With increasingly less time to devote to blogging as the semester marches on, it’s clear that I need to open a category that I can update simply and frequently, which will also be of interest to my readers. To that end, I present The Definitive Hymns: a series in which I look at a favorite hymn of mine, explain a bit of its background, and then showcase my personal favorite version of that hymn. You are encouraged to share your own thoughts on the hymn and favorite version(s) in the comments!
Today, I’m beginning with one of the all-time greats: “There is a Fountain.” Lyrics originally written as a poem by the English hymn-writer William Cowper, music by American Lowell Mason. This hymn has a sad history behind it, but it’s a powerful anthem of redemption.
William Cowper suffered from deep depression for much of his life. In his letters, he wrote that it sometimes took the form of nightmares in which he was dragged away to Hell. Because of his illness, he struggled with the assurance that he was actually saved. When he penned the words to “There is a Fountain” shortly before his death in 1800, they were primarily a reminder to himself of God’s unwavering promise. He never dreamed that it would be embraced by the entire Church for centuries to come.
There are many great renditions of this hymn to choose from. However, all the versions I can remember hearing have one drawback in common: They leave out the final verse, which in my opinion is the best and most poignant:
When this poor lisping, stammering tongue
Lies silent in the grave
Then in a nobler, sweeter song
I’ll sing thy power to save
Considered in the light of Cowper’s own broken mental state, the words take on fresh poignancy. Yet most versions end with the “Redeeming love has been my theme” verse, also very good. But this original last verse should be sung and heard more.
However, among the versions I have heard, my favorite is a live performance by Steve Green, an arrangement which hasn’t been professionally recorded as far as I know. Steve strips the song down and lets the meaning of each word sink in. Southern gospel readers are probably more familiar with David Phelps’s anthemic rendition on the Gaither hymns tape. However, I prefer Steve’s version, because it captures the fragile spirit in which the poem was originally written. Please enjoy: