Today is the first Sunday of Advent for 2008, and we mark the first day of a new year in the liturgical calendar. Last year during this season, I added to my series Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth by drawing in the Advent-themed hymns that fit into my Advent blogging program. This year I don’t have a formal blogging program planned for Advent, so I’ll be adding Christmas carols to the list. The church I grew up in did not mark Advent or observe the liturgical calendar at all, so there were simply Christmas carols for the weeks leading up to Christmas. This week’s entry was written by Phillips Brooks in 1867. There are alternate tunes for the carol, but the original and probably most familiar is the one by Lewis Redner, who was Brooks’ organist at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The tune came to him on Christmas Eve, and was first sung the next day.
The eightieth entry in my weekly series Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth may appear to take a bit of a departure from the usual tone, but my excuse is that I actually recall singing it in the adult service rather than in Sunday School. The drone of the organ at the end of the verses is the give-away for me. For some reason the organ — no matter who the organist was — in the church always seemed to drone on a bit after the voices had died out and the piano had stopped. It was always piano and organ in my youth… guitars and drums weren’t until much later. “Praise Him, All Ye Little Children” isn’t being presented today with an type of background on its inspiration or story about the composer… the hymn (or song?) is actually anonymous, though the music is by Carey Bonner, who lived from 1859-1938. And that’s all we’ve got to go on. I wonder, does anyone else have memories of this song? Perhaps you imagine the Anglo-Saxon Jesus when you sing it? When I was a kid, this was what Jesus looked like. We had pictures to proove it.
This week my series Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth sees the addition of a hymn from 1912 by Leila Morris. Leila was active in the Methodist church, camp meetings, and song writing, authoring more than 1,000 Gospel songs. When her eyes began to fail, her son built her a 28-foot blackboard with extra-large staff lines, which she used to continue composing. “Sweeter as the Years Go By” is from the early years of her blindness. I recall the song from my youth, though mainly just the first verse from that time. Interestingly enough, a favorite recording of the song is one I wouldn’t discover until many years later, and can be found on the Blind Willie Johnson album of the same title, Sweeter as the Years Go By. Lest I digress more fully into the works of Blind Willie Johnson, we need to step along to the lyrics to the hymn at hand.
Heaven has occupied a central focus in the future hope of many Christians, and this week’s hymn, “When We All Get to Heaven,” gives voice to a lot of these hopes. I recall heaven being the focal point of spiritual hope for the future — particularly through the 70s, but many will know this feeling even today. My notion of this has been adjusted or reinforced through reading N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (CBD Link). As N.T. Wright has said, “Heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world.” (I’ve blogged on this theme previously as well.) Despite the fact of heaven not being the end of the line, it still seems appropriate to anticipate it as a significant milestone in the journey-story of the people of God.
This week in Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth, I’m entering another one of those love-hate hymns. As background, Elvina M. Hall was born: June 4, 1822 in Alexandria, Virginia and died July 18, 1889 in Ocean Grove, New Jersey. The daughter of Captain David Reynolds, she married Richard Hall of Westmoreland County, Virginia. Following Hall’s death, she was remarried to Thomas Meyers, a Methodist minister in Baltimore, Maryland. Settling there, she attended the Monument Street Methodist Church in Baltimore for forty years. In 1865, she wrote the words to “Jesus Paid it All.” Meanwhile, John T. Grape was initially told by friends that a piece of music he had written was unremarkable, but his wife continued in her opinion that it would be a lasting score. Grape’s Pastor, Rev. George W. Schrek was already aware of the words to this hymn when he heard Grape’s score, and felt they would be best matched together. The song was thus published in 1868.
Another hymn recalled from my youth is being entered into the series Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth this weekend, this one representing a familiar longing for many.
Eliza Edmunds Hewitt was born June 28, 1851 in Philadelphia, PA. Valedictorian of her class at the Girls Normal School in Philadelphia, she went on to a teaching career in the public schools of Philadelphia. (She looks like a school teacher, doesn’t she?) One day while she was disciplining a pupil, the boy struck her across her back with a heavy piece of slate. This serious injury became a spinal condition that confined her to a bed for some time in a heavy body cast. Upon its removal she wrote a song of gratitude called “There is Sunshine in my Soul Today.” She was an invalid most of the remainder of her life, but continued writing, becoming a prolific writer of Sunday School literature, and poems. Some suggest it may have run in the family — her cousin was hymnist Edgar Stites.
The weekly addition to my series Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth first appeared in the 1930s, with the first known recording in 1941. By the end of the 70s, more than 100 artists had recorded Just a Closer Walk With Thee, including as a duet, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. I haven’t heard that version, but I suspect it would rank as one of my favorites. This hymn is so well-known that I imagine most of us have a version of it that will play in our head that was recorded by some well-known artist. The hymn is the most frequently played one at jazz funerals, though perhaps some will remember it sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Regardless, the lyrics carry a cry of the heart with which many can identify… the longing to walk more closely with Christ, looking to him for strength and deliverance.
It’s time to chalk up another item to the list in my series Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth, so I’ve selected a fairly well-known hymn, which I thought I’d be out of this deep into the series. I didn’t actually realize how many familiar hymns are rattling around in my brain.
Augustus Montague Toplady was born in Farnham, Surrey, England in November 1740. His father, Richard, became a commissioned officer in the Royal Marines in 1739 and had reached the rank of major. In May 1741 (shortly after Augustus’ birth) when he participated in the Battle of Cartagena de Indias, the most significant battle of the War of Jenkins’ Ear, where he died (most likely of yellow fever), leaving Augustus’ mother to raise the boy alone.