New York – sometime before 1923), or in a grocery store, but wherever he was, he probably had a song-poem in his head. He was Irish-born, but evidently adapted well to America as he pursued the faith he accepted as an 18-year old in his new country. It was 1899, and John had a counterpoint to darkness in a poem he called “No Night There” (also known as “In the Land of Fadeless Day”), perhaps one bit of mental imagery he tried to get his students to visualize.

It’s probably not too speculative to suggest that John Clements was heavily involved in the education of many students around the turn of the 18th-19th Century, and that this perhaps played a part in many of the poem-songs he wrote. His family had emigrated to the U.S. from Ireland when John was two years old, and later he worked in the grocery business as a young teenager and evidently into his adult years. He was the first president of what was known as the Practical Bible Training School – later to be renamed Davis College (after its founder, John Adelbert Davis), a position he held shortly before the turn of the century until 1914. So, John Clements was evidently fairly accomplished and recognized for his acumen by the time he was in his early 30s. The poetry he produced – he would reportedly write some 5,000 poem-songs over his lifetime – was one manifestation of his prodigious ability. He must have touched several hundred, if not thousands of students during his 17-year stint as the school’s president, too. Moreover, he certainly possessed a pretty strong conviction, based upon these two data points – his poetry and leadership of the school. You can sense it in the song he wrote also around this time. Notice the phrase ‘..the city foursquare’ that he uses repeatedly (it’s in all four verses he composed). Do you think John was describing the eternal city’s geometric shape, really? Or, was he more likely struck by ‘foursquare’ in the sense of this city’s firmness and certainty, based upon its founder? One can imagine that John evaluated his own life, and that of the school’s students, and concluded that their convictions should be forthright and strong, matching that of the city where they all wanted to live ultimately. Perhaps John communicated this attitude in the various roles he played, as school president, poet, and even as a grocer.

Conviction was one word that must have described John Clements. Meet life with a faith head-on. Don’t try to swerve too much, he might have said. John, like any of us, certainly knew of the valleys. He wrote about them in his song’s refrain – ‘tears…death…pain…fears’. But, he juxtaposes them against the stunning scenery of the city he saw in his mind. That’s where his faith found its foundation. If your houses creaks, like mine, it’s natural sometimes to wonder if there’s a structural problem. Probably smart to maybe have it checked out by an expert, huh? How’s your foundation doing? Maybe that’s not too far off from a question John Clements might have asked himself.        

See here for brief biography of the author:

See here for all four verses of the song:

See link here re: the school the author started:

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Lo, What a Glorious Sight Appears -- Isaac Watts

This English Nonconformist preacher was looking forward to the end, even at a young age. Isaac Watts did not dread it, perhaps in the same way he did not shrink from the life he chose, when he said to himself “Lo, What a Glorious Sight Appears” in his leaning-forward message about Judgement Day. Had Isaac perhaps seen Stefan Lochner’s 15th Century painting of the Last Judgement (see it here)? ‘Judgement’…it sounds so imposing, doesn’t it? Isaac may not have even thought about it in terms of judgement, however, but rather the Divine grace he expected would come to fruition at that moment. Watts possessed courage, something he undoubtedly inherited from watching his father’s intrepid nature, when and where matters of faith were concerned. Keep one’s vision trained on the goal, both Isaac Sr. and Isaac Jr. would have said to those who would listen, and not just believe in church membership to secure one’s destiny.   

Perhaps the younger Isaac drew upon his own earthly father’s influence when he composed his earliest hymn poems, among them “Lo, What a Glorious…”. The hymn first appeared in a collection of songs in 1707 when Isaac Jr. was in his early 30s, and most likely was written some 10-15 years earlier during a time when he had temporarily suspended his education and returned to his family’s home at Southampton, on the southern coast of England. The younger Watts reportedly wrote a very large majority of his hymns during that period. There, his poetry could flow, surrounded by his family’s presence and the teachings he had inherited. Nonconformity meant that Isaac did not adhere to the formal oversight of the Church of England. He therefore was accustomed to some ostracism, if not outright incarceration as his father had endured twice during Isaac Jr.’s childhood. Instead of Oxford or Cambridge, premier higher education fit for a gifted poet-student like Isaac Jr., it was Stoke Newington in London where the young man attended and was further groomed for hymn-writing history. That experience likewise probably shaped Isaac’s impression of his faith, and how to express it poetically and musically. Though we do not know explicit details of the genesis of ‘Lo, What a Glorious…’, he evidently had the freedom of expression as a Nonconformist to speculate about what the Christian believer might see on Resurrection Day. Watts was not compelled to stay within the Anglican Book of Common Prayer when he sought out worship, so he liberally composed his own poems fit for music for congregational singing. Perhaps young Isaac had heard or observed on occasion the carefully-structured Anglican way, and wanted something more enthusiastic, including the multiple exclamation marks and the ‘shout for joy’ (v. 3) he imbeds in the verses. Don’t try to contain God, Isaac might have said.

How great will that day be? Perhaps that was a question that Isaac had asked himself as he pondered what was to come, which for himself was still several decades in the future (he died in 1748, probably some 50 years after penning his words). Isaac would go on to write some 750 hymns, but also become a notable preacher, theologian, and logician. Logic? Could this be the same Isaac who expressed amazement in a vision of an incredible sight to which he really only had indirect access? How could he obtain the ‘third heaven’ and ‘new Jerusalem’ (v.2) with certainty? Can you hear someone of his time, maybe an Anglican or even someone else, saying ‘Just a second, Isaac!’ Perhaps even as a young fellow, Isaac had concluded that logic cannot capture all God and Eternity are. Especially if life hasn’t been all I want, why not imagine something spectacular beyond here?    

See all six verses that the composer originally crafted here:

Saturday, June 2, 2018

In the Morning of Joy -- Ruth Adalyn Evilsizer

Could she have known what lay ahead by just a few short years, as she sat with her pen to record a few verses about the afterlife? Did she envision a morning, perhaps like this one in Yosemite? (see picture) Ruth Adalyn (Hearn) Evilsizer was still relatively young as the turn of the century approached, and since she was eventually credited with writing nearly one hundred hymn texts, her demise just a few years after thinking about what she would see “In the Morning of Joy” could naturally be considered premature. Was it unfair, too? That would be an interesting question to ask Ruth, given that she indicated, through the title of her poem, that death’s reality would usher in a transition that would be anything but sad and untimely. Ruth had evidently been unhappy with at least one facet of her life, so could that have influenced her mindset as she sat down to write in 1895? When life’s a struggle, the remedy may be casting one’s vision to another plane. Mind transformation…is that what I need most of all?

Not much is known of Ruth (perhaps more commonly known as Adalyn) Evilsizer, though some of her family history does provide some clues about her. She was in her early 30s when she crafted the words of ‘In the Morning…’, and had been married for just over a decade, perhaps unhappily. She and her husband Louis reportedly divorced just two years after Adalyn’s ode to the afterlife was penned, so we could presume that marital bliss was not necessarily a reality for her. Adalyn died just two years further on, in Georgia, at the age of 36. Had she also been ill, perhaps chronically, precipitating a difficult life and an early departure? Where does ‘In the Morning…’ fit in among the 94 song-poems that are attributed to her – early, middle, or latter? Since she expired in 1899, one might assume that what she crafted four years earlier was among her latter creations. Could some of its words have been a window onto her own family experiences over a brief 36 years? Her own mother had died (in 1863) when Adalyn was less than a year old, and one of Adalyn’s two children had died in infancy some 22 years later. Were these people some of the ones she longed to meet again, and at least part of the reason for her song’s third verse (‘When our loved ones we meet…’). One wonders whether the song took on additional meaning for her in the early months of 1899; Adalyn’s father died just five months before Adalyn in that year. Indeed, the concluding words of verse 3 (…With the past all forgotten with its sorrows and tears.’) suggest she had much from earthly life she wanted to put behind herself.

Are not Adalyn’s sentiments common among all us earth dwellers? Few things gnaw at me more than those issues surrounding people I know, especially family members. Though it’s not always immediately obvious, I have hangups when things aren’t the way I want them to be. I’m at odds with someone. Or, someone is sick, or maybe absent. I feel lonely, disgruntled. Could these have been Adalyn’s circumstances? Nevertheless, she must have had some folks of like faith, who helped shape her emotionally and encouraged her song-writing. No one wants to wallow in depression. Instead, friends, especially those with whom I can imagine the great future ‘gettin-up-mornin’, can help spur that confident hope. These, too, must have been part of Adalyn’s experience. Who do you expect to see in that Morning?

All the verses to the song are here:
Scant biography of the author is here: