Monday, February 26, 2018
He wrote what he felt, and made no apologies if it offended those he sensed were in opposition to this freedom. Isaac Watts was declaring this approach with conviction when he penned “We’re Marching to Zion” in the early 1700s. Though today some folks might skip those challenging verses, or not even include them in their hymnals, Isaac’s other more neutral-sounding words were in fact something of a revolution too. And so it was, for this Nonconformist at his southern England home, who grew up watching his father exhibit the same courage that he would mimic in his own faith. It began with his education and then continued in the ministry he pursued the rest of his life.
Isaac Watts was way ahead of his time, someone might say, between the late 17th Century when he was born and through the early 18th Century when he generated most of his 800-plus hymns, earning him the reputation as England’s ‘father (or Godfather) of hymnody’. Nonconformists like his father (Isaac, also) did not adhere to the Anglican pattern of state-approved worship, and so were always living their faith on the edge. This set of beliefs made Isaac choose a different establishment of higher education when he reached his young adult years in 1690; instead of attending Oxford or Cambridge that would have been ideal for a student of his obvious intelligence and energy, Isaac entered the Nonconformist Academy at Stoke Newington, in London, where he stayed for four years. The two years he spent after his Stoke Newington years at his father’s Southampton home was the period in which Isaac most likely wrote the 10 original verses of “We’re Marching to Zion” (also known as “Come, We that Love the Lord”). He eventually became a frequent speaker by his mid-20s, but we can envision some of his pre-sermonizing years and the evident fire and principled views in the words of hymns like “We’re Marching…”. Most obvious is Isaac’s original 3rd verse, in which he dryly noted that some would ‘refuse to sing, Who never knew our God…’. Watts’ hymns were too unconventional for some worshippers who believed stoutly that the only decent words to be sung in worship emanated directly from the Psalms. One can imagine the angst at the time – the worship-style/musical debate in churches is centuries old, and ongoing! Some of his other words may be interpreted as Watts’ subtle commentary or at least recognition of the debate; verse 1 [‘join in a song with sweet accord…’], verse 2 [‘Religion never was designed, to make our pleasures less…’], and verse 10 [‘Then let our songs abound…’] are potentially indicative of Isaac’s opinions on what should transpire during a worship service.
Isaac’s basic thrust in ‘We’re Marching…’ is that, if God’s home is so magnificent, why should we believers constrict our joy of its approaching reality. Yes, we’re marching, but not in a lock-step, grim determination. Let’s experience the boundless joy we know He’s preparing for us now, Watts implores. This march is not a slow trod; it’s a skip, with lots of jumping and fist-pumping action, complete with back-slapping and wide-eyed amazement for what we can see coming. Try marching that way now!
Information on the song was obtained from the book “Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions”, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1990.
See all 10 verses that the composer originally crafted here: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/m/a/r/marching.htm
Composer’s biography here: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/w/a/t/watts_i.htm
Also see here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Watts
Here also: https://hymnary.org/person/Watts_Isaac
Monday, February 19, 2018
Was he the only composer who ever wrote hymns while incarcerated? It seems like an intriguing question, one worth seeking to answer, and William Matthew Golden was certainly uncommon in his position in life to be declaring “To Canaan’s Land I’m On My Way”. He might have been excused if he had written some downbeat, blues ditty about injustice and some emotional anguish tormenting his soul, but yet he did something quite different. He looked forward expectantly, rather than backward with remorse. Perhaps it was therapeutic for William to write and look to the future, not just his earthly future beyond some Mississippi prison walls, but to a place and time when his life stains accrued by wrongdoing would no longer color his reputation. Might he have been singing these words about Canaan while in a field of physical labor (perhaps not unlike this scene from 1911 in Mississippi’s Parchman Penitentiary)?
William Matthew Golden reportedly served an eight-year stretch in state prison, probably in Mississippi, since that is where he was born (in 1878) and died (in 1934). Parchman Penitentiary was operating in the years during which Golden reportedly wrote his hymns (a few dozen) in the second decade of the 20th Century, a time when the composer was in his mid-30s. His crime is unknown, and may be assumed to have been among the less severe, since his sentence was relatively brief. Nevertheless, any time locked up near other convicts, whose offenses may have made his own seem tame by comparison, could harden anyone. Yet, William doesn’t sound calloused in his poetry. He must have had more than one ‘dark(est) night’ (verse 1) in prison, but those two words are the only clear hint he gives of his existence at that moment. Instead, ‘soul (of man) never dies’ is a constant refrain this prisoner draws upon, maybe to remind himself that a life of imprisonment would ultimately evolve into eternal bliss. Could he also have been pondering the death of his only child earlier in life, and eagerly awaiting a miraculous reunion, as he sat in confinement? Did he miss earthly beauty, like flowers, while in detainment? He visualized a ‘rose blooming’ especially for himself in the afterlife (v. 2). Another prevailing characteristic of prison is the separation from loved ones who are still living, something that certainly must have gnawed at William; he notes ‘no sad farewells’ (refrain), ‘the shores of home’ (v.3), and ‘no parting hand’ (v. 5) were all prospects he could foresee in the hereafter. Whether Golden (originally spelled Golding) shared his thoughts with other prisoners, or was prompted by a prison chaplain or other authority to pen his thoughts, is unknown. Likewise, while his hymn-writing habit is a window into his outlook, whether this pastime earned him credit with his keepers or garnered him an early release remains a mystery.
William Golden’s two most prominent traits stand in stark contrast to each other. He was a criminal, and yet he composed beautiful hymns, a fact that relates a most startling piece of information. I’m not too far from doing something decent, even while in the midst of punishment. There’s plenty that’s disgraceful in my deeds, but the seed of recovery sprouts even as I suffer the chastising rod of justice. How is this possible? Maybe the best answer is another question. Do you think He has had some experience with this duality in His creation before you and me? A mistake always precedes revival in His courtroom.
You can see all five original verses here: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/t/o/c/tocanaan.htm
Some very brief information about the composer is here: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/g/o/l/golden_wm.htm
Saturday, February 10, 2018
Were there tears, and a passionate embrace? With just a few words of the story, the audience of this narrative might plausibly imagine that Charles Hutchinson Gabriel and his son did experience these things in their shared poignant moment around 1917 in a New York harbor, when the younger uttered the words “Where the Gates Swing Outward Never” to the older man. (See this shot of 1919 New York harbor, very much like what the Gabriels might have seen.) How would we typically cope with such a bitter occasion, a tearful and anxiety-ridden good-bye? Can we presume that the emotions are always fretful in all situations like this, particularly if both people expect to see one another again in a much happier future circumstance? Maybe that’s what the father in this song’s story tried to accomplish, in focusing his emotional energy beyond the moment, and into a time and place where apprehension is overpowered.
By the time he reached the age of 61, Charles Gabriel had written many dozens of songs, including both the words and music, and had traveled a somewhat circular route from the Iowa farm where he grew up, out to the American west coast, and later back to the Midwest. So what was he doing along the other coastline by 1917? Doing what many other thousands of families were also doing, as war drew young men into its grip. It’s said that the father had brought his son (also Charles) to the place of departure along the east coast, where ship after ship boarded soldiers headed for Europe and the Great War (World War I). Many a scene of loved ones bidding each other God’s speed must have been recurring as the Gabriels looked into each other’s face that day. They were both believers in the great hereafter, and indeed it’s often said there are no atheists in foxholes on the battle front. The son evidently leaned upon their great hope of life in the beyond to say something his dad couldn’t forget: ‘See you up there…’, and then concluded this thought with the song’s title. Our contemporary vernacular probably would have recorded the words as ‘Seeya later’, but that would not have captured the moment like this son did for his father. This songwriter, the elder Gabriel, had no doubt spent much of his life to this point concocting songs in various circumstances, but had any of them ever been quite this personal? Had his own flesh and blood been in danger with any of the other episodes? If it was a heartrending moment for the two, Charles Sr. must have wanted to remake it, emotionally injecting it with reunion-born energy in which he trusted.
Charles’ verses alternate between the ecstasy he awaited and the troubles he endured as a mortal. He had both at once, tugging him to and fro --- ‘…in Glory’ (v.1) versus ‘burden’ (refrain); toil and tears alongside ‘…be (ing) with Him’ (v.2); ‘steep hills’, ‘deep valleys’, ‘no flowers’, ‘lone(ly) nights’, and stones for pillows were the impediments toward the ultimate ‘joy’ (v.3); until joy triumphs and obscures sighing and dying (v.4). It’s almost as if Charles was watching his son go off to fight in ‘the war to end all wars’, while fighting his own war on a different plane. Would his son survive (Charles Jr. did indeed survive the war)? But, perhaps Charles Sr. was more focused on the broader war, instead of the earthly, urgent one, though the latter must be credited with sparking his musical epiphany. The way the two Gabriels saw things, once heaven was achieved, you don’t have to keep fighting to stay. The doors don’t reverse themselves. Once God has me home, He’ll not toss me out. As I heard others say just today, friends and loved ones are there already, planning the grand reunion. Let’s go already! What do you suppose Charles Gabriel would say?
Brief story of the song is here: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/w/h/e/r/wheregat.htm
Site of the composer’s son’ history: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/g/a/b/gabriel_ch_jr.htm
Saturday, February 3, 2018
He was a preacher, traveling broadly in mid-19th Century America to spread the ‘good news’, so writing hymns was a natural extension of this ministry, another way of getting the message out. “There Is a Habitation” was Love Humphreys Jameson’s storytelling about heaven to listeners in 1860, perhaps another one of his evangelistic tools that he was using in his various travels. Did he draw mental pictures of heaven’s pearly gates (shown here in this masterpiece by Hans Memling in the late 15th Century) for his hearers as he described this habitation? He would shortly become a respected figure to soldiers engaged in a bitter war, probably as he told them about eternity and coaxed their faith amid the horrors on the battlefields. Could it be that his words about a certain place and its character resonated with those of his generation who dreaded what was approaching just over the horizon terrestrially? Check out the words about this ‘habitation’ he visualized, and see what you think.
Love Jameson put lots of miles on his body in his travels by 1860, as he busied himself with the evangelism that Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell had used to help ignite his own faith, which had been manifested in the numerous speaking engagements over the previous 30 years. He’d listened to Campbell in the 1830s, several years after committing himself to spreading the Word in Indiana, and then was with the elder Stone on some of his trips during the latter years of his life – all while Love was still a relatively young man in his 20s. Concurrently, he was speaking himself regularly at several churches in Ohio, as well as in Indiana, and through the 1840s and early 1850s he further found himself in Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, New York, and the New England area. Love hailed from the Hoosier state, but must have felt at home in many places, given the wide spaces to which he journeyed. He became a chaplain to an Indiana regiment when the Civil War commenced, and was reportedly regarded as a mentor-father figure by the troops of his home state. Could “There Is a Habitation” have been on his mind as he considered the gathering war storm in 1860? ‘Nor wars, nor desolations…’ (v. 2) and ‘angelic armies sing’ (v. 4), Love said with his pen. Being a Union man, and a man of God, what were Jameson’s views of the war and its ultimate aims? Did he consider it a holy venture, an endeavor to bring freedom for all the nation’s people, when he wrote the words ‘There is a habitation…for all of every nation…’ (v.1)? Sure, he was thinking of the heavenly habitation, but could he have ignored the earthly dwelling he and his countrymen inhabited as he witnessed the passionate debate of the opposing sides splitting his home asunder here on earth? He longed for heaven’s harmony, perhaps as he considered the intractable racist division in his country. Was there another circumstance that could have captured his attention, as he traveled the Midwest and Northeast in the 1850s?
Love Jameson’s life might be succinctly summed up in some 150 hymns that he reportedly wrote over his lifetime, but his gifts as an evangelist might make that measuring stick far too short. He reached out pretty wide with his speaking engagements during 50-plus years of ministry. If one could calculate how many songs must have been sung during his various trips, 150 songs would surely have been eclipsed after just a few months. He must have used many times that number to influence the thousands, if not more, people that were within earshot of his voice. Nevertheless, that’s a horizontal reckoning – between him and other people. Love thought vertically, too, with this song, and wanted others to do the same. I like my house and its many comforts. But, how’s it really compare to what awaits? It doesn’t, does it?
See further information on the composer here: https://hymnary.org/person/Jameson_Love
This site has the song’s four verses: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/t/h/e/r/e/thereihab.htm