Saturday, January 17, 2015

There Stands a Rock – Tullius C. O’Kane?

He was most likely in Ohio or travelling somewhere in his home state when he composed some words that his mind’s eye could see a large gathering of people singing. It was probably during a songbook project that Tullius Clinton O’Kane was working to assemble when he wrote down at least some of the words (according to one main source—see first link below—he wrote at least the refrain and all of the music for the song) to “There Stands a Rock” in 1871, which he later put to music. He was evidently inspired by the metaphor of Jesus as ‘a rock’ as he pondered his prose and meter. His stimulation in this episode was not an isolated event, but one that he revisited many times over several decades, a habit that allowed this ‘Professor’ to be a teacher even though he’d left that professional calling in the classroom by mid-life.  Could you or I be called ‘professor’?   

Tullius O’Kane evidently learned some habits early in life that stuck with him and led to compositions that still remain in the Christian musical lexicon today.  He attended, graduated from, and taught at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware (central Ohio, just north of Columbus, see picture), but evidently not formally in music. Instead, his calling initially was in mathematics, a subject he tutored others to better understand, while he maintained a musical avocation through the campus chapel and choral group that he organized. Professor O’Kane furthered his commitment to instruction when he became principal of Cincinnati schools for a four-year period in the early 1860s. But, even after leaving this position to work with piano and organ companies over the next several years, he didn’t stop teaching.  This professor wrote dozens of songs and assembled 16 songbooks over the next 40-50 years, and travelled extensively to conferences and conventions where his musical inventions could bless the large crowds. It’s said that he was especially gifted in leading large gatherings to learn and appreciate the spirit and enthusiasm he and his songs brought to them. One can imagine the confidence expressed on 41-year old Tullius’ face, and the spirit he felt, according to those who observed him, as he led their voices to praise this Rock in “There Stands...” in 1871. His poetry conveyed a devotion to a holy God for certainties he possessed, contrasted in the song’s refrain with how he must have observed some secular commentators viewed life. Perhaps this contrast was something he wanted to confront, to tell others to look beyond the temporal and draw upon the assurance of what awaits all of us in God’s presence.

O’Kane’s song and many others in this period inhabited the third “Great Awakening” of the late American 1800s, a time when a message like O’Kane’s coaxed a revival. We can picture Tullius travelling all over Ohio, telling people to place their trust in a Holy God, in the Rock he called a ‘tower’ and a ‘cross  (with) arms outspread’, a resting place for weary people.  ‘Professor’ O’Kane may have been a mathematician to some, but he evidently ‘professed’ on other issues too. “There Stands a Rock”, it’s safe to assume, probably helped soften and turn some toward Him. Its messenger was sincere and eager to share – both of which are qualities hard to ignore. Both of these traits also come from Him. Are you ready to profess, or to be revived?
See the site here for words of song and brief attribution to potential composer:

Brief biography of composer:
See here for social context of the period of the composer’s life in late 1800s:

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