Saturday, September 26, 2015

He Keeps Me Singing – Luther Burgess Bridgers

He wrote five verses to explain what motivated his heart to sing, including two that may suggest some emotional turmoil was at hand. Or, was there another less pressing circumstance that moved Luther Burgess Bridgers to say “He Keeps Me Singing” in the first decade of the 20th Century? What makes a 25-year old Southern minister compose words that say God is whispering to his inner being? Though he was still pretty young, Bridgers’ verses indicate he or someone he knew was experiencing some wide swings in life, from highs to lows. Yet, he knew what his emotional center was, and the destination where he expected it would eventually take him.

Luther Bridgers’ ingredients for his singing biography by 1910 were a family legacy of faith, one that had endured for centuries, as well as his own life’s events, including a tragedy that may have played a central role in his song-poem. His family’s faith history traced backwards some 11 generations to ministry in the English church in the 16th and 17th Centuries, and another L.B., this one Lawrence Bridgers. Luther’s father carried on the family tradition in America, and it’s said that Luther accompanied his father at revival meetings until his death in 1913. So, Luther had a rich family life upon which to draw for his spiritual development. That did not make him immune to challenge, however. The song Luther composed by 1910, particularly verses 2 and 4, tap into his distressed soul, seemingly, as he reveals a ‘wrecked life’ and ‘path…rough and steep’. Was it autobiographical? Some commentators believe it was in fact the words Bridgers scrawled during the aftermath of a great trial – his young wife’s and three sons’ deaths in a fire. Though another source casts doubt on the plausibility of this scenario – the fire may in fact have been a year after the song was written—his words indicate the pain he felt at the time. But, he wasn’t overwhelmed, nor did he wallow.  But, his verses do suggest he swung back and forth, as someone struggling with a great confusion might. Verses 1, 3, and 5 – upbeat, content-- are intermingled with valleys of torment in verse 2 and 4. Sounds like Psalms, doesn’t it?

What did Luther think of his song after his family had been killed? Was he singing, though desperately confounded, maybe angry as anyone might who's abruptly lost so much? It’s amazing, if in fact the song was written in this way. Luther becomes a 20th Century Job, a blameless, God-fearing hero, unfairly robbed by life’s cruelty. On the other hand, Luther may have been giving voice to others’ tragic circumstances, or thinking of his future that he expected to contain difficult episodes. In any case, Luther wanted to sing through them. ‘How?’, someone mutters. This 25-year old guy proposed one way in 1910, but it wasn’t novel. There was another fellow (William Congreve, The Mourning Bride) who said ‘Music has charms to soothe a savage breast’ in 1697, but it probably wasn’t novel with him either. Got a guess where they learned this therapy? Who invented music? Same answer.        

Sources for the song story are the book “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006; and the following websites:

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand – Jennie Wilson

She was a 48-year old whose life had been spent, some might say, as a cripple. But that didn’t stop or slow down Jennie Wilson, who knew how important it was to “Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand”, perhaps a paraphrase of how she felt about her life up until that point. (Maybe she was inspired like others by Michelangelo’s Creation, when God reached out with his hand to create us.) She was contemporaneous with another female poet-composer, and similarly prolific in her output, and also shared a physically challenging lifestyle with this fellow lyricist. One could compare these two women and say that these facets of their lives were no accident, that in fact their makeup spurred the musical vigor in them. What obstacles did they see, or did they instead consider them stepping stones, a reason to reach out and experience Him?

Jennie Wilson was a lifelong Indianan who was struck in childhood with a spinal malady that left her wheelchair-bound, but not defeated, for the balance of her life.  It’s said that she composed approximately two or three thousand hymn texts over her lifespan, an amazing number considering that she lived to the age of just 57. Some people nicknamed her the ‘Fanny Crosby of the west’, comparing her to this counterpart who lived to the age of 95 in the Connecticut and especially New York City areas. Both women were challenged by physical impairment – Crosby was blind, while Wilson could not walk – but neither would probably have called herself disabled. In contrast to Crosby, Jennie Wilson’s life was not as well-known, and so the circumstances of her songs are likewise not readily known. But, we can surmise with the few facts we know that Jennie was in or near her native South Whitley, Indiana (northeast Indiana) when she wrote “Hold to God’s…” in 1904. One historian of her life says she exhibited few signs of an invalid, and travelled to Winona Lake, west of her home in northeast Indiana, as well as other places in the state for bible conferences. She’s not listed among the notable people of South Whitley, a small rural place, but that could merely reflect her character and her choice to live in and mimic an unremarkable, mid-western community. It’s likely her songs flowed from this same environment, perhaps somewhere in South Whitley or one of the conference venues she enjoyed frequenting annually.

Do Jennie Wilson’s words provide other insight into her emotions or the intellectual mindset of this 40-something composer? Despite the slow, dull existence one might presume pervaded Wilson’s northeast Indiana home, she hints that there was a fast-moving ‘swift transition’ she sensed (verse 1), one that drew her loyalty to Him. Did her health incline her attitudes also? She died prematurely, which could suggest she had lingering health problems, ones that might have lead to her expiration nine years later. But even if her death was unexpected, other life events can make one introspective, and malleable for His use. ‘Whatsoever years may bring’, Jennie says (verse 2), so she felt life held uncertainties that she could manage only with His presence. Maybe she also was ‘forsaken’ (verse 2) by friends, a not uncommon experience, but nevertheless still painful. Health, fickle circumstances, and loneliness. Do those sound familiar? Jennie knew those wouldn’t dictate her next life. Isn’t that a great thing to know?  
The sources for the information on the composer are here:
See  description of composer’s birthplace here:,_Indiana

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Heavenly Sunlight – Henry J. Zelley

He must have liked the idea of living in the ‘sunshine state’ of Florida, one might imagine, since he centered his thoughts on sunshine in some words he composed at mid-life. But actually, as a New Jersey native, Henry Jeffreys Zelley was lauding “Heavenly Sunlight” as he turned 40, and as he considered not only the new century that was about to begin, but also the future beyond any time-constrained realm. Was there something in his first 40 years on earth that might have persuaded him to think this way?

From what we know of Henry Zelley, his life’s purpose followed closely what he expressed in the hymn composed at the close of the 19th Century. Zelley was an evangelist for 40 years, and ministered in 19 different churches over his lifetime, reportedly, so he must have been very familiar with moving about frequently, making new friends and acquaintances, and finding his purpose in a new area. By the time he was 40, he’d been in ministry about a decade, and would continue for another 30 years before retiring at age 70. So, it’s safe to assume that he’d already moved at least a few times and established a few habits in his ministry life as he thought about the light from above. He apparently wrote poetry for about 1,500 songs and hymns over his lifetime, so that was one custom we know he exhibited. He was known as an ardent “fisher of men”, and the 1899 hymn’s words bear that out. His zeal and joy for God’s presence are evident in his words, something he must have taken with himself as he moved from place to place. He urged hearers to seek the ‘promise divine’, the ‘mansions above’ by travelling in the ‘sunlight of love’. One might metaphorically label this light an anchor, as it seems to be Zelley’s security, his safe zone where he finds a cheerful companionship, no matter how new and unfamiliar his surroundings might have been. Perhaps Zelley had observed this message of a Godly sunlight warming seekers in the previous churches where he’d worked, and decided the way to make a new area familiar was to bring the same message along wherever he moved. That’s not hard to believe, is it?    

How easy is it really to leave one place and make another home? Henry Zelley moved around about every two or three years, on average. He sounds like a military brat, jumping from one assignment to another. He was a ‘rolling stone’, and one wonders whether he did so willingly so that he wouldn’t gather moss, or grow stale. Were there things about each place that prompted each move, or instead intriguing opportunities that drew his vision elsewhere? Zelley speaks of his ‘journey’ over various areas, but always with the sunlight. Could it be that, in fact, it was the Son-light he had with him?      
Sources for background on the song story are the book “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006; and the following websites:

Saturday, September 5, 2015

I’m Not Ashamed to Own My Lord – Isaac Watts

He was already accustomed to taking risks and thinking in ways that conventional wisdom said was rash. So, why not go further, and put his feelings in writing? If that’s not what Isaac Watts was thinking in the late 17th and early 18th Century-era as he declared “I’m Not Ashamed to Own My Lord”, we might be excused for thinking so, as we notice what he wrote. It was not necessarily his fidelity to God that was the precarious position he took, but the way he chose to express that, and especially how it challenged his English heritage. Was he being disloyal to his nation’s government and its flag, when his opinions began to find their expression during his education at a school in Stoke Newington? (It’s in London…see here one of its schools from the 1800s.) And, considering his lineage, was his attitude something he really controlled? See what you think, and consider whether you’re really as brave as Watts was with his faith.

Both Isaac Watts and his father, also named Isaac, were of the Nonconformist wing of English Christianity, a choice that no doubt played a large role in the younger Watts’ musical face. Because they did not adhere to Anglican views or the state’s approval of worship practices, Nonconformists were considered outcasts, mavericks. It’s said that Watts was a poet from an early age, undeterred even when suffering punishment on one occasion for making use of this talent. His later use of new poetry in his hymns indeed indicates he probably felt this was a gift from his Creator, which he should not limit. It’s said that the younger Watts turned down an offer of a university education in one of the state’s approved schools (Oxford or Cambridge, for example), and instead attended a Nonconformist academy at Stoke Newington in 1690. His life-path was most likely set there, and in the few years following that experience he probably penned “I’m Not Ashamed…”. Unlike Anglicans (the church of England), who would have used only Psalms for hymn development, Watts believed original poems could assert one’s Christian beliefs and promote worship. The words he used in the hymn’s verses show he felt confident about his relationship to God, using words like ‘trust’, ‘firm’, and ‘committed’. Had he encountered others, even by the young age of perhaps just 20 when he wrote this song (it was published by 1707 when Watts was 33), whom he wanted to admonish because of their more conventional habits? His own father’s imprisonment for Nonconformism also may have girded Isaac’s courage to authentically articulate his faith. Perhaps Watts looked with the eye of faith for the future of hymn-writing also, for many more followed his example in the succeeding generations.

What lay at the root of Watts’ poetry and hymn-writing habits? Had his worship to God become stale and insincere? Did others’ worship look mechanical, rote? Perhaps what they had been vocalizing in their formal worship didn’t match what they practiced once they left the church building. Did so-called believers seem uncertain and afraid as life advanced toward the inevitable conclusion? Watts’ words in his time were a fresh, splash-in-the-face, testimony from someone looking for a bona fide corporate worship renewal. Their recitation three centuries later can remind us how their composer was motivated. His words may be old, but his ideas aren’t worn out.