Saturday, May 26, 2018

On Jordan's Stormy Banks -- Samuel Stennett

This hymnist had plenty of time and people in his bloodline to observe, and to consider his destination. The Englishman Samuel Stennett was from a long line that had undoubtedly spoken of what life’s end would represent for the believer, and so it was something this 18th Century London minister likewise pondered. Because he was from multiple generations of Stennetts that served in ministry, Samuel’s vision of what it would be like “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks” must have also included a reunion with others of his family. When exactly did he begin to imagine the scene of which he wrote? Did it look at all like the Jordan River here on earth? (See its picture here.)
One can guess that this was a lifelong moving-picture show, which became even more vivid when his own father went to cross the river, leaving Samuel to walk in his and two previous generations’ footsteps. He likely passed on this mental imagery to his own son, making five generations the expectant inheritors of a common promise.  

Samuel Stennett’s earthly life began in 1727, but his was one that really had its origins many decades prior to the century in which he lived, and then contributed well beyond his earthly life’s conclusion in 1795. His great-grandfather Edward, and his grandfather Joseph, had been ministers in England also, so it was no surprise when Samuel’s father, also named Joseph (the II), entered ministry, with Samuel waiting in the wings soon thereafter. Samuel’s own son, likewise named Joseph (the IV), would also be a minister, like the four generations of Stennetts before him. (Samuel also had a brother named Joseph  [Joseph III] – also a minister.) So, with such a rich heritage of faith and ministry in one family, one can imagine that Samuel from an early age heard of what the Stennetts could expect after a life spent in God’s work. We know not the precise context in which Samuel found himself when he crafted seven stanzas, and at least one refrain (a second alternate refrain is commonly used in many hymnals today) to express what he envisioned awaited himself, and indeed all believers. Nevertheless, Samuel had seen or heard from many generations like himself, and as a minister he also likely counseled numerous lay persons regarding the afterlife. The transition from life to afterlife would be – and is still, today – an ever-present topic among the faithful. Samuel’s desire to express himself poetically was also part of the DNA he inherited, as Joseph I (his grandfather) had likewise been a hymnwriter, a bit of family history that we can presume Samuel had learned. Was this a further motivating factor in Samuel’s effort to describe the spiritual Jordan River in poetic form? Three generations of Stennetts played a part in motivating a fourth to craft “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks”, a gift that has endured for many more generations since then.

Did Samuel’s vision become more urgent the older he became? When he took over his father’s ministry in 1758 (at the age of 31) when he died, did that help spawn “On Jordan’s…”? If these mortal episodes impacted Samuel, that would not be unusual; perhaps they helped gestate the poem that would be first published as a hymn some 29 years later, in 1787. Notably, Samuel makes no allusions to his earthly family in his words. The scenery of that place and the presence of God matter most to Samuel. No one will want to miss it, especially if you think you might be getting closer to that water. Enough said?

Information on the song was obtained from the books  Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1990, Kregel Publications; 101 More Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1985, Kregel Publications; and The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

Also see this site for all the song’s verses:

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