Friday, December 12, 2014

Good King Wenceslas

Christmas-time is generally regarded as the season of giving--and today in Western countries, sadly, the season of buying. But how many of our Christmas gifts involve real sacrifice on our part, beyond the mere purchase price? How often, at this (or any) time of year, do we venture outside our comfort zone and emulate Jesus' example of bestowing real help, person-to-person, upon someone of society's lowliest, poorest individuals? Do we set examples to our young people of real charity, or only of tokenistic materialism?

The repertoire of traditional Christmas hymns and carols includes at least one that exemplifies, in the most endearing way, what Christmas--and being Christian--is all about. You've almost certainly heard the carol Good King Wenceslas, and maybe even sung it. But do you know the compelling story behind the carol?  Have you carefully read and thought about the words' meaning and significance?


Good King Wenceslas tells the story of a king who, with his page, ventures out of the palace to bring alms to a poor peasant whom he has seen gathering firewood on the Feast of Stephen (the day after Christmas, December 26). During the journey, the page is about to give up the struggle against the cold and stormy weather, but is enabled to continue by the warmth miraculously emanating from the king's footprints in the snow.

This legend is in turn based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia (907–935 A.D.). He presided over Bohemia (which today forms part of the Czech Republic) from 921 until his assassination in 935, purportedly in a plot by his own brother, Boleslav the Cruel (c. 915-972 A.D.). During his short reign, Wenceslas strove to alleviate the oppression of serfs, reform the judicial system, and spread Christianity throughout his country. Wenceslas' martyrdom (his brother was backed by pagan factions), and the popularity of several biographies of him that circulated widely within a few decades of his death, gave rise to a reputation on his part for heroic goodness, resulting in his being elevated to sainthood, posthumously declared king, and seen as the patron saint of the Czech state. Wenceslas came to personify the High Middle Ages concept of the rex justus, or "righteous king"—that is, a monarch whose power stems mainly from his great piety, as well as from his princely vigor.

But how did this legend become a famous Christmas carol?

John Mason Neale
Thomas Helmore
In 1853 the British ambassador to Sweden, G. J. R. Gordon, returned to England with a copy of the 16th-century song book Piae Cantiones, which he presented to Anglican clergyman John Mason Neale (1818–1866), who was known for his interest in early music. Neale in turn passed the book on to Rev. Thomas Helmore (1811-1890), whom he knew to an expert interpreter of the mensural notation in which the tunes were given. Helmore adapted the carol melodies, while Neale translated the words of the songs into English, or in a few cases wrote completely new texts for them. He and Helmore published 12 of these tunes in the same year as Carols for Christmastide. This set included Good King Wenceslasconsisting of Neale's original words set to the tune of the 13th century Finnish carol Tempus adest floridum ("The time is near for flowering"), which had been included in the Piae Cantiones.

As noted by one researcher, Neale's new carol was not well received by literary critics of the day, one calling it "poor and commonplace to the last degree" and others "doggerel." But the public wasn't influenced by the critics, and they made it "the hit of the century." The carol's popularity grew in Great Britain, and it was soon sung in the New World as well. Eventually, it became the signature carol for St. Stephen's Day (or Boxing Day as it is known in the British Commonwealth and some Scandinavian countries), December 26, when alms boxes often kept in churches were traditionally opened so that the contents could be distributed to poor people. One can see why from Neale's text:

Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gathering winter fuel.

Hither, page, and stand by me, if you know it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?
Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.

Bring me food and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither,
You and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither.
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together,
Through the cold wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.

Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger,
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.
Mark my footsteps, my good page, tread now in them boldly,
You shall find the winter’s rage freeze your blood less coldly.

In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
You who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.


The question remains why John Mason Neale would choose an obscure medieval figure from a far-away country, who was not widely revered in England at the time, upon whom to base a carol about charity at Christmas. Some understanding about this may be gleaned from Neale's own life and character, which--apart from scholarship--were centered largely on alleviating the distress of poverty and illness.

Ordained in the Church of England during the middle of the 19th century, Neale's health was so frail that he could not supervise a parish. Instead, he was assigned to be warden of a poorhouse named Sackville College. In the course of his duties, Neale had many opportunities to see the misery of the poor in rural villages, some of whom died unattended. Neale also denounced churches that allowed the wealthy to box off sections of the church to separate themselves from commoners. In 1854, Neale co-founded the Society of Saint Margaret, an order of women in the Anglican Church dedicated to nursing the sick.

As one observer suggests:
Perhaps Neale found in Wenceslas the symbol of Christian charity and servitude which had become Neale's own most important principle of Christian life. Neale connected Wenceslas to Christmas, a season of special "good will." By setting his touching story of a medieval Saint to a catchy, medieval tune, he created a hybrid carol that has become a classic. Through this song, Neale's own spirit of charity lives on, and has encouraged people, generation after generation, to practice this Christian virtue.
(Margaret Vainio, Good King Wenceslas--An "English" Carol: The Appearance of Piae Cantiones Melodies in 19th Century England (1999), p. 37).


What is especially inspiring about Good King Wenceslas--and makes it so fitting for the Christmas season--is the spirit of love, giving, and self-sacrifice that infuses it. The King is touched by the plight of the peasant he sees braving the elements to provide for his family, and willingly steps out of his comfortable, privileged world and into the raging storm himself, carrying provisions in his own arms to bring help to the poor man. There is also great love and trust between the King and his page, whom he encourages and enables, through a wonderful miracle,to endure the challenge before them. Is this story an allegory of Christ, the Good King who lowers Himself to succor the wretched and helpless, and the faithful but self-doubting servant, his page?


Because Good King Wenceslas is so widely known and loved in its traditional form, rather few recordings of it really stand out. One that surely does is a December 18, 2012 performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, with actress Jane Seymour narrating the Wenceslas story to delightful dance, music, and song.

Perhaps the most famous recording of Good King Wenceslas is one made in the 1940s or 50s by Bing Crosby. Here's a video version, with images taken from an engaging old comic book telling of the story.

Perhaps reflecting the tune's origins as a spring dance, here is a sprightly, Renaissance-tinged version of Good King Wenceslas sung by American vocalist/lyricist Candice Night with the folk-rock band Blackmores Night:

* * * * * * *
May we all emulate the Good King's example this Christmas--and all year--by extending ourselves to share our blessings with others less fortunate.

But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind:
and thou shalt be blessed; for they cannot recompense thee:
for thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just.  Luke 14:13-14

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Now Thank We All Our God

The Angelus, by Jean Francois Millet (1859)

One of the great miracles of sincere faith in God is that thanks may be given to Him even amidst the deepest suffering. The Bible tells us that we should "[i]n every thing give thanks" (1 Thess. 5:18), and "[give] thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Eph. 5:20). Indeed, we should "[c]ount it all joy" when we encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of our faith produces endurance (James 1:2-3). Even Job, the archetype of sufferers, could humbly declare: "The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." (Job 1:21)

Some of Christendom's most moving hymns of thanksgiving have been born of personal tragedy, prominent among them Horatio Spafford's It is Well WIth My Soul.  Communal suffering, arising from such calamities as war and pestilence, has likewise and improbably inspired great treasures of choral thanksgiving. One of the foremost is the beloved German hymn "Nun danket alle Gott", known in English as Now Thank We All Our God

The text was written by Lutheran minister Martin Rinkart (1586-1649) in or about 1636, in Eilenburg, Saxony (a province of Germany). At that time and place was raging the Thirty Years' War, among the bloodiest and most destructive conflicts in European history--and one of the longest, dragging on from 1618 to 1648. Initially a war between Protestant and Catholic states in the fragmenting Holy Roman Empire, it gradually developed into a more general conflict involving most of the great powers of Europe. This war devastated and depopulated whole regions of the German and Italian states, the Kingdom of Bohemia, and the Low Countries. The war also bankrupted most of the combatant powers. Hordes of mercenary troops looted property, extorted tribute, and murdered common people by the thousands. The displacement of civilian populations and the overcrowding of refugees into cities led to famine and the spread of dread diseases such as typhusdysentery, and bubonic plague.

Caught in this maelstrom was Eilenburg, where Martin Rinkart was born into a poor coppersmith's family on April 23, 1586. Despite his humble origins he became a boy chorister in the famous Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) of Leipzig, where Johann Sebastian Bach was later musical director and is buried. Rinkart studied at the University of Leipzig and was ordained to the Lutheran Church ministry. At the age of 31, he became a pastor in his native town.

Eilenburg, Germany today
Rinkart arrived there just as the chaos of the Thirty Years' War was starting. The steady stream of refugees pouring through the gates of this walled city brought famine and disease in its wake. The Rinkart home served as a refuge for the afflicted victims, even though Martin often had trouble providing food and clothing for his own family. Eilenberg was also overrun by invading armies, once by the Austrian army and twice by the Swedish army. As the latter surrounded the city, nearly a thousand homes were destroyed, and the death toll soared. The handful of pastors remaining in the town had to conduct dozens of funerals daily. Finally, the pastors also succumbed, and Martin Rinkart was the only one left. At the height of the great plague in 1637, he conducted as many as 50 funerals in a day, and more than 4000 funerals in that year, including his wife's. By the end of the year, the refugees had to be buried in trenches without services.

Soldiers Plundering a Farm During the Thirty Years' War, by Sebastian Vrancx (1620)

The story is told that when the Swedes demanded a huge ransom, Rinkart left the safety of Eilenburg's walls to plead for mercy. At first the the Swedish commander refused, so the pastor turned to his humble flock and said, "Come, my children, we can find no mercy with man; let us take refuge with God."  Rinkart knelt and led his parishioners in prayer, and in the singing of a familiar hymn. The Swedish commander was so impressed by his faith and courage that he lowered the ransom demand. (Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories (Kregel Publications, 1982), p. 174).


Despite all the horrors he had witnessed, and all he had lost among family and friends, Martin Rinkart was still able to declare joyfully, "Nun danket alle Gott."  This text is said to have been inspired by a passage in the Apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 50:22-24 ("And now bless the God of all, who in every way does great things; who exalts our days from birth, and deals with us according to his mercy. May he give us gladness of heart, and grant that peace may be in our days in Israel, as in the days of old. May he entrust to us his mercy! And let him deliver us in our days!"). The verses are few and simple, but bursting with thanksgiving and praise to our loving Heavenly Father and His Son, our Savior:
Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessèd peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!
All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;
The Son and Him Who reigns with Them in highest Heaven;
The one eternal God, whom earth and Heaven adore;

For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.
Catherine Winkworth
This text is thought to have first appeared in Rinkart's 1636 hymn collection Jesu Hertz-Buchlein, but no copy of that publication is now known. The text also appears in the second (1663) edition of Jesu Hertz-Büchlein, where the wording slightly varies, and the piece is entitled "Grace" ("Tisch-Gebetlein," that is, a short prayer at table). But its real fame derives from its 1647 appearance in Praxis Pietatis Melica, a hymn collection edited by renowned German composer Johann Crüger (1598-1662), and regarded as the outstanding German hymnal of the 17th century.

The text was translated from German to English by Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878), in 1856. This was not its first translation into English, but is generally regarded as the best.  According to The Harvard University Hymn Book, Ms. Winkworth "did more than any other single individual to make the rich heritage of German hymnody available to the English-speaking world."


Johann Crüger
 Felix Mendelssohn
The tune to which Rinkart's text has been sung, ever since they appeared together in the 1647 Praxis Pietatis Melica, is NUN DANKET, also known as the Leuthen Chorale. The melody is generally attributed to Johann Crüger, although Catherine Winkworth believed that Martin Rinkart wrote the tune in 1644. The now-standard harmonization was devised by Felix Mendelssohn in 1840 when he adopted the hymn, sung in the key of F major and with its original German lyrics, as the chorale to his Second Symphony, known as the Lobgesang or Hymn of Praise.

After the Battle of Leuthen in 1757, during another conflict between European powers known as the Seven Years' War, an unknown Prussian soldier standing near Frederick the Great is said to have begun singing the Leuthen Chorale spontaneously, upon which the hymn was taken up by the entire assembled Prussian army, about 25.000 men.



Now Thank We All Our God is often used in Christian weddings and other joyous religious ceremonies. It has been called the national "Te Deum" of  Germany because it has been sung on so many occasions of national rejoicing. (Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories (Kregel Publications, 1982), p. 173).


In the beautiful video below, Now Thank We All Our God is performed by a magnificent, but unidentified, solo tenor backed by a choir.

The traditional choral rendition in the video below is by the Chamber Choir of Lincoln Minster School in Lincoln, Lincolnshire, England.

In this video, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra perform Now Thank We All Our God, in an arrangement by British composer and conductor John Rutter that emphasizes the hymn's exultant, celebratory character:

The lovely video below features the Chorale from Felix Mendelssohn's Second Symphony (Lobgesang), which is based on Johann Crüger's tune NUN DANKET (the Chorale ends at 4:22 of the video):

* * * * * 
Calamity and suffering are always occasions to pray, typically for mercy and relief. But they can also be occasions to thank God for all He has done for us and all we are confident He will yet do. Did He not give us life?  Did not Jesus suffer more than we can comprehend, to purchase for us redemption and eternal life? We will always be vexed less than many others, and always infinitely blessed through Christ's loving atonement. This is more than enough reason, despite our earthly trials, to sing with the Psalmist: "O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever." (Psalm 106:1)


The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say

Down through the centuries many have observed how people of true faith tend to exhibit an uncommon degree of confidence, courage, resilience, and inner peace. It's not that they don't occasionally suffer doubt, fear, sorrow, or discouragement, but they're able to fight through these challenges and emerge in a better place.  Why?  Perhaps it's faith that we have a Savior who traded his Heavenly glory and His mortal life to save us from our own sin, who provides us a sure refuge and guidance in times of trial, and who has kept for us an eternal and blissfully happy home with Him. Believers know these things because He promised them Himself, in the Gospel!

Horatius Bonar
One of the most inspiring hymns reflecting on our Lord's precious promises is I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.  The text was written in 1846 (or perhaps a few years earlier) by Scottish churchman and poet Horatius Bonar (1808-1889). It was published the same year in Bonar's Hymns Original and Selected (and in his Hymns of Faith & Hope (1857)), in three stanzas, under the title “The Voice from Galilee." At this time Bonar was pastoring a Presbyterian church in the rural market town of Kelso in the Scottish Borders area. Bonar remained in Kelso for 28 years, after which he moved to a larger church in Edinburgh, where he served the rest of his life. By this time he had become one of his country's most admired preachers. Bonar was acclaimed "the Prince of Scottish Hymn Writers" and "the Charles Wesley of Scotland," having written over 600 hymns during his career. I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say is generally considered to be his finest. (See Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories (Kregel Publications, 1982), pp. 104-105)

As with most of his hymns, Rev. Bonar wrote this one with children in mind--specifically, his Sunday School students--being always concerned that they learn and sing the great truths about the person and work of Christ.  Perhaps his love of children derived from the fact that he and his wife lost five of their own in rapid succession, yet he had hundreds in his Sunday Schools. (See Robert J. Morgan, Then Sings My Soul: 150 of the World's Greatest Hymn Stories (Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2003), p. 117)  In later life, his widowed daughter and her five children had to move in with him. Bonar rejoiced; to him it was as if God had given him five children to replace those he had lost. In any case, while many of his hymns were originally written for children, they were so full of sound teaching that adults loved to sing them as well.


The four stanzas of "I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say" (often the fourth is omitted from hymnals and performances) presents in a compelling way several of our Lord's pointed, personal invitations to mankind and the promises attached to them. In the second pair of lines in each stanza, the individual's acceptance of the invitation, and the spiritual results promised, are described. (See Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories (Kregel Publications, 1982), pp. 104-105)

Stanza One:    Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. (Matt. 11:28)

Stanza Two:    [W]hosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life. (John 4:14)

Stanza Three:    I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.  (John 8:12)

Stanza Four:    In my Father's house are many mansions . . .  I go to prepare a place for you. (John 14:2)

Now let's see how beautifully Horatius Bonar expressed these priceless truths in his verse:

    I heard the voice of Jesus say, “Come unto Me and rest;
    Lay down, thou weary one, lay down Thy head upon My breast.”
    I came to Jesus as I was, weary and worn and sad;
    I found in Him a resting place, and He has made me glad.

    I heard the voice of Jesus say, “Behold, I freely give
    The living water; thirsty one, stoop down, and drink, and live.”
    I came to Jesus, and I drank of that life giving stream;
    My thirst was quenched, my soul revived, and now I live in Him.

    I heard the voice of Jesus say, “I am this dark world’s Light;
    Look unto Me, thy morn shall rise, and all thy day be bright.”
    I looked to Jesus, and I found in Him my Star, my Sun;
    And in that light of life I’ll walk, till traveling days are done.

    I heard the voice of Jesus say, "My Father’s house above
    Has many mansions; I’ve a place prepared for you in love."
    I trust in Jesus—in that house, according to His word,
    Redeemed by grace, my soul shall live forever with the Lord.


Over the years Bonar's text has been set to a number of different tunes.

John Bacchus Dykes
The first first was specifically composed for it in 1868 by English clergyman and hymnist John Bacchus Dykes (1823-1876), and called VOX DELICTI--Latin for "Voice of the Beloved."  In it, the Lord's gracious invitations to our burdened souls are expressed in a somber G-minor key, while the responses and the contentment they bring are heard in a happier G-major key. This key change halfway through accents the positive message of the last two lines, "I came to Jesus…"

In the following video (which is, unfortunately, static), Bonar's text is set to VOX DELICTI and sung by Bradley Garvin, a bass-baritone with the Metropolitan Opera of New York City, with piano accompaniement by his mother Martha Reed Garvin of "Musical Memories" fame.

John D. Brunk
In 1911, American music educator John D. Brunk (1872-1926) composed an uplifting tune for I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say which he called, appropriately, BONAR. Brunk was a member of the Mennonite Church (MC). He was not only a compiler of hymns and tunes but also an able composer, writing many hymn and gospel song tunes in the spirit of the church and for her use. He was also greatly loved and respected by his many pupils. BONAR is the tune yours truly first heard I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say sung to, and it remains my favorite. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find sheet music for this tune to present here. The performance in the video below is by the Antrim Mennonite Choir.

Ralph Vaughan Williams
Today, the most popular musical setting for Bonar's text appears to be the tune KINGSFOLD, arranged in 1906 by the great English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).  KINGSFOLD is based on a folk tune, thought by some scholars to date back to the Middle Ages, set to a variety of texts in England and Ireland. The tune is familiar to many as that associated with the Irish folk song "Star of the County Down" and Vaughan Williams' arrangement of the traditional ballad "Dives and Lazarus."  After having heard the tune in Kingsfold, Sussex, England, Vaughan Williams introduced it as a hymn tune in The English Hymnal (1906) as a setting for I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.

The performance to KINGSFOLD in the video below is by the Manchester Cathedral Choir.

Contemporary artists are still putting Horatio Bonar's inspiring text to new tunes. Here is a beautiful example (the performer isn't identified):


Henry Ward Beecher
I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say is reported to have been the last hymn that the great 19th-century evangelist Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) heard sung in his beloved Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York, on March 6, 1887, just two days before he passed away. As the choir was practicing the hymn, Beecher was seen embracing two young street urchins who had wandered into the church to enjoy the music. A few hours later, Beecher lapsed into a coma and died without regaining consciousness. As stated by Rev. Duncan Morrison in The Great Hymns of the Church (Toronto, Canada: Hart & Company, 1890): "It was fitting that he who took such an active part in the emancipation of the slave should close his life under the inspiration of this tender hymn, and take those two street arabs to his heart as representing the humanity he loved so well!"

* * * * *
A salient thing to know about the Lord's invitations to us, and the promises attached to them, is that they are essentially unconditional. They require no special preparations or qualifications, nor do they depend on our own "righteousness." The only sacrifice He requires is "a broken and a contrite heart." (Psalm 51:17)  We need but "come" and "drink," and Christ's infinite blessings are poured out upon us. We are made clean and a new creation not by our selves, but through His atoning sacrifice on the Cross. May every one that is weary of this world and thirsting for a better, eternal life hear and accept the Lord's gracious invitations to come, rest, drink, and live through Him!

"[W]hosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him
shall never thirst; the water that I shall give him
shall be in him a well of water springing up
into everlasting life." (John 4:14)

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Come, Ye Disconsolate

For innumerable evils have compassed me about: mine iniquities have taken hold upon me, so that I am not able to look up;
they are more than the hairs of mine head: therefore my heart faileth me.
Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me:
O Lord, make haste to help me.
~ (Psalm 40:12-13)

Every person, at some point (and probably many) in life, will know profound sorrow and anguish. It may be the passing of a loved one, some material or financial devastation, or a diagnosis of serious illness. It may be the dashing of one's hopes and dreams: the failure of a business venture, or worse, the breakup of a marriage. Or it may be the guilt, shame, and regret that usually follow upon gravely sinful conduct. Whatever it is, the sufferer may be crushed by feelings of loneliness, helplessness, and hopelessness--unless he or she finds someone who can sympathize, ease the burden, and provide encouragement and hope.

One of the most precious truths we know is that such comfort is available to every person, without condition, 24/7: our very own Savior and brother Jesus Christ. He entreats us to  "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28)  He is our advocate with the Father, our "great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God . . . we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need." (Hebrews 4:14-16)

So we are reminded in one of the greatest hymns of reassurance, Come, Ye Disconsolate. The text was written in 1816 by Thomas Moore (1779-1852), an Irish-born poet, singer, songwriter, and entertainer. Under the title "Relief in Prayer," it was first published that same year in Moore's Sacred Songs, Duets and Trios, one of 32 hymn texts in that collection.

Thomas Moore, 1817
We don't often see the word "disconsolate" in modern American usage; it has been defined as "without consolation or solace; hopelessly unhappy; inconsolable."  At least outwardly, Thomas Moore's career  was not of the sort one would expect to engender despair.  Son of a Dublin grocer, Moore initially studied law but achieved fame, even as a young man, once he turned his talents to poetry, music, and the performing arts. He married an actress, traveled extensively in Europe and America, and was a widely read poet, playwrite, songwriter, biographer, novelist, and social critic. He also became a popular society figure in London, hobnobbing with the Prince of Wales and performing for the future Queen Victoria. He is still fondly remembered today for the lyrics to the Irish patriotic song The Minstrel Boy, as well as those to such romantic songs as The Last Rose of Summer and Believe Me, if All Those Endearing Young Charms. Nevertheless, his personal life was dogged by tragedy, including the deaths of all his five children within his lifetime, and a stroke in later life, which disabled him from performances--the activity for which he was most renowned.

Thomas Hastings
While Moore's career flourished, "Relief in Prayer" remained obscure until it was reworked in 1831 by American composer and choir master Thomas Hastings (1784-1872). He was born in Connecticut, moving with his family at the age of two to Clinton, Oneida County, New York. There, amid rough frontier life, his opportunities for education were small; but at an early age he developed a taste for music, and began teaching it in 1806. Seeking a wider field, he went, in 1817, to Troy, then to Albany, and in 1823 to Utica, New York, where he directed the Oneida County Choir and was editor of a religious magazine, The Western Recorder. In 1832 Hastings was invited by twelve churches to come to New York City to improve their psalm singing. He stayed there the rest of his life, composing, writing, teaching, and directing. He was a prolific writer of hymn tunes, and what fellow hymnist Lowell Mason called the "simple, easy, and solemn" style of his music remains a major influence on the hymns of the Protestant churches to this day. Hastings is best remembered today as the composer of TOPLADY, the tune for the hymn Rock of Ages.

Hastings made a few minor changes to the first and second stanzas of Moore's text, and substituted his own third stanza, when he published the hymn under the title Come, Ye Disconsolate in Spiritual Songs for Social Worship (Utica, New York: 1831-32), compiled by Hastings and Lowell Mason. It is generally agreed that these changes made Moore's poem easier to sing and more suitable for evangelical church use. [See Kenneth W. Osbeck, Amazing Grace: 365 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions, Kregel Publications 1990, 2002, p. 199]

Samuel Webbe, Sr.
For the hymn's tune, Hastings adapted one originally set for solo voice to the Marian hymn "Alma redemptoris mater" by English composer and organist Samuel Webbe, Sr. (1740-1816) in his Collection of Motetts or Antiphons (1792).  The tune is now generally known as CONSOLATION, although it is sometimes given as ALMA or CONSOLATOR.

The version of the text below, found in modern hymnals, incorporates the changes to Moore's original words (which can be read here) made by Thomas Hastings:

Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish,
Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel.
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;
Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.

Joy of the desolate, light of the straying,
Hope of the penitent, fadeless and pure!
Here speaks the Comforter, tenderly saying,
"Earth has no sorrow that Heaven cannot cure."

Here see the Bread of Life, see waters flowing
Forth from the throne of God, pure from above.
Come to the feast of love; come, ever knowing
Earth has no sorrow but heaven can remove.
Here is Come, Ye Disconsolate as it appeared in Hastings' 1831 collection Spiritual Songs for Social Worship:


 Here is a presentation in a more modern notation style:


Come, Ye Disconsolate is an invitation, a call for sufferers and sinners to come to Christ and find healing (st. 1), hope, and comfort (st. 2), and to enjoy spiritual sustenance in the feast of the Lamb (st. 3). The text emphasizes the consolation that Christ offers to those who turn to him in faith. To Him we may bring our anguish, and cast upon Him all our cares (1 Peter 5:7). Comfort and salvation are promised to sinners who approach Him in repentance (2 Cor. 7:10; John 14:16-18). Indeed, Jesus Himself is the bread of life who gives life unto the world (John 6:32-33); it is through Him that we can see the waters flowing from the throne of God (Rev. 22:1-2) and are able to participate in the "feast of love," the bounty of joy in oneness with God that looks forward to the eternal marriage feast (Rev. 19:9). Come, Ye Disconsolate surely ranks as one of the most moving hymns of consolation and reassurance, along with such treasures as It is Well With My Soul.


We know the great impact that hymns can have on the lives of individuals: sparking eternal insights, stirring emotions, creating precious memories of childhood, family, and home. Sometimes, one hymn can have a deep and lasting effect on the lives of many who hear it at the same time, and thus on history itself. And so it was with Come, Ye Disconsolate.

On the night of July 2, 1863, at the height of the American Civil War, as many as four thousand dead and wounded soldiers carpeted the 26 acres of the (now) infamous "Wheat Field," where some of the most vicious fighting of the Battle of Gettysburg had just taken place between the Army of the Potomac (Union) and and the Army of Northern Virginia (Confederate). As darkness gathered, the field became a macabre “no-man’s land” between the exhausted armies. As reported by Cpt. George Hillyer of the Ninth Georgia Infantry regiment, which spent the night lying within earshot of the Wheat Field after being beaten back from the nearby hill known as Little Round Top, one of the men between the lines began to sing, loudly enough to be heard on both sides.
“He was probably a boy raised in some religious home in the South,” Hillyer recalled later, “where the good old hymns were the standard music.” There were “thousands of desperately wounded men lying on the ground within easy hearing of the singer,” the captain observed,“ and as his voice rang out like a flute . . . not only the wounded, but also five or ten thousand and maybe more of the men of both armies could hear and distinguish the words.”  The lines that they heard had been penned four decades earlier by an Irish poet named Thomas Moore and then set to music and published in 1831:
Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish; / Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel; / Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish; / Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot heal.
When the unidentified man finished singing, thousands of soldiers on both sides clapped and cheered.  [See Robert Tracy McKenzie, "The Battlefield at Gettysburg–Final Reflections" (November 1, 2013);  Allen C. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (Vintage Books, 2013), p. 570]

Union dead at on the Gettysburg battlefield


Several high-quality video renditions of Come, Ye Disconsolate can be found online, although there seems to be a trend to re-arrange the Webbe-Hastings tune or give the hymn an entirely new musical setting. This writer prefers the hymn as originally set, but the modern efforts are also impressive.

In the video below, the hymn is sung beautifully to the traditional tune CONSOLATION, by an unidentified choir. The Moore-Hastings text is included, so it's easy to follow along.

The performance below is by Freddie Ashby, Hope Shepherd, and Daron Bradford to a more reflective, plaintive arrangement. The video itself is beautiful and moving, as is the orchestration:

Yet another touching modern arrangement, by contemporary Christian composer and producer Rob Gardner, is sung in the video below by Loni Hawkins.

* * * * *
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes;
and there shall be no more death,
neither sorrow, nor crying,
neither shall there be any more pain:
for the former things are passed away.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

Christ on the Cross, Eugene Delacroix (1853)

For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. 
 ~ 1 Corinthians 1:18     

Christ's atonement on the Cross for the sins of mankind, fulfilled with His resurrection from the dead and ascension into Heaven, is the central and most decisive moment in all history.  Beside it pale any human accomplishment, no matter how great and glorious. In that one event justice and mercy were fully and eternally satisfied, and all creation was reconciled to its Creator. We can never fully comprehend, in this life, the magnitude of Christ's burden and suffering, or of the love it took to endure and overcome it for our sakes.

Isaac Watts

The great English theologian and hymnist Isaac Watts (1674-1748) must have been reflecting along these lines when, in preparation for a communion service, he wrote the text that later became the immortal hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. The work was originally called "Crucifixion to the World by the Cross of Christ," following the practice of the day to summarize a hymn's theme in the title. It was first published in 1707 in Watts' collection Hymns and Spiritual Songs, and was inspired by Galatians 6:14: "But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world."

This hymn is significant as an innovative departure from the prevailing English practice of the day to sing only paraphrased biblical texts and metrical psalms. It was also one of the first English-language hymns to use the personal pronoun "I", and thus to focus on personal religious experience rather than abstract doctrine. In Isaac Watts' time these were called "hymns of human composure," and were very controversial. Thus, When I Survey holds an important place in the history of sacred music, and went far to establish Watts' reputation as "the Father of English Hymnody."

In 1757, the famous English evangelist George Whitefield (1714-1770) included When I Survey in the Supplement to his popular Collection of Hymns for Social Worship.The next year, When I Survey first appeared in a hymnal published in the United States,The Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs of the Old and New Testament (1758). Since then, it has been found in the hymnals of American denominations as varied as traditional Protestants, Roman Catholics, Mormons, Unitarians and the Assemblies of God.


In its first publication in 1707, When I Survey had five stanzas, as below, but in an enlarged edition of Hymns and Spiritual Songs in 1709, Watts bracketed the fourth stanza for optional use.
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God,
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down,
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o'er His body on the tree;
Then I am dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Edward Miller
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross has been set to several different tunes over the years. The hymn's inclusion in the milestone English hymnal Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861) sealed its association in British usage to the tune ROCKINGHAM, which was arranged by English organist and composer Edward Miller (1735-1807) and first published in 1790. As a young man Miller was apprenticed to his father, a layer of paving stones, but ran away to study music. At one time he was a flutist in Georg F. Handel’s orchestra. Miller named ROCKINGHAM for his friend, patron, and twice-British Prime Minister Charles Watson-Wentworth, the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham. ROCKINGHAM has been called "one of the finest long-meter tunes in the history of church music."

Lowelll Mason
In American hymnals, When I Survey is generally set to an arrangement of HAMBURG, a tune composed by the prominent 19th-century American music director, choirmaster, and organist Lowell Mason (1792-1872), and first published in the Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection of Church Music (3d ed.) in 1825. Mason was largely responsible for introducing music into American public schools, and is considered to be the first important music educator in the United States. He also radically transformed American church music from a practice of having professional choirs and accompaniment to congregational singing accompanied by organ music. Mason stated that he arranged HAMBURG from an ancient Gregorian chant. The entire melody encompasses only a five-note range.

Another oft-heard tune associated with When I Survey is MORTE CHRISTE, attributed to Welshman Emrys Jones. This tune is especially popular with male voice choirs in the United Kingdom, and particularly Wales. Unfortunately, this writer hasn't been able to locate sheet music for this tune.


The following rendition of When I Survey is by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge to Edward Miller's tune ROCKINGHAM.

This rendition is to Lowell Mason's tune HAMBURG (though at a slower pace than originally composed), by the contemporary Christian artist Fernando Ortega:

Click here for another fine rendition to the tune HAMBURG, as arranged by Gilbert M. Martin, by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

In the following rendition, the Welsh choir Cantorion Colin Jones sings When I Survey to Emrys Jones' tune MORTE CHRISTE:

And now for something completely different:  A performance of When I Survey set to the old folk tune The Water is Wide (also called "O Waly,Waly") and performed by Christian songwriter and worship leader Kathryn Scott. In this writer's humble opinion, this tune is at least as effective in conveying the message of Watts' text as the more traditional settings, if not more so!


Is Isaac Watts' When I Survey the Wondrous Cross the greatest hymn ever written? Many believe that distinction belongs to Charles Wesley's Jesus, Lover of My Soul, the subject of our last post. But Wesley himself stated that he preferred When I Survey over all of the hymns he himself had written. The great Victorian essayist and poet Matthew Arnold considered it the “finest hymn in the English church.”  As the story goes, Arnold heard the hymn sung at a Presbyterian church in Liverpool, England on the last Sunday of his life, and was overheard repeating the third verse shortly before his sudden death a few days later.

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross remains one of the most popular hymns in English-speaking Christendom. It placed among the top five in the United Kingdom in surveys of the public taken in the 1990s.  (Ian Bradley, Abide With Me: The World of Victorian Hymns (GIA Publications, 1997), p. 231). It was one of the first hymns sung at Billy Graham’s first crusade in Los Angeles, California, in 1949. Tedd Smith, one of the pianists with the Graham Crusades, said about this hymn:
It seems to me that Isaac Watts wrote this text as if he were standing at the foot of Christ’s cross, together with the disciple John, the faithful women, Jesus’ mother, the Roman soldiers and the excited mob. When I play or sing the hymn, I try to make Watts’ ideas and words my own. With him, I cannot help but marvel at the incredulity of the scene—the “Prince of heaven” nailed to a tree by sinful men. Jesus, dying for me! For it was my sins which He bore on that terrible day.
(Crusade Hymn Stories, edited by Cliff Barrows, Hope Publishing Co., Chicago, 1967)

Here is an excellent video review of the history and significance of Watts' signature hymn:

* * * * *

The simplest expressions, when moved by truth and passion, are always the most powerful. In its 16 brief lines, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross  "paints a soul-stirring picture of the Saviour's death on the cross coupled with the whole-hearted response of the believer to such amazing love."  Watts' eloquent words reflect the awe of knowledge that nothing within the accomplishment of any man can even begin to compare to what Christ did for each and all of us, the perfectly innocent for the utterly guilty, on the Cross. We can hardly understand the depth and magnitude of the love it took to accomplish our salvation; we can only give ceaseless thanks for it, and try to emulate it in our own lives. Truly, as was said to the Galatians (Gal. 6:14), the only just cause for glory is in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Jesus, Lover of My Soul

[W]hen he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me. And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him,
O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt? ~ Matthew 14:30-31

With the recent Valentine's Day observance here in the United States, we've heard much talk (especially from sellers of flowers and candy) about "love" and "lovers."  Of course, it's the romantic sort of love that people have in mind. What many forget or fail to appreciate, however, is a kind of love that has nothing to do with attractiveness or favorites, material generosity or even mere affection. This is the love that brought the universe and every person into being, that gives everything and endlessly without condition or seeking for itself, that pursues us like no human lover ever would, and that, like no human lover's, will ever flag or fail. That, of course, is God's love for each one of us.

In a modern world dominated by the works and wants of man--especially where material goods and comforts are plenty--we lose sight of how much we need God's love, and how empty and hopeless we would be without it. When times are good, we grow smugly self-confident and feel that we need no God, or even that He doesn't really exist. Yet, when things change for the worse and we can't cope, we instinctively turn to Him for rescue. Our relationship with the Heavenly Father is thus much like that between a young adult and his or her parent: the "new grownup" strides into the world confidently, believing that the parent's guidance and support are no longer needed. But when the strength of youth has been spent, the "prodigal son" flees home to the patient, loving parent, who forgives all and once more showers the child with blessings. This relationship is beautifully expressed in what some have called the finest hymn in the English language: Jesus, Lover of My Soul (sometimes also titled "Jesu, Lover of My Soul").


Charles Wesley
The text of this immortal hymn was written by the great English evangelist Charles Wesley (1707-1788), and was first published in his collection Hymns and Sacred Poems in 1740 (it was originally titled “In Time of Prayer and Temptation”). This hymn has as its theme the sufficiency of Christ to give comfort, power, and grace in any circumstance. In five compact stanzas, Wesley captures the essential nature of our flawed and and helpless human condition and our dependence on the grace and mercy of the Savior for salvation. He expresses that relationship by contrasting stormy seas and safe havens, defenselessness and protection, need and succor, sickness and healing, sin and and redemption:
Jesus, Lover of my soul,
let me to thy bosom fly,
while the nearer waters roll,
while the tempest still is high:
hide me, O my Savior, hide,
till the storm of life be past;
safe into the haven guide,
O receive my soul at last.

Other refuge have I none,
hangs my helpless soul on thee;
leave, ah! leave me not alone,
still support and comfort me!
All my trust on thee is stayed;
all my help from thee I bring;
cover my defenseless head
with the shadow of thy wing.

Wilt Thou not regard my call?
Wilt Thou not accept my prayer?
Lo! I sink, I faint, I fall—
Lo! on Thee I cast my care.
Reach me out Thy gracious hand!
While I of Thy strength receive,
Hoping against hope I stand,
Dying, and behold, I live.

Thou, O Christ, art all I want;
mor than all in thee I find;
raise the fallen, cheer the faint,
heal the sick, and lead the blind.
Just and holy is thy Name;
I am all unrighteousness;
false and full of sin I am;
thou art full of truth and grace.

Plenteous grace with thee is found,
grace to cover all my sin;
let the healing streams abound,
make and keep me pure within.
Thou of life the fountain art,
freely let me take of thee:
spring thou up within my heart,
rise to all eternity.
Of Wesley's thousands of hymns, Jesus, Lover of My Soul is generally considered to be his finest. The distinguished American preacher, Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887), acclaimed the hymn's greatness when he wrote:
I would rather have written that hymn of Wesley’s than to have the fame of all the kings that ever sat on the earth. It is more glorious. It has more power in it. I would rather be the author of that hymn than to hold the wealth of the richest man in New York. He will die. He is dead, and does not know it . . . But that hymn will go singing until the last trump brings forth the angel band; and then, I think, it will mount up on some lip to the very presence of God.
Dr. George Duffield (1818-1888), author of Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus, similarly wrote that "If there is anything in Christian experience of joy and sorrow, of affliction and prosperity, of life and death, that hymn is the hymn of the ages!"

Many other anecdotes relate how beloved is Jesus, Lover of My Soul, and of its transformative power. Among the most heartwarming is one that purportedly occurred during the American Civil War:
[T]he opposing armies of the Federals and Confederates on a certain occasion, were facing each other. One night a Confederate sentry was on duty when he heard the sound of singing coming from the Federal lines. He proceeded cautiously in their direction, and observed an enemy sentry pacing up and down, singing "Jesu, Lover of my soul". Bringing his gun to his shoulder, he was about to shoot, when the singer came to the words, "Cover my defenceless head With the shadow of Thy wing". This was too much for the Confederate and he lowered his weapon and allowed his would-be victim to go unharmed. Many years passed, and the Confederate, now a private gentleman, was aboard an excursion steamer on the Potomac River, when he heard an evangelist singing this hymn. Memories were aroused, and thinking he recognised the voice, he made his way to the singer and in conversation found that the evangelist was indeed the sentry he had nearly shot. Great was their mutual joy when he revealed to the singer the peril from which he had been saved in that night long ago, when on sentry duty he besought divine protection by singing, "Jesu, Lover of my soul".
Given these accolades, it is interesting to note that when Charles Wesley first presented this hymn to his brother John, the founder of Methodism, he rejected it on the ground that it was "too sentimental" or "too pietistic and . . . intimate for public worship"!

Several accounts or theories about the circumstances in which Jesus, Lover of My Soul was written have been advanced, none of them authenticated. One is that it was written at some point after Charles Wesley's return to England in the fall of 1736, after a brief and disappointing sojourn in the American colonies. Wesley's ship was caught in a severe storm at sea and it appeared certain that she would go down with all hands. But on December 3 the ship reached port, and Wesley noted in his journal for that date that "I knelt down and blessed the hand that had conducted me through such inextricable mazes."  Others suggest that Wesley was inspired to write the hymn when, during this storm or on some other occasion, a frightened bird flew into his room and sheltered in his bosom for comfort and safety. A popular account, promoted by American evangelist Ira Sankey (1840-1908), is that Wesley wrote the hymn while hiding under a hedge on a farm in County Down, Ireland while being pursued by an angry mob that opposed his Methodist ministry--an interesting mental picture, except that, so far as is known, Charles Wesley never visited northern Ireland! (See Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories (Kregel Publications, 1982), p. 130).


The history of the hymn's music is as rich as that of its text.

Over the years, Jesus, Lover of My Soul has been paired with several different tunes. In the United States, the hymn first became popularly associated with the tune MARTYN, composed by American choir director and singing-school teacher Simeon Butler Marsh (1798-1875) (of whom no image is available). In 1834, Marsh was making his weekly round of singing schools between Amsterdam and Johnston, New York, when he wrote this tune, intending for it to be sung with John Newton’s hymn Mary to Her Savior’s Tomb.Because of this association, the melody is sometimes listed in hymnals as the "Resurrection Tune."  It was published in 1836 with Newton’s text in the first volume of Musical Miscellany, a collection by American hymn composer Thomas Hastings (1784-1872). MARTYN was first paired with Jesus, Lover of My Soul in 1851 in Darius E. Jones’s Temple Melodies. Some years after that, Hastings too discovered that MARTYN was well-suited for Wesley's text, and he began using it with great response in his new publications.

Somewhat unfairly, perhaps, MARTYN has been characterized as "a bland and repetitious tune . . . with a range of just a sixth. It does not seem to capture any of the restlessness of flying or tempests referenced in the text but rather to provide the safe haven that the singer seeks in Jesus." (See Music and the Wesleys, edited by Nicholas Temperley, Stephen Banfield, University of Illinois Press (2010), p. 81).

Jesus, Lover of My Soul has also been widely sung in the United States to the tune REFUGE, composed in 1862 by Joseph Perry Holbrook (1822-1888) (also of whom we have no image), an American musician whose other hymn tunes are little used today. REFUGE is the tune paired with Wesley's text in the current edition of the LDS (Mormon) Hymbook.

Joseph Parry
But today, in Great Britain and just about everywhere else, Jesus, Lover of My Soul is most popularly sung to the tune ABERYSTWYTH. It was written in 1876 by Welsh composer and musician Joseph Parry (1841-1903) and first published in 1879 in Edward Stephen's Ail Lyfr Tonau Ac Emynau (Welsh for "The Second Book of Tunes and Hymns"). Parry was at the time the first professor and head of the new department of music at University College Wales, Aberystwyth, now called Aberystwyth University, and so the tune is named after the Welsh coastal resort town in which Parry then lived. The D minor key and steady rhythm of this compelling tune perfectly reflect the plaintive, urgent spirit of Wesley's text.

Here is the text of Jesus, Lover of My Soul set to Parry's ABERYSTWYTH:

Below is Wesley's text set to Marsh's MARTYN:

And here is the hymn set to Holbrook's REFUGE:


While Jesus, Lover of My Soul is a beautiful and powerful hymn sung solo, congregationally, or by a choir, its first-person expression is ideally suited to a solo performance. Here is an excellent one, to the tune ABERYSTWYTH, by Christian singer, composer, and worship leader Fernando Ortega. All stanzas are sung, and Ortega's voice, as well as the spare piano/cello accompaniment, perfectly capture the spirit of the hymn.

Click here for an excellent rendition by an unidentified congregation (perhaps from the British Christian music program Songs of Praise?), also to the tune ABERYSTWYTH. Uunfortunately, the embedding feature has been disabled, so the video can't be played directly in this page.

The hymn as sung to the tune MARTYN may be somewhat less compelling, but is beautiful and endearing nonetheless. Here is a rendition by an unidentified--Mennonite?--congregation in a community sing:

The following rendition of the hymn is to Holbrook's tune REFUGE, performed by the Altar of Praise Chorale:

There are several contemporary arrangements of Jesus, Lover of My Soul, but by far the best is the one below by Christian artist Chris Eaton. His music is very heartfelt and, like ABERYSTWYTH, conveys the hymn's sense of urgency.

* * * * *
 For thou hast been a strength to the poor, a strength to the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shadow from the heat, when the blast of the terrible ones is as a storm against the wall.