Chapter 1 Early Days of Sacred Song

In these days, when the hymn book plays so important a part in every place of worship, stories of hymns and their writers is a subject of perennial interest. Nor is it difficult to understand how the memory retains the words and tunes of hymns which were learned at a mother’s knee or at the Sunday School. Who is there amongst us who has not at some time or other experienced the strange and subtle influence of sacred song, an influence which compelled the tears to come unbidden; burning tears of joy, sorrow, remorse or peace that come with the strain of some old and almost forgotten hymn? If by reason of some disappointment the heart aches; if it yearns “for the touch of a vanished hand and the sound of a voice that is still “; if it throbs at the fancied footstep that comes no more, what can soothe and comfort like “Jesus, Lover of my soul “?

How often as we travel on the journey of life are we suddenly arrested by the strains of some familiar hymn wafted to us, recalling memories of the days of long ago, and portraying on one’s vision some sacred scene from which many of the actors have passed away.

To many of us, hymns have proved a never-failing solace, an oasis in a parched and thirsty land, a drink from the trough on a dry and dusty day. In the storm and stress of life’s battle, the echo of their sweet refrain has renewed our strength and dispelled our fears.

Around the hymn and hymn-tune who can tell how many cherished associations gather from the earliest days? And though few seek to know the origin or history of the hymns that please them, the telling of the tale never fails to add to their attraction.

There is a fascinating power in the singing of a hymn which can do God’s work in a soul when every other instrumentality has failed. There was not always so much freedom in this respect in the days of our grandfathers. The opposition to hymn singing was widespread throughout Scotland, and Sankey tells how, when he commenced singing a solo in the Free Assembly Hall, Edinburgh, during the great mission there in 1873, a woman’s shrill voice was heard in the gallery, as she made her way toward the door, crying: “Let me oot! Let me oot! What would John Knox say to the like o’ yon?”

In his delightfully written life story, where he relates his varied experience during his first campaign amongst the good Scottish folks, Sankey does not hide the fact that he was not a little perturbed regarding the question of solo singing, as its propriety and usefulness was not yet fully understood or admitted. As he took his seat at the instrument at one of the first meetings held in Edinburgh, Sankey discovered to his surprise that Dr. Horatius Bonar was seated close by the organ, right in front of the pulpit. “Of all men in Scotland,” says Sankey, “he was the one man concerning whose decision I was most solicitous. He was, indeed, my ideal hymn-writer, the prince among hymnists of his day and generation. And yet he would not sing one of his own beautiful hymns in his own congregation, such as ‘I heard the voice of Jesus say,’ or ‘I was a wandering sheep,’ because he ministered to a church that believed in the singing of Psalms only. With fear and trembling, therefore, I announced as a solo the hymn ‘Free from the law, O happy condition.’” No prayer having been offered for this part of the service, and fearful lest the singing might prove only an entertainment, instead of spiritual blessing, Sankey requested that the whole congregation should join him in a word of prayer asking God’s blessing on the truth about to be sung. It was a time of tense solemnity, but the anxiety of the moment was relieved, and believing and rejoicing in the glorious truth contained in the hymn, he sang it through to the end, amid a reverent silence never before experienced.

At the close of Mr. Moody’s address, Dr. Bonar turned toward the American singer with a smile on his venerable face, and reaching out his hand, he said: “Well, Mr. Sankey, you sang the Gospel to-night.” Thus the way was wonderfully opened up for the mission of sacred song in Scotland, a particular sphere of ministry in which so much has been accomplished since that memorable hour.

With the introduction of hymns for general congregational use, the worthy precentor with his pitch-pipe and tuning fork was obliged to relinquish his position of importance and dignity, to give place to the organ—or what our good Scottish parents used satirically to refer to as the “kist o’ whistles.” A story is told of the precentor of a certain Scottish kirk, who had purchased a new pitch-pipe, but when the time came for leading the praise, he was unable to bring the instrument into action. He tugged at it—thrust it in— tried to pull it out—gave it a thump—grinned and pulled again—but budge it would not. The minister grew impatient, and leaning over the pulpit, whispered to the precentor, “Stop, Jonathan “; then aloud to the congregation, he said, “Let us pray.” By this time the unfortunate precentor had become exasperated, and still struggling with the obstinate instrument, cried out, “Pray, did ye say? We’ll pray nane till I get this thing tae work! “

But while we rejoice at the revival of this God-sent ministry of sacred song, so strikingly evinced in the past generation and during the present—a channel which has brought in its train countless blessings—we are reminded that, in the same way, under similar circumstances, God mightily used the power of sacred song in days of old, with no less wonderful results.

Away back in the sixteenth century, Martin Luther, the author of many choice hymns which have been sung down through the centuries, well understood this method of propagating the truth, and employed it with a skilful hand. His own poetical talents and love of music were very great, and when, as a wandering minstrel, he earned his daily bread by exercising his musical powers in singing before the doors of the rich in the streets of Magdeburg and Eisenach, he was as truly preparing for the future reformer as when, a retired monk in the cloister of Erfurt, he was storing his mind with the truths of revelation, with which to refute the errors of popery. A few sentences from a preface which Luther wrote to a collection of his own hymns, published in 1524, all of which were set to music in four parts, is worthy of note. He tells us that this had been done, “for no other reason than because of my desire that the young, who ought to be educated in music as well as in other good arts, might have something to take the place of worldly and amorous songs, and so learn something useful and practise something virtuous, as becometh the young. I would be glad to see all arts, and especially music, employed in the service of Him who created them.”

How God signally used this converted monk is familiar history. “The whole people,” wrote a Romanist of that day, “is singing itself into this Lutheran doctrine.” It is said that Luther accomplished more in setting all Germany singing, than he did with his preaching. The Church of Rome became alarmed, for they well knew that the pure Gospel would be sung unto many who could never have been prevailed upon to hear it any other way.

As we have seen, the Reformation movement in Germany was marked by a great outburst of hymnody. In Britain, however, Protestantism found its vehicle of praise in the metrical version of the Psalms. This was due, no doubt, to the influence of Calvin and the Genevan school, who held as a principle that the Word of God should have supreme dominion in public worship, and that no production of man should be allowed to take its place.

The prejudice against the use of hymns in favour of the Psalms, especially amongst the staid Scottish folk, remained with many of the older people till the end of their days. In proof of this, the following incident, which came under my personal observation, will, no doubt, amply suffice. Old Betsy lay dying, and was visited by her friend Malcolm Ferguson, a local evangelist. After spending a time with the aged saint, whom he sought to comfort and encourage, he enquired whether she would like him to sing a hymn. “Na, na, “was the quick reply, “nane o’ yer human hymns for me. What’s wrang wi’ the Psalms o’ Dauvit? I expect, Malcolm, when ye get to heaven, ye’ll gang clankin’ straight for Sankey; but Dauvit’s my man.”

Early English hymns are not numerous, and such as exist were written for private edification rather than for public use.

Isaac Watts (1674-1748) has been rightly looked upon as the father of English hymnody. Thirty-seven years before the birth of Watts, Thomas Ken was born. A remarkable coincidence is that Watts lived as long after Ken died in 1711, as Ken had preceded him in beginning life. Bishop Ken will always be remembered for his immortal lines in the form of our most used doxology:

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow,
Praise Him all creatures here below,
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host,
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

—which, doubtless, has been repeatedly sung by more people than the words of any other writer. In addition to his doxology and other works, Ken has given us two matchless hymns for which they are designed—one for a morning hymn, and the other for an evening hymn—“Awake my soul,” and “Glory to Thee, my God, this night.” But pioneers are not always perfect in their methods. Sculptors finish the work begun by the men far away in the quarries, who split up the rocks on the mountain side. Ken perceived the need of a new hymnology, and pointed to the way in which Watts and Wesley in later years walked.

Previous to the coming of Moody and Sankey to Britain, the early nineteenth century gave unmistakable evidence of a new birth in the field of hymnody. People were really beginning to take an interest in the subject, and it was evident that hymns were becoming an indispensable part of every form of religious services. Accordingly we find a host of writers pouring forth hymns. Their merit, of course, varied greatly. Here and there we find a writer with a really poetical mind, whose soul breathings have powerfully enriched our hymnology. There were also many others who had been inspired to pen some very beautiful hymns; but there were also many hymns, which, from a literary and theological standpoint could not be placed on a very high plane. Still, at that period, it was early to discriminate; nobody could say which of these would survive and which would not; only time could reveal that.

In taking a glance at our hymns from a more general point of view, the first thing that strikes the observer is how extraordinarily cosmopolitan compilers of hymn books had been in the sources from which they had drawn their supplies. And here attention should be drawn to the debt we owe to the undefatigable zeal of translators. The Oxford movement of 1833, led men to investigate the old Greek and Latin hymns, and naturally, they went on to translate them. The prince of these translators was J. M. Neale, and perhaps the finest work which he did was the translation of the Rhythm of Bernard of Morlaix, and from which modern hymn collectors had extracted among others the old favourite “Jerusalem the Golden.” Besides this, Latin hymnody has furnished us with: “O come all ye faithful,” “O come, O come, Immanuel,” “Ye choirs of New Jerusalem,” and a host of others. “Hail gladdening light,” “O happy band of pilgrims,” and “Art thou weary? “are Greek; “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,” is Welsh, “Through the night of doubt and sorrow,” is Danish; and “Glory be to Jesus,” Italian.

And we must not forget what we owe to America who gave to us our popular Gospel song. Indeed, it is remarkable how many nations have joined together to make up the verses which to-day are sung in church and chapel, mission hall and cottage meeting, as well as at tent and open-air services.

An outstanding feature in the realm of hymnody which cannot escape observation is that public favour has been phenominally capricious with regard to its taste in hymns. Nobody could say how or why one hymn became part of a national collection, while others fell flat. Kirke White was immortalised by “Oft in danger,” Harriet Auber by “Our blest Redeemer,” Sarah Adams by “Nearer my God to Thee,” Edward Perronet by “All hail the power of Jesus’ name,” but there are few who know anything else that any of them ever wrote. Every one is familiar with “Rock of Ages,” but though a few other hymns by Toplady were sometimes reprinted, nobody cared for them.

Then in regard to what may be termed our famous hymns, it is worthy of note that these are not the privilege of any one particular religious body, but are, in the best sense of the word, the common property of nearly all English speaking Christians. To meet their own particular requirements, each religious body has its own hymn book, and, of course, each hymn book has its own peculiar hymns. It has been said that Ridley and Latimer, who quarrelled about vestments, agreed at the stake. We live in happier times, where Christians who differ in more important matters can still agree in their hymns of prayer and their songs of praise. The productions of Ken and Heber, of Wesley and Toplady, of Doddridge and Kelly, of Cowper and Newton, of Fanny Crosby and Frances Ridley Havergal, all these harmoniously combine, for singing in company we at once forget the non-essentials on which we may differ, and remember only the desire for holiness, the enthusiasm for righteousness, the thankfulness for free unmerited favour, and the love for our blessed Lord in which we all agree.

No other literary composition is like a hymn. It is not a mere poetic impulse. It is not a thought, a passing fancy, or a feeling threaded upon words. It is the voice speaking from the soul a few words that often represent a whole life. Hymns and spiritual songs have indeed wielded a powerful influence in almost every walk of life, at one period or another, through countless ages.

All history carries the echo of music. At an early period Jubal became a manufacturer of musical instruments, and thus the first instruments mentioned in the Bible are the harp and organ (Gen. 4-21). Before his day, doubtless, many an ingenious amateur picked tones from a string or made the requisite vibrations in tubes of resonant bodies. The toph or tambourine—known to the Egyptians and Assyrians—was used by Miriam and Jephthah’s daughter.

“Not only is inanimate nature full of music,” says an eminent writer, “but God has wonderfully organised the human voice, so that in the plainest throat and lungs there are fourteen direct muscles which can make over sixteen thousand different sounds. Now, there are thirty indirect muscles which can make, it has been estimated, more than one hundred and seventy-three millions of sounds. Now, I say, when God has so constructed the human voice, and when He has filled the whole earth with harmony, and when He recognised it in the ancient temple, I have a right to come to the conclusion that God loves music.”

Thus, turning back the pages of history, we learn that Miriam led the hosts in a hymn of praise on the farther banks of the Red Sea. Moses closed his far-reaching career with a great song. Deborah celebrated the victory over Israel’s enemies in a hymn of thanksgiving. Jehoshaphat when called upon to meet a vast multitude of enemies, which threatened to overrun his entire kingdom, placed singers in front of his army to lead the march, singing the praises of Israel’s God.

“There has been much discussion as to where music was born,” once said the late Dr. Talmage. “I think that at the beginning, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy, the earth heard the echo. The cloud on which the angels stood to celebrate the creation was the birthplace of song. The stars that glitter at night are only so many keys of celestial pearl on which God’s fingers play the music of the spheres. Inanimate nature is full of God’s stringed and wind instruments. Silence itself—perfect silence—is only a musical rest in God’s great anthem of worship. Wind among the leaves, insect humming in the summer air, the rush of billows upon the beach, the ocean far out sounding its everlasting psalm, the quail whistling up from the grass, are music.”

David, the sweet singer of Israel, with his psalm and harp, is the poet and musician of the Bible, and surely nothing in the whole record of history can be found to compare with the majesty and magnificence of these heavenly songs which are still singing their way through the world.

The angel choir celebrated the birth of the Infant Saviour, to the astonished shepherds on Bethlehem’s plain. It was while Paul and Silas, lacerated and wounded by the cruel scourging which they had received, sang praises to God at midnight, that the Philippian jail was rent asunder, and the jailor and all his household were converted that night. The use of “psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs,” was enjoined upon the churches at Colosse and Ephesus. Many evidences are furnished us, too, that in private, as well as in public, the first Christians were warmly attached to singing the praise of God. All through the Scripture we are commanded to sing unto the Lord, to praise Him with the harp, trumpet, and organ; and to speak in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs. Finally, the Book closes with the pearly gates of heaven left ajar, through which there floats out upon us the voice of harpers, harping with their harps and singing the new song of Moses and the Lamb.