Saturday, March 14, 2015
Sweeter than All -- Johnson Oatman, Jr.
What is the tastiest, sweetest confection to your palate? A scientist might say such a compound would have to possess the chemical known as Lugduname (which a Chemistry textbook might depict this way). If someone said Jesus --to accurately define just how special and far above other faint copies of Him we could examine—was like Lugdumane, just how much more potent would He be? Science says the chemical shown schematically here is between 220,000 and 300,000 times as sweet as regular sugar. In fact, this chemical is so strong, it hasn’t been approved for use in our food. It must be that its dosage is hard to balance or restrict so that it doesn’t harm the human body. Did Johnson Oatman feel that way about Jesus when he said He was “Sweeter than All” in 1900? What would make this 44-year old man say that?
Johnson Oatman must have had plenty of ongoing and previous real-life experiences as the 19th rolled into the 20th Century to compare to the person of his faith. He’d been part of his father’s family commercial business as a young man, and later after his father’s death he sold insurance to make a living. These were following his initial inclination as a 19-year old to pursue formal ministry, although his ordination did not lead to larger roles in church work, but only in small local congregations in New Jersey, his lifetime home. So, by the time middle-age had come upon Oatman, he’d been pointed at various times in three different professional directions. His life’s avocation, songwriting, had also taken hold, a grip that would continue in a very firm—some might say consuming—way for the rest of his life. He would complete between three and five thousand lyrical compositions before his life concluded in 1922, a stunning amount, especially since it appears he did not begin this “hobby” until in his 30s. His father’s influence, as a notable singer and man of faith, no doubt also made its impact on the junior Oatman, distilling in him the fusion of music and faith. Most likely it was his family, and most prominently his father, who inclined his heart to believe the Christian faith could overcome any life-challenge. He may have been writing songs for about a decade, or at least for several years, when he expressed his ‘Sweeter…’ sentiments. Had the insurance business or other ventures around his New Jersey home brought into sharper relief how much he valued God? As an ordained minister, maybe he was also trying to encourage other believers in one of the local churches where he ministered part-time. Even sporadic preachers probably hear lots of the miseries of churchgoers than they know how to cure. Oatman’s musical remedy was no mystery. Taste Him. Let Him surmount your life’s ills.
Maybe it occurred to Oatman as he read David’s words about tasting (Psalm 34:8), or another ancient songwriter’s thoughts (Psalm 119:103) on the same sensation, that God is good, a sweetness that spurs my craving Him. Like the sweetest part of my meal – dessert, the concluding course--Oatman’s fourth verse of “Sweeter…” is about what he expected to taste as he entered life’s final phase. This sweetness has such staying power, that it will endure even as I encounter death and approach Eternity’s territory. Johnson could imagine that scene, convinced as he was of God’s potency. Can you?
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: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/s/w/e/sweetrta.htm
See also here for brief biography of the composer: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/o/a/t/oatman_j.htm