Saturday, January 20, 2018

When the Roll is Called Up Yonder -- James M. Black

He probably had imagined a scene, perhaps like this picture (a Francesco Botticini masterpiece), in which he and others would answer affirmatively when their names were called. James Milton Black thought about what he and others would experience “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” in the last decade of the 19th Century, because he didn’t want anyone to miss out on their reward. And, he must have thought it was especially crucial for young people still in their teenage years to consider his admonition. Did what he wrote and the aftermath of its composition further accentuate what James had been trying to say? Tragic accidents happen, people contract fatal illnesses, or perhaps others just neglect advancing age’s message in a vain attempt to shield themselves from the inevitable. Whatever the method, no one escapes. However, James wasn’t maudlin, but rather hopeful – not staring into death’s chasm, but instead into the beyond. 

James Black spent a lot of his time as a minister in Pennsylvania trying to relate especially to teenagers and other youngsters, including in his musical endeavors. Black spent his lifetime compiling up to 15 different hymnals, including at least two intended for young people (Junior Praises and More Junior Songs) at the beginning of the 20th Century. And, by his own account, ‘When the Roll…’ was one of the 1,500 songs that he wrote during an episode which involved a teenager. The 14-year old girl he had coaxed to join the youth group had missed one of their gatherings one evening, and it troubled James. No doubt, this was so because he knew her family’s reputation (alcoholism) was not really conducive to growth in Christian values. He felt her absence acutely, and spontaneously declared that he hoped none present to hear him that evening would miss the more significant roll call in heaven. And, being of a musical mind, James thought an appropriate song would have well-encapsulated the moment. This notion stuck with him, until later that same evening he crafted the song’s poetry and accompanying music in just minutes. Could he have known at the time that the 14-year who inspired this output would soon die of pneumonia, underscoring his words of warning? Was the 14-year old girl among the saved? James Black did all he could to introduce her to hope, and give her the vision of something beyond death. She must have heard some of his other songs, prior to her premature demise, but most likely never heard ‘When the Roll…’ while still here on earth. We can presume that James would have related “When the Roll’s’… circumstances to this girl’s friends at the church, perhaps imprinting on them permanently the gravity of life and an afterlife.   
‘Does anything else need to be said?’, James may have thought. Evidently, he believed some musical notes, paired with well-chosen words, were beneficial. He could have ignored the idea of writing the song, as his own description of the episode indicates, yet he did not. He listened. He acted. He let himself be a vessel, to make something positive out of what others might have labeled a tragedy. She was too young, yes, but not too young or far-removed from His people to miss a glimpse of eternity, as James Black’s poetry suggests. Someone has set up my eternal appointment (Job 30:23; Acts 13:48). All I need to do is be there to answer when my name’s called.   

The following website has all three verses for the song:
See more information on the song discussed above in The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.  Also, see Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; 101 More 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.

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