Wednesday, March 21, 2012

What Wondrous Love Is This?

In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might
live through him.
Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us,
and sent his Son
to be the propitiation for our sins.

~ 1 John 4:9-10

Among the miracles of sacred music is that one doesn't have to have an extensive education in writing to compose inspiring text, nor in composition or arrangement to marry the text with a beautiful, moving tune. Nor is great skill or experience in musical performance needed to sing most of the exquisitely moving hymns that have come down to us over the centuries. Many of the most famous and moving hymns familiar to us today, sung in churches and in gatherings of Christian believers throughout the world, sprang from the spiritual experiences and sentiments of unknown humble people living otherwise ordinary lives, in remote times and places. These treasures have become enshrined in our culture through oral tradition, often aided by the work of more educated men and women who sojourned among the common people and preserved their best native music in compilations from which organized churches later drew much of the material for their hymnals and songbooks, thus bringing them out of obscurity and into the spiritual experience of believers everywhere.
A leading example of these "folk hymns" is the hauntingly beautiful What Wondrous Love is This?, often titled simply Wondrous Love. Its discovery and preservation are most widely attributed to William Walker (1809-1875), an American Baptist song leader, shape note "singing master," and compiler of folk music. A brief biography notes that while yet a teenager the musically gifted Walker led congregational singing at the First Baptist Church in his home town of Spartanburg, South Carolina; later he collected and arranged folk tunes, and participated in singing schools and compiled melodies from southern Appalachia and camp meetings. After moving to Hartford, Connecticut, Walker published The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion in 1835, using the shaped note music notation system that was for generations the foundation of musical teaching in rural America, and on which the "Sacred Harp" singing tradition is based. Wondrous Love was included in this compilation, and from it this hymn gained its first widespread exposure (although it may have first appeared in print in earlier, lesser-known compilations).

William Walker and his Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, 1835

True to its folk origins, the melody of Wondrous Love appears to be a variant of a once-familiar dance tune that was set to the text of a song called "Captain Kid." The tune is in a form of minor called Dorian mode, which gives the hymn its "haunting" or "plaintive" character. This mode also leaves an impression that the melody should end one step lower than it does, producing a sense of incompletion--when it is over, one feels as if there is still more to sing. This is serves as an invitation to repetition, which is central to the hymn's appeal.

This becomes clear from the text of Wondrous Love, which recounts and celebrates the central truth, and most precious miracle, of being: that Justice and Mercy are One, that God is love (1 John 4:8), and that to save every person from his own sins, the innocent Lord of All left His glorious throne in Eternity and, while we were yet sinners, gave His life for us (Romans 5:8).
What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul.

When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down,
When I was sinking down, sinking down,
When I was sinking down beneath God’s righteous frown,
Christ laid aside His crown for my soul, for my soul,
Christ laid aside His crown for my soul.

To God and to the Lamb, I will sing, I will sing;
To God and to the Lamb, I will sing.
To God and to the Lamb who is the great "I Am";
While millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing;
While millions join the theme, I will sing.

And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on;
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on.
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing and joyful be;
And through eternity, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on;
And through eternity, I’ll sing on.

Despite the tune's minor key, which is often associated with sadness, Wondrous Love bursts with the redeemed sinner's joyful exultation, thankfulness, and praise for his Savior. This glorious theme is strengthened by the repetition in each stanza, which not only made the hymn easy to learn and remember for the 19th century Appalachian pioneers who first sang it, but also (as one observer notes), functions like a rhythmic incantation or mantra, building and reinforcing the power of the message as the hymn progresses. Beginning with a sense of wonder and awe, the hymn becomes a triumphant anthem that literally echoes "through eternity."

As this is a folk-based song published a number of times in various compilations and hymnals since the early 19th century, there are many additional or alternative verses, and there have been a number of arrangements.

Several excellent video performances of Wondrous Love are available; my only difficulty was choosing which to feature here. The rendition below is a capella by the fine bluegrass group Mountain Blue--and the video presents a host of inspiring images of our Savior:

The next rendition is by American folksinger and songwriter Connie Dover in a vaguely Celtic style, accompanied by uilleann pipes and synthesized background music. The verses here are more numerous and depart somewhat from the traditional text--focusing less on Christ's bearing of our guilt than on the joy of knowing His love--but are still historically grounded, and beautiful.The video features stunning images of Michelangelo's Pieta and other great works of Christian art:

Christian artist Fernando Ortega presents a unique and beautiful arrangement for solo piano and cello, accompanying his achingly expressive voice:

And now for something completely different--yet, perhaps, truest to its origins: Wondrous Love sung in the "Sacred Harp" style! This was recorded at the Southwest Theological Seminary, Fort Worth Texas, in January 2012:

As we remember the Passion of our Lord during this Lenten season, and approach the precious time of Easter, let us all "sing and joyful be," and keep always in our hearts and minds the Wondrous Love that makes possible life with Him "through all eternity"!

But we see Jesus,
who was made a little lower than the angels
for the suffering of death,
crowned with glory and honour;
that He by the grace of God
should taste death for every man.

~ Hebrews 2:9


  1. What a great and moving hymn, especially as we approach Easter! The portraits included in the different renditions are very moving too.

    The 'original' sound of the last video reminds me much of the early American composer William Billings. His music was sung in New England congregations pre-1776, and says a lot, in just a few verses.

    Well done!!

  2. Awesome!

    Please add a face book link!