Book traversal links for Chapter 10 Sacred Song Composers
Eloquent tribute deserves to be paid to the various composers who contributed in no small measure to the immense popularity and usefulness of Gospel song. As has already been observed, Luther, more than three centuries before, was one of the first to fully realise the great truth that the tune was of equal importance with the words. As a matter of fact, with him the tune was first, the words second. But though Luther did not scruple in some degree, to to do violence to the language to fit it to the exigencies of the music, yet he had a good notion of what a hymn tune should be, for his doctrine would have fallen comparatively flat had not his hymns given wings to his teaching.
“The merits of a hymn,” once said the late Lord Balfour, “lie chiefly in the tune and associations, so that the editor of a hymn book who divorced old words from their accustomed setting, is an iconoclast of the worst order.” Most of us will agree that there is a great deal of truth and common sense in this statement. Constantly in touch with hymns new and old one cannot but observe the variety of tunes, appropriate and otherwise, which find a place in our hymn books. There are, for instance, the words of some of our very old hymns which are inseparably wedded for all time to their own particular tune. Link on another tune and the beauty of the piece is gone. An old precentor in one of our remote Scottish kirks was of the same opinion after a disastrous attempt at a “new” tune. He had held the post of leader of praise in the kirk for fully fifty years, and for well nigh fifty-two times fifty he had led the singing of the 100th Psalm to the Old Hundredth tune. One Sunday, having had occasion to be absent from the kirk, Andra was greatly concerned about how the service would be carried through without him. Soon after, meeting one of the elders—who by the way, boasted of no small knowledge of music—the precentor enquired how they had got on at the kirk. “Oh,” replied the elder, with a touch of conscious pride, “we got on fine; mon, we had a new tune to the 100th Psalm.” “Oh, and what was’t?” Andra asked; at which the elder struck up the words of the familiar Psalm to the tune of the old Scottish song, “Ye Banks and Braes o’ Bonnie Doon.”
“Ay, mon,” thoughtfully responded the old precentor, “I never thocht o’ that.”
Andra determined not to be behind. On the following Sunday he was in his accustomed place, and when the 100th Psalm was announced from the pulpit, there was no uncertain sound in the old precentor’s voice as he feelingly struck up the Psalm to the new tune:
“All people that on earth do dwell,
How can ye bloom——!”
It is not recorded how far the worthy precentor was led astray in his enthusiasm for the old familiar song tune, before he discovered his mistake. There is undoubtedly a danger in more ways than one by clashing a new tune with an old hymn. On the other hand, many an excellent hymn has found a premature grave because of an inappropriate tune.
About the middle of the nineteenth century we find in America a group of composers, many of outstanding ability, collaborating in the self imposed task of introducing what might at that period be considered a new type of sacred music. Up to that particular time there had been, to a great extent, a lamentable lack of charm in the hymn and psalm tune in general use, and so they set out to give to the world something more musically effective. Thus was brought into being the now popular sacred song.
Possibly the earliest composer in this particular sphere of music was William B. Bradbury, an American celebrity. He has been affectionately referred to as the father of sacred song. Born in 1816, musical impulses came to him when working on a farm as a boy, and he made a journey to Boston, where, for the first time, he heard an organ. He is credited with being the originator of Sunday School music, which has had such an influence upon the life of the Church during the last half century and more. He was also the pioneer in publishing this class of music books, and was among the first to promote musical conventions in America, which in later years became so popular in bringing together many of the leading hymn writers, whose names are so familiar to-day. Mr. Bradbury’s love for music and young people made these occasions very popular and helpful. Amongst his many musical compositions are, “He leadeth me,” “Solid rock,” “I love to think of the heavenly land,” “Sweet hour of prayer,” “Jesus loves me,” and “The Golden Shore.”
Composers of sacred song were drawn from various walks in life. John R. Sweney, the composer of the music of “More about Jesus, “Beulah Land” and “Sunshine in my soul,” which have been translated into many languages, has written over one thousand sacred songs. He was born in West Chester, Pa., in 1837. His first composition was produced when he was yet a boy, and at the age of twenty-two he held a responsible position as teacher in the musical profession. During the American Civil War he entered the army as leader of a military band, which position he held until the government discontinued the use of military bands in the army. On his retiring from the service he was made Professor of Music at the Pennsylvania Military Academy. It was in 1871, about the time of the great spiritual awakening when Gospel song was yet in its infancy, that Mr. Sweney turned his attention to writing sacred music, and during the remainder of his life devoted his talents to the production of hymns. It is said that he was the editor or associate editor of over sixty hymn books. Mr. Sweney’s music has the stamp of originality and what he contributed to the cause to which he was so closely devoted, ranks with the best writers of his day. He was a popular leader at conventions and camp meetings; and his love for the young led Mr. Sweney to associate himself with one of the largest Sunday Schools in Philadelphia, where for ten years he led the singing. He passed away on April 10th, 1899.
The name of Dr. W. H. Doane will always be associated with Fanny Crosby. He was a great friend of the blind hymn writer and wrote the music of many of her best known hymns. Dr. Doane was born at Preston, Conn., in 1831, and, though educated for the musical profession, he followed the occupation of a manufacturer of wood-turning machinery, and had taken out more than eighty patents for his inventions. The writing of hymn tunes was, therefore, an employment of his leisure. Another of his hobbies was the collection of quaint musical instruments, a number of which he presented several years ago to the Cincinnati Art Museum. Dr. Doane was superintendent of a large Sunday School at Cincinnati, Ohio, and edited no less than thirty-five collections of hymns and tunes for Sunday School use, besides composing several cantatas and anthems. Among his musical compositions that came into general use in the churches, were a number that were found to be well adapted for evangelistic use, and were, therefore, incorporated in books issued for that purpose, the very mention of which will call to mind the best known and best loved hymns for evangelistic and devotional purposes. For instance, the following: “Safe in the arms of Jesus,” “Rescue the perishing,” “Jesus, keep me near the cross,” “Pass me not, O gentle Saviour,” “Tell me the old, old story,” “I am Thine, O Lord,” and “Saviour, more than life to me.”
Though keenly devoted to music and writing, which amounted to well-nigh a life work, he did not allow it to interfere in any way with his making a large and successful business, and with his giving a great deal of thought and practical help to missionary and philanthropic work. Dr. Doane received the degree of Doctor of Music by the Dennison University, an honour he well deserved, for he served the cause of sacred song with conspicuous ability. He died at his home in Orange, N.J., on December 23rd, 1915, in his eighty-first year.
Possibly the most famous hymn tune composed by George C. Stebbins is the one written to Fanny Crosby’s hymn, “Saved by grace.” Amongst others by the same composer are “Jesus is tenderly calling,” “Take time to be holy,” “Ye must be born again.” Mr. Stebbins was born in New York State in 1846, from whence he moved in 1869 to Chicago. It was here he began his life-long acquaintance with Messrs. Moody and Sankey. It is not generally known that more evangelists, both singer and preacher, rose to religious fame from Chicago, than from any other city or country. Among such were Moody, Sankey, Bliss, Whittle, McGranahan, Case, Excell, Gabriel and Stebbins. In 1876 Mr. Stebbins engaged in evangelistic work with Mr. Moody, and was more or less associated with him for a long period, going three times abroad and twice to the Pacific coast to assist him. It was during his visit to Great Britain when assisting Moody and Sankey in the memorable campaign of 1883-85 that Mr. Stebbins composed the tunes of many of his popular hymns, including, “Jesus is tenderly calling.” In his reminiscences, which appeared in The Gospel Choir some years ago, Mr. Stebbins graphically describes the great mission conducted in London, ably assisted by many of the leading people in the religious world of that time, including the Earl of Shaftesbury, Lord Kinnaird, and Sir George Williams, founder of the Young Men’s Christian Association. Describing the closing days of the winter’s mission, Mr. Stebbins explained that it was Mr. Moody’s custom to have an all day’s meeting at each of the various centres. “I remember,” he writes, “at one of these meetings an incident occurred that caused a good deal of amusement. Messrs. Moody and Sankey, Major Whittle and Mr. McGranahan, Dr. Pentecost and myself had lunched with some friends, and on the way to the afternoon meeting, where Major Whittle and Dr. Pentecost were to speak, a remark was made to the latter, illustrating one of Mr. Moody’s habits of speech that amused him, and which found a lodgment in his mind. When it came his turn to speak, Mr. Moody whispered to him, saying, “Pentecost, be short; be short.” He began his address by saying, “Mr. Moody has asked me to be short. I notice that he will have three quarters of an hour of enthusiastic singing, and then he will get up and speak for half an hour, but it is not every one who can do that; but any one who can pronounce Jerusalem in two syllables can do most anything.” The remark caused a good deal of laughter by the congregation, and considerable notice by the Press of England. Spurgeon’s comment upon the incident, or rather upon Mr. Moody’s pronunciation of the word, was not only characteristic of the great preacher, but very happy and appropriate. He said, “I thank God there is one man in such hot haste to get the Gospel to the people that he does not stop to pronounce all the syllables of every word.’”
Extending over a long period, Mr. Stebbins was an intimate friend of Fanny Crosby, and composed the music for a considerable number of her hymns. He was also joint editor with Messrs. Sankey and McGranahan in the production of a large number of hymn books to which he contributed many beautiful Gospel hymns. Speaking at a reception given in his honour at Chicago, when he was in his seventy-seventh year, Mr. Stebbins gives this beautiful testimony, eminently characteristic of him:
“One of the things for which I thank God is that I was diverted from my profession to sing the Gospel, and for having something of the gift for writing music. It has been the greatest privilege of my life to be in the work and of using the gift God has given me, in producing the hymns you have sung.”
In response to my request, Mr. Stebbins kindly wrote me a few bars of one of his favourite hymns. “I take pleasure in enclosing a brace of ‘In the secret of His presence,’” he wrote, “but do not wish to imply, by so doing, that it is my favourite, for I have never been able to satisfy my mind in that regard. Each hymn taken as a whole, both words and music, has its own individuality, its appeal and sphere of service, as you can well understand; and indeed, its own claim to that distinction. However, considering the rather unique place this hymn has occupied, the sentiment in the words, their authorship, their setting and all, it is perhaps as worthy to be called a favourite as any hymn that bears my name.”
The words of this beautiful hymn are by Ellen Lakshmi Goreh, a Mahratta Brahmin lady, and the hymn coming into the hands of Mr. Stebbins, he composed the music to which it has since been sung. It may be of interest to remark that it had its first introduction to the public in London, during the all-winter’s mission already referred to, conducted by Moody and Sankey in 1883-84. Mr. Sankey sang it from the original manuscript, and Mr. Stebbins himself sang it as a solo in the latter part of that mission.
Mr. Stebbins, who is now in his eighty-sixth year, is spending the evening of a long and useful life at Brooklyn, New York.
William J. Kirkpatrick is another composer of a large number of popular Gospel hymn tunes which made their first appearance in Sankey’s early collections. He was born in Ireland in 1838, and when he was yet a child his parents emigrated to America and settled in Pennsylvania, in which State his life was spent. He came of a musical family, and at an early age was quite proficient on the flute, fife, violin and ’cello.
For a few years he worked as a carpenter and for some time during the Civil War he served as principal musician, fife major of the ninety-first regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers. He was returned to Philadelphia and was assigned to work as a ship-builder until near the close of the war. During the twelve years that followed, Mr. Kirkpatrick was connected with a furniture manufacturing company, but in 1878 he abandoned all commercial pursuits and gave his undivided attention to the writing of sacred music, gradually gaining the ear and admiration of the English-speaking world.
Mr. Kirkpatrick was a voluminous writer, and it would be difficult to place an estimate on what has been attained in the Lord’s vineyard by his thousands of compositions. As editor his name has been associated with over one hundred different collections of sacred music. Among the compositions that have made his name famous are the following well-known favourites: “Jesus saves,” “Wait and murmur not,” “He hideth my soul,” “’Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus,” and “When love shines in.” Possibly his best known hymn, of which he is the writer of both words and music, is the one beginning:
“I’ve wandered far away from God:
Now I’m coming home;
The paths of sin too long I’ve trod;
Lord, I’m coming home.
Coming home, coming home, never more to roam;
By Thy grace I will be Thine; Lord, I’m coming home.”
Mr. Kirkpatrick laid down his pen on September 29th, 1921, and passed into the presence of the King at the advanced age of eighty-three, while resting in his favourite chair. On the floor, at his feet, lay a slip of paper on one side of which was written with lead pencil, scarcely legible, the following lines:
“Just as Thou wilt, Lord, this is my cry:
Just as Thou wilt, to live or to die.
I am Thy servant; Thou knowest best:
Just as Thou wilt, Lord, labour or rest.”
A second stanza was written on the reverse side of the slip of paper in still more indistinct writing:
“Just as Thou wilt, Lord,—which shall it be,
Life everlasting waiting for me,
Or shall I tarry here at Thy feet?
Just as Thou wilt, Lord, whate’er is meet.”
In a private letter to a friend of the writer, Mr. George C. Stebbins says, in writing of the passing of Mr. Kirkpatrick: “To voice such words of resignation, then to close his eyes and open them again in a moment’s time, is as striking and impressive as it is beautiful. What an awakening he must have had! Well might every child of God covet such an ending of his life.”
As a composer of music for evangelistic purposes, Dr. D. B. Towner, who wrote the tune to “Trust and obey,” occupies a prominent position among writers, as his hymns will amply testify.
In the year 1885, Dr. Towner felt the call of God to enter His service and he gave himself wholly to evangelistic work. Some years later Mr. Moody arranged that he should become the director of the musical department of what has since become known as the “Moody Bible Institute” in Chicago, which was then in its infancy. From that time until he was called home, Dr. Towner carried on an important work, and through his teaching and personal contact with the students that have passed through the institution, he has impressed himself upon thousands of young men and women, who have gone from there, more or less imbued with the spirit of consecration, he had ever manifested, and with the increased knowledge of the importance which music has in all kinds of Christian activities.
Dr. Towner, like the other singers who were more or less under Mr. Moody’s direction, occasionally assisted him in some of his meetings when Mr. Sankey was not with him, but he was usually associated with some of the evangelists whose movements Mr. Moody had at his disposal. It is said that his voice has been heard in almost every State in the Union.
Dr. Towner was born in Pennsylvania in 1850, and passed away in his seventieth year.
Other familiar compositions of his are: “Anywhere with Jesus,” “Full surrender,” “Redeemed,” “Saving grace,” and “Grace is greater than our sin.” His songs are still widely used in evangelistic work and his name is familiar to all who sing or love Gospel music.
The unparalleled distinction attained by Ira D. Sankey in the realm of Gospel song is world-wide, and it seems superfluous to write in this connection at any great length. His famous Sacred Songs and Solos is his monument. And yet, writing on this absorbing subject, one feels it incumbent to make more than a passing reference of one whose name is still a bright luminary in the sphere of Gospel hymnody. He was born in the village of Edinburgh in Western Pennsylvania on August 28th, 1840. At the age of sixteen he was converted while attending revival meetings, and at once associated himself with Sunday School work, in connection with which, at an early age, he was elected superintendent and leader of the choir. It was here that Mr. Sankey’s voice began to attract attention, and before long the Sunday School overflowed with people who came to hear the singing. In this way, though unconsciously, he was making preparation for the work in which he was to spend his life. It was in 1870, at a convention held at Indianapolis that Mr. Sankey first met Mr. Moody, where the latter was announced to lead a morning prayer-meeting at seven o’clock. Arriving rather late, Sankey took a seat near the door alongside one of the delegates, a Presbyterian minister, who immediately turned to him and whispered, “Mr. Sankey, the singing here has been wretched; I wish you would start up something when that man stops praying, if he ever does.” Sankey promised to do so, and when the opportunity came he struck up the familiar hymn, “There is a fountain filled with blood.” The congregation joined in heartily and a brighter aspect seemed to pervade the whole atmosphere. At the close of the meeting, Moody immediately sought out the singer. Of that memorable meeting, which was willed of God to have such far-reaching effects, even to the carrying of the glorious Gospel to the ends of the earth, I will let Sankey tell his own story: “Moody’s first words to me, after my introduction, were, ‘Where are you from? Are you married? What is your business?’ Upon telling him that I lived in Pennsylvania, was married and had two children, and was in Government employ, he said in his characteristic manner, ‘You will have to give that up.’
“I stood amazed, at a loss to understand why the man should tell me that I would have to give up what I considered a good position. ‘What for?’ I exclaimed.
“‘To come to Chicago and help me in my work,’ was the answer. When I told him that I could not leave my business, he retorted, ‘You must; I have been looking for you for the last eight years.’”
Sankey promised to think the matter over, and would seek the Lord’s guidance. The next day he received a card from Mr. Moody asking him to meet the evangelist at a certain street corner that evening, at six o’clock. At the appointed hour Sankey was at the meeting place with some friends. In a few minutes Moody came along, but without stopping to speak he passed on into a store near by, and asked permission to use a large box. The permission being granted, he trundled the box into the street, and calling Sankey aside, asked him to get up on the box and sing something. Sankey climbed up and sang, “Am I a soldier of the Cross?” which soon gathered a considerable crowd. After the song, Mr. Moody got up and began to speak. The workmen were just going home from the factories and in a short time there was an open-air service of huge dimensions. The people stood spellbound as the words fell from Moody’s lips, with wonderful force and rapidity. When he had spoken some time, he announced that the meeting would be continued in the Opera House. He asked Sankey to lead the way and sing some familiar hymns. This he did, and marched along the street singing, “Shall we gather at the river?” The crowd immediately followed. That night the Opera House was packed to the doors, so completely were the men carried away with the singing and the sermon from the store-box. Thus did Ira D. Sankey hear in no uncertain voice God’s call to service; nor did he longer wait, but from that moment consecrated his life to the Lord. From that time on till the death of Mr. Moody in 1899, they were associated in their great life work of saving souls. The wonderful results of that world-wide service of song, which to-day is still making itself felt, will only be revealed in a coming day.
In 1873 Mr. Sankey sailed for England with Mr. Moody. The story of that great mission, when there swept a mighty wave of revival from shore to shore of the British Isles, has often been told and will remain indelibly imprinted in letters of gold on the pages of history, so long as the Gospel in song and story is told forth.
It is a remarkable circumstance that before Mr. Sankey entered upon his career as an evangelist he had never attempted to write music suited to evangelistic work, but soon after his work with Mr. Moody assumed such proportions in 1873, he began this phase of his work which from that time forward gave him a place among the foremost writers of Gospel song. His first attempt to write a hymn tune was during their mission in Edinburgh, when the music he then wrote was his admirable setting to Dr. Horatius Bonar’s beautiful hymn, “Yet there is room.” Mr. Sankey’s second composition was his music to the well-known hymn, “I’m praying for you,” which has proved to be one of the most useful hymns in all the range of evangelistic hymnody, and which has been blessed to uncounted multitudes. His subsequent work as a composer along that line brought him into prominence as a writer of music of a devotional character that possesses strength and permanent value, and which undoubtedly places Ira D. Sankey among the most gifted writers of evangelistic and devotional music. Among his best known compositions which to-day are being used in many parts of the world, the following may be mentioned: “The ninety and nine,” “Hiding in Thee,” “Simply trusting,” “There’ll be no dark valley,” “A shelter in the time of storm,” and “When the mists have rolled away.”
But the one hymn which will always be associated with Mr. Sankey is “The ninety and nine.” I have a vivid recollection, which I shall always cherish, of hearing Sankey, in his own inimitable way, sing this inspiring song. It was during his last visit to this country in the winter of 1898-99, where he conducted services of “Sacred Song and Story.” In describing the origin of the hymn Mr. Sankey related that he and Mr. Moody were travelling from Glasgow to Edinburgh during their Scottish mission, when he chanced to see the words of the hymn, which appeared in the poet’s corner of a newspaper he was reading. So impressed was he that he called Mr. Moody’s attention to the little poem, suggesting that it would make a useful hymn for evangelistic work. Having cut the verses out and placed them in his musical scrap-book, Sankey put it away in his pocket, and for the time the poem was forgotten. At the noon meeting held at the Free Assembly Hall, Edinburgh, on the second day, the subject presented was “The Good Shepherd.” It was an impressive address, and at the close, Mr. Moody turned to his colleague and asked him to sing a solo in keeping with the subject. Mr. Sankey had nothing suitable in his mind, and was greatly troubled to know what to do. But I will let Sankey tell his own story, as I heard him relate it. “At this moment,” he said, “I seemed to hear a voice saying: ‘Sing the hymn you found in the train!’ But I thought this impossible, as no music had ever been written for that hymn. Again the impression came strongly upon me that I must sing the beautiful and appropriate words I had found the day before, and placing the little newspaper slip on the organ in front of me, I lifted my heart in prayer, asking God to help me so to sing that the people might hear and understand. Laying my hands upon the organ I struck the chord of A flat, and began to sing.
“Note by note the tune was given, which has not been changed from that day to this. As the singing ceased, a great sigh seemed to go up from the meeting, and I knew that the song had reached the hearts of my Scottish audience. Mr. Moody was greatly moved. Leaving the pulpit, he came over to where I was seated. Leaning over the organ, he looked at the little newspaper slip from which the song had been sung, and with tears in his eyes said: ‘Sankey, where did you get that hymn? I never heard the like of it in my life.’ I was also moved to tears and arose and replied: ‘Mr. Moody, that’s the hymn I read to you yesterday on the train, which you did not hear.’ Then Mr. Moody raised his hand and pronounced the benediction, and the meeting was closed. Thus ‘The ninety and nine’ was born.”
In the art of singing, Mr. Sankey possessed gifts of an extraordinary character, although he had no professional training previously. Having a high baritone voice of exceptional volume, purity and sympathy, he had quite unconsciously acquired the habit of correct tone production, which enabled him to preserve it uninjured to the end of a strenuous career. Sankey’s interpretation of his sacred songs was his own conception; and in his rendering of them he ever kept before him the importance of clearly emphasising the subject of the hymn, even to the risk of doing violence to the accepted rules of musical phrasing. But the singer’s heart was in the song, and he sang his messages to the hearts and consciences of the people with sincerity of soul, that made him, under God, the great evangel of song that he was.
A story, reminiscent of the sweet singer’s visit to Great Britain, is worthy of relating here. One day Sankey drove out from London to Epping Forest. A shock-headed boy climbed up one of the wheels of the carriage, and with wondering and longing eyes gazed on the stranger. Sankey rested his hand lovingly on the lad, and expressed the hope that some day he would preach the Gospel. Years afterwards, when the sweet singer was old and frail and blind, and just before he entered the Homeland, the evangelist was almost overcome with joy when Gipsy Smith told him that he was the boy in the glades of Epping Forest on whose curly head Sankey had laid his prophetic hand.
The strenuous work connected with his last mission in Great Britain proved too much for his strength, and he never recovered from the strain. A few years before his death a decline in health set in, which was followed by total blindness.
Of the sweet singer’s closing days I will set down what has been written by his constant friend and fellow-composer, Mr. George C. Stebbins: “During the last two years of Mr. Sankey’s life I visited him every few days when in the city, and had delightful times of talking over experiences in the past with him. In spite of his total blindness he was ever the same cordial and companionable friend he had always been. His humour would often manifest itself in recalling some amusing experiences in the past, laughing as he told them, and apparently enjoying them to the full as he lived them over again.
“But it was plain to be seen that his mind and heart had long been set on his home-going, for that subject would so often intrude itself in our conversations. Once he said to me, ‘George, you will find me on Spurgeon Street, when you get up there.’ And for well nigh a year before his going, every time I called upon him he would say before my leaving, ‘George, I want you to be at the church next Sunday (the church known as Dr. Cuyler’s, of which he had been a member for a good many years) for I’ll be there, as I am going home.’
“He had so longed for the two last years to be’ absent from the body and present with the Lord,’ that his passing on had become an obsession with him.
“The time so longed for came on the 14th of August, 1908. I was at the time at Northfield conducting the singing at the annual conference there, which he and I had done yearly from the beginning of the conferences in 1880, but I was ‘at the church’ when he was taken there to receive the last marks of affection and love from his host of friends, and looked for the last time upon the face of the great singer who had gone to join the choir of the Redeemed on High.”
The services Ira D. Sankey rendered the cause of Christianity cannot be fully estimated; services which even after the passing of well nigh half a century are a blessing and inspiration to untold millions the world over—truly a monument more enduring than granite.
Among the composers of Gospel song tunes to be found in present-day hymn books, the name of E. O. Excell is frequently met with. Possibly his best known compositions are, “Count your blessings,” and “Let Him in.” Born in Stark County, Ohio, in 1851, he served an apprenticeship to the trade of bricklayer and plasterer, but when twenty-two years of age, the love of music drew him away from his humble calling, and he finally laid aside the trowel and hammer for the more congenial occupations to be found in the many avenues of music. He was always keenly interested in Sunday School work, an evidence of which makes itself known in his many compositions for children, notably the two favourite songs, “Jesus bids us shine,” and “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam,” which are included in almost every recently published hymn book for young folk.
Mr. Excell was the last one of the old line of singing evangelists, and laboured with many of the most famous evangelists from the early days of D. L. Moody up to the time of his death. His was a life of devotion in the service of the Master, and for twenty years he was the colleague of the Rev. Sam P. Jones, the celebrated American evangelist. As a singer, Mr. Excell had few equals. Possessing a voice of remarkable sweetness and power, he was able to sway his audience with the earnestness and spirit of his expression. His last work was with Gipsy Smith, in Louisville, Kentucky, in the midst of which he was obliged to quit his labour and return home. His voice was heard for the last time in the chapel of the Wesley Hospital, Chicago, on Sunday afternoon, January 16th, 1921, where, sitting in a wheel-chair, he sang as a solo “It is Jesus,” with wonderful effect. At the close of the service his old friend and fellow-composer, Charles H. Gabriel, sang with him, “Beautiful Isle of Somewhere.” No longer to him is that land a vague “somewhere,” for, a few months later, his barque sighted the haven of rest, and as the sun went down on the evening of June 10th he landed upon that heavenly shore.
A recognised authority on all matters pertaining to sacred music, Mr. Excell, in his day, edited over forty different hymn books, besides having written many Gospel songs that will be loved and sung by many generations to come. He has also written the words of a considerable number of popular hymns, including, “Scatter sunshine,” “Grace enough for me,” and “I’m happy in Him.”
Perhaps no person in the history of Gospel song has attained the position occupied to-day by Charles H. Gabriel. A native of the State of Iowa, where he was born in 1856, Mr. Gabriel has been privileged to have personal acquaintance with many, if not all the noted hymn writers, from the days of Philip Phillips, P. P. Bliss, and others, to the present time; and is thus the last living link of an illustrious group of sweet singers in the world of American hymnody. Commonly known as the “King of hymn writers,” Mr. Gabriel has written the words or music of more popular hymns than has any other person living to-day. His most famous hymn, of course, is “The glory song,” which has been translated into almost every leading language of the world, and which has probably been printed more than a hundred million times. It has been said that no Gospel song in history ever attained the international popularity of “The glory song “in so short a time. It was written in 1900, and in less than five years it was sung around the world.
This hymn alone is enough to make Mr. Gabriel famous; but he has written a number of others almost as famous. Among these are: “Send the Light,” “Calling the prodigal,” “He is so precious to me,” “Where the gates swing outward never,” “To the harvest field away,” “Awakening chorus,” “He lifted me,” “Sweeter every day,” “Evening prayer,” and others equally well known.
In all of those the words of which he was the author, there is very manifest a happy blending of the poet and musician, and along with it rare judgment and deep spiritual insight into the needs of presenting the saving truths of Scripture in clear and singable form. His work in both fields is worthy to be recognized as an ideal to be followed by writers of to-day who desire sympathetic and appropriate musical settings to hymns.
He has also written the music for many of the most popular hymns of recent date, including: “Higher ground,” “The Way of the Cross leads home,” “Let the sunshine in,” “Hail Immanuel,” “The sparrow song,” “A Sinner made whole,” “Brighten the corner,” “Glory in my Soul,” as well as many others to be found in almost every evangelical hymn book in present use.
Scores of hymns have passed through his hands for final retouching, polishing and finishing. He is supposed to know better than any other living person just how to put the finishing touches to a hymn. At an early age he began teaching singing schools in his own State, and later on, his remarkable musical abilities made him a popular leader of song in the great religious conventions all over America.
Mr. Gabriel is a self-made man, and although he has reached the very pinnacle of his profession, he never received a single music lesson in his life. Untaught, he taught himself, because there were no teachers of music on the wild prairies, where his father’s cabin stood and where the boy spent his early years.
He was born in a little shanty built of boards, and plastered both inside and outside. It stood on the virgin plains of Iowa. There was not a tree or shrub to shelter it from the terrific storms and snows of winter, or shield it from the blazing suns of summer. The wagon roads were trails over the rolling prairies. Deer, wolves, and prairie chickens were plentiful. Few settlers had horses, ox-teams being mostly used.
By the time Charles Gabriel was five years of age, a schoolhouse had been built three-quarters of a mile west of his home, where boys and girls received instruction during the winter months when there was no work to do on the farms. The benches used were made of logs, split in half, with two legs at each end inserted in auger holes. They were too high for little feet to touch the floor, nor had they a support for the back, and more than once, in a sleepy moment, some young hopeful turned turtle over that hard, hard seat.
“I never saw a musical instrument,” he writes, “until I was about nine years old, and to this day I couldn’t tell the name of that one, as nothing like it has ever come under my observation since. For use it was placed upon a table, as a dulcimer. It had bellows which the performer pumped with his left elbow, while, with the fingers of both hands, he played keys something like those of a concertina. The next musical instrument I saw was a melodeon of that day and style. I rode ten miles to see and hear it, and no music since then has sounded to me more divine. I heard it as I ploughed in the field; it sang in my ears as I did my “chores”1; in my dreams it floated over the hills of weariness down into the valley of rest, where I lay asleep.”
His experiences as a teacher of music in the early days were of a unique and varied character. In the winter of 1882 we find him teaching a class composed entirely of coloured people; the following year he is in Texas, his pupils being cowboys, who attend the practices carrying their lariats and “guns “with them; while over in Muskogee his singing class consisted largely of Indian girls, who were usually accompanied by adult Indians in all their beaded and blanketed originality. He also taught a class of Japanese in San Francisco.
Mr. Gabriel is a man of simple tastes, is a great lover of the common people, and he is especially fond of children. His great aim in hymn and music writing is to produce simple, direct words and music, which can be felt and sung by the masses. Like all other great composers he is fond of classic music, but he judiciously avoids all technicalities in writing his hymn tunes. This is perhaps one great secret of his success as a hymn writer.
It was his inviolable rule to write something every day, and his work, covering as it did so wide a field, made the task comparatively easy. Still the proverbial midnight oil burned very frequently into the small hours, for his work was always done at home, and at night time when all the world about him slept.
For a period extending over twenty years it has been the present writer’s inestimable privilege to have had an intimate acquaintance with the eminent hymn writer, and although he is now beyond the allotted span of three score years and ten, his letters are still brimful of joyous youth, for his soul is full of music, and his heart still throbs with love for the Master. Mr. Gabriel has now retired from active business life, mostly spent in the city of Chicago, where the greater number of his hymns have been written, and with his devoted wife, is now spending the evening of his days on the Western shores of America, in a pretty little bungalow at Berkley in California. But though the e’entide shadows of a long and useful life may be gathering on the near horizon, yet his pen is never idle not his harp silent; for Mr. Gabriel is still writing hymns and hopes to continue to do so till called home to join in the grand eternal song.
“My sixty years of Gospel song,” he writes, “have been eventful and tolerant, interesting and tedious, hopeful and discouraging. Failure more often than success marks the path I have travelled. And now, since the years have led me up the eastern slope and over the mountain top of life, and I am hurrying down toward the silent sea that lies shimmering before me, I begin to realise that my work has not been so much a failure as I had concluded, for seldom do I appear on the platform that I do not meet some one I have met or known in the years gone by; and to feel a substantial slap on the shoulder and to hear a voice as from out of the past say: ‘Hello! old man; glad to see you once more,” is like a benediction, while to clasp the hand of a friend and feel that pressure which proves itself genuine is worth more than all the gold that was ever mined.”
The theme of his famous “Glory Song,” written thirty years ago, is to-day more precious to its author than ever before, and were we permitted to listen to the outpouring of a heart full of joyful song, I doubt not we would catch the strains of the same glorious anticipation:
“When all my labours and trials are o’er,
And I am safe on the beautiful shore,
Just to be near the dear Lord I adore,
Will through the ages be glory for me.
Oh, that will be glory for me,
Glory for me, Glory for me,
When by His grace I shall look on His face,
That will be glory, be glory for me!”
1 Odd jobs about the farm.