Saturday, January 25, 2014

How Firm a Foundation -- Robert Keene?

This composer wanted to be anonymous – almost. He provided only one letter of his name to associate with the prose he recorded, and then his associate John Rippon published a collection that included this one called “How Firm a Foundation”. (How might this look, physically – like a basement under construction? [see picture])We can be sure this composer was a Bible reader or hearer, given what he wrote, and not from just a single passage of the scriptures, but in fact several. What made him write is at least partially apparent then, based upon what we know he must have been contemplating as he read. Much of his work sounds like it’s from God in first-person, giving us a clue as to why his own authorship was apparently deemphasized. He wanted the worshipper’s gaze to be directed vertically, not horizontally.

Robert Keene was a friend and associate of John Rippon in 18th Century England, where his ministry of music and Rippon’s pastoring of the London-based Carter Lane Baptist Church coincided. It was there that Rippon collected and published a number of hymns (called Rippon’s Selections) in 1787. Among this volume’s mix of songs was “How Firm…”, with the letter ‘K’ printed in the spot normally reserved for the composer’s name. Other versions showed ‘Kn’ or ‘Keen’, lending historians a strong clue that Rippon’s own church’s music minister – Robert Keene – was in fact the song’s creator. What were Keene’s thoughts surrounding 1787 and the development of the hymn? One senses by reading the stanzas that Keene must have heard a lot of bible verses, or been reading them for himself, for at least four of the original seven verses are paraphrases of what God Himself promises to believers. Had the messages been Rippon’s delivered from the pulpit, straight from the books of Isaiah, 2 Corinthians, and Hebrews, that Keene heard and which were burned into his conscience? It’s not hard to imagine that Rippon and Keene, as servants of a church filled with people in all kinds of circumstances – difficult ones – would also be looking for messages of hope and encouragement to this body. The first verse’s ‘ye saints’ hint that this church’s members could have been the hymn’s earliest audience.  With the focus turned toward the audience, and most of the hymn’s poetry being recreations of the Holy One’s words, perhaps Keene concluded that his own name need not necessarily be attached to the song. ‘K’ was sufficient, and he was, after all, just like the other hearers of these seven verses – a mortal who was striving, with failings, to survive and ascend someday.

Was it an accident that Keene’s words drew promises from God across hundreds of years? From Isaiah to Paul and the Hebrews author, there were some seven or eight centuries of difference, for God to waver if He chose. It must have seemed like He had at times, frankly, for those who suffered in exile or worse. But notice what He says about His foundation. It’s certain, but not without ‘deep waters’, ‘fiery trials’, ‘old age’, and ‘foes’. For me, the first few times I have troubles, I shriek in pain and then I doubt Him. If I could have His eyes, how would this look over and over again? ‘Tell ‘em again’ He might say, each time the created cry out to the Creator. Sound familiar? That’s what we call ‘Bible’. Hmmm, so that’s why I have it.

The following website has all 7 verses for the song:
See more information on the song discussed above in A Treasury of Hymn Stories, by Amos R. Wells, Baker Book House Company, 1945; 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 Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1982;and Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

There's a Rainbow in the Cloud -- Alton Howard

Could it be that this song title was the composer’s life motto? Alton Howard might have had plenty of scenes playing thorough his memory, or maybe one that was ongoing that spoke to him as he wrote out the words to “There’s a Rainbow in the Clouds” in 1973. He’d already launched a number of ventures by the time he was 48 years old, so those who knew him could readily aver that Alton was courageous, perhaps because he’d found out something along the way: there’s a way to see through troubles. This perspective no doubt must have informed him during times of failure and self-criticism that the final chapter had already been written – with a happy ending. It was a conclusion that he need not try to generate himself, but he must have known as a businessman that it was something in which he needed to invest.  

Alton Howard was a native Louisianan who lived almost his whole life and died there, yet looking at the scope of his life, one could not mistake him for a play-it-safe fellow who was afraid to roam far from security and home. He and his siblings learned to love music under the tutelage of parents who sent the family to singing schools in the summers of his youth.  Shortly thereafter he attended another very different kind of school -- his service during World War II in France and Germany in the U.S. Air Force. After the war, he, along with one brother, began a long series of business endeavors that endured for the rest of his life. While many of these efforts were successful, there were probably some down moments, too. At his death in 2006, his son admitted that indeed his dad had had more than one failure. But, given the wide variety of his entrepreneurship, Alton was never one to be downcast over one or even multiple disappointments. As his song ‘There’s a Rainbow…’ must have informed him, there was always something to gird his spirit. Besides his secular businesses, Alton Howard was adventurous in the scope of his Christian faith. He reached out through a church in West Monroe that he and others established and helped guide for four decades, and he also helped set up a Christian youth camp and “World Radio” to broadcast the Christian message. And, of course, there was Howard Publishing and his personal songwriting efforts. What was he seeing in 1973, so that in all three verses of his ‘Rainbow’ song he mentions some kind of trouble? His mother had died in 1971, and maybe the health of his aging father (who died in 1974) was on his mind. We’re all mortal. Or, was it a tumbling business or one of the parachurch activities that had a bad bug? No matter, for Alton had an anchor.

It might have been an anchor, but it wasn’t deep in the water, but high above, where Howard was gazing apparently. Alton must have been like Peter at times, stepping out and trying to walk where less spirited folk could only worry about getting wet or drowning. He got soaked sometimes, too, so was there a part of him that actually liked the danger and the water? I’ll have to see, when I ask him up there near that rainbow, someday.      

See following links for information on the composer:

See also “Our Garden of Song”, edited by Gene C. Finley, Howard Publishing Company, West Monroe, Louisiana, 1980.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Rock of Ages -- Augustus Montague Toplady

If he were here today to interview, he could tell us which story is correctly attributed to the hymn he wrote in 1776. Augustus Montague Toplady composed “Rock of Ages” as he was in a storm, either an emotional-theological debate or an actual cloudburst that drenched his clothes to the skin before he found shelter. Which one is true? One was subject to public knowledge, while the other was more obscure, perhaps an event that metaphorically underscored for Toplady the discussion, often passionately, that he was having with other believers.

The 36-year old Englishman Toplady recorded perhaps the most well-known words of his life in “Rock of Ages” that were published in 1776, a mere two years before his untimely death.  Reportedly, Augustus Toplady wrote the words in 1763 as a 23-year old, in the early years of what would later become a rather public debate with the Wesley brothers, John and Charles. These founders of Methodism espoused a doctrine of man’s free will in a belief system known as Arminianism, while Toplady believed fervently in the Calvinistic election of man by God. Was Toplady carrying on this debate when he wrote his original verse two, a retort to his adversaries with the words ‘thou must save, and thou alone’? How acrimonious was the exchange then, as compared to 13 years later when published? 1763 was the year after Toplady’s education had concluded at Trinity College in Ireland, the birthplace of his faith as a teenager, and his ordination as a deacon in the Anglican Church. At the time, Toplady served at the Somerset church in southwest England. That’s where another story surfaced about the song’s genesis, one quite different from the theological dispute. In this one, Toplady was caught in a thunderstorm while walking in a deep gorge, Burrington Combe. He found a large rock (see its picture here)
with a crevice big enough to hide him from the storm. It was there he supposedly had a few moments of reflection, about life and perhaps about his beliefs in contrast to the Wesleys’ views. He discovered a stray playing card at his feet, and is said to have recorded at least some of “Rock of Ages” on the spot on this piece of litter. A thunderstorm-inspired message or a poem offered as a bit of satire for an opposition’s consumption…which would God choose to use?

Does it make a difference how it came about? The fact that “Rock of Ages” is still known to us some 250 years hence is a clue that He approves of its message. Both the Wesleys and Augustus Toplady would agree that God is the Rock for believers, that our faith’s foundation is nowhere else. His son’s blood on the cross is a fact. These thoughts are in Toplady’s poetry, be they couched in sincerity borne of an unnerving weather experience or other motives. God can use anything He wants to spur his message.
Information on the song’s composer and the hymn was obtained from the books “Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions”, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; “101 Hymn Stories”, by Kenneth Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1982; and “Hymns of Faith”, by Ken Tate, edited by Ken and Janice Tate, published by House of White Birches, Berne, Indiana, 2000.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Love Lifted Me -- James Rowe

He’d had a conversion experience in either his native land or afterwards in the new world of America. And, though it may have been an experience that dawned on him gradually, it evidently inspired him to compose words for “Love Lifted Me” while he was in Connecticut with a musical collaborator. James Rowe was an Irish-born American who tried his hand at several vocations, so he wasn’t afraid to venture into something new and then change his mind. It must have been one of these episodes that caused him to reflect on what he’d been doing, making him remember what, or whom, had pushed him to make a decision.

James Rowe was an immigrant who’d had a number of jobs and had lived in several places by the time he composed an ode to love in his mid-40’s. It wouldn’t be surprising if a particular one had influenced his inner being when he wrote the words to “Love Lifted Me” in 1912.  We know not the specific details, except that his daughter reported that Rowe and the musical contributor, Howard E. Smith, worked in tandem on the song while they were in what is today Westport (then Saugatuck), Connecticut (see map here).   
She must have seen these two in action on other songs, but was the song’s sentiment also known for a particular episode, or rather a composite illustration from Rowe’s life? He’d worked for the Irish government before emigrating at age 24, and then subsequently lived and worked on the railroads and as an inspector for the Hudson River Humane Society in New York state, so we could say it was perhaps during one of these periods that he felt in trouble spiritually. He felt ‘far from the peaceful shore’ for some reason, as he revealed straight away in his opening verse. Rowe wasn’t just a flash in the pan, as a poet-hymnist, for he wrote some 2,600 songs over his life. Evidently, he had a spark that wouldn’t go out, so whether the Divine he’d discovered was born internally from a singular or multiple incidents, it stayed with him. He worked with at least three musical publishers in Texas and Tennessee, and even later while living in Vermont he still composed, this time verses for greeting cards in partnership with his artist-daughter. The writing bug was still young in James Rowe, even as his physical being grew old.

One could safely assume that James Rowe’s witness through writing was in him for most of his life. When did it start and how long did it endure? With 2,600 songs in his album, Rowe must have been at this for many years, including some in which he employed a pseudonym ‘James S. Apple’, a tactic other prolific songwriters used to allow more of their creations to be published.  He may have been trying to hide his fingerprints at times, but he certainly wasn’t trying to conceal to whom his allegiance belonged, and being rescued was not a hidden or forgotten event, no matter what name he used. But, Rowe doesn’t dwell on his once-lost condition; instead, he uses most of the song to exult in the liberation, and thereby draw others there too. This ‘Lover’ never quit on Rowe, and maybe that’s what we can see reflected in his life’s work. Persevere. He did, and still does.       

Information on the song’s composer was obtained from the book “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; and the link here:
Some scant information on the song’s development is found here, along with text of all three verses of the hymns: