Friday, April 26, 2013

Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us -- Dorothy A. Thrupp

She loved children, and wanted to steer them toward the One who loves them most of all. That, in a nutshell, might have summed up Dorothy Ann Thrupp’s life story, particularly in 1836 when she wrote the words for “Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us”. Despite this objective, she must have had a humility that belied her passion for this life-mission. Perhaps she was merely identifying with the children for whom she cared so much, adopting a meekness befitting a juvenile who is admonished to maintain a low profile in an adult-controlled world. Look at how she modeled this attitude in what we know of her.

Dorothy Thrupp was a lifelong Londoner who spent her musical life thinking about children, and it showed in her words and actions. This 57-year old woman produced compositions that were published in three different collections for the young. It’s notable that her output was in the decade of the 1830s and later, well past the halfway point of her life. Her life up until age 50 must have been well-spent, but little is written of that period. Since she apparently had a soft spot in her heart for children, perhaps she had raised some of her own, although that fact is not included in her biography. We don’t know if she was married, even. But, her few hymns and their inclusion in children’s song collections give us a window into her character, and how she promoted – or rather, did not promote – herself in these songs. A pseudonym or only her initials are associated with many of her compositions, apparently her method to conceal her identity. She was ‘Iota’, and ‘DAT’, telling us she thought of herself as but a speck, no better than the dot on the ‘I’ or at most three letters of the alphabet. But, she knew who valued her, and to whom the youngsters could look for their well-being. By the age of 57, she must have already spent a lot of time thinking about and caring for the younger generation. As she neared the final decade of her life, she knew what she wanted to say, or perhaps it’s truer that she’d already been saying and doing a lot of what would only become more apparent in her published works in the 1830s and beyond. She didn’t need to explicitly associate her signature with her works to achieve her goal. Maybe, in fact, being more anonymous actually helped her achieve the goal she sought.

“Savior Like a Shepherd…” has clues in it that guide us toward Dorothy’s purpose, if only in a few of its words. Invoking the image of a shepherd invites the worshipper to think of himself as a sheep, a childlike identity. Indeed, what children are frightened by sheep? Verses three and four encourage the hearer to devote oneself to Him ‘early’ (in life), no doubt what any believing adult, particularly one with offspring, would wish for his or her progeny. Adults, naturally, can also sing Dorothy’s words. None of us really stop being children to God. And, He doesn’t ever stop treating us as family. Don’t throw aside Dorothy Thrupp’s words. You cannot outlive them.

See more information on the song discussed above in Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990. Also, see The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006. 
To see all four of the original verses, and the composer’s brief biography, see here:
More extensive biography here:

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah -- William Williams

He probably sang it with these words: “Arglwydd, arwain trwy'r anialwch”, which translated strictly into English comes out as “Lord, lead me through the wilderness”. William Williams is called the “Sweet Singer of Wales”, and “Watts of Wales” (see the Welsh flag here), because of his life’s contribution of over 800 hymns (his English counterpart, Isaac Watts, wrote some 750 in his lifetime) to Christendom. He spent over 40 years of the 18th Century travelling throughout Wales to spread the message of God in his native tongue, but what motivated his creativity in 1745 when he wrote the words we today know as “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah”?
Williams (also known as Pantycelyn, for the town in mid-Wales) was like his English musical cousin, Isaac Watts, in more ways than one. Besides being among their homelands’ most notable Christian hymn writers, both Watts and Williams were unconventional, challenging the orthodoxy of the established religious systems where they were raised. Like Watts, Williams became a ‘Nonconformist’ at some risk to his chosen livelihood. He’d committed himself to Christ at age 20 in 1737, and was headed into ministry in the Church of England in 1740; soon thereafter in 1743, because he was active in Methodism (started by the Wesley brothers, John and Charles) and the revival its proponents led, he was turned down for the priesthood in the state-approved church, a break that he may have suspected was coming. His activities had already been reported to religious authorities in 1742. This was the same year that his father, also a Noncomformist, had died. So, one can imagine Williams might have felt the sting of his personal and vocational trials during the early and mid-1740s. Despite this, he stayed the course, leading many to belief over the 43 years of his active ministry life. He must have felt the rightness of his convictions, and no doubt leaned upon God’s message for strength. His prose in “Guide Me O, Thou…” shows he identified with biblical predecessors who also were struggling after being cast into the wilderness. His reach for their difficult, but exciting, experience may have been metaphors for his own walk. This was the point at which he might have faltered, yet he remained steadfast.  It is widely said that among Williams’ most well-known hymns, “Guide Me, O Thou …” is perhaps the most revered. Could it be that it spoke most clearly of his own experience, to those who knew him best?   
Williams wrote of Israel’s wandering in the desert clearly in three of the original five verses (one, two, and four) he composed for “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah”. His bible open, and his pen at hand, Williams felt himself being a pilgrim, perhaps alone at times. He needed an injection of confidence that the Almighty was near – the pillar of fire and a cloud that overshadowed the people who stumbled through Sinai. And, water…it could refresh or it could drown. Israel needed him to provide this vital substance to sustain them, but also to divide it at the Jordan so they could live. Were Williams’ needs in 1745 similarly plain, yet impossible? At least, without Him, they were. William Williams was armed with his bible and his experience from the previous few years, and his thoughts crystallized in a form that has lasted for 250-plus years. Williams’ method isn’t worn out. Try it on when you got something that’s plain, but clearly impossible without Him.  
See more information on the song discussed above in The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.  Also, see Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; and Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003. 

To see all five of the original verses, see here:

For the Welsh history of the hymn’s tune, see here:

Sunday, April 14, 2013

I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say -- Horatius Bonar

What was it that this 38-year old Scotsman was doing that caused him to hear Jesus saying something? It was 1846, and Horatius Bonar wrote that “I (he) Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” several comforting things. Was he thinking of children or adults when he thought about the message he received from His God that day? Was it something that originally came to him as rather unclear, a vague idea that formed gradually and had no distinct theme, at least at first? He had a method of developing a song that was quite familiar later in his life, but just how well-developed were his methods at this time? If his scheme was set, perhaps he wasn’t all that troubled by the fuzziness of the message he was hearing; maybe he just allowed it to gestate at its own pace. See what you think.

Horatius Bonar was one of the most well-known hymn-writers of Scottish origin, with some 600 hymns to his credit. He’d been a minister for about 10 years in Kelso when he authored “I Heard the Voice…” in the mid-19th Century. It’s said that he wrote for children, so that they would be certain to have teaching they could understand. He may have even gone about writing in the way a child might have, in what someone else might think was disjointed and undisciplined. Doodling was one way that he played with his prose, apparently, including on this occasion. He’d already written many poems put to music by 1846, so we can presume that he was already accustomed to hearing the Spirit speak to him in ways that others might have ignored when a song was being formed. He might have been walking in the countryside or riding aboard a train (see the sketch of one scene in Kelso here, as Bonar might have remembered it),
common venues for these episodes in Bonar’s compositional life. 1846 was also three years after Bonar had departed from the Church of Scotland during the “Disruption” and joined the Free Church of Scotland, one of the many difficult episodes in his life, some of which were yet to come. It was also three years after he had married Jane, with whom he would have several children, five of whom would die before reaching adulthood. So, here he was, a 38-year old, experiencing new life as a married man, and ministering in a church following a split that must have wrenched his spirit; and, perhaps he and Jane had already lost one or more children. This up-and-down pattern that he’d already experienced would continue over many successive years. Writing songs for children, with basic uncomplicated messages, must have been therapeutic for him, perhaps a manifestation of the serenity he sought on long walks or train rides.

Look at the doodles of Bonar, and hear a childlike message in the voice in his head in 1846. Come and rest, drink and be refreshed, and look at the light. How he responded to these directions is in his words too, summing up the verses he created. To me, doodling often looks like the product of someone whose attention has drifted, the evidence of an aimless boredom. But for Horatius Bonar, it must have been a rhythm that others could not feel. If I concentrate on what I struggle with, I most often feel frustrated, it seems. I become obsessed, trapped against my own mental wall. Perhaps Horatius can teach me something. Wander aimlessly, or take a ride somewhere, with just a notepad to scribble on. You never know what He’ll say to you.   

See more information on the song discussed above in The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.  Also, see Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; and Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.
To see a 4th verse of the song not often heard, see the following site:
A brief biography of composer:

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Tell Me the Story of Jesus -- Fanny Crosby

What made this one special among the 8,000 that she wrote? ‘Hunt the needle in the haystack, while you’re at it’, someone says. Maybe even Fanny Crosby couldn’t identify what motivated her to write the words for “Tell Me the Story of Jesus” in 1880, otherwise we might know. So much is known about her, this woman who by the end of the 19th Century was called a “household name” in the United States. But, could the song’s own words tell us something about what she thought of her notoriety, and thus what circumstances she wanted others to know when she penned these words?  

She had quite a life story already by the time she turned 60. Fanny’s amazing accomplishments were already magnified because of their source, a blind woman, who nevertheless learned to play multiple musical instruments, write poetry, speak publicly, and organize missionary works in poverty-stricken urban areas in the U.S. We know that even among all the positives, there were disappointments too, including in 1880 when Crosby had apparently separated from her husband, Alexander Van Alstyne.  Some people might say that her choice to live in a slum in Manhattan that same year was a disappointment, too, although Crosby apparently had chosen this path as part of a recommitment to better serve the poor in domestic missionary work.  This was the time from which she served at the Water Street Mission (Manhattan). Living in a slum (perhaps not unlike this one pictured here, known as Bandit’s Roost or Five Points in a notorious NYC slum, circa 1831), helping the poor, can one imagine a more challenging environment? It was in this atmosphere that she focused attention not on herself and what she could do, but instead on Him. Perhaps she’d concluded that the best way to help the poor, and to manage her personal marital regrets, was to think about God’s son. Perspective matters. He gave up more than we can imagine, suffered poverty, and died as a criminal. Yet, that wasn’t the end of it. That’s hope for the 19th Century poor in the lowest of the low in New York.

Do Crosby’s words sound like someone speaking at a homeless shelter to a scruffy, cold, dismal group? There’s a good chance that some folks like that were among the first to appreciate her poem put to music. What’s a group that’s struggling to survive day-to-day looking for? A soul mate, someone who shares their pain, yet overcame, just might be a guy they could understand. Was Jesus’ treatment unfair? Of course. He knew this would happen, too – that’s the amazing part. Could that be why he did it, and why Crosby wanted this story to be in the ears of her neighbors? ‘I cannot help you escape your physical life’, Fanny might have said. ‘But, listen to how He came down from an incredible existence, lived among poor like us, and then gave Himself up to draw us toward Himself and a place beyond this slum’. She came to live among them, too. This accomplished, blind 60-year old woman, turned poor, knew a story – not hers. It must have captured the attention of these Manhattanites…why would she choose to live this way? Why did He? Come find the answer with the rest of us slum-dwellers!