Saturday, April 28, 2018

Mansion Over the Hilltop -- Ira F. Stanphill

A little poverty-stricken girl and a businessman, probably unaware that their chance encounter would motivate a songwriter, met in a rural area near Dallas, and that’s where this multi-pronged story began to take shape. Their names remain unrecorded, but what they said was unforgettable to Ira Stanphill’s ears, as he thought one morning about a “Mansion Over the Hilltop” that the child and the businessman had mentioned on two different levels. That this song’s genesis involved three different people, each from a different circumstance, illustrates yet again how much like a fingerprint a song can be. A songwriter like Ira may often hear a story that captures his imagination, but the path each song travels is unique, allowing us as to appreciate that each one is special, with twists and turns not unlike the loops, whorls, and arches (forensic terms in the science of fingerprint analysis) that whet the appetite of a musical detective. Yum!

The circumstances that coalesced one evening when Ira Stanphill attended a revival are the fingerprint of ‘Mansion Over a Hilltop’. Ira was in his early 30s in 1945 when he was doing what a preacher, musician, and songwriter in the Gospel genre like himself would consider normal: He was attending a conference that he probably expected would stimulate his passion, and hopefully that of many others, for God. A businessman who’d had a rough time, but who’d also had an epiphany, was speaking. Business had been bad, and this struggling entrepreneur had sought some relief in a drive through a rural area. He found more than he’d thought he would, and unexpectedly from a small child, too. Her appearance perhaps reminded him of his own situation – a poor waif, with a broken doll, standing next to a ramshackle house she called home. Yet, she smiled. Why? Because she had hope, with her father building a brand-new home not far away, over the nearby hill. What a gift hope is, the downtrodden man thought, not just for what we might attain in this world to overcome destitution, but especially how this world’s cruelties will be overcome by what awaits the believer in the afterlife. ‘My mansion is secure’, the businessman reassured himself when he thought of his future with God. That spoke to Ira similarly, and after sleeping on the message he’d heard, he quickly wrote “Mansion Over the Hilltop”.

From a little girl’s hopeful answer, through one discouraged adult’s heart, and into the soul of a poet-songwriter who could put a musical exclamation mark at the conclusion of this episode, this account reiterates for us that He’s at work. Is it just coincidental how things happen for good, even in difficult times? The businessman noted as he related his story to Ira and the assembled crowd, that his heart was pierced by the unsuspecting girl’s hope-filled words. Could that, in fact, be God nudging you and me, as if to say ‘I’m here…and I haven’t forgotten you’? I’ve had at least one life episode in which I thought I felt that nudge. Coincidentally, the first one that I remember, like the businessman’s situation, involved my professional/vocational life. ‘Will I be a failure?’, I remember calling out to Him in my angst one day. He answered ‘No, you won’t be’, not too soon thereafter, and I skipped like a deer, rejoicing that He’d touched me that way. I’ve never forgot that He sent me on my way, to live my vocational dream, and to experience life in a kind of mansion for the last three decades. You and I just need to remember that another hilltop’s view will reveal an altogether different edifice – words cannot do it justice. Climb that hill!      

The primary source for the story on this song is the book Stories Behind Popular Songs and Hymns, by Lindsay Terry, Baker Book House, 1990. Also, see The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.

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