Saturday, September 14, 2019

My Country 'Tis of Thee -- Samuel Francis Smith

Samuel Francis Smith knew a lot of languages, not the least of which was the language of music. So when a music publisher/educator/composer (Lowell Mason) had a gap in his own knowledge while in possession of some German-language songs, he sought out Samuel. The year was 1831 or early 1832, and Samuel was at Andover Theological Seminary (see seal of the town here; the seminary later merged with and relocated to another seminary in Newton) in Massachusetts. The eyes of this young (early 20’s) student soon fell upon a patriotic song extolling the German (Saxon) nation that captured his imagination. Of course, the words did not fit what was in his heart about his own country, but the tune and the nature of the original words sparked his creativity. In just 30 minutes time, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” was thus written.

Samuel F. Smith’s patriotism was obviously tied to his faith, and the use of ‘My Country…’ in the few months and the nearly two centuries since its inception have underscored Samuel’s musical/patriotic sense. The Independence Day after Samuel first wrote his four or five original verses was the public premier of this patriotic hymn, sung by Sunday school children at a celebration of the day’s significance in Boston. Smith, evidently with encouragement from Lowell Mason, who conducted the children’s choir that day, saw the freedom of the nation as a holy gift, worth rejoicing and emphasizing as something He gave them. ‘Freedom’ or forms of the word or its synonyms is the focal point of every verse Samuel penned. But, independence was not merely a circumstance of a past generation’s sacrifices or just a fortunate coalescence of world events, as Smith saw it. Samuel’s final verse attributes American freedom to the God above – He is the ‘author’. It’s notable that the first few verses Samuel wrote contain no reference to this ‘author of liberty’, the One ‘to Thee we sing’. That makes it therefore possible that a crowd could mouth an abbreviated version of Smith’s words and not arrive at the same conclusion he did – that God is the One at work in American liberty. Yet, examine closely what Samuel implies in those verses, and it appears that the freedom he celebrates doesn’t just exist as a concept. It inhabits the people and the land, somewhat as a Spirit might. It comes from ‘every mountainside’ (v.1), filling him (Smith) with a ‘rapture’ (v.2), as music ‘swell(s) the breeze’ (v.3/4). Smith even indicates ‘rocks (would) their silence break’ (v. 3/4), perhaps not unlike what Jesus suggested (Luke 19:40) would happen if people failed to acknowledge God’s presence. Smith calls out to Him as ‘Great God our King’ (last verse) with his concluding words.

Am I therefore missing something minus Samuel Smith’s last verse? Without intending it perhaps, Smith’s construction of the song allows a secular use of ‘My Country…’ that could ensue if the last verse is excluded, perhaps in some sense therefore making it more broadly popular. Freedom in America is great, no doubt about it; just ask those elsewhere who don’t have it. It’s really what we all want – freedom from oppression, sickness, poverty – though no physical space or governing body on this planet does it perfectly. It’s a matter of perspective and recent experience, for I might highly value the freedom I now have because it’s better than what I had somewhere else. Yet, I always run into something that’s un-free, no matter how good the place and time is. Samuel Smith has pointed to someone who knows all about freedom, and where it’ll never disappoint. Found such a person yet?  

See more information on the song story in these sources: The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; 101 Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1982; Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003; and A Treasury of Hymn Stories – Brief Biographies of 120 Hymnwriters with Their Best Hymns, by Amos R. Wells, Baker Book House Company, 1945.

Also see this link, showing all five original verses:

Also see this link for author’s biography:

Monday, September 9, 2019

Eternal Father, Strong to Save -- William Whiting

Did the author know his original words would spark the thoughts of at least five other poets in the century after he penned his own? That fact alone tells us that William Whiting’s creativity would be a lasting statement, which was really a prayer that he was making when he called out “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” in 1860 in Winchester, England (see this period depiction of that place in the mid-19th Century, as it may have appeared to William Whiting and the boys he mentored at the College Choristers’ School, in southern England). What William had to say must have lodged in the imagination of those other writers as they considered their own circumstances, or maybe those of others who were wearing a uniform of military service and encountering danger. It’s been said ‘there’s no atheist in the foxhole on a battlefield’, and the same may be said of others who engage in similarly perilous ventures.
William Whiting was 35 when he wrote the original verses that called out to his Eternal Father, on the occasion of a young student of his who was preparing to sail to America. This episode illustrated the close camaraderie that Whiting and the students whom he mentored at the Winchester-based school had developed, a relationship that may have repeated itself in many ways over the generation that William had been at this institution. Eighteen years had already passed since he’d taken the reins of leadership of the college’s musical program, so he had already taught many boys the art of singing, and evidently something about faith, too. As one of the boys made ready to set sail for the east coast of North America, the stories of such a journey and its hazards – still present in the mid-19th Century – must have caused more than a little anxiety, so William offered a measure of encouragement to him and the other boys. He didn’t speak of his own experience on the seas – it’s unknown if he in fact had any to draw upon. Instead, he taught the boys to lean upon someone else – the Eternal God, the Creator of the sea that now presented itself to the uneasy one about to set sail. Whiting’s reputation among the boys evidently met with approval by the school’s authorities, for he would be there another 18 years, continuing what we see in this incident or other various forms of it for many more years. When he penned these words of reassurance in 1860, William was really just halfway through what would constitute the bulk of his life’s work.

Not much more is known of William Whiting, although a handful of musical texts and two books of poetry are attributed to him. William completed his own journey in 1878, some might say prematurely at just 53 years of age. But, he made an impact. He showed boys growing into manhood that it’s okay to admit one’s dependence on another source for protection, that I can ‘cry to Thee’ (v.1) when I’m afraid. That verbalization – crying to Thee – is in fact the most often-used phrase in Whiting’s lexicon of this song. It’s all right to cower a bit, he suggests. But, I needn’t quake irrationally, because He is also there. William must have said this to many boys across 36 years of service at Winchester. He’s still saying it today, really. This message resonated with an American president and an English prime minister aboard a ship in 1941, testifying to its potency. If wars continue, you and I may hear William’s words yet again. And, He’ll still be there to calm us.    
See more information on the song story in these sources: The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; 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.

Also see this link, showing all four original verses, as well as six alternate verses:

See this link for information about the primary author:

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Find Us Faithful -- John Mohr

John is a voiceover professional, so if you’ve ever heard a pleasing, resonant baritone voice in a commercial, it just might be his. His might be called a ‘velvet’ voice. But there’s another voice that John Mohr has used, one with a background story that he may sometimes wish had never moved him to speak – one that  admitted betrayal. What he felt in the wake of his admission of guilt spurred the words he penned in “Find Us Faithful”, a hope that he indicates has grown over the succeeding years as he watches a couple of generations proceed in his footsteps. Having bloodlines to those he wanted to motivate was undoubtedly part of the impetus for John’s words and notes in 1988, but the rest of us can broaden the audience to whom we look as we think about the coming journey of offspring – spiritual or not, those we may not have even met or imagined yet.

It’s not clear where John Mohr was when he wrote “Find Us Faithful” – perhaps he was in our near California (see its seal here), where he has lived much of his life with his family – but the story he tells indicates it was a life chapter that developed while he was in many places. It’s a story that John says emerged as he looked back on several years of marital unfaithfulness. After many years of deceit, John says multiple friends convinced him that he needed confession – complete and brutally straightforward – in order to make his life right. He describes his wife Luanne’s forgiveness as nothing short of miraculous, analogous to what he reflects upon is true for all those who confess and trust God’s leading – that freedom is the reward. In the wake of this realization, John composed ‘Find Us…’, probably because he already had children whom he wanted to impress with the importance of being in touch with a godly faith. He evidently did not expect that a journey that has included touring with the Gaither Vocal Band; or singing among other believers in various venues in the Nashville area; or even living in Ukraine where he worked with hospitals and orphanages with Luanne and their six kids was a guarantee of the message’s transmission. Even though the voice he has used most often in the last 10 years (2010-19) has been in thousands of commercials and even in an audio version of the bible, John’s words in the song he wrote in 1988 still resonate perhaps most loudly and personally. They are about himself, but invite others to personalize them.    

Think about what voice you want them to hear. That’s what John Mohr might say best sums up the poem he wrote as he felt the release from a guilty conscience and considered how others might listen to his words of encouragement. You and I may not have physical offspring, as John Mohr does. But, my own experience in faith has had me crossing paths with others whom I never knew until I was an adult – friends, church leaders, ministers, and others. I hear their voices, too. And, whether I appreciate this much, others may pay attention to my voice also. The trick is to get them to hear not me, but Him. John Mohr reminds me that I’m part of a ‘heritage of faithfulness’ (v.2), a group of ‘pilgrims on the journey’ (v.1), not a lonesome soul drifting into nothingness. Join the crowd, and grab some others to bring along!   

See the author’s home page here, and imagine his ‘voiceover’ voice singing the words he wrote in 1988: