Hymnspiration: God Bless America

I write today’s article with the awareness this song is not technically considered a hymn of the Church.  When it debuted on November 11, 1938, singer Kate Smith’s rendition was deemed “the best thing thus far on the air this year.”1  One of America’s most iconic and prolific songwriters, Jewish Russian immigrant Irving Berlin, first penned a song entitled “God Bless America” while serving at Camp Upton during World War I. The original lyric was different: “Make her victorious on land and foam, God Bless America…”, written for a light-hearted military revue called Yip Yip Yaphank (Yaphank being the nearby Long Island town name).  Twenty years later as events in Europe were pointing to yet another war, Berlin decided to write what he called a “peace song”, although he admitted it would be difficult to dramatize peace.  For a time he worked on a song entitled “Thanks America” and then another called “Let’s Talk About Liberty”, but neither struck just the right tone. Then, he recalled the song he’d penned twenty years earlier, “God Bless America”.  Berlin had a habit of working on songs, then tucking them away for later use.  He “went to the trunk” and reworked the lyrics a bit and re-wrote the melody.  One line which received attention was originally: “Stand beside her and guide her to the right with a light from above.”  He changed it to: “Through the night with a light from above.” Having re-worked the song, Berlin searched for a singer to introduce it on Armistice Day of 1938.  Former vaudeville singer Kate Smith fit the bill perfectly.  At the age of...

Hymnspiration: In Times Like These

During World War II, Ruth Caye Jones wrote the words and music to this simple, yet powerful, gospel song.  Mrs. Jones, a housewife, related that in the middle of her busy day she received spiritual inspiration – she wrote what God told her to write down.  The song was written in response to the daily stresses and strains of a woman and her family, living through the uncertainty of world-wide upheaval and war.  Sound familiar? The song has been used in a variety of settings, including funerals and at other difficult and challenging times.  Through the years, several people related to Ruth Jones how the words were a special blessing.  Ruth received encouragement from the words of her song when she herself was experiencing a health crisis. She was born in Wilmerding, Pennsylvania in 1902 and early in her life had taught herself to play both piano and organ.  She later married a pastor and together they raised five children.  Ruth established a radio ministry, broadcast each week from their home in Erie, Pennsylvania, “A Visit With the Joneses.”  Her son, Reverend Bert Jones, was an evangelist ordained by the Nazarene Church.  Not only was he a gifted minister, but a talented organist. In a 1966 interview with The Pittsburgh Press (09 Jul 1966), he observed that preaching styles had changed to become more conversational.  He continued, “Music is improved.  It is a means of evangelism.  Sometimes through the message in song or in my case through an organ solo, the heart is touched and perhaps mellowed.”  It was not at all unusual for Rev. Jones to seat himself...

Hymnspiration: Near to the Heart of God

This poignant hymn was written and composed in 1901 by Cleland Boyd McAfee, a Presbyterian minister and theologian, in response to the deaths of two nieces who contracted diphtheria and died within twenty-four hours of one another.  He had written it as a way to not only comfort his family but himself. According to 101 More Hymn Stories by Kenneth Osbeck, “he first sang it with choking voice just outside the darkened, quarantined house of his brother, Howard, the day of the double funeral.”  The following Sunday the choir at McAfee’s church sang the hymn during the communion service: There is a place of quiet rest, Near to the heart of God. A place where sin cannot molest, Near to the heart of God. Refrain O Jesus, blest Redeemer, Sent from the heart of God, Hold us who wait before Thee Near to the heart of God. There is a place of comfort sweet, Near to the heart of God. A place where we our Savior meet, Near to the heart of God. There is a place of full release, Near to the heart of God. A place where all is joy and peace, Near to the heart of God. Cleland Boyd McAfee was born on September 25, 1866 in Ashley, Missouri to parents John and Anna McAfee.  John was the founder of Park College in Parkville, Missouri, where Cleland was pastor and dean of the college at the time he wrote this hymn.  Cleland graduated from Park College in 1884 and later graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York. In addition to serving as dean of the...

Hymnspiration: God Will Take Care of You

This hymn was written in 1904, a team effort by Civilla Durfee Martin and her husband Reverend Walter Stillman Martin, while they were attending the Practical Bible Training School in Lestershire, New York.  Stillman was also assisting the president of the school, John Davis, in publishing a songbook. Stillman, a well-known Baptist minister and evangelist, had been invited to speak at a church some distance from the school where they were staying.  However, that Sunday morning Civilla had fallen ill and unable to accompany her husband.  Although Stillman considered remaining behind to care for his wife, his son admonished him to believe that God would take care of his mother while he was away fulfilling God’s assignment. Stillman agreed with his son and, as it turned out, the service was especially moving with several people professing their faith in Christ that day.  Stillman returned that evening and found that Civilla, feeling much better, had written the words of a new hymn based on the question her son had asked his father, “Don’t you think that if God wants you to preach today, He will take care of Mother while you are away?” Civilla Dufree Martin was born on August 21, 1866 in Nova Scotia to parents James and Irene Holden.  Before meeting Stillman she had studied music and had written several hymns, often using her initials, CD Martin, instead of her full name.  In fact the two shared a mutual love of music, which was what brought them together.  Stillman was born on March 8, 1862, attended Harvard University to study for the ministry, and was later ordained as...

Hymnspiration: How Firm A Foundation

Mystery surrounds the authorship of this beloved hymn of the Church.  A personal favorite of well-known historical figures like Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and General Robert E. Lee, it first appeared in a book entitled A Selection of Hymns from the Best Author in 1787.  The authorship is attributed merely to “K”. The book was published and edited by John Rippon, an English Baptist minister.  Rippon, an influential man, served as pastor of the New Park Street Chapel (also known as the Carter Lane Baptist Church) in London for sixty-three years. Many hymnologists believe that “K” may have been Robert Keene, the song leader at Rippon’s church since later editions of the hymnal attributed the song to “Kn”. Still others surmise that it might have been a Mr. Kirkham, a fellow student of the Wesley brothers and George Whitefield, while some attribute it to George Keith.  In 1888 the Southern Methodist Review noted that their hymnals attributed the authorship to Kirkham.  The LDS (Mormon) hymnal attributes it to Robert Keene. This majestic and soul-stirring hymn became popular throughout the Northern and Southern states in America, and sung by soldiers on both sides of the Civil War.  Andrew Jackson asked that the hymn be sung at his dying bedside.  Robert E. Lee requested that the song at his funeral “as an expression of his full trust in the ways of the Heavenly Father.” Disagreements over authorship aside, the hymn has a powerful message, solidly based in scripture: Verse 2:  Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; year,...

Hymnspiration: What A Friend We Have In Jesus

Today’s hymn was written as a poem, and while its lyrics are simple and not particularly eloquent, it has become a song which brings comfort in times of great need.  The words convey the basic need we all have of a Savior to save us, comfort us, lead us and protect us.  According to Ken Osbeck, author of 101 Hymn Stories, “so relevant to the basic spiritual needs of people are these words that many missionaries state that it is one of the first hymns taught to new converts.” Joseph Scriven was born in 1819 into a well-to-do Dublin, Ireland family.  He began attending Trinity College in 1835 and finally graduated in 1842 after a brief stint at a military college in England.  While attending college, Joseph and his parents were converted and became affiliated with the Plymouth Puritan Brethren, whose beliefs included a disdain for organized meetings and church hierarchy. Joseph was engaged to be married, but tragically his fiancée accidentally drowned the night before their wedding.  Distraught, he decided to leave Ireland and immigrate to Canada to start a new life.  After arriving in Ontario he taught school for a time and then worked as a general laborer.  He aligned himself with the Church of England and wasn’t afraid to share his faith, known to frequently read and share the scriptures with his fellow railroad workers. In 1857 he began tutoring the children of a retired naval officer, Lieutenant Pengelly.  He later fell in love and was engaged to Pengelly’s niece Eliza Roche, but tragedy struck again when Eliza suddenly took ill and died the day before...