Friday, July 3, 2015

Jesus Is All the World to Me -- William Lamartine Thompson

He made a choice for one way versus another that he’d tried, and so composed a few verses that declared why the option he’d taken made so much sense. Fifty-something William Lamartine Thompson explained ‘why?’ with “Jesus Is All the World to Me” in 1904, as he reflected on his songwriting and business life of the previous few decades. He’d been exposed to bigger venues than where he probably was in that year, when he put pen to paper and expressed his bond with Jesus Christ. After all, who’d ever heard of East Liverpool, Ohio? (See picture here of its historic East 5th Street district, a contemporary scene Thompson might have at least dimly recognized in his time.) But this is where Will Thompson was inspired to articulate his devotion to God.

Thompson was a small-town entrepreneur who could have chosen a bigger stage at one point in his life, but instead took a different route to success. He was musically educated in Ohio, and then in New England, and finally in Germany in the latter part of the 19th Century. He’d written several secular songs in his youth and early adulthood, including one (“Gathering Shells from the Sea”) which was reportedly ranked as the third-most popular song in the U.S. in 1879. So, Thompson’s career path to accomplishment and renown seemed obvious. But, he also had a streak of Christian faith that tugged at him too, marked by several songs of his faith he wrote by his early 30’s. So, when he decided to start his own music company in his hometown, rather than chase and coax commercial companies to publish his efforts, it was a natural direction for him. His gained a strong business sense from his father, and became a fixture in East Liverpool in many ways, known not only for his accomplishments but also for his charity in the community. His music business attracted attention far and wide around the nation, and he later established another music enterprise in Chicago. He’d earned his nicknames the ‘millionaire songwriter’ and the ‘bard of Ohio’, but by his mid-50’s must have wanted it known what he thought of all this. “Jesus Is All the World…” vocalized his message. In a word, ‘friend’ was how he thought of his God. It’s this one-word description that he repeats throughout the song, and it grows therein, perhaps mirroring his own experience. From verse one, where he says ‘friend’ once, to its usage twice in verses two and three, and then three times in verse four, one gets the impression Will’s relationship had grown more and more intimate with Jesus over the years.    

“Jesus Is All the World to Me” was one of the last songs Will Thompson wrote, as his life was cut short just five years later, but his thoughts and legacy live on. The Thompson Music Company is said to still carry on, and a Thompson park established with land he donated in East Liverpool still exists today also. The music he wrote still endures, having been used in different ways several decades after their author first wrote them (reportedly at Martin Luther King’s funeral, and also in a 1985 movie). These various ways echo how Thompson is remembered, including in the ways he generated his songs’ words. He supposedly made notes to himself no matter where he was or what he was doing, with words and themes popping into his mind. Jesus really must have been throughout all of his world!     

Information on the song was also 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.; and Our garden of song: A book of biography of song writers of the Church of Christ, by Gene C. Finley (1980). West Monroe, Louisiana: Howard Publishing Company. pp. 479–418.

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