Saturday, September 29, 2012

Hallelujah! What a Savior -- Philip P. Bliss

 His heart was already full, and someone might say that’s why his was a short life. Philip Paul Bliss died tragically with his wife in a train accident, the year after he had written “Hallelujah! What a Savior”. Though he had not yet reached age 40, Bliss had reached an overflowing appreciation of his destiny because of God’s work. He could not contain it, and that’s as much a reason for the direction his last few years of life took as any other. The song he wrote was a microcosm of his music-making efforts and his message to hearers contained therein. Let’s see what he was saying.

Philip Bliss had been engaged in music for the better part of 20 years by the time he wrote “Hallelujah!..” in 1875, but his calling had evolved in a more recent episode. He took his teaching experience that he had developed while still a teenager and turned it toward music with the encouragement and mentorship of others, including his wife Lucy, who recognized his naturally gifted voice. Though he travelled and wrote many hymns to cultivate his reputation in music during the American Civil War and postwar period, by 1874 he had chosen to use his voice not just to make beautiful sounds, but also to spread a message. At the advice of Dwight Moody, Bliss became an evangelist, pairing his hymns with a spoken message that resonated with his hearers. A contemporary biographer noted that Bliss was captivated by Christ, in a way that was evident to those who attended his addresses. His hearers, if they had travelled to hear him at multiple sites, might have noticed his messages rang similarly. Christ. In a word, that was it. And, not just that He existed, but that Bliss was fervent about this God who had done so much for him. Perhaps it was the recent decision he’d made to focus on spreading God’s truth, but Bliss seemed to have crystallized something in his core. ‘Hallelujah’ was not confined to just one song he wrote at the time, but was the prevailing theme of several. He was 37 years old, and seemingly was gifted to sing, write songs, and speak with a passion that spoke volumes to audiences. How many others might Bliss have reached, if 37 had been about the halfway point of his life?

Were the events of December 29th, 1876, which took the lives of Philip and Lucy Bliss, fair? Would Bliss have been bitter, knowing he died young, with a message that many more might have heard and accepted if he hadn’t died on a train in Ashtabula, Ohio? At the time, when Philip initially escaped the wreck but then died trying to rescue his wife, certainly the Blisses must have felt shock. But, a stunning disappointment doesn’t have to persist, something that they would have appreciated too. And, what sense of fairness would any of us rightly expect in the afterlife if God hadn’t intervened for us? This question’s answer must have dawned on Philip Bliss, and we can sing his reaction to this decisive – in fact, divine -- turn of events. Bliss’s voice hasn’t been stilled.  And, his isn’t the only voice. Isn’t God’s music great!


Information on the song was obtained from the books  “Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions”, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1990, Kregel Publications; and “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 this site for biography of composer:

See this site for further information on the composer and the hymn’s history:

See following for memoirs of the composer:

Sunday, September 23, 2012

'Tis Midnight, and On Olive's Brow -- William B. Tappan

This poet reached out to children and others who wanted to learn, one can surmise from looking at his life inside and outside the church. Was he also reaching out with his teaching muscle when he wrote “’Tis Midnight, and On Olive’s Brow” and saw it published in 1822? What was he feeling and trying to say, as he pondered a lonely, poignant episode in the Messiah’s life during a night in Gethsemane (see picture)? William Bingham Tappan fused his well-honed prose and his faith, and probably some of his own emotional energy, into this 19th Century hymn.

He wrote 10 volumes of poetry during his lifetime over a 30-year period, including one that was published posthumously, 11 years following his death, all while maintaining a career in teaching. He didn’t start out as a poet, but rather as a clockmaker. Perhaps it was the experience dealing with the insides of timepieces that spawned his introspection and development as a poet. We could also presume that his experience with inanimate objects ultimately lost its appeal, because he eventually turned to teaching – in a way examining and shaping the insides of animate objects, namely Sunday school students. He pursued instruction in the secular schoolroom in Philadelphia, before turning later and throughout most of the remainder of his life to Sunday school. By 1822, when he published his poem ‘Tis Midnight…’ with others in his second volume of poetry, he had become the superintendent of the American Sunday School Union (later named the “American Missionary Fellowship”, and later “InFaith”). This must have been fulfilling for him, a way to mold minds, including those of children. He was a 28-year old poet/educator/Christian believer at this point in his life, who evidently was touched, maybe during a sleepless night of his own, by his Lord’s night of torment in Gethsemane.

What could people have learned, and can still learn, from Tappan’s poem? Surely Tappan was telling them ‘He was afraid, and felt lonely, but God sent angels to comfort Him’. That message would have spoken to many undoubtedly, those who were in a dark place and felt overwhelmed with life. Did Bill Tappan sense some of his students were in trouble? His message – see the God who gave himself for you, and draw close. If you run from the anguish He felt, you’ll also miss the power of angels sent from His father. Great message for all of us kids, huh?

The following sites contain scant biographical information on the composer:

The following site is a brief history of the American Sunday School Union, with which the composer is associated:

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Lead Me to Calvary -- Jennie Evelyn Hussey

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)

She may have been called most often ‘friend’ by her family and fellow believers, if you knew her faith background and also her general demeanor. Jennie Evelyn Hussey probably wore a smile, perhaps even as she composed “Lead Me to Calvary” with its focus on the poignant sacrifice of Christ. A humble, simple, yet courageous and tough spirit might have been the best way to describe Jennie. Perhaps that is why little is known of this New Englander of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, a woman who labored to bring Him attention. She would not have been one to toot her own horn. Let’s see why.

Hussey was raised and lived her entire life as a Quaker and caregiver in rural New Hampshire. Quakers (see their 8-point black and red symbol here) were known for their down-to-earth ways, purpose in listening for God’s Spirit, and to friendship within a body of believers who recognize each other as priests in need of no official clergy. ‘Friends’ was a common reference to Quaker churches, and Jennie Hussey was known to fit into this not only because of her faith, but also the life that she lived. She reportedly possessed an upbeat outlook, despite a life largely spent caring for a sister who was disabled. You can hear the obvious Quaker dialect of thee/thou/thine in her prose, as it’s in every one of the four verses she composed. But, is she also calling out to Him with her life’s struggle with the words ‘…thru the gloom..’ and ‘…to bear daily my cross…’ in the hymn’s final two verses? Was this a 47-year old who by 1921 had grown just a little weary of her life in rural New Hampshire? Perhaps her ‘friends’ and family would have known and identified with Jennie’s feelings, coming through in her poetry. No better friend had she than Jesus, who knew all about suffering, as she would have been reminded by her fellow Quakers.

Not much more is known of Jennie Evelyn Hussey, other than her fourth-generation Quaker roots and a vague, generalized life taking care of a sibling. She apparently did write 150 hymns, probably with the support and encouragement of family and friends. It must have been therapeutic at some level, as was poetry was for David and others who wrote to appeal to the Holy One. ‘I want to identify as one of your warriors’, Jennie might have said to God with her attitude and words, by ‘lifting up your life, sacrifice, and resurrection as my own mission’. Jesus said He called such people ‘friends’ (John 15:15). Hey, think about that the next time you see a ‘Friends Church’ sign over that simple, unspectacular-looking building.           

Information on the song was obtained from the books  “Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions”, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1990, Kregel Publications; and “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 this site for some brief biographical information on composer:

See this link for history of the Quaker movement:

Monday, September 10, 2012

Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed? -- Isaac Watts

He was later called the “Father of Christian Hymnody”, but was he a ‘father’ or a struggling, questioning child in 1707, the year he posed a question with the hymn title “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed?” Isaac Watts cut a new path for Christians in his era, so he could be called a trailblazer, a courageous, honest seeker. He expressed something genuine with his verses, accessing feelings he recognized deep within himself, and probably what he suspected others around him felt as well. His approach said something about singing in our large, formal, get-togethers in ways more like what we do outside of the building where most of us commonly confine our worship.

Watts was a 33-year old Englishman in London with several questions that he asked that year in the early 18th Century, challenging others to join him in expressing themselves authentically. Most singing in the church leading up to that time might have been described as rote, with recitations of Psalms straight from David’s and other ancient writers’ recorded words.  Unconventionally, Watts’ songs have been described as "original songs of Christian experience", so we may gather that Watts’ penned words were really his feelings, not someone else’s. Three questions in the first few verses of this 1707 composition declare that Watts was stunned by what he encountered. Imagine a jaw-dropping reaction to someone giving a fortune to buy a vermin-ridden structure. Crazy, huh? That’s Isaac Watts talking when he says God’s love, pity, and grace doled out to him are amazing. These ‘original’ sentiments indicate that Watts was still mulling over what moved him toward God, perhaps as he remembered his own conversion. Was there a specific incident that was bothering him, causing him to reflect on his salvation’s cost? Did his other pursuits as a theologian and logician direct his thoughts outside of planet Earth to describe the cosmic nature of what he was pondering (in verse 3 or 4, depending on what version of the hymn you examine)? Whatever the circumstances, Watts did not fret over the incongruity, the unfairness of His sacrifice, as some thinkers might have; instead, he let his wonder at God’s gift motivate his dedication in writing and living.

Nonconformist…that was how most people would have thought of Isaac Watts.  He learned this way from his father, also named Isaac. The Watts men challenged the routine, and as the younger Isaac engaged in thinking as his life’s work, he no doubt tried to re-think and re-explain what others merely took for granted. It was not unlike what he saw in his divine mentor. ‘Don’t just think and do what others have done…follow me, and do it in ways I have gifted you’. If that’s what Isaac Watts heard God say to him, you can hear it still being said in “Alas! And Did…”.  Listen close. Is He saying it to you, too?

Information on the song was obtained from the books  “Then Sings My Soul (150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories”, by Robert J. Morgan, 2003, published by Thomas Nelson; and “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 this site for biography on composer:

See this site for all 6 original verses:

Monday, September 3, 2012

O Sacred Head -- Bernard of Clairvaux

He was a monk, that much is certain. But, unlike what I might have thought about the inhabitants of a monastery before, the composer of the Middle Ages’ “O Sacred Head” (perhaps the 12th Century, or alternatively the 13th Century) was not a shrinking, quiet character. Perhaps the poetry was in fact his way of managing an episode in his life that seemed unfair. If the composer was indeed Bernard of Clairvaux, we can examine his life and surmise why he might have written about Christ in this way. On the other hand, Arnulf of Leuven, who lived some 50 years after Bernard, was more obscure. Both were accustomed to an austere life, by choice.

Most hymnologists attribute “O Sacred Head” to Bernard, an assumption that allows some examination of his life and what he was thinking if he wrote the words that have survived for nearly a millennium. “O Sacred Head” was the latter part of a poem written by someone (presumably Bernard, or someone like him) in Latin, someone who was deeply affected by peering closely at Christ’s last days when He was beaten and ultimately executed. In addition to His head, the author reflects on the Messiah’s other body parts, attention most observers would curb, grimacing at the odious brutality of His Passion. The poem’s focus is not unexpected for an ascetic, is it? The derivative hymn’s emphasis also says something about its composer, someone who wanted to draw close to His sacrifice, not turn his head away. Bernard was a man, though a monk, not unfamiliar with human-to-human controversies in his life. Many times Bernard managed conflict, enduring criticism at times as the abbot (chief monk) of the Clairvaux monastery and a significant shaper of the Church’s political and theological life in Europe. Though we know not the particular episode that inspired “O Sacred Head”, Bernard’s many tests no doubt affected him as they would any of us – he would have sought fellowship with someone who could identify with how he felt. Perhaps he threw his arms (figuratively) around Christ, gladly staining himself with his Holy brother’s blood to salve his own wounds.

The hymn’s original 11 verses show the composer felt the need to not only embrace Christ’s gruesome visage, but also deal with his own guilt and respond in an appropriate way. The 11 verses he wrote are most often abbreviated to just two or three in our contemporary hymnals, an unfortunate trend. The first five verses alternate from recognizing Christ’s disgrace to the composer’s guilty conscience, but the last several show Bernard’s response finally was loyalty, a persistent fidelity he feels the need to express in not just one or two verses, but in six. Perhaps that’s what happens when you’re a monk, given the time to dwell on Him – you cannot change what happened to Him, but you’re drawn magnetically toward Him. Maybe we should sing all 11 verses sometime, huh?   

Information on the song was obtained from the books  “Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions”, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1990, Kregel Publications; and “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 this site for biography on composer:

See this site for all 11 original verses:

See this site for history of the hymn:,_Now_Wounded

See this site for an alternative composer/author of the poem from which the hymn was drawn: