I am fascinated by song stories...the glimpses of composers' lives that their creations permit us to see, although oftentimes not so readily. Here are my my "scoops", posted here for your enjoyment, and for what I hope will feed our mutual curiosity about His musical purposes for us. Join me in this history adventure, as we find what circumstances coalesced to create the songs we all love! Play detective with me, and tell me what song "scoops" you may know that I don't...yet.
many questions, in fact many bold queries that left little wiggle room for the listener.
Is that perhaps what the minister inside Elisa Albright Hoffman thought was
most effective, most provocative? His words “Have You Been to Jesus?” sound
like something straight out of the pulpit, the conclusion of an address in
which he was challenging his hearers to look deep inside and answer honestly,
and with urgency. It was part of the Great Awakening era in America, as Elisha wrote
songs in 1878 to rouse people out of their spiritual lethargy. But, was he in
fact delivering this message from a pulpit, or was he thinking of another
venue, or perhaps of a time in his future when he would talk to large groups to
coax their commitment to God? This Cleveland resident had someone or a group of
people in mind as he made his inquiries in poetic form. But, his own recent
experience may have provided the most penetrating inspiration for his series of
expressions in “Have You Been to Jesus?’ probably came pretty naturally, given his
upbringingand how his life would play
out over some 90 years in the 19th and early 20th Centuries.
Hoffman was the son of a minister, and no doubt must have heard his own father
ask many or all of the same questions that he would pen as a 39-year old. Additionally,
this was a time when he was widowed with three sons, and living in Cleveland,
Ohio as an employee of the Evangelical Association’s publishing enterprise. It
was a bit of a turning point in Elisha’s life, as the mortality of himself and
those closest to him must have still been very palpable with the death of his
first wife just two years previously. The questions he posed in “Have You Been…”
were intensely relevant for this fellow. Is your eternal destiny a settled
matter, and do you know how to rectify your condition if it’s still uncertain? This
sums up Elisha’s outlook in the wake of events not too distant from him and his
young sons. Death, especially at a young age, is a provocative event, and must
have treated Elisha as he approached middle-age no differently than anyone
else. How Hoffman responded speaks volumes. He remarried (in 1879), embarked
upon his preaching ministry for the next 40-plus years in three states, and
composed over 2,000 hymns, most of them after 1878. “Have You Been…” preceded
these new avenues he traveled, giving us some insight into his grief management
method. Others might have blamed God, and distanced themselves from Him. Not
Hoffman, who tried to persuade others to embrace Him; and for himself, perhaps this
was the only tonic that truly salved his spirit. ‘He’s it – the only way out of
sin’s trap and the inevitability of life’s conclusion’, one can sense Elisha had
surmised. ‘Don’t be resigned to death’s penalty. Jesus is the answer!’ Cleanse yourself
of that sin-caked scum and its grip on you with a bath…in blood. Are you ready ‘...for
the mansions bright... (v. 3), Elisha asked. While he may have been lifting
himself with these words, this songwriter probably knew others who needed the medicine
prescribed in his poetry. Don’t we all?
“Have You Been to Jesus” is probably more
commonly known as “Are You Washed in the Blood?”, an appropriate alternative title,
given the number of times that Elisha Hoffman has the worshipper repeat these words.
With his dead wife’s premature departure perhaps still sticking to him like a
spiderweb, Elisha didn’t worry himself with that one-word—usually unanswerable—question.
‘Why?’ he probably said at least once. Yet, he didn’t stay there. Instead, he
drew upon other questions that provided an answer. Washing in blood sounds
unnatural, even repulsive. But, is it really, compared to what death offers? His
blood is something pretty rare, capable of washing and renewing. It’ll be the
only way to get that death-stink off yourself. Just ask Elisha Hoffman.
Edgar Jones heard something – a special phrase that caught his attention – in a
western Maryland park (see the map here), probably during a ‘meetin’ sermon.
Evidently, the preacher at that time in 1899 uttered the phrase “There Is Power
In the Blood”, as he tried to prevail upon his hearers to respond to the
message. You can hear the uncomplicated force of his talk and imagine the
gestures of the speaker as he admonished the gathering to think, and then act.
How many times had Lewis heard a similar address, perhaps even from a Bible
school classmate, and come to expect its power to stir listeners? Was its
effect especially notable at this Garrett County, Maryland park, leaving an
imprint on Lewis and spurring his words?
By his own
admission, Lewis Jones had a rather undistinguished life, or so he thought. He
wrote a note to a friend some 33 years after he wrote his poem about powerful
blood, giving a brief synopsis of his life up until that point, including the
spot on the map where he composed the words in 1899. Mountain Lake Park in the
far western edge of Maryland had just over 250 residents at the turn of the 20th
Century, but it must have felt like a significant site for Lewis when he
attended a gathering for Christian worship there. He may have thought the diminutive
town reflected his own insignificance, but Lewis nevertheless apprehended the
preacher’s expression that lent him the words for his thoughts about divine blood’s
potency. Humans are weak, exhibiting so much wrongdoing, weakness, pride, and
ultimately guilt –traits that the speaker that day identified for the crowd. All
these could be overcome by a sufferer’s admission that ‘there’s power in the
blood’. Inserting ‘wonderful’ in the middle of that phrase at the end of each
verse in the poem amplified how either the speaker or Lewis - -perhaps both –
felt about the blood’s value to the desperate reprobate who might be listening.
Lewis says his songwriting was the result of hearing many inspiring lessons
from speakers, probably among them the evangelist Billy Sunday, who had been
among his classmates at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Sunday’s
notoriety and passion for spreading the Christian message no doubt spurred
Jones, who eventually contributed over 180 hymns to his era. Both men would go
on to notable careers in America’s Protestant Christendom, including service in
the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA).
old Lewis Jones was still early in his Christian calling in 1899, but had begun
a lifestyle that would endure most of four decades of his adult life. The YMCA
work engaged Lewis for 36 years, spanning the latter years of the 1800s and into
the late 1920s, so he must have known and mentored many young men across this period.
No doubt, some of them probably were there at Mountain Lake Park to hear “There
Is Power in the Blood”, first as a pulpit message and perhaps later as Jones’
hymn. The camp meetings were a common feature of the American cultural landscape,
helped along with the abilities of people like Billy Sunday, J. Wilbur Chapman
(Sunday’s mentor), and even Lewis Jones. It was called one of the multiple movements
of Great Awakenings, with a central message around Jesus and His blood’s saving
power. Some might say it was the ‘golden age’ of American Christianity. But,
don’t think it’s all in the past. We all still need to hear what Lewis, and
others like him, said and still say about blood’s power.
information on the song discussed above in Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the
World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers,
something about the body and what made it alive, one might say. But, of exactly
which body was he really thinking when he wrote something about that fluid that
runs through all our veins, keeping the human body functioning? It wasn’t
really the scientific perspective of blood cells (a red and white cell, and a
platelet are pictured here) that Robert Lowry wanted to address when he thought
about “Nothing But the Blood” in 1876. He was 50 years old, and for the
previous two or three decades he’d been involved with church work in several
places, so one can fathom that the body that concerned him most was those masses
of people that filled the places of worship where he often spoke. And, the
blood wasn’t his or anyone else’s in those buildings. It’s plain from what he
wrote, that even if it wasn’t his or another churchgoer’s blood, this blood was
no less necessary – in fact, vital – for his and others’ survival.
time Robert Lowry had written about blood and published this hymn in 1876, he’d
likely spoken to many crowds to make his plea for hearers to use this blood of which he spoke. He was
an ordained minister, after all, and had helped guide numerous churches in New
York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania in the Christian faith. So, one can hear
Robert sermonizing very naturally about Jesus and the blood He offered to
cleanse those who would accept this Divine gift. Virtually every Sunday sermon he
offered might have contained such a reference – probably hundreds, if not thousands
of times, then. Perhaps it was after one or many of a series of such sermons that
spurred him to write the simple six-verse message in “Nothing But the Blood”. He
must have from time to time encountered seekers who thought they weren’t properly
prepared to respond to God’s call. Or, maybe there were others who thought they
needed to do more than just accept His grace, or that they’d done too much wrong
to ever be clean. ‘Torment and punishment is my destiny’, Pastor Robert might
have heard someone utter in despair. It was Robert’s charge to let them know
that this blood was all they needed. He said it repeatedly to drive home the
point, in fact twice in each of his six verses, and once again in the refrain. We
know not the particular circumstances of Robert’s inspiration for “Nothing But
the Blood”, but his vocation makes the hymn’s development no real mystery. We
could even speculate what words, more or less, Robert might have said from the
pulpit before asking them to sing this hymn and respond. We still hear it
today, don’t we?
your own blood, perhaps at a Red Cross event? Personally, I cannot watch even
the pin-prick of my finger as the nurse checks to see if I have plenty of iron
in my bodily fluid to safely surrender some. And, at some like the one I attended
seven days ago, the staff has a movie playing to give the donators something upon
which to focus – probably so they don’t sweat the needles in the arms and the
red flowing out! I am willing to give, but I don’t wanna look, you know? Robert
wants me to look, and notice the blood that He gave, and that I receive. It’s
more than a casual glance. Don’t be squeamish, Robert says. This blood has more
than just red and white cells and platelets. Try on Robert’s song and see what
else this blood brings.
information on the song story in these sources: TheComplete Book of
Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J.
Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; and Amazing
Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck,
Kregel Publications, 1990.