Saturday, April 9, 2016

Living for Jesus -- Thomas Obediah Chisholm

It might not have been the first time he tried to abandon writing a song’s words, but its unusual path might in fact be why Thomas Obediah Chisholm remembered how he came to write “Living For Jesus” in 1917. The eventual product of Chisholm’s efforts was perhaps more creditable to his collaborator’s belief in him as a poet than were most of his other poems that were self-inspired. Its inception took place soon after he and his family had moved to a new state, as Chisholm continued a career in the insurance business. Was he thinking of another type of insurance policy as he penned the words about living a life before God? Have you ever pondered that God’s ‘Jesus’ insurance might be like fire – Get outta hell – insurance, even though you don’t get a physical piece of paper (like this fire insurance certificate shown here)?

The genesis of “Living for Jesus” may have been one of the more inauspicious episodes for a hymn, with an initial unsatisfactory effort, followed by a fallow period, and then two further subsequent attempts to create lyrics to accompany the tune. Three strikes might have made it an out, but the tune’s composer, Harold Lowden, did not forget its existence and would not be deterred once he contacted Thomas Chisholm to encourage the development of poetry he hoped would match it. The 34-year old Lowden had written a song for a New Jersey church’s Sunday morning children’s worship, but he was disappointed with the pairing of words and music in it. He kept the tune in mind, however, at the urging of several people, though it would not be until two years later that he thought of resurrecting it. He optimistically contacted the 51-year old Chisholm to ask if he could craft some appropriate words to go with the tune, and suggested the theme matching the hymn’s eventual title. He must have felt something special was possible, for when Chisholm promptly declined, evidently doubtful he could work with an existing tune, Lowden insisted once more that he try. Two weeks hence, the words for which Lowden had been waiting more than two years were born. The hymn’s birth may also have resulted because of Chisholm’s planned move to New Jersey, where Lowden lived, spurring the latter to suggest collaboration that he hoped their closer physical proximity in the near future would stimulate and grow further. Whether or not the two ever again collaborated on a song’s components is not clear, although at least one other of Chisholm’s songs (“How Much Greater Is His Love”) did appear in a hymnal Lowden co-published the same year “Living for Jesus” was published. Isn’t it often the case that musical believers who find each other continue to collaborate, in one way or another, to advance His worship and work?

Once he took on Lowden’s tune-lyrics project, what was it Thomas Chisholm decided to say with his words? No doubt, the two men shared thoughts about the theme, so what Chisholm wrote may also have resided within Lowden. What one, or both, of them said resonates still today with us a century later who also believe. Glad service and blessing (v.1), total devotion (v.2), sacrifice (v.3), and drawing others into His light (v.4) are trademarks of Him. Is there any doubt, any lack of assurance, that finding a Christian community with these characteristics leads somewhere good? Thomas Chisholm must have sold many insurance policies in Indiana and later in New Jersey, similarly confident that the buyers were investing wisely. Insurance is a pretty good thing, isn’t it?                

See more information on the song story in these sources: The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; and 101 Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1982.

Also see this link, showing all four original verses and the composer’s story about the song:

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