Monday, February 19, 2018
To Canaan's Land I'm On My Way -- William Matthew Golden
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