The Definitive Hymns: “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”

I love reading about how the great hymns came to be. For some hymns, one writer sat down and composed lyrics and music. Others were collaborative, like the work of Fanny Crosby and Philip Bliss (wouldn’t it have been something to sit in on one of their songwriting sessions?) But some, like today’s hymn, came together more slowly. Originally, it was written as a poem by a young Methodist preacher named Robert Robinson, in the year 1757. But it wasn’t set to music until roughly 1813, when the tune is commonly attributed to John Wyeth. It also appears that he tweaked a couple of the lyrics to make them flow more smoothly with the music. Even today, you can encounter several lyrical variants depending on which hymnal you’re using.

The story of the hymn is fascinating, and I hadn’t heard it before looking up its provenance. Robinson was apparently a rather delinquent lad, but he was much struck by a George Whitefield sermon at the age of 17. Three years later, he sobered up and set out to become a Methodist preacher. A couple years after that, at 22, he penned “Come Thou Fount.” A helpful hymn collector has created sheet music with the closest thing to the original lyrics he could find.

Sadly, it appears that Robinson “wandered” from orthodoxy in later years, ultimately straying into Unitarianism. It was said that towards the end of his life, a lady riding with him in a stagecoach starting humming it and asked him what he thought of the hymn. He answered that he had written it, but he no longer felt the passion in his own words, though he “would give a thousand worlds” to feel as he did then. The obvious problem with this story is that there wouldn’t have been a tune for the lady to “hum,” since the melody wasn’t written until after Robinson’s death. So, there is good reason to believe that it’s apocryphal. Certainly, it would be a tragic ending indeed to the story of one of hymnody’s finest.

The version I’ve selected comes from Fernando Ortega, who can always be counted on to deliver a classy take on an old hymn. The way he starts quietly and builds the dynamics with the cello is excellent. Take a listen:

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2 thoughts on “The Definitive Hymns: “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”

  1. Abby Normal

    Interesting article, but I’m curious about your choice of decscribing Robinson’s acceptance of Unitarianism as an “unfortunate straying”.

    I’m familiar with Unitarians falling in the “not really Christian” category among evangelicals, so this line of reasoning isn’t totally unfamiliar to me.

    However, whenever I hear a story about someone “falling away from the faith” being presented as some kind of tragedy, I’m generally left wondering–what would be the better alternative outcome? If Robinson, to use this example, was no longer as moved and attached to his faith as he had been as a younger man (and, as an aside, let’s not forget that he could’ve had any number of reasons for this–heck, he could’ve been clinically depressed, it’s not like anyone would’ve known that in the 1700s)–what would you have had him do? Continue to crank out hymn after hymn that would’ve felt like nothing but empty words to him? Force himself to go through the motions of a religion that had lost all meaning and purpose? Lie to himself about what was really going on in his heart?

    If Robinson found some solace in a different faith, who are we to call that “tragic”? (Even if it is among those godless Unitarians!)

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