Saturday, November 12, 2016

Count Your Blessings (When Upon Life's Billows) -- Johnson Oatman

This New Jersey businessman (in the Burlington County area – see map) had been engaged in a pretty recently adopted, and semi-serious venture, for about five years near the end of the 19th Century. Johnson Oatman, Jr. must have been thinking some about how his life’s physical benefits so often appeared to be inadequate, and so he tried a different strategy to evaluate himself and his surroundings. Johnson had much that he cherished, though his four verses suggested this calculation was not always clear-cut. Was it only a curiosity, this songwriting that Johnson was practicing that generated “Count Your Blessings” (alternately known as “When Upon Life’s Billows”) in 1897? Certainly by the end of his life, one could say that it didn’t appear that way.  

Johnson Oatman was a well-known name in the Lumberton, New Jersey area, though you might have needed to specify whether it was Junior or Senior you pictured, and thought about how one name fed off the other. Johnson, Senior was reportedly the best singing voice, as well as a reputable businessman in central New Jersey, two attributes that no doubt impacted Johnson, Junior’s life. The younger Johnson followed in his father’s spiritual and business footsteps as an adolescent and young man, being ordained as a minister and taking part as a merchant in his father’s business. He’d apparently been at this up into his mid-30s, when he began to expand into songwriting, and it couldn’t have been long before others took notice, with the prolific output this effort showed. He wrote some 5,000 hymns by the end of his life in 1922, indicating he was composing several per week. That “Count Your Blessings” was published in a songbook for children could suggest he was trying to impart some wisdom to young people regarding how unfair earthly life might seem. He stayed in the business world, rather than completely devoting his life to church ministry, perhaps because of the experience working in commerce that his father had modeled for him. Could that choice have made an impact on his testimony in “Count Your Blessings”? He writes of challenges, as a guy engaged in industry might, in all of his verses. Though apparently successful, he must have winced a few times, seeing the greater success of others (…’lands and gold’, v.3), and noting how his own experience was not without hurdles (…’life’s billows…tempest tossed’, v.1; ‘burdened…load of care’, v.2; and ‘amid the conflict’, v.4). Maybe it was wisdom his own father had first passed along to Johnson, which said to consider the positives when you started to notice the negatives. It sounds like something the younger generation might need to hear from a pair of Johnsons old enough to be their father and grandfather.   

How often does one need to re-examine the columns of checkmarks and ‘x’s? Was it the first time Johnson Oatman, Junior had done so, when he was 41 years old in 1897? I think I had done so countless times by that age, how about you? Perhaps when one begins to pass along some of the good things, you begin to really see their value. An oft-forgotten blessing may need only a little dusting off for a needy individual to welcome its arrival with renewed joy. Can you picture a 40-something fellow, who’d seen his share of blessings? By that time, maybe Johnson had observed others who needed his perspective – challenges, sure, but outranked by those things in his own plus-column. It may have made his own blessings seem new again for him to engage in this accounting exercise. How’s your accounting sheet look today?

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; 101 Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985; and Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.

Also see this link, showing all four original verses:

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