Thursday, November 27, 2014

Precious Memories – John Braselton Fillmore Wright

He probably remembered Route 937, and the larger dot on the map known as Groesbeck that was just a little ways northwest of his childhood home.  It was another speck on the Texas map (see the state’s seal here), known as Hamlin, where John Braselton Fillmore Wright was letting his mind drift one night in 1923, as he thought about “Precious Memories”.  His mind’s eye conjured up images of a railroad too, and friendly folks aboard passing trains who waved anonymously at a curious youngster who’d become a fixture along their rail line journey. Both scenes had shaped the life of this middle-aged Texan up until that point in his life.

 J.B. F. Wright had plenty to draw upon as he wept and penned the special words of his “Precious Memories” during the dead of one autumn night in his 46th year. His mind flowed back to his childhood in east-central Texas, of his mother and father and their home in Box Church, a tiny town down Route 937 from Groesbeck, which lies some 35 miles east of Waco. Perhaps John also recalled being at nearby Lake Limestone more times than he could count. But, besides the sights he might have recalled, it was the sounds that Wright pondered, particularly those of his parents.  They loved to sing, spurring a love of music in their son, and providing the foundation upon which he stood to produce, according to various accounts, between 200 and 500 songs over his lifetime.  So it was natural for John to feel deeply the loss of these mentor-parents in the early part of the 1900s, two events five years apart that stayed with him for the remainder of his life, including in 1923. Those weren’t the only episodes that filled his head one night, however. His young son Everett had suddenly died more than a year earlier, an event that still tormented him. The trains near Hamlin, Texas with the waving passengers that had intrigued the little boy also stuck with the father. ‘Where was the cute kid who so liked to wave?’, they must have wondered wistfully. And so, in Hamlin (north of Abilene, in north-central Texas), for whatever reason, Wright’s mind would not rest one night as he lay on his bed. The tears flowed, but he’d apparently learned that poetry and songs flowed therapeutically out of trials like this too.

John Wright may not have had much formal music training, but that didn’t stop him from composing. He’d attended one singing school near Hamlin for a few weeks, but spent his life vocationally as a farmer and later as a custodian and groundskeeper at a college. Perhaps that was all he needed to nurture the musical gene within – a seemingly unspectacular life that was nevertheless filled with cherished thoughts of home and family. His words tell of his formula for song-writing. Keep it simple, and don’t avoid memories, even painful ones. They just might be from God.

A brief biography of the composer is here:

Most complete story of the song story here, by Robert J. Taylor, in an excerpt of his book “A Song Is Born”:

For a stirring music video rendition of Wright’s song, see here:

See here for map of area around composer’s hometown area:

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Wonderful Words of Life -- Philip P. Bliss

He paraphrased some basic words from an ancient follower, as he crafted something to complement a fellow believer’s venture. That’s the genesis of Philip Paul Bliss’ creation known as “Wonderful Words of Life” in 1874. Would Bliss have had as much of a challenge with his ‘words of life’ as their first speaker? Did he consult a dictionary (like one shown here)? Did the addition of ‘wonderful’ intentionally underscore their value, because His—the Lord’s-- words in their original context had proven so complicated and baffling? It is often tough to share words, especially God’s, that will elicit a positive response from the hearer who’s a skeptic. Bliss had a way with words, though, that allowed him to make music and draw hearers, a talent that his collaborator drew upon.

Philip Bliss was doing in 1874 what he’d recently come to believe was his life’s calling. He’d been engaged seriously in music for over 15 years, as a student, teacher, singer, and composer, but by his mid-30s he decided that spreading the story of Christ was paramount. He’d been associated with Dwight Moody’s efforts for a few years, and with some urging turned his life completely toward evangelism. Moody’s brother-in-law Fleming Revell must have also played a significant role in Bliss’ decision, too, so it wasn’t surprising that he thought of Bliss as he pondered how to best make his own evangelistic effort that year. He wanted a song to accompany a publication he was beginning, and suggested to Bliss that something to go with his “Words of Life” journal would work well. He also apparently suggested one episode in Jesus’ life of teaching (John 6:60-68) that culminated with the apostle Peter’s assertion that Jesus’ words are life. It’s interesting that this particular story occurred to Revell, since Jesus’ words there are actually pretty tough for many of His hearers to swallow. Their bizarre, even revolting, character make Peter’s response to them intriguing. What really made the apostle Peter assert with such apparent conviction that ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.’ Could it be that Revell wanted to inspire the same sort of faith that Peter expressed? No doubt about it, right? Bliss, too, must have wanted his musical endeavor to have the same potency. So, a song was born to coax God-seekers that Jesus speaks words, however alien they may seem at first, that actually reach and bless us like no others.

Taken out of context, Peter’s statement to Jesus sounds like a warm compliment to the Son of Man, doesn’t it? But it really is audacious, particularly since Jesus’ words just before that are what repel many of His hearers. Wonderful words? Drinking blood and eating flesh – that’s enough to make most anybody murmur that their speaker must be a nut. But, what Fleming Revell and Philip Bliss, along with Dwight Moody, must have told thousands of people was ‘Keep listening’. He said many challenging things, but He did more than speak words. He lived them, and died them too. And, rose because of them. No one else has ever done all of that.        

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 following for memoirs of the composer:

Friday, November 14, 2014

Tell It to Jesus Alone – Edmund Simon Lorenz

One fellow wrote the words, and another translated them into the language we know today.  Edmund Simon Lorenz must have been lonely and sad at times, or at least knew some people who were, perhaps stirring him to write “Tell It to Jesus Alone” in the latter 19th Century, perhaps as he lived in Ohio (see picture of its seal here).
Its words must have spoken to Jeremiah Rankin, for he translated the song’s words from the original German to English a few years later. Their paths crossed in the mid-1870s, leading to the creation of the song’s English version. Was there something that Lorenz might have shared with his like-minded colleague Rankin as the two discussed how friendless and lonesome people needed to hear the therapy recommended in the song’s words?

Edmund Lorenz was just 22 years old when he crafted the musical remedy for the dark feelings he describes in “Tell It to Jesus Alone”, a period in which he also was entering upon his life’s purpose.  He’d already been a German language teacher and a school principal when he apparently decided after a few short years that he wanted something else, prompting him to move to Dayton, Ohio to become a music editor at age 19. Over the next decade he studied theology in several places, including in Germany, and invested himself in his faith as an ordained minister via the United Brethren in Christ Conference in Ohio. He also was married and began to have children by the late 1870s. Apparently, something still missing in his life or in others he observed in 1876 must have contributed to his thoughts about grief, lonesomeness, and other anxieties he dwells upon in the four verses and refrain of “Tell It…”. Was he troubled particularly prior to finding a mate and family life? Did he talk with others who were approaching life’s end, since death’s prospect (verse four) was part of his vision? The same questions might be asked of the 48-year old Jeremiah Rankin, the translator of the song into English. Lorenz and Rankin intersected during their collaboration on Francis Murphy’s Gospel Temperance Hymnal  in 1878, the episode in which they must have decided that “Tell it…” could be transformed from Lorenz’ native tongue (and first published in Fröliche Botschafter) into English. The two men were a generation apart, yet no doubt appreciated the emotions described in the hymn, as well as its recommended treatment for the maladies afflicting the soul. Friendship.  

‘Who’s an island?’, Lorenz and Rankin must have mused jointly. No one in life’s journey wants to be alone. Even the most hardened, ruthless criminals stuck in prison may be punished with something still more severe  -- solitary confinement. The two composers may have noticed something else about human friendships. Sometimes they fail us, just because there’s something like a fallibility clause in our human nature. It’s just part of the landscape of our existence. That’s why Jesus’ entry into the picture is so great. He’s been like me, but He’s also something better – in fact, He’s transcendent, an ‘Overcomer’. He’s the model for me. Could that be why He wants me to think of Him as my friend?

See here for information on the song’s composer:
Also see here for more information on the composer:

See here information about the English translator of the hymn:
See here for all four verses and refrain of hymn:

Friday, November 7, 2014

O For a Faith That Will Not Shrink – William Hiley Bathurst

He was an educated Anglican rector, who was in the middle of a ministry in a church in old England. How did he feel about his life’s work up to that point? Thirty-five year-old William Hiley Bathurst might have been asked that by others, or even by himself as a point of self-reflection. Could it be that “O for a Faith that Will Not Shrink” was his answer that year in 1831?  He must have been asked about faith many times by those he served, so it was logical for him to ponder the subject as he studied for his sermon topic. What kinds of things might have crossed his mind as he considered his topic?

Bathurst had been a rector in a small village within Leeds in northern England’s Yorkshire County (see its flag here)
for over 10 years when he penned this hymn about a faith he sought. Bathurst had been educated at Winchester and Oxford, and was the son of a member of England’s Parliament, so he most likely was not a man who struggled with poverty, and the faith-doubts that condition might have inflicted upon the believer. But he did struggle, apparently with his own beliefs and how those compared to baptismal and burial practices in the church in which he was ordained, an ongoing challenge that eventually led to his resignation in 1852, some 20 years after “O for a Faith…” was written or published in 1831. What would have been on William’s mind early on in his ministry, in 1831, that would cause him to compose six verses (see link to them below) about faith? It’s said that Bathurst was studying the book of Luke (chapter 17, verse 5) and the episode of Jesus’ disciples asking Him to increase their faith. It’s interesting that they beg Him for this in the wake of Divine instruction on forgiveness – even seven times a day toward a repeat offender. Did that strike Bathurst, the way it does me? Faith is toughest, perhaps, when managing affairs with other people whom we estimate don’t deserve another chance. Did that Jesus-challenge resonate especially with this 19th Century small-town rector, because of people in his path every day? Or, maybe with his church’s members, were there issues that he saw affected them internally, spiritually? Did some of them, like him, have questions about the way baptism and burying the dead were addressed there? What things might assault someone’s faith, then and now?

Bathurst’s ministry must have given him a seat to witness a wide range of issues that could test faith, probably much more broadly than those occupying his own personal list. His inventory in this hymn is pretty thorough, and timeless. Fear (verses 1 and 3); complaints/dissatisfaction, pain, and grief (v.2); doubt (of course) (v. 3); disapproval/scorn by others (v. 4); and death’s approach (v.5). Bathurst wasn’t immune – is anyone? – to blind belief's pitfall. These are the words of a preacher, a watcher of many human spirits whom he thought needed a message. Faith is tough, the composer says, in numerous ways. But maybe what he’s saying—after reading what Jesus says about repetition—is that faith needs testing. How will I know if I have a shrinking or sturdy faith otherwise?

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; The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.; and Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.

See biography of composer here:
See also here for six verses of the hymn:

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Higher Ground -- Johnson Oatman, Jr.

It’s said that Johnson Oatman wasn’t quite satisfied where he was (most likely in New Jersey)
by the time he was 30-something, so he developed a therapy that seemed to scratch the itch he felt. “Higher Ground” was something that he needed to express in the 1890s, something that evidently rang true for so many others that it’s still making noises in the Christian communities of our world over 100 years later. What do you do when you sense disquiet in your being, a gnawing emptiness you don’t know how to fill? Oatman knew there was a vacuum, so he penned some words, a method that he used over and over and over, indeed thousands of times.

Johnson Oatman was such a prolific songwriter that one might assume that he made his living this way, but the opposite reality ironically may have compelled him to write words that he might not have otherwise.  He’d been ordained as a minister in New Jersey before he was 20, so he must have wanted to become a professional at teaching and preaching and winning souls for the Christian kingdom at one point in his life, right? He evidently leaned that direction, but instead made his living in his family’s mercantile business and later in the insurance field following his father’s death. In his mid-30s, Oatman began to write songs when he wasn’t occupied in business. And, he must have pondered quite a bit about his faith and had a deep desire to advance God’s kingdom even while at his job, because he apparently wrote lyrics for thousands of songs -- perhaps at least 3,000, though one source says 5,000. That would mean he wrote at least two per week through the rest of his life, which ended at 66 years of age in 1922! One must have a constant spark to compose so much on a regular basis, so maybe his daily professional life indeed played a role in his rich hymn-writing ventures. The words he wrote in “Higher Ground”, one of his earliest compositions, suggest he longed for something more beyond what his daily life was showing him. He sought ‘new heights’ (v. 1) and aspired to another world (vv.3-4), evidently as sought to escape this world’s ‘doubts’ and ‘fears’ (v. 2). Would he have been so driven to compose if he’d been satisfied with his earthly life? Higher ground probably wouldn’t have meant so much to a fellow who was totally content.       
How many people wander about on planet Earth with Oatman’s condition? Think of all the addictions or other unhealthy adventures pursued, and how often is this because someone is dissatisfied with life’s tedium? It’s OK to admit life might be dull. But, what to do with that is the issue. What if you could talk to a guy named David who lived over 3,000 years ago? Or others like him, with their names similarly scrawled across a musical page? They’re not here, but you can see their formulae for life-challenging problems. The songs aren’t necessarily always upbeat, though many or most are. Got a problem, or have something you want to say? Try picking up a pen or pencil…even during a spare minute at work. That was the Johnson Oatman method.

Information on the song’s composer was obtained from the books  Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1990, Kregel Publications; The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.; and 101 More Hymn Stories by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985.
See also here for four verses and refrain of hymn:

See also here for brief biography of the composer: