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.


1 comment:

  1. No hymn strikes me in the heart and soul like this one. Tears flow freely down my face....
    Both the tunes by Parry (ABERYSTWYTH) and Marsh (MARTYN) are beautiful and bring me to this state of mind where mere words could not.