Hemp Ropes I’ve been thinking about community lately, and so for this week’s edition of Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth, I’ve selected one on this theme: “Blest Be the Tie That Binds.” This one was composed by John Fawcett (1740-1817). Fawcett was con­vert­ed at 16 un­der George White­field and joined the Meth­od­ists, but three years lat­er be­gan at­tend­ing the Bap­tist Church in Brad­ford, Eng­land. He began to preach and was or­dained as a Bap­tist at Wains­gate, York­shire. In 1772 he was in­vit­ed to suc­ceed J. Gill as pas­tor of the Car­ter’s Lane Bap­tist Church in Lon­don. Having preached his fare­well ser­mon, on the day of his de­part­ure with wa­gons load­ed and ready to go, he was so over­come by the thought of leav­ing the con­gre­ga­tion that he can­celed his plans and stayed at Wains­gate. In 1793, Fawcett was in­vit­ed to leave, this time to become pre­si­dent of the Bap­tist Aca­de­my in Bris­tol — he de­clined and stayed put. He received a Doctor of Divinity degree in 1811.

Fawcett is thus a good example of a pastor who has the kind of love for his parish that he cannot leave them… evidently their lives had become entwined to the point that good-byes were unbearable for him, despite the offer of more prestigious positions. It seems very unlike some of the pastoral circuit we’ve known more recently, where pastors will seek positions of greater influence and stature, citing it as the call of God to increase their ministry. Odd, God doesn’t call them to lateral or lesser parishes or sizes of church. In any event, Fawcett’s hymns seem to have been published in the late 1700s and though I couldn’t find mention of any direct correlation, and it seems that his canceled relocation plans must have been the background for the words to the hymn.

Now, as a youth — and truth be told even now — I was (am) particularly irked by the clear break in the middle of pretty much every sentence in the hymn with an unnatural pause. The tune plods along slow and relentless, and in some ways it’s painful even now… as a child hearing the song, I couldn’t imagine how that kind of sadly droning music could talk about a blessing of any sort… and this “tie that binds,” who knew what that was all about anyway? Clearly the language is archaic, 200 years old by the time we got to singing it. I can only hope it was more suited to the times in which it was written, as by our time it was the epitome of church music that was markedly out of step with the times. Still, the hymn isn’t all bad… let’s look at the lyrics.

Blest Be the Tie That Binds

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.

Before our Father’s throne
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one
Our comforts and our cares.

We share each other’s woes,
Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.

When we asunder part,
It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again.

This glorious hope revives
Our courage by the way;
While each in expectation lives,
And longs to see the day.

From sorrow, toil and pain,
And sin, we shall be free,
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity.

As I said, Fawcett understood something about community — and about not placing personal advancement above relational ties. In certain church contexts, “the tie that binds” sounds more like the tie that constricts, restrains, and suffocates. Some expressions of Christian community are a little claustrophobic, and the phrase was appropriated a dozen years ago for a dark thriller movie. About the time I was singing this in church (stiffly trussed up in a necktie) as a child, P.G. Wodehouse appropriated the phrase for a “Jeeves” book title. It’s generally understood to refer to familial ties, and so it stands appropriately in Fawcett’s use of the phrase, which (lost to me as a child) he unpacks well in his lyrics. His hymn was to me an unfortunately archaic anachronism imposed upon me as a child, but far sadder still, his understanding of Christian community speaks of something that is much more tragically anachronistic than the hymn itself.

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